Top 10 sports tourers under £3k

Do-everything machines for the price of a new 250

AS a class of motorcycle it’s hard to pin down a precise definition of a sports tourer – the term can apply as easily to an ER-6f as it can to a Suzuki Hayabusa – and perhaps as a result of that blurriness you’ll find some of the very best bikes ever made shoehorned into this category.

Usually expensive when new, and often range-toppers with some of the best engineering their makers have to offer, one thing that does tend to unite sports tourers is their ability to depreciate. Often saddled with slightly tame styling, they start to look old before their time and rarely manage the trick of slipping seamlessly from ‘new-and-exciting’ straight to ‘classic-in-the-making’. Instead they languish in the affordable end of the market, slowly slipping towards the inevitable drudgery of courier duties before their scuffed and gaffa-taped remains make the final journey to be scrapped.

Catch the right model at the right moment in its life cycle, though, and you’ll get more bike for your money than you could ever rightfully expect; combining comfort, performance, handling and (fingers crossed) reliability, all for a fraction of the cost of a new machine that offers little or nothing more in any of those areas.

Given an imaginary £3000 budget, this is our top 10. Let us know what models you’d add to the list.

10. Aprilia RST1000 Futura

Persuading buyers into Aprilia dealers at the moment is a task that would make Hercules start looking around for excuses; even the stunning RSV4R and Tuono aren’t flying off the shelves. And a dozen years ago, when the Futura was launched, the story wasn’t all that different. Sure, people took the RSV Mille seriously, but its siblings the Futura and the Falco sold in tiny numbers. Which was a shame, because both were good bikes. The Futura, which lived only two years from 2001 to 2003, offered 150mph performance from a 113bhp version of the characterful Rotax V-twin it shared with the RSV. Throw in styling that still looks sharp today, a single-sided swingarm and the sort of rarity that mean’s it’s less common than a Ducati Desmosedici RR (53 left on UK roads vs 76 of the Ducatis) and it’s an enticing proposition. Why isn’t it higher on the list? Well, no shaft drive will put some touring riders off, and then there’s the eternal problem of parts supplies and reliability worries – it shouldn’t have any more problems than any other bike, but if it does, getting it fixed could take a while if the bit you need can’t be found straight away.

Cost today? Around £2,500 should bag a nice one, although as you’d expect with so few of them out there, you can’t afford to be picky about colours and details unless you’re prepared for a long search.

9. Yamaha Fazer 1000

The combination of a 143bhp engine plucked straight from the R1 superbike with a back-to-basics steel cradle frame and simple suspension was always a recipe that promised a lot. Given how little a Fazer 1000 can cost these days it feels like nit-picking to point out its flaws. Okay, you can feel how basic that suspension is, and its squidgy nature isn’t going to have improved with age like a fine wine, while the styling is dull and the bike’s nose fairing won’t give the same protection against wind blast as some of the more dedicated tourers in this list. But in terms of value-for-money it’s hard to argue with. These days a lot of the used bikes on the market will already have aftermarket panniers and double-bubble screens, helping boost their long-distance ability. You’ll get one that’s less than 10 years old for under £2k, too, which makes it a crazy bargain. The problem is that it’s neither terribly ‘sports’ nor does it come down hard on the ‘tourer’ side of the fence – it will do both jobs, no question, but it’s a handyman, not a craftsman.

8. Ducati ST2/ST3/ST4

Ducatis today are mobile sculptures, but back in the late ‘90s when the ST range was designed there wasn’t the same sort of flair going on. The firm’s only late effort at a straightforward sports tourer is also the dullest-looking Ducati in recent history as a result. But on the used market that just means they’re cheaper than you’d ever expect to find something with a Ducati badge and this level of ability. We’re lumping all the ST models together, but it’s worth thinking hard over which you want. The ST2 will be cheapest, with its 944cc two-valve motor, but it also might be more reliable and cheaper to run than the ST4, which used the proper 916cc, four-valve-per-cylinder superbike engine and got the performance to match. Best of the bunch is probably the short-lived ST3 which replaced both earlier bikes. Its three-valve-per-cylinder motor is unique to the model and biggest of all at 992cc. Power virtually matched the ST4 and it also gained reworked styling that improved slightly on its predecessors – it doesn’t look anywhere near as dated now as the blobby ST2/4. The problem will be finding one within the £3k budget, but they are out there.

7. Triumph Sprint ST

There are two distinct eras of Sprint ST, and both are worthy of this list in their own way – so despite their differences we’ll give them one entry. The earlier 955i bike is clearly a product of the 90s and has the styling to match; it isn’t ugly, but nobody is going to be fooled into thinking it’s new. But it is cheap. Very cheap. There are plenty out there at under £2k, and that gives you a 118bhp, fully-faired sports tourer that in its day provided serious competition for the Honda VFR. Praise indeed. Oh, and you get a three-cylinder engine, of course – something that seems to be getting increasingly fashionable these days and certainly offers more character than an inline four. At the other end of the budget comes the 1050 version; most are still out of the £3k budget, but you will find them slipping into reach if you keep an eye open or are prepared to haggle hard. A new chassis, bigger engine (123bhp), more torque and far sharper styling created a bike that didn’t just snap at the VFR’s heels, it matched it, blow for blow.

6. Kawasaki ZZR1200

Nobody ever fell in love with the ZZR1200 for its looks. The headlights look like one of those through-the-microscope pictures of cells splitting, and that’s not something that any focus group can ever have said they wanted. And from the lights back, well, it’s basically the same as a ZZR1100, and they’re old enough to be seen in cave paintings. But, as they say, you don’t look at the mantelpiece when you’re stoking the fire, so let’s skip all that and get onto the good stuff, and it’s very good. Like 160bhp. A proper 160bhp, too – these things are fast. And those mother-couldn’t-love-them looks are probably the reason for the other attractive part of the ZZR1200, namely its price these days. Checking ‘sold items’ on eBay shows that realistically most of these go for less than £2000. They may be more than a decade old, but they’re the sort of bike that always appealed to sensible, ROSPA-type riders, so many are impeccably well looked after, too.

5. Suzuki Hayabusa

If there’s one reason that the ZZR1200 never made much of an impact when it was new it’s the fact that it was often put head-to-head with the Suzuki Hayabusa. And that’s a big mountain to climb. The term ‘legend’ gets thrown about all to readily these days, but the Busa is exactly that – after all, it’s the bike that inspired the world’s bike makers to get together in 2000 and agree to limit all their machines to no more than 186mph. As a result, in most books the 1999 Busa is still the fastest production bike ever made, topping out at over 190mph (later versions had speed limiters). As sports tourers, they’re big enough and comfy enough to swallow huge distances and there are plenty of add-ons out there to increase their touring ability. The Busa would rank higher, but its famous status seems to be holding prices surprisingly high – there are plenty out there for just under £3k, but they don’t go a lot lower than that either.

4. Kawasaki ZX-12R

Remember how we said that sports tourers have always been hard to define? Well the Kawasaki ZX-12R is an example of that. Is it a sports tourer? Or is it a ‘hyperbike’? Who cares – with prices dropping below £2000 for a machine that was initially designed to beat 200mph we’re including it in this list. You’ll have enough change for a set of throw-overs if it’s not ‘touring’ enough for your tastes. Right, with that out of the way, let’s see what we’ve got here… Kawasaki originally intended this bike to beat the Suzuki Hayabusa to the title of ‘fastest production bike’ back in 2000, only to have the wind taken out of its sails by the self-imposed 186mph speed limit agreed by Japan’s bike firms. Could it have reached 200mph? Well, that number was in mind when it was designed, but production versions top out at 186mph, as per the agreement. It’s all pretty academic, but either way it’s safe to say the ZX-12R is about as fast as you’ll ever need to go. It handles, too. The steering is quick, the monocque chassis is stiff (and still futuristic, even this long after the bike’s launch) and the brakes are capable; you’ll be quicker round corners than a ’Busa or a Blackbird, that’s for sure. Yes, it’s big. Yes, it’s dated. But it’s an astounding bargain.

3. Honda Super Blackbird

It might seem strange that the Honda Super Blackbird ranks higher on this list than the Suzuki Hayabusa or Kawasaki ZX-12R – both machines that would usual trounce it in period road tests. But remember, we’re looking at sports tourers here, and the Blackbird comes down more firmly on the ‘touring’ side of the balance than its rivals – a disadvantage in original tests, concerned only with performance and handling, but a bonus in the real world. With gazillions of them built over more than a decade, there are a huge number to choose from, with prices for roadworthy examples dipping down to little more than £1000 or reaching up to well above our £3000 limit depending on age and condition. A lot will already have panniers, top boxes and other long-distance gubbins fitted, too. And remember, the Blackbird is still crazy-fast, as well as being comfy, reliable and rather more restrainedly handsome than either the Suzuki or Kawasaki alternatives. The very first, carb-fed models, complete with stealth-style grey paintwork, are surely future classics. Problems? Well, the combined brakes are not to everyone’s (anyone’s?) taste, although they can be de-linked with an aftermarket kit. And there’s no ABS.

2. BMW K1200S

Yes, we admit it, you will face a long and arduous search to get a K1200S in our price range – but we found a couple at £3000, so it’s in. And what a bike it is for that sort of money. A generation newer than bikes like the Blackbird, having been launched in 2004, it gets 170mph-plus performance from 165bhp, allied to reams of technology, safety kit like ABS and even unusual stuff like the Duolever front suspension, which works incredibly well as long as you remember it’s a sports tourer, not a race bike. Bear in mind that the current K1300S is a pretty simple development of this bike, and looks near-identical too. The new version will set you back more than £12k brand new, so for three grand the K1200S is a bargain. Owners seem to be pretty happy with the bike’s long-term durability too. In a year or two the updated, 2007-on model will probably drop down to these price levels, as will the half-faired R-Sport, giving an even wider choice.

1. Honda VFR

Yes, yes. We’re prepared for the barrage of criticism for making the obvious choice our winner. But the VFR has defined the very concept of a sports tourer for so long that it’s virtually impossible to imagine it in any other position. On the used market, under £3000, the options available range from early 750s right up to the VTEC VFR800 that’s basically the same under the skin as the bike available from dealers right now. You could fill a book with the relative pros and cons of each model, so we’ll just say that nothing else on this list offers quite the same ability to do everything without even raising a sweat. Even it you only had £750 to spend, you could still buy a 1980s or 90s VFR750 that would reliably take you, your missus and your luggage to the Nurburgring and back as well as providing on-track fun once you got there. And it’s not just an efficient tool for the job, either – the V4 provides a touch of character that inline engines struggle to match. The VFR might be the default answer to the sports tourer question, but it’s earned that spot. 

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