Four different adventure bikes, with four different engine layouts, from four different countries—that sounded like an interesting comparison as Lyndon, Ted, Florian, and I were riding around the southwesternmost part of Virginia. But it has been done before. So we are taking a slightly different approach: pairing a 20-year-old adventure bike against some modern competition.
As RoadRUNNER still has a 1997 Triumph Tiger in its fleet, we thought to put it up against the modern big toys of a 2014 KTM 1190 Adventure, 2013 BMW 1200 GS Adventure, and a 2012 Yamaha 1200 Super Ténéré. It’s a special occasion anyway. The Tiger will have its 200,000-kilometer (124,274-mile) celebration during this test, flipping the odometer a second time in its life. How will a 20-year-old bike with that mileage stand up against the new guys? You can already see by the numbers: this test is not fair!
The Tiger’s 900ccs against the other bikes’ 1200; its 86 hp against the KTM’s 150 (the other two aren’t lagging much behind). Don’t take it as a serious comparison of specifications. On the other hand, that’s exactly what we want to find out. Do you always need the newest $20,000 toy? Does it always have to be the biggest, latest bike, preferably the one with the most horsepower? Or would a bike that sells (at the time of this article) for $1,000 on craigslist work just as well?
At a Glance
As the four motorcycles are standing side by side, one thing becomes obvious: the adventure bike category has grown in the past 20 years. In numbers. And in sheer size. When it first came out, the Tiger was by far the largest among its competitors. Other dual-sport bikes of its era, like the R 100 GS, the Yamaha Ténéré 750, or Honda’s Africa Twin, looked like innocent cuddle toys against the British cat. Now our three modern bikes have outgrown the 20-year-old lady. The KTM, although relatively narrow around the waist, looks and is taller. The Yamaha is not lower, just has some more fat around the hips, due to the two cylinders sitting side by side in the frame. The BMW, with its massive eight-gallon tank and the boxer engine protected by tubular engine guards, looks like a German tank, one could argue by a sharp tongue. It definitely wins the “bigger is better” show.
Overall design is subjective. But still, I would definitely opt for the clear lines of the Triumph. Just two round headlights sitting in a fairing shaped like a cat ready to pounce. The black paint with “Tiger” written on the side adds to its pretty simplicity. I believe in the theory that all nice designs have been done already (similarly, that all good music was played between the ’60s and ’90s). So everything new is more or less a good try. Among those tries in this case, I favor the Yamaha’s looks.
The first impression doesn’t change when turning on the engine. The distinctive triple wins, closely followed by the V-twin of the KTM. Yamaha and BMW deliver rather unspectacularly. The Triumph sounds like a race bike with its dual aftermarket Micron exhausts. They’re the reason earplugs were invented.
But of course, adventure bikes need not only be looked at and listened to. They are not for show; they are built to be driven. There are few places in North America that could reveal their qualities better then the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Western Virginia—a million corners, with backroad switchbacks sometimes so steep and tight that suspension and brakes have a tough job. Of course we have to take them into the woods, too.
On the Trail and on the Road
Drifting around corners with loose stuff is not the main business of these big beasts, neither would single trails be their favorite playground. If you want to ride comfortably on forestry roads, then they are great. Here you can have some fun, even with 500-pound whoppers. My favorites in this category are the Ténéré and 1190 Adventure. The Yamaha has a strong point with its well-balanced suspension setup and smooth power delivery. Nothing catches you by surpriseâ€”the bike just works, without overstraining the rider. It is also the best choice for shorter inseams.
The KTM needs a strong character. The very agile V-twin almost forces you to accelerate (and brake) all the time. It pushes you to the limit, to test how much drift angle is possible. All the time. Cruising is not in its gene pool. Fun is guaranteed. Its 150hp would be fully appreciated by a Dakar champion only.
Climbing onto the huge BMW, there is much more respect involved. With the GS Adventure’s tank between your knees and the handlebar far away, you don’t have that easy, playful feeling of the other two. You are rather surprised how much is possible.
And how does the old English lady compare? It will take you to all the places the others go, although dirt never was the Tiger’s favorite hunting ground. Therefore the suspension is too soft and the bike too heavy. The lack of electronic helpers that all the other bikes have seems like a disadvantage as well. On the other hand, you never have to think, should I switch traction control on or off? Should I switch ABS on or off? Do I choose Off-Road mode or Rain or Street or Sport? Do I want chocolate with ice or iced chocolate? You just turn the key and ride. All mistakes are yours. Too much throttle; the rear wheel loses traction. Too much brake; the bike and you lose balance. That simple, that good.
On firm asphalt, the difference and the advantage of 20 years of engineering is more obvious. To keep up with its younger predators, the rider of the Triumph would have to be much more skillful. It is clear that a 20-year-old suspension won’t react as crisply as a new one. Brakes 20 years ago were good. And they still brake. But switching to the younger competition, you immediately feel the different bite, the better point of pressure. Engine-wise, the bikes couldn’t be more different. The Tiger growls an addictive triple sound and provides a perfectly linear power delivery—still enough for an ambitious hunt. But the others, with the younger and bigger hearts, will get the catch. The Yamaha acts like an inconspicuous wolf. Power comes smoothly without asking for too much attention. It’s more then enough, whenever needed.
The BMW demands attention. It would be the lion, the king, impressive just by standing there, though maybe a bit overweight. Still fast. Once rolling, there is sheer power, already at very low revs. It could only be charged by the KTM, a lightweight leopard, always lusting for speed, always looking for a challenge.
In the End
So which bike is for whom? The Yamaha might be chosen for pure rationality. It does everything very well without the slightest suspect of extravagance. The KTM is for the ones who are not afraid to lose their license. The BMW will attract the long-distance travelers. And the Tiger? It’s for aesthetes. Or for the cool wanderer. For the price of the others, you get a real character and an adventure down the Pan-American Highway and back! The mileage is no problem. The Tiger might run another 100,000 kilometers, which the other ones first have to prove.
Meet the Riders: why they chose their mounts
Ted from Edmonton, Canada
The Yamaha just does everything I want, without any hassle. I don’t need to worry about a chain to maintain, and the Heidenau tires will take me a very long way. The engine is built to last.
Uwe from Steinach, Germany
There is nothing better than a potent V-twin. I love this setup. You don’t even have to think about passing a car. You just do it. Even in low revs the 1190 delivers smooth power. The off-road thing is not just a marketing scheme.
Florian from Winton-Salem, North Carolina
I love the Tiger. We keep it in our garage not only for romantic reasons, as it was my dad’s when we started RoadRUNNER, but also because it still is a fun bike to ride and has plenty of character.
Text and Photography: Uwe Krauss
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