Surfing the internet the other day I ended up on Suzuki UK's webpage. Among the usual banners flashing up 0% finance deals, Yoshi parts for GSX-Rs and cut price off-roaders, the one advert that actually made me stop and look was for the Bandit 1200.
For a start I'd actually forgotten Suzuki had updated the Bandit this year. Unlike the modified GSX-R600 and 750, and the new GSR600, the trusty old-but-new Bandit has had none of the fanfare usually associated with a new model. But what really got my attention was the price: a new 1200cc bike, with ABS and a half fairing, for £5299. That's cheaper than most middleweight 600s. There must be a catch.
Then I thought about it a bit more. If I was looking to buy a bike what would I do with it? Obviously commute, so I'd need a decent seat and some weather protection. There is a fair chance I'd go some distance on it, if not tour then at least long rides to wherever, so a big motor would be good. I like the occasional blast around my favourite roads so a half-decent chassis is essential and last, but by no means least, I want a bike that's fun to ride. Hang on a second... could the £5299 Bandit 1200S offer all this? Had I stumbled upon the biggest bargain in biking?
So we thought we'd put this to the test and pitch the Bandit against some serious competition - competition that's newer, more focused and more expensive.
Yamaha's FZ1 Fazer is the latest in a new breed of sharp, sporty all-rounders featuring motors nicked from class-leading sports bikes, a competent but not too highly-spec'd chassis and fresh, modern styling. Like the Bandit, the Fazer is also available in naked guise, but as our Suzuki was half faired, so was the Yamaha.
But the FZ1 Fazer hasn't had an easy birth. Since its press launch the Fazer has received a bit of a battering. An R1 motor in a sporty chassis with fresh, modernlooks should be a recipe for success, but reports of dodgy fuel injection took the early shine off. But pre-production launch bikes often have teething troubles, so now we have Fazers in the UK would the problem be sorted? Wait and see...
Leaning more heavily towards the sports touring side of things we have Triumph's Sprint ST, a bike that took us all by storm last year. An easygoing three-cylinder motor in a balanced chassis with cool looks made this the sales success of 2005. When we tested it against the other sports tourers we rated it well ahead of Honda's VFR800, so it really is a sports touring benchmark.
And finally there's the BMW R1200GS Adventure. It's pricey at just under £10,000 but, for the world explorer or Long Way Round fantasist, it's a serious bit of kit. If Marco Polo was around today he would have happily abandoned those elephants in favour of this beast. Out of place against this competition? Well in truth possibly yes, but the GS is currently going through a huge revival at the moment and, although it's designed for global, go-anywhere touring in truth it's becoming the new Chelsea tractor. Those knobbly tyres, the long travel suspension and engine bars shout 'take me to Bolivia', but in truth most owners are more likely to end up at Tesco.
So we have a world explorer, a sports tourer and cutting edge sports bike- engined new breed of all-rounder taking on... a long in the tooth, air cooled, steel framed bike with a motor that predates the dinosaurs. Hardly seems fair does it? Okay, the Bandit has a redesigned fairing, new clocks, ABS and a slightly stiffer chassis, but this is a bike that has been virtually unchanged since 1996. Well that's what I thought to start with anyway. But it didn't take long for the Suzuki to start changing all our minds.
We decided to take the bikes on a tour of the south west, specifically the biking heaven that is the Devon/Somerset border. Fantastic roads, virtually no traffic and only the occasional sheep and Exmoor pony to mar your journey. There is also a fairly thriving surf culture - which sounds unlikely in the UK - but as lessons only cost around £25 we thought we'd give it a shot.
With Niall living near the Triumph factory, James close to where the BMW needed to be picked up and the Fazer being Tim's longtermer (which meant I was too scared to ride it, so handed the keys to John as he has military training), I took the Bandit for the London to Devon run.
Now, whenever you take a bike touring the first thing you appreciate is bungee hooks. It's not a very good start to a road trip when you can't attach any luggage. Top marks to the Bandit: bungee points on the tail and pillion footpeg area mean a nicely secured tailpack. Unfortunately John was having no such luck with the Fazer, which doesn't have any dedicated mounting points. From experience I've found that attaching bungees to a grab rail results in a series of scratches so we abandoned that idea in favour of a rucksack. Yamaha will sell you a pannier kit for the Fazer (along with a complete fairing kit and other long distance accessories), but at £665 it's quite a sting, especially compared to Triumph's £525 all-in for the Sprint ST luggage set. That said, the Fazer's panniers are comparable in price to the BMW's £695 aluminium ones.
Luggage secured and there are other clues to the Bandit being a bike from another era. First is the choke lever (remember them?), then there's the seat. There must be some kind of equation going to work here, because as bikes have got faster with better suspension, the seats have got harder and less padded in an inverse way. New Fazer: fast motor, inverted forks, seat like granite. Bandit 1200S: old, right way up forks, soft and squidgy seat. Combined with the half-fairing, which is actually quite effective, the Bandit will see you clearing off the 140 miles to reserve with ease. It's more of a struggle on the Fazer, partly due to the seat but also because of the fairly low screen and high bars, but as you only have to go about 125 miles (at best) until the low fuel warning flashes, it's a shortened distance between stops.
Arriving at the hotel in Porlock I was interested to see how James got on with the Adventure's tank range. At its launch BMW were making some fairly outrageous claims, saying it's possible to squeeze 465 miles out of the BMW's 33-litre tank. Quite how BMW managed this I'm not sure because at a steady 70-80mph the best we got was just over 310 miles. Not a bad figure at all, but well shy of BMW's. And while we're on the subject don't believe the BMW fuel gauge, like James did. The gauge drops to one quarter after about 120 miles, which caused James to panic and fill up at the next stop. Bravery, and being late for a free meal, caused me to ignore the gauge and I did another 140 miles with it in the same position. But can you empty a tank in one stint? Obviously if you're a sleep-deprived warrior of the road then yes, but even a mere mortal (me) managed a 250-mile run in one hit thanks to the superbly padded seat and wide-armed, relaxed riding position. It's a bit tedious but can be done, although I found the Triumph's range of around 160 to reserve about the perfect balance of distance covered vs discomfort to justify a break.
So on the comfort side the Bandit certainly holds its own. Tank range is just short of the Triumph, and well short of the BMW, but a 150-mile leg is easily covered, and in considerable comfort.
To be truthful this didn't really come as much of a surprise. Suzuki is kind of half-heartedly marketing the Bandit as a sports tourer anyway. It doesn't take much to make a good touring bike, but where we were expecting the Bandit to suffer was on the often bumpy and always twisty Devon roads. But it didn't.
The thing about the Suzuki is it has certain boundaries, but once you accept these limitations it's bloody good fun. Before the test I thought the Bandit would be weaving, wobbling and generally misbehaving due to its prehistoric frame, but I was wrong. While the 650 Bandit suffers in the handling stakes the 1200 has the composure to keep things in line. If you feel the urge to really go silly the Bandit will oblige, but it is happier, and will reward you, when ridden smoothly. Alright, if you're really cracking on and hit some bigger bumps the suspension does show its limitations, but for fast riding it's a real joy. Unlike the Fazer.
Just as Yamaha did when it updated the Fazer 600, the Fazer 1000 has changed from a soft, forgiving bike to a harsher, more sporty one. Is this what customers want? Perhaps Yamaha are aiming the FZ1 at a different kind of rider because this latest bike is not a relaxing machine to ride. Like the 600, the new Fazer has its suspension set hard, which doesn't lead to a smooth ride. It's aggressive, harsh and, combined with the brakes, which are fierce almost to the point of being too sharp, smooth riding is rendered virtually impossible. Both Niall and James agreed that to get the best from the Fazer you have to ride it hard. Sports bike hard. Is this what you want from this kind of machine? I don't. And then there's the throttle response.
Quite simply the Fazer's fueling is terrible. Speaking to Yamaha dealers, who nearly all have a Fazer available for test rides, customers don't seem to have much of a problem with it, which I can't understand because it really is poor. Niall reckoned it ruined the whole bike. The old R1, which the Fazer takes its motor from, fuels perfectly well, so what has Yamaha done with it? It's a mystery, and one that's certainly causing a few headaches at Yamaha HQ. Back-to-back with the BMW and Triumph, which both have almost impeccable injection, and the Suzuki, which has lovely old carbs, the Fazer's glitch was very noticeable. But so was its engine character.
Fuelling aside the Fazer seems to lack the lowdown power kick you would expect from a 1000cc bike. To really get any drive the tacho needs to be around the 7000 mark, which means you have to rev the thing to get it going. Again, I don't want that in a bike like this. Sports bikes fair enough, but not big semi-naked all-round tools like the Fazer. Niall and James disagreed, but that's more down to their style of riding: they like to thrash bikes. To me the Bandit has the kind of motor I'd want in a day-to-day bike. Loads of power in the bottom end and smooth as you like. There is an argument that this makes it boring and characterless, but I'd say it makes it useable, and anyway the Bandit's smooth power delivery means it doesn't half pull good wheelies.
If you're after a combination of revs and power then the Sprint ST has it all. That three-cylinder engine is a lovely motor in a balanced chassis and it suits the ST down to the ground. While it may have the looks of a sports bike, Triumph is particularly good at setting its bikes up with as close to perfect road handling as you can get. There is someone at Hinckley who knows the balance required to deliver a plush ride that is still sporty enough to be fun. On smooth roads there was little to complain about with the ST's suspension, although when the pace hotted up and a few bumps appeared the rear did seem a little soft, although nothing that a bit of fiddling with the rear shock wouldn't cure. And anyway, it was nothing like the BMW.
To be completely fair to the Adventure it is really designed as an all-roads plodder. But in the UK we don't really have the kind of unfinished tracks the GS thrives on, which is why I'd recommend a more road-oriented tyre for the Adventure. On the knobbly Continental option the GS's soft, long travel suspension made the whole package float along, giving the rider a detached feeling from the bike. It's unfair to be too critical of the BMW's handling because it isn't designed to be thrown around with much gusto, but the standard GS feels far more secure to ride and for general use would be a better buy. Especially if you're a bit short. Whitham requested a parachute to get off the Adventure and Niall also agreed that a mix of a full tank and short legs would probably lead to a few 0mph tipples. Much like Ewan and Charlie, then...
As I said at the start of this piece, the Bandit is really up against this competition to justify itself. Is it the best value bike for everyday use currently around? I'd certainly say so. What a bargain. While the list is £5299 I'd say you could pick one up for less than £5000 with a little effort. That's half the cost of the BMW. The Suzuki will depreciate more, but still, what a deal. It shows what happens when a bike is well thought out, given a great engine and then just left to get on with it. The Bandit may not be the sexiest bike out there, but it has a real cult following. It isn't the quickest, but how fast do you really need to go? It handles well enough for most of the time, commutes with the best of them and tours in style. There's nothing wrong with the Sprint ST, it's a great sports tourer, and the GS Adventure is perfect for what it is designed for, while the Yamaha disappoints when it could be so good.
But Suzuki's Bandit 1200 is without doubt the bargain of the moment.
TRIUMPH - NIALL MACKENZIE
Sharp looks and a great noise come as standard, but at 44 years old I still feel this is a bike for the more mature rider. It might be because I'm not into touring but I suspect the real reason is I know its raucous sibling, the Speed Triple, is much more exciting.
The ST does everything it should and with ease. It will happily cover 140 miles between fuel stops, although I did get a numb bum (something I never get on my 675 Daytona). The brakes lacked sharpness and the suspension is soft, but nothing that couldn't be remedied. The clocks are dull during the day, but come alive at night - although I'd like to see the 'Triumph' logo illuminated.
TRIUMPH - JAMES WHITHAM
I've ridden the Sprint a bit before and I quite like it. It doesn't do anything outstanding, but as a package it has a nice feel.
The suspension I felt was too soft, even for a tourer, but that three-pot motor is class. Loads of grunt, loads of character, and well- sorted fuel injection get no complaints from me. Even the exhaust note is nice, especially on the overrun when it crackles and pops out of the three stacks under the seat. If I was being picky the gearbox is a little bit clunky, and I kept hitting other road users with the wide panniers. That's it.
BMW - NIALL MACKENZIE
There's nothing on the road like the GS Adventure so if you're into turning heads this might be for you.
It may not be everyone's idea of beauty but should you be planning to explore a few continents there's no other choice. With a claimed 460-mile range this is one of the biggest, heaviest bikes around so you'll need long legs and good balance when wobbling through traffic or skidding around off road.
Should the wife ever turf me out I'd seriously consider investing in a full spec Adventure and heading off into the sunset. Wonder if I'd have enough cash left over for a tent?
BMW - JAMES WHITHAM
I did a good few miles on the BMW, and the more I rode it the more I liked its quirkiness. By the end of the test I was hoping it would be the bike I was riding home.
The suspension is so soft it's like you're floating; you have to anticipate when you want it to turn and where you want it to go because there's a delay in steering inputs reaching the wheels. The brakes lack feel too. But I liked the looks and the feel of that Boxer motor. You just have to get used to it.
YAMAHA - NIALL MACKENZIE
I was determined negative launch reports wouldn't effect my judgment of the Fazer and thought Yamaha would have sorted any problems before the bikes were delivered. I was wrong. The best looking, best handling, best braking of our four bikes has a very snatchy throttle which spoils an otherwise brilliant bike. I don't understand how Yamaha ever signed this bike off.
On the positive side (and there are many) I liked the low riding position, funky handlebar mounts and tidy dash. The whole bike has a fresh, super modern look and has a real feel-good factor. The new Fazer could still be be a contender for the bike of 2006 but they need to be recalled and sorted out.
YAMAHA - JAMES WHITHAM
The Fazer looks right and it doesn't change its spots when you ride it. Handling is sharp, suspension firm and the brakes are awesome. But the motor. Oh dear!
It has power but not the grunt it needs, and throttle response is terrible. It's a shame. With an un-molested R1 motor this bike would be a weapon.
SUZUKI - NIALL MACKENZIE
The Bandit is just a great old-fashioned motorbike. It's nowhere near as nimble or as agile as the Fazer - if anything it's a more relaxing experience with its smooth, torquey motor to propel you along. The fairing gives some protection and is also easy to get tucked behind. Wheelies are a cinch too, but forget stoppies as you have ABS that can't be switched off, unlike onsome BMWs. If you're after a cheap all-rounder that can still deliver thrills then the 1200 Bandit S is a good option.
SUZUKI - JAMES WHITHAM
This bike screams, "I'm an old bike". An engine in a frame, tank on top and a wheel at each end - if you got a nine-year-old to draw a picture of a motorbike the result would look something like the Bandit. Even the new digital speedo has been plonked inside the old analogue clock housing.
But as soon as I set off I changed my mind. It rides beautifully. I don't like the ABS (but I don't like it on any bike) but the suspension is comfortable yet firm enough to be fun through the twisties and that 20-year-old oil/air cooled engine has so much grunt you're not changing gear all the time. This conservative old timer is still a very good machine.
SPECS - BMW
TYPE - ALL ROUNDER
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £9755
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1170cc
POWER - 93.6bhp@7500rpm
TORQUE - 75.9lb.ft@5600rpm
WEIGHT - 223kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 890-910mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 33L
TOP SPEED - 120.3mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 310miles
SPECS - SUZUKI
TYPE - STREETBIKE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £5299
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1157cc
POWER - 98.4bhp@7900rpm
TORQUE - 69.4lb.ft@9600rpm
WEIGHT - 215kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 785-805mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 20L
TOP SPEED - 139.2mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 150miles
SPECS - TRIUMPH
TYPE - SPORTS TOURER
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £7799
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1050cc
POWER - 119.5bhp@8900rpm
TORQUE - 73lb.ft@7900rpm
WEIGHT - 210kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 805mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 27L
TOP SPEED - 159.2mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 180miles
SPECS - YAMAHA
TYPE - STREETBIKE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £7600
ENGINE CAPACITY - 998cc
POWER - 137.7bhp@11,900rpm
TORQUE - 67.2lb.ft@9600rpm
WEIGHT - 204kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 815mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 18L
TOP SPEED - 153.1mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 140miles