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Meet the fuglys: alternative used adventurers

They may not be the best looking bikes out there, but is there more than meets the eye when it comes to these presentationally-challenged secondhand bikes?

Beauty is a subjective thing. What one person may find appealing another will consider repulsive. Life has to be like that. Without this diversity how on earth would half the people on the Jeremy Kyle Show get pregnant? Although that could just be down to drink. Or hard drugs. Or both.

When it comes to styling, manufacturers are gambling tens of millions of pounds on the decisions of a small bunch of arty-types with designer specs and monogrammed crayons. Get a bike’s styling wrong and the consequences can be horrendous. Take Ducati’s 999 as a prime example. In almost every way it was a better machine that the 998 it replaced, but the ‘futuristic’ styling was so way out it failed to sell. And, as a result, nearly sent Ducati to the wall. Get it right, however, and you can make millions and build a company’s reputation on a single model. Like with, er, the Ducati 916…

Which brings us to the three bikes in this test. Each one appears to have taken a tumble out of the ugly tree, bouncing off each branch on the way down before being smashed in the face with a shovel on reaching the ground. But your opinion may be very different.

Suzuki’s V-Strom not only has a rather silly name (apparently it’s a wind or a river or something in Germany) it also has a rather gawky, confused appearance. This model is the GT version, which only differs from the stock bike by the addition of a few bolt-on extras. Despite it costing a shade more than £5,000, older and far cheaper V-Stroms are easy to locate. Although they won’t look as pretty…

Next up is Yamaha’s workhorse TDM900, a much-maligned bike with a reputation for dullness. Those looks, with a strong hint of a startled fish about them, don’t help it. At just short of £3,000 this bike seems a bargain. And there will be a reason for that.

And finally the real oddball, Cagiva’s Gran Canyon. With an air-cooled Ducati 900cc engine powering this big trailie, it could prove to be the surprise of the test. However with Cagiva’s reputation for build quality it could equally as likely be the disaster.

So, with a collection of ‘interesting’ lookers that could make a below average Blackpool hen party seem distinctly attractive we headed out into a misty Peak District. It would appear that even the Big Man was trying to shroud these beasts from public view. Are they really that bad?

Yamaha TDM 900

Click to read: Yamaha TDM 900 owners reviewsYamaha TDM 900 specs and to see the Yamaha TDM 900 image gallery.

On stock pipes the TDM’s parallel twin engine sounds like a wet fart escaping through loosely clenched arse cheeks. With aftermarket pipes it just sounds like a slightly more potent fart escaping through the same cheeks. Where an inline four howls and a triple has a beautiful growl, the TDM’s engine completely fails to emit anything other than a monotone drone throughout its entire rev range. Much of a bike’s character comes from its engine and with a motor as flat and insipid as the Yamaha’s it’s not surprising the TDM was soon relabelled ‘TeDiuM’ by cruel wags (that’s wags as in jokers, not footballers’ girls). But is it really that dull to ride?

Here is the problem; for anyone looking for a thrill from a bike the TDM is remarkably uninspiring. The engine does absolutely nothing to bring any excitement to the journey, it simply plods along with its farty exhaust note and refuses to do anything as entertaining as throw a powerband into the rev range. But you will be comfortable.

Riding the TDM is a very pleasant experience. The seat is beautifully padded and the bars are narrow without being too cramped – and set at a perfect height for relaxed motoring. Even the tiny screen is fairly effective at sheltering you from the rain. There’s little vibration from the engine and the clocks are large and clear to read.

Through the bends, however, it’s not as good. For some reason Yamaha chose to give the TDM an 18-inch front wheel, which gives a very odd feeling to the front end. In corners the TDM’s feedback is vague and a little unnerving, not helped at all by soft and springy suspension allowing the bike to wallow and wobble. At this point I’d suggest altering the settings, but you can’t on the TDM. You just have to get on with it. At least the brakes are very good, as they should be, taken from the R1 parts bin.

If you are looking for solid, reliable transport that hasn’t got a hope in hell of being stolen, the Yamaha makes sense. It’s comfortable, the engine is flexible and it even comes with practical things like a centre stand and fuel gauge. The handling may not be all that when you’re pushing on, but for straight lines and city streets it has superb steering lock, a low seat and an upright riding position for good visibility. Would I buy one? No. Would I recommend one to a friend? Yes, but only if they were after cheap hassle-free transport and required absolutely no thrills whatever. And afterwards I’d probably feel a bit guilty about it.

TDM900 Essential Info

Prices

From £2,650 (2002, 26,000 miles) to £6,250 (2009, 2,900 miles)

A versatile machine, there are plenty of TDM900’s on the used market in varying conditions. Many machines have been used as workhorses with little stress other than plodding up and down motorways or the daily commute. Few owners will waste cash trying to jazz up a TDM. Instead they’re usually owned by sensible riders who perform most maintenance work and keep a relatively understressed engine trouble free, although be aware that TDM’s do make handy winter hacks so even routine cleaning may have been too much hassle for some.

Instant upgrades

  • Fork Springs: bend-carving abilities of the TDM are held back significantly by its unadjustable softly sprung front end, so fitting some stiffer fork springs to help out that odd sized 18-inch front wheel is an excellent idea. Hyperpro has a reputation for quality, and can offer the kits for the TDM in a range of spring rates for around £70 a pair (www.hyperpro.com).
  • Screen: Some taller riders take issue with the lack of height on the bike’s standard screen, which can excessively fatigue a rider over long distance. Yamaha offer a genuine touring screen on their accessories list, which would really come in handy if big miles are on the agenda. £79.99 (www.yamaha-motor.co.uk).
  • Top Box: TDM’s make excellent commuters and tourers, so increasing practicality by fitting a top box makes a lot of sense. You can go for panniers too if hauling gear is your bag. Kappa’s huge K52 Top Case has 52-litres of storage space so is capable of devouring enough clothes for months away at a time, should the mood take you. £199.99 (www.phoenixnw.co.uk).

Parts costs

Fuel tank: £814.66(!)
Front brake lever: £45.44
Front right indicator: £35.74

Service costs

Minor: £235.40
Major: £358.27

Common faults

Yamaha TDM’s are ridden all year round in all conditions, so the odd mechanical gremlin can rear its head if the bike has been neglected, but overall it’s very reliable. There was a factory recall on some bikes (’02-’05 models) to replace the throttle position sensor. They should all have been sorted by now, but it’s best to check with a dealer that the work has been done. The TDM is a well-finished machine in most areas, but can still suffer the odd spot of corrosion if abused.

Suzuki DL1000 V-Strom

Click to read: Suzuki DL1000 V-Strom owners reviewsSuzuki DL1000 V-Strom specs and to see the Suzuki DL1000 V-Strom image gallery.

What a lump. With a claimed weight of 207kg the V-Strom is anything but light, throw in a full 22-litres of fuel, a bit of kit in the panniers and even a pillion and shorter riders may well struggle with slow speed work. Despite having gigantic steering lock it’s quite easy to find yourself caught in a low-speed battle with the heavy Suzuki and there is only ever going to be one winner – gravity. This bike bore the scars of a  zero miles per hour tumble on its right hand pannier and plastics.

Once on the move the V-Strom makes sense. The riding position is unbelievably comfortable and the seat so padded you almost feel like you’ll get stuck in it. The screen is small yet very effective and the V-twin engine purrs away below while sending just enough vibes through the bars at a constant throttle to remind you its there without ever annoying. All in all a very pleasant and remarkably accomplished tourer and one that isn’t completely out of its depth in the bends either.

Big trailies are always hampered by a limited choice of front tyre when it comes to proper cornering grip, but the V-Strom still manages to provide a fairly reassuring ride at a smooth pace. Start trying to hustle the bike through the bends and the cheap suspension protests with long travel pogoing. But keep it smooth and the ride is well balanced enough and allows for a decent pace. The brakes are a little feeble, but such is the narrowness of the front tyre I’d rather have slightly poor brakes than overly sharp ones that would, I’m certain, overwhelm its grip, especially in the wet.

The huge and completely unavoidable problem with the Suzuki is its build quality, or complete lack of it. The Suzuki is built to a budget and very, very quickly starts to look horribly secondhand. There are few serious ailments, the engine is in a low state of tune and the chassis solid, but the fasteners are sourced to a price and soon turn furry, the brake disc rotors rust, the engine’s paint flakes and within a few years the whole bike looks like it’s had a very hard life indeed, even if it hasn’t.

If you manage to source a good one, and are prepared to put the effort in to keep it that way, then the V-Strom is a great and very solid workhorse that will happily transport you and a better half to the south of France in total comfort and with enough kit carrying capacity to keep her happy. Once there you can enjoy the roads at a gentle pace and even wobble up the occasional gravel driveway, just don’t expect to go where the hardened GS rider dares (or dreams about).

Suzuki V-Strom Essential Info

Prices

From £2,995 (2003, 29,000 miles) to £5,600 (2008, 7,000 miles)

As far as the V-Strom is concerned, due to its habit of disintegrating at an alarming rate its best to look at the latest bikes if in the market for a second hand machine. Fortunately there is a plethora of V-Stroms around, so finding one in half decent condition shouldn’t prove difficult. For such a capable machine, used prices are very affordable even on relatively low mileage examples so there really is no excuse to pay over the odds for a dog. Check out a potential buy carefully however, as a bit of corrosion on the outside doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t been cared for.

Instant upgrades

  • Fender Extender: The V-Strom suffers horribly from corrosion, but it is possible to minimise the amount of road grime flung onto the more rust prone areas of the bike. Pyramid offer a fender extender for the V-Strom for £16.99, and have a range of huggers to keep the back end clean (www.pyramid-plastics.co.uk).
  • Heated Grips: As good a bike as the V-Strom is in all weathers, riders can always do with a bit of extra help to keep riding during the coldest conditions. A set from Saito is a very reasonable £49.95 (www.getgeared.co.uk).
  • Progressive fork springs: The screen on the Suzuki causes turbulence and buffeting for riders travelling any kind of distance. This can easily be solved by fitting a larger screen such as a height adjustable MRA Vario Touring screen for £98.97 (www.bikehps.com).

Parts costs

Fuel tank: £687.41
Front brake lever: £51.25
Front right indicator: £34.51

Service costs

Minor: £151.35
Major: £306.27

Common faults

V-Stroms aren’t well known for their build quality. For a machine designed as an adventure style bike, rust problems don’t inspire confidence that big distances are going to be hassle free. But fortunately the mechanicals are well proven and should cause no problems at all, with evidence of some bikes covering huge mileages without trouble.

Early models however can have a clutch issue which is well known in the V-Strom owners community and easily recognisable due to a juddering sensation when pulling away. Most owners sort this by replacing the clutch basket with one from a later model or from an SV, which seems to help everything in the box mesh smoothly.

Cagiva Gran Canyon

Click to view: Cagiva Gran Canyon owners reviewsCagiva Gran Canyon specs and to see the Cagiva Gran Canyon image gallery.

With its squinting eyes and flared, fairing nostrils it has the look of a dog squeezing out a particularly troublesome egg. But try and get over the hideous looks and focus on the Gran Canyon’s 900SS motor. A big trailie with an air-cooled Ducati V-twin certainly sounds a tempting proposal. Riding the Cagiva soon destroys this supposed attraction. Push the red button and it all goes wrong.

The starter motor strains against the compression of the big V-twin and then just when you think it’ll burn itself out, in a cacophony of rattles, the bike bursts into life. At tickover the Cagiva is a noisy bike with the dry clutch clattering away and the motor rattling in the way air-cooled Ducatis do. It’s not an unpleasant sound and it’s certainly full of character but there is a price to pay for this.

Pull in the clutch and you’re reminded of Ducatis of old. The lever is ludicrously heavy and once you’ve thumped the bike into gear, accompanied by a huge clunk, letting the clutch out is a horrible experience as the plates grab and the bike lurches forward somewhat less than seamlessly. You can’t pull away smoothly – it’s just not possible.

Once rolling the motor is beautiful, packed full of low-end grunt and yet still brisk higher up the rev range. The gearbox doesn’t improve much as it clunks through the gears but the sound from the twin exhausts is mesmerising and the easy power relaxing. Then you get to a corner.

It might just have been this bike, which had over 21,000 miles on its clock, but show the Cagiva a bend and it’s instantly reduced to a quivering wreck. The front-end has absolutely no feeling at all and for all I knew the tyre could have been two inches off the floor. And the back end isn’t much better. Negotiating a bend is like trying to cross a bouncy castle as the soft suspension wallows and throws in the towel.

I really thought the Cagiva would prove the dark horse of this test. I saw it as the pre-runner to the original Multistrada, which also uses an air-cooled V-twin engine. Unfortunately while the motor is very pleasant the rest of the bike lets it down. The handling is terrible, it’s too ugly to be cool and the build quality is more than a little suspect. Which leads me onto the main reason I could never recommend owning one. In the past the supply of spare parts from Cagiva has been sketchy to say the least, I would be very worried about being able to get anything at all for a twelve-year-old machine. The motor shouldn’t be an issue, it’s a Ducati, but the rest of the bike…

Cagiva Gran Canyon Essential Info

Prices

From £1,995 (2001, 13,000 miles) to £2,300 (2000, 17,000 miles)

A quick search of the major online bike classifieds reveals a grand total of three bikes up for sale, so anyone looking for a Gran Canyon would have their work cut out trying to find one in good nick at such a low price bracket. When few sold in the first place, half-decent used machines are desperately hard to come by.

Instant upgrades

  • Rear Shock: The squidgy rear shock that ties itself in knots whenever approaching anything resembling a corner. This can be remedied with an aftermarket replacement, such as a Hagon unit for £295 (www.hagon-shocks.co.uk).
  • Engine Bars: While the Cagiva would be the least appropriate big trailie to take overlanding, it is possible to do so and some riders have done just that. If that’s on the agenda, sticking some engine bars on the Gran Canyon can go towards protecting the engine and allowing the bike to go over rougher terrain than the M25. £128.45 (www.hepco-becker.de).
  • Tyres: The handling of the Cagiva isn’t exactly confidence inspiring, and while it would be a waste of time putting some sticky tyres onto it, modern big trailie rubber would benefit it. Michelin’s Anakee 2 are well proven on the road and on most of the gentle rough stuff, being popular among the demanding BMW GS community, and should last long enough for plenty of commuting or adventuring. From around the £200 mark (www.michelin.co.uk).

Parts costs

Fuel tank: £900! (Dual tank)
Front brake lever: £27.48
Front right indicator: £19

Service costs

Minor: £80
Major: £300 (Major includes valve clearances but not cambelts – belt change service around £400+)

Common faults

Mechanically it should be fine if the service schedule is stuck to, but engine service costs can be difficult to swallow – every two years the engine requires a cambelt change that can cost a fortune. If anything breaks on the Cagiva it can be a nightmare to source parts as the bike is so rare, but unfortunately for the Gran Canyon, the main problems are the Achilles heel of older Italian bikes – electrics. Connectors can burn out or corrode, which isn’t the ideal scenario if you’re using the bike as intended and are adventuring through a desert. Probably not the most sensible big trailie to seek out on the used market.

Verdict

The biggest letdown on this test was the Cagiva. For a bike that promised so much the reality was fairly hideous. Which leaves the TDM and V-Strom. Both these bikes prove looks aren’t everything, but the V-Strom demonstrates  a bit of character goes a very long way. There is nothing that wrong with the TDM, it’s just that the whole bike is so uninspiring to ride and delivers so little pleasure. There are much more exciting no-frills commuters to be had and I’d definitely buy something like a Z750 or Hornet 900 over the TDM. Having said that, for churning out miles the TDM is extremely comfortable and very easy to live with, which is a major plus point. If you like the look and just want a reliable bike to get the job done then you will not be disappointed by the TDM, but you might also get turned on watching paint dry.

The V-Strom is a much under-rated bike that is a complete steal to buy. You can easily pick them up for under £3,000 and for that price you get a superb touring bike with a gutsy V-twin engine and decent handling. As long as you consider it something of a disposable asset you won’t be upset, because the build quality makes it look hanging no matter how much care and love you give it. Which is the reason why BMW’s GS continues to dominate the market. They are built to last.

So have we proved there’s more to a bike than just looks? In the case of the V-Strom certainly, behind it’s odd exterior is a top second hand bike. As for the TDM and Gran Canyon, well sometimes in nature ugly things are ugly for a reason – to keep other unsuspecting creatures well away from them.