Comparo – Honda Shadow ACE Tourer vs BMW R1100RT

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Words: Nick Smirniw/Rob Harris

First View: Nick Smirniw

The setting was perfect for one of those bad ’80’s horror films. An empty summer camp, a violent thunderstorm, and three unsuspecting motorcyclists. We were just outside Parry Sound, racing against the storm, trying to find the damn camp that I could have sworn I once saw the sign for and Editor ‘arris could have sworn he’d once been to.

Well, either fortunately or unfortunately (depending on whether or not you’re the murderous, goalie-masked lunatic type), we never found the camp and were never individually mauled to our gory deaths. But being the manly-men we are (except for our third rider Wendy, who’s not a man at all), we didn’t give up until we had ridden up and down Highway 518 for over an hour. Getting soaked and blown all over by that crazy storm that had caught up with us. At about 1 AM – after somehow turning a 2 hour trip from Toronto into a 10 hour waterlogged marathon – we found the closest motel and simply passed out.

Waking up the next morning provided some interesting perspective. Sometimes checking into the first motel you see is no better for your health than being a victim in a homicidal rampage. We had jumped at the only room available with a third bed, maxing out our person-to-bed ratio. After surveying the half-inch cracks in the bricks that morning, we determined the beds weren’t actually listing, but the rest of the motel was. Perhaps this was where the millions of tiny spiders that cuddled with me came from. Or maybe it was the reason for the musty stench of the room, which by now, had infiltrated all of our luggage and would follow us around for the rest of our trip.

Rob brushed his hair out of his eyes and once again gave me a look suggesting, “What the hell have you gotten me into this time?” Or maybe that’s what he said, but I didn’t care, partly because Editor ‘arris can be a bitch before coffee, and mainly because I was too busy packing the bikes.

The Sault area of Northern Ontario has some great roads for the motorcyclist. Unfortunately, most of them are dirt. Here’s one of the few paved versions.

Sault Ste. Marie is an underrated region. It’s at the eastern most point of Lake Superior and is home to some of the most fun motorcycling roads in Ontario. I’ve gotten into the habit of going there regularly to teach a motorcycle course at Sault College, always returning with stories of great rides. Enough such that Rob decided to finally get in on the excitement with Wendy and I, and make a quick vacation of it.

Choosing bikes did lead to a bit of a debate and in the end, Editor ‘arris and his tender tooshie won over my preference for sport-bikes. I very rarely see anyone else with tons of luggage draped over a sports-bike, so I agreed just to see how the majority of tourers did it.

Decision made, a pair of contrasting 1100cc twins would do the trick. Enter the BMW R1100RT and the Honda Shadow ACE Tourer. The Beemer chosen for it’s reputation as a high-tech long distance weapon of the 90’s. The Honda for it’s simplistic retro 50’s style, with 90’s reliability. Both come standard with highly functional hard luggage, detachable on the RT, but somewhat editor-proof- (nothing is editor proof – ‘arris) which sealed tightly against torrential rains and asinine magazine editors.

Friday was a good day to test out the comfort level of these ‘touring’ bikes. We needed to get to the Soo in time for Wendy and I to teach a class and Rob needed to quickly get to a TV – to watch England in the World Cup. So, we simply followed the main highways to get the functional part of the drive over with. Despite being designed with touring in mind, and notwithstanding the praise that each of these machines has received from the owners I’ve spoken with, neither myself nor Rob could stay comfortable for more than an hour at a time.

Fuel stops every 160 km (thanks to Wendy’s 750 Virago’s tiny range) were more welcome than they should have been. The RT does adjust to suit different riders with it’s three position seat, but we found that it tilted forward slightly more than we would have liked. However, the ingenious editor discovered that the removal of the little rubber feet on the bottom of the seat-pan gave something close to an ideal position. The ACE was built with non-adjustable hardware, but was plenty roomy enough.

Louis grins as CMGs Nick Smirniw (centre) and Editor ‘arris waste away the CMG expense budget of $4.25 (American!!) at the Keewadin Casino.

In Blind River, the last fuel stop of the afternoon, we split off from Rob due to his patriotic commitment to the English football squadron. The last thing we saw of him was his charging through town, looking for a sports bar while cheering “Hurrah England!!” Wendy and I continued on our way, safely passing everything in sight, short of the infamous French Saab (refer to Anusol™ award, OMG Aug/Sept/Oct 98).

Class taught and Dairy Queen visited, it was time to rendezvous with Rob and get on to Friday night. We had picked up another friend along the way, a biker in spirit, if not in ownership. Louis was pumped about going across the border and visiting the Keewadin Casino. This led us to a greasy all-you-can-eat buffet, joining various trailer trash blowing the bucks at the nickel slots. The casino was not without it’s motorcycle content though, with slot machines offering both Yamaha V-Stars and Harley Sportsters as jackpots. Not to mention a display of one of Robbie Kenevil’s crashed stunt bikes! We left relieved that none of us had gambling problems.

Saturday morning dawned with great expectations, but little energy. This was partly due to the convenience of the bikes. Having hard luggage is easily addictive. Going on a day trip and not sure if you need a rainsuit, or tools, or a camera, or an extra sweater, etc.? Who cares? Just stuff it all in the panniers and forget about it until you need it. These things are brilliant! And who needs a rainsuit anyway? The massive windscreens will keep you fairly dry in light rain or warm in cool weather. These bikes really take the challenge out of riding.

Saturday’s ride consisted of a loop taking us out to Thessalon and up Highway 129 along the Mississagi River valley, which until now was one of Ontario’s best kept motorcycle secrets. It was also the home of Ontario’s proudly advertised tallest tree, brutally felled by some wacko with a chainsaw last year in some useless protest. I wonder if he was wearing a goalie mask?

We were going to follow 129 all the way to Chapleau, but were swayed by an absolutely dreamy sign at the head of regional highway 556 to Ranger Lake. This radiant yellow sign enticed us to follow it’s 82km twisty road. A motorcyclist’s dream. Of course, what it didn’t warn us about was the lack of pavement after the first 1.5km. Oh well. We now had the opportunity to test the comfort and suspension of these machines over 50 miles of the twistiest, hilliest, most beat up washboard road we could find.

We wanted to eventually get back to 129 and then across 546 (along the Little White River – another road not to be missed) to head in the general direction of Elliot Lake. The map showed a line (albeit a lightly drawn one) going from where we were, to where we wanted to be. “It’s labeled on a large scale provincial map so how bad could it be?” I noted. “Can’t be any worse than yesterday, can it?” Rob gave me the ‘I know I shouldn’t listen to you’ look and followed anyway. Silly bastard.

Within 5 minutes of my pretending to know which way I was going, we were lost. Of course, I wasn’t going to let on to that fact. “There was a sign for the Tunnel Lake Outpost back there, don’t worry, we’re going the right way.”

Taking a detour in this region can find some ‘interesting’ roads. It looked like a highway on the map, but quickly deteriorated from asphalt to gravel to plain dirt to rocks. Both bikes coped well though!

The gravel road gradually narrowed from two lanes to one, with the consistency of the gravel varying from pea-stone, to baseball sized rocks, to loose sand. Not ideal riding conditions.

We continued on, driving deeper and deeper into the backwoods. Rob and Wendy suspiciously following my confident but blind choices at forks in the road (actually, to still be calling it a road at this point may be a little imprecise). We stopped every 10 minutes or so to hear Rob’s “I’m pretty sure I’ve read about people dying this way, and I don’t have my anti-dying-in-the-woods pills” speech. I never worried though. I knew that we could always follow our tire tracks in the sand back to where we started, if necessary.

Then it started raining. Hard.

Five minutes later we found the Tunnel Lake Outpost, which turned out to be a fishin’ and huntin’ camp 40km from pavement. The jaws of the few locals standing around had already dropped at the sight of three previously shiny motorcycles appearing through the trees. I thought one of the older guys was going to have a stroke when I asked him which way Toronto was.

The directions were simple. Follow this trail back to the sign and turn left on the “main road”. This led to a frustrating comparison of his version and my version of a “main” road. Everything we were driving on looked more like your average game trail.

After listening to the warnings of one hunter saying he could barely make it in on the “main road” in his 4×4, we followed the instructions and an hour later made it out of probably the most exciting roads these bikes (or riders) would ever see. The “main road” surface varied from mud to rock, to big rock, to boulder, rising up and down over terrain and deep puddles we couldn’t even imagine driving a 4-wheeled vehicle through.

Once we hit the pavement again, Rob shot me a filthy look (not to mention certain words…) and took the lead for the rest of the trip.

Overall impressions of the bikes: great for long-distance hauls. I now know why the other half lives the way they do. The fuel range (similar, though the Honda was slightly thirstier), the comfyish seats, the beautiful hard bags, the big windshields, etc. The handling was obviously not up to sportbike standard, but that doesn’t matter to the people who own them. It almost didn’t matter to us either. The shadow ground it’s pegs only with determination on unfamiliar roads and the RT never even came close at our pace.

Directly comparing the two is a tough job. It’s the Computer Geek vs. the Fat Bastard. High Tech vs. Big Belly. The BMW wows it’s rider with gadgetry. The electric windshield, the heated hand grips, the adjustable seat, the four-way flashers, the telelever suspension … I could go on forever. The Honda on the other hand, just asks it’s owners to get on and ride, to forget about the time (or even the era) and to wind up somewhere you’ve never been before.

Nick Smirniw

Second View: Editor ‘Arris

At first glance, comparing the BM to the Honda seems like comparing apples to oranges. A sport touring to a cruiser tourer. But surprisingly they have an awful amount of similarities. Both have shields to protect you against wind blast on the highway, both have hard luggage and both mention the word ‘tour’ somewhere in their sales blurb. Oh yeah, and they’re both 1100cc twins. See, we’re not that mad after all.

Anyway, firstly, let’s get into the BMW. The R1100RT is touted as BM’s touring bike (let’s not even think about the new K1200LT, as we didn’t know about that when we did this test last summer). Hard bags, full fairing with adjustable screen, heated grips. It’s designed for one purpose… touring. With this in mind, I can’t help but feeling a little disappointed. Like the way a highly rated movie inevitable never lives up to its hype. Not because you didn’t necessarily enjoy it, but just because all the hype made it impossible to match.

Don’t get me wrong, the R1100RT is a great tourer, it just fell into the A category when I was expecting an A+. Other journalists would disagree (Larry Tate), and maybe my super sensitive derriere, combined with a 6’4″ chassis went outside the design limits. But I didn’t expect to be feeling any discomfort after only an hour in the saddle. Having said all that, it beats most other bikes hands-down. With it’s three way adjustable seat, electrically adjustable windscreen, heated grips (great for drying out wet gloves) and large capacity waterproof removable bags (quick motel room access).

The telelever suspension up front is just excellent. No dive when braking, and compliant, even over the worst northern Ontario ‘roads’. The engine, although smooth, does transmit a modicum of vibration to the rider, but not intrusively so. It’ll also pull in top from as low as 2000rpm, but never at any point should you expect, or indeed do you get, arm wrenching acceleration. The five speed box is a little stiff, requiring a good jab to change gears, and there’s the occasional false neutral in there too.

Starting the fuel injected motor is done easily with the aid of a fast idle lever, but BM have seen it fit to not allow it to run with the side stand down. Annoying when you just want it to start so that you can get on with your ride.

Now for the Honda. To be honest, I’m not a big cruiser fan. Sitting upright in the wind, feet forward, with all the bumps going right through yer spine is not my idea of a good ride. With this in mind, I was expecting a D-, but surprisingly came out giving it an A as well.

The ACE Tourer overcomes these pitfalls by not pushing the pegs too far forward – having pegs instead of boards (easier to put more weight on yer feet over bumps) and having a big screen up front to cut through the wind. It also has respectable ground clearance (again aided by use of pegs over boards) and enough low down torque in the motor, with a useful amount still up top, to give it some real life usage in the city as well as on the highway.

The engine is carburated and takes a couple of minutes to fully warm up and the gearbox is relatively smooth except for a pronounced clunk between first and second. I found the suspension a bit on the soft side, but then it is a cruiser.

The hard bags work well but maybe a bit on the small side for serious touring. They also open from the top, thereby limiting the size of objects inserted, and are non detachable, requiring everything to be lugged out upon arrival at your chosen resting place.

So in the end, does the ACE deserve the same rating as the RT? Not really, because the RT generally beats it (but not by a great deal) in most areas. But then the great leveler is in the price. The high tech RT comes in around the $20,000 mark, a full $5,000 up on the ACE. That’s a chunk and that’s where the ACE makes up the grade.

Rob Harris

Do we know where we’re going”?“Yes … I think so”.

The next thing we knew we were avoiding big bloody rocks, randomly strewn about on the dirt that used to be a road

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