Can the latest crop of dual-purpose on/off-roaders really hack it in the rough stuff? Team Visordown dons its goggles and has a trail of a time finding out. Let's soft road!
Summer's here and once more a motorcycling man's mind turns to thoughts of fun and frolics.
Obviously not all of these thoughts will be about motorcycles, and may encompass other sunny distractions like foaming pints of ale in leafy beer gardens and the way women suddenly become much more beautiful and far less dressed almost overnight. Tempting though these other distractions are however, this is a motorcycle magazine not a real ale guide or a gentleman's rhythm pamphlet, and so it is the two-wheeled frolics with which we will concern ourselves.
Most particularly in this case the kind of machines which can not only provide you with monster kicks on the road at speeds far kinder to your licence than the latest bevy of 1000cc supersonic bruisers, but which can also turn their hand to muddy shenanigans, should you fancy.
Yup, we're talking soft roaders, road legal bikes with a splosh of off-road ability thrown in for good measure. In the car world these bikes - well, three of them - would be the equivalent of the ridiculous four-by-fours favoured by posh mums for taking little Tarquin to prep school. After all, the three-mile run into Primrose Hill is terribly tough these days and an 18-geared, armour-plated gas guzzling tank with 'roo bars really is the only way to get the poor dear there in one piece.
The difference with these bikes is that you genuinely can take them off-road and, in the biggest difference to their four-wheeled counterparts, many owners actually do. Of the four bikes here the Husky and the Suzuki would seem the most obvious choices for anyone fancying more dirty action than a quick lap of the garden after one too many at the family barbecue, but the other two come with genuine off-road pedigree as well.
The BMW F650GS Dakar takes its monicker from the annual Dakar Rally, well renowned as the toughest race in the world and one which takes place across some of the planet's least hospitable places. This is the bike upon which BMW pin their Dakar hopes, and although the race bikes are rather different to the machine you see here, it's still an F650GS which lies within. So, she may look least likely to last more than five minutes before slithering upside down into the nearest puddle at the first sign of a tree root, but in the right hands this bike has the power to surprise.
And it's a similar story with the Yamaha. At a glance it's a styling exercise, a road bike in rufty-tufty clothing which surely packs all the muddy poise of a drunk on a tightrope as soon as you point it anywhere other than the hard stuff. But look behind the façade and you'll find Yamaha's XT range has a long and chequered history, winning no fewer than nine Dakar rallies in various guises since 1979. Maybe there's more to the XT than meets the eye.
As for the Husky, before the test began this was showing its fickle competition-based nature. "This'll win the test if we can ever get it to start," yelped Daryll from beneath the 610 in snapper Oli's front garden while the rest of us tucked into tea and biscuits. You see, having fried a spark plug after one short run too many, the Husky was refusing to fire despite Daryll's best efforts. Lesson learned: this is not a 'use and forget' motorcycle.
Grabbing the mantle of responsibility I leapt aboard the BMW, setting off for a motorcycle shop in search of a new plug for the stricken Husky. When the kind folks at Haslemere Motorcycles had stifled their giggles at my vastly (and brilliantly) over-the-top Travis Pastrana rep motocross kit, they took one look at the plug in my hand and shook their heads. Another parts counter did just the same (the laughing and the shaking of the head that is) and it became obvious the Husky came with a spark plug not found in any other vehicle on the road.
Pottering back plugless on the Dakar I had time to appreciate its super-soft seat - which "feels like it's got a puncture," according to Tim - heated grips and soft, friendly motor with its reassuring thrum. As with almost any BMW this is a bike that makes you feel like you could head off into the wide blue yonder at any point and you just know it'll look after you. That said, I wasn't convinced that wide blue yonder should really include the kind of trails we'd be introducing it to. I made a mental note to keep as far away from it as possible once we hit the dirt.
Still plugless, we called Husky Sport, the UK Husqvarna importers and, being only 20 miles away, the kind fellows vanned it over to us. Thank you very much.
Finally ready for the off, fate did me up a kipper as the morning's tea made its presence felt and I headed off to water the nearest flowerbed. This minor distraction was all it took for everyone else to grab a bike, leaving me with the BMW. It appeared they'd all rapidly come to the same conclusion I had.
A seasoned road test hand, Daryll swiftly planted himself aboard the Husky - no mean feet given it's approximately eight feet tall while he's only just tipping half that. Still, this didn't seem to bother him as he hared off into the distance wheelying, slithering across grass verges and generally having a great time.Plodding along behind on the BMW, which suddenly felt rather docile and dull in light of these antics, I pulled up next to him at the first set of lights we came to and said it looked like he was having far too much fun. "I am," he babbled, before wheelying away. I could almost see the grin stretching around to the back of his head it was that wide.
Stopping at the start of our trail a few miles later, I managed to successfully distract Oli by pointing into the distance and muttering about ramblers, and was able to steal the Suzuki from him. And a good job it was too otherwise I may have made it to the end of this test having hardly mentioned the poor thing at all. But then that's rather the way with DR-Zs. Having been around since the ark, and never having really excelled at anything in that time, they're a motorcycle it's easy to forget. Which is exactly the way it shouldn't be as the little DR-Z is one of the best all-purpose bikes on the planet.
Off-road aficionados will tell you the DR's too heavy to really cut it when you want to turn the wick up, but for anyone starting out on the trails it's plenty. I even spent three days tearing up an endless array of Spanish trails on a bevy of DRs a couple of years ago and, despite half the company I was with being regular trailies, no one found the Suzukis lacking. We even spent a morning on a motocross track and they still cut it. So while there may be better competition bikes out there, for a road legal bike that can still walk the walk in the dirt and which also comes at a knockdown price, the DR's hard to beat.
But how does it handle being at least 200ccs down on the competition here, especially on the road? "Much faster than I expected," said off-road virgin Tim after an earlier stint on the DR. "After finding the BMW gutless on the way here, I was expecting this to be even worse given its lack of cubes, but really it's almost as fast and even feels perkier as it revs harder," he added sagely.
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