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Devon Help Us - 2003 Tourer Test

The sorry tale of taking three express tourers to the land of eternal rain and mist in an attempt to find a ray of sunshine

Ever since my parents moved to the Devon/Somerset border four years ago it has been a standing joke between us that the sun never, ever, seems to be shining when I visit them. In fact I am now reasonably convinced that no matter how sunny the South West is, some strange force drags low cloud and rain over the area as soon as I pass Bristol. So paranoid am I about this I even tried to dodge around the city once by going through Wales and across the Severn Bridge, but it started to rain as soon as I got half way across!

But this time I thought I had the weather beaten. The whole of the UK was undergoing a mini heat wave as photographer John Noble, freelance writer Luke Ponsford and myself left London and headed down the M4 towards the South West.

Like most plans which end in stunning failure the idea was simple. Despite it usually being covered in mist, from what I had seen of this area of the UK the scenery is spectacular to say the least and the roads are relatively Police and speed camera free, unlike Wales which now has a Police helicopter permanently airborne to catch speeders. We had a Honda Pan European, Yamaha FJR1300 and BMW R1150RT ready to go and a quick phone call to my parents the night before we left confirmed that the weather was beautiful. Mum told me dad was wandering around the garden without a shirt on in his shorts and sandals (maybe Scotland wasn't such a bad idea after all!). What could go wrong?

Stopping at the first service station just before Bristol things seemed to be going well. Despite doing most of his riding through London on his Fazer 600 Luke had adjusted well to the extra width of the FJR and its panniers and had only bounced them off one car's side, and the sun was still shining. Being an owner of the old Pan European John had bagged the new model for the first leg of the journey as he was intrigued to see what the differences were.

"That seat's terrible, my Pan's much comfier. And it weaves at 80mph," grumbled John as soon as he got off the Honda. When it was launched last year there were a lot of complaints about this and Honda recalled the Pan blaming the slight weave on manufacturing procedures that had left the bolts holding the engine in the frame unevenly torqued up, and as the engine acts as a stressed member in the frame this caused a flex and the weave. After the stop I rode the Pan for the rest of the motorway miles and I can't say I really noticed much of a weave, and I reckon that John was being a bit overly critical because he has done so many miles and is such a big fan of the old Pan. But he was right about the seat. It's not the comfiest around and the BMW's lovely sculpted seat is far better for motorway miles, although the Honda's is definitely better than the Yamaha's - which feels really hard in a most un-touring fashion.

Boring as motorway miles are they do serve a very useful purpose when it comes to big tourers. These bikes tend to spend more time than most on straight roads as getting to touring areas more often then not requires using main roads, which is why decent protection for the rider is essential. Being a physically bigger bike than the others it came as no surprise that the Pan offered the best shelter. Its enormous fairing meant that even if it was raining the rider remained dry but, surprisingly on a bike that costs just over £10,000, the Pan comes without an adjustable screen as standard.

The view from the rear seat

It's not much fun touring on your own so a decent pillion seat is essential on a sports tourer. For marital bliss if nothing else. However, not having brought a spare wife with us it was left to Luke to test the pillion provisions. He rated the Pan the best for pillion comfort but this was mainly because the top-box gave good support to his back. He reckoned the seat was a little hard and the BMW's was much better. Also the BMW has nicely placed grab handles and if the Beemer had had a top box it would have been best. The Yamaha was definitely last as its seat was too hard and narrow for covering mega miles. Also the Pan's smooth motor made it easy to stay balanced on the back while the Yamaha's strong acceleration nearly had him off the back!

The higher spec Pan comes with this as well as ABS but it will cost you an extra £1000. I have ridden one with an adjustable screen and it makes a huge difference. On fixed settings the screen is just too short for a rider of over six-foot to properly shelter behind but the adjustable one cures this. Both the Yamaha and BMW cost less than the Pan as standard and come with electric screens so the Honda not having one is a bit poor. The fairing on the BMW is second best and is sculptured to fit around your legs to keep them dry, and the adjustable screen is brilliant, but while the Yamaha's screen can be electrically adjusted it's not as effective as the BMW's and the fairing isn't as all-encompassing.

By the time we reached my parents house just outside Minehead night had drawn in, and thankfully dad had put his shirt back on, so having sampled the local cider in the village pub we called it a night. Although we had to reassure Luke, who hadn't been out of London for a while, that the sparkly things in the sky were stars and that they weren't going to fall on his head.

The next morning I was expecting to be woken up by the sound of rain, but amazingly this wasn't the case. But drawing back the curtains I was greeted by a familiar sight. It may not have been raining but the blue skies of the previous day had been replaced by the standard Somerset low-cloud. Typical, but at least it was dry.

Knowing the area reasonably well I lead the other two towards the fantastic coastal road that stretches between Minehead and Porlock and carries on towards Lynmouth. The views from this road over the moors and cost towards Wales really are stunning, well as long as the sun shines. But even though Wales was obscured in mist, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, and most of the hills were also shrouded it's still a nice road to ride along.

With corners replacing the straights of the motorways the handling and flexibility of the bikes and their motors became more important. Having bagged the Pan from John I was remembering what I love about Pans. Despite being big bikes they handle really well. Ground clearance is a bit limited but on sweeping corners they are fantastic and just kind of glide through bends, and although they weigh a hefty 276kg Pan's don't take a huge amount of effort to change direction.

The FJR also handles the back roads well. Yamaha has given the FJR a sporty chassis and I have followed ad git Giles on his longterm FJR at the TWO trackday at Donington and it certainly seemed to be having no trouble in the corners. To touch anything down you really have to be going some and despite feeling very long the FJR is nippy to change direction and it's size brings with it total stability.

But I was disappointed by the BMW. Bertie has spent much of the year raving about the RT, well, before he got his GSX-R1000 anyway, and I respect his opinion as he has been writing and riding bikes for more years than me but I just didn't get on with the BMW. It feels lazier than the others to turn, which could be something to do with the Telelever front end, and I never felt totally at home on it. I think a lot of this is because it just feels different to the other bikes, and I am sure owners will have no complaints about it, but swapping between the bike the BMW was definitely my least favourite in the faster corners. Speaking to Gus about it afterwards he reckons that BMWs are set too low at the back, which makes them turn slower and jacking up the rear helps cure the steering.

Reaching Porlock, poor city-boy Luke received a nasty shock. Now I'm not certain about this but I'm guessing by the look on his face that there are no 1:4 hills with hairpin bends on the North Circular. But he handled it well, which is more than the poor female cyclist who collapsed with exhaustion at the top where we had stopped for some photos.

Riding up and down one of the steepest hills in the UK is a very good test for a bike's brakes and the Yamaha's ABS, which is new for 2003, performed faultlessly. The BMW also comes with ABS and well as servo assistance and while the front brakes were excellent the rear was always a little too sharp, but the Honda without ABS was horrible. I had already had a very big heart in mouth moment when I tried to stop suddenly and left a metre long skid mark from the front wheel. Despite being linked with the rear the front brake is too strong and the combination of the Pan's weight and the fierce brake easily out foxes the front tyre's grip causing it to skid. The Honda ABS cures this, but again that's extra expense.

Panniers

With tourers, the size of the panniers is really important. The Yamaha has whopping great big panniers that can easily hold a full-face lid with a few extra bits and bobs fitted in around it. The locking mechanism feels quite solid and they attach well to the bike, provided you get the connectors in the correct position.

The BMW's panniers feel the strongest with an excellent locking mechanism that feels very solid. But they aren't the biggest and we struggled to fit much in them. But BMW also do a top-box which is worth getting if you are planning to go touring.

The Pan's panniers felt really flimsy and were tricky to shut with kit in. They aren't very big and the lock is poor. Top box was good.

Much to Luke's relief we headed away form Porlock and stopped for fish and chips, an ice cream and a few photos at Lynmouth. But his relief was short lived. Turning the Pan outside a crowded pub poor Luke became victim of "Pan Topple." The Honda is a big old bike and turning it in the road can be a bit of a struggle and Luke, not used to heavy bikes, got caught out by its weight. But all credit to Honda who obviously anticipated this problem because the crash protector did its job and a slight scuff on the pannier, mirror cover, protector and a dent in Luke's pride was all that resulted from the drop. And just to prove this was no fluke he dropped it again ten minutes later, in front of a coach party!

Fortified by the grease in the chips we headed off. On the slightly less twisty roads heading towards Ilfracombe we got a chance to open the bikes up a bit more. All three of these bikes have very different motors. The BMW sticks with its traditional Boxer twin motor, which is really suited to touring. The twin pulls cleanly from low down and is perfect for rolling on and off the throttle with minimal gear changes. It may not be as fast as the others but has character and easy to live with. The Yamaha in contrast is a complete rocketship. The inline four engine is hugely powerful and goes like stink. You often find yourself changing gear more often as it lacks slightly the low-down torque of the BMW but if you want to get somewhere fast then it's perfect. The Honda's V4 is a mixture of the two. It has a turbine feeling about it and it whines  rather than roars as it accelerates. It's not quite as fast as the FJR but is still very powerful and I reckon offers the best compromise of the three.

But the problem with having a powerful motor is fuel economy suffers. There's little point in having a comfortable tourer if you're stopping every hundred miles for fuel. If you are using the engine hard the FJR manages a pathetic 130 miles before the fuel gauge starts to flash. At this point the Honda still has three bars left and the BMW four, which is at least 50 miles. Keeping to a steady 60-70mph constant throttle the Yamaha does manage close to 180 miles before you need a fuel stop, but both the Honda and BMW are good for over 200 miles.

By now we had abandoned all hope of ever seeing the sun and spent the rest of the day exploring the road and various ice cream shops of Devon with photographer John muttering things about light and scenery being covered in mist and Luke avoiding the Pan like the plague.

After staying over at the Little Beach Hotel in Woolacombe we headed back towards the motorway via some more of Devon's twisty roads. And true to form just before we joined the M4 on the way home the heavens opened and it started to rain in Devon's traditional fair well gesture.

Stopping just outside Bristol for fuel I considered which bike I would take on a touring holiday. The BMW is easily the best on the motorway. It's seat is brilliantly comfortable, fairing excellent, screen very good, mirrors show everything behind, clocks easy and clear to read with a very useful gear indicator and clear fuel gauge. But on the twisty roads I didn't enjoy it much, the whine of the servo brakes is really annoying and the side-stand is hard to reach with your boot as it's tucked too far away. The motor offers the best economy but isn't as fast as the others and can vibrate a bit.

In contrast the Yamaha is bloody fast, almost too fast for a tourer, but it's poor economy, hard seat and smaller fairing let it down.

The Honda would be just about the perfect express tourer if it wasn't for the hard seat, lack of electric screen and ABS, but you can cure two of these three points by getting the more expensive model, but then that puts it at nearly £1000 more than the other two. Although people will argue that it is a small price to pay for comfort.

So which would I choose? It has to be the Pan European, but the higher spec model.

The BMW is a close second but the Honda's better handling and stronger motor edge it ahead. Although judging by what John reckons (see box out) the old model Pan European could be worth a look if you are counting the pennies, he has owned three of them so knows what he is talking about. For once!

As for the South West, I'm going back when global warming has well and truly taken hold.