SMALL ENGINE, BIG HEART
Choosing BMW's F650 Fuduro
I was a little abashed when a woman rider came for a visit recently. She arrived early in the day, so she took the extra time to ride over the back roads and gravel country lanes that abound in my area of Ontario. There are marvellous, twisty, scenic passages through the woods and around the hills of the Niagara Escarpment, Beaver Valley and Blue Mountain. Sadly, I've ridden on only a very few of them.
Sure, I've driven many in a car, but it's not the same. My usual choice of ride is a cruiser. I've also had a couple of sport bikes. None of them are really designed or suited to long stretches on gravel. So for the most part I've ignored these roads, preferring to ride the many miles of asphalt up here.
I felt no small amount of chagrin that a visitor was able to tell me about the great unpaved roads in my own backyard. I became determined to get out there for myself. But a short trip on some gravel convinced me my W650 was not the bike to do it. As much as I liked the nostalgic W, I started to research my options, quickly setting myself up to purchase my next motorcycle.
Please don't think this has anything negative to say about the Kawasaki W650. It is a beautiful, easy bike to ride and reasonably comfortable under most conditions. It handles in-town and highway riding equally well, it's perky and spunky and corners nicely. But like most street bikes, it was designed for pavement travel. I became obsessed with going off the tarmac. I started researching potential bikes online, reading old magazine articles, skimming the Boat, Bike & RV Trader for deals, and talking to riders on- and offline.
My first choice was the Triumph Tiger. It has the style, the name, the engine, the long-travel suspension - and my favourite Ontario dealer (J&R Cycle, Wasaga Beach) had a couple of gently-used 99s in stock. The upgrades to the 2001 model really interested me too. Second choice: the BMW R1150 GS because it has had great media reviews. Third choice: BMW F650. And fourth: Kawasaki KLR 650. There were others I also considered, but these four were at the top of my list (many competing models are not even available in North America, or are at best here in limited quantities). I tried to analyze each according to price, weight, available accessories, looks and suitability for my riding demands, height, access to service, and finally by sheer emotional impact.
I did briefly consider other bikes such as the Ducati, Cagiva and Honda Transalp, but availability was limited.
Price is a critical factor. New is (until I win the lottery) pretty much out of the question, so I looked for a used bike. The BMW GS is the most expensive, followed by the Tiger, F650 and KLR. I checked used prices and they pretty much stayed in that order, too. Used BMWs were rare, Tigers a little more available but still expensive. Used F650s were available but not within 2 hours' drive - Toronto was the closest. Pre-2000 models were priced in the affordable range. Prices varied but remained high compared to new prices (except at BMW dealers where they all seemed far too high!). I could pick up a good-condition used KLR at several places and even new, it was within my price range. The GS and Tiger were at the far reaches of current affordability, even straying into the forbidden territory of bank loans. I was unable to find a GS for sale outside a dealer and even then it was a long way to go.
Weight? I didn't want a really heavy bike on rough roads, especially as I'm pretty much a novice on them. The Tiger and GS are both heavy machines although not in the Goldwing category, the Tiger more top-heavy than the BMW. I would be afraid to drop either. The F650 weighs in at about 100 pounds or more less than the two. The KLR wins the dieting contest as the lightest of the four.
Power. Although it's sometimes very nice to have a huge amount of ponies under the fairing, power was never a serious deciding factor. I'm not planning to race and I'm more concerned with the ride than the time it takes to get there. Most bikes I've ridden have more than enough power for local riding. Only on the six-lane blacktop do I really feel the need for more. Yes, it's delightful to straddle a Triumph Sprint St and crank the throttle for that stomach-pressed-into-spine acceleration, but it's not the sort of thing I do in town, or on the backroads. A machine has to be compliant at a wide range of speeds, not just the top end. The Triumph Tiger has an appealling power plant: smooth, powerful and seductive and easy to ride at any speed. I hadn't tested the others, but read the reviews. The BMW twin was supposedly good at speed, but ragged at low rev travel. The F and KLR had good reputations for all ranges of travel, but without the grunt of the other two. The KLR has the least power of the four, but with a light weight, is probably equivalent to the F in delivery.
Accessories? BMW and Triumph have lots, all of them expensive. A few third-party manufacturers offer bags and other add-ons, at a little lower price but still pretty pricey compared to the generic cruiser accessories that abound in the market. I didn't check out the KLR's accessories, but I had read some articles on the bike and seen it with hard bags and a tank bag. The plastic gas tanks of these bikes really force you to buy specialized tank bags, not cheaper off-the-shelf magnetic equipment.
Looks. Hard to assess objectively. Bike styles are a love-hate relationship. The only one of the three I really didn't like the looks of was the KLR. It reminded me of my old Kaypro computer - utilitarian, stark and functionally ugly. The new Tiger doesn't appeal to me as much as the earlier models, but I still liked it. The GS has that techno styling that seems to blend sci-fi lines with technical competence and it really appealled to my tastes. The F650 actually looked pretty good - not as techy as the GS, but modern and fashionable. Fit and finish on the BMWs and the Tigers was tops. The KLR looked like it was made for the army to abuse on field maneuvers.
Suitability. Hmm. While I intend to ride the back roads and gravel highways, most of my riding will still be in town and on pavement, with some highway travel and a lot of two-lane roads. The bike has to be comfy, easy to handle, not too expensive to maintain and relatively simple for me to do some basic work on. Plus it has to carry some work, some groceries and the odd case of beer or box of wine. The Tiger has a good, solid and powerful engine that eats up the highway and is competent around town, too. I haven't ridden the GS but reports in the magazines gave it good ratings too. The KLR looked too small and light for lengthy highway travel. The F650 seemed capable of both, although perhaps more street-savvy than off road.
Height and ergonomics. The bike has to be short enough for my 5'9" frame. At J&R they had two Tigers lowered a full three inches - enough to plant both feet firmly on the ground. I could reach the handlegrips easily. The KLR - even a lowered one - felt way too high. Only one foot could be placed flat or both on tiptoe. The F650 was about as high as the two Tigers (both lowered) - and felt good in the saddle. I didn't get to sit on a GS this time. I have, however, seen and sat on them at the International Motorcycle Supershow in Toronto, and at the Ride For Sight BMW demo rides. Looking at the instrument cluster, the Tiger had a superb display, the F650 a utilitarian but acceptable, clean display, the GS (from memory) is also good, and the KLR a bare-bones set up. All four have high tail pipes, requiring either top boxes or specially designed bags to avoid the muffler.
Service. A problem when you live in a small town. The closest BMW dealer is two hours away. J&R Cycle is 10 minutes' drive - and they sell and service Triumph and Kawasaki. If I chose a BMW, I trust John (the J in J&R) enough to work on any machine I brought in, although it wouldn't be 'authorized' BMW service. I've heard of a BMW mechanic outside Owen Sound - about one hour away. However, since most used bikes would be outside any warranty, the question of 'authorized' service might not have much impact. The earlier F650 used a Rotax engine made by Bombardier, also used in snowmobiles and ATVs. That gave it an advantage over other BMW models.
I initially impressed by the tech information online to help F650 owners do their own work, especially on the Chain Gang.
Emotions. Here's the rub. Which bike simply makes your heart beat faster? Which bike makes the pulse race, the mouth crinkle up into a smile when you look at it? Which one do you want to run your hand over like the flanks of a thoroughbred horse? Which one makes you want to jump aboard ride out into the sunset regardless of weather? My first preference is Triumph. It's a genetic thing, born of British ancestry. Have to admit that my approach to the GS was all intellectual - friends telling me to get one, extolling its virtues, magazine articles, no real hands-on moments in many months. The Tiger - well, I sat on it again and again and imagined myself racing down the highway on it. I think Rhonda got a little annoyed at having me sit in her showroom making 'vroom, vroom' sounds and drooling on the tank. The KLR just did nothing for me. I might get one if I had infinite garage space and infinite funds, or if I was going on a month-long trip into the unpaved heart of the Yukon. But as a first bike, it didn't even get a hiccup in my pulse. The F650 made me want to ride it. It was one of those little get-up-and-go bikes that just demanded to be taken outside.
So I made a table and rated all four bikes on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being worst and 5 being best (as they applied to me, not industry-wide):
In the end, the F650 won, mostly for weight and price, but it also simply appealled to me when I went and looked at it close up. With a little more time and a lot more money, the outcome might have been different. Maybe the next bike will be one of the others.
Note for 2002: I haven't been disappointed by the F yet. In fact, it is one of the best bikes I've ever owned and ridden and the best general-purpose, all-round bike I have owned. I am making the investment to replace brake pads, chain and sprockets this fall for greater longevity of the bike.
Note for 2005: Damn. Wish I'd kept that F. Traded it in for a new Triumph Bonneville, 2004. And while I love the Bonnie, I loved the F as much, and sometimes more -especially on bad roads, gravel, and long distances.
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