Sport Touring Shootout: Honda VFR1200F DCT Vs. Kawasaki Ninja 1000 Vs. Suzuki GSX1250FA
Story by Kelly Callan, Arthur Coldwells, Shawn M. Pickett, and Don Williams
Three motorcycles, all confidently marketed as upright faired sportbikes by their respective manufacturers. However, lurking in the accessories catalog of each company are the accoutrements needed to add a sport-touring bike to each brands’ lineup. Introducing the newest sport-touring trio from Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki.
Unlike supersport bikes, which often offer only incrementally different specifications, as they attack their goals with single-minded precision, a perusal of the spec sheets of these three motorcycles helps put them in perspective for a comprehensive and revealing comparison.
Liquid-cooled oversquare four-cylinder motors power all three bikes-DOHC inline-fours for the Kawasaki and Suzuki-while Honda goes its own way with a SOHC Unicam design (each cam directly actuates the intake valves, and the exhaust valves via rocker arms) and a V-4 configuration. The Honda and the Suzuki check in with about 1250cc, while the Kawasaki is an enhanced liter-bike displacing 1043cc.
Six-speed transmissions are common, though we are all well aware of Honda’s auto-/manual-shifting Dual Clutch Transmission (the VFR can also be had with a traditional manual clutch). Final drive again shows Honda going contrary to the flow, using a shaft rather than chain to get the power to the rear wheel.
The chassis, too, are not interchangeable. Without bags, the Kawasaki hits the scales at just over 500 pounds, and the Honda just over 600. Almost dead in-between is the Suzuki. Wheelbases also progress incrementally-the Ninja 1000’s is 57 inches, the VFR sits at 61 inches, and the GSX splits the difference at 58.5.
Numbers, of course, only tell part of the story. These are motorcycles that constantly taunted us to ride them over long distances. We took them out in various pairs, all together, or one at a time. Each bike bonded with different riders, reflective of the preferences of the pilots and the capability of the mounts.
First, our individual editors with strong opinions will tell you why they preferred a specific motorcycle, and then we will collectively select the ultimate Accidental Tourist. Please, resist the temptation to skip ahead and spoil the surprise!
Honda VFR1200F DCT
In many ways, every motorcycle ride is a tour-you get out and see the world sans the steel-and-glass bubble. It’s the perfect melding of the beauty of nature and the beast of technology. Whether I’m touring on a full dresser or a bare-bones bagger, I want a machine that doesn’t get in the way of me enjoying the scenery.
In the case of sport-tourers, sometimes that landscape is a centerline passing by me at an increasingly quick pace. Aboard the luxurious Honda VFR1200F DCT, the technology is focused on improving my ride experience while reducing fatigue; I can ride farther and faster.
In our last issue, Arthur Coldwells delved deeply into the meaning of the Dual Clutch Transmission and how it interacts with the motorcyclist. His observations were spot-on, and slipping a pair of bags on the VFR only underscores the improvement that an automatic clutched transmission can offer.
We have all been conditioned to expect the use of the clutch and shift levers as integral parts of motorcycling. I was skeptical of the DCT and found myself reflexively reaching for the left lever and stabbing my foot into empty air, even after spending some time on the bike.
I focused on the auto-shifting modes initially, and I was moderately impressed. The modes work well on upshifts when making time through the canyons, though neither the Drive nor Sport mode satisfied me when it came time to decelerate.
Once in the manual shift mode-controlled by your left index finger (upshift) and thumb (downshift)-the advantages became much clearer. On a bike such as the VFR, you don’t do any clutch slipping anyway, so manual operation of the clutch gets in the way of rapid shifts. As you adjust to the idea of rapid finger movements, rather than slightly bigger hand and foot movements, the purpose of the DCT reveals itself.
This relates to touring in a number of ways. When riding around at a leisurely pace, the DCT is amazing. Select the Drive mode with your right thumb, relax and just go along for the ride. The VFR shifts early, keeping revs low and acceleration tame. Further, the computer retards the torque production below 5000 rpm in 1st and 2nd gears, keeping the pull of the engine gentle. It’s all about a smooth ride at low rpm, and it works.
Moving to the Sport mode to put more sport in sport-touring, the VFR livens up noticeably-as long as you are twisting the throttle. The DCT shifts later, keeping you out of the 1237cc V-4’s soft sub-5000 rpm zone, and the scenery rushes by more rapidly. If you forget that you’re in a hurry and let the engine speed drop, the VFR resumes its Clark Kent identity, even in the Sport mode.
When its time to whip off the glasses and tie and start pumping adrenaline, the VFR has the manual shift option. Being hands-on for the timing of shifting feels more aggressive, yet you are putting in less effort than on a conventionally transmissioned motorcycle. There is no clutch lever to pull; your foot can remain stationary; upshifts are considerably smoother. These are all small things that can add up after many hundreds of miles on twisting roads. You come in less fatigued at the end of the day, and it comes at no reduction of performance.
Handling is solid-this is not a light sport bike, weighing in at just over 600 pounds with the bags attached and the five-gallon fuel tank full. Actually, let me detour a moment and talk about the bags.
Instead of the complicated apparatuses on the two other bikes in this story, the VFR1200F’s chassis is designed to fit the bags right off the showroom floor. They come on and off in seconds, and the bike looks polished with or without them. The clamshell design works great because the bags disengage so effortlessly for packing. We did not test the available rear trunk, though one is available as a factory accessory.
Back to the handling-you never truly forget that this is a 600-pound bike and you are not on a pure sport bike. Turning isn’t exactly lazy, though changing direction requires thought and some effort. Once set in a line, the VFR perseveres. The Bridgestone Battlax tires stick nicely and never present undesireable surprises. Aftermarket tires can induce faster turn-in, if desired.
The VFR is more about stability and agility, which makes an ideal sport-touring mount. You aren’t constantly making corrections or fighting uneven pavement. The semi-adjustable suspension (spring preload and rear rebound damping only) is plush for a sport bike, so comfort is again the focus. Even at 115 pounds dry, I didn’t feel the need to adjust the preload to my weight-it is perfect fresh from the crate.
The ABS-enhanced brakes are unusual. The front lever bites softly, as not all of the front pads are engaged. To get maximum performance, the rear brake pedal, which is linked to the front brakes, must be employed. In many ways, using the foot pedal alone is superior to exclusive use of the hand lever, though you’ll have to learn to get the right feel.
Ergonomics are actually a bit sportier than you would expect. Remember, Honda markets the VFR as a sport bike, not a sport-touring bike (that’s the ST1300’s job). So, the bars are a bit lower and the pegs a bit higher on the VFR than the ST1300, putting you in a more sporting position. It’s not uncomfortable, though it is the only aspect of the VFR that truly seems focused on sport over touring. The seat is good all day and provides the room needed for weight transfers for aggressive sport riding.
Tangentially designed as a sport-tourer-the luggage comes from the factory-it is difficult to separate a bag-equipped Honda VFR1200F from a purpose-built sport-tourer. It does everything asked of it, and its answers are always unswervingly elegant.
– Kelly Callan
Kawasaki Ninja 1000
The only flaw for me with Kawasaki’s otherwise excellent Z1000 is that it’s naked. Don’t get me wrong, I love upright bikes; I just prefer to have some wind protection. Other people must share my opinion, as the good folks at Kawasaki have developed the Ninja 1000-essentially a Z1000 with a fairing. However, the Ninja 1000 also has slightly redesigned ergonomics and a few other tweaks that potentially make it an ideal sport-tourer.
Above all, the Ninja 1000 rides like a serious sportbike. As a diluted superbike, it is ideally suited for the real world where most of us actually do our riding. The 503-pound (claimed wet sans bags) weight is well balanced, and the Ninja feels compact and lithe from the cockpit.
Firm, fully adjustable suspension ensures the machine handles well, yet it is also compliant enough that the Ninja is comfortable too. It absorbs mid-corner bumps effectively, and the stable chassis keeps the bike on line and the rider confident.
Rake and trail figures are almost identical to the ZX-10R superbike, so it is no surprise that the Ninja’s steering is crisp and the bike quick to turn-in, especially given the extra leverage of the upright handlebars.
With a wheelbase 2.5 inches longer than the ZX-10R the Ninja 1000 is not nervous, and its overall agility will encourage you to ride hard; fast cruising through deserted mountains is the kind of treatment the Ninja loves.
Straight-line stability is good enough that it is unaffected by the Kawasaki Genuine Accessories sidebags, so the Ninja is also at home on those long highway drones that we have to take between the fun bits.
The Nissin/Tokico radial brakes possess enough feel that you can safely trail brake into a turn if you go in a little hot and, fortunately, they do not have the aggressive initial bite of those on a superbike.
Kawasaki clearly recognizes the long-distance potential of the Ninja 1000 with thoughtful details such as a three-position manually adjustable windshield, a five-gallon gas tank, and optional Givi-manufactured sidebags.
Although the passenger’s perch is relatively Spartan, the broad, well-padded rider’s seat is comfortable enough for a long day’s riding and the rear-set footpegs have rubber inserts to isolate any fatiguing minor engine vibes.
The upright riding position is leaned slightly forward, and with the tank rising in front of you the Ninja has a sitting “in” rather than “on” feel. When the windshield is set at maximum height, this really is a bike that can be ridden at high speed, all day, in relative comfort.
The 1043cc inline-four motor is astonishingly powerful and belies its relatively modest (claimed) 136 peak horsepower. Credit for the motor’s superb drivability goes to the healthy 81 ft/lbs of torque that starts building at 2500 rpm and maxes out at 7800 rpm.
80 mph feels leisurely at an unhurried 5500 rpm, and although the high-frequency vibes are there, they are not overly intrusive. The consistent and powerful torque delivery makes the Ninja 1000 motor a pleasure to exploit; when you need or want additional power you just light the afterburners and jet away without having to stir the gearbox or wait for the motor to come on song. It simply feels like any amount of power you want is there, anytime, in any gear.
Fitting the hard bags is not a DIY task and it took an entire day to accomplish. Complex frame mountings and lots of fiddly bits caused us plenty of headaches, with tight clearances being the main problem. Unless you have a doctorate in patience and a penchant for puzzles, let your dealer fit them for you. A top box is also available from Kawasaki; frustratingly, it cannot be installed with the sidebags-it’s an either/or proposition.
Once on the bike, the bags look perfectly integrated and can be locked in place. The closing/locking mechanism is intuitive to use, and the 37-quart/11-pound (each) capacity is a good compromise between taking everything you need, and yet still allowing the bike to maintain its good looks and handling.
Each bag will take a full-face helmet with room to spare, which is perfect for leaving helmets and jackets securely behind. The bags are no wider than the mirrors, so riding in traffic or navigating parking lots does not pose a problem as the rider has a visible reference point. You probably won’t want to ride the Ninja with the bags removed, as the ungainly mounting frames remain on the bike.
The Ninja’s fuel consumption varies from mid-30s to low-40s per gallon, depending on rider demands, and that translates to an approximate 150-mile range. There is no on-board computer so you have to watch the fuel gauge carefully. In a pinch, the Ninja can be persuaded to sip the fuel, so if you’re smart, you are unlikely to be left stranded.
Although the specifications are less exotic than Kawasaki’s pure sports models, the Ninja 1000 manages extremely well without the bells and whistles, and excels as a superb all-round sports machine. If there is only room for one sport motorcycle in your garage, the Ninja 1000 should be at the top of your list to check out.
– Arthur Coldwells
Few things clear the mind quite like velocity. The stress of daily life dissolves out of existence as the blur of grey mottled asphalt passes beneath your tires. You want nothing more than to keep your friends in sight and enjoy the rushing air while you negotiate an undulating country road. The Suzuki GSX1250FA is your ally in this endeavor. Far away places with challenging roads are the locales intended for this mild mannered sport-tourer to conquer.
Appropriately appointed in black, the Suzuki GSX1250FA does more than look the part of an open-class sport-touring bike for flying fast under the radar. It backs up its stealth styling with an injected, dual overhead cam, inline four displacing 1255cc.
Tuned for a wide powerband, the oversquare engine pulls from stop to highway speeds with a steady acceleration and no dead spots or unexpected bursts of power. Reaching beyond highway speed happens quickly, as the engine’s smooth power delivery gives you the confidence to turn the throttle hard and leave it that way.
Clicking up through the six-speed transmission requires only a slight upward pressure from the toe and a quick blip of the throttle. Accompanying each shift upward is a satisfying click and unceasing acceleration. Coming down is equally accommodating whether using the clutch or not. The engine makes no rapid change in rpm when the throttle is released, allowing for easy clutchless downshifts.
When you do use the clutch, the hydraulic assist gives the lever a positive feel without excessive pull. The engine’s determination to remain spinning enhances the GSX1250FA’s touring prowess by giving an incredibly smooth transition between shifts. While not racy, this is a boon for distance riding as it cuts down on fatigue induced by rapid deceleration from engine braking.
With 80 ft/lbs of torque at 3500 rpm, the engine easily pulls second gear from a stop and requires a minimal amount of shifting in the twisties when a tranquil ride is desired. If aggression is preferred, the GSX1250FA will oblige with an unthreatening alacrity.
Factory hard bags place the GSX1250FA squarely in the sport-touring genre. Manufactured by Givi, the bags integrate well onto the bike. Installation of the framing system is best done by a dealer, and the mounting frames aren’t pretty with the sidebags removed.
As with other Givi bags in the Monokey line, the locks can be changed to open using a single key. While not having the capacity of a full touring motorcycle, the three bags provide ample space. With the top box in place, you will want to keep your speed below triple digits; at around 110 the back of the bike feels unstable.
Steering is tuned for predictability and ease-of-use. At 58.5 inches axle-to-axle and raked out to 25.6 degrees, straight-line stability is wonderfully balanced with carving performance, giving an intuitive and forgiving feel to the bike. Tolerant of slight mistakes in line choice or cornering speed, the GSX1250FA allows the rider to make corrections without having to wrestle the machine into control.
If it comes to initiating braking beyond the tires’ adhesion limits, standard ABS comes into play. A rapid pulse in the pedal and lever, and a slow, rhythmic chirping from the tires tell you that the system
maintained traction while you slowed.
In line with the overall theme, the suspension produces a necessarily plush ride for the interstate while remaining firm enough to prevent wallowing in corners. Ground clearance and suspension travel are in the five-inch range and there is little worry about scraping anything while cornering.
Despite being touted as an upright sport bike, the relaxed riding position is a little forward, with the foot pegs just far enough back to put a comfortable bend in the knees-450-mile days are a breeze. The retro chrome steel handlebars look cheap, though the pair that come on the GSX1250FA are well-positioned and just wide enough to provide leverage for easy steering. Full lock turns will pinch your hand against the tank, so take care.
The full fairing cuts a generous envelope around the rider compartment, allowing for extended stays in the upper range of the speedometer. While the fairing works well to keep air off the rider, it does not prevent heat flowing from the engine over the lower legs, which can be uncomfortable on warmer days. Added personalization comes from the ability to adjust the comfort-contoured seat height by flipping the mounting spacers.
The Suzuki GSX1250FA is not a dual personality bike with a mild bottom-end and racy top-end. Neither is it a pure sport bike with bags thrown on. Rather, it is the perfect middle ground of performance and comfort-a machine for the rider who enjoys the thrill of riding and sightseeing without a time or distance limit. –
– Shawn M. Pickett
Miles and miles. Multiple sets of tires. Lots of meals on the road. These are the legacies of three sport bikes turned sport-tourers. Thrilling fast rides through the canyons were balanced by long sessions on the superslabs. We weren’t simply in search of a winning motorcycle-we really were just looking for excuses to go for long rides on machines that were unexpectedly ideally suited to the task.
Selecting the ultimate Accidental Tourist is a challenging prospect. In theory, they are direct competitors. In reality, they carve out distinctive niches in the marketplace, and it is a matter of establishing your priorities.
We reluctantly award third place to the Suzuki GSX1250FA. As a touring bike, it has much to offer. Three bags and the best passenger accommodations cement its position as the easiest pure tourer of the group.
The Suzuki motor has gobs of torque for casual riding, and this is excellent for two-up touring. As a sport bike, it feels ponderous, even though it isn’t the largest bike, and there’s never a desire to push hard. Instead, the GSX1250FA is about pushing long, and that is not quite sport-touring territory.
Light, agile, and solo-touring friendly, the runner-up position goes to the Kawasaki Ninja 1000. Based on the bare-knuckle brawling Z1000, its sporting credentials cannot be assailed. However, that is a double-edged sword, as the bike is as demanding as it is satisfying when ridden aggressively.
The torquey motor works flawlessly for touring and sport riding, despite giving away 200cc to its competitors. An adjustable windscreen and comfortable ergos are large plusses for touring. Unfortunately, the Ninja 1000 cannot run three bags and passengers will likely revolt quickly.
There’s only room for one at the top, and the Honda VFR1200F DCT claims that position. A highly sophisticated motorcycle, it is a predictable and fast sport bike that can easily rack up hundreds of miles. While the rider may wish for a bit more comfort for touring, the passenger will be satisfied with the seat and roominess.
Handling and suspension are superb on the VFR, the bags integrate into the motorcycle seamlessly, vibration is minimal, and the DCT gives the rider many options at the twitch of the thumb. Considerably more expensive, it has the quality and technology to justify the price. We’re sold.
Photography by Don Williams