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The Power and the Glory: Ducati Streetfighter S v BMW K1300R v Triumph Speed Triple v Honda CB1000R

Hugely powerful and slickly suspended, the new breed of big streetbikes are superbike-fast

Getting naked on the South Downs is nothing new. Since the beginning of time, getting over-excited among the rolling hills that straddle the back of Hampshire has been the pastime to many. From over-sexed, rampaging Romans to underdressed, chemically-fuelled weekend revelers, the Downs have been a playground to a great many people.

For Visordown the Downs mean a traffic-free, mid-week blast on some of the best roads the south has to offer, with the mighty A272 running through the heart of it. A twisting, writhing ribbon of tarmac that undulates with every type of camber and crest along its 90-mile length between Winchester and Poundford, on a sunny weekday the A272 is pure motorcycle heaven. In fact, it’s a road so revered that Pieter Boogart wrote a book about it: “I love this road. It represents England. It epitomises England,” explained the Dutch Anglophile.

So we needed bikes that could live up to such a setting. Visually striking, dynamically stunning and yet traditional, we needed bikes that would bring us right back to the basics of fast. Big-capacity street machines with plenty of attitude and lashings of style? Perfect. And with two new additions to the 1000cc streetbike class for this year, there’s a new winner to be chosen...

Ducati Streetfighter S

Ducati Streetfighter S

The most extreme unclothed experience ever to leave Bologna, and that’s saying something. But does it make any sense on our roads?

If you’re a sucker for attention to detail then you need to head off down to your nearest Ducati dealer a bit sharpish, blag a free cup of coffee from the expectant salesman and take a good fifteen minutes to pore over the Streetfighter.

What looks like an 1198 without its fairing is in fact a hell of a lot more than that. The chassis is completely different to give the correct geometry for the upright riding position. Similarly the swingarm, while looking identical at first glance, is in fact a completely new and bespoke item.

Truth is apart from the engine, there really is very little shared between the two bikes – even the switchgear has been revised to fit in with the cleanliness of the ‘Fighter’s minimalist aesthetics. Even the starter button’s been designed to look like the missile button on a jet fighter’s joystick. It’s bloody fiddly, mind.

As well as these fine details, the Streetfighter S boasts the same eight-stage traction control that so impressed us last year on the 1198S. Put simply, the Streetfighter S is no hurried afterthought. Instead it’s a bike crammed with technology and swathed in designer labels that of course, come at a premium. £14,000.

So, it’d best be bloody good then. I was lucky enough to test one on a track a couple of months ago and, despite an exhaust system that meant I couldn’t put my foot on the right footrest properly and a gearbox that made me have an 80mph crash, I very nearly fell in love with it.

Happily, the gearbox on our test bike is nothing like the bucket of broken spanners fitted to the bike I rode in Spain and on the road, where ground clearance and the subsequent scraping of toes is less of an issue, the righthand footrest doesn’t bother me too much either. Though editor Cantlie does seem to be having a few issues. My guess is that Ducati’s development riders all have tiny feet and unhappy girlfriends.

Despite pretty impressive track handling, the stock suspension settings are still something of a mystery to me. On the racetrack the bike was in the ballpark but on the road it feels too hard and, unlike the other bikes’ valiant efforts on this test, fails to mask the many inadequacies of our roads. It’s almost as if there’s too much feedback, too much shouting going on to make any real sense out of what the tyres are trying to tell you.

It’s a quick-steering chassis too. I wouldn’t say it’s nervous but compared to the softer Honda and Triumph, twitchy is probably the best word I can come up with. Certainly the Ducati contrasts starkly with the BMW, which always seems happy to sit behind the Ducati like a faithful best friend, simply flattening the bumps that dare upset its highly strung Italian mate. Happily for thumbs, the Fighter comes equipped with a steering damper.

The motor really is something else though. Using heads and barrels from the 1098 married to the latest 1198 crankcases, the Streetfighter’s power delivery is nothing short of sensational, with near-perfect fuelling wherever you happen to be in either the rev-range or the gearbox.

Much of this is down to some pretty clever electronic trickery, but more is due to the lengthy evolution of this legendary motor and to the fact that Ducati haven’t worried about the lack of a fairing and as such haven’t messed too much with the cams or injection system.

Switch the traction control to its lowest setting and the Streetfighter is as muscular as it gets. Just 5bhp down on last year’s 1098 and with a similar torque output, a strong neck and decent-sized forearms are prerequisites for Streetfighter ownership. Just hanging on to this absolute missile of a machine down bumpy back roads isn’t for the limp of wrist.

But at more sedate speeds the Ducati struggles. The suspension is just the wrong side of firm for confident low-speed handling and in town the Triumph or the Honda would be my choice every time. Yes the Triumph’s mirrors are pretty lousy for actually seeing what’s behind you, but at least they stay done up – I lost count of the number of times I had to stop to tighten up the Ducati’s cheap-looking, golf club shaped mirrors.

After a good few hours riding the Ducati on some of my favourite roads, on one of the warmest days of the year, I’m struggling to have the same feelings towards it that I did on the track launch. And that’s where I feel just a little bit let down. The Streetfighter S was nearly the alternative track bike I wanted it to be and I couldn’t wait to get it on the road. The problem is that on roads that really flick my switch, quite frankly, the Streetfighter doesn’t.

Rating: 3/5

Ducati Streetfighter S Specifications

Price: £14,295
Top speed: 154mph Engine: 1099cc, 8 valves, liquid-cooled, V-twin
Bore and stroke: 104 x 64.7mm Compression ratio: 12.4:1
Power: 140.46bhp at 9750rpm Torque: 77.05lb/ft at 8200rpm
Front suspension: 43mm inverted Öhlins forks, preload, compression and rebound adjustment
Rear suspension: Öhlins monoshock, preload, compression and rebound adjustment
Front brakes: Radial four-piston Brembo calipers, 330mm discs
Rear brake: Twin-piston caliper, 245mm disc
Dry weight: 167kg (368lbs) (169kg for Streetfighter)
Seat height: 840mm (790mm with low seat option) Fuel capacity: 16.5 litres
Colour options: Red, Black

BMW K1300R

BMW K1300R

The replacement for the thoroughly unpopular K1200R needed to be a big improvement. And spin me sideways if the 1300R isn’t a beauty

When I was a kid, I used to love Tonka toys. My parents did too since Tonka was a very unique brand in as much as they lasted several weeks before I worked out how to break them. Perhaps it’s those looks reflected in the butch, solid looks of the BMW that keeps drawing me to it, then.

Unlike Tonka, in the past I’ve found BMW Motorrad a difficult brand to like, much of which is a result of a lifetime of conditioning and a kind of ‘us and them’ mentality. For me there’s been a feeling that you were either a BMW owner or you were an outsider. But the new regime that’s brought us the HP2 Sport, the S1000RR and now conventional indicators has done to see off that sentiment. Now, like Tonka, BMW is becoming unique for all the right reasons.

Since wild and almost pointless bikes like the HP2 Enduro started hitting the market, BMW’s constantly evolving range has been nothing short of a revelation. The R1200GS has gone from boring old man to rugged young adventurer, the stylish, single-cylinder X range includes a funky supermoto, they’ve built an innovative and full-on enduro bike competing in the world championship and they’re even having a proper crack at looning around in World Superbikes. Most un-BMW.

The K1300R still holds plenty of old BMW values though; heated grips, duolever/paralever suspension, ABS and masses of other optional extras are all in-keeping with the German firm’s old way of thinking, but neat touches like the adaptive quickshifter and the explosive power of the canted-forward, dry sump motor hint at the young blood that has invaded BMW’s design offices of late, bringing at long last a little sex appeal to this once frumpy marque.

Our editor seemed rather keen on the big BMW from the off. Trying to persuade him that, since I was writing the test, it might be a good idea for me to ride it seemed to fall on deaf ears. After struggling to keep up with him down a particularly bumpy, undulating and damp B-road on the Streetfighter, I began to understand why he was so smitten. The K1300R is some device.

As much as the quirky suspension doesn’t help the BMW when it comes to the finesse of a racetrack or the delicate touch needed at low speed in traffic, when it comes to road-holding rather than out-and-out handling, the BMW does an incredible job of sticking itself to the tarmac. The feedback from the front end is still a little alien and it’s more often than not something of a giant leap of faith in the tyre’s ability (incidentally, we fitted Bridgestone’s excellent BT-016 to replace the squared-off original Continental Sport Attacks) but once your confidence grows and you get used to the fairly slow steering and overall weight of the bike, the K1300R is quite simply a bulging barrel of laughs.

The most powerful machine on test, the BMW pokes out a whopping 153bhp at the rear wheel and an even more impressive 90 foot pounds of torque. Bearing in mind that’s almost 20% more than the Streetfighter and its 1098cc motor and it’s hardly surprising that, just like the Italians, the Germans have chosen to fit their own Anti Spin Control (ASC) system.

But that’s not such a good thing and BMW seem to have got it way wrong. Where the Ducati Traction Control (DTC) system can be adjusted, the K1300R’s can’t. It’s either on or off. It’s also a little erratic in tricky conditions, which let’s face it, is when you’re most likely to need it. Cantlie must have had the system switched off since there was no notable rise in the pitch of his voice when he spoke. On the other hand I quickly learned to expect the unexpected. Riding with a bit of spirit down a fast road with plenty of crests and camber changes, my anticipation of acceleration and subsequent adjustments of body position saw my baby-makers taking a battering against the steeply sloped fuel tank. Every time the front wheel left the ground so much as an inch – every time the rear wheel span over so slightly – the obtrusive system cuts in, often without any apparent need, spoiling the ride and feeling more like an intermittent electrical fault than the latest rider aid. Rejoice then that it can be disabled.

Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) is another cost option. If you ride a variety of roads and often carry a pillion it’s a handy option but, at £617 on top of the £9,595 list price, it’s not exactly a cost effective and justifiable must-have.

With all these gizmos switched off and control given back to the rider, the K1300R is brilliant, giving you exactly what you want from a big bike. Ridden hard it’s fast and exhilarating. Ridden for fun it’s a big, comfortable and forgiving machine with plenty of options to create your very own, bespoke motorcycle to suit whatever type of riding you prefer.

If ever there was a bike that you might call a grower then it’s this one. It’s a big, ugly, monster of a motorbike with a chassis that scares tarmac and a complete and utter thug of a motor. And I absolutely love it. Try it. You might too, whether you’re a BMW man or not.

Rating: 4/5

BMW K1300R Specifications

Price: £10,250 (£11,215 with partial ABS)
Top speed: 157.4mph Engine: 1293cc, 16 valves, liquid-cooled, in-line four
Bore and stroke: 80 x 64.3mm Compression ratio: 13.0:1
Power: 152.73bhp at 9700rpm Torque: 90.52lb/ft at 7800rpm
Front suspension: Duolever, central shock absorber, BMW ESA II (optional) adjustment
Rear suspension: Paralever, central shock absorber, preload, rebound or BMW ESA II (optional) adjustment
Front brakes: Four-piston calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: Twin-piston caliper, 265mm disc
Dry weight: 217kg (478lbs) Seat height: 820mm (790mm with low seat option)
Fuel capacity: 19 litres Colour options: Orange, Light Grey, Dark Grey

Triumph Speed Triple

Triumph Speed Triple

A bestseller for Hinckley since its launch in 1994, the Speed Triple can still mix it with the best of them. There’s life in the old dog yet...

Four years is quite a long time ago when you think about it. Since 2005 I’ve started road racing, moved house, got married, fractured my pelvis, had a knee operation and, most recently, dislocated my collarbone.

Just like Triumph’s Speed Triple, I probably don’t look all that different, or perform much differently either. But then these are things that I can get away with, things that could be considered reasonably handy traits in a human being (though I’m sure my wife might disagree).

For a motorbike though, looking and performing the same as you did four years ago isn’t such a good thing. Particularly when the competition has slimmed down, toned up and been swatting up at night school. Triumph’s 1050 Speed Triple was nothing short of a revelation when it hit the streets back in 2005. Compared to the previous machine the new one looked modern and compact and, with the increase in engine capacity, it had the performance to match its aggressive new looks.

Despite the most minor of updates in 2008, the Speed Triple is still a great bike. Looks might be subjective, but the way this individual and almost eccentric piece of British engineering feels from the seat of the pants most definitely isn’t.

The three-cylinder motor gives the bike a unique feel and, while perhaps knocking on a bit in terms of engine design, it still feels sprightly, especially compared to the somewhat lethargic CB1000R. There’s no sense that the engineers at Hinckley had the same conversation about softening it up just because the bike doesn’t have a fairing. While Honda doubted our desire for horsepower, Triumph’s merry men clearly decided that the Speed Triple should be a neck-straining, head-banging stunter’s dream of a bike, and that’s exactly what they’ve given us; albeit one that can behave with impeccable manners when it has to.

Short-shift through the somewhat agricultural gearbox and the bike cruises on a mellow wave of torque, the plush suspension floating over the bumps and bringing a sense of calm to the rider. How very polite; how quintessentially English.

But drop it down one and bang the throttle wide open and the lager lout lurking within is unleashed, Doc Martens and all. Ridden hard the Speed Triple takes on a whole new persona and on real British roads ridden by real British men, the Speed Triple is seldom found wanting. Equipped with genuine Triumph aftermarket Arrow exhausts, the gravelly three-cylinder soundtrack fits the bike’s split personality perfectly.

Whether you want a bike to cosset and compliment your riding at a steady pace, or one to give you big lean angles, even bigger wheelies and access to a broad range of anti-social behaviour, with the Triumph, you can have pretty much whatever you want.

It’s this flexibility that is arguably the Triumph’s biggest strength. Maybe it’s because the motor isn’t a compromised version of something more potent. This is no castrated, dumbed-down forgery of a highly strung, race bred powerplant. Instead it’s a built-for-purpose street engine that suits its purpose perfectly, and whether it’s bolted into a Tiger, ST or Speed Triple, the 1050cc motor always feels right at home.

Much of the bike is derived from the old Daytona 955i which, while not quite setting the world’s racetracks on fire, had its strong points on the road. Much like the Honda, there’s a real userfriendliness to the whole package, with no weird quirks or idiosyncrasies to get used to.

Chassis-wise, the Triumph works well, most of the time. The upgrade to radial Brembo brakes in 2008 means you’ll only need one finger on the lever most of the time, while the 45mm forks they’re bolted to feel damn near perfectly sprung and damped for the vast majority of roads, if a little soft compared to the Öhlins-equipped Streetfighter, which is no bad thing on 90% of the roads this bike will be ridden on.

The rear shock doesn’t feel so great though and, given time, I’d want have a bit of a fiddle. It is a fully adjustable Showa unit so I’m sure at best a few adjustments would sort out the back end. At worst a different spring would do the trick. Most of the time it wouldn’t be an issue, but as the other bikes on test gave me no cause for complaint, it’s worth mentioning.

Other criticisms you can level at the Triumph are, in all honesty, small ones. The mirrors could do with being a touch further apart to give a view of something other than the rider’s elbows, the gearbox could be slicker and the silly economy lights on the rev counter are annoying. The pillion accommodation is pretty lousy too but you don’t get that striking, sawn-off profile for nothing. But there’s very little else to dislike about this great British bike, despite its advancing years.

Old hat the Speed Triple may be, but in the current climate of ‘must-have’ traction control, ABS and switchable engine mapping, there’s a certain honesty to the Street Triple that I can’t help falling for, despite those dated looks. It’s a charismatic charmer of a machine.

Triumph Speed Triple Specifications

Price: £8,199
Top speed: 147mph Engine: 1050cc, 12 valves, liquid-cooled, in-line triple
Bore and stroke: 79 x 71.4mm Compression ratio: 12.0:1
Power: 120.08bhp at 9400rpm Torque: 71.95lb/ft at 7200rpm
Front suspension: 43mm inverted Showa forks, preload, compression and rebound adjustment
Rear suspension: Showa monoshock, preload, compression and rebound adjustment
Front brakes: Radial four-piston calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: Twin-piston Nissin caliper, 220mm disc
Dry weight: 189kg (416lbs) Seat height: 815mm Fuel capacity: 18 litres
Colour options: Orange, Black, White

Honda CB1000R

Honda CB1000R

The sole contender from the land of the rising sun, the CB1000R is a finely-judged blend of ruthless efficiency and aggressive styling

Angular, aggressive and arguably the least conservative bike to come out of the Honda factory in a very long time, the CB1000R was one of only a handful of bikes that got me properly excited when it was launched towards the tail end of 2007.

Like a wide-eyed child with a new Beano annual, I excitedly read all the promotional promises of a full-blooded, sports bike-engined monster of a bike with bags of style and a ton of performance. Absolutely sure that Honda had taken the bull by the horns, at the earliest opportunity I snatch the keys off Hogan and jump on the Honda with suitably youthful enthusiasm.

But then perhaps at my age I should know better. There’s no denying that the CB1000R is an efficient and well engineered motorcycle, but there’s no getting away from the fact that they’ve done what every Japanese manufacturer does when it comes to strapping one of their litre class sports engines into a streetbike chassis – they’ve gone and bottled it.

Rather than give us the fire-breathing lunacy that we probably don’t need but most definitely want, the usual detuning with milder cams and different injection is clearly evident from the very first twist of the throttle. A naked Fireblade, the CB1000R is not.

Okay, perhaps my disappointment at Honda’s lack of bravado has left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, and in fairness, while the CB is unlikely to scare the pants off you in the wet or have you nervously whooping with delight at the 15th accidental wheelie of the day, it’s unlikely to dish out any nasty surprises, either.

In fact it’s highly probable that Honda have got it exactly right in assuming that while most riders want to be able to tell anybody that’ll listen that their chosen engine displacement is 1000cc, they don’t necessarily want the 160bhp that by rights, should go with it. At least, not from a usable, day-to-day street bike anyway.

And there is still plenty to praise about the way the detuned – sorry, from now on let’s call it retuned – 2007 Fireblade motor works. From a slightly wooly bottom end through to a healthy enough midrange, the way it delivers drive to the back wheel is never anything short of silky smooth if slightly lacking in charisma. The James Blunt, if you will, of this naked clique.

Ease of use is something that the CB1000R has running right through it. The chassis is typically Honda-neutral, the suspension plush and confidence inspiring. The battle-scarred streets of London fail to upset the bike, while the pot-holed B-roads of leafy Surrey on the way south do nothing to bother the well-balanced Jap.

Indeed, head-to-head against the other bikes along the less well-surfaced expanses of fast southern tarmac, the Honda’s lack of grunt compared to the thumping torque of the Ducati and the turbine like pull of the BMW is never really an issue. The compliant suspension, sweet steering and total indifference towards bumps means that the Honda rider can just crack on with the throttle wound on and simply leave the suspension and tyres to deal with the consequences.

Making a bike to suit a variety of riders but still work over a broad range of riding scenarios is something that Honda do very well. While the CB is great fun as a back lane scratcher, it’s the all round appeal of the bike that sets it aside from the more single-minded Streetfighter and the hefty BMW.

In town, the CB1000R is right at home. With a turning circle so tight, you almost feel you could perform the dodgem’s trick of going backwards on full lock. Whipping in and out of the traffic during the bi-daily rush hour slalom is nothing short of fun, while filtering at walking pace is always comfortable; the low speed balance, light clutch and soft bottom end all contributing to make the bike incredibly easy to manage in virtually any scenario.

So, other than Honda’s decision to spare the horses, what’s not to like about the CB1000R? Frankly, not very much. The riding position suits everyone, the futuristic clocks are easy to read, the Combined Braking System (CBS) feels natural after a few miles, the ABS system works without being obtrusive, the gearbox is slick, it’s well priced and it’ll have a go at absolutely anything.

There is a problem with all this ruthless Japanese efficiency, though. The biggest being that in this kind of company, a bit of character goes a hell of a long way. And sadly for the Honda, this is where it all falls a little flat.

If you’re looking for style at a bargain price and are the kind of rider that always goes for practicality over personality then the Honda could well be the bike for you. Up against such classy European opposition though, there’s little doubting that you really do get what you pay for.

Rating: 3/5

Honda CB1000R Specifications

Price: £8,525 (£9,075 with ABS)
Top speed: 150mph Engine: 998cc, 16 valves, liquid-cooled, in-line four
Bore and stroke: 75 x 56.5mm Compression ratio: 11.2:1
Power: 110.86bhp at 9600rpm Torque: 67.30lb/ft at 7200rpm
Front suspension: 43mm inverted forks, preload, compression and rebound adjustment
Rear suspension: Monoshock, preload and rebound adjustment
Front brakes: three-piston Tokico calipers, 310mm discs
Rear brake: Twin-piston caliper, 256mm disc
Dry weight: 222kg (488lbs) Seat height: 825mm Fuel capacity: 17 litres
Colour options: Black, White, Grey, Bronze

Verdict

Verdict

These four bikes have such different personalities that it makes it really hard to pick a ‘winner’ as those winning qualities all depend on what the rider wants from his bike. From this lengthy and widely varied test though, this is what we’ve come up with…

The Honda is a very versatile machine. Well screwed together with a finish that you know will endure a winter or three, it’s the sensible option with real world appeal and an on-the-road price that won’t break the bank. But it’s also the bank clerk of this bunch – neat suit and well turned out but ultimately a little dull and conservative. Shame, because the chassis deserves so much more than the engine is willing to give.

Third for me has to go to the Ducati. I want to love this bike. It’s bloody beautiful and has all the right ingredients, but seems to be more than a little overcooked. It’s the extreme opposite of the dumbed-down Honda but sadly, to its detriment. The suspension is too firm, the steering is too sharp and for all but the most experienced of riders, on the road it’s all just a bit too much.

Triumph’s Speed Triple might be knocking on a bit, but it’s still one of the best naked bikes ever built. The engine is a pleasure at any pace you fancy, the suspension is forgiving and the chassis doesn’t bombard your senses with useless information, preferring instead to give you enough feedback to inspire confidence without stressing you out. In a nutshell, the Speed Triple is an easy bike to ride that will please most of the people, most of the time.

But there can only be one winner, and for me it simply has to be the K1300R. No, I wouldn’t have thought it either at the start of this test, but having spent a few days with the big Bavarian, I’ve got a new best mate.

If I want to go mental on a deserted country road, the BMW is up for it. If I want to spend an hour on the motorway, it won’t complain and won’t even make my neck ache as penance for being a bit boring. In fact, in almost every riding scenario, the K1300R is quite simply superb, being whatever I want it to be, whenever I want it. The big Beemer is an absolute weapon.