Friday, February 12, 2010

The 3000 Mile Test Ride

I love long distance riding: I'm a member of the Iron Butt Association and have completed a number of their rides, including the Trans Canadian Gold (Vancouver, BC to Halifax, NS in under 72 hours). While you can pretty much ride anything you want as far as you care to, there are only a small number of bikes that truly excel at extended long distance, all weather riding.

A while ago I was sitting on the stoop of a small country store in southern Iowa, drinking a Gatorade as a feeble defence against the midwest heat I'd been riding through all day. A man finished fueling his truck and stopped beside me as he was walking in to pay. "Is that your bike?", he asked, pointing to my '83 BMW R80RT parked in the shade a few yards away. When I said it was, he said "I thought so. You see a lone rider a long way from home, he's probably riding a Beemer."

BMWs have had that reputation for a long time. And, for a long time, they were just about the only choice for most serious long distance riders. Now, we've got an incredible range of bikes that'll do 500 miles before breakfast without flattening your ass or your enthusiasm: the BMW RTs and GTs, Yamaha's FJR 1300, Honda's ST 1300, Kawasaki's fire-breathing Concours 14 and its predecessor, the venerable Concours 1000.

I own an '05 Concours 1000, my fourth Concours. I love these bikes and this '05 in particular. They are one of the most favoured of the long-distance bikes and definitely the best value in the entire class.

I've put in many 1000 mile days on a Concours and once rode a stock one from Chicago to Bellingham, WA non-stop, reaching a real-world top speed of 145 mph on a Montana back road. They'll do the apocryphal 500 miles before breakfast, run 300 mile between fill ups and chew up twisty back roads like pretzels. Ride them below 5000 rpm and they're a great long-distance tourer. Wind the Ninja-based engine up toward the 10,500 rpm redline and it'll bring out your inner hooligan.

So why the R1150RT? Well, partly because although I've owned a bunch of different BMWs over the years, I've never lived with an oilhead. Partly because I'm a BMW guy. And partly because I had surgery last fall that's left me with weakened, injury prone abdominal muscles. The Connie's a wonderful bike and weighs within a few pounds of the 1150 but she carries her weight up high, making it difficult for me to lift her onto the center stand when loaded (the bike, not me) and tiring to ride at low speeds.

The 1150, in contrast, carries her weight lower and feels 100 lbs lighter than the 600 she actually weighs.  The fine balance of the BMW means that, even with a load of luggage, I can lift it onto the center stand easily. With the Connie, I have to ask for help.

I cannot keep both of these fine motorcycles. One will have to go. What follows are my riding impressions of the R1150RT and a comparison to the Concours. As I'm writing these lines, I have no idea which one I'll keep, which one I'll sell. By the time the last period of this post is pasted in place, maybe I'll know.

Overall Design

The 1150's "RT" designation indicates BMW's intention that this is a road touring bike, a more sedate design than their "RS" bikes, which are nominally BMW's Sport Touring bikes. The reality is that the sleek 1150RTs are considered by many riders to be sport touring mounts.

This is the second generation of the oilhead RT, an evolution of the R1100RT that debuted in 1995. 
A wet weight of 614 lbs is typical for this class of bike. The frame is a modern, 3 section unit, using extensive aluminum castings, with the engine a stressed frame member. The full fairing is a sea of compound curves, presumably optimized in a wind tunnel to provide excellent weather protection. 

The Kawasaki Concours (ZG-1000) is a much older design, dating back to 1986. It has always been marketed as a sport touring bike, with much being made of its Ninja 1000-derived engine. 

At 640 pounds wet, it's a bit heavier than the R1150RT. The frame is mild steel tubing and uses the transverse 4 cylinder engine as a stressed member. The full fairing is a typical 80's design, very angular but still very effective.

Fit and Finish

I don't think any marque measures up to BMW's level of fit and finish. Castings are smooth, paint is deep and lustrous (and expensive) Glasurit, Everything about this bike looks and feels first rate, as it should, given the price of a new one. The supplied toolkit is simple but stocked with first-rate pieces.

The Connie, by contrast, displays average fit and finish. Castings are rougher, hardware is mild steel instead of stainless, the paint is well applied but not as rich looking as the BMW's. The toolkit is a sadly lacking collection of poorly-made wrenches and a pair of pliers made out of some type of oatmeal alloy.

Engine and Driveline

These are both shaft-drive bikes that employ their engines as stressed frame members. That's where the similarity ends.

The BMW uses a 90 horsepower variant of the flat twin engine that has made BMW famous since 1923. This incarnation uses 8-valve, oil-cooled cylinder heads and Bosch fuel injection. Engines built after December 2002 (unfortunately not my bike) have dual-plug heads for more even combustion.

This very torquey engine is mated to a six speed transmission through an automotive-style dry clutch, a design shared only with Moto Guzzi. The six speed transmission is one of the features that distinguishes the 1150RT from the 1100RT. Unfortunately, instead of designing a true six-speed with evenly spaced gear ratios, BMW apparently just tacked a tall sixth gear onto the existing five speed box. The result is a huge jump from fifth to the overdrive sixth. This produces very low cruising rpm (4000 rpm produces just over 80 mph indicated) which is fine for long stretches of Interstate but forces the rider to ignore sixth on any but the slightest inclines and on any "fun" roads.

The transmission is also typically Getrag/BMW, with clunky, mechanical shifts and a higher lever effort than I like. The combination of the big, torquey twin and this six-speed is definitely biased toward long distance touring. It is not much fun when the road gets twisty.

The Concours, in contrast, is a sport bike at heart. It uses a slightly detuned Ninja 1000 sport bike engine, making a claimed 98 horsepower and driving a close-ratio six speed transmission through a wet clutch. This is also a 4-valve/cylinder engine but it uses carburetors instead of fuel injection. This combination is decidedly Jekyll and Hyde: below 5000 rpm, it's a practical, powerful touring bike. Above 5000 rpm, its hairy-chested sport bike persona takes over. You need to be hanging on and pointed in a straight line when you whack the throttle open above 5000 rpm.

The Connie's transmission shifts quickly and cleanly through six well-spaced gears. Unlike the BMW, it does not have a digital gear indicator. Ironically, the Connie could use one, the BMW could do without.

Mechanical and Electrical Systems, Serviceability

The mechanical systems on these two bikes are several generations apart. The BMW uses Bosch Motronic fuel injection, vs. the Concours' carburetors. The Connie's dual front disk brakes are just that: brakes connected to the handlebar-mounted master cylinder by hydraulic hoses. The same for the single rear disk.

The BMW's brakes are complex servo assisted ("power brakes"), fully linked (either the hand or foot lever actuates both front and rear brakes), antilock brakes. This expensive system works flawlessly, allowing the rider to simply stand the bike up and mash on all the brake he/she wants to produce a minimum-distance stop on almost any surface.

It's a system with quirks: with the key off, there is no servo assist and therefore limited braking power. Try rolling this bike down your driveway or off a trailer with the key off and you may be in for an expensive surprise. The system must also complete its self-test cycle at power-up before servo assist is available. If you hold either brake when you turn the key on, the self-test won't complete and you won't have servo assist. This is also a good way to spontaneously explore the edge of the Motel 6 parking lot.

Bleeding this system is an involved process, too. (On the Concours, it's a 15 minute job.) Systems that fail are typically not repairable and replacement costs run to $3000 or more. (Some riders have simply removed the servo and ABS systems when they fail, with apparently no discernible effect on basic braking power.)

Electrical systems on both bikes are similar in concept, although the BMW's braking system makes tailight and brakelight bulb choice critical (and limits the ability to add auxiliary brake and tail lights). Both bikes have alternators producing approximately 700 watts, charging similarly sized batteries. On the BMW, the alternator is belt driven and belt failure has sidelined more than a few riders. Also, where the Concours' battery is easily accessible under the seat, the BMW's is buried under the fuel tank.

Both bikes are mostly owner-serviceable. Lots of plastic has to come off to get to the innards of both bikes, with the Concours having a slight advantage. Both bikes need to have their valves set and  intake systems synchronized on a regular basis (on the BMW, to eliminate surging and on the Concours, to eliminate the "Connie buzz"). In addition, the Concours' counter-balancer shaft needs to be adjusted, a simple procedure that, when done with a valve adjustment and carb sync, keeps the engine smooth.

Ride, Handling and Braking

The R1150RT's combination of BMW's Paralever rear suspension and unique Telelever front suspension produce what in my opinion is the most refined ride in the motorcycle world. The BMW is eerily smooth over the road, without sacrificing any precision in steering or braking. At all legal (and some not-so-legal) cruising speeds, the engine is absolutely smooth. It is simply effortless to cover long miles on this bike. In addition, the Telelever front end minimizes "dive" on braking and deceleration, adding to the refined feeling of the bike.

On twisty back roads, the BMW is very competent but, like any heavy bike, can be a lot of work. You definitely do not flick this bike around corners. Turn in is about average and the bike tracks accurately through the corners. Steering response in a turn is very good for a heavy bike and it doesn't take long to get comfortable enough on this bike to routinely scrape the pegs. The ABS system lets you rush up to a corner at foolish speeds, then brake late and hard going into the corner.

The transmission dampens the fun a bit, with its long-throw, clunky shifts but a good rider will adjust to this. Likewise the engine, which has a broad, flat power curve but does not rev very freely. There is no mistaking that this is a sport TOURING bike and not a SPORT touring one.

The Concours uses a traditional front fork setup, with adjustable spring preload. The rear, like the BMW, uses a single shock with air-adjustable preload and adjustable rebound damping. The Concours turns into corners quicker than the BMW, is about as steerable through the turns and will put the pegs on the pavement with less effort. For long distance riding I run bias-ply Michelin tires on the Connie, which slow the handling somewhat. Fitted with sticky, quick-turning radials, the Connie will out-turn just about anything in its class.

Braking power with the stock brake pads and lines is adequate. My Connie has braided stainless lines front and rear and grippy (but abrasive) "HH" pads up front, a combination that produces more braking power than most riders have skill. Where the BMW's brakes are "point and stop", the Concours' brakes require a high degree of rider skill.

The Concours' engine and transmission are a lot more fun than the BMW's. Shifts are quick and precise, gear ratios are evenly spaced and that lovely Ninja engine sings an angelic tune above 7000 rpm. It's easy to forget you're on a bike with bags and a top case.

Overall Comfort  and Weather Protection

Most riders I know hit their limit somewhere between 250 and 300 miles a day. Long distance riders like me think in terms of 500 miles minimum, double that if it's needed. My average road day is 700 miles. To cover those kind of miles requires a comfortable bike with excellent weather protection.

Both of these bikes offer excellent weather protection. The BMW's fairing covers the rider's body from boot heel to helmet top, with the electrically-adjustable windshield allowing for a range of adjustment from sport bike breezy to sit-up-straight still air comfort.

On the Beemer, my knees protrude slightly past the fairing edge so that the very outside edge of my gear gets a bit of breeze (and rain). The mirrors are placed in the airstream so that they keep the rider's hands in a pocket of still air. I find that in heavy rain, the bigger droplets ignore this theory and still find my gloves.

The voluptuous sculpting of the BMW fairing also allows a noticeable amount of low-speed air flow in the rider's area. I thought this would be a problem in near-freezing temperatures but it really didn't make much difference (maybe the heated grips made the difference).

The stock windshield is adequate but was too small for my tall-from-the-waist-up body and wide shoulders. A replacement screen from Aeroflow has produced an aerodynamic miracle.

The BMW's height-adjustable saddle is one of the best stock saddles in the business, allowing pain-free 700 mile days.

The Concours' fairing, while sporting an angular, appealing masculine shape, is more reflective of the "barn door" school of weather protection, blocking the air rather than diplomatically guiding it around the rider. Still, it works well, producing a nearly draft-free pocket of air for the rider and passenger.

The Connie's fairing also leaves the outside edge of my legs in the airflow but, as with the BMW, it's no big deal. I do find my boots get wetter riding the Connie in the rain than the BMW.

The Connie's fixed-position stock windshield is adequate but not protective enough for long distance rides. Most owners replace the windshield; my choice is the wonderful vented Cee Bailey unit in 6" overheight. This produces a completely still, buffet-free zone for rider and passenger with none of the errant zephyrs I feel on the R1150RT.

The Concours's stock seat is good for 300 to 500 miles a day. Beyond that, it's too narrow and too hard. I've had mine rebuilt with multiple-layer memory foam, allowing 1000 mile sits. Done this way, it's about on par with the stock R1150RT seat and produces the same seating height as the BMW's seat on its lowest position (which is where I need it).

One grumble I have about the R1150RT is the mediocre mirrors. They're set low on the bike and work as aerodynamic aids to keep the rider's hands in (mostly) still air. Unfortunately, the top half to one third of the mirrors provide a great view, not of following traffic, but of my elbows. A good view of traffic requires some serious head-bobbing.

The Concours, on the other hand, is blessed with the best mirrors ever fitted to any motorcycle. That's not opinion, that's fact. I'm spoiled by their unobstructed view of the road behind without any need for gymnastics.

The Long Haul

Both of these bikes will go 240 miles on a tankful, with 50 or so miles of reserve fuel. Both will haul two people and their luggage as far and as fast as you want to go. Both will let you play a satisfying game of  boy racer on twisty roads.

So which one is better? For the Interstate, the BMW wins. The combination of the smooth engine, wide saddle and refined ride provide unmatched comfort. For twisty roads, the Concours' wonderful engine and transmission make it the better bike. When the weather gets ugly, it's a tie.

But what about for me, for a guy who rides a mix of "get there" and "turn here" roads, a guy who uses his one bike to commute and tour? Sitting here on this dark, rainy, unrideable Friday afternoon, the BMW, with its poised low-speed manners and balance and recently-sampled long distance prowess would be my choice.

My final decision, though, will have to wait for a long, sunny spring day when I can take each bike in turn through town and then out to the mountains, when fresh muscle memory and adrenaline will help me make what today looks like an impossible choice.