Who is ADV King?

A Hard-Riding Comparison Test of the Triumph Tiger 800 XCx and BMW F800 GS

September 29, 2015 Cars : Motorcycles By Photo by Matt Neundorf
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The middleweight category of adventure touring bikes should be overflowing with options, but it’s not. This smaller breed of Swiss-Army bikes is lighter, more maneuverable and arguably better suited to the dual-sport conditions wanderlusting riders dream about. They handle two-up touring and interstate duty with ease, devour B-roads and, thanks to their smaller stature, perform admirably as daily grinders. And yet, there aren’t even a handful of choices on North American soil. With Kawasaki’s Versys fully embracing its sporty side, it means only three remain: The Suzuki V-Strom 650, BMW F800 GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCx. Suzuki’s new V-Strom 650 (especially in XT trim) is a fantastic value for riders on a budget, but conversations on the most dominant bike within this category start and end with a European.

BMW owns the adventure motorcycle market. Ever since Charley and Ewan set their compasses east, the Roundel has become synonymous with go-everywhere, do-everything type touring. Despite better, more focused offerings from KTM, BMW’s R1200 GS remains the world heavyweight champion of the class; its mere silhouette is enough to spur maps to be unfolded and circumnavigational dreams to unfurl. No surprise, then, that the smaller F800 GS Adventure should ape some styling — and earn instant unpaved-street cred — from its bigger brother.

The differences between these two don’t truly start to appear until you look under their skin. Distinction starts at the engine.

Of course the F800 GS isn’t the only bike to steal pages from the big GS’s lookbook. Every motorcycle with off-road intentions — save offerings from KTM’s lineup — is wearing the same uniform, including Triumph’s Tiger 800 XCx. From a distance, even a rider in the know could have trouble discerning between the Beemer and the Triumph. Both come riding spoked 21-inch wheels up front with 17-inch hoops in the rear, have an exposed, tubular trellis frame, slender waistlines, wide bars, minimal fairings and that ubiquitous ADV calling card: a large, pronounced beak. In fact, the differences between these two don’t truly start to appear until you look under their skin. Distinction starts at the engine.

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The BMW is powered by a 798cc, parallel-twin engine. It produces 85 horsepower and 61 lb-ft of torque in a smooth, flat, very Germanic power curve with unobtrusive fueling and a telltale thrum. The Triumph, on the other hand, employs a 799cc inline three-cylinder mill for motivation. It’s a free-revving engine with loads of character and a more engaging soundtrack. In terms of metrics, the triple cranks out nine more horsepower than the twin (94 horsepower total) but surrenders three lb-ft of torque (58 lb-ft total) in the process. The Tiger is slightly heavier, too (487 pounds versus 472 pounds). Configurations and numbers stand out on paper, but what’s most noticeable from the saddle is the differences in positioning of those power plants within each bike.

The Bavarian’s engine sits inline with the hump of its (faux) gas tank. This causes most of the Beemer’s weight to fall amidships, and on the road, this causes it to suffer. With less weight over the front tire, the front end feels especially light at speed with noticeable bar wobble that makes things slightly unnerving when initiating leans. This is only exacerbated when touring with a full load of kit on the back. Even after fiddling with suspension settings and readjusting tire pressures, the F800 GS just couldn’t find its sweet spot on tarmac. I constantly found myself having to lean forward as far as possible, laying down on the tank like a knee-dragger thrashing a supersport from a much higher perch, just to get the baby GS to behave the way I wanted it to. This may sound like fun, but it is utterly exhausting. That parallel-twin motor does get a bit buzzy above 65 mph, too, tiring out tingly hands.

The only cure is to head towards dirt. Where the GS feels vague and cowardly on asphalt, it falls into its own off road. The weight positioning delivers instant confidence on lower speed, unstable grounds. It provides easier balance and increased maneuverability. The extra space between tire and engine leaves room for debris to be clamored over and gives more useable ground clearance. With rider weight transferred to the pegs instead of up in the saddle, the BMW feels unstoppable. Even sporting street rubber, it excels. There were numerous scenarios — boulder-laden trails, deep muddy bogs, sand and marbly uphill climbs — where the GS, as equipped, should have packed it in and told me to fuck off; it never did.

If you’re looking for the best middleweight, go-everywhere, do-everything motorcycle on the market, the Triumph Tiger 800 XCx is your bike.

Conversely, the Tiger’s triple is flung much farther forward. This more traditional arrangement helps put the Triumph in a league of its own on twisted tarmac. The Tiger begs to be ridden hard and rewards you for exploring nine and ten-tenths. Lean-in is slightly quick for a bike this size, but stable and infinitely controllable. The wide bars give ample leverage and make corrections telepathic. The WP suspension setup makes broken pavement and heaving humps disappear completely and, aside from a windscreen designed for Oompa-Loompas, the Tiger’s ergonomics suit my six-foot frame perfectly. Wringing the life out that triple through a winding forest road is an absolute joy. There is more than enough grunt to make fully loaded trips on the interstate comfortable and sublime and two-up riding is a breeze.

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But the Tiger has always excelled on solid ground. In XCx guise, Triumph has attempted to make their middleweight ADV bike as skilled off road as it is on. Selectable rider modes, complete with killable rear-ABS braking and throttle-by-wire control do much to help. In my forays into the unknown, the Tiger wasn’t phased at all by hard or loosely packed gravel and, with appropriate rubber, easily shrugs off a whole lot more. In a standing position, tackling fire roads, the width of the gas tank keeps my knees parted slightly more than I’d like, but overall I have no issues with control. In lower speed, loose traction situations, though, the front end can feel heavy. This is partly due to ergonomics — the bars are a touch low, so I tend to lean farther forward — but is mostly due to the bike’s higher, forward-positioned center of gravity thanks to the fuel tank and engine location. Compared to the BMW, the Tiger feels bulkier as soon as the asphalt ends, needing more aggressive rider inputs to deliver equal results. While that’s by no means a deal-breaker, it does mean riders new to the ADV world may be in for more of a workout than they want. That may be off-putting considering the Tiger’s middleweight size, but it’s extremely satisfying when perfected.

With both bikes priced similarly, the question truly comes down to where you want your adventures to take you. The BMW remains the best bet for dirt junkies looking to remain off the beaten trail. It’s a bike that’s been tried and tested in every off-piste environment by all manner of riders and seemingly never balks at any challenge. But it’s not a lot of fun on road. The Tiger is. And roads are where most of us end up, most of the time. The compromises made beyond the beaten path are trumped by the Tiger’s bigger thrills on every road out of town — and the new XCx package brings it close enough to the baby GS in the bush to move in for the kill. And so, when decisions have to be made, it is the Triumph Tiger 800 XCx who edges out the competition. If you’re looking for the best middleweight, go-everywhere, do-everything motorcycle on the market, the Tiger is your bike.