It was all planned out to the finest detail, just as we like these things to be, so that our blood pressures and cholesterol levels remain at least on the scale. A leisurely route with new roads to explore and some great scenery? Check. Four sport-touring bikes? Check. Two days for riding, a third for photos? Check. But at the last minute the edict came from above: Fit everything into two days rather than three. Two 14-hour days and 637 miles (hardly any on a freeway) later, we were back in the office-most of us in one piece.
In the last few years we've taken to splitting up the sport-tourers into two categories. One category is what we've dubbed the "super sport-tourers," or SSTs, bikes such as the Honda ST1300 and Yamaha FJR1300 that you'd take for an extended holiday with lots of freeway miles between the fun parts. Distinctly more toward the sporty end of the segment are the four bikes gathered here, bikes that you'd want for a shorter jaunt with less freeway and more twisty bits included. That means smaller displacement, lighter weight and fewer amenities.
Introduced in '04, Ducati's ST3 has a dedicated, liquid-cooled, three-valve mill. Measuring 992cc and based on the SS1000's engine cases, the desmotre mill is slotted into a chassis very similar to the ST4's-you'd be hard pressed to tell the two bikes apart at a glance. Just like the "s" version of the ST4, the ST3s has ABS, Marchesini wheels, an hlins shock and some fork work along with a $2000 premium over the standard model. We're well familiar with the Interceptor, having included it in our last test of these bikes ("The Flexible Five," February '05), but for this year Honda has revised the bike's mapping and VTEC in an effort to smooth its power characteristics-we're thinking Honda tweaked some other aspects of the VFR as well, without listing those changes in the press material. The ABS version tested here costs $1000 more than the plain Interceptor.
The Moto Guzzi that falls strictly into this category would be the new Norge model, but that bike isn't imported to the United States just yet. We settled for a Breva V 1100 with the accessory saddlebags and windscreen. The air-cooled, shaft-drive Breva is a bit out of character in this group, with no ABS option. Triumph's Sprint ST was introduced in late '04 and features a larger three-cylinder engine and updated chassis from its well-liked predecessor. Again, the ABS is a $1000 option we, um, opted for.
The winner of our '04 test, the Aprilia Futura, is sadly no longer offered. And no sport-touring test would be complete without a BMW-the R1200ST would have slotted in nicely-but the company had no test units available at the time of our comparison. Call us incomplete, or call BMW to express your disappointment. We did, several times.
Ducati ST3s ABSIt's certainly strange how less power can sometimes make for a better bike, but that is exactly the case with the ST3s. When we last tested the ST4 (no longer offered by the company), that bike was simply overpowered by its 996cc four-valve mill, with its notchy injection and abrupt delivery. Too, there were other aspects of the bike we didn't like-its finicky electronics and ABS brakes-and even though the ST3 is supposedly identical in those aspects, two years of refinement have definitely helped Ducati's sport-touring mount.
The three-valve (two intake and one exhaust) desmotre engine has a much smoother powerband than the desmoquattro mill of the ST4 and simply runs better. It can be cold-blooded on chilly mornings, but once warm the fueling is precise and response crisp. As a city mount this would be our favorite of the four bikes here; it's the narrowest for threading through traffic, the bags are tucked in nicely, and the tallish clip-ons make for good low-speed handling. That peppy engine is coupled with a smooth transmission and wet clutch, which makes leaving a stop an uneventful affair compared with some other Ducatis. Head out onto the freeway, and the ST3 continues to shine: While the reach to the bars is excessive for some, the ergos are plenty suitable for a long haul. The tall, narrow windscreen provides the best protection of this bunch, and the seat is comfortable if a bit narrow.
It's the sport side of the equation where the Ducati really shines in this group. The off/on throttle transition is quite abrupt, requiring you to be smooth with the throttle on corner exits, especially on tighter roads. Other than that, the engine is incredibly user-friendly, offering up ample power in pretty much any situation. We easily prefer this engine over the ST4's, even if it doesn't have quite the top-end hit.
It helps being the only bike in the group with fully adjustable suspension, which the ST3 puts to good use. Steering is not as light and crisp as the Honda's in the twisties, but about what you'd expect from a long-wheelbase Ducati. Some of our testers praised every aspect of the ST3's chassis, while others were less enamored, feeling that the weight bias of the bike was too far to the rear. Indeed, the front end is very stiff, even with the adjusters backed off; quite the opposite at the rear, the hlins shock has a very soft spring-we could almost bottom the shock just by pushing on the rear grab rail at a stop. Some tweaking left the bike acceptable to most, and the Ducati scored high marks for its chassis and suspension.
While our test unit's Brembo ABS brakes behaved better than previous versions we've tried, they are still a step back from what we would call acceptable. The rear brake has almost no stopping power and howls loudly during a hard stop. The front binder is better, with the best feel and feedback of the ABS-equipped bikes in the test, but it's nowhere near the level of Ducati's own sportbikes. The ABS itself is still jerky and cycles noticeably when activated, a far cry from the Honda's seamless action. One nice option on the ST3 is a button on the switchgear to disable the ABS, and the brakes worked slightly better overall with the system turned off.