Top 10 coolest adventure bikes

Get a cool dual-sport that isn’t an R1200GS…

ADVENTURE bikes, it seems, are a fashion that just won’t go away. For years sales charts around the world have been dominated by BMW’s ubiquitous R1200GS and every manufacturer and its dog is trying to carve out its own place in the ‘adventure’ niche.

Given that most riders don’t actually trek to the far ends of the world, it’s safe to say that, just as most Range Rovers never get to rove on the range, most adventure bikes never see more adventure than a trip to the shops or a bit of light touring.

So we’re not looking for out-and-out off-road ability or desert-crossing reliability in this list. We just want to find the 10 adventure bikes that will let you get in on the scene without becoming another Aerostich-clad trend-follower on a brand new R1200GS. We’re looking for the cool adventure bikes here – older, more obscure and clearly less capable than the latest GS but ones that we’d like in that imaginary, endlessly-big garage that every one of us stocks up in quiet, daydreaming moments.

Our list is sure to be different to yours, so let us know what you think we’ve missed out.

10: Kawasaki KLR650

Any bike that can go two decades without a major update is surely doing something right, and the original 1987-2007 KLR650 achieved just that. Even the more up-to-date version, not sold in the UK but still available in the States, isn’t that different beneath its 21st century styling. The 651cc single is uninspiring, the chassis is simplicity itself and the original styling is utilitarian. But it’s still cool. The fact that the US Marines are equipped with ‘M1030M1’ diesel-engined KLR650s confirms it.

9: Triumph Tiger 900

The latest Triumph Tigers, whether the 1200, the 1050 or the 800, are some of the closest competitors for BMW’s adventure bikes, but it’s the earliest Hinckley Tigers that are the coolest. Made between 1993 and 1998, the 885cc machine isn’t one you’d really want to take away from the Tarmac but it does have the sort of 1980s-ish Paris-Dakar styling that sparked the whole adventure bikes are cool’ movement. Throw that distinctive triple into the mix and it’s hard to ignore. Sadly the replacement 955i version got Mr Blobby styling.

8: Yamaha XTZ600 Tenere

The current XTZ660 Tenere is one of the cooler-looking adventure bikes on the market, but the mid-'80s bike is hard to beat when it comes to ‘adventure’ styling. Massive, bulbous fuel tank? Check. Number boards on the sides? Check. Tiny, rectangular headlight? Check. Garish-looking fork gaiters? Check. We’ll take ours in blue and yellow, please. The 1988 follow-up, with the Paris-Dakar-style twin lights and bulging seat sides (mimicking the extra fuel tanks on real rallye-raid bikes) is cool too, but if you’re going for that style, why not go the whole hog and get the 750cc, twin-cylinder Super Tenere…

7: Yamaha Super Tenere

Speaking of which, the Super Tenere gets the next place on our list. The original 750cc bike is one of the defining machines in the class, along with the Honda Africa Twin and Suzuki DR Big. We’d even extend this, though, to include the latest XTZ1200 parallel-twin in Yamaha’s current range. In terms of real ability it’s right up there with the latest BMW GS, and, importantly, it’s not a BMW GS. Yep, as a brand-new buying choice it probably isn’t sensible – the Super Ten’s depreciation is inevitably worse than a GS. But get a low mileage used one for thousands less than a new GS (somewhere in the £8k area will bag an ex-demonstrator – that’s £4k less than list) and you can feel smug and look cooler than the guy on the identikit BMW.

6: Honda Africa Twin

Styling that screams ‘adventure’ and all the right Paris-Dakar connotations allied to clichéd Honda reliability means the Africa Twin isn’t just cool, it’s still a perfectly viable every-day machine. Plenty have seen tough lives, and good ones are surprisingly pricy on the used market as a result. But invest in a Rothmans paint scheme and a few choice bolt-ons and you’ll have a convincing replica of the works NXR750s that dominated the Dakar in the 80s.

5: KTM 950 and 990 Adventure

There's no arguing with KTM’s off-road heritage and the original V-twin Adventure, with its crazy Gerald Kiska, slab-sides-and-razor-edges styling, was the firm’s first attempt at a big-capacity road bike. Launched in 2003, the early bikes are dropping near the £4k mark now and at that sort of money they're seriously tempting. 990s made from 2006-on, with more performance and even madder looks, start at around £5k. Lots of power, unique style and real ability off-road – certainly when compared to most style-over-substance adventure bikes – make this a shoe-in for this list.

4: Cagiva Elefant 900

If you are serious about trusting your life to a bike’s reliability and crossing the Sahara on it, we probably wouldn’t suggest the Ducati-powered Cagiva Elefant. But for the other 99.999% of us, this is the proper adventure bike that Ducati never built. Early 650cc and 750cc versions – both with Ducati Desmo V-twins – are intriguing, but the 900 makes the most sense. Powered by the Ducati 900SS engine, they go fairly well and look infinitely cooler than the softer Gran Canyon that replaced them.

3: Suzuki DR Big

If you think that ‘adventure bike’ means ‘big beak sticking out of the front’ then the DR Big is for you. Forget GSes, the DR did the beak biggest, best and first. More importantly, it has the biggest single-cylinder engine you’re ever likely to experience (727cc for the DR750S, going up to 779cc for the DR800S in 1990). Stick a Marlboro paint job on it, and it’s an instant rallye-raid replica, but good ones are getting hard to find.

2: Honda XLV750R

You might have been wondering why a bike as iconic as the Honda Africa Twin isn’t higher on this list. This is the answer – the XLV750R is the Africa Twin’s older, rarer, cooler and weirder brother. Despite sharing the Africa Twin’s V-twin configuration, it’s actually quite different. Air-cooled instead of water-cooled, it was a 750 way back in 1983 (the 750cc Africa Twin didn’t appear until 89) and offers BMW-style shaft drive instead of a chain. The red-painted engine and forks make it stand out, and production was low enough to make it unlikely you'll see another while riding one. It also means that when the gearbox fails, which they do, getting parts is as easy as finding a stash of roman gold at the bottom of your garden; it’s been known to happen, but don’t bet on it. But this list is about what’s cool, not what’s practical, so the XLV is in.

1: BMW R80 G/S Paris-Dakar

You thought we were going to get through without a BMW adventure bike in the list? No. Even though the GS has become clichéd thanks to its incredible popularity, there’s no doubting that it’s popular for a reason. But when it comes to cool, there’s only one version to think about, and that’s the original G/S. More specifically, it’s the even rarer Paris-Dakar version, with bigger tank and single seat. Prices are on the up for good ones, so it’s one of the few things that will depreciate less than a new R1200GS, too. Just don’t wear spanking new BMW-branded clothing with it or you’ll spoil the whole thing.