Road tests

Triumph Sprint ST vs Honda VFR800 vs Ducati ST4 Vs Buell Thunderbolt S3 vs BMW R1100RS

The Sports Tourers from
Snowy River

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.

   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 to expect.

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.

   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 adds:

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 its opposition.

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 order...

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 cache.

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.

    BMW R1100S
   Nicely integrated motorcycle.
   For: Easy to ride, nice steering.
   Against: Could use more power.

    Ducati ST4
   Red hot performer with decent touring ability.
   For: Performance.
   Against: Price, service costs, finish.

    Honda VFR800
   Long the leader of this class - now facing some very stiff competition.
   For: Price, finish.
   Against: Lots of competition, ordinary midrange, linked brakes.

    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 Barshon.)

Sports Tourers in the Australian Alps

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