Comparison: BMW R 1200 GS vs Triumph 1200 Explorer XC vs Yamaha Ténéré

Text: Alfonse Palaima • Photography: Alfonse Palaima

Just as the number of sport touring riders in the last decade or so has risen, a similar growth spurt is currently happening in the dual-sport market. Gone are the days of overnighting a CB400 to the local woodlands or piling the camping kit on your dirt bike. Currently in vogue are bikes three times the size with triple the range and built for adventures in any state you can twist a throttle toward. These liter-plus-sized dirt bikes have grown into the sport tourers of the trail, avengers of the afterworld, and are the bikes to ride the world on, paved or not.

Just as the number of sport touring riders in the last decade or so has risen, a similar growth spurt is currently happening in the dual-sport market. Gone are the days of overnighting a CB400 to the local woodlands or piling the camping kit on your dirt bike. Currently in vogue are bikes three times the size with triple the range and built for adventures in any state you can twist a throttle toward. These liter-plus-sized dirt bikes have grown into the sport tourers of the trail, avengers of the afterworld, and are the bikes to ride the world on, paved or not.

Adventure riders are the next motorcycling “community” after “biker” and “track star,” and they come from young to old, short to tall, pocket sized to jumbo, and there’s a model out there for everyone. Most manufacturers are catering to the market, and these bikes are some of the biggest sellers, but they also demand the deepest pockets. While the hurdles are high, the rewards are their fuel range, carrying capacity, and built-in branded community.

The BMW GS line, tried and true, is known around the world. Yamaha’s footprint is smaller and the Japanese brand is still a bit of a stranger at the trailhead, but it’s gaining traction. Triumph’s legacy is historically groundbreaking—land speed to pop culture—and the Tiger has been on this adventure for more than 70 years, so it’s no stranger to the party in spirit. Jim Hyde, of RawHyde’s World of Adventure, wrangled the BMW R 1200 GS, Triumph Tiger Explorer XC, and the Yamaha Super Ténéré together for us.

For this comparison test, we prepped them with a long list of bolt-on accessories (crash guards, skid plates, luggage, and other farkles) in order to survive any possible tip-overs during our ride through Death Valley National Park, but nothing internal was done. The most important change was to the tires and (unfairly) the Yamaha’s suspension. As these models sell with “round” tires in the U.S., we had to switch to crossovers and were provided Slovenian-made tires for each bike (Sava 110/80-19 up front, Sava 150/17-17 rear). Each was mounted to stock, Saxess, or Woody’s Wheels. For full disclosure, the Ténéré was privately owned with suspension upgrades by Ted Porter’s BMW. Besides this and the traction updates, we tested stock machines.

On the bench, each of these shaft-driven bikes sits high (around 33 inches), carries a hefty load of fuel (5.3 gallons BMW and Triumph, six in the Yamaha) and produces well over 100 horsepower. From there, they each take a different path down the same trail. The BMW’s horizontally opposed twin has recently changed character (to much dispute) while the Triumph’s inline triple always woos a motorhead, which differs still from the Ténéré’s parallel twin. But torque and horsepower aren’t everything when it comes to choosing the bike that’s right for you. Some traits are personal, like the beat of a twin or the buzz of a triple. Other aspects are simple to dice up. With optional OEM luggage or aftermarket bags, each bike can take you and your stuff far away and back again, but how do they stand up off the pavement? Read on.

BMW R 1200 GS

As the leader of the pack in the ADV market, the GS (MSRP $ 16,100 MY2014) received the most of our tester’s attention being the newest machine of the three. This year is the first for this all-new machine, but its legacy brings many strong features to the fight (electronic suspension, switchable ABS and traction control). The Ténéré is only approaching this mark with their 2014, but it wasn’t tested here. Highly modular traction control and multi-stage ABS setups put the GS far ahead of the trio. The Adventure model strides ahead with increased suspension travel and a 400-plus-mile range.

Riders do what they can to stay upright and rolling forward on tests like this. Sometimes the trail wins the fight and parts break. When one of our pilots successfully targeted a few special rocks along Death Valley’s Goler Wash, his reward was a severely bent front wheel in two places, which broke the bead and deflated the tire. BMW doesn’t have a new feature for fixing these types of things, so manual labor was required before we moved on.

One lesser “repair” was to beef up the rear brake lever. Being the non-adventure model, the stock rear brake lever isn’t designed for standup riding. We cleverly applied a bit of trail repair with a rock and some tape to add some feeling to the toe taps. Touratech has a more appropriate solution, no doubt. A similar need would be for the pegs, which are rather narrow, if you plan on many dirt miles.

Triumph Explorer XC

Ergonomically, the 1200 (MSRP $ 17,199 MY2014) isn’t ready for prime time trail riding, yet it’s very capable. With the revs up, a pair of bar risers, and peg lowering kits, it might be comparable to its more able-bodied sibling, the 800 XC. Like the 800 (with a similar short first gear), trail riding at a comfortable pace put us mostly in third gear.

My first five miles (ever) on the Explorer was off pavement, and my lower back ached as I strained to get my body upright. Removing the tankbag allowed me to get higher on the tank and straighten my back as well as my legs. On the street, the 1200 is a high-mile performer with its sportbike geometry, silky inline triple, and the highest claimed horsepower output of the three bikes. The windscreen was snapped off in a spill, however, and to a rider wearing an adventure helmet with goggles at 8,000 feet above sea level, horsepower means nothing but bone chilling speed. No matter how easily the XC can run to the ton mark, I did not do so on my short paved stint.

With a name like Explorer, this 1200 might be expected to compete. Instead, we found it easier to ride in the paved world.

Yamaha Super Ténéré

Putting the GS and Explorer to the test this week was the Super Ténéré (MSRP $ 14,790 MY2013). With its GS-like scale and comfort, what felt like a heavy pig in the first few miles handled surprisingly well in the dirt. It even paralleled the pre-water Boxer’s old tractor ways. While this unit had some suspension work done to it (a Dutch-built Yacugar Shock provided by Ted Porter’s BMW), the stock suspension is reportedly just as plush, simply without the range.

Being another “first ride” bike, I cannot compare it to stock myself. Suspension thoughts aside (as if one could do that!), the Ténéré climbed right up the ladder in my book, and I’d like to ride it on the street to see if it handles as well there as it did on the trail. Comfortable ergos in the saddle (or up on the pegs) make it an attractive choice. Updates to the 2014 model year ergos include bringing the bars up and back 10mm each for a more comfortable seated reach.

Three-position traction control (TC1, TC2 or Off) and full-time ABS (Yamaha lawyers are still reeling from its side-by-side market problems) keep riders safe, no matter their experience level. Updates to the 2014 include cruise control (thanks to the fly-by-wire throttle) and a 2-horsepower increase (plus 1.5 lb ft of torque) as well as a price bump.

Additionally, for model year ‘14 there is an up-spec version (ES model) with an 84-level electronic suspension package (4 pre-load settings, 3 damping modes, and 7 damping fine-tuning settings) and 3-position heated grips with a price bump to $ 16,190, which puts it right between the GS and the Explorer for the same model year.

Closure

While the market can lead you to the trailhead, twisting a throttle where the rubber breaks traction on a regular basis takes some getting used to. While training is suggested for the newest riders, even an old dog can learn a new trick. Body armor for you and your bike is recommended for every rider. BMW offers an “Adventure” model with such crash protection, but Triumph and Yamaha fall short of that mark. While base model price point is just one hurdle in the 
purchasing decision, the cost of upgrades (typically in the thousands) should also to be considered. Safely bringing home that really expensive dirt bike requires both skill and protection. Luckily, the key players in the crash protection market make parts for all three of these bikes and were well represented in this ride. Luggage options are bountiful as well.

Last year, you read John M. Flores’s comparison of two different road-going adventure tourers, the Ducati Multistrada and the Moto Guzzi Stelvio (July/Aug 2013) and learned that the Ducati will win the race but the Stelvio will be there to take you home when you run out of gas. This time, we took a look at some additional dirt-focused dualies and not only rode them beyond their design parameters, but also tipped them over a few times before continuing on with the ride. Battle scarred and refueled, nobody rode away a loser, but depending on your intended use (50/50, 60/40, or 90/10), the Bavarian machine pulls away clean, followed closely by the Yamaha. On the pavement however, it’s a whole new game!