Sports Tourer test: Tiger 1050, VFR800, GSX-R1000 K7 and Fazer FZ1

Just what is a sports-tourer these days? Used to be a middle-for-diddle model with zero sex appeal, but these days it could be anything from a superbike with luggage to a purpose-built mile-muncher...

Just what is a sports-tourer these days? Used to be a middle-for-diddle model with zero sex appeal, but these days it could be anything from a superbike with luggage to a purpose-built mile-muncher...

There was a time when motorcycles were grouped together in neat little classes. Have you seen your bike on a racetrack? Yes, so then it’s a Sportsbike. If it’s got a monster engine as well then that makes it a Superbike. Does it have flat bars and no fairing? Yep, well that makes it a Streetbike. We used to call them naked bikes, but Streetbike is far more contemporary. Off-road style tyres and a large fuel tank? That’s a big Trailie (if you’re very old) or an Enduro if you’re more up to date. Does it have panniers, and how big? Large then it’s a Tourer, smaller then it’s a Sports-tourer. Biking was a simple place.

Then things started getting confusing. Streetbikes appeared with half-fairings and pillion grab rails, Enduros popped up with street tyres, Tourers became smaller and lighter and Sportsbikes started to become less peaky and easier to ride. No longer did your class-leading Superbike try to break your wrists while simultaneously giving your left foot repetitive strain injury through numerous gear changes as you chased a wafer-thin powerband. And now, in 2008, things have reached a head. After a discussion in the office none of us could agree on what a Sports-tourer was, so we gathered together four that represent the new breed.

Starting off with the benchmark, Honda’s VFR800. The original Sports-tourer refined over two decades. Then we have the new breed, Triumph’s Tiger 1050 was a big Trailie, then they lost the knobblie tyres and gave it panniers. Next is Yamaha’s FZ1 Fazer. Comfy riding position and fairing matched to an R1 engine and decent chassis. And finally, Suzuki’s monster GSX-R1000. Easy power, great fairing, surprisingly comfortable and with a set of throw-over panniers, capable of any trip you can throw at it. Gentlemen, let’s tour...

Sports tourer test - Conclusion

Sports Tourers: Conclusion


So, in 2008, what exactly makes a bike a Sports-tourer? In all honesty you can tour on just about any bike, it’s all down to the rider’s determination and the pillion’s resolve. Tour on a ‘big Trailie type’ like the Tiger and you will thoroughly enjoy the ride down, but come the bends the pace will be slower and the ride a touch on the bouncy side. It also has the added benefit of solid panniers and a top box as an optional extra to keep all your kit safe and dry.

Swap for the GSX-R and not only will the ride down be fairly rapid, as will the touring be when you get there. Your kit, provided you have attached your soft luggage correctly, will be limited, probably wet and possibly on fire but you’ll be having so much fun you won’t care that you only have one pair of clothes to wear all week. Both of these bikes are more biased to one side of the Sports-touring fence than the other, with the VFR and Fazer the only two really sitting in the middle ground.

The Yamaha offers an excellent riding position, strong engine and decent handling for the fun parts, and for around £350 you can get solid panniers added to it to keep your kit safe. It’s not the most inspiring bike to look at, as Cuntlie will testify, but Fazers never are, and as is so often the case, it’s what’s underneath that counts. The Fazer is a genuine do it all bike that might not inspire, but will certainly fulfill the brief. But is this all you want in a bike? Why not get something with loads more character injected into the engine, and some decent styling as well?

Which leaves the VFR. It’s the only one of the four here that is specifically designed as a sports-tourer and really is the only one that does it all. It’s not brilliant at any one thing, but very competent at them all and with its perky V4 engine and great looks actually delivers with real style and character. People, myself included, have digs at the VFR range because they have the ‘pipe and slippers’ image and lack a bit of spice.

Ride one for a sustained amount of time and it’s quite easy to over-look this, because spice is all very well and good, but if you have taken a week off work, spent a fortune on a hotels, weeks planning a route and talked the wife into agreeing to join/stay at home (delete as applicable) there is only one bike here that won’t leave you wishing at one point or another on your trip that you were on something else. Honda’s VFR.

Sports tourer test - Yamaha FZ1

Yamaha Fazer: Uninvolving

Yamaha Fazer: Uninvolving

Having already set the Tiger up with a mount for my GPS, filled its panniers neatly and ensured it was brimming with fuel I was all prepared for a heated-grip comforted ride to Wales. Until Cuntlie spotted the Fazer, declared it a ‘terrible piece of Japanese shit’ (he may have used other words) and flat refused to ride it. 20 minutes of battling to fit soft luggage to the Yamaha’s fat rear end, fighting the Triumph’s uncooperative panniers and general swearing later we set off, with me on the Fazer and Cuntlie pacified with the Tiger. Not an ideal start, for me at least.

Although less vocal than Cantlie I’ve never liked the FZ1 Fazer either, mainly due to my first experience of one. When it was launched in 2005 the fuel-injection was all over the shop, ruining the bike and making for a frustrating ride. The basis of a good bike was all there, but that was all it was: a basis. Since then Yamaha has rectified these faults and ploughing around the M25 the Fazer felt like a different bike to the one I last rode.

Even pulling out of the garage the changes were obvious. Gone is the hideous throttle response that felt like you were riding using an on/off switch rather than a throttle, replaced with a very smooth and gentle pick-up, transforming the bike.

Even once moving the Fazer feels smoother than before and although the engine does have a slight hint of a sock shoved somewhere in the airbox stifling power, it’s far better. I even started to appreciate the riding position. Once my initial paranoia had passed and I decided that the panniers weren’t about to set themselves on fire on the pipe I relaxed into the Fazer’s lovely stance. Despite visually looking like an abomination with its hideous top yoke/bar attachment the bars are set perfectly for comfort and somehow the mini screen is actually very effective.

Cuntlie, who is more used to his vast BMW’s level of total wind blockage, didn’t find it that sheltered but I sat very happily at 95mph on the motorway for the whole trip to Wales. But it was interspersed with a fuel stop every 130 miles, such is the size of the Fazer’s tank. If Yamaha are truly aiming this bike at the Sports-tourer market I think it would have been prudent to add a few extra litres to the tank’s capacity, and add a comfier seat. The Fazer’s pad is more of a nod towards the sporty side of things and lacks decent padding. It’s not that bad, but I found my arse bones were aggravated after about half an hour in the saddle. To be fair the pain keeps at a constant level, but having the day before ridden the Tiger back from Triumph’s factory in Hinckley I knew Cantlie would be having no such problems. Lanky bastard.

By the time we had covered the nearly 200 miles of basically motorway with occasional dual carriageway that lead us to Newtown in mid Wales both the Triumph and Yamaha had shown themselves as competent straight line bikes, with the Tiger offering far better comfort and a tank range the plus side of 160 miles, even with super unstreamlined panniers fitted.

Niall, who was already at the hotel having travelled from his home near Donington on the VFR, had experienced a completely hassle free trip. Cruising at a steady 85mph with his magnetic tankbag attached to the VFR’s tank (how many other bikes have metal tanks nowadays?) he had covered the 100 miles trip without dipping below the half way mark on the Honda’s fuel gauge. No drama, no bother and considerably less flustered than Jim, who arrived through the driving rain in the pitch black on a completely mud-covered GSX-R1000. Quite how a man of his experience can turn a relatively simple task such as navigating to Wales into such a perilous and drama fraught journey is a mystery to us.

Sports tourer test - GSX-R1000

Suzuki GSX-R: Surprising

Suzuki GSX-R: Surprising

It’s amazing just how good a modern Sportsbike is. Within 50 yards the VFR no longer feels sharp and precise, it feels long and lazy, Because the GSX-R is just so much better. The front end turns instantly, feels light and responsive and the engine is simply ballistic.

Against this company (and even including the Fazer) the GSX-R’s relatively weak bottom end doesn’t show up as much as against the other 1000s, but when it gets going the engine blows them into the weeds. It’s not peaky or revvy, just bloody fast and very strong in the midrange. You can happily ride the GSX-R in the taller gears without the need to continually shift cogs, which in many ways makes it a very relaxed bike to cruise around on, as well having the ability to destroy just about any other bike on the road when it comes to performance and handling. Of course there is a payback for these levels of performance.

Below 50mph the GSX-R’s riding position is typical race-rep, hard on the wrists and cramped on the legs and the fairing isn’t terribly effective. But, and I speak from experience here having ridden nearly 1000 miles in a day on a GSX-R, you can cover big motorway miles on it, they just tend to be fast ones! Like any sportsbike, the Suzuki works best when it’s ridden fast. Unlike the Triumph.

Sports tourer test - Honda VFR800

Honda VFR800: Brilliant

Honda VFR800: Brilliant

When it comes to ‘plug in and play’ motorcycling few do it better than the VFR. Riding it is a totally mind-out experience and you struggle to find fault with it. Having recovered from the slight hiccup when it first introduced its V-TEC system Honda has now perfected the transition between two and four valves in its V4 and returned the VFR to its old splendour.

Despite being ‘only’ an 800 you never really feel under powered on the VFR. Okay, you might have to work the gearbox a bit more than on the others, but the Honda has strong power low down and then when the engine note changes (a sound that always reminds me of a duck quacking for some reason) it shifts at a pace that certainly won’t leave it behind. Low in the revs, below 4,000rpm, it does get a bit lumpy but this is just a consequence of its smaller capacity not allowing the motor to produce enough torque and its not a huge irritation. But it’s in the corners that the Honda excels.

There is something that Honda seems able to build into a bike at will that gives their machines a feeling of complete compliance. Despite a riding position that is set well for comfort with high-ish clip-on bars and low-ish pegs the VFR feels sporty, balanced and totally unflustered no matter how quick you try to get it to go. Jim, who had just about recovered the power of speech by now, enthused about how he had taken a VFR to Scotland and gone completely ballistic on one, chasing down Sportsbikes and generally being a pain in the arse, and it’s easy to see how.

If you haven’t ridden a sportsbike for a while, or have never hopped on a 600 or 1000cc race-rep, then the VFR is a revelation. Compared to the Triumph and Yamaha it’s light, responsive and very eager to corner. Although, as always, the CBS brakes have a slight lack of feeling at the lever they don’t ruin the ride and with the lovely sound of the V4 below it’s easy to get lost into the world of the VFR and thoroughly enjoy the whole experience.

Sports tourer test - Triumph Tiger

Triumph Tiger: Bit odd

Triumph Tiger: Bit odd

As with most pseudo big Trailies such as Honda’s Varadero, BMW’s GS and Suzuki’s V-Strom the Tiger excels at straight line mile munching. A deeply padded seat ensures you comfort levels are met and as it cut quite deep into the bike it also brings the ground closer for the shorter rider come the fuel stops. For simply bashing out miles there is no better, or comfier, riding position and the only modification you need to make is the height of the screen. With the Tiger Triumph has aimed it at a sportier rider, so its standard screen is shorter than other bikes of a similar style.

The Tiger is never going to rival a GSX-R when it comes to cornering ability, its long travel suspension, huge tank and slight-top heaviness rules that out, but that isn’t to say you can’t enjoy the bends on the Triumph. Get into the Tiger’s stride and you can properly hustle it through the corners. I know Cantlie dislikes the front end of the Tiger, but at a more relaxed pace I’ve always found it far better and more assured than the other big Trailies, simply due to the tyre selection. Personally I find 17-inch wheels a million times more reassuring than 18-inch or bigger that bikes such as the GS, Adventure or Varadero come on.

Cantlie has been riding a BMW GS all year so is more used to the feel of a big Tralie than me and rides faster on it because of this, but I like the Tiger’s handing. This Tiger did feel a bit agricultural. despite having over 7,000 miles on the clock the gearbox felt horrible, very clunky, stiff to shift and with the occasional false neutral thrown in for good measure.

Triumph struggle to make a good gearbox, and the Tiger’s isn’t very good at all. And neither is the ABS. The front brake lever (despite my attempted adjustment) was set far too far away from the bars and when you did use it felt completely removed from the whole braking process. They work okay, but felt horrible and a bit on the basic side, lacking refinement and the complete opposite of the Fazer. Say what you will about the look, there is no denying the Fazer is a very refined bike to ride. The engine is smooth and fast and the handing is sporty while, like the VFR, still retains a balanced feel. does this make it devoid of character and soulless? A bit, yes. It’s a hard bike to summarise because it doesn’t shout anything out, it just gets on with everything.

The Triumph has faults, the GSX-R is exciting and the VFR has its V4 engine note to give you a thrill while the Fazer just does the job. Is it a ‘universal Japanese motorcycle?’ yes, probably it is, but it’s a very competent one that I’m sure owners love. It doesn’t have glaring faults, well not now that Yamaha has ironed them out, but it’s also not exactly the most enthralling bike to ride.