Triumph Sprint ST vs Honda VFR800
vs Ducati ST4 Vs Buell Thunderbolt S3 vs BMW R1100RS
The Sports Tourers from
It was an interesting gathering, as always. We're talking about the
people here - a gaggle of the nation's motorcycle publishing staff in the
annual event aptly titled CHUMPs.
The machinery was good, too. Essentially a gathering of the world's
top sport-touring tackle for early 1999, from Honda (VFR800), Ducati (ST4),
Triumph (Sprint ST), Buell (Thunderbolt S3) and BMW (R1100S). The Duck
was ridden down from Sydney for the event, and the Buell from Brisbane
- the other three began their journey in Melbourne.
And the meeting place? Dalgety in the Snowies, NSW. There's not a hell
of a lot to Dalgety: a bike-friendly pub then run by Graeme (we hear the
new publicans are also bike-friendly), a caravan park and a few other assorted
buildings. Let's not forget the Snowy River which, sadly, is slowed down
to a trickle these days thanks to the machinations of the Snowy River Scheme.
That trickle, from what used to be a booming and healthy river, is something
of a political bone of contention. The locals reckon the flow (or lack
of it) is killing the river, and the resultant tourism. To say they're
unhappy about it would be a huge understatement.
Rivers aside, the area we chose has some of the best riding on offer
in the country. A variety of turf to play on, ranging from gnarly curves
marked down as low as 15kmh, through to stunning high-speed sweepers. Surfaces
range from smooth to downright nasty, with some loose stuff thrown in for
good measure. If you were given a billion dollars to create a road bike
playground, this would be the template.
The rough guidelines for what could be included
on this fleet were: ample sporting ability, strong touring ability, good
fuel range and the availability of panniers ex-factory. The first bike
on our selection list was Honda's VFR800 which, particularly in 750 form,
has long 'owned' this segment.
There were any number of other bikes which might have made the grade.
After all, what makes a sports tourer? If you want to go with the most
extensive range offered by any manufacturer, look no further than...yep...Honda.
In addition to the VFR as an obvious choice, there's potentially the
BlackBird, CBR1000F, Varadero, VTR1000 and - dare I say - the ST1100. The
latter is really pushing the boundaries in this country as locally it's
regarded as a tourer. However our American cousins, more sympathetic to
heavy machinery, describe it as a sports tourer. As an ST owner, I can
see their point.
WHAT WAS THAT?
Let's have a quick gecko at the bikes, starting
with the Viffer.
Honda's toy has been developed to an exceptionally high standard since
the late eighties, using variations on the company's V-four engine platform.
In its most recent guise it has picked up a few engine cubes, some exotic
internals from the RC45 superbike, and the third generation of the factory
DCBS linked braking system.
The lineage has won countless international awards, dominating the sport
touring sector for many years. Not surprisingly, it is the bike targeted
by Triumph with its new Sprint ST.
Since we're on the subject of the Sprint, it runs a completely new frame
- essentially an alloy twin spar job that is very similar to countless
competitors' bikes. The powerplant is the second-generation T500 series
triple in 955cc form and Speed Triple state of tune. While it shares the
name with the old T300 series bike, it bears little relationship to its
predecessor other than the number of cylinders (three) and gears (six).
Ducati's ST4 joins the ST2 in the company's sport touring line-up -
now with four valve heads rather than two for the V-twin powerplants. Think
of it as a 916 in more 'sensible' clothes and you'd be close to the mark.
That the factory has chosen to pursue the all-rounder theme to the point
of having two distinct models on tap is an interesting and welcome development.
BMW's R1100S is as close as the German maker has so far come to building
a full-on sport bike. However the boxer twin falls somewhere between true
knife-edge sports tackle and the more general-purpose models we've come
Buell has taken what is a sporting chassis, added the premium powerplant
(based on the Harley 1200 Sportster) and some more distance-friendly ergonomics
to create the Thunderbolt S3. Though similar in design to the 1998 model,
there have been some refinements, including the addition of fuel injection.
Speaking of injection, that's one of the few things all the bikes have
in common. All have been released locally in the last year or so.
Bill McKinnon, who brought the Duke down from Sydney
two-up, and took time out to ride the rest of the group sums up with:
I guess the perfect sports tourer is the perfect
motorcycle, a series of impossible compromises between balls out performance
- lean-it-till-yer-ears-bleed handling and all-day comfort/long legs/tote
the gear ability.
It's an all things to all people formula; some would argue you'll always
get a B grade bike as a result. I'd like to hear their theory after riding
this lot, because there are a couple of gilt edged A graders here.
The Buell can't hack it in this company. Guido's normally a fair minded
man but it's bit cruel on the Buell to be pitched in with a bunch that's
ten years ahead of it in just about any area you care to name.
The VFR used to be renowned for grunt from any speed, but the high zoot
superbike based motor doesn't wake up until six grand, so it feels like
a slug when you roll it on in the higher gears. Otherwise, the VFR is a
sweet, if uninspiring bike.
Zer Bay Um Vay is yet another 'sport' BMW which isn't a sporty thing
at all. Sure, it goes with enthusiasm, is nice and secure at high speed,
and will keep you comfortable all day, but for an outfit which builds some
outrageous four wheel weapons BMW's continued inexplicable failure to produce
a hard edged performance/handling piece is disappointing.
Best value goes to the Triumph Sprint. At under $20,000 on the road,
with panniers, the big Brit is unbeatable. The triple can smoke or cruise
as you wish, the riding position is fine, quality is great, and the Sprint's
perimeter style frame gives it a nice low centre of gravity. The test bike
wandered a bit at Snowy Mountains velocities though.
The ST4 is expensive, but you get what you pay for. The 916 engine,
the most rigid chassis and the best running gear, plus all day comfort
and the panniers means that you can do whatever you damn well please on
the Ducati. Its lack of flab and beautiful balance are unique, and if you
want a sports tourer that does both equally well, the ST4 is it.
As an aside, a slightly hot rodded VTR1000 came along for company. If
Honda could fit a decent sized fuel tank and some panniers, it would give
the Duke a serious run for its money.
ON THE BUELL
While we've been enthusiastic about Buell's X1 and
Cyclone models, we can't get so worked up over the Thunderbolt. This is
one of those situations where if you ride the bike in isolation, you'll
probably have a great time. But when faced with some exceptional opposition,
the bike is battling. Mark Reed, who did by far the most miles on the bike
After four days and nearly four-thousand kays, I can assure you that
the opening line of the Buell catalogue is correct: Buells are different.
Comparing the Buell head to head with the other litre-class sports tourers
just doesn't seem right.
Unfortunately for the Buell, our ADR requirements are tough to reach
for an air-cooled V-twin which shows its design age and, to meet requirements,
the S3 is outrageously over-geared (you may as well forget that top gear
exists) and the exhaust restricted to the point where the benefits of the
fuel injection system become a mystery. A larger rear belt sprocket and
a pipe would open new dimensions of enjoyment for the S3 rider.
The adjustable Showa suspension compliments the light wheels (optional
$800 PM items) to provide excellent road feel to the rider, though the
travel is very much on the sports side, making the Buell far firmer than
The frame works well to provide taught predictable handling and surprising
agility on winding roads while retaining good high-speed stability. Buell's
mass centralisation theory works and for a physically large bike, the Buell
can be hurled through the corners with great confidence. The only snag
we found was that with this chassis/suspension set-up encouraging play
in the corners, the touring ride position meant that you run out of cornering
clearance - I lost a toe scraper and broke the end off the gear lever on
the way down the Oxley Highway...
Comfort-wise the Buell has good ergonomics, the compact fairing works
well and the engine mounting system does a good job of isolating vibration.
My only complaint is that the seat padding seems too firm after a few hours.
It would be hard to miss the contrast between Mark
and Bill's comments on the Buell. Regardless, it isn't in this race.
This comparison highlighted how the very same bike can grab two people
in entirely different ways. Take the Bimmer as an example. You can see
that McKinnon was underwhelmed, while Reed ended up raving about it, saying
it would be his first choice without question. And he is very much a sport-oriented
rider. Go figure...
When it comes to looking at some detail aspects, the waters are muddied
further. The Honda has easily the best gearshift, with the Triumph and
Ducati running equal second. We know the Brit boxes loosen up significantly
with miles, and so the Sprint's set-up might pull ahead over time. BMW's
box is slow, while the Buell's is even slower.
A mild disappointment is that both the Honda and Triumph have no provision
for damping adjustment on the front end.
On the finish front, the Triumph and Honda show the others the way -
it's absolutely line ball between the two.
Straight line performance is a mixed bag, though all these bikes will
happily cruise two-up all day at highly illegal speeds. Triumph wins the
mid-range stakes, though the ST4 is hardly disgraced. When it comes to
top-end, I'd be loath to pick between the Honda, Duck and Sprint.
As McKinnon's already indicated, the Ducati wins the cornering stakes,
with a nice mix of agility and stability. From there it's a pretty close
contest between the Bimmer, Triumph and Honda - the call will come down
to personal taste.
A consideration may be comfort - the Sprint and VFR have the plushest
ride (perhaps sacrificing a little sporting ability), followed by the Ducati,
BMW and Buell in that order.
Triumph wins the braking contest, with a pretty close race between the
rest. None of the bikes are disgraced in this area, though a couple deserve
comment. For a start, the ST4 has more sponge than ideal in the front lever,
and could use some braided steel lines. The VFR's third generation linked
brakes are the best of their kind and work well enough on firm surfaces.
However they're still spooky on gravel and we'd be happier without them.
Pillions don't score a grab handle on the Buell, while the BMW's versions
are fine under brakes but dubious under acceleration.
When it comes to rider comfort, the choice will probably come down to
which one feels best when you sit on it. The softer suspension on the Honda
and Triumph give them a valuable head start, while they plus the Duke have
very comprehensive instrumentation including a clock.
Pet hate number one with that group of bikes is the Ducati's self-retracting
sidestand. It's a criminally stupid idea that's likely to dump the bike
on its side relatively early in the ownership experience. Just ask Reed
whose foot slipped while he was trying to dismount, and who ended up trapped
underneath the bike.
Of the troupe on this little adventure, the Triumph
easily won the luggage review, with a proviso. It has by far the best integrated
system - a set of panniers (made by Acerbis) that blends in with the bodywork
with the simple adjustment of swivelling down the muffler. Top marks. The
bags cost $1642, with the addition of a topbox bringing the total up to
$2628. Cost for the panniers is high, but they work well with the bike,
while the extra grand for the box seems steep.
Ducati offers a colour-co-ordinated set of bags for the ST4. They stick
out like the proverbial, but still look as though they belong there, and
are comparatively good value at a $1000 premium.
Buell, to its credit, is making the most of being a small volume manufacturer
by offering a build-to order scheme. As part of that you can order integrated
bags for $1000. They have to be unloaded before removal (unlike all the
other offerings), while there are accessories such as removable fairing
pockets and a tankbag.
Honda and BMW offer add-on bags ($1100 for 30lt each side and $1160
for 40lt in the case of Honda and $1025 for BMW) and, in both cases, they
look like bolt-ons. At least the option is there.
When you ride a group of bikes like this, you're
inevitably left with some favourite impressions from each. In no particular
Honda: that ultra sexy V-four induction howl when the tacho needle bursts
into the serious zone - great sound backed by exceptional top-end.
Ducati: that grateful admiration for something that delivers 916-like
performance without the pretzel riding stance.
Triumph: scenery-altering midrange punch.
BMW: oh-so-sweet steering.
The Triumph is the best-integrated package for sport
and touring use, if not the sharpest handler. That last honour belongs
to the Ducati over a range of speeds and roads, though running costs are
high. The shaft-drive BMW has the lowest running costs and is a very satisfying
ride. Honda has the hard-earned power of the VFR name in this sector, and
probably the highest retained resale value when measured against its initial
sale price. The Buell is American, and different, thus offering some social
Work out what you want to do and then, as is traditional with motorcyclists,
use that to justify how your choice pushed your particular Don't bother
wrapping it, I'm riding it home gland...
If you must have a winner from this writer's point of view, the combo
of features and price gives it to the Triumph. Around $17,600 (with panniers)
buys a very high level of sporting ability with two-up touring potential
that challenges the marque's own Trophy.
Triumph Sprint ST
Easily the best value for money in this bunch.
For: Good all-round package.
Against: Official maintenance intervals too short.
Nicely integrated motorcycle.
For: Easy to ride, nice steering.
Against: Could use more power.
Red hot performer with decent touring ability.
Against: Price, service costs, finish.
Long the leader of this class - now facing some
very stiff competition.
For: Price, finish.
Against: Lots of competition, ordinary midrange,
Buell Thunderbolt S3
Enjoyable in isolation, but outclassed in this company.
For: Handling in the tight stuff.
Against: Performance, reliability, finish.
(Note: this article was written by Guy Allen for the
8th edition of Australian Rider magazine - RIP - and photographed by Paul
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