The BMW's single-sided swingarm...
The BMW's single-sided swingarm doubles as a tunnel for the shaft drive, but the torque arm eliminates forces feeding into the suspension.
The Ducati is the only bike...
The Ducati is the only bike of our quartet to have a traditional double-sided arm.
The VFR's wheel mounts with...
The VFR's wheel mounts with four lug nuts.
The single-sided units on...
The single-sided units on the Honda and Triumph look remarkable similar; the Trumpet's wheel utilizes one large axle nut.
Well here we are, all loaded up with luggage and facing a bunch of canyons. Which of our quartet did we prefer when it came to corner-carving? "The BMW may well be the sleeper of the bunch," noted one of our thrashers, and indeed, it was a pleasant surprise to jump on the Beemer. The Telelever front suspension functions well, coping with pretty much anything we could throw at it. And the linkless rear shock absorber similarly performs admirably, with no shaft effect felt when under power. Our only complaint is a high-speed-damping harshness that can't be dialed out as there is no adjustment for compression damping at either end. Once settled into a corner though, the longitudinal crankshaft helps make the BMW superstable and confidence-inspiring. The remote rear preload adjustment is a nice touch, as the spring can be tightened in seconds (with no tools) for a passenger or heavy baggage.
The German bike's controls are well laid out, aside from the funky turn signal switches. We're not impressed with having to use our right hand to initiate or cancel the signals--it's busy enough with brake and throttle work, thank you very much. Clutch and brake levers fall to hand comfortably and the foot controls are well-placed; all are adjustable. Our test bike was equipped with BMW's ABS, which saved our bacon a couple of times. The Telelever suspension eliminates front-end dive under braking and it's hard to judge just how heavy-handed you need to be to use the excellent brakes without that as a reference. It would take a while to retrain your senses to judge braking with the R1100S. But in the meantime, we heard the front brake's ABS servo cycling more than once when we inadvertently braked too hard. The ABS system, while a quantum leap better than previous BMW designs, still cycles a bit too abruptly when it activates. This results in an almost complete release and reapplication of the brakes. Following the initial cycle, however, there is little detectable variation in braking force unless the surface characteristics change abruptly.
The 1100cc mill delivers a fair punch, although it's the least powerful of the four bikes. A lack of midrange compared with the others leaves the BMW rider wanting to use lots of revs to make up time, but this adds to the twin's vibration and quickly wears thin. Our testers often found themselves using a higher gear than was appropriate to ease the buzziness in the bar, and instead exploiting the excellent chassis to maximum effect. Using the higher gear also pays off because downshifting results in a definite lurch (thanks to the longitudinal engine layout), unsettling the chassis entering turns.
Ducati's ST4 has the potential to be the best handler of the bunch, with its fully adjustable suspension and 916 heritage. But with the geometry tamed from its racer cousin, the steering feels noticeably sluggish, leading one tester to comment, "It's like steering under water." One feature of the Duke we took advantage of was the adjustable rear ride height. Raising the rear of the bike to steepen the steering head resulted in somewhat quicker steering, but it was still on the heavy side. Switching to the Dunlop D205s from the standard Metzelers (see "Hiking Boots" sidebar, page 60) remedied this somewhat, but the Duke remains the heaviest steering of our quartet.
The ST4's controls include an older-style Brembo brake master cylinder, and this caused us a bit of grief. As delivered, our Ducati had a mushy front brake; enough so that we sent it back for servicing. It was returned with somewhat better feel but the lever still came too close to the bar for our tastes. Attempting to adjust the lever caused the brakes to drag slightly, resulting in our man being stuck in the road with the front brake totally locked when the dragging turned into full-on brake application.
The 916 V-twin motor, being the most powerful and best sounding, won our heartsalmost unanimously. The power is crammed to the upper end of the rev-band however, and the motor is geared a tad tall. This makes a couple of downshifts necessary to get into the meat of the powerband when passing. And that in itself is a bit of a chore, as the Ducati's tranny is on the notchy side not to mention it's practically impossible to find neutral at a standstill.
The Honda VFR800FI gets most of our thrashers' votes for handling, although it's down to nitpicking between any of the four scoots. It is the lightest bike in the test, in addition to positioning its weight well, and this makes up for the suspension's lack of adjustability. Large bumps will unsettle the chassis more so than say, the BMW, but otherwise you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find many handling faults with the Interceptor. The LBS works heaps better than on the Double-X. It feels like there's more front bias than what's found on the bigger bike, which may simply be due to the VFR's lighter weight. The front brakes require a fair pull to get heavy-duty stopping power and the rear pedal feels a bit wooden. However, both binders slow the bike exceptionally well. And speaking of the brakes, we were pretty disappointed with the clutch and brake-lever positioning; they're both somewhat high and the clip-on shape prevents any adjustments from being made.
The V-4 engine provides power about on par with the BMW, albeit in a much smoother manner. Still, the VFR has a noticeable hesitation when getting on the throttle midcorner, a typical fuel-injection glitch that is not nearly as noticeable on the other three S-Ts. And while the increase in jam over the VFR750 is welcome, a bit more midrange would be appreciated a downshift or two is necessary to get some serious ponies going. The gear drive whine combined with the half-a-V-8 rumble provides a sound you either love or hate, and hard acceleration gets a throaty roar from the exhaust (which is a bit on the loud side).
The Triumph Sprint is definitely the tourer of the bunch, although it fares admirably well in the handling department also. It's possible to stay with the lighter VFR in the twisties but the Sprint rider is definitely putting a bit more effort into it. The fork is severely undersprung and this causes a midcorner wallow when the Sprint is pushed hard. Bumping up both front and rear preloads (the rear with the remote adjuster, a nice addition) helped matters considerably. But some stiffer front springs are in order, especially if extra luggage or a passenger are on-board. Brakes are among the best in the test, easily on par with the VFR stoppers, especially when the extra weight of the Sprint is considered.
Powerwise, the Trumpet got everyone's vote for its exceptional smoothness and spread of power. The fuel injection is the most sorted of the bunch, with hasslefree power delivery at lower rpm, along with a strong midrange and top-end. While peak power is almost on par with the Ducati ST4, a smaller spread makes it seem a bit less potent than the Italian V-twin at higher revs. We did encounter a small problem with the Sprint: On hot days, the engine would bog and almost die in traffic. And it was hard to start when the motor was hot.