Motor touring used to be a common part of American life. We'd pile our suitcases in the trunk of the car and head out to discover a bit of the great unknown.
But now that the malls you pass feature the same stores as the ones back home, and automobiles are built to isolate occupants as much as possible from the outside world, motor touring has lost much of its charm.
Motorcycle touring, however, brings back the time when, as an advertising slogan that shows my age declared: "Getting there is half the fun."
Not on all motorcycles, however. A lightweight sportbike stripped down for agility and speed might be great for day rides through the mountains, but I wouldn't want to be tucked into one for days on end.
Big-time touring typically requires super-comfortable seating for two, lockable luggage carriers, adequate wind protection, a generous dose of power, a reasonably smooth ride, a big fuel tank and such niceties as cruise control and maybe even a radio.
However, that level of equipment tends to result in a motorcycle that is relatively big and heavy, and I don't want to feel as if I am traveling in the motorcycle version of an RV. I want handling, road feel, reasonable styling and that indefinable quality called character.
I'm not dead, just touring.
In recent years, several so-called luxury tourers have hit the motorcycle market. Earlier this month, I was invited to take part in a six-model, four-day comparison test of such bikes conducted by Motorcycle Consumer News, a plain-wrap, black-and-white magazine with no newsstand sales.
Despite the publication's looks, the detailed reviews of bikes and accessories in MCN, which is available only by subscription, are held in high regard in the motorcycle world, at least partly because the magazine accepts no advertising.
In addition, its articles on riding skills, safety matters and such unconventional topics as the ties between motorcycling and religion make it one of the most lively (if not colorful) publications in the field.
By the time we testers came together at MCN's offices in Irvine, the magazine's staff had already done extensive evaluations of these 1999 models' engines, brakes, drive trains and so forth. Our mission was to add riding impressions gathered while on a planned itinerary of mostly rural roads in the Mojave Desert, southern Nevada and western Arizona.
The full report will appear in the April MCN. My thoughts on the bikes:
Honda Gold Wing 1500SE ($17,999): The Wing, now more than 20 years old, virtually invented the luxury tourer genre and is by far the classification's current bestseller.
Although quite heavy (about 815 pounds sans fuel), it handles surprisingly well, even at slow speeds. It's also very comfortable, and its six-cylinder motor provides steady power. And it has a tremendous record of reliability.
But the Wing also has a reputation as the retired person's motorcycle. Although the ride is smooth and quiet, it is hardly exciting, providing little feedback from the road and not much ready-fire pep. It's an engineering marvel but also a bit boring.
Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic ($15,320): Like most Harley models, the Electra Glide has not undergone many major changes. Harley owners are already fiercely loyal, so why mess with a good thing?
This year's Electra Glide sports the company's new Twin Cam 88 engine, but that's hardly likely to generate complaints. The new power plant rumbles like the old one but is considerably smoother at speed. Also, this Harley provides good road feedback, encouraging skillful riding.
But the Electra Glide has drawbacks as a long-range tourer. It develops a disconcerting wobble at high speeds, and its aerodynamics are not great. It feels somewhat like an old jalopy, and although H-D riders seem to value that feel, it can be wearing over the miles.
BMW K1200 LT ($16,900): This bike, new for 1999, is likely to be the Gold Wing's major competition. BMW has managed to make a big, heavy motorcycle that is also enormously fun to ride.
The LT took the curves on desert roads with such ease, and its engine provided so much torque, that this 788-pounder handled better than many bikes far lighter. The LT is also extremely comfortable, and I adored its gizmos, including the electrically adjustable windshield and heated seats (the version of the bike we tested, with niceties such as a six-CD player, costs about $2,000 more than the standard unit).
If I have any complaint, it's that the LT's styling does not match the excitement of its performance. But this is a bike I could ride all day, for days on end, loving every minute.
Kawasaki Voyager XII ($11,999): Of the models tested, this boxy-looking motorcycle is hardly the most exciting--it doesn't offer much in the way of feedback or road-grabbing torque.
But it's a lot of bike for the money and has a long history of getting riders long distances with little trouble.
Honda Valkyrie Interstate ($15,499): Although about 100 pounds lighter than the Gold Wing SE, this new-for-1999 model has an even more powerful engine. It also has more impressive handling, and although it looks a bit demonic (it's been called the Darth Vader of motorcycles), its cruiser styling is far sleeker than that of its sibling.
But I found this bike uncomfortable over long distances, both in seating and aerodynamics. Some of my fellow testers who tried out the passenger seat found it almost unbearable.
Yamaha Venture ($15,999). This bike, new for 1999, won my heart, even though I chose the BMW best overall.
The inspiration for the Venture's styling came from cars of the late 1950s, right down to a control panel that looks as if it was lifted from your father's (or grandfather's) Chevrolet. It's no slouch in the performance department either, offering plenty of power, protective aerodynamics and a low center of gravity for stability (I rode it through a rainstorm with up to 50-mph winds). Its marks for handling and comfort are not quite as praiseworthy.
The Venture is not the ultimate tourer, but I would choose it over some that come closer to that ideal simply because it is such a delight.
Motorcycle Consumer News
$38 a year, (888) 333-0354.
Two-Wheel Ride surveys the motorcycle scene in Southern California. David Colker can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.