The 5 Best Touring Motorcycles: Bikes For Doing Distance
Updated List Includes Less-Expensive Options
The thought of travelling on two wheels is what brought many of us to motorcycling in the first place. A motorcycle allows a person to connect with the world in a much more physical way than, say, a car or a plane. You feel the distance travelled; you become one with it.
There are dozens upon dozens of different bikes targeted at those with wanderlust. To help you pick through them all, we’ve put together this list of our choices for the best motorcycles for covering distance. Back in 2013, when we first put this list together, we received a fair amount of criticism for focusing on expensive machines (The original list consisted of: BMW K 1600 GTL, Honda Gold Wing F6B, Harley-Davidson Ultra Glide Limited, Suzuki Hayabusa, BMW R 1200 GS). So, for this update we’ve included less expensive options within the same genre.
BMW K 1600 GTL Exclusive – Some people (like your grandad) will insist that Honda’s Gold Wing remains the unparalleled choice for covering a whole lot of miles in comfort. But while we’ve got a lot of love for the flat-six beast, there’s no getting around the fact it’s a little long in the tooth. To our mind, if you’re going to spend big bucks, the BMW K 16000 GTL Exclusive is where you want to spend them. The 1649cc inline-six-powered Beemer comes with all the bells and whistles – all of them – while serving up 160 horsepower at peak, and a skull-bashing 129 lb ft of torque. Meanwhile, both you and your passenger will be so comfortable you may throw away your couch and start watching TV in the garage. With a starting price of US $30,395, it ain’t cheap (Still less expensive than a Motus –Ed.), but, baby, you’re worth it. As an added benefit, because you’re on a BMW no one will criticize you for wearing good gear, which means you can rock an Aerostich.
LESS EXPENSIVE OPTION:
Honda CTX1300 – Offering Gold Wing-like styling for almost $9,000 less than than its big brother’s asking price is Honda’s underloved CTX1300. When the bike was first released back in 2014 it was met with a certain amount of confusion. Honda tried calling it a bagger, but it didn’t fit most people’s vision of that genre and it soon floundered in the Not-This-But-Not-That Zone often reserved for bikes that are difficult to categorize. In the interim, though, it’s built a small, faithful following. It is not a bike without criticism – fit and finish is a bit plasticky, its 1261 V4 delivers only 83 hp, and some folks dislike the cruiser-like riding position – but you get shaft drive, hard panniers, and a stereo. Plus, that Honda badge means it’ll still be running 40 years from now.
Indian Roadmaster – For some folks, the rumble, heat, and heft of an enormous V-twin is a necessary part of the road-trip experience. One of my favorite bikes at the moment the Indian Roadmaster makes North America feel small. Built for covering big distances on big, open roads it is all-day comfortable for both rider and passenger. Leather seats, rich paint, and a healthy dose of chrome give the experience a feeling of old-world luxury. If there had been motorcycles in the 1800s, this is the one Queen Victoria would have chosen. Admittedly, the bike’s Ride Command infotainment system probably would have struck her as work of the devil. To modern eyes, though, it is an utterly useful and easy-to-use system offering all kinds of info, including integrated GPS. The stereo system is surprisingly clear, and the tone of the exhaust is even more pleasing to the ears. The Roadmaster has a starting price of $28,999, weighs 428 kg wet (944 lbs) and its 1811cc V-twin only offers a little shy of 100 hp. But, America, damn it. This bike delivers intangibles that only Harley-Davidson can match.
LESS EXPENSIVE OPTION:
Victory Cross Country Tour – A respectful nod here first goes to the $17,499 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Voyager ABS, which offers a whole lot of good things for more than $10,000 less than the Indian. But before shelling out for the Kawi we’d look into the possibility of finding a deal on a Cross Country Tour from Indian’s recently departed cousin, Victory. The Cross Country platform was the peak achievement for Victory, so valued for its comfort and durability that it was the choice of world traveller Urs “Grizzly” Pedraita for a number of record-setting rides. Polaris pulled the plug on Victory in early 2017, so dealers will be eager to clear out stock to make room for better-selling Indian models. If you enjoy driving a hard bargain, we’re pretty sure there are good deals to be had. Meanwhile, Polaris is promising 10 years of parts and dealer support.
KTM 1290 Super Duke GT – Designed to get you from point A to point B really, really fast, the KTM 1290 Super Duke GT has been part of the recent redefining of the sport tourer genre. Whereas sport tourers often used to be outdated sportbikes made comfortable, the 1290 Super Duke GT is an uncompromising beast of a machine that just happens to have agreeable ergonomics and luggage. Powered by a 1301cc V-twin, the Austrian moto claims roughly 173 hp at peak. KTM is known for equipping bikes with techno whizzbangery and the 1290 Super Duke GT is absolutely dripping with it; you may want to tackle the owner’s manual like a novel – sitting by the fire with a good cabernet. That said, the bike lacks some of the weather protection we’d traditionally expect from a sport tourer, it’s chain driven (which means having to perform chain maintenance on long road trips) but does not come standard with a center stand. That’s the sort of thing we’d expect to be included on a $19,999 touring motorcycle.
LESS EXPENSIVE OPTION:
BMW F 800 GT – Somewhere along the way, BMW’s stalwart middleweight sport tourer picked up a reputation for being anemic, its 798cc parallel twin engine delivering roughly 90 hp. We call shenanigans on this claim and point to a notorious YouTube clip of Adam Waheed riding the hell out of one as evidence of the bike’s prowess (see below). If you think the F 800 GT isn’t fast enough the problem is with you, not the bike. With styling far more in line with what we’d expect from a sport tourer the F 800 GT comes with all the plus sides of BMW ownership (good coffee at the dealership, the God-given right to tell others how to ride, etc.), but can be a little uncomfortable for riders exceeding 6 feet tall.
Triumph Tiger Explorer XRT – In the 2013 version of this list, our suggestion for a touring adventure bike was the same as pretty much everyone else’s: the indefatigable BMW R 1200 GS. The bike has a strong reputation, especially in Europe where it has sat atop the sales charts for several years in a row. But time has moved on and we feel some manufacturers have caught up and, in some ways, surpassed the mighty GS. On the road, we prefer the smooth, energetic spring of the latest generation of Tiger Explorer, which is available in six variants: XC, XCx, XCA, XR, XRx, and XRT. The XRT is the all-singing-all-dancing road-focused model, equipped with so many features and comforts it can make a person dizzy. Shaft drive, well-performing cruise control, a surprising amount of wind protection, ride modes and cornering ABS are some of the features that stand out for us. Mostly, though, we love the 1215cc inline triple’s ability to rocket you past slow-moving cars. Starting price is a salty $19,800, though, and you’ll need to fork out extra for panniers and top box.
LESS EXPENSIVE OPTION:
Suzuki V-Strom 650 – The Wee-Strom is an established mile-muncher, known for delivering comfort and durability in an affordable, fuss-free package. Its looks don’t stir the soul, even after its 2017 makeover, and engine performance won’t get your heart rate up, but it will happily haul two people and luggage from here to there and there and there and there and there (with a few diversions along the way) without fault. As part of its recent overhaul, the 650 has been equipped with traction control and “Low RPM Assist,” thereby making its more expensive 1000cc big brother even more pointless. Sure, the big ‘Strom promises 100 hp against the 650’s claimed 71, but truthfully such numbers are irrelevant for a V-Strom owner. No one ever gets stupid on a ‘Strom; instead, they tour the whole of Canada, staying at reasonably priced campsites. Suzuki offers an XT version of the 650, with lots of breakable plastic bits for $500 more than the standard model’s $8,799 asking price. We say you’ll be better served buying accessories from the aftermarket.
Harley-Davidson Road King – Part of the romance of crossing great distances on a bike is the idea of feeling the wind in your face, which is why some folks prefer to do away with wind protection and keep things relatively simple. If you have not at least once in your life daydreamed of a road trip on a Harley-Davidson there is something deeply wrong with you. In truth, we feel the Harley-Davidson Wide Glide would be even more appropriate from a style point of view, but it lacks some of the touring-friendly features of the Road Glide and is not (yet) powered by the new Milwaukee Eight 107 engine, which is vastly superior to the outgoing Twin Cam 103. So, take the screen off a Road King, strap a few bags bought at an Army surplus store to the passenger seat, and set out into the world to find yourself. The bike’s mighty 1753cc engine doesn’t produce a mind-melting amount of go, but always-available torque and the deep, iconic rumble of a Harley V-twin will mean you won’t really care.
LESS EXPENSIVE OPTION:
Triumph Bonneville T120 – An iconic name that stretches back decades, the recently overhauled Bonneville T120 is so much more than it appears to be. In aesthetic and spirit it is a simple, pure, old-school machine, but in performance, reliability, technology, and comfort it is thoroughly modern – boasting such tour-friendly features as riding modes, heated grips, USB socket, and (accessory) cruise control. Like the KTM it is chain-driven, which means having to carry tools and cans of chain lube on the Key-West-to-Seattle run, but at least here the center stand comes standard. And we can’t help feeling that doing a little shadetree maintenance is a part of the experience with a bike like this. Modern Triumph reliability and 10,000-mile service intervals mean you won’t be doing too much other work, though, so you can focus your energy instead on finding the perfect leather saddlebags. Be sure to also pack a camera and take lots of pictures; in the future your grandkids will be bragging about how cool you were.