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BMW K1300GT, Honda VFR800, Suzuki Hayabusa, KTM 990SMT

How do you like your big-mile kicks? We evaluate four different takes on the tourer From the Suzuki Hayabusa to the KTM 990SMT

Mortgages, loan repayments, utility bills, taxes... the list of reasons we’re forced to compete in the rat race is almost as long as the daily grind itself.

Different people have different cures for the stresses of modern life but for us the answer is simple: get on a bike and quite literally get lost. Carefully planning a trip is all well and good but when your job involves planning and you’re trying to break the cycle, something a little more gung-ho fits the bill.

The choice of machine really isn’t all that important but, since we’re looking at two stress-free days, we’ve picked four bikes to relax and excite in equal measure. From the Honda VFR800 to the Suzuki Hayabusa.

BMW’s über sports-tourer gained 100cc becoming the K1300GT for 2009. Sharing the same rip-snorting, canted-forward motor as the K1300R we enjoyed so much last month, the GT’s mix of high-tech touring and proper performance should be a strong package.

To make sure we get the fun-to-practicality ratio just right, we’ve also brought along the outlandish KTM 990SMT. Ostensibly a giant supermoto aimed at sensible touring types, this piece of rolling irony promises to be this trip’s jack-of-all-trades – we’ll soon find out if it’s master of none.

Time has pretty much stood still for Honda’s once benchmark VFR800. With only detail changes since the inception of the VTEC model way back in 2002, two days in northern France should vindicate or otherwise Honda’s if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it policy.

And finally, the mighty Suzuki Hayabusa. A motorcycle with more ponies than a Shetland landowner, you’d be forgiven for thinking going fast is the GSX1300R’s one trick. Its sheer torque makes it one of the laziest bikes out there – like so many things in a man’s life, the level of relaxation is dictated by your right hand.

BMW K1300GT

BMW K1300GT

Like the rest of the Ks, the GT’s now a 1300. With so much touring know-how at BMW and a great engine, is this our winner?

Watching photographer Oli merrily chuck the fully-loaded BMW from side to side on patchy, wet and unfamiliar French roads, I concentrate on keeping the Hayabusa’s wheels in line – sometimes size really does matter.

Seemingly stuck to the damp tarmac, the hefty German’s filtering ineptitude (the GT sure is wide) that held us up so frustratingly as we fought out of a particularly busy rush-hour Calais is forgotten. On proper roads the BM’s tough to stick with.

The sheer weight of the GT helps no end with its road-holding qualities, but some credit has to go the quirky but effective front Duolever and rear Paralever suspension. It’s a system that five years ago I absolutely detested but that BMW have stuck with on all of their bigger bikes and, as proved by the R1200GS both on road and off, these days it really does work. Getting used to the lack of weight transfer takes a while – the Duolever system is set up to resist brake dive – but once you’ve established faith in the system, so your speeds rise. Thanks to the balance of the bike, it’s surprisingly easy to get carried away, regardless of the size of the thing.

Just like its cars, BMW has a massive checklist when it comes to options for the GT. To list them all here would require at least another two pages but, unlike the older model where a higher spec SE model was made available, the K1300GT comes pretty well loaded as standard, with ABS, heated grips, an electrically adjustable screen, a built-in immobiliser and colour-matched panniers all included in the price.

If you want to go further your wallet really is the only limit; electronic suspension adjustment (ESA II), cruise control, heated seats, an onboard computer, a wireless alarm system and even a tyre pressure monitoring system are all available.

Our test bike had the ESA II system fitted. It allows adjustments to the preload and compression damping to be made on the move at the press of a button. Switching from soft in the wet to firm on fast, dry roads, the difference is both immediately apparent and beneficial. Quick adjustments allow for spur of the moment pillion rides without skinned knuckles and the luxury of tuning the suspension to your mood; firm and controlled when you’re on good roads, comfortable and insulating when you just want to get to the hotel.

While the innovative new regime at BMW seems hell-bent on leading the way with fresh ideas in bike technology, they were perhaps a little slow on the uptake when it came to using a decent across-the-frame, four-cylinder engine. But their current four, first seen in the Hayabusa-baiting K1200S, has now evolved into a dry-sumped, forward-canted peach of a motor, one with a character all its own.

The engine design now includes a stacked transmission too (BMW are very proud of this, even though the Japanese have been doing it for well over a decade), which gives the bike a low centre of gravity. This, together with the well-balanced suspension, helps hide the bike’s weight well, even at low speeds.

The power delivery from the 1293cc motor isn’t so much explosive as infusive, building steadily from a soft but strong bottom end, rising through a torquey yet docile midrange before being truly unleashed from its shackles when the tacho needle hits 7500rpm. Then it takes on a completely different feel, the softness replaced with a rasping, gravelly wail as the motor comes on song, pushing the bike all the way to a top speed just shy of 160mph.

The BMW isn’t nearly as swift as the ballistic Suzuki but, considering the sheer mass the engine has to push through the air via the maintenance-free but power-sapping shaft drive, it’s still pretty impressive, especially since all this takes place with you sat bolt upright, the screen enveloping you in an almost silent pocket of air. Never before has covering huge distances at huge speeds been so comfortable.

As a distance tool that won’t turn its nose up at a set of S-bends or wince at bumpy backroads, and can just about cope with the walking pace frustration of a congested city centre, the BMW is a well-built, not to mention classy, piece of engineering.

But the problem for me is that it’s almost too well engineered. While the GT may be the most relaxing bike on test, it’s not as exciting as the Suzuki or as engaging as the KTM. The SMT delivers a whole catalogue of fun, the Hayabusa has an engine like nothing else on Earth and the VFR is £341 cheaper. Well, the Honda has to have a plus point in there somewhere.

If high-speed, two-up comfort is your number one priority, you won’t be disappointed. But if it’s pure fun you seek, and if you’re the kind of rider who rates excitement over luxury – one who hankers after the kicks only motorcycling in its purest form can deliver – look elsewhere.

BMW K1300GT Specifications

Price £13,200 Top speed 157.62mph
Engine 1293cc, 16-valve, liquid-cooled in-line four
Bore & stroke 80mm x 64.3mm Compression ratio 13:1
Power 152.70bhp at 9750rpm  Torque 90.64lb/ft at 8250rpm
Front suspension BMW Duolever, central shock absorber, ESA II adjustment
Rear suspension BMW Paralever, central shock absorber, ESA II adjustment
Front brakes Four-piston calipers, 320mm discs, ABS
Rear brake Twin-piston caliper, 294mm disc, ABS
Dry weight 255kg (562lbs)  Seat height 800mm-840mm (800mm with low seat option)
Fuel capacity 24 litres Colour options Beige, blue, red

Honda VFR800

Honda VFR800

Yes it’s older than prostitution, yes the engine’s a bit silly and yes it’s not very exciting next to a Hayabusa, but has the polished V4 really lost its shine?

At 5am in mid-July I’m expecting the fresh smell of a morning and the cheering sight of blue skies. Instead I’m greeted by torrential rain, dense charcoal clouds and the acrid stench of an unwanted Indian takeaway thoughtfully plastered all over VFR’s seat. Lovely. And as I hammer down the A20, the pungent waft of reheated Jalfrezi seeping through the side-mounted radiators and into the vents of my Arai, I’m taken back in time.

Save for the recent one-off addition of Asian cuisine, the VFR has remained virtually unchanged for the last seven years. There’s a feeling that Honda has left the VFR to just tick along as a banker, accumulating steady sales without the expense of a redesign or revamp.

But popularity wanes with time and where the VFR was once the prime choice for riders seeking something more sensible while still clinging to the sportsbike ideal, with so many equally versatile alternatives on the market now, the VFR no longer holds the trump card it once did.

As the rain bounces off the Honda’s curved screen and my hands are gently warmed by the heated grips, I’m not too bothered about what’s in vogue; I just want to make the ferry on time. Frantically checking the mirrors for any flashing blue signs of disapproval of my ever-increasing speed, I roll into Dover with minutes to spare, my sleepy brain thankful for the VFR’s undemanding demeanour, the ABS forgiving my early morning clumsiness through several diesel-soaked junctions and roundabouts.

Despite its advancing years, there’s still an inherent kind of usefulness about the Honda that’s hard to ignore. There’s nothing intimidating about any aspect of the VFR; like a servile partner it feels like it just wants to help you out, ignoring your mistakes and putting up with any shortcomings in your ability.

Handling has always been one of Honda strengths. I’m not talking about peg-down, ragged edge ability, more the general balance of the bike and suppleness of the suspension that again, despite being dated with “old hat”, right-way-up forks, just gets on with what it’s supposed to do, giving little in the way of direct feedback yet plenty in the way of confidence. Call it neutrality, call it intuitive, call it what you will, but the way the VFR has been set-up to be okay if not brilliant at everything is uncanny. In this respect, the old girl’s still got it.

On this test our VFR was compromised by a skyscraper of a top box. Trying to get the bike onto the ferry via a wet and slippery deck, I’m transformed from an experienced rider to a just-passed nobber, my feet paddling along as the top-heavy rear end turns one of the most stable bikes ever built into a wobbling mess. Why Honda couldn’t have designed a properly integrated system for the VFR during the last seven years remains a mystery.

Unlike BMW and KTM, both of whom offer a range of well-considered in-house optional extras, it seems Honda just buy in from outside sources and re-badge them. The heated grips look like they’ve been made in China (they have), the end result being a crude set of add-ons that look like shoddy afterthoughts rather than genuine factory options. Not good enough.

Mindful to avoid any low bridge/top box interaction as we head out of Calais, on drying roads the VFR is as easygoing as it comes. The V-four motor burbles away beneath me as the first stage of the VTEC system (in which just two of the four valves per cylinder operate to give improved torque and a smooth delivery) pushes the bike along with a lazy yet grunty shove. The problems start and finish between 6250rpm and 6750rpm. This is the point at which that refinement gives way to a grating bark. Sure, from an engineering viewpoint the VTEC system is very clever, but the sound from the twin pipes as the extra valves chime in is more akin to Janice Battersby’s Frister Rossmann on overtime than one of the most exotic engine configurations in full flow. V-four engines are supposed to sound awesome, not tiresome.

With all sixteen valves in action the VTEC system does lend the VFR a whole new character, and the extra power is more than welcome when the mood for some head-down hoonery kicks in, but the on/off feel of the changeover is a worry on wet French roads.

Honda’s once benchmark sports tourer might not be broken, but it’s going to take a completely new and more refined model to fix the VFR’s declining sales figures.

Honda VFR800 Specifications

Price £9525 Top speed 147.19mph
Engine 782cc, 16-valve, liquid-cooled V-four
Bore & stroke 72mm x 48mm Compression ratio 11.6:1
Power 97.37bhp at 10,750rpm Torque 71.34lb/ft at 9000rpm
Front suspension 43mm telescopic forks, preload adjustment
Rear suspension Monoshock, preload and rebound adjustment
Front brakes Combined three-piston calipers, 296mm discs
Rear brake Combined three-piston caliper, 256mm disc
Dry weight 218kg (481lbs) Seat height 805mm Fuel capacity 22 litres
Colour options Black, white/black, silver, red

KTM 990 Supermoto T

KTM 990 Supermoto T

In stark contrast to the VFR, the SMT; new, tall, wild, grunty and shot-through with a sense of mischief, the KTM is a revelation

When riders started fitting seventeen-inch road wheels to motocross bikes, we all thought the world had gone mad. And now, as I look at a bike that’s morphed over time from the original hooligan’s tool into a machine billed as a sensible touring bike, I’m not sure what to make of it all.

But just as the ethos of supermoto now makes sense, at least on the right racetrack, so the SMT doesn’t take long to work its magic. A less than obvious derivative of the 950 Supermoto, only a European firm as broadminded as KTM could have thought of turning something so single-mindedly mental into a versatile tool.

Wipe away your preconceptions and ignore the fact the SMT has the word ‘supermoto’ in its name. What we’re dealing with here is a high-spec road bike with enough wind protection to feel as relaxed as is ever likely to be considered safe aboard a 130bhp motorcycle.

Keeping up with anyone with a healthy respect for their licence is never a problem on the KTM. Even on the long and boring motorway stint between Abbeville and Calais on the way home after two days of tiring riding, wine drinking and cheese eating, sitting at 100mph – our agreed cruising speed based on balancing fuel economy with the potential for boredom – the KTM is never anything other than very comfortable. With plenty of legroom for the long of limb and an unexpected absence of the usual V-twin vibration through the footrests and handlebars, the small fuel tank is always depleted long before you are.

Fuel economy is something of a disappointment on the KTM, the SMT returning an average of just 34mpg on a mixed run. But apart from its fairly steep asking price of £9595 and some slightly cheap-looking plastics, these are the only downsides any of us could come up with after three days’ riding. When it comes to considering the KTM’s plus points, it’s a much longer chat.

Get off the motorway and the first thing most of us want to do is to get into a few corners. While the BMW feels like it’s almost welded to the road and both the Honda and Suzuki handle up to a point, the KTM takes things to whole new level, injecting as much fun into the ride as it does unleaded into those thumping twin cylinders.

What you get with the KTM that none of the other bikes can quite manage is a properly split personality; forget Jekyll and Hyde, the SMT is more tripolar than bipolar, with a skill set broader than the BMW’s capacious panniers.

The twisting D940 was our escape route from the grime and industry of Calais. This writhing, undulating road varies constantly, with every type of corner and surface. In places it’s grippy and positively cambered; in others it’s bumpy, shiny and demands concentration and respect in equal measure. A cracker, then.

On anything other than the KTM, care needs to be exercised, the brute power of the Hayabusa requiring a skilled throttle hand, the sheer momentum of the BMW tempering enthusiasm and the VFR… well, some caffeine would probably be a good idea.

From the tall, upright riding position of the SMT, planning your next attack on yet another unsuspecting Citroën Berlingo, on any type of bend you care to mention, the KTM makes it so easy. Generous leverage from the wide bars allied to quality WP suspension that somehow manages to combine softness in the first part of its stroke with enough support further down to encourage late braking and hard acceleration, means that only those with utter and absolute self-control will be able to behave themselves on this bike.

I’m not one of these people. Sliding it into corners on the brakes and wheelying out the other side is pretty much unavoidable for someone with a mental age of fifteen.

For most other people, the sheer compliance and versatility of this bike means that whether you’re riding in town, tearing up B-roads or taking the missus out for a countryside cruise, the KTM will be whatever you want it to be.

There’s a feeling of simplicity to the KTM I find hard to dislike, too. The clocks won’t tell you how much fuel you’ve got left or what your average mpg is (it’s probably too embarrassed). Nor will it tell you what gear you’re in or what the ambient air temperature is. But let’s face it, if you don’t know if you’re in the right gear and what the weather’s like, maybe it’s time you considered swapping two wheels for four.

If you’re after a bike that will have a go at anything, anywhere, anytime, you need to take a test ride on this latest offering from those crazy Austrians. It may be expensive but it’s also pretty damn special. The Supermoto T really is the jack-of-all-trades bike we hoped it would be. That in itself is a remarkable achievable. That it’s also master of most of them is little short of astonishing.

KTM 990 SMT Specifications

Price £9495 Top speed 140.62mph
Engine 999cc, 8-valve, liquid-cooled V-twin
Bore & stroke 101mm x 62.4mm Compression ratio 11.5:1
Power 113.74bhp at 9500rpm Torque 70.27lb/ft at 7100rpm
Front suspension 43mm inverted WP forks, preload, compression and rebound adjustment
Rear suspension WP monoshock, preload, compression and rebound adjustment
Front brakes Four-piston Brembo calipers, 305mm discs
Rear brake Twin-piston caliper, 240mm disc
Dry weight 196kg (432lbs) Seat height 825mm Fuel capacity 19 litres
Colour options Orange, silver

Suzuki Hayabusa

Suzuki Hayabusa

Suzuki’s top-speed icon has always been the perfect big-distance machine. After all, 186mph gets you home pretty fast...

What can I say that hasn’t already been said a million times about Suzuki’s mind-bendingly fast Hayabusa? The choice of speed freaks the world over, the Busa has slaked man’s thirst to crack the two-wheeled double ton ever since the first models hit the streets back in 1999.

Turbine-smooth motor, gut-wrenching torque, blah, blah, blah… The list of superlatives for describing this now legendary motor is a long one, and they’re all true. This is an engine so sweet it’s long since found its way beyond the world of motorcycling, with the 1340cc motor now widely regarded as the starting point for any lightweight performance vehicle, regardless of the number of wheels. So we won’t go on about it. Well, not too much anyway.

Revised and revamped last year, in essence the Hayabusa has changed very little during its ten-year existence. But it’s the small details that count. At long last it’s got the radial brakes to match the revolutionary performance, and the riding position, while still less than perfect, has become far less cramped – the old feeling of a mating tree frog mounting a toad has been replaced with something far more natural, though the low seat and long reach to the bars will still more than likely mean cramped knees and sore backs for the vertically challenged.

Getting into the essential high-speed tuck is easy though and goes a long way to explaining the bike’s unique layout. Famous for its aerodynamics, Suzuki has managed to make the Hayabusa’s body even more slippery, cutting through the air easily with hardly any buffeting all the way up to terminal velocity, the plastics taking the full force of the 200mph windblast so you don’t have to. It’s a slightly strange paradox of head-down, arse-up luxury, but you sit there happily enough as the speedo needle climbs towards rarely seen figures and the fuel gauge gently descends towards the red zone.

I did promise not to go on about that engine, but it’s hard not to – if you ever get the chance to hold a Hayabusa flat out in sixth for more than five seconds you’ll find it hard not to be an excitable, blathering idiot for the following half an hour too. The Hayabusa experience never fails to leave a big impression on all who sample it.

Tempering the 1300’s mighty motor used to require a skilled right hand and a whole heap of self-restraint. Suzuki has since fitted a three-way mapping switch mounted to the right bar that we pretty much forgot about throughout the test, dismissing it as nothing more than a sales gimmick. It does work well in the wet though, and while on the drier, more open roads a shit-eating grin courtesy of powerslides were the order of the day, having the rear tyre constantly twitching on the damp roads around Neufchatel-en-Bray does make life with the Hayabusa edgy compared to any of the other bikes. In the light of that I apologise for my earlier cynicism – that three-way switch really does serve a purpose on the Busa.

Spending a weekend with the three other bikes, the Suzuki does feel like the odd one out. Long-legged it may be but it was never intended as a long-haul touring bike. While more than capable of going the distance, it always feels like it would much rather eat rear tyres than miles. Being conservative with the throttle is like going on a beach holiday with Katie Price and making her wear a cagoule – a wasted opportunity that completely misses the point.

And while we’re on the subject of satisfying handling, this is an area in which Suzuki often excels and the Hayabusa is no exception. To cope with such brute power, stability is an absolute must and, so as long as you’re not expecting sharp steering and agility and can accept that a little more forward planning is required than your average sportsbike, the Hayabusa can still hustle when you eventually tire of scaring everyone on the motorway.

Short-shifting through the slick gearbox, the Hayabusa can be ridden very lazily. While the VFR’s VTEC system is busy cutting in and out, trying to make its mind up how many valves to use, just stick the Busa in fourth and get on with it.

Slinging the long bike into corners always feels secure and compliant, with an ability to hold a line that’s at odds with the bike’s size. Like the weighty BMW, there’s a feeling that the bike’s weight and well-balanced suspension are working for it rather than against it.

The only real downside to the Suzuki’s decade-long evolution is that while this is technically the best Hayabusa yet, those same feelings that got every red-blooded biker flocking to Suzuki dealers in 1999 just to get a peek at this tyre-devouring rocketship are lost in translation.

Maybe it’s ten years on and we’re over the whole quest for ludicrous speeds and Battlestar Galactica styling, or maybe it’s just that in the meantime the competition has come up with more ways than ever to engage riders without the need for speed. Perhaps then, the Hayabusa is a one-trick pony after all. But what a great trick.

Suzuki GSX1300RR Hayabusa

Price £9400 Top speed 183.02mph
Engine 1340cc, 16-valve, liquid-cooled in-line four
Bore & stroke 81mm x 65mm Compression ratio 12.5:1
Power 178.22bhp at 9800rpm Torque 105.92lb/ft at 7200rpm
Front suspension 43mm inverted forks, preload, compression and rebound adjustment
Rear suspension Monoshock, preload, compression and rebound adjustment
Front brakes Four-piston calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake Twin-piston caliper, 245mm disc
Dry weight 220kg (485lbs) Seat height 805mm Fuel capacity 21 litres
Colour options Silver, black, white

Verdict

Verdict

Every road test differs, so to say that one bike is so much better than the others isn’t easy. On the widely varied roads of Northern France each bike showed its strengths and weaknesses – and we reckon we’ve found the strongest.

Had we opted to head straight down to the south of France on the Autoroute, then it’s fairly likely that the BMW would have won this test hands down. As a mode of transport, it’s nothing short of brilliant, but then that could be said about a number of vehicles, and there’s a vital element missing from the BMW’s impressive spec sheet – an element that can’t be added by simply ticking a box.

Personality goes a long way in motorcycling. We do it for the adrenaline rush, for the thrill of riding, knowing that our every input both physical and cerebral have a direct impact. The BMW is a Grand Tourer in the very truest sense, but there’s little fun to be had, little to alleviate the symptoms of a life spent working towards ownership of this expensive and expansive behemoth.

The Honda feels old. In 2002, it struck the balance between sports bike and touring beautifully, but seven years on in a brand new world of motorcycling where we’re no longer obsessed with sports bikes, there are so many more options open to us. It still does everything you could ever expect it to it’s just that everything else has moved on while the VFR has stood firm. Like a pensioner’s refusal to accept that the internet exists, the staid Honda’s reluctance to keep up with modern technology has left it lagging way behind.

Last year’s revamp made a tangible difference to the Hayabusa but I can’t help feeling that the whole ethos of Top Trump bikes with huge headlines figures is as outdated as the VFR. Sure, the primal urge to jump on a bike and see how fast it will go still has huge appeal but with pretty much all litre class sports bikes now as comfortable and limited to the same top speed of 186mph, the quest to lay claim to title of world’s fastest production bike is long since over. Its only saving grace is that engine – it needs to be experienced to be appreciated.

Which just leaves the KTM. No, I wouldn’t have believed it either at the start of the test, but the SMT990 has blown me away. On the motorway, unless you enjoy cruising at 150mph, the KTM will keep up with anything, deflecting the elements enough to cosset without sanitising the whole bike experience.

Get off the motorway and the fun really begins, the KTM bringing a whole new meaning to the word versatility, opening itself up to a wide range of riders all looking for different things. Everyone on the test raved about this bike; it’s not bogged down with technology or sterilised by rider aids, it’s just everything about riding bikes that we love.