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MCN Bike of the Year Awards 2018

Published: 21 October 2018

As you’ve no doubt noticed, MCN has undergone a bit of a transformation this year, well, ok... a huge overhaul. It’s now packed with more juicy stories, riding and maintenance tips, sports coverage, destinations and everything in between.

New bike reviews have never been more considered, with launch reports drilling down even deeper into what makes the latest and greatest tick. But the biggest change is the way we review new metal when it arrives here on our shores; with every new model ridden around our MCN250 route.

Taking a whole day to loop from Oundle to Northampton, past Silverstone, up the M40 and past Stratford, Cirencester, Bicester, Milton Keynes, Bedford and back again (and another day to photograph the whole thing), our route is as challenging as they come.

It gets us deliberately caught in rush-hour traffic one minute, dribbling through chocolate box villages the next, trudging along motorways and dual carriageways and blasting over some of the UK’s most breath-taking biking roads.

Riding on British tarmac is a world away from the rarefied conditions of a foreign, sun-kissed launch. So, if you want to know how far you’ll get on a tank, how easy it is to read the latest TFT clocks, or how fiddly switchgear is wearing winter gloves, the MCN250 has all the answers.

It’ll also reveal what your new bike will be like cruising on the M40, firing up the Pyrenees-aping Fish Hill, or tackling the bumpy, TT-like roads of the Cotswolds.

It’s also sprung its fair share of surprises: Gold Wings aren’t as comfy as you’d imagine, the electronically-suspended Kawasaki ZX-10R SE is far better on the road than the track and the evergreen Kawasaki Z1000SX is still one of the best all-rounders.

Of course, you can’t test everything on the road, so we’ll still head to the track, or off-road to see how sportsbikes react when you poke them and how much of a handful big adventure bikes are when you get their wheels muddy.

2018 has been another bountiful year for new machines, so the best- of-the-best on the following pages are very special indeed. So without any further ado, let’s kick things off with our Bike of the Year.

Bike of the year – Ducati Panigale V4 S

Ducati Panigale V4 S

No superbike comes with such speed, power and technology, mixed with style, beauty and surprising civility. It might be out of reach for most of us, but Ducati have to be applauded for creating such a monster.

A whole day on board can be painful: the mirrors are terrible, the seat will roast your undercarriage and it can be a handful on track. But all is forgiven when feel the face- melting thrust of its MotoGP derived V4 and marvel at the momentum you can carry into corners. There are much cheaper superbikes out there, but none are quite as special.

One of the highlights of the MCN250 is being able to describe the one moment where the bikes we’re testing really shine. Riding such a diverse route there’s always a place where a machine will rock, whether it’s a sportsbike along the B660, a tourer up the M40 or a retro bumbling through the chocolate box villages of the Cotswolds.

But for our Bike of the Year every second is golden. Supple electronic Öhlins suspension lets it glide effortlessly over just about any kind of road surface and the V4 motor has so much grunt you could almost do the whole of the 250 in sixth gear. It’s savagely quick on track and packed with so many clever electronics it makes the mind boggle.

Best of all the V4 S makes you feel special and it’s so unutterably gorgeous it’s hard to take your eyes off it. The Ducati Panigale V4 S is everything an exotic superbike should be and so much more.

Best innovation of the year – Yamaha Niken

Yamaha Niken

In a motorcycle world that values evolution over revolution, seismic changes in design are few and far between. Look back at the last 30 years and even the things that we think are impressive at the time are actually just engineering piffle.

But Yamaha’s Niken takes the concept of a motorcycle and reinvents it, adding a third wheel for more stability and grip in an attempt to make the fear of losing the front a thing of the past.

Yamaha’s quest to improve the motorcycle’s fundamental problem of falling over while going around corners started over a decade ago when they unveiled their first leaning four-wheeler and in 2014 first saw a practical application with the three-wheeled Tricity 125.

But a proper three-wheeled leaning motorcycle, on paper at least, moves the game on. There is 80% more front contact patch (not 100% as a 15in front wheel has a smaller contact than a 17in item) and while this doesn’t equate to 80% more grip, the fact that the front of the bike is supported over a much wider platform gives a sense of security that can make the meek feel magnificent.

The parallelogram system that defines the Niken is a triumph of trigonometry. The four front forks are mounted on a pair of pivoting beams and allow up to 50 degrees of lean (the bike runs out of ground clearance at 45 degrees). And Yamaha have done their sums right; there is no bump steer, no tramlining and a stability that astounds.

Of course, there are downsides; the rear isn’t anywhere near as composed as the front and there is no getting away from the fact that the Niken is heavy. But ride one on the right road, at the right time and it’s hard not to be a believer.

Best adventure of the year – BMW F850GS

BMW F850GS

Big-capacity adventure bikes have hogged the headlines, but it’s the cheaper, lower-powered versions that grabbed our attention. Triumph updated the superb Tiger 800, Honda introduced a tougher, Adventure Sports Africa Twin and BMW created the F850GS.

With its more powerful, smoother motor and greater spec including riding modes, Brembos and traction control, the BMW just pips the Triumph and Honda as our Best Adventure of 2018.

Riding the MCN250 on the £10,650 Sport version (with its more advanced rider aids), the new BMW F850GS shines and it’s a reminder that a towering, big bhp adventure monster isn’t what you want for everyday riding.

OK, the engine is a tad soulless, wind protection could be better, it’s uncomfortable after several hours and the long sidestand makes the Beemer hard to get on and off.

For big two-up trips there are better bikes, but for everything else, the GS is superb. It’s roomy, manageable at slow speeds, fun and handles the 250’s roads superbly.

Then there’s the F750GS that’s even cheaper at £7950, which has the same size motor with slightly less power. It’s lower, more road focused and is just as enjoyable.

Best retro of the year – Kawasaki Z900RS

Kawasaki Z900RS

Kawasaki upset the retro applecart when they released the Z900RS at the beginning of 2018. The modern classic scene had been dominated by European manufacturers: Triumph’s classy Bonnevilles, BMW’s superb R nine Ts and Ducati’s funky Scramblers. But now the Japanese have fought back.

Inspired by the 1972 ‘900 Super 4’ Z1, we knew the new Z900RS would be an instant hit the second we rode it. Starting with the brilliant Z900 as its base, the RS oozes easy speed, refinement and joyful handling. There’s performance aplenty but it’s friendly for newcomers too.

Bursting with Zeddy detail, the RS apes the Z1’s ducktail back end, oval rear light, machined engine fins, handsome metal tank and side panel badges, replica cam covers and clocks, which use the same typeface and needle shape (resting at the same angle at zero) as the originals.

Step back and you’ll see how the frame allows the seat and slim, pear drop-shaped fuel tank to be fitted horizontally, like the ’72 bike and from above the RS has the same ‘hour- glass’ shape. Kawasaki have made crisp rear LED lights glow like a 70s bulb and the metallic brown and orange livery on our MCN250 test bike has one of those flawless, glistening finishes that looks like it’s still wet with lacquer.

But the new RS is more than just a Z900 in flares. Tried and tested tech ensures unburstable reliability and with prices starting at just £9875 (and £10,349 for the snazzy, bikini-faired green and white Café version), it’s cracking value.

Best all-rounder of the year – Kawasaki H2 SX SE

Kawasaki H2 SX SE

Many heads were scratched when it came to choosing this year’s best all-rounder. Yamaha’s new Tracer GT and the evergreen Kawasaki Z1000SX are worthy winners as both offer an enviable mix of comfort, practicality and performance with affordable price tags. But there could only really be one winner: the marvel that is the new supercharged H2 SX.

If you want a relaxed tourer or a 200bhp superbike, there are better options. But if you want a genuine continent-shrinking sports tourer, something capable of carrying plenty of luggage, cosseting you in comfort, whisking you to your destination, and indulging lurid hedonism on everything from autobahns to Alpine passes, choose the H2 SX. The supercharger is more than a compressor of air, it forcibly shrinks roads and time, and makes an otherwise conventional bike feel quite extraordinary.

Try doing big distance on the full fat H2 and your bum, knees and wrists would scream for mercy. Luckily, it has such a miserly tank range it’s never long before you need to stop, fill-up and breath a huge sigh of relief. But it’s clear, here on the MCN250, the H2 SX isn’t a loosely disguised original wearing a different dress. They ride nothing like one another in the areas that matter.

Where once the engine’s delivery was a sledgehammer that brutally wiped out the tarmac between you and the horizon, it’s now one of the most pleasing powerplants on the road.

Glutinous dollops of torque and power mean that it’ll pull from 2500rpm in sixth with the sort of surging drive that an electric train would be proud of. But get the blue bar climbing on the dash as the supercharger’s impeller accelerates through the sound barrier, and it feels as visceral as a superbike mill.

On the 250’s bumpy back roads and billiard-smooth A-road sweepers the SX is pliant, composed with excellent braking support for such a big bus.

Electronic aids work flawlessly and the steel trellis frame absorbs and controls everything with enough flex and tension to enable both grip and riding comfort, delivering a near-perfect halfway house between touring softness and superbike rigidity.

The diversity of the MCN250 ought to expose multiple weaknesses, but it merely underlines its versatility. There’s nowhere where it feels ill at ease and so many places, from empty sinuous B-roads to bolt-upright motorway schleps, where it feels born to do it.

It’s the very embodiment of a sports tourer: neither one thing nor the other, but a perfectly balanced bastardisation of both. A devastatingly effective road bike that delivers practicality combined with an undertone of pure menace.

Best 125 of the year – Honda CB125R

Honda CB125R

The 125cc naked bike class used to be the realm of the dull commuter, however in recent years this class has taken over from the race-rep 125 as the category where manufacturers are really pushing the boat out in terms of styling and technology. And all while hitting very tight budget constraints.

As a cash-strapped new bike buyer, or even a monetary-flush one, you are spoiled for choice and the arrival of Honda’s CB125R this year has demonstrated what an exciting and vibrant class this is.

Boasting an instantly recognisable family similarity as its bigger capacity siblings, it is the level of technology that comes as standard on the CB125R that impresses the most. Its inverted forks are made by Showa, its radial brake caliper carry the Nissin brand and is even linked to an IMU to deliver an active ABS system that ensures the bike remains level and balanced when you brake hard.

Add to this a big bike feel and a digital dash that has a gear indicator and fuel gauge and it is incredibly impressive. Especially when you spot the £3989 price tag.

The Honda is built in Thailand, but that doesn’t detract from the final product. You are getting a high level of specification at a rock- bottom price. And the styling is classy and contemporary to boot.

Best sub-500cc of the year – KTM 390 Duke

KTM 390 Duke

When it comes to value for money, the KTM 390 Duke is in a class of one. Whether you gauge value on technical specification or smiles per pound it doesn’t alter the result, the KTM is still a winner.

The Duke is built in India and not Austria, but that doesn’t matter as this cost-saving manufacturing decision has allowed KTM to lavish its naked bike with top-quality components.

You get WP suspension, a Bybre (a subsidiary of Brembo) radial brake, a slipper clutch, a ride-by-wire throttle, ABS, a full-colour dash with connectivity built in and even a brake lever with an adjustable span. And all in a great-looking bike that is A2-legal and costs just £4699.

Consider the smiles per pound value and the news gets even better as the 390 Duke brings a feeling of quality and refinement, not to mention fun through performance, to a class that so often slips into the trap of being too ‘new rider friendly’ and lacking in spirit.

Despite their limited experience even new riders want to have fun on a bike, they just don’t want to be intimidated by it. And one of the 390 Duke’s strengths is how it responds to a growing confidence on two wheels. Those lacking in confidence can build it through the Duke’s low seat height and light weight, not to mention the motor’s smooth power and light clutch. Once ready to push on, the Duke’s sporty chassis and excellent suspension will unlock a whole new world of cornering, helped by fat, quality tyres on 17in rims.

Best scooter of the year – BMW C400X

BMW C400X

In scooter world 2018 has been the year of the 400cc maxi-scooter, with a new Yamaha XMAX 400 and Suzuki Burgman 400. But it’s the new BMW C400X that wins our award.

On the face of it there’s nothing that significant about the C400X. It’s a fairly standard, single-cylinder middleweight scooter that while designed by BMW, isn’t built by them.

The C400X is built in China by Lonchin, but in such a price-sensitive market this was a necessity. The level of build quality is high and you get the usual BMW warranty, spares, finance packages and dealer support. So what makes the C400X significant? It’s the way it can be customised.

BMW have adopted the same approach with the C400X that they have with all the other models in their range and that means a huge array of factory-fit options. While ABS and traction control are standard, you can spec-up the X with a TFT dash to add connectivity, heated grips, heated seat, alarm, DRLs, keyless ignition and lots of luggage options.

It’s also a fairly sporty ride. So it can tackle back road blasts while offering a high level of practicality.

Best naked of the year – Triumph Street Triple R

Triumph Street Triple R

Last year the newly updated 765cc Triumph Street Triple dominated the headlines and it was the all-singing top spec RS version that stole our hearts, winning not only our best naked award, but our overall Machine of the Year, too.

Triumph threw all their might behind getting the RS model out to dealers, so at the time we gave the RS its plaudits we hadn’t ridden the cheaper, slightly lower spec R model.

But this year we have and it actually makes for a more accomplished road bike than the RS. Sure, the top spec Trumpet with its Öhlins and Super Corsas is still the one to go for, if trackdays are your thing, but the R’s bulgier mid range and plusher suspension set-up help it glide around the MCN250.

Think of history’s greatest motorcycles and they’ll have one thing in common: soulful, characterful engines: RC30s, cross plane crank Yamahas, V4 Aprilia and Ducatis, 350LCs and Triumph’s 765cc triple. The motor not only makes the Street Triple great, it’s all set to provide the rasping soundtrack to Moto2 next year, too.

The Street Triple R might have won our 2018 Best Naked award, but it faced tough competition from KTM’s new 790 Duke. It might be the firm’s first parallel twin, but it’s so bang- on, you’d think they’d been making it for years.

The Street Triple R isn’t without its niggles and it’s not as roomy as the 790, but if your riding takes in more than just brain-out curves, it’s still the more accomplished all-rounder. It’s lavishly appointed and even without the RS bells and whistles is quick enough on a trackday.

Best cruiser custom of the year – Triumph Bonneville Speedmaster

Triumph Bonneville Speedmaster

It’s fair to say the Bonneville Bobber not only rocked our world last year, but with order books bursting at the seams, before anyone had actually ridden it, it attracted fans from far and wide, too. When we did get to swing a turn-up over the Triumph, it showed that it wasn’t just a 1940s styling exercise; it rode superbly, too.

This year Triumph has built a Bobber made for two. Called the Speedmaster it not only has two seats and laid-back beach bars, it has the twin front brake set-up and 16in front wheel from the Bobber Black, too, so it stops as well as it goes.

The new Speedmaster has the looks, handling and feel to be a brilliant bike for anyone who enjoys relaxed cruising and the addition of pillion provision opens it up to a whole new audience.

It’s remarkably slim and happily zips to the front at roundabouts in stationary rush-hour traffic. The clutch is progressive, it wafts along the M40 at a cruise-controlled 70mph and on smooth, sweeping roads the Triumph comes alive (it struggles a little over harsh bumps). The shock’s progressive damping delivers a relaxed ride while the 16in wheels make the Triumph roll through bends at a blissful 50-60mph.

It doesn’t lack the ground clearance of some cruisers and you need to be pushing on to get the hero blobs touching and the traction control around some of the MCN250’s gravel-strewn B roads is reassuring. Despite its tiny 12-litre tank it’ll do an impressive 105 miles before the fuel light comes on.

Our new test route may be the ultimate UK real-world motorcycle test, but no-one in their right mind would actually ride a Speedmaster on what turns out to be 272 miles in one sitting. After a day’s riding it feels like someone wearing army boots has repeatedly kicked me up the bum, but I can easily forgive it for the way it goes, handles and of course the way it looks.

Best adventure sport of the year – BMW S1000XR

BMW S1000XR

Talk about world domination. This is the fourth year in a row that the BMW has taken the Best Adventure Sport win. So what really makes it so special? Well, it’s a true performance bike that’s so practical, comfy and well-equipped you can demolish big miles in a day without an ache or a pain. Trackdays, big tours, or the delights of our MCN250 route, are all in a day’s work for the mighty XR.

As always the BMW only has two ‘superbike-on-stilts’ sports adventure challengers; KTM’s 1290 Super GT and the Ducati Multistrada and true to form, the German machine superbly blends the best of the KTM’s brash, balls- out sportiness with the Ducati’s voluptuous comfort.

Neither the BMW or the KTM have changed for 2018, but the Ducati received a major facelift. With its bigger Euro 4-spec X-Diavel motor, calmer chassis geometry and refined electronics the new 1260 Multistrada is smoother, more polished, cleverer and less flighty than the previous model.

It’s eye- poppingly fast when you want it to be and relaxed when you want to take it easy, but it’s spoilt slightly by its overly tall ratios and the odd missed gear. It’s a classy piece of kit, but still can’t touch the BMW in a straight MCN250 fight.

There isn’t a mile on our MCN250 route where the BMW doesn’t impress hugely. It cruises comfortably when you want to pile on the miles and sets your world on fire when you want to have some fun. The XR provides a 50/50 mix of long distance and sporting ability.

Best super naked of the year – Triumph Speed Triple RS

Triumph Speed Triple RS

It’s been an interesting year for the bonkers super naked class. For the ultimate in speed, handling and tech Aprilia’s Tuono V4 1100 Factory is still the bike to beat, but while the BMW S1000R, Yamaha MT-10 and KTM 1290 Super Duke R remain unchanged, two old wind-in-the-hair favourites have been given major makeovers.

Honda went for the ‘neo retro’ look with the new CB1000R. It’s lighter, spicier, more techy and built with the glossy love and attention to detail worthy of an RC30, especially the top-spec CB1000R+ model with its heated grips, up/down shifter and extra shiny bits.

It’s fast and surprisingly loud for a Honda production bike, steers crisply and is fun on smooth, grippy roads, but we were disappointed with its bouncy rear shock, harsh forks and its average tyres.

Over in the Brit corner it didn’t look as if Triumph had done much to their Speed Triple, but dig deeper and you’ll see the kind of step up in build quality that’s made its younger Street Triple sister such a hit.

Add in a spoonful of bhp, a touch more grunt, refined rider aids, a colour dash and cornering poise and it seriously rocked our world when we took it around the MCN250. And with it costing £2749 less than the Aprilia, it wasn’t hard for us to award the big Trumpet MCN’s Best Super Naked.

The new Speed Triple RS has the small, tight, refined feel of the latest 765 Street Triple with more grunt, reassuring big-bike-stability and attitude.

The way the RS fires out of corners and rolls sweetly into them, with grip to spare, is sublime. Brakes are Japanese superbike-shaming, electronic rider aids are up there with the best, while the dream team of Öhlins, Brembo and Super Corsas work at their giddying best, giving sublime grace and poise. On our test track it scorches to a true 158mph top whack, too.

The Speed Triple is back to its rightful place of being Triumph’s flagship naked.

Best tourer of the year – BMW R1200RT

BMW R1200RT

BMW built their reputation on touring and the R1200RT is the epitome of why they are so successful in this class of motorcycling. There have been many pretenders to BMW’s crown over the years, most noticeably the Triumph Trophy, Honda Pan European and VFR1200F, but where they have fallen by the wayside, the R1200RT has continued to flourish and once again wins our Best Tourer award.

What’s the secret to its success? There is no real secret, it’s just the natural progression of a product that has continued to evolve with the times rather than stand still and attempt to capitalise on its reputation to secure sales. And the current version is a perfect example of this constant reinvention.

Despite visually appearing to be a big bike, thanks to the boxer engine the RT carries its weight low and once you’re rolling the bulk seems to melt away, leaving you with a bike that flows through bends with huge poise and minimal effort. It’s not billed as a sports tourer, but sporty riding is possible on this full-dress mile-muncher. And all with rider and pillion comfort still at the forefront of its design thanks to an impressive electronics package.

The only issue for BMW is where to take this outstanding model next. Well, next year we’ll see its first major update in years where it’ll get the new variable valve timing 1260 motor, packed with more power and torque. Promising to be better than ever the new machine will be a worry for BMW’s rivals and it’ll take something very special to rival one of the greatest touring bikes of our time.

Best electric of the year - Energica Eva Esse Esse9

Energica Eva Esse Esse9

It’s a sign of the times that MCN introduced an electric bike category to the Bike of the Year last year, which Energica comfortably won with its Ego superbike. The Italian firm are on a roll; not only have they scooped the prize again this year, with this modern retro-styled naked Eva Esse Esse9, they’ll be supporting five rounds of the 2019 MotoGP season with the inaugural one-make MotoE championship.

But as surprisingly fast, refined and sweet-handling the new Esse Esse9 is, it’s still got a way to go before battery power earns a place in most motorcyclist’s hearts. Weighing 270kg, it’s heavy and with an average battery range of 90 miles, even riding like it a monk, it doesn’t have the range to get around our MCN250 route.

But you know what? Energica are getting there, as we found out when we rode their new machines at the factory near Modena at the tail end of last year.

Just think of all those things we love most about our motorcycles: speed, freedom, fun, convenience and downright coolness. The Esse Esse9 captures all these things and more.

Named after the twisty, 150 mile-long SS9 road from Rimini to Piacenza, the Energica has zero engine vibes, no growling soundtrack, or gears to play with, but the Italian machine

has character all of its own. Nothing can prepare you for how perfectly its 109bhp is delivered, accelerating hard, in one continuous, relentless, screaming Batmobile whoosh.

Range is undoubtedly an issue and, without a fast charger, you’re looking at three to four hours charge time. There’s a still a way to go for usable, affordable electric bikes, but the Esse Esse9 proves that when they’re good, they’re seriously impressive.

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