Sport tourers are the gold standard for distance-riding, hybrids that blend the best attributes of dressers and sportbikes. Their comfort level approaches that of dresser tourers, but without over-large fairings, permanently mounted luggage, sound systems and all that weight. Sport tourers also lean in the direction of sportbikes, but with bigger, more protective fairings, more comfortable upright seating positions and hard-sided saddlebags. If you’re going to spend days in the saddle roasting back roads for tasty consumption, sport tourers are the bikes for the task.
For this test we gathered together the four state-of-the-art sport tourers, each offering such amenities as an electrically adjustable windscreen, hard-shell, lockable, removable saddlebags, shaft final drive and anti-lock brakes. For our sporting pleasure we demanded big liter-plus engines bolted to competent chassis with supple road-hungry suspensions. The result was a diverse collection of one twin and three four-cylinder bikes with an intriguing mix of cylinder layouts. We did more than a thousand miles of cool running on these hot bikes in three days on a round trip through California’s twisting back roads past San Francisco, then back down to our Ventura offices, and it was tasty indeed.
BMW K1200GT ABS
(Full test: April 2003)
With “Grand Touring” as part of its name, the GT is essentially a BMW K1200RS fitted with additional wind deflectors, an electrically adjustable windscreen, a two-position heated seat, slightly higher and wider handlebars and color-matched saddlebag lids. It’s powered by a
liquid-cooled, 1,171cc, 16-valve double-overhead-cam (DOHC) in-line four-cylinder engine mounted flat and lengthwise. The arrangement helps keep the weight low and compact, according to BMW.
To quell the buzziness of earlier four-cylinder K-models, BMW rubber-mounted the GT’s engine to a massive aluminum single-backbone, box-section frame. Power reaches the rear end via a six-speed transmission, dry clutch and single-sided Paralever driveshaft, which helps keep the rear end level. The fork is likewise stabilized by a triangular Telelever with its single, non-adjustable shock absorber, a combination which contributes to its luxurious ride.
BMW R1150RT ABS
(Full test: July 2001)
The air/oil-cooled BMW Type 259 flat-twin engine, with its four valves per cylinder and cam-in-head design, debuted in 1994 on the R1100RS and was followed a year later by the R1100RT. It utilizes frameless, stressed-member technology in which the Telelever and Paralever suspensions systems are bolted to the engine itself. The light flat-twin keeps the weight low and forward, which contributes to easy handling.
The touring-oriented RT was given a significant update for 2002 including a revised fairing with dual headlights and fog lamps. Its longitudinal, opposed flat-twin engine was bored out to 1,130cc and mated to a new six-speed transmission. It also uses a dry clutch and Paralever driveshaft.
Part way through 2003 all of the BMW boxers received a secondary Two Spark ignition system with two spark plugs per cylinder, ostensibly to help the bikes meet future emissions standards. BMW says the system has no effect on performance either way, though we have yet to notice any of the infamous power surging of some earlier boxers in any of the Two Spark bikes we’ve sampled.
Honda ST1300 ABS
(Full test: September 2002)
Introduced as a 2003 model, the ST1300 replaces the original ST1100 that first appeared in 1991. While this new machine retains the original’s liquid-cooled, DOHC, four-valve, longitudinally mounted V-4, it now displaces 1,261cc, and pretty much everything else has likewise changed. The 2003 standard version ($12,999) comes with triple-disc brakes and a screen that is only manually adjustable (by 2.3 inches). The model we tested ($14,499) includes anti-lock brakes and a fully adjustable windscreen. (Note: For 2004 the standard ST1300 will be priced at $13,499 and come with the electric windscreen.)
The bike’s “tuned-flex” frame is composed of triple box-section aluminum spars and is stronger than the original, yet weighs less, and the new engine is shorter and more compact. The 90-degree Vee engine with a 360-degree crankshaft and dual counterbalancers, which Honda mounted as a stressed member in the chassis, is a model of smoothness. Its power is fed through a five-speed transmission and wet clutch. The advantage is that a Vee engine can be narrow, and when turned longitudinally can be positioned low and forward.
Yamaha FJR1300 ABS
(Full test: August 2002)
The successor to Yamaha’s big air-cooled FJ1100 and FJ1200 road-burners of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the FJR1300 is all grown up now with a liquid-cooled, 1,298cc, transverse, DOHC in-line four with four valves per cylinder. While it’s a good thing that the weight is carried forward, the tradeoff of transverse mounting is that the engine sits relatively high and is wider when compared with the other bikes here. Unlike the others, this arrangement also means that crankshaft rotation must be turned 90 degrees to spin the driveshaft, which eats up some power. Despite this, the Borla dyno tells us that 125 horsepower (the most in our test) reaches the rear wheel, so you’re not likely to notice the loss. The engine is solid-mounted to a stressed-member aluminum twin-spar, diamond-type frame, and the swingarm is cast aluminum. It uses a five-speed transmission and wet clutch.
This early-release 2004 bike has received several significant tweaks, including a taller, wider windscreen, a small fairing pocket (accessible only with the ignition on and tranny in neutral—we’re not kidding!) and larger 320mm front brake rotors. Also, Yamaha offers an ABS model for ‘04.
The real question is if you can actually buy a 2004 FJR1300. Yamaha declared that it would only be available to those who put in their deposits by April 30, 2003. If you missed this deadline for the 2004 model, the scuttlebutt is that many dealers submitted orders in the names of their spouses, mothers-in-law, dogs, etc., and therefore had a few extras on hand. No word so far on the plan for the 2005 model, but based on previous years there will probably be an early ordering deadline for it as well.
Miles and Miles of Miles…
Four of us boarded these sport tourers and headed up our favorite Southern California mountain road, Highway 33 above Ojai, then west on the straight Highway 166 before leveling off on the northbound, four-lane Highway 101. On the straights we noticed how the BMW K1200GT’s forward-placed grips lean the rider more than the other bikes in our test, and that the pegs were relatively high. The cushy, wide seat locks you in place, but can be placed in either the high (32.3-inch) or low (31.1-inch seat height) position; even the high slot did not give us enough legroom. Its electric windscreen provides the least amount of travel, and less control of the windblast.
A more upright seating position and less aggressive reach to the grips greets the FJR pilot. The flat, firm seat was comfortable despite being the only bike here without adjustment. The new taller, wider windscreen has a bit more adjustability than the BMW GT’s, but is still noisy in all its positions.
The Honda ST1300’s flat, firm seat not only has three height settings (30.5, 31.1 and 31.7 inches), it also adjusts fore and aft 1 inch; one setting should be right for you. The seat is good at first but becomes hard by 100 miles, about when its edges become noticeable. The screen offers 2.3 inches of manual vertical adjustment, then another 7.5 inches of electrical height adjustment, the most protection here. In its lowest setting wind pours over the screen, striking the rider at midchest. As the screen rises, wind comes around the sides, cooling the rider’s back, and then is eventually pushed over the rider’s head. At higher settings the ride becomes very quiet and protective overall, though most riders will look through the screen.
The rider sits fairly upright on the BMW RT, and its saddle-shaped seat offers heights of 30.7, 31.5 and 32.2 inches. While firm, the wide, flat seat offers fine long-distance comfort, though its tilt in the middle and lower positions can draw the rider toward the tank, and its step prevents him or her from spreading out. The windscreen offers good adjustability over a wide range, and very effective protection.
In the late afternoon of the first day we met up with photographer Kevin Wing in Morro Bay to take the photos you see here. After a hearty dinner and visit to a karaoke bar (no, we did not sing!), we turned in.
From the 101, Carmel Valley Road is the insider’s multi-faceted playground, the back way to Monterey and Laguna Seca Raceway. Here we found the BMW GT’s engine to be a marvel of automotive power and smoothness. Its significant power begins at 2,000 rpm, and comes on with a welling rush in the higher-rpm ranges right up to its 9,000-rpm redline. Along the way it cranks out an impressive 114 rear-wheel horsepower, yet produced appreciable vibration only at idle.
The neutral-steering GT was great fun on smooth, fast sweepers, where the rider could select a lean angle and dial in a seemingly endless stream of power. But when Carmel Valley Road tightened the GT demands care and deliberation; it cannot be flicked in like the FJR or RT. Its leaned-forward riding position and longish 61-inch wheelbase (with 27.25 degrees of rake and 4.9 inches of trail) contributed to its ponderous steering. That, and stiff throttle springs, made riding it fast a lot of work on tight roads. We reverted to the point-and-shoot method: set it up coming out of a turn, pull the trigger and launch the bike down the next straight. Then, use the strong brakes to haul it down before the next turn.
What was the BMW R1150RT flat twin doing here, going up against more modern four-cylinder machines that could best its 82-horsepower figure by 30 or more? While the raw numbers might indicate a butt-whippin’, the reality was quite different. Despite being down in the acceleration and engine smoothness departments, at 626 pounds wet this twin excelled in lightness, low-speed maneuverability and handling. There’s good low-end power, and surprisingly quick acceleration at higher engine speeds, though past 5,000 rpm the rider begins experiencing a throbbing in the seat and grips. Shifting can be balky and notchy when done slowly, too, but the six-speed trans worked fine when shifted in a performance manner.
The RT is a true delight on a winding road, especially in the tighter stuff. High handlebars and an upright seating position offer good leverage, and the 58.5-inch wheelbase, with rake/trail figures of 27.2 degrees and 4.8 inches, makes it easy to steer. Lightness does the rest. As one rider said, “It shouldn’t work this well, but it does.”
The solidity of the Telelever and Paralever suspension systems allow the RT rider to fling it around with enthusiasm, where it feels secure and planted as it soaks up bumps and pavement irregularities. The rear shock absorber is adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping; the front shock is non-adjustable.
On the Yamaha FJR1300 power checks in at about 3,000 rpm, with a big hit from around 4,000 rpm to the 9,000-rpm redline. With the power comes buzzy vibration, noise and the ambience of a ‘90s road-burner—quick, aggressive and loud.
The Yamaha’s sporty identity comes from its smaller profile, strong engine and multiadjustable suspension. The latter offers full adjustability (spring preload, rebound and compression damping) up front and rebound damping and spring preload adjustments in the rear. Instead of a more common system, however, an easily accessed remote lever locks out the secondary shock spring in back, thus increasing preload for two-up or loaded riding.
With rake/trail figures of 26 degrees/4.3 inches and a 59.7-inch wheelbase, the bike is a crisp handler, perhaps even a tad on the darty side. Its 125 horsepower and 90 pounds-feet of torque accelerate it in a heated rush; handling and feedback are first-rate, though a touchy throttle also detracts from really smooth riding.
Honda’s ST1300 offers quiet, refined power from the basement, about 2,000 rpm, up to its 9,000-rpm redline. Its purr at idle becomes a snarl in the upper rpm ranges as it comes on with a predictable lunge. One of our testers found the sound irritating in the upper ranges, and we all noticed annoying driveline lash transitioning from on- to off-throttle. Shifting the five-speed is quick, slick and flawless.
For a 716-pound bike the Honda’s steering is deceptively light, the result of a 58.7-inch wheelbase, 26 degrees of rake and 3.9 inches of trail. Its weight is ably kept in check by a very well-controlled cartridge fork and adjustable rear suspension. All goes well until nasty, abrupt bumps rock the bike on its suspension. While much of the weight seems to Jenny Craig away once underway, the rider nevertheless appreciates that this is a very heavy motorcycle. Riding through the twisties is surprisingly effortless; the ST is always predictable and under control.
The second afternoon found us riding up through tunnels of trees on Highway 9 north of Santa Cruz, then past Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline Drive. We negotiated San Francisco and crossed the Golden Gate on a clear afternoon. That evening would find us dining on seafood in tiny Olema. A soak in a hot tub melted away the day’s aches.
The third morning found us at a coffee shop in Point Reyes, then we headed north to play in the curves before regretfully turning south. The Richmond-San Rafael bridge was backlit as we approached, an impossibly intricate web of steel and spans that seemingly had to be a computer creation. After some heavy traffic on the east side of the Bay Area we hit Hollister and our old friend, Highway 25.
It was over 90 degrees on this fast, twisting, parklike road, where the BMWs stayed cool and produced no abnormal heat conditions. The FJR1300 poured heat, however, especially from the left side of its engine. Riders had to park their feet on the end of the footpegs to catch some breeze or risk a red, smarting leg after an hour or two.
Although the FJR was clearly the hotter of the two on this ride, the Honda also produced more engine heat than we would have liked, though it was much less than our two previous test bikes (the first a preproduction model and the second with the dealer-release heat insulation and ducting like this one). In addition to a pair of optional knee pads to keep your knees away from the metal frame spars, we also note that for 2004 Honda will offer mirror and fairing-side air deflectors as accessories for the ST1300.
Put simply, the FJR and ST can both put out a lot of annoying engine heat, particularly when it’s warm outside. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
During its 2002 makeover BMW gave the R1150RT its servo-assisted, fully integrated “power” Integral ABS brake system, in which using either the front or rear control applies pressure to all three discs. After complaints about the sensitivity of that original system, BMW juggled the ratios to lessen the effect of the rear pedal on the front discs. The brakes are now powerful and certainly provide short stopping distances, but still could use more linearity and balance. The dentist-drill whine of the pumps when the bike is stopped can be annoying, too.
The GT utilizes the partially integrated version of BMW’s Integral ABS, in which the front lever actuates both the front and rear brakes of this triple-disc machine, but the pedal actuates only the rear. Like the RT, its brakes are also pump pressurized for a quicker response. While the ABS does haul the 676-pound GT down impressively, like the RT, the pump does not operate with the ignition off. While pushing either BMW around you’ll be providing more lever power yourself. And like the RT, we would have preferred more sensitivity and modulation.
The Honda and Yamaha’s brakes both flat worked, smooth and powerful, with the nod going to the Honda for its additional strength and smoothness, particularly with the anti-lock function engaged.
The GT was the thirstiest in our group, burning fuel at the rate of 38.1 miles per gallon. With its relatively small 5.4-gallon tank its theoretical range was only 206 miles, respectable for other types of bikes but not for a sport tourer.
Yamaha’s FJR carried 6.6 gallons, which at 40.6 mpg, gave it 268 miles per tankful. Best mileage in the group came courtesy of the BMW RT, which exchanged each gallon of fuel for 44 miles of scenery. With 6.6 gallons aboard, range was a theoretical 290 miles. With its huge 7.7-gallon tank and 41 mpg the Honda offered the most impressive range of 316 miles.
A motor vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) figure represents the highest recommended weight the vehicle should carry total, including its own weight. When loaded beyond that figure the vehicle may be exceeding the design parameters of its tires, wheels, drivetrain, etc. For example, the Honda ST1300 has a GVWR of 1,111 pounds, and a wet weight (fully gassed) of 716 pounds. That means it can carry 395 pounds of riders and luggage. Enter a 220-pound man with his 160-pound wife, add helmets, boots and riding suits, and they’re at the bike’s GVWR without even having breakfast or tossing a pair of loafers into the saddlebags. Yamaha’s FJR1300 weighed 649 pounds, with a GVWR of 1,049, leaving 400 pounds for riders and luggage.
BMW has paid special attention as the GT’s 1,102-pound GVWR and 676 pounds of wet weight allow a reasonable load of 426 pounds. BMW’s RT, with a GVWR figure of 1,080 pounds minus its 626-pound wet weight, can carry a whopping 454 pounds. There’s adequate capacity even for a couple of 200-pounders!
The Little Things
The RT includes fuel and oil temp gauges, a wide luggage rack and a large, deep, lockable storage bin on the left side of the fairing. It can accept a BMW or aftermarket radio, and the bike is equipped with standard speakers and an antenna. A pair of power sockets allows rider and passenger to plug in electric vests or other accessories. There are also a headlight adjuster, high/low heated grips and adjustable clutch and brake levers.
The GT has a fuel gauge, power plug, adjustable levers and heated grips and seat, both with high/low settings. While it’s the only bike here with a very useful electronic cruise control, it’s also the only one without a fairing pocket. It has a small aluminum rack with a more stylish than functional shape.
Honda’s ST1300 has two fairing pockets, one lockable, and a digital fuel gauge, fuel-mileage monitor and ambient-air-temperature gauge. This LED panel is hard to read in daylight. Its headlight and front brake lever are adjustable, and it offers a large luggage rack. Yamaha’s FJR1300 offers adjustable brake and clutch levers, fuel and engine temperature gauges and a functional rack.
Both BMWs carry a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty; the Honda’s three-year warranty has no mileage limit. Yamaha offers one year, with unlimited miles.
Each of our sport tourers carries removable saddlebags, and all but the RT’s are color-matched to the bike. Into each we tried to lock a large-shell, full-face helmet (an XL Shoei TZ-1), or a smaller-shell full-face (XL Arai Corsair) if it
One key opens and removes the bags from both BMWs, but the GT’s left bag loses a significant amount of its capacity where it’s cut away in back to clear the muffler. Both of the RT’s bags, and the GT’s right-side bag, will only hold the smaller of the full-face helmets. BMW offers a top trunk for both bikes.
The ST’s bags are nicely integrated, and give up some internal space to styling, yet hold the larger helmet. One lock secures the bags to the bike, and a second opens them. Honda does not offer a top trunk for the ST.
Though they are not as well integrated stylistically to the bike, the FJR’s bags hold the most, including the large-shell helmet. Their lids require a bit more care to latch, and they’re a little fussier to remove and reinstall. While a trunk is available, Yamaha recommends against using it with the saddlebags, probably because of the increased potential to exceed the bike’s load capacity.
The BMW GT’s passenger, because of the high rear seat, gets more of the windblast than those on other bikes here, but it’s not too noisy. While the seat/peg relationship is nicely spread out, the seat itself is squirmy and does not provide confident seating.
The FJR’s passenger sits on a short, firm, but comfortably padded seat, tucked into the rider with the feet relatively high. In its high position the screen offers good protection to the passenger as the wind rush does not close in around it.
The RT’s passenger sits relatively high on a short seat, tucked into the rider, though not as close as on the Yamaha. At cruising speeds the passenger feels a rumble in the seat from the engine vibes, but it’s not annoying. As the screen rises the ride becomes noisier, then near full extension becomes relatively quiet.
While the ST1300’s passenger gets the best seat, long and well-padded with a nicely spread out riding position, the screen can be annoying. As it extends the passenger feels a lot of wind that closes behind the rider.
What’s it Gonna Be?
Though we don’t know Yamaha’s plans for the 2005 FJR as yet, we do know that the other three bikes will return for 2004 unchanged mechanically. As for which bike wins our comparison we have a tie, depending upon your type of riding.
For those in search of the latest machine design with plenty of power and all the bells and whistles, our choice was unanimous. We recommend Honda’s ST1300 ABS for its seamless blend of smooth power, its ride, brakes and handling, its features and comfort. If power is less important and maximum load capacity paramount for two-up, well-loaded riding, BMW’s R1150RT ABS twin was the winner. In addition to its overall competence, comments centered upon its range, lightness, comfort and “it was the most fun to ride.” Styling and the available top box were also factors.
If low cost, quick handling and maximum power are higher on your list than protection, comfort and load capacity, your FJR1300 awaits you. Due to its small profile and low weight the FJR owner could leave the saddlebags at home when desired and wouldn’t have to own a separate sportbike. Finally, while the BMW GT offered many benefits, its seating position was the least comfortable, it always felt heavy and it turned tight roads into a lot of work. Its lower fuel economy, short range and high cost also worked against it.
So there you have it. All four of our electrically screened, shaft-drive sport tourers are great motorcycles and a turn-key away from serving as cross-country fliers or short-hop corner-carvers. Hopefully now you know which is best for you.