Last week we took a look at the technical attributes of the three 1200 touring bikes we had for out Fall Tour. This week it’s time to give our collective thoughts on how each bike fared.
In part one of our 1200 Sport Tourer comparo we took care of all the tedious technical details and differences between the BMW R1200RT, Ducati Multistrada 1200S Touring and Honda VFR1200F DCT. That now clears the way for the meaty stuff — the actual riding impressions — gathered while on our CMG Fall(ish) Tour.
Four seasoned testers, Steve Bond, Rob Harris, Larry Tate and yours truly, took turns flogging these machines for several days on everything from superslab U.S. interstates to “friggin’ goat paths” (Larry likes his pavement like a good single malt – smooth).
Our touring mounts could not have been more different in design and in concept, with a super-sporty Japanese V-four at one end of the spectrum, a luxuriously lavish German Boxer at the other, and a multi-purpose Italian V-twin in between.
Three different machines and three different approaches to the most rewarding type of riding, sport touring. Read on to see what we though of this trio.
If there were ever a bike that really emphasizes the old idiom never judge a book by its cover it has to be the R1200RT. Parked beside the two other bikes in this test the RT looks cumbersome and unwieldy, and more inclined to taking its rider across the country along super-wide superhighways than on sporting blitzes along sinuous back roads.
Actually, riding the RT was an experience far detached from the visual impression the bike leaves. Despite its bulbous fairing, bolt-upright riding position and luxury-liner features like electrically adjustable windscreen and optional sound system and heated seat, this thing handled like a sport bike — and a very competent one at that.
“A bit of a shock,” according to Larry, who went on to say, “damn thing feels like it’s half its size; it sure as hell doesn’t handle like it looks! Stable, neutral, planted, light, and quick-turning to boot. I was amazed.”
We were all impressed with the BMW’s handling, which doesn’t falter even when fully loaded and two-up, something I’ve done extensively on a previous-generation R1200RT. A big part of its stellar handling is the ESA II suspension, which when set up for the proper load and riding style, keeps the bike entirely composed and capable of surprising speed even on switchback-riddled roads.
Its counterbalanced Boxer twin is smooth and quiet and it has a wide, useable powerband, though this latest twin-cam iteration has given up a tad of bottom-end grunt for a higher overall output.
Mid to top-end power remains quite impressive, especially when considering this is an air-cooled twin, and passing cars even when there wasn’t an abundance of room was entirely unforced.
Even its gearbox scored high marks, with smooth, crisp and quiet gear changes, a far cry from Boxer twins of a decade ago. And as Steve pointed out, the engine layout is conducive to owner-performed routine maintenance like valve adjustments and oil changes.
As for that fat fairing? We all surmised that beneath it must hide large volumes of air and not much more, because the bike feels way lighter than its physical size would suggest, and it carries its weight low. Its bulky size scored well with all of us because it didn’t deter from the bike’s handling, and because it provided the best weather protection by far in this test.
Its electrically adjustable windscreen redirected airflow from “breezy to living room,” said Larry, providing a turbulence-free cocoon of air in the cockpit, without the forward-pushing draft created by larger fairings like that on the Gold Wing. The riding position fit everyone, and with the seat raised to its highest position, even Rob found it accommodating, “like riding a big comfy chair that handles to boot”, though still not as leggy as the Ducati.
Convenience features included a multitude of options, some we’d recommend, like the Equipment Package 2 (see part 1 for a breakdown), some we’d do without, like the sound system, which I tried to use but just couldn’t find a comfortable sound level with or without earplugs in place. And who needs a friggin’ sound system on a bike, anyway?
Altogether, we were hard-pressed to find fault with this sport bike disguised as a luxury liner.
Multistrada 1200S Touring
Ducati’s Multistrada 1200S is many bikes in one. “If you could only have one motorcycle,” said Steve, “this will do it all on pavement – including track days.” And that’s what separates the 1200S from the other bikes in this test – its versatility.
Ducati really re-wrote the rules on multi-purpose motorcycles with the Multistrada 1200, but especially with the multiple-ride-mode 1200S models. We tested the Touring version (Sport also available), which includes useful items like a centrestand, saddlebags and heated grips, as well as its unique ride modes that tailor suspension adjustments and engine management characteristics for different riding environments with the push of a button.
While the R1200RT is a sport bike in touring-bike clothing, the Multistrada 1200S is a supersport in adventure-touring guise. Put this thing in Sport mode and you’ve got a nearly full-blown, 150-hp superbike, ready for a back-road romp or a track-day assault. It’s the machine in this test that would be best suited for weekend stints at the local track – race-tire shod and safety wired.
This is due in part to its light weight, but also to its superbike-like handling and non-linked brakes, which are more conducive to hardcore sport riding than linked systems. The ABS-equipped stoppers on our test bike had a somewhat inconsistent feel, however, with an initially soft bite, though they ultimately braked very hard.
Aside from its sporty nature, the ’Strada offers all-day comfort via an upright and roomy riding position, accommodating saddle and modest weather protection (slotting right between the all-encompassing BMW and the wind-in-your-face Honda).
The only thing testers would change was the handlebar, which most agreed was too wide for a street bike and had an odd angle at the grips that didn’t agree with everyone’s wrists. Being a tapered aluminum bar makes swapping it out an easy option.
The Testastretta V-twin produces more than enough power (40 more ponies than the 110-hp BMW twin) and spreads it over a wide rev range, but it prefers spinning rather than lugging and if kept below 4,000 rpm, the machine shudders and quakes, mostly because of its tall gearing. This was a minor annoyance, mostly responsible for blurring the mirrors, and it didn’t affect rider comfort, as the bike was quite smooth overall.
The bike’s most prominent feature, its adjustable riding modes, won everyone over. The setup that we found worked best for aggressive riding was the Sport suspension mode with the engine set to Touring mode.
We did this through the setup menu and it provided a firm, controlled ride at speed, while full engine power was available yet more manageable than in its more aggressive, default Sport mode.
Steve found the suspension a bit soft in Sport mode for a solo rider, but when dialled up to “rider plus passenger and luggage” our lardiest tester was finally happy. Even though we neglected to adjust the individual damping and preload settings to his preference, the beauty of the system is that it does allow for such alterations.
The Ducati’s gearbox was firm-shifting and it had a somewhat industrial feel. Some testers complained of occasional missed shifts between fifth and sixth, others not. Evaluated on its own, the Ducati’s gearbox wasn’t that flawed, but amongst the buttery-smooth BMW and the shift-less Honda, it was notable.
Editor ’Arris claimed that as soon as he swung a leg over the Ducati it took over his soul and unleashed the hooligan within him – and he rode the bike like a man possessed. His main complaint with the machine was that in his hands over time, it would definitely lead to a loss of his driver’s license.
The rest of us agreed he should just seek therapy.
The 1200S has been touted an adventure-touring bike, though we never ventured off pavement with it. We believe that 17-inch front wheels are pavement-only items, and consider the Multistrada a mostly road-going machine. As such, it makes an excellent sport-touring mount, with a slight penchant towards the sporting side. And we all agreed it’s the best Ducati yet.
While the Ducati’s gearbox wasn’t the smoothest shifting of the bunch, it’s the Honda’s dual clutch transmission that drew the most criticism, specifically when in automatic mode.
Everyone agreed that in manual mode, shifting was super-smooth and quick with the push of the handlebar-mounted paddles. Honda has succeeded in making the bike launch flawlessly from a stop, with the appropriate amount of lag between the time the throttle is turned to when the clutch is electronically released — it all feels very natural.
Switch to automatic, however, and frustration will get the better of you, causing you to eventually override the auto mode and switch to manual. This is mostly because the pre-selected shifting points, whether in Sport or Drive modes, are nowhere near where your instinct tells you they should be.
In Drive mode, the machine short-shifts so aggressively that you find yourself in sixth gear by the time the bike is rolling 60 km/h, with the engine lugging at 2,000 rpm. Alternately, in Sport mode, gear changes are delayed too much, so much so that the bike remains in fourth gear while rolling along the highway at 110 km/h. Top gear only kicks in once past 130 km/h, so you see why most everyone reverted to manual mode.
Everyone except me. My lazy ass figures that if a machine is designed to shift on its own, shift on its own it will. I left the VFR in Drive mode while riding it (aside for a couple of short stints in manual mode, just to see what it was like).
So, the engine lugged around town and passing quickly meant hammering the throttle (so the thing could actually downshift) and blasting by unsuspecting motorists with the engine screaming. Hey, my left hand and foot enjoyed the break.
This actually emphasised the V-four’s remarkably smooth power delivery and broad torque spread. From 2,000 rpm in top gear the VFR accelerated smoothly and forcefully, even two-up. Admittedly, a better Drive shifting map would be appreciated, but the engine can easily handle the premature gear changes.
The riding position also drew some scornful remarks for being too aggressive, with a farther reach to the bars than the other bikes and footpegs that were placed too high. We raised the clip-ons about 10 mm on the fork tubes (a modification that isn’t approved by Honda) and this helped a bit.
Rider comfort was further enhanced with speed. The faster you went on the Honda, the more at home it felt, as the oncoming windblast lifted some of the weight off your arms. Wind protection was limited to the chest, though the blast of air was smooth and free of turbulence.
Two traits the Honda enjoys that we found exceptionally appealing are its unwavering stability and confidence-inspiring feedback at speed. “Handling is solid as the Rock of Gibraltar with amazing chassis feedback,” said Steve. It glided along the winding roads as if it were on rails.
Its engine is also alluring, with smooth, almost electric acceleration regardless of rpm, and a rather intoxicating exhaust burble when allowed to spin. It doesn’t hurt that the Honda also has the most lustrous paint, and the fit and finish of the bodywork is probably the best we’ve seen on a motorcycle.
But, we’re more about riding bikes, not looking at them, and in that light the VFR1200F DCT comes up just a little short.
So, which bikes would we take home?
We all had our favourites in this bunch, and not surprisingly there was no runaway winner. All these bikes had their merits and our final decisions came down to our different riding styles.
Steve and Editor ’Arris preferred the Multistrada 1200S because of its supersport attitude combined with everyday ergonomics. ’Arris, the tallest in our group at six-foot-four, was especially fond of the machine, not only for its hooligan-esque streak (though he added that the father in him should probably opt for the RT), but it was also the only bike that he didn’t dwarf.
Both these men would probably outfit the machine for occasional lapping sessions too.
Larry and I, obviously the more sensible and mature gentlemen in the group, chose the R1200RT for its touring-bike convenience and weather protection, combined in a package with a sporty ride. We’d forfeit the track sessions for extended rides through the countryside with a week’s worth of underwear in the bags, regardless of the weather forecast.
The VFR1200F DCT? Everyone but me would choose the manual-shift model over the DCT, though I’d wait for a second-generation model, which will surely have the auto modes sorted.
Either way, we’d consider the VFR with a set of high-rise handlebars, taller windscreen and lower footpegs – but that’s what the rumoured VFR1200T is supposed to be.
To see what each rider thought personally about their bike, click here.