You no longer need a tourer to take you on the trip-of-a-lifetime. Here are three different sides to the long-distance coin
or years, BMW’s R1200RT was the definitive distance weapon. But these days bikes like KTM’s Super Adventure and Yamaha’s Tracer offer a sexier way to go travelling. But which is the ultimate tourer? We took all three bikes on a three-day mission to find out.
Senior Road Tester,
Height 5ft 6in.
Has covered over half-a-million road test miles at MCN
Height 5ft 6in.
Has been professionally testing bikes for over 20 years
Height 5ft 11in.
Long-distance commuter, been riding for four years
Where we went
Leaving the MCN office in Cambridgeshire, we headed north up the A1 to Scotch Corner, stopping at Squires Café in Sherburn for coffee. From Scotch Corner we pushed on up the A66 to the M6 and to Moffat in Scotland. On day two we followed local expert Dave Smith from the www.buccleucharmshotel.com on some of his favourite roads to Jedburgh, then headed south joining the A1 and A19 to Hook in East Yorkshire. Day three was all about challenging and twisty roads in East Yorkshire, calling in at York and Hazlewood Castle.
BMW R1200RT, from £13,350 (LE MODEL £15,540)
MCN’s Best Tourer (open class) for the second year running. Updated for 2014 with new water-cooled cylinders. This is the LE model.
Engine 1170cc boxer twin, liquid-cooled
Power 125bhp @ 7750rpm
Suspension Semi-active telelever. Semi-active rear paralever Sachs shock
Brakes 2 x 320mm with four-piston caliper. 265mm rear disc. ABS
Seat height 805-825mm
Fuel capacity 25 litres
KTM 1290 Super Adventure £15,999
MCN’s Best Adventure bike in 2015 is the most powerful and advanced adventure bike to date.
Engine 1301cc V-twin, liquid-cooled
Power 160bhp @ 8750rpm
Suspension 48mm forks, rear semi-active monoshock
Brakes 2 x 320mm discs with four-piston caliper. 267mm rear disc
Seat height 860-875mm
Fuel capacity 30 litres
Yamaha MT-09 Tracer ABS £8149
MCN’s Best All-rounder in 2015, the triple cylinder Tracer is also the UK’s best-selling bike over 125cc.
Engine 847cc inline triple, liquid-cooled
Power 115bhp @ 10,000rpm
Suspension 41mm forks, rear monoshock
Brakes 2 x 298mm discs with four-piston caliper. 245mm rear disc. Switchable ABS
Seat height 845-860mm
Fuel capacity 18 litres
e’re approaching Scotch Corner on the A1, getting ever closer to Scotland, where fun roads and fine hospitality await us. Yamaha’s Tracer has clocked up 160 miles and despite having the smallest fuel tank, only 18 litres, the reserve light still hasn’t come on. Cruising at 85mph the inline triple is revving at 5500rpm, which is only 1000rpm higher than the larger bikes on test. There’s a slight buzz from below but nothing intrusive. The seat is comfortable, the screen, on its highest setting, is doing enough to keep the November chill away from my body – and if I turn up the already toasty heated grips (an optional extra that costs £145) I’ll give my palms third-degree burns.
Meanwhile, I’m being fed all the data I’ll ever need for touring by a menu of info activated from the toggle on my left thumb. I’ve even managed to strap some basic soft luggage to the back. The suspension, which has been recalibrated by MCT (this is Senior Reporter Andy Downes’ long-term test bike) causes the odd jolt when we hit a big pothole, but otherwise I have nothing to complain about.
When the fuel light flashes on at 173 miles, we pull into the nearest services. As I roll onto the forecourt behind the big RT and Super Adventure I find myself asking why anyone with an eye for big miles and keen sense of value would possibly want anything more than a Tracer.
After a mandatory Costa coffee we start the second leg of our journey and it’s my turn to try the big BMW R1200RT, the old-school galleon in our flotilla. Straight away, I’m relieved not to have to perform a pirouette to get my leg over strapped-on luggage, as all the BMW’s cargo is stashed dry and safe inside the standard panniers. I turn the ignition key and the screen automatically rises to its saved position as Radio 2 blasts from the twin speakers – music on a big tourer is a must. With the integrated satnav operated by the navigation wheel on the left bar I’ve full access to even more information than on the Tracer, including tyre pressures, air temperature, even altitude.
Even before I’ve flicked up the sidestand and started the boxer motor, the BMW is winning me over. We have a solid afternoon of motorway miles ahead so I opt for ‘comfort’ mode on the ESA semi-active suspension, leave the traction control and ABS switched on, and opt for the standard engine setting. It’s easy to see where those extra bucks go.
On the move the Beemer is smoother than Duncan Goodhew’s head. With the screen fully raised you can ride visor-up, which means you only need three-quarter volume to hear that radio clearly. Even in a full-face Arai, with ear plugs and the visor tightly shut, the stereo is clearly audible up to 90mph, depending on the weather and wind. To kill the monotony of the A1 and M6, I also have an array of gizmos and toys at my fingertips. I can play my iPod, check the distance to my destination, even check the satnav for castles – I love a good castle, me – as well as other points of local interest if I fancy deviating from the main roads. I have heated grips, a heated seat and cruise control – all I have to do is steer and count down the 220 miles or so available from the 25-litre tank.
It’s very seductive travelling RT-style. And while you can’t help be impressed by the Tracer’s willingness to please, the BMW’s not so much on another level as on the top shelf and all but out of reach – fine dining compared to the Yamaha’s ham, egg and chips.
As darkness descends somewhere up the endless M6, the rain starts to fall turning the already flooded M6 into a river. With the temperature plummeting it’s my turn to try the KTM Super Adventure and, to be honest, I don’t fancy it one bit. I like it here on the Beemer, thanks.
Comparing the KTM to the BMW is like trying to explain the difference between an elephant and giraffe to my two-year-old son. Despite their obvious and enormous distinctions, in many ways they are quite similar. Both bikes have semi-active suspension and different rider modes, and you can electronically pre-set the preload on both, selecting rider with pillion, rider with luggage, or both, all done with the touch of a button. The BMW, however, looks after you just that little bit better, especially in the cockpit. I find it easier and more intuitive to use the RT’s navigational wheel than the single screen of the KTM. The RT has an electronically adjustable screen you can tune to conditions while the KTM, like the Tracer, only has a manually adjustable screen.
The KTM has heated grips and seat (including the pillion’s) as standard, along with cruise control plus the latest Bosch cornering ABS. Switch into rain mode to soften the V-twin’s immense power, choose the softest suspension settings via one button and, combining with the cornering ABS, you have one of the safest bikes to ride in the wet, exactly what I needed negotiating the flooded roads on the approach to Moffat. The Super Adventure’s LED cornering lights aren’t just a gimmick, either. Activated only at night and illuminated via the lean angle sensor, they seek out your corner apex and really work.
On the final approach to Moffat the weather makes another turn for the worse. With deep water running across the road I’m now extremely happy to be on the tall KTM, supported and comforted by powerful headlights and effective rider aids, especially the traction control and rider modes because, boy, does the KTM have some power.
Day two starts on stunning Scottish roads with virtually no traffic, and nobody is going to take the KTM from me. The LC8 1301cc V-twin has 160bhp and 103ftlb of arm-ripping torque. And while the other two bikes pack a decent punch they are like Barry McGuigan to the KTM’s Mike Tyson.
The Super Adventure needs all the rider aids at its disposal to keep its wheels inline. The traction control in sports mode allows small slides but is linked to a lean angle sensor that prevents the rear wheel from slipping if you’re carrying any lean angle, and I’d advise anyone not to turn off the traction control in the wet because the rear Avon Trailrider simply can’t cope with the power and torque – there’s 80ftlb at just 2500rpm.
The Super Adventure’s cornering ABS is the perfect tool for attacking small unclassified roads that are hard to read. It also has semi-active suspension that does its best to keep the bike level on its long-travel stilts when you’re pushing on. Obviously, a bike designed to cross continents is no sportsbike and the Tracer could show it a clean pair of heels on the right road. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s dull or doesn’t handle.
As the pace picks up you have to trust the BMW because its unconventional front Telelever suspension lacks the natural feel of telescopic forks. You soon learn to read it, though, and in the wet it’s especially impressive, handling far better than a bike of this size should. BMW claim 125bhp for the RT, which feels like plenty, and there’s a lovely bark to it, too. There’s even an up and down quickshifter with auto blipper. I thought the BMW would be a totally outclassed, wallowing hippo on Scottish B-roads and out-gunned on fast A-roads, with overtakes requiring careful planning. But I was wrong. The BMW copes with all roads superbly; big miles are only a part of what it’s about.
If you rode the Yamaha in isolation on the fantastic roads around Moffat you’d find it hard to fault. The rider aids are excellent and the handling is a lovely blend of sportiness and comfort, even more so with the modifications on our test bike. The only problem with the Yamaha is its relatively basic suspension. The BMW and KTM’s ride can be tuned as you travel from bumpy track to glass-smooth sweepers, their semi-active suspension always working to keep everything composed and comfortable. Yamaha’s conventional suspension is good for 80% of the time, but it can’t be adjusted on the move. It’s the same story for the motor, which has more than enough power for most of the time, but is way down on peak output compared to the KTM and can’t match the bottom-end friendliness of the BMW.
Day three of our adventure sees another couple of hundred miles disappear beneath our wheels, so we head to the pub to discuss the finer details. There’s no getting away from the fact that the BMW and KTM are both big bikes. Both Bruce and I had problems; at 5ft 6in we had to carefully plan where to park and the smallest camber in the road would get us worried and our legs shaking. Once on the move both the BMW and KTM carry their weight surprisingly well, the BMW has lovely balance at low speeds, but getting an RT off its sidestand with a full tank of fuel and packed-out panniers is a struggle. The BMW is the only bike with shaft drive, a boon on any long trip, while the KTM looks great and has some mild off-road capabilities.
But we can’t ignore the issue of price. In their as-tested specifications the KTM and BMW are nearly twice the price of the Tracer, and the money you save could help take you on the touring adventure of a lifetime.
‘Big value Tracer does it all’
There’s no question, if you want to cover serious miles in comfort, two-up or on your own, the RT is near perfect. If money is no object, this is the one. You could travel the world on the KTM, once it was fitted with a gel seat, and have fun at the same time – but it doesn’t have the high-end quality feel of the RT. But if I only did one big trip a year, popping into Europe and back, the Yamaha would get my cash. The trick is to avoid riding the other two.
Words: Adam Child Photos: James Archibald/Gareth Harford