Touring at scale
When it comes to touring, is a bigbudget colossus always best? We take three scales of tourer on a road trip to find out...
Modern society says that size matters – it’s drilled into us all the time that bigger is better, more is, er, more-er. But is that really true in the touring segment? We take three scales of comfort with Yamaha’s new Tracer 700, the Kawasaki Versys 1000 GT, and BMW’S class-defining R1200RT SE, and head to Scotland in search of the truth.
‘You’ve brought how many pairs of socks?” We’re gearing up for a night away, kicking off with a 250-mile ride to Carter Bar and the border between Scotland and England, and our three different levels of touring prowess are parked outside the MCN offices in Peterborough with panniers wide open, ready to accept underwear. Extra socks shouldn’t pose a problem for any of the three bikes. But, even so, why so many socks for so few days? “Well, you never know,” says Jimmy, the guilty party.
In terms of quality footwear lining, the 20-litre semi-hard panniers on Yamaha’s new Tracer 700 would fill up first. The basic Tracer 7 is the popular MT-07 with a half fairing and better suspension. The extras on this bike come from Yamaha’s catalogue, but you add them to the base bike too. Even so, with heated grips, semi-hard panniers, tank bag, crash bungs, touring screen and a couple of other bits, total package price is still a reasonable £7503.
Meanwhile, the Kawasaki is effectively the same thing – it’s an existing Versys 1000 with added hard panniers and topbox, plus spot lights, crash bungs, 12v socket and hand guards – but it’s available as a separate model, the Grand Tourer, for £11,349.
And finally, BMW’S R1200RT SE is long established at the top of the touring tree, sporting a list of extras including autoblip and quickshift gearchanges, semi-active suspension, keyless ignition, radio and, of course, multiple engine modes and traction control.
Right, clothing secure in the boxes, it’s wheels up to Scotland...
Yamaha’s new light-tourer “Is this the world’s most adorable tourer?” asks James, who has fallen unashamedly in love with the Tracer 700. We all have. It’s starting from a good place; the MT-07 on which it’s based (same 74bhp, 689cc parallel twin, similar chassis) has the sunniest disposition in modern motorcycling; it’s light, agile and the motor is so bursting with energy it’s as if Yamaha put too many E-numbers in its packed lunch. By adding a half fairing, twin lights and a screen to boost long-distance comfort – which they do – it follows that the Tracer 700 will be just as much fun, only for longer.
And it is. As we trickle out towards the A1 heading north, the Yamaha dispatches early morning roundabouts and snoozing drivers with disdain, skirting one and leapfrogging the other with short, sharp gearshifts through its funky midrange. Innately cheerful, you can’t help smiling along with it.
The Tracer 7’s riding position is compact, which is great for control on bumpy B-roads. It’s a small bike; a hint taller than the MT-07 with higher bars and a higher seat, but on the motorway I find I’m wedged into position and the grips are a bit too near, arms a bit too bent. But James and Jimmy have no such issues; “I think it’s the best riding position of the three,” says James. “I feel plugged into it; I think it’s just as comfy as the BMW or the Kawasaki.”
That’s high praise for the Yamaha, but there’s no doubting the effectiveness of its massive, adjustable touring screen – whether the flared sides (which make it look inside out) help is moot, but the overall effect is a quieter, less disturbed ride at speed when it’s fully up, with only a light ruffling of the shoulders instead of the headbuffeting of some other tall screens. Clearly, someone over 6ft has tested it in development and it’s significantly better than the stock screen (although maybe not to look at).
Yamaha’s test rider forgot to suggest enlarging the tank by quite enough though: at 17 litres it’s three more than the MT-07 but, despite the Tracer recording the best average fuel economy of the test on motorways and back roads (53.8mpg), it only manages 130 miles before hitting one bar paranoia on the LCD fuel display. That’s not a brilliant range for a tourer, and especially noticeable when the company it’s keeping will go over 200 miles – the RT still shows over half full and the Versys has only dropped by a couple of bars. “It missed a trick there,” say Jimmy. “Twenty litres would’ve made it so much more of a tourer.”
The Yamaha’s zip-up panniers hold the least on the test, but are about right for a weekend away. They’re made from soft ABS, come with waterproof inners, aren’t individually lockable, but lock to the bike via a mounting kit. There’s also a fairly massive rack for a top box, but Yamaha, in keeping with other models, decline to officially fit one alongside panniers lest it compromise stability. Needless to say, the Tracer’s panniers are so neat and compact they don’t affect handling in any way. Even when they’re full of socks.
And the Tracer’s chassis is drawing fulsome praise. “The MT-07 is a great bike but it’s let down by its suspension,” says Jimmy. “The fork is soft and bouncy and feels budget. The Tracer is completely different; the suspension is excellent, ride quality on the motorway is superb, it doesn’t dive too much on the brakes and it’s completely sorted in corners.” That’ll be stiffer springs and revised damping rates, then.
The Tracer really does handle well, and not just for its price. It’s light enough for steering not to be kicked about on bumpy corners, and in a straight line it’s not choppy or harsh. “And it’s on Michelin Pilot Road 4s,” points out Jimmy. “They flatter any suspension.” But, again, mass counts when it comes to relaxed cruising, and the Tracer is the most active bike on long stretches. “You burn more calories on the Yamaha,” observes Jimmy.
As we push north, the Tracer’s motor is noticeably the least potent when it comes to overtaking. But it’s not lacking; 80mph pops up at 5500rpm in top, which means the Yam needs a couple of downshifts to get it flying and feels, if anything, overgeared. A few extra teeth on the rear sprocket would pep it up even more without sacrificing fuel economy or generating too many vibes at cruising speed. Of which there are few anyway – the 275° crank, designed to emulate a V-twin, offers a few pleasing pulses at low revs, but smoothes out as it spins faster.
A tankbag is also included on the fully accessorised Tracer, locking to a ring on top of the filler cap and, along with a 12v socket, means we can use a phone as a satnav in the tankbag’s top compartment. Which is handy, because years of reliance on electronics have left us unable to follow a route using conventional signs. We get lost navigating a fuel stop in Ponteland near Newcastle, and end up paying a flying visit to the airport.
So it looks like we have a winner already. Has the Tracer any other final faults as a tourer, I ask the other two as we fill up with fuel to the sound of twin-props. “The mirrors are blurriest,” says James. “But the heated grips are nice,” grins Jimmy, who’s tried them out despite claims the weekend will be the hottest of the year. Beat that, Kawasaki.
‘It’s the best riding position of the three. I feel plugged into it’
Kawasaki’s ‘Grand Tourer’ Oddly, heated grips are not part of the Versys’ metamorphosis from low-spec adventure bike to Grand Tourer. Neither is a tall screen. Both are available as extra extras – but you get plenty of other useful items, such as a massive 47-litre topbox, 27-litre panniers, spot lamps, a 12v socket, crash bungs, handguards and, on this bike, an Akrapovic end can (not included as part of the package but it sounds nice). You also get a bright red digital gear indicator, which ought to be standard, and dimmable; it’s too bright at night.
Maybe that’s why there’s something slightly bolt-on-special about the Versys – it feels like a heavily accessorised standard model, while the Tracer 700’s accessories have a more integrated vibe, as if that’s how the bike is supposed to be (it actually makes the stock Yamaha look a bit, well, stock).
So Jimmy, what do you think of the Kawasaki?
“It’s much better than the previous Versys. I think it might be my favourite.”
Whoa, hang on. Really? Last year’s revamp was comprehensive – a styling overhaul with suspension, engine and ergonomic tweaks – but that’s a big claim, and not very fashionable.
“Seriously. It’s big, comfy, seriously fast, handles well, like a halfway combination of the lightweight fun of the Tracer and laid-back luxury of the BMW. The engine is just massive and the only weak point is its soft fork – a lot of initial dive on the brakes, but you can slow that a bit by adjusting fork damping – and the gear indicator gets confused sometimes. But it’s got a great all-round balance of touring and sporty character.”
He’s right. It’s not the sexiest bike in the world, but the Versys is a solid allrounder and one of biking’s best kept secrets. Or, at least, it’s underrated and overlooked, probably because it’s usually compared to spec’d-up flagships like BMW’S R1200GS. But in this company, on a sneaky weekend trip, it’s got a lot going for it.
“It’s an understated bike,” says Jimmy. “It looks average; plasticky and angular. But it also feels chunky and durable. Plus the topbox is so massive it’s got weekend space to spare. You could fit a reasonably sized pet in that topbox. The panniers aren’t as they look from the outside, though.”
Size matters with the Versys: first impression is it’s a big old beast, with a strong sense of mass, purpose and height. “The Versys is obviously larger in every dimension than the Tracer 700,” says James. “It’s not hard to manage, but you can tell it’s top heavy when you’re turning round or getting a move on over bumps; the chassis lets you know there’s more to it. On most roads, it’s smoother and less active than the Yamaha.”
It’s also a much broader riding position. The bars are wide, pegs deckscrapingly low, and you sit deep in the bike on an equally spacious seat, steering the bike from the shoulders. The Versys’ shorty screen is adjustable, but it’s just as effective up or down. Wind blast is negligible, as you mostly sit behind a 21-litre tank – which gives the Kawasaki over 200 miles theoretical range. But, because we’re stopping to fill the Tracer 7 every 120 miles or so, the Kawasaki never drops below halfway on its gauge. It’s got plenty of legs in the tank.
It’s got plenty of legs in the motor, too. The 1043cc lump is a 120bhp detuned version of the 140bhp inline four from the Z1000 and Z1000SX. But in this company it doesn’t feel diminished at all – power surges from engine to transmission to back wheel, spiralling forward momentum in exponential urgency through the rev range with a typical Kawasaki turbine-whine. You can trace a line back across generations of big K superbikes, through ZZ-R1100S back to aircooled Gpzs – they’ve all got the same irrepressible, irresistible power delivery.
And, importantly for an inline four, the Versys is always dreamily smooth. At 5000rpm, pulling 80mph in top, it’s like skimming across a millpond. Open the taps fully and it stampedes into Scotland like a snorting haggis heading for home.
The Kawasaki’s wide mirrors are entirely blur-free, which is just as well given the astronomical velocity the bike is capable of, allegedly. Above 110mph, I’m told, the Versys starts to get a gentle weave on as the aerodynamics and weight balance of that vast topbox come into play. But at sensible speeds, everything is
‘Open the taps and it stampedes into Scotland like a snorting haggis’
ultra stable. Overtakes happen in the blink of a synapse, with superbike-ease, and corners are straightened into sweeps of neutral steering. For the over-enthusiastic, the Versys comes with Kawasaki’s three-stage traction control and ABS to keep its wheels in line.
The weather forecast predicted the hottest day of the year, but the sun has gone to hide behind filthy black clouds looming menacingly over the hills. Which, as it happens, is where we head, towards Moffat in Dumfries and Galloway, and the biker-friendly Buccleuch Arms Hotel.
BMW’S benchmark tourer After the funky, tiddly Tracer and big, ballistic Versys, jumping on the RT is the biggest culture shock of the lot. The vast, sweeping panorama of the Yarrow Valley has nothing on the vast, sweeping panorama of the BMW’S dash, with its multi-layered menus controlling heated seats, grips, radio, traction control, engine modes, dynamic ESA suspension, tyre pressures and various trips. And that’s before you get to the bars, with buttons for cruise control, screen adjustment, and a big one in the middle for switching the bike on with keyless ignition. Which, after a comfort break, nearly spoils the day when Jimmy rides off with the remote fob resting on the pillion seat and doesn’t realise until we stop again miles down the road and he can’t find it in his pockets. It is, fortuitously, wedged between the seat and a pannier. All that technology almost undone by human error, then.
So a grand tourer that wins just about every touring test it enters must surely be so far ahead against the Versys thou and Tracer 700 it’s barely a speck on the horizon? Not quite. Earlier, on the A1 heading north, a five-mile a tailback at Doncaster (probably caused by someone braking unexpectedly in Newcastle) showcased the BMW’S anti-filtering width. It’s a large bike and although the presence of those circular LED owl eyes loom
ing in the mirror is enough to make most motorists swerve to one side, it doesn’t always work with van drivers.
“But it’s hard to pick any other faults with the BMW,” says Jimmy. “It’s almost boringly awesome. It’s so stable, no fuss, nothing fazes the chassis, whether it’s the bumpiest B-road or an dead straight motorway – the handling is so unexpectedly good not just compared to the size of the bike, but against any measure. And the engine has plenty of go in it – it runs out of revs quickly but it’s got tons of midrange and gets up to high speed ridiculously quickly.”
In almost every respect, the BMW is peerless on any road with three lanes or more. In fact it’s hard to beat on any tarmac. The riding position is ergonomic perfection, sitting the rider flat and placing the bars seemingly just above waist height – so it feels like you’re steering the thing from the hips.
‘It’s almost boringly awesome. It’s so stable, nothing fazes the chassis’
Press the starter and the 125bhp, 1171cc flat twin thrums into life with a characteristic chuckle, no longer rocking to the right – because the crank spin, reversed to run clockwise with the watercooled update in 2014, is balanced by a counter-rotating clutch. Click into first, feel the Telelever sus- pension sit up as you feed power from the fly-by-wire throttle through the shaft to the rear, and prepare to be swept away on a tide of technology. The full-bore quickshifter blats its way up the gearbox, and clutchless autoblipper downshifts are a naughty addition to a full-spec tourer; “You think, ‘That’s just overkill’, but it’s good fun,” says James.
Piloting the RT is like flying a spaceship, relaxing at the controls while the faintest of touches on the tiller eases the hurtling bulk along whatever path you choose. It’s never possible to entirely disregard the BMW’S mass – you know you’re in control of considerable heft – but the brakes and suspension are so good it’s impossible to lose the plot.
But is it too isolating? Jimmy, impressed with the way the RT shooms along the A708 to Moffat at indecent pace, thinks the same insulation on long rides makes it almost too easy.
“On a trans-continental blast, where comfort really matters, sure. If you asked which bike I’d ride back from the south of France, I’d take the Beemer. But for a weekend, over a few hundred miles, the RT feels a bit unnecessary. You can ride it hard, have fun and be comfy, but the other two are much more engaging, in the short term. They feel like motorbikes; the RT feels like a floating palace.”
“And you could buy two Tracer 700s with change for a another bike, or a Versys 1000 Grand Tourer and a Tracer 700 together for the price of one RT,” points out James, as we switch to clear visors for the last run to the hotel.
‘In almost every respect, the BMW is peerless on any road with three lanes or more’
The Tracer’s lightness is a benefit on twistier roads
For a put-together budget tourer, the Tracer 700 is seriously impressive The chaps take a break to compare notes (and to let Jimmy change his socks again)
Jimmy’s excited because that road sign looks a bit like a sock The GT handles well for such a big motorcycle
Riding the RT is like piloting a spaceship. In a good way
Two motorcycles and a floating palace