Adventure Bike Comparo

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So hopefully you read about our Nova Scotia spring tour, which blessed, caressed and touched our happy spots with fine weather, friends and three very different adventure bikes. The original idea was to get a collection of one litre-plus adventure bikes, but then (as things go in magazines), although we ended up with a trio of adventure bikes, the spread was a little larger than our initial goal.

Ducati was kind enough to actually deliver a Grantourismo Multistrada 1200 S to ‘Arris’  front door, which was duly handed over to Mr Kurylyk for the tour. We unexpectedly managed to source a new Suzuki 1000 V-Strom from its regional office in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which, as he lives in the ‘Fax, was handed to the safe hands of Mr Uhlarik.

That left one more, and since ‘Arris already had a BMW F800GSA as a long termer, we press-ganged that into the foray to give us three bikes, all twins with capacities of 1200, 1000 and 800 cc.

That works.


Here's the Ducati, the most expensive bike on the test. That luggage space proved handy when hauling all our camera gear. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
Here’s the Ducati, the most expensive bike on the test. That luggage space proved handy when hauling all our camera gear. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

THE GRANTURISMO

The grand daddy of the tour is Ducati’s Multistrada. We got the Grantourismo S version that, as the name cleverly suggests is somewhat grand at touring. Either that or something to do with an Italian seniors’ outing.

The Multistrada has been with us in 1200 form since 2010 and comes with the Testastretta motor from the 1198 superbike. It’s available in several formats — two of which get a Touring moniker —the Grantourismo beating out the regular touring Multi with larger 73-litre side bags and a top case (for better power wheelies). It’s also got LED spot lights, crashbars, taller screen, adjustable bar height and a so-called ‘comfort seat’, though ‘Arris will dispute this.

As with all the ‘S’ class Multis, ABS is standard and there are power modes for different riding conditions, as well as electronically adjustable suspension. All this adds up to a rather lardy 245 kg wet, up 21 kg from the stripped-down base model. It’s also the most expensive bike of the three, coming in at a hefty C$23,295.

While everyone thought 150 hp was a good idea, there were a few other problems that made the Multistrada a bit unpopular. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
While everyone thought 150 hp was a good idea, there were a few other problems that made the Multistrada a bit unpopular. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

Opinions

Zac – At first, I took it easy on the ‘Strada, loafing along in gelded 100 hp Urban mode while I accustomed myself to the machine and its feeling of refinement. Drop-dead looks, weight that mysteriously vanished when I hit the throttle, comfortable ergos, sticky tires, refined handling – what’s not to like?

Missed shifts, that’s what. This $23k motorcycle has plenty of power and plush suspension (thanks to the electronically adjustable Skyhook system that does all the thinking for you), but the Italian chaps in charge of gearbox production must have felt rotten after a two-hour lunch break draining a wine bottle in a Bologna cafe, as I hit plenty of false neutrals unless I firmly booted the shifter into place.

The bike’s lowest point came when, after rolling around on a Yarmouth wharf for a photo shoot, the bike wouldn’t turn on. After much pulling of fuses and pressing of switches, we decided to try and reset everything by disconnecting the battery and all was well again (although the speedo now read in mph).

Still, despite all that palaver, I can now say that I get it: I understand why the Ducatisti love their brand. To me, the Ducati offered the complete motorcycle experience; it was comfortable enough that I could just relax in the supportive saddle (no idea what that lanky twit ‘Arris is complaining about) and enjoy the scenery, or get sporty with the full 150 hp activated in Touring mode.

I might not have been able to trust the machine to start every time, but I could trust the handling and tires to handle anything I threw at it. Unless, of course, I planned on actually using it as an adventure bike – cast 17-inch wheels and sporty rubber don’t make for fun in the gravel. Still, if I stuck to the pavement, I’d love to pack the bags and head cross-country tomorrow, and just hope the machine started every time.

Although the Ducati's tires weren't suited for hard use in gravel, it handled short jaunts off the main highway to sites like this fairly well.
Although the Ducati’s tires weren’t suited for hard use in gravel, it handled short jaunts off the main highway to sites like this fairly well.

Michael – This one is difficult for me, because my love-hate relationship with Ducati is well documented. But once again a Bolognese has left me wanting. Simply put, the Multistrada is a product of the new millennium with the mentality of the 1990’s, sort of like Italy itself.

So much of what makes the Multi intoxicating to ride — the thunderous noise, the sublime power delivery and very visceral man-machine interaction — is what’s always worked for Ducati in the past.  The riding position locks you into place, something that caused Old Man Harris to come down with Multistradass (a sore bum), but it encourages aggressive handling which is the Ducati’s forte.

Sadly though, the rest of the motorcycle is, frankly, embarrassing. Mirrors that are functionally useless, a rear brake that never worked, switchgear with the quality of a Pez dispenser, and finally the dubious honour of being the one of only two new motorcycles I have ever ridden that left us stranded, failing to start late on a Saturday night, 300 km from home.

Every night after the day’s ride, I caught myself thinking about the highs of the Ducati, remembering the half real, half imagined feeling of diving through high-speed corners like a motorcycling legend. Then I’d remember coasting into said corner at 100 km/h, stabbing frantically at the shift lever to engage a gear, any gear, before turning wide and spending the next 5 km unclenching my sphincter.

After the third day I no longer cared about the electronically adjustable suspension or the thrill of powering out of another 2nd gear corner, because consistently missing gears with false neutrals had scared the crap out of me, and all I wanted to do was get on another motorcycle.

In 1990, that was par for the course for a European motorcycle, but today it is inexcusable.  Considering the astronomical price tag, it is actually insulting. The Mutlistrada is an authentic Ducati, a wild ride on an exorbitantly expensive, unfinished, mass production prototype.

Despite its sketchy gearbox and electrical gremlins, the Multi was a lot of fun when everything was working right. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
Despite its sketchy gearbox and electrical gremlins, the Multi was a lot of fun when everything was working right. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

‘Arris – Although the Multi feels rather heavy, once you switch out of Zac’s woosey Urban mode and tap into the full 150 horses and whap open the throttle open, you’re treated to a surge of force that has the handlebars go light and floppy as the front wheel separates from the asphalt and your inner hooligan slaps you on the back and shouts “faster, faster”.

But then, as the others have attested, there’s a whole litany of imperfections that make the $24,000 asking price a bad joke. Oddly, it’s the seat that irked me most – being of 6’4’ god-like stature (that comes with an English accent and stunning good looks, but that’s not important right now) I simply could not get comfortable. It’s got a weird curvature at the back that supports the bums of lesser mortals apparently quite well, but had me half way up it, which created an unfortunate  shearing action between buttocks and seat.

The result was a rather quick and intense arse pain that is usually reserved for episodes of The View and other banal media experiences. Suffice to say, when it came time to switch bikes around, the Ducati was not something I agreed to and my time on the Multi turned out to be as short as Mr Ulharik.


The bike's expense, and the engine vibes above 5,500 rpm, were the main bugbears for the F800. Photo: Rob Harris
The bike’s expense, and the engine vibes above 5,500 rpm, were the main bugbears for the F800. Photo: Rob Harris

THE F800GS ADVENTURE

Launched in 2008 as the plain old F800GS, the GSA (A is for Adventure don’t you know) was unveiled last year and comes with a larger 24-litre rear-mounted fuel tank and reinforced subframe to cope with the extra rear-end weight. It also comes with some beefing up, courtesy of a set of crash bars, bag mounts (that double up as a tank protector), bigger rad shrouds and a taller screen. Our tester also had the aluminum bags fitted, spot lights, centrestand and heated grips, which are all optional extras.

ABS is standard, but we also got the optional riding modes and electronic suspension control. The riding modes are either sport or enduro, the latter allowing for more slip and slide of the ABS and stability controls for off-road usage.

With all the options, it’s hard to work out exactly how much this iteration of the GS would cost. The regular GSA is $14,950, which puts it above the Strom but well below the Multistrada. It’s also wet weighted at 229 Kg — a kilo more than the Strom —which makes it rather heavy considering it has more off-road abilities where weight is a big factor.

'Arris has been riding the Beemer all summer, and he's pretty happy with it so far. It actually fits him, which is rare. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
‘Arris has been riding the Beemer all summer, and he’s pretty happy with it so far. It actually fits him, which is rare. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

Opinions

‘Arris – I really like the GS and was a little gobsmacked to say the least when my colleagues consistently slammed the GSA over the other two bikes. “It vibrates”, “it’s not comfortable”, “it makes my eyes bleed” and other pathetic tales of woe. It was bit like the time when I was dating Kiera Knightly and someone pointed out that her chin was too big, which sadly doomed the relationship shortly after that.

Granted, the motor does get somewhat buzzy above 5,500 rpm, but that’s 130 km/h in top which is a good enough cruising speed, though a taller sixth gear would help here.  But (and for me this is a gargantuan Tim Horton’s sized butt) the BMW 800GS is the only machine that I’ve ridden to date that does everything that I want from a bike.

For starters the riding position is perfect for me. It’s roomy, the seat is pretty comfy and puts me right where I want to be – both on-road and off. The brakes work fine, the suspension has lots of travel without making you seasick in the process and despite the vibrations, the motor does enough to make it real world usable.

I had no problem keeping up with the others in the corners (ok, I had the GPS, so lead for most of the way anyway) and even with a 21-inch front wheel and a tire so skinny it would make the cruiser crowd at home, the GSA feels sure-footed and flexible.

It’s like a super-refined KLR650, but unlike the KLR I can tour all day on the road and be as fresh as a daisy at the end of it. Yet I can also explore some more rugged trails off-road, thanks to the large front wheel and reasonable ground clearance. Yes, it’s not a dirt bike, but if you’ve ever ridden off pavement then you’ll understand that there are several shades of ability and the GS is definitely on the dirt end when it comes to so-called adventure bikes.

And I understand Zac’s and Michael’s condemnations (read on), and yes, BMW could up its game /drop the price on the 800GS, but when you look at what other bikes out there offer the ability to tour the roads or trails all day long, there simply isn’t much of an alternative.

The F800 handles street work pretty well, despite its off-road looks. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
The F800 handles street work pretty well, despite its off-road looks. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

Zac – To me, this is a throwback to the original R80 G/S – a massive, overgrown enduro. As a result, this bike is a little less quick-handling than the other machines in the comparo (thanks to the 21-inch front wheel), but that front wheel was ideal when we headed down bad pavement, or wanted to take a quick side excursion down a gravel road.

Despite the harsh vibes when you push the motor past 5,500 rpm, you can still exceed the speed limit by a healthy margin on the street, perched high in the cockpit, pretending you’re the Red Baron.

If I was looking for a confidence-inspiring adventure tourer with some off-pavement capability and long-haul comfort for street, this would be the bike. It really is, as ‘Arris says, a “super KLR”, a bike that in many ways handles street very well, and is comfortable for long hours in the saddle, but you have a fair bit of ability off-road, which is supposedly the true point of an adventure bike. The bad, broken pavement of the Maritimes is no match for this monster.

If only top gear was a little taller, this would be the perfect bike for most people exploring this region. As it is, your road speed will be governed by your determination to handle the vibration. Still, I could see myself owning one, if it wasn’t for the price tag.

The Beemer's big front wheel meant it didn't turn quite as nimbly on the street, but bad pavement was no match for it. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
The Beemer’s big front wheel meant it didn’t turn quite as nimbly on the street, but bad pavement was no match for it. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

Michael – I have a professional connection to the F800 series. As a former BRP employee, I was privy to the inner working of Rotax, the engine company that designed and makes the 800 parallel twin on this and other motorcycles. As a rule, Rotax plants are very tough, tractable and reliable, but also a bit heavy and perhaps less refined than, say, a Honda mill.

The engine was for me, the second big let-down of the BMW, which is too bad because the rest of the bike is lovely. The F800GS radiates “authentic off road” in every detail. I liked the black steel sub frame surrounding the instrument panel, a constant reassurance or strength and integrity. I liked the ride, and I really liked the ergonomics.

The motor is a little rough, sending numbing vibes into foot pegs and handlebars.  This encourages short-shifting, which is not really a deal breaker, but highlights a substantial let down: that this motorcycle is just plain unrefined. ‘Arris, the plebeian that he is, didn’t seem to mind, but Zac and I did. Japanese parallel twins like the Honda NC700 or Yamaha T-Max are butter smooth and cost thousands less, which makes me wonder what is going on at Rotax.

I come away with the feeling that BMW is ripping us off.  It’s a good motorcycle, in the class of say a Kawasaki Versys, but nowhere near worth the price charged. I don’t care how many grip warmers, digital farkles or what brand name is on the tank, a $15,000 motorcycle should not be wearing two-piston sliding caliper front brakes.

If you blanked the badge on the tank, I found it utterly anonymous. There wasn’t much wrong with the machine itself, but in this company it was outclassed everywhere. It was functional, like the Suzuki, but not as much. Riding it fast was work, like the Ducati, but neither as satisfying or scary. I just didn’t spend much time thinking about it when I got off the bike.


The V-Strom didn't have the power of the Multistrada, but it can still handily exceed the speed limit, and do it much more comfortably than the F800. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
The V-Strom didn’t have the power of the Multistrada, but it can still handily exceed the speed limit, and do it much more comfortably than the F800. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

THE 1000 V-STROM

The 1000 V-Strom has been around since 2002, taking the motor from the TL 1000 sportbike and inserting it into a pseudo adventure chassis. Unfortunately the package didn’t quite come together and the 1000 was ultimately eclipsed by its 650 cc smaller brother that was introduced in 2004 as a less powerful, but altogether better package.

The new 1000 V-Strom was unveiled last year and has been redesigned from the tires up, including a new motor and totally different styling. It’s available in two formats – the standard and the SE (which boasts hard bags, hand guards and a centrestand) and weighs in at a reasonable 228 kg wet.

The Strom comes with ABS and traction control but oddly no power modes or electronically adjustable suspension. But then at C$12,999 it’s almost half the price of the Multistrada, and $2,000 less than the BMW. 

The latest version of the V-Strom 1000 has been re-designed from the tires up. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
The latest version of the V-Strom 1000 has been re-designed from the tires up. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

Opinions

Michael – I left the hotel at exactly 6 AM, to begin a solo trek back to Halifax ahead of Rob and Zac. Being a glorious Nova Scotia spring day, a whimsical snowflake light flashed on the Suzuki dashboard informing me that frost was a serious hazard, while also communicating that the ambient air was a lively 3 C.

But it didn’t matter. Half an hour later, I was cruising happily along the highway towards Halifax with the temperature climbing every minute, the bike radiating complete confidence.

Here is the brand stereotype of the industry, reinforced yet again. The Japanese motorcycle is the cheapest, the best-equipped, and best-finished. It is also so utterly easy to use that, when viewed back to back, the two “exotics” appeared agrarian. It was the only bike on the test that didn’t cause numbness of hand, foot or bottom; that featured a state-of-the-art aluminum chassis; or with a light to the touch clutch, despite its size and power.

Fine details like brushed aluminum panels, metallic paint and soft-touch switchgear also brought the level of design and appearance far above its European rivals, something that Suzuki is not really known for.

Forget what the professional road testers and motorcycle glitterati say. You and me, we are regular people with real jobs and for whom motorcycling is a hobby. Most of us can afford a new bike only rarely, so it has to be pretty awesome to justify the investment. The V-Strom is all that, a kind of new Universal Japanese Motorcycle, with all those cliched virtues but now also something more.

In addition to being technically perfect and exceptional value, it carries with it a deep sophistication in appearance and experience that makes it by far the most premium feeling motorcycle of the three. It may have lacked the “character” of the other two, but its abilities made it the perfect companion in every situation, which I think is more important.

See that "adventure beak"? That's actually a tradition Suzuki started on the original DR750. Now, almost every adventure bike sports it. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
See that “adventure beak”? That’s actually a tradition Suzuki started on the original DR750. Now, almost every adventure bike sports it. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

‘Arris – I’ve been a fan of the V-Strom 650 for quite a while, but I never warmed to the 1000, until now. Suzuki’s remake of this bike has been simply superb.

It does everything that you ask of it with a sweet motor that is smooth in all senses, with a rhythmic underlying lumpiness of a V-twin that never fails to induce a smile. Granted, it doesn’t have the manic edge of the Multistrada and for some reason Suzuki have not bothered to add any power modes (how hard is it to load three ignition/fuel maps and a switch?), but it works with the rest of the motorcycle beautifully – something that was not the case on the previous generation.

I’m hoping that Suzuki make the next logical step and bring out a more dirt oriented version with wire wheels, power modes and some additional ground clearance. But even in this form, the 1000 Strom is an utterly compelling motorcycle.

The V-Strom 1000 offers everything your average rider (who doesn't stray far from pavement) actually needs, at a reasonable price. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
The V-Strom 1000 offers everything your average rider (who doesn’t stray far from pavement) actually needs, at a reasonable price. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

Zac – I loved the CMG long term 650 Strom for its blend of usable power, handling, and ability to lay down mile after mile in comfort. The 1000 Strom is an even better version of that machine, at least on pavement. There’s plenty of power combined with that distinctive Strom exhaust note – crack that throttle open and it sounds like you’re riding the Kitchen Appliance From Hell. And, I am OK with that.

If people ask me what the world’s best all-around street bike is, I usually tell them to check out the V-Strom 650. If you need extra power to haul a passenger and luggage, I’d now add the 1000 to that recommendation. Suzuki’s engineered everything needed for success into this bike, except for the Ducatista experience …


Behold the winner! The Strom is the bike we'd actually buy, if we could actually afford to purchase a new bike. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
Behold the winner! The Strom is the bike we’d actually buy, if we could actually afford to purchase a new bike. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

THE VERDICT (in order of brilliance)

The V-Strom is by far the clear winner. All three of us loved its reliability, sophistication and technical perfection which serves to inflate the rider’s ego by flattering his abilities and encouraging you to be better. Sure, it does lack some character but if character gets you stuck 300 km from home or numbed by vibration or in a false neutral, who needs it? Plus, it’s the cheapest of the three by a reasonable margin.

Second comes the F800GSA. ‘Arris loved it but Zac and Michael had issues with the motor that was the main detractor to the package. All three agreed that the bike does not do enough to justify the price tag, though ‘Arris — who does the most off-road riding of the three — loved the GS’s dirtier side.

And last and most definitely least, Ducati’s Multistrada. False neutrals galore and the only bike that actually left us stranded meant that the Multi — despite being in production for 4 years now — still comes across as a pre-production motorcycle. With the biggest price tag by a long way, even the Ducati character and manic power delivery couldn’t save this machine.


GALLERY

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6 thoughts on “Adventure Bike Comparo”

  1. Ok Zac, why would I buy the V strom 1000 over the 650? I presently have an ’04 V strom 1000 and love the engine and power. Want to update, like the 650 styling better and it is cheaper. Tough choice. Any help would be greatly appreciated. 90% paved roads, 10% dirt roads, never off road. Occasional pillion. Prefered roads are twisty, ie. leaving Calgary to travel to south central BC.

    1. If you’re planning to ride harder on the roads, or hauling more luggage, I’d buy a thou. Otherwise, I think it’s a wash. The 650 has a few less bells and whistles but is a fine bike, and indeed is the machine that I recommend if someone wants to do the exact riding that you talk about.

    1. Thanks – it was a great ride, Ducati problems notwithstanding. Saw some great country that I kinda suspected was there, but hadn’t gotten around to riding through.

    1. If we could get one out here, we would have loved to fit it in there, but alas, that’s not generally possible.

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