Once the mainstay of manufacturers’ ranges, sports-tourers have gradually slid from our affections – can BMW’s RS reignite the spark?
f you define biking as the joy of speed and corners versus the ceaseless battle with comfort and the elements, then you’re a natural fit for a sports-tourer. And you’re not alone. Over the past two or three decades, most riders have fallen into this camp at some point. It’s just what they’ve done about it that’s changed.
The idea is simple enough: a bike that can whisk you from your home to Calais then down for a thrash across the Alps, and back again in comfort.
But sporty performance requires stiff suspension, fast turning and light weight. Comfort implies the exact opposite. Balancing the two to make a sexy and versatile motorcycle has been a major preoccupation for the world’s top bike factories for 30 years. Their efforts peaked in the 1990s, then tailed off as riders extracted the same fun and functionality out of the new breed of adventure bikes.
That’s why BMW’s new-for-2015 R1200RS is so interesting. It uses advanced electronics (rather than soft springs and sheer mass) to take the strain off the rider; its flat-twin engine is far from lithe, but ride-by-wire lets it purr like a kitten or crackle like a motocrosser at the whim of the rider’s wrist. BMW’s electronic suspension is also so advanced that it regards every bump of your journey as a special case – while you don’t even feel them.
At the other end of the spectrum is the long-term class standard, the Sprint GT. Hugely praised when launched in 2005, the ST got a modest update in 2010 to become the GT, and now – in SE trim – comes with a huge three-piece hard luggage system. But it’s still an old-school motorcycle with its feet firmly planted in the pre-electronic era.
Forcing them to share the tarmac poses two questions: can the Triumph’s matronly charms stand up to the BMW’s tech assault, and can the experience tempt us back from adventure bikes?
While we may not have hopped the Channel and blasted down to the Alps, our 750-mile round trip from MCN HQ in Peterborough to Wales’ wild Pembrokeshire coast gave us ample opportunity to see if these fast tourers live up to their brief. From a sodden M4 to fast undulating A-roads, nadgery single-track coastal roads and a frustrating dose of town and traffic riding, our test had it all.
The Triumph is a ten year-old base design and to say that it’s showing its age would be an understatement – it’s a rolling illustration of just how far bikes have moved on over the past decade. But to be fair to the Triumphosaurus, it’s not billed as the latest and greatest in class, and it’s good enough to still boast a loyal global fanbase.
The sheer physical size of the Sprint GT can’t be ignored, and it’s compounded by the addition of fat factory panniers and gigantic topbox that now come as standard fit on the SE. Combine its girth with its length, and it appears far more touring than sports.
The ergonomics when sat on the bike are another clear indication of how things have progressed. The distance between footrest and seat is a massive three inches shorter than the BMW, meaning your knees are well bent; it feels odd to be cramped on such a big bike. Add this to the fact that it’s a real stretch to the bars and you find yourself arching your back as you reach forward, also putting noticeable weight on your wrists. It’s not the ergonomic package you’d expect from a bike designed to chew big miles. The clutch would give a weightlifter arm pump, too.
There are no rider modes, power settings or traction control, in complete contrast to the electronics-laden BMW – tested here in Sport SE trim. But the truth is that the Triumph doesn’t need them because the engine is so sweet, controllable and predictable. Okay, it’s not the most engaging engine in production but it rewards clean input with solid output. It revs slowly compared to Triumph’s latest motors, but fuels well throughout the rev range and the throttle connection is good. It picks up speed quickly enough on its old-school analogue speedo, yet there is no real urgency, irrespective of where you are in the rev range. It’s also very highly geared, which the motor handles with ease and gives the huge benefit of making motorway work calm and sedate.
From the rider’s seat the Sprint feels long and flat, with narrow bars tucking neatly behind the well-built fairing. But that narrowness robs you of leverage to get the big Triumph to turn. Pulling away and at slow speeds, especially with the luggage in place, it feels ponderous and oddly unstable. As soon as you go beyond walking pace this improves, but it still seems to do everything on its terms. Yes, it will hold a line, but you have to be exceptionally smooth with your inputs; you can’t hustle it in any way and even without full luggage and a pillion it feels like it’s sitting down at the back, robbing you of any connection to the front wheel. Removing the luggage makes a marked improvement to low-speed stability and cornering (panniers weigh 5.5kg each side, the topbox is 9.5kg), but the overwhelming feeling of needing more weight over the front wheel persists.
While the Sprint harks from a different era, there are many redeeming features. The engine may not be ultra exciting, but it delivers a sweet combination of speed, refinement and long-leggedness. Build quality is also good and the design pleasingly clean and uncluttered. The luggage design has also been well thought-out: the topbox features a 12v power socket, while the pannier system hangs rather than clasps, using a suspension system to allow controlled movement.
If the Triumph represents the past, BMW’s R1200RS is the perfect embodiment of the here and now. The water-cooled generation of BMW’s 90-year-refined boxer-twin is a great engine, but it is also flawed – only able to excel thanks to the glut of electronics that influence every part of the bike.
Putting the engine to one side for a moment, the RS is at the cutting edge of motorcycle design, bringing features and technology to the masses that have previously been the reserve of superbike exotica. It’s fully-loaded in every area, from traction control, to rider modes, anti-wheelie, quickshifter, auto-blipper for downshifts and electronic suspension that constantly reads the road conditions and rider inputs. Purists and Sprint ST owners may think these unnecessary gimmicks, but in reality the systems work with staggering efficiency, making the RS a great place to be.
BMW have a habit of getting the ergonomics of their bikes right – their flagship GS remains a big mile benchmark for anything outside the pure touring category, and the RS achieves a similar trick. There’s plenty of legroom, which gives your knees an easy time, and you’re much more upright than on the Triumph. It still has the taste of a sportsbike though with the rider’s bodyweight always canted toward the front wheel. It’s more comfortable on the upper body, but numb bum sets in quicker on the BM than it does on the plush-seated Triumph.
In terms of dash layout, switchgear and gadgets the BMW is in a class of one. The large electronic dash runs alongside an old school analogue speedo, which is practically obsolete given that you can display your speed digitally if you want. From the comfortable riding position you can adjust everything through an intuitive menu system. It’s a world away from the Triumph.
Helped by the neutral riding position, the RS is extremely well balanced at slow speed. Its low centre of gravity – thanks to its huge and heavy cylinder heads sticking out the sides – is a big help. While the architecture of the motor itself is technically flawed due to it’s shape, mass and ability to rev, it still delivers the goods, in part thanks to its sublime fuelling. Twisting the throttle gives instant results and the way the power is generated gives excellent mechanical grip and the confidence to ride hard.
The fuelling is near-perfect both on and off the throttle, allowing for swift progress. You don’t gain by hitting the redline either, it’s far happier short-shifting with its swell of torque. The power character and engagement are taken to another level by the supple chassis and oh-so-clever suspension and rider aids. When pushing on, on bumpy undulating roads you really get to understand just how much the RS is looking after you. Roads that once stifled your progress with rough surfaces are ironed flat.
This has the benefit of making any ride more relaxing regardless of whether it’s a slow-speed cruise with pillion, the daily commute, or a cross-country thrash. Riding the BMW is a de-stressing experience, high praise indeed for a bike that could run with a litre sportsbike on unfamiliar or twisty B-roads.
Time tells the winner
There is only one winner here. The Triumph is a solid machine, but is comprehensively outgunned by the thoroughly modern BMW. The RS does everything better and delivers the excitement and fun that motorcycling should embody. But the BMW loses in the affordability stakes: at £11,065 for the base model, and £12,915 for the SE variant we tested (not including satnav) it costs dramatically more than the £9149 Triumph – which benefits from full luggage, too.
We also wanted to ascertain the health of the class as a whole, and I’m struggling to see how a sports-tourer can hold its own against the latest generation of adventure bikes such as the road-focused Ducati Multistrada or BMW’s own S1000XR. They are more comfortable, just as well equipped, and carry more luggage. Moreover, the latest adventure-sports bikes handle just as well, if not better. Style aside, it’s hard to think of a reason to choose one of these over one of those.
Words: Michael Guy and Rupert Paul Photos: Mykel Nicolaou