CMG’s Days of Summer: The motorcycles

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY RYAN EDWARDSON

When Canada Moto Guide gathered five motorcycles together for a trip to the Haliburton Highlands, the bikes shared nakedness, two wheels, and little else. Editor Mark compiled the list of entrants: the Ducati Scrambler Café Racer, Harley-Davidson Sport Glide, Honda CB1000R, Kawasaki Z900, and Triumph Speed Twin.

CMG’s Jeff, Dustin and Matt joined Mark and I for the test, each riding one of the bikes from the GTA to our cottage-country hideout. Almost 1,000 km later, we had considerable data for choosing our favourites, though most of us got it wrong.

Jeff, Mark, Dustin, Dean and Matt get ready to ride in Muskoka.

The home base was Sir Sam’s Inn on Eagle Lake, not far from Haliburton, Ontario. The twisties in this region are well known to southern Ontario riders, and provided a great venue to put the bikes through their paces. The pavement is often bumpy, occasionally broken or sandy, and always fun and challenging. Tightly sprung, sharp-edged weapons would not be the optimal tools here – some compliance and forgiveness is needed.

A parallel twin, two V-twins, and two inline-fours provided a wide range of engine notes and characteristics, and prices ranged from less than 10 Grand to more than 20. Each rider will be contributing their own review of the bike they brought up, so we won’t go into too much technical detail here.

(Read our individual reviews of the bikes throughout July. Here are Dean’s thoughts on the Z900.)

The Ducati Scrambler Café Racer ($13,295) was definitely the looker of the bunch, with several passers-by remarking on its attractiveness. The clip-ons are low and forward, the front fender stubby, as is the tail section, giving the bike the retro café racer look so popular right now. Some disliked the number plates on the sides, but the overall consensus was highly positive.

Matt on the Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer.

Riding it, however, was a different story. On its own, at a more casual pace, it was a fun ride, but increase the speed and the suspension seemed overwhelmed; Dustin had quite the moment over a series of bumps in a straight line, the back end wagging like an excited puppy. Heat from the air-cooled engine was quite noticeable on the left side, and the engine lacks oomph in this company.

The transmission shifted well enough, although at least three of the testers found false neutrals in fifth and sixth gear, and everyone lamented having to shift to (the actual) neutral before being able to start the bike. The brakes were solid and linear, helped by the lightest curb weight in the group, but that light weight could not mask the engine with the least amount of grunt, and suspension in need of some sorting.

The Harley-Davidson Sport Glide ($22,399) was the black sheep of the group, with minimal sporting pretentions and more chrome than all the others put together. Its saddle bags were welcomed for trips to the general store for drinks and BBQ supplies, and its engine was the strongest in the group for low-end grunt.

Dustin on the Harley-Davidson Sport Glide.

Comfort from the cushy saddle was betrayed by its cruiser riding position, as were the handling characteristics, which were not helped by the bike’s weight (92 kg heavier than the next heaviest CB1000R). Pushed, it was a dog, but dial back the pace, and it came into its own. As Jeff put it, “when I stopped trying to keep up with you guys, and said I’m just going to cruise along and do what this thing is supposed to do, I was like, okay!”

Mark felt the Sport Glide had the best mirrors and self-cancelling signals of the group, but Dustin questioned the use of chrome around the cockpit, reflecting sunlight glare right into the rider’s eyes. It might be a bit unfair to make comparisons between a bike designed for cruising and the rest meant for more sporty endeavours, but here we are. Blame Mark.

The Honda CB1000R ($14,999) came a close second, at least in my eyes, as the best-looking bike of the group. It was also the most sporty, and most powerful, but neither of these characteristics were easily accessible on these roads. Jeff found the handling a bit twitchy, and Matt found the throttle response a little touchy. Its ride mode was set to “Standard” throughout, dialled down from “Sport” but up from “Rain.”

Mark on the Honda CB1000R.

Elephant Lake Road used to be one of my favourite routes in this area, but the pavement has become very rippled and bumpy since I was last there a decade ago, and the Honda’s taut suspension did not take it well. It was an eye opener, since the CB1000R was fantastic when I reviewed it last year on less bumpy roads. Getting back on the Honda later on, on some smoother routes, had me loving it again, but the kidney pounding on Elephant Lake Road would not soon be forgotten.

The Kawasaki Z900 ($9,899) held a special place in Jeff’s heart because he bought one this month after reviewing the 2017 model, but it won my heart as well. The engine felt torquier in the low- and mid-range than the CB1000R, but still sang high up like any good inline-four. The suspension was on the softer side of the sporty scale, with just the right amount of compliance for the bumpier roads.

Dean on the Kawasaki Z900.

Matt disliked the look of the Kawasaki, proclaiming it the ugliest bike he’s ever encountered, before being informed of Jeff’s recent purchase. Most testers found the engine a bit buzzy (Mark: “It made my nuts go numb”), and the seat was the least comfortable of the bunch. The cramped seat-to-peg distance was noticeable, but tolerable. This was the easiest bike to go fast on in the bumpier sections, while also being the bargain of the bunch.

The Triumph Speed Twin ($13,300) was almost as much of a stump-puller as the Harley, its parallel-twin pumping out a healthy low-end, making downshifting less necessary. The styling was even more retro than the Ducati, with a long, flat seat, fork gaiters, and twin rear shocks. The suspension, like the Kawasaki, was just the right compliance for these roads, and the relatively skinny tires (120 front, 160 rear) acquitted themselves nicely.

Jeff on the Triumph Speed Twin.

Like the Kawi, it was easy to go fast on the Triumph, but the Speed Twin had more low-down grunt and was more comfortable. Against a stopwatch on a closed course, the Z900 would certainly be the quicker bike, but in the real world, the Triumph was just as fast as the Kawasaki.

The popularity of naked bikes has boomed in the past few years, just as the 600cc Supersport class has dwindled, and these five bikes represent a diverse sampling of the naked bike spectrum. From the “sport bike with high bars” CB1000R, to the cruiser Harley, and from the hyper-futuristic styling of the Z900, to the century-old retro aesthetics of the Triumph, there likely won’t be a lot of cross-shopping between these models. That said, the type of riding we encountered in the Haliburton Highlands is what the buyers of any of these motorcycles crave, and each fulfils the need for speed in its own way.

In Haliburton, left to right: Triumph, Ducati, Kawasaki, Honda, Harley-Davidson.

The Triumph won hearts with its healthy grunt, and it is much faster than it looks. For those looking for retro styling with modern performance, this bike should be at the top of the shopping list.

The Ducati had the most style points, and would make a decent city commuter. Some questioned how long the café racer style trend will last, but for now the Scrambler Café Racer looks great and rides well enough.

Mark preferred his Honda the most, and Matt was torn between it and the Ducati as his favourite. For those who like lots of power and ride smooth roads, the CB1000R is just the ticket.

Dustin was most comfortable on the Sport Glide, having logged many kilometres on Harleys, but still liked the Triumph the best. The Sport Glide was just out of its element in this company.

Jeff and I liked the Kawasaki the most for its ease of speed and sporty comfort. Smart lad, that Jeff. The Z900 did not have the most mid-range or high end of the group, but had plenty enough of both, along with a sporty chassis that offers compliance while riding fast in the bumpy stuff. As an all-rounder, the Kawi makes a great case for the best bike to ride the Highlands.

Taking a break, down at the lake.

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