Sports-tourers; they're the "bike-of-choice" for many old blokes - in fact for many riders from all categories, not just the grey-haired brigade! And for good reason; because they're comfortable to ride(an important consideration for us old blokes!) and they're pretty good at everything you want them to do - from trips to the shops, to lazy afternoon rides, to quick blasts along your favourite twisty-section, to long-distance touring. They do it all, and they do it well - or at least they should do!
A little while ago I embarked on a mission - to test-ride all my favourite sports-tourers. There were a couple of reasons for doing this. For one thing, it would be an interesting thing to do! But, more importantly, it would allow me to choose what bike I would buy when I had the money to do so. I had certain "favourites" - really just bikes I'd admired - but I hadn't ridden any. Getting a good test-ride on the Suzuki Bandit was what started it all in motion. I was impressed with that, and wondered then how the other bikes I liked would compare to it. So I decided to ride them and find out! That would allow me to decide what my choice would be. But at the same time, it would also be a good thing for the web-site; something that I'm sure a lot of people would relate to, and perhaps find helpful. So, having done that, I suppose some sort of comparative summary is in order.
Now, I should point out that the bikes I tested comprise a very short and very subjective list; based on personal preference, and on what I was able to get a test-ride on. Another factor was affordability; anything over $20,000 would certainly be too expensive for me, and I'd reckon for some of you too.
Firstly though, if you haven't already done so, let me suggest you read the individual tests on each, then read the summary below. Just click on the name to go to the test of that bike.
Because this was such a short and subjective list, I thought I should add some brief comments about some of the other bikes available in this category. I've listed these on a separate page, so click hereto go to that.
How Do They Compare?
Okay, I'll approach this from looking at each of the bikes individually and making a few comments on how I reckon it compares to the others. Then I'll try to pick the one that would be my choice at the end.
I must stress again that these comments are all based on my impressions, rather than some quantifiable way of objectively judging each one. Comparing the bikes was also made more difficult because a certain amount of time elapsed between riding some of the bikes. (The first one, the Suzuki, and the last one, the Triumph, were separated by a few months). Adding to the confusion was that most were ridden over different test-routes. Anyway, based on all that, here is how I reckon they compare.
As I mentioned in the article on Power, good mid-size bikes can make a lot of sense. They're cheaper to buy and maintain, and they're often more practical. They have all the power you need, (maybe not as much as you want, but as much as you need!), and are capable of cruising up to and beyond any speed-limit. As it is, the FZ6S is all of those things; plus it looks good, it's comfortable, it handles well, and it's more pleasant and easier to ride in the city and suburbs than most if not all of the others. If most of my riding was around the suburbs, with the occasional short trip, then I would much rather be on this than, for example, the Ducati! And maybe that's why the dealers suggested it. (Although the real reason probably has more to do with the fact that Yamaha don't really have an equivalent to the VFR or the ST3 etc!). But as an open-road sports-tourer, of course it really doesn't cut it in this company.
It's interesting to look at the value-for-money aspect. When you consider that at $11,699 it's just $300 less than the Suzuki Bandit it's value-for-money aspect looks pretty poor. But then at the other end of the scale, it's almost $7,000 cheaper than the Ducati! They're very different bikes, but very different prices too! But of course the person who wants an ST3, or even the Bandit, isn't going to buy the FZ anyway, so it's a kind of moot point!
The Yamaha FZ6S shouldn't really be in this comparison, as it's obviously in a different category to the others. The only reason it is included is that it was suggested by two dealers while I was discussing the other bikes I was interested in. So I gave it a run and included it here. I have to say though, that with a bit more power and higher gearing (which Yamaha could easily give it), it could be a very good mid-size alternative to these larger sports-tourers.
It feels a lot quicker than it's stated 63kw would suggest. (The 88Nm of torque - more than the Honda, but not as much as the Ducati or Triumph - is probably what does the job here).
Handling is pretty good too, although more in a "touring" sense than a "sports" sense. It's a bit slow on turn-in, but holds it's line well and is very stable. I reckon the ride isn't as good as it could be either; although that criticism applies mainly to patchy bitumen, it handles larger bumps quite well.
It does a good job as a tourer, provided you like the up-right riding position. For me, the up-right riding position was something I didn't like.
I reckon this would be a great bike for someone coming from a cruiser and wanting to get on a sports-tourer. It has the cruiser characteristics of up-right riding position and laid-back, easy-going nature; but has better performance, ride and handling, than most cruisers. At $12,999 it's good value too.
While we're in the same shop, the YamahaTDM900 is also very different to the others in this group. It's not quite in a different category, although many people might see it that way. It's still intended as a sports-tourer, but with the emphasis more on the "tourer" than the "sports". It's easy to ride, comfortable, and has a very relaxed, easy-going nature. It's got a great engine that's smooth and flexible, yet still capable of a good turn of go when called upon.
Okay, that's a brief summary of the bikes. Which one you, or I, would choose will depend on personal preference, and also on how important the various roles are. For example if touring is what you're most interested in, then you'll be looking at which ones are best at that. If blasting along a winding road is where it's at for you, then you'll be looking for performance and handling. Now, at this point perhaps I should qualify my definition of "sports-tourer". I'm assuming that, when choosing this type of bike, it is the only bike owned. That would certainly be my situation; I couldn't afford, or justify, owning different bikes for different purposes. That means that, as I mentioned above, the "sports-tourer" by this definition has to also be an "all-rounder".
This page is titled "My Choice", so that's what I'll give you - the one I reckon is best; the one I would buy if I was laying down my cold hard cash. It's not a totally objective appraisal, but hopefully it's one that you can relate to. Probably the best way to do this is by a process of elimination - crossing-off those I wouldn't buy and seeing what's left. So here we go!
It probably won't surprise you to find that the Yamaha FZ6S is the first one off the list. Well, as I said above, it's in a different category to all the others. It's a good little bike, but anyone trying to decide between the other bikes here wouldn't be buying the little Fazer.
Sadly, (because I like Yamahas), the Yamaha TDM900 is next off the list. Now, let me firstly repeat something I said above. If you like an upright riding-position, and that laid-back, easy-going nature, you'd probably love the TDM! So, as I also said above, the choice is partly down to personal preference. For me though, I'd prefer the more "standard-type" sports-tourer. Although in it's own way, I still like it.
The next one off the list for me is the Ducati ST3. Now, I'm sure a lot of people will be horrified to find that I've ranked things like the Suzuki Bandit above the Ducati! And I probably would have been too, until I rode them. Before riding these bikes I thought my ideal sports-tourer would be a choice between the Ducati ST3 and the Triumph Sprint. But, having ridden them, the Duke comes in at 4th place on my list! The problem for me has to do with the "all-rounder" aspect I mentioned above. If the bike was to be used only for high-speed touring (going from point to far-away-point in a sporty manner), then the ST3 would be a worthy contender for top honours! But when you throw in use like going to the corner shop, threading through traffic, tootling along narrow back-roads, and so on, that's when the ST3 falls off the short-list. As I said in the summary on it, above 100kph it's brilliant! Below that I found it quite unpleasant; which means that, for me, it would be unpleasant a lot of the time! It costs more than all the others too; and then there's the cost-of-ownership (servicing etc) which would also be higher. Sorry, I know it's a Ducati, but .....!
The technologically out-dated Suzuki Bandit ranking higher on my list than the Ducati; what am I thinking? Well, I just explained my reason for this. But to give you an example, a couple of my favourite rides involve narrow winding mountain roads where I'm traveling at speeds around 60kph - 90kph; maybe touch 100kph in a couple of places. On these sections, riding the way I ride, I'm sure I would be hating the Ducati; and loving the Bandit (and the other two still to come)! The thing with the Bandit is that it's so easy to ride, and does everything well! At no time was it unpleasant to ride. (I did mention in my test that the ride was just a little firmer than I would have preferred, but it wasn't unpleasant). And because of that I could happily live with the Suzuki! A faster and harder rider might laugh at this ranking, but for me, I'd be happier owning the Bandit than I would be the ST3. And it's almost $7,000 cheaper! With a mechanically-up-dated model on the way I suppose you'd expect some good deals, but without haggling I was offered the Bandit on-road for $12,000. That means I'd be paying around half as much again for either of the remaining bikes! And that would be very hard to justify, because as I said above, I could very happily live with the Suzuki! But I've crossed it off at this point because the remaining two are, undeniably, better bikes. They're both better in areas like ride and comfort; and as one salesmen said, "If you're going to buy a bike with a 2007 plate, then it should have 2007 technology". And that's true - provided the technology works for you and not against you! And with the bikes still to come, their more advanced technology does work for the better of the motorcycle; they are better bikes.
As a sports-tourer, the Honda VFR800 has it all. It looks good (arguably the best of the lot!), it goes great, it handles great, it's comfortable, and it rides very well. It's a great bike to tour on, but it's equally good when blasting along a twisty road. But, (and that's the problem, there is a "but"!) it's getting a bit expensive (only the Ducati costs more). It's $1,500 more than the Triumph (and you don't get panniers), and over $6,000 more than the Suzuki. And (the next "but") it's not as pleasant, and not as forgiving, around town and at slow speed as either of those, or both the Yamahas. Okay, you'd get used to it, but the fact remains that it isn't as relaxing over-all as those. And I like a bike to be relaxing. Sure, I enjoy blasting along a twisty road and being totally involved with the ride; but I also enjoy just tootling along and having the bike easy to ride, pulling away easily from low revs etc. If I'm in a relaxing, laid-back mood, I want the bike to be relaxing too! And with the Honda you feel you'd have to be on-your-game all the time. The slight jerkiness at low speed, the precision it demands with the throttle; there are times when that would get a bit annoying because it isn't easy and relaxing.
AND THE WINNER IS .......
Okay, the winner is ....(cue drum-roll!).... Well, yes, I've eliminated all the others, so there's only one left - the Triumph Sprint ST.
Now, I must confess that the Triumph Sprint ST has been a bike I’ve admired for quite a few years; although until I began this comparison I’d never ridden one. I’d sat on them in the showroom and found them comfortable; and I'd ridden the Triumph Tiger, which uses the same engine and gearbox, and was very impressed. So I liked the Sprint already. In fact, before riding any of these bikes I would have expected my top-choice to be a toss-up between the Ducati ST3 and the Triumph. I should also mention that, although I’ve never owned a Triumph bike, I have owned a Triumph car (and originally they were the same company!) for over 30 years; so there is a certain liking for the brand there I suppose. Although with bikes, I’ve owned far more Yamahas than any other brand, and so have a certain affinity with that brand of bike. But the two Yamahas were the first ones to be eliminated! So my final choice was not based on any pre-conceived favourite or brand-loyalty.
The Triumph wins my choice of sports-tourer because it's such a great package, and does everything so well! For example, it' a joy to relax and cruise on; and the great ergonomics, effective fairing, and panniers, make it a very good touring bike. But it's equally good when blasting along and carving up corners. The powerful engine gives it great performance; but it's also torquey, smooth and flexible at low revs. It's secure and stable at high-speed, but it's also very pleasant and easy to ride at low speed and through the town. The fact that it impressed so much on a test route that gave it less opportunity to really shine than any of the other bikes shows just how good a bike it really is! And to top it all off, it's great value for money!
Mind you, it is a tight decision at the top! And as I said above, to a fair extent, it does come down to a matter of personal preference. So if anyone wants to put the Honda ahead of the Triumph, I have no problem with that; it's still a great bike. Likewise the Suzuki, and even the Ducati and Yamaha TDM; they all have their attractions that will make them appeal to certain people. (And hopefully what I've written might help people with that personal choice). But, while it might be a tight choice in objective terms, for me it's a definite decision; I'd take the Triumph!
It's significant too, that this bike was the only one that I came back from testing thinking, "I really want one!" Yes, I liked the Honda, and I could happily own the Suzuki, but the Triumph was the only one that, after riding it, I really, reallywanted!
And it's not just The Old Bloke who reckons this is a good thing! Chris Pickett from Cycle Torque summed it up by saying, “If you are looking for a bike capable of handling the cut-and-thrust of every day life, do the big tour with ease, plus handle a dog fight, the (Sprint) will do sterling service!” And Two Wheels magazine described it as "One of the best sports touring compromises available - fast with great handling, comfortable with excellent ergonomics". And these comments sum up very well why I have it at the top of my list!
So, did I buy one? Well, at the time of writing (early 2007), sadly, no. It was never going to be an immediate purchase anyway, but something I would do when I could. And I have to say that the "when I could" is looking a little further off than I would have liked. But when I do have the money .... well at least I know what I want!
The others all qualify as genuine sports-tourers, and do a good job at both roles. Of these, the Suzuki Bandit (along with the Triumph) is probably the most user-friendly. It uses very out-dated technology in terms of it's engine and gearbox (it's the only one of the whole group with carbies rather than fuel-injection, and the only one with a 5-speed gearbox), but perhaps because of that, it's also one of the easiest to ride. It might not be brilliant at any one particular thing, but it's impressively good at everything!
For example, to me anyway, it was great on the open-road, but equally good around town. (Only the FZ6 would be easier around town). Unlike some of the others, it wasn't jerky at low speed, I didn't stall it, it didn't lock a back wheel on a sloppy down-change etc. It handles better than the TDM, better than the Ducati at low speed, just as well as the FZ6S, and not far behind the others at open-road speeds. It goes better than the FZ6 and the TDM, and just as well (maybe even better, from the way I recall it) as the Ducati and the Honda. Get the picture? And at just $11,990 it is also, without doubt, the best value-for-money! I could very happily own this bike!
All of these bikes look good I reckon(TDM excepted!), and so the Bandit holds up well in this department too. My only comment here would be that the fairing seems to be positioned well forward, so that from the side you can see a lot of the forks etc. That looks a little strange. I like the colour too; I reckon it looks much better than the previous model's black. (By the way, the colour of the one due later in the year - see next paragraph - will change; to a darker colour which, to me, doesn't look as good as the red of this one).
There's an up-date to the engine and gearbox due around the middle of the year, and it will be interesting to see what difference that makes to the price, as well as to the way the bike is to ride. But even as it is, it's a very good bike at a very good price!
Next up the price scale is the Triumph Sprint ST. And that immediately makes it excellent value for money! At $15,990, which now includes panniers as standard, it's a great buy; and I reckon second only to the Bandit in the value-for-your-dollar stakes. In fact, considering the differences in the technology of the two bikes, plus the extra features, you could argue that the $4,000 extra it costs over the price of the Bandit is well worth spending.
As a sports-touring package the Triumph is brilliant! A sports-tourer, especially if it’s the only bike you own, has to be a real “jack-of-all-trades”; and this is just what Triumph have achieved with the Sprint ST. The engine is a real gem; endowing it with great power and performance and yet being remarkably flexible, almost docile, around town. The suspension endows it with great handling and holds it secure and stable on the road, yet also delivers a surprisingly compliant and comfortable ride. It's a very smooth bike.
Like the Suzuki, it's exceptionally easy to ride; whether around town at low speed, or out on the highway. Even taking it up the steep, narrow, winding mountain road that I described in the test (which was little more than a bitumened goat-track!) failed to upset it; the bike remaining perfectly secure, easy and stable. At high speed, even on an unevenly-surfaced road, it was still stable, secure and easy.
A feeling that it seemed to understeer just slightly on turn-in, and front brakes that seemed to lack a little in initial bite, were the only things I found to criticise in the test. Neither of these were a problem, just something that I noticed slightly. Otherwise the bike was great!
In cruising or touring mode it is beautifully relaxed and enjoyable. As I said in the test, it's the sort of bike you feel like pointing at the horizon and just keeping on going! So, as I said above, a brilliant sports-touring package!
The Honda VFR800, at $17,490, is towards the top end of the price-scale here, but it was very impressive! At town speeds the engine and gearbox were perhaps less forgiving than the others (which is just a matter of getting to know it), but clear the traffic and it's great!
Handling is excellent; precise and accurate and also very stable. As I said in the test, it quickly inspires confidence. But it still manages a comfortable ride. On the handling / ride score I reckon Honda have got this just about spot-on!
And on the subject of comfort, the seat is about equal-best with the Ducati and Triumph (there's not much to choose between them I reckon).
The bike also looks good. As I said in my comments above on the Bandit, all these bikes look pretty good to me, but I reckon the Honda just about pips-them-at-the-post in the looks department. It's a bit more "sporty" looking, and just seems a more appealing package to look at. As I said in my test, even my wife commented that it was "a pretty bike" when she saw my photo of it.
I was also very impressed with the performance. To me, it felt like it had even more than it's 80kw. In the world of sports-touring, (particularly at this engine-size), this is a quick bike!
So, it's good fun on a straight road, it's good fun on a twisty road, and it's also enjoyable on the expressways. The riding-position does tend more towards the "sports" side, but the optional handlebar-riser would help swing it back the other way a little. As I said at the end of my test, "if this isn’t the ideal sports-tourer, then it would be very, very close!"
The Ducati ST3 is brilliant on the open-road! At speeds up to about 100kph it's not the most pleasant bike to be on, (in fact I found it quite unpleasant!), but once you get it to that speed and beyond it really comes alive and is totally in it's element. The faster you go, the better it feels! (I suppose that's typical Italian!). And to make this speed safer, it also has brilliant brakes! Best brakes of all of them!
It's also the best sounding of the bikes. (Don't all Ducatis sound great?).
Handling is great at high speed - smooth, accurate and stable. But at lower speeds I didn't like it - because of the excessively heavy steering and feel of the front-end.
The seat is very comfortable; as I said above, it's about equal-best with the Honda and the Triumph here. The ride is good too, although again, more so at higher speeds; at low speed I found it a bit jiggly.
Performance is good too, of course. It has slightly less power than the Honda, but more torque. And it's a big torquey performance that you get. Twist the throttle and it surges forward; maybe not quite the "scalded-cat" (as I described it) of the Honda, the Triumph, or even the smooth urgent rush of the Suzuki. But it's still very quick!
It's a great sports-tourer for the faster rider. (The standard panniers enhance the touring capabilities too). For me though, because I do spend a lot of time at slower speeds, I didn't find it as appealing, over-all, as I'd expected.
At $18,495 it's the most expensive of the bikes I looked at. And I have to say that there's always a bit of a question-mark over reliability and especially service-costs, particularly compared to the Japanese, but also to the Triumph. Ducati have done a lot in recent times to reduce their service-costs, but it's still going to cost you more to buy and more to maintain than it does for the Japanese bikes, or the Triumph.
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