Sport touring, a hybrid category that blends the performance of sportbikes with the comfort of touring bikes, takes many forms. Some add a taller windscreen, bar risers and soft luggage to their GSX-R, while others bevel the pegs and scrape the belly pan on their Gold Wing. Between these two extremes are dedicated sport-touring motorcycles. In recent years, the space between “sport” and “touring” has been compressed, with horsepower rising higher and higher and lists of standard features growing longer and longer.
As the landscape of motorcycling changes, so does the composition of our comparison tests. This is our fourth sport-touring shootout in the past 10 years, and only one bike (Yamaha FJR1300) has made an appearance each time. The Kawasaki Concours 14 has competed three times, winning our November 2010 comparison (against the FJR, Honda VFR1200F DCT and Triumph Sprint GT). In addition to two Japanese sport tourers—the Honda ST1300 was dropped for 2013, rendering it ineligible—we’ve got three from Europe: the mighty BMW K 1600 GT (which beat the Concours in a two-bike comparison in December 2011), the legendary BMW R 1200 RT and the all-new Triumph Trophy SE. Among these five bikes are three past winners of Rider’s Motorcycle of the Year award.
Our test riders—two motojournalists, a photographer, an architect and a retiree who used to teach at Reg Pridmore’s CLASS school, with ages ranging from 40-65 and riding experience totaling 174 years—spent three days riding and swapping bikes. In the pages that follow, we describe how the five bikes stack up against each other. One-page sidebars, detailed specs and dyno charts provide the nitty-gritty on each model. Ultimately, one bike stood out from the rest, but the others put up a heck of a fight.
FIRE IN THE BELLY
When it comes to engine performance, there really is no contest. The BMW K 1600 GT, with its 1,649cc in-line six shooter, outguns every other bike here. The Kawasaki’s 1,352cc in-line four makes more peak horsepower (144.2 vs. 139.8), but only above 8,000 rpm. Between 3,000 and 7,000 rpm, the K 1600 makes 13-48 more horsepower and 10-46 more lb-ft of torque than the others, as measured on Jett Tuning’s dyno. No other bike exceeds 100 lb-ft of torque, but the K 1600 does so from 2,800 rpm until 7,100 rpm, with a 115.8 lb-ft peak at 5,200 rpm. When asked what they like best about the K 1600 GT, all five test riders listed “engine” or “power.” With perfect primary and secondary balance, the K 1600 is remarkably smooth, generating satisfying thrust and an addictive exhaust note. Testers also praised the GT for its light clutch pull and slick-shifting transmission. Complaints focused on throttle-by-wire glitches at low rpm and clunky shifting in lower gears.
With the most horsepower and the second-highest torque, the Concours 14 earned high marks for its smooth, powerful engine, fluid clutch action and effortless transmission. But it got dinged for not having cruise control (the only bike here without it) and poor fuel economy—it has the smallest fuel tank (5.8 gallons vs. 6.6-7.0) and averaged just 35.2 mpg on premium fuel. Ranked third in terms of horsepower and torque, the Yamaha FJR1300 drew praise for the smoothness of its 1,298cc in-line four, the user-friendliness of its clutch and transmission, and the fact that it runs on regular fuel. But some said the engine is “uninspiring” and “lacks character,” and the lack of a sixth gear is perplexing. The BMW R 1200 RT, with its 1,170cc boxer twin, and the Triumph Trophy SE, with its 1,215cc in-line triple, have the smallest, least-powerful engines. Testers enjoyed the BMW’s distinctive throb and tractability, but complained of its low-rpm vibration, high-effort throttle and clunky gearbox. The Triumph’s in-line triple is seductive, with character-rich sound and feel. But engine noise—especially at low speeds—is excessive and seems to be amplified by the enclosed fairing and large windshield. What was a minor annoyance for some was unacceptable for others.
Good handling can make up for deficiencies in power, but power offers few advantages for a bike that doesn’t like to go around a corner. Two of the best-handling motorcycles in this test—the R 1200 RT and the Trophy—make the least power, while the most powerful motorcycle—the Concours—has the poorest handling. Handling is one of several areas where a sizable rift emerged between the European and Japanese bikes. The Kawasaki and Yamaha have the sportiest riding positions, requiring the rider to lean forward more and hold grips that are closer together. With less leverage, riders must work harder to steer, especially on the Concours. Both BMWs and the Triumph have more upright seating positions, with wider, more pulled-back handlebars. The K 1600 GT, which has the longest wheelbase and, at 757 pounds, is 68-131 pounds heavier than the others, has remarkably light steering—almost too light. The R 1200 RT and Trophy—brothers from different mothers—occupy the sweet spot in between, with the right balance between agility and stability.
Another distinction between the European and Japanese bikes is electronically adjustable suspension: BMW and Triumph offer it, Kawasaki and Yamaha do not. We pushed buttons and navigated menus to adjust damping and preload on the Euro bikes, and we used tools and elbow grease to do the same on the Japanese bikes, finding satisfactory compromises on each. Four bikes have traction control—the R 1200 RT did not, but it’s available for $400—and all have triple disc brakes with linked ABS. All five bikes offer good suspension compliance and strong brakes, with no clear winners or losers.
TAKE A LOAD OFF
Riding comfortably all day long at a brisk pace is what sport touring is all about. At a minimum that means a supportive seat, agreeable ergonomics, good wind protection and decent luggage capacity. The Kawasaki and Yamaha have the sportiest riding positions; the Yamaha, like the European bikes, has a height-adjustable seat, but the Kawasaki does not. Also, the Kawasaki and Yamaha, despite having electrically adjustable windshields like the others, offer the least amount of wind protection. The BMW R 1200 RT and Triumph, having similarly large fairings with integrated mirrors, offer the best wind protection, with the BMW K 1600 GT not far behind.
In terms of what test riders like best about the R 1200 RT, four out of five wrote “comfort” thanks to its plush seat and just-right riding position. The K 1600 GT is marginally less comfortable than the RT, with a longer reach to the bars and a hard-edged seat that dug into riders’ thighs. The Triumph’s dished seat locks the rider into place, and most complained that its footpegs are too high and too far forward.
Locking hard saddlebags are standard on all five bikes, and total capacity ranges from 60 liters on the Yamaha to 70 liters on the Kawasaki, with the European bikes in the middle. Except for fiddly locks and latches on the Yamaha, there were no complaints about the luggage.
LEADER OF THE PACK
At the end of the third day, we tallied up the results. When asked to choose only one bike, four out of five picked the BMW K 1600 GT, eliciting comments such as “the best sport-touring experience” and “does everything well all day long.” The K 1600 GT steals the show in terms of engine performance, and it is among the best in terms of handling, comfort and wind protection. When you add in riding modes, Dynamic Traction Control, Electronic Suspension Adjustment, the Adaptive Headlight and other features, the result is a truly exceptional motorcycle…as well as the heaviest and most expensive (757 pounds and $24,895, as tested). When asked to choose one bike and spend their own money, two picked the R 1200 RT, two picked the FJR1300 and one picked the Trophy.
Each test rider also ranked the five bikes in order, providing an overall pecking order. The K 1600 GT came out on top, followed by the R 1200 RT, the Trophy and—tied for fourth place—the Concours 14 and the FJR1300. The R 1200 RT is the most comfortable and shares the lead with the Trophy in terms of wind protection and handling; both are down on power in this group. As the only all-new bike in this comparison, the Trophy is a respectable first effort but its excessive engine noise, awkward seating position and me-too styling hold it below the BMWs. At the bottom of the rankings are the high-revving Concours and FJR1300. Their sporty riding positions and limited wind protection fall well below the European bikes in terms of comfort—a quality deemed as important as performance among our five test riders. Furthermore, the Concours has the more sluggish handling and the FJR1300 generally feels bland compared to the others. But, with sticker prices around $16,000, the Japanese bikes offer the best value.