The sport-touring class of motorcycles was once robust, with manufacturers offering a variety of touring bikes that were faster and more agile than yachts like the Gold Wing and Road Glide. But then the adventure-bike segment flourished when long-haul riders learned to appreciate the sporting chops and comfort of ADVs, while having the ability to explore off-road terrain.
Yet many touring riders believe dirt’s only good for growing potatoes and greatly prefer seat heights low enough to plant both feet on the ground. When you have a long way to go and several twisty paved roads to get there, a pure sport-touring bike is the best option.
Similar Yet Distinct
The R 1250 RS is a descendant of BMW’s long lineage of exemplary sport-tourers, built around the iconic Boxer engine layout paired with a shaft-driven rear wheel. Add a ladleful of electronic rider aids and an invigorated new 1254cc motor, and you’ve got a playful 136 hp steed on which to chase apexes and horizons in relative comfort. Prices start at $ 15,695, but adding some nice options quickly brings that number up.
The price for similar performance and nearly as much equipment from a Kawasaki dealer starts at just $ 12,399 (+$ 200 for 2021). The Ninja 1000SX was upgraded for 2017 and again for 2020, adding features like a six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU), cornering-ABS, LED headlights, and a color TFT instrument panel. With 140 eager horses of four-cylinder motivation on tap and 23 fewer pounds to carry around, the 1043cc Ninja SX is a fast and capable sport-tourer that shines for its laudable value proposition.
The BMW, in its Austin Yellow colorway, looks magnificent in warm sunlight, proudly displaying its artfully sculpted engine cylinders that match the RS’s forward-leaning stance. It looks fresh while not deviating harshly from traditional. Its squinty LED headlights shine brightly day and night. The wheels have side-angle valve stems for simplified inflation when the tire pressure monitoring system informs you of low pressure via a brilliant 6.5-inch TFT screen.
In terms of fairings, the Kawasaki brings a gown to the RS’s miniskirt, enveloping the engine bottom entirely. Styling is a Japanese mix of bold yet reserved, punched up by vivid green color elements on the fairing, wheel rims, and saddlebags. The LED headlights look aggressive but are surprisingly dim in daylight. For 2020, the muffler count has been reduced by half, leaving behind a single canister cloaked in a classy-looking brushed aluminum cover that says “sport” way more authentically than the BMW’s chrome muffler.
Getting To Know Ya
No key is needed to start the optioned-up R 1250 RS, only the fob that can be kept in your riding jacket. The proximity sensor in the fob also eliminates the hassle of inserting a key into the fuel cap. It’s a huge convenience, but without the hammer-like certainty of an actual key. The Kawasa-key fits the ignition, fuel tank, and 28-liter saddlebags, the latter a $ 1,130 accessory that affixes to nicely integrated mounts.
The Ninja’s 4.3-inch TFT screen looks so good on its own, but pales in comparison to the BMW’s larger and more upscale display. The switchgear to control the screens on each bike has a satisfying tactile feel in operation, whether it be ride modes, trip computers, display types, or adjusting traction and wheelie controls. Most every operation is intuitive, even though I did struggle trying to reset the RS’s tripmeter at fuel stops.
The seat-to-handlebar relationship is quite similar between the bikes, although the RS’s bars are slightly higher. While the stated seat heights are nearly identical, I can flat-foot the RS but on the Ninja I have to stay on my tippy-toes. The BMW also has more distance between the seat and footpegs, giving extra legroom for taller riders.
Both bikes use a slip/assist-style clutch that offers a light lever pull, but the BMW’s has a very narrow engagement zone that makes slow-speed maneuvers more difficult than they need to be. The BMW’s greatest deficiency when compared to the Kawi is its sloppier gearbox. Swapping cogs is much clunkier. This seems to be related to how the combined lash effects of the BMW’s powertrain transfer its direction of power two times from the crankshaft to the rear wheel, which add up to the RS’s most flawed system. Both bikes have up/down quickshifters for clutchless gear changes, but the one on the Kawi operates smoother.
These engines are tremendously flexible, offering stout power even at low revs, and each can be set to ride modes that change throttle response from docile to snappy. And when there’s a need to hurry, each quickly blurs the scenery and can outrun almost anything.
A sport-touring bike really needs to be tested out on the road and pointed to interesting locations, so I enlisted my old cohort Tom Roderick to help compare this vivacious duo in back-to-back testing on some of our favorite roads east of Orange County, CA.
Packing up was easy, as both bikes were equipped with optional hardshell saddlebags. The Kawi’s are color-matched to the bike and can fit a full-face helmet. BMW’s Touring Side Cases don’t match the bike’s paint and are pricier, but they have two notable advantages. First, they can conveniently be left unlocked, eliminating the hassle of using a key to access something. All manufacturers should employ such a system. Also, the design of the BMW bags includes their nifty shelf system that allows you to open the bag without worrying about its contents spilling to the ground.
Unless you’re incredibly fortunate, unraveling twisty roads requires starting out on boring ones. For freeway/highway riding, the RS is preferred. Roomier ergonomics and a plusher saddle give it a long-haul edge.
It’s not that the Ninja is uncomfortable, though. Kawasaki has fitted rubber damping units under the seat pan and used a denser urethane padding in the seats to mitigate engine vibes from the in-line four-cylinder powerplant. Although some buzz can be felt when fully exploring the Ninja’s rev range, we weren’t at all bothered by vibration at cruising speeds. The new cruise control operates seamlessly and lets you rest your throttle hand, as does the BMW’s optional system.
Wind protection is similar and dependent on how the windshields are adjusted. The RS has a slicker adjusting system, although only to two positions, and earns points for also offering a semi-permanent height adjustment via an extra set of holes in the screen to best suit riders of different heights. The Kawi offers four settings for its windscreen, but the awkward placement of the Ninja’s release lever below the instrument panel makes adjusting it on the fly impossible without taking both hands off the grips.
“I have little to complain about in regards to comfort on either bike,” Roderick observes. “Each motorcycle’s rider triangle and wind protection were sufficient, but given the choice between the two for a true multi-day, long-haul tour, I’d call dibs on the BMW because of its wonderful seat that provides a nice combination of comfort and support.”
A motorcycle in a category with “sport” in its name had better be fun when it’s time to tilt horizons. Both of these sport-tourers perform more capably and confidently than any ADV motorbike.
The Ninja’s steering and chassis feedback is more direct than the BMW’s, informing the rider and turning in quicker. The longer RS feels more isolated, which is a boon on the highway but detracts from the experience while carving corners on a mountain road.
“Any Kawasaki with the Ninja moniker on its fairing denotes performance,” Roderick notes. “A quick glance at each bikes’ spec sheet will confirm the Kawi’s more sporting rake/trail and wheelbase. Riding up to my personal limit of street speed probably means both bikes are equally fast, but if pushed past that self-imposed limit, the BMW will struggle to keep up with the Kawasaki.”
The RS also enjoys the wondrous capabilities of semi-active suspension when the Touring Package is selected. It automatically adjusts damping depending on the selected ride mode and how it’s being ridden. The suspension provides a plush ride when desired and then stiffens up when ridden aggressively, dramatically limiting the amount of front-end dive while braking.
“Wonderful technology,” Roderick raves. “If turning off the freeway onto a curvy two-laner, simply push a button to switch from tour to sport settings, and the motorcycle remains composed whether hard on the brakes or hard on the gas.”
The only complaint about the Kawasaki’s admirable suspension is that you must manually adjust the settings.
Saying the BMW has bountiful midrange power does a disservice to the term “midrange,” as its new Shiftcam technology produces an electric-like torque curve, pulling strong from as little as 3,000 rpm and revving out unlike any previous Boxer. You can choose from two or even three gears for a given corner.
“When I say the BMW’s twin-cylinder motor is a one-dimensional engine, it’s meant to be a compliment,” Roderick says. “With a midrange of astounding proportions, it almost feels like an electric motor.”
The Ninja has plenty enough power to keep up, but gear selection is more critical to its accelerative forces, due largely to its 211cc displacement deficit. Regardless, it’s a thrilling and flexible powerplant that enables chasing horizons at warp speed.
When it’s time to bleed off speed, Roderick reports: “The Brembo brakes on the Beemer provide superior stopping power and feedback compared to the perfectly adequate brakes on the Ninja.”
If your sport-touring duties include carrying a passenger, they’ll be happier on the BMW, which has a wider and comfier passenger seat and more legroom. When you have a lot of gear to carry, the RS has the advantage of a luggage rack (part of the optional Select Package), with the capability of attaching a BMW accessory box for extra cargo room.
Ironically, the bike with a chain to lube and adjust doesn’t come equipped with a centerstand, but the shaft-driven BMW does (with the optional Touring Package). Kawi doesn’t offer a centerstand even as an option, but the aftermarket has a low-cost workaround. The SnapJack V2 ($ 50) seen in our Feb ’21 MotoMarket easily raises a bike’s rear wheel off the ground to allow effective chain maintenance and can be folded down to pack in luggage.
The Ninja is the clear value leader in the sport-touring class, offering enviable features and capabilities at a price that shames its competition. Add the saddlebags and heated grips ($ 270), and you’ve got a fantastic sporty traveling companion for $ 13,799. A frugal sport-touring rider who needs open-class power can’t do better than the relatively thrifty SX.
The RS’s value equation is more difficult to judge, as BMW’s option packages quickly ramp up price. Our test bike was equipped with the comprehensive Select Package, which includes a bundle of other option packages with desirable comfort and convenience items. It retails for a pricey $ 3,150.
Sans the Touring Package, you’ll ride without active suspension, cruise control, a centerstand, and bag mounts. The quickshifter is part of the Dynamic Package. If you want heated grips and a tire-pressure monitoring system, you’ll need to option up to the Comfort Package to get those. Oddly, the chrome exhaust is part of the Comfort Package.
Our bike also had the Style Package Sport, which consists of the engine spoiler and a fashionable aluminum trim for the top of the fuel tank, priced at $ 500. Along with the $ 1,446 saddlebags, we’re at a breathtaking $ 20,791.
The R 1250 RS is certainly not a $ 6,000 better motorcycle than the Ninja, but the Kawasaki lacks features available on the BMW that might be irresistible, like the active suspension, larger instrument panel, shaft drive, and a centerstand.
Well-heeled sport-touring riders, especially ones who travel long distances and want to carry a passenger in relative comfort, will have a satisfying accomplice for trips big and small with the RS.
2020 BMW R 1250 RS
+ superior comfort, vast amount of features, electronic suspension
– features cost extra, gearbox lash, less wieldy
Distributor BMW North America
MSRP $ 20,791 (plus $ 495 freight charge)
Engine liquid/air-cooled, ShiftCam DOHC, 4-valve, opposed-twin
Power 136hp @7,750rpm; 105lb-ft @7,750rpm
Transmission 6-speed, slip/assist clutch, shaft final drive
Wet Weight 537lbs (claimed, full tank)
Seat Height 32.3in (820mm)
Fuel Capacity 4.8gal
Fuel Consumption 41mpg (avg as tested)
Fuel Grade premium
Color Austin Yellow Metallic Matte, Black Storm Metallic, Imperial Blue Metallic
2020 Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX
+ unbeatable value, sporty feel, agility
– no centerstand, less robust instrumentation, tighter ergonomics
Distributor Kawasaki Motors Corp, USA
MSRP $ 13,799 (plus $ 550 freight charge)
Engine liquid-cooled, DOHC, 4-valve, in-line four
Power 140hp @9,250rpm; 82lb-ft @7,800rpm
Transmission 6-speed, slip/assist wet clutch, chain final drive
Wet Weight 514lbs (claimed, full tank)
Seat Height 32.3in (833mm)
Fuel Capacity 5gal
Fuel Consumption 40mpg (avg as tested)
Fuel Grade premium
Color Candy Lime Green/Metallic Carbon Gray, Metallic Spark Black/Metallic Graphite Gray