Words: Editor ‘Arris Photos: Richard Seck
PART 1 – DIRTABILITY
Big-bore dual-sports, I love ‘em. If there ever was a type of bike that you could say is made for Canada, it’s the big dualies. Whether negotiating the pot-holed roads of Quebec, fighting congestion in Vancouver/Toronto or exploring the masses of gravel roads that snake their way just to the north of the main populace, the bigger dual-sports are THE bikes to have.
Of course, the cruiser is what sells best, and although I’ll never quite understood why, I feel that it’s my personal mission to try and let Canadians know what they’re missing … and why.
Although we don’t get a complete line-up of what is out there in this category (notably missing are the Honda Varadero and Africa Twin), the choice has been steadily growing with the recent arrival of the Aprilia Caponord and the KTM 950 Adventurer. Add to that existing models such as the BMW GS (now in 1200 form), Triumph’s Tiger and Suzuki’s 1000 V-Strom, and the bike consumer has a pretty good selection to choose from.
|If it’s happy doing this then it’s well into the dirt side of the spectrum.|
With the advent of a BMW R1200GS as the CMG long-termer for 2004, we figured that it would be a good opportunity to get our grubbies on as many of the other big dualies and see how they all compare to each other in their abilities to tour, cut through congestion and explore the dirt roads of the boonies.
What we managed was an extensive and somewhat brutal testing of the new R1200GS, a solo-test of the KTM 950 Adventure and an end of season tour with the Caponord, Tiger and GS. Throughout the year, CMG has covered most of the bikes on an individual basis (hyper linked in the ‘Dirtability’ section below), but what follows now is a direct comparison between them.
Hey, if we’re going to convince you that you need a dual-sport, we might as well tell you which one to get.
THE DUALITY OF USE
Okay, first off, what makes a big dual-sport? I mean, the name alone only implies that it can do two sports, which are commonly defined as skiing and ping-pong … No it isn’t, in motorcycling the two sports are actually road and dirt. Now that’s a pretty wide spectrum – much like sport-touring – and in the same way a dual-sport bike will inevitably tend to lean towards either the road or dirt end of the range. Depending on what you want to be able to do, dictates which model you should consider. Oh, and the size of your wallet.
|The R1200GS is available in spoked and cast versions.|
In my opinion, what makes a true dual-sport is its ability to spend one day eating up the road miles and the next day bombing down gravel back roads. Ideally it should even be able to go further and plough through muddy, rock-strewn back-trails.
You can actually tell how far each manufacturer is intending their bike to go down this path just by looking them over. For starters, cast wheels instantly tell you that you’re probably not meant to go off-road any further than a well-maintained gravel track. You see, the advantage of cast wheels is that they don’t deflect with loading. That makes them ideal for smooth surfaces, but a liability when bouncing off large rocks, where the flex of spoked wheels absorbs the impact – as opposed to a cast one which is liable to dent or even break.
Another big factor is crash protection. Ride in the dirt and you’ll significantly increase your chances of crashing. The saving grace is that odds are it’ll be a slow speed low-side so bike and rider should ideally be able to get back up, fire the engine back into life (maybe fire off a few choice words while you’re at it) and continue on – only a little dirtier, no worse for wear.
But enough pre-amble, how do our four bikes stand up to these factors?
|Cast wheels signify a move away from dirt-usage.|
In last place comes the Triumph Tiger, mainly thanks to the cast wheels and lack of crash protection. In fact, it’s the only one of the four bikes with cast wheels, although until the latest ’05 incarnation, it used to come equipped with spokes.
I find this a bit of a sad development as (up till ’05) each generation was getting more and more dirt friendly. It could just be that Triumph has noted the changing trends – Suzuki’s V-Strom comes with cast wheels right from the start and even BMW’s R1200GS offers cast wheels as an option – but maybe they should at least offer a spoked option? Still, a bash plate attached to the exhaust pipes instead of the (sturdier) frame, and a some-what exposed oil cooler and plumbin, make it suitable for mild off-roading at best.
|Not as deep as it looks … honest Mr. Ellis.|
Unfortunately, of all the bikes, the Tiger saw the least dirt action. Partly due to the limited time we had it on our year-end tour (Larry and the Tiger had to leave early) and partly because Triumph Canada’s Chris Ellis specifically requested that we don’t take it into anything too dirty. Officially it was because it was the only ’05 Tiger in the country, but I suspect that Mr. Ellis may have had an image of a sunken R1200GS in his mind too.
With the few miles of mild gravel road that the Tiger saw, it seemed quite comfortable, though Mr. Tate reckons that they’ve stiffened up the front suspension for ‘05. Combine that with lowered suspension front and rear, cast wheels and re-worked geometry (over the previous model) and you have a bike that’s being designed away from dirt and more towards pavement.
Bit of a shame in my books, but it does seem to be part of a trend.
|Adept but seriously lacking in protection.|
The Caponord’s protection isn’t really any better than the Tiger, although at least it comes with spoked wheels (laced to the rim to enable tubeless tires).
Although I found it surprisingly adept on gravel roads, the bash protection is sorely lacking. Bendy plastic bash-guards are supposed to protect the oil and coolant tanks (which I doubt they would, given a good thwack), but also leave the oil cooler, rad and oil-level hose horribly exposed. A relatively tame drop would potentially leave the ‘Nord dead in the dirt – bleeding either oil or coolant profusely.
Again, the ‘Nord wasn’t subjected to any particularly taxing terrain on our tour, although it did see more gravel than the Tiger (as well as some compacted dirt trails). In contrast to the Triumph, the ‘Nord’s suspension is a whole lot softer and as a result does a good job at absorbing the irregularities of unpaved roads. However, the motor needs to be kept up in the revs for any real usable power. The rest of the four bikes that are content just plodding along – a happier trait for dirt riding.
|Oh dear. Photo: Jim Vernon|
This is the only bike of the four that we threw into a whole season of the really rough stuff. With a whole year to test the 1200GS it by far got the most dirt abuse of the lot and so revealed exactly how far it would go … and wouldn’t.
The protection on the GS is really very good. A not too large bash-plate was excellent when it came to bouncing off rocks, tree stumps and the occasional drunk. Although the pipes look a tad exposed, they never got dented.
The GS had more than its fair share of ending up horizontal without significant aesthetic damage, never mind mechanical. The only problem I could foresee is the exposed cylinder heads, which could come to grief if they were to contact something hard enough.
It carries the weight down low and so feels very planted – especially useful on the dirt. The suspension is superbly compliant, although it feels maybe a little remote at the front thanks to the funky Telelever design. The motor is a real treat, developing a goodly amount of torque down low and a surprising burst of power higher up. In fact it’s by far the torquiest of all the bikes, and although its peak power is just beaten by the Aprilia and KTM (according to several published dyno charts), from idle up to 7,000 rpm it produces the most power of the lot, and by a long way.
As expected, the GS has absolutely no problem with gravel roads and will happily tackle rougher dirt roads, rock fields and grassy trails – tires allowing. Good off-road-biased tires are obligatory if you want to venture off the smoother dirt stuff, but it’s only the real rough stuff that’ll cause problems … and … err … the deeper water crossings.
Since I’m trying to keep within the same realm of what all the other bikes were subjected to (and I need some stuff left to write the long-term wrap-up article) I won’t go into just what those limits are right now, suffice to say that it was significantly more dirt-capable than the Tiger or ‘Nord.
|Twist and spin.|
You’d expect a company that grew up building just dirt bikes and regularly wins the Dakar races with them to build a bike that’s good in the dirt, but I didn’t think that the 950 Adventure would be this good.
For starters it’s very tall and very skinny. It feels like a dirt bike, down to the rider positioning and the rock ‘ard seat. The KTM is balanced and predictable, and instills absolute confidence in the dirt. It even comes with a dirt-bike 21-inch front wheel (large diameter wheels = easier to roll over obstacles) and the WP suspension is excellent at absorbing the bumps while all the time giving just the right amount of feedback to the rider.
The motor’s also a gem with a lumpy v-twin power delivery that gives the pilot ultimate control on just when and by how much they would like that back wheel to spin out around the corner. The only complaint is a slight lacking of off-idle grunt, saved only by the motor’s quick-spinning nature that quickly pulls you into the torque curve.
Oh hang on, I’m forgetting about the protection bit. There’s a wrap around bash plate that covers all the important bits, the sides covered by the super long fuel tanks that drop down either side of the motor.
|Post minor spill …|
The tank is a bit of a concern to me: in a minor spill the plastic tanks got a scuffing but otherwise came away intact, however, a more major whack could conceivably punch through them perhaps leaving you in the middle of nowhere with a rather reduced fuel load.
Okay, what an ordered fourth-to-first place rating system doesn’t tell you is just how much the bikes are spaced apart.
I’d say that the Tiger and Caponord are in the same realm when it comes their ability to leave the safety of the asphalt and tackle the terrors of the dirt. They’re both competent gravel-road machines, although anything worse would soon see them with some serious battle injuries and potentially fatal ones – especially the Aprilia with all that exposed equipment.
|Adventure and GS are happy in the jungle.|
The GS is super happy under these conditions and will only start to feel like you’re pushing it when the trail becomes an obstacle course of rocks and craters. Even then it’ll push on through, but it will hit its limits soon afterwards. The KTM, on the other hand, would yawn at gravel roads, start paying attention at rocks and craters and break into a slight sweat when the trail got truly dirt-like.
Although the R1200GS surprised us with just how far it could go in the dirt, it always felt like an amazingly flexible road bike. The KTM just felt like a fookin’ big dirt bike and behaved accordingly. To cut to the chase, if you’re looking for a dualie that can cope with the dirt, then consider the Beemer or KTM. If you really want to explore ALL what the woods have to offer, narrow that choice to the KTM.
In part 2 we take a look at how the four bikes deal with the gentler – but faster – world of asphalt and see just how far the dirt winners can stretch into the other half of their world.