Common Tread

2016 ZLA Awards: Motorcycles

Nov 18, 2016

RevZilla gives out ZLA Awards for moto gear and for parts and accessories because we evaluate all that stuff before we offer it for sale to you. We don’t sell motorcycles, but if you weren’t interested in motorcycles, you wouldn’t need the gear or parts, right?

So we’re giving out ZLA Awards for motorcycles, too. Sort of.

Looking back on 2016, the Common Tread regulars picked their purely subjective choices. These aren’t necessarily the fastest or prettiest, the ones with the highest tech or the most features. They’re just motorcycles we feel are significant.

Low Rider, high rider, low pricer

Harley Media Lead

Winning a new-bike award from a curmudgeonly old-bike bastard like me is kind of a feat, so my hat goes off to the manufacturers who earned my 2016 picks, starting with the Harley-Davidson Dyna Low Rider S. This new addition for 2016 promised aggressive riders something tasty in H-D’s lineup. Of course, the Low Rider hasn’t been a new model since the 1977 FXS, but like the ‘77, the current Low Rider is a raging success and the “S” variant is lustworthy.

Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
The Low Rider S takes a venerable name in the Harley-Davidson lineup and does it proud. Photo by Jon Langston.

Harley stuck to the Low Rider recipe: Alloy wheels, triple disc brakes, skinny front wheel. (They sort of whiffed on the exhaust. The header pipes are fine, but Low Riders are supposed to come with a two-into-one, which is then dutifully trashed by owners who swap for drag pipes.) Ah yes, then they also stuffed the 110 Twin Cam in there. The bike’s blacked out with gold trim. It’s sharp. I’m not personally a fan of the 90-degree air cleaner or the drag bars, but the S’s bikini fairing draws me in. It looks the part, has legitimate 1970s history at a time when others are mimicking that era, and compared to other cruisers it can certainly hold its own in terms of muscle.

Harley, let’s keep this bike special. Pack a 114-inch Milwaukee-Eight in this thing for 2018, huh?

Honda Africa Twin
The Honda Africa Twin was an easy choice as a significant new model in 2016. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Consider the Honda Africa Twin a begrudging choice. The XR650L, dinosaur though it may be, has soldiered on simply because it’s a wonderful dual-sport that does most of the things that a dirt bike needs to do and has lights, so Johnny Law won’t get up your ass on the way to the trail. The Africa Twin is Honda’s recognition of the market demand for huge, swollen ADV bikes and the cold reality that a huge, swollen ADV bike isn’t very fast deep off-road. I’m generally not fond of ADV bikes. I think most riders are better served by two scoots. I also tend to believe the best ADV machines are smaller, because they work better off-road, à la BMW F 800 GS and, to a limited degree, the Triumph Tiger.

Enter the Africa Twin. Big power gets packed into a fairly slim chassis that wears real dirt bike tire sizes, unlike its Bavarian competition. The Africa Twin has nine inches of suspension travel front and back (OK, OK, 8.7 inches in the rear). It’s cranking out basically the same amount of power as the triple-powered Tigger, but makes significantly more torque. At 511 pounds, it’s no featherweight, but in its segment, that number is reasonable. Plus, it has a DCT (automatic transmission) option.

Truly this was something new and different in a saturated market segment. Good work, Honda. I’m already thinking the CRF450RX might be a contender for this same article in 2017.

Suzuki SV650
The Suzuki SV650. Simply good. Photo by Adam Campbell.

The Suzuki SV650 is not really a new bike. I mean, it is, but it’s not. Yeah, it’s got some updates, but it’s the same old SV, and that’s a good thing. This was — and is — a great all-’rounder mo-cycle. So why did I put an old bike on my list?

The price. In 2009, the year the SV signed off in America, the MSRP was $6,999. Today’s MSRP, eight years later… is $6,999. (Adjusted for inflation, assuming no price hikes, the bike should cost $7,876.29 today. The SV650 has actually gotten cheaper.) Yes, the Yamaha FZ-07 is strong competition and the Kawasaki Z650 will prove to be for next year, as well. But for 2016, the Yam and the Suzi were neck and neck, and the ‘Zuk rang in a few bucks cheaper. Kudos to Suzuki for keeping an old favorite alive and relevant.

Something new, a bold revision and the dark horse

Spurgeon Dunbar
Spurgeon Dunbar
Metric Media Lead

It’s rare that Lemmy and I come to the same conclusion about a motorcycle. This year, Honda beat those odds with the Africa Twin. Riding this bike in Moab had me second-guessing my Triumph Tiger 800 XCx at home in the garage. That was mirrored in the comments section of the article by folks wanting to know if they should buy this bike over options from BMW and Triumph.

Honda Africa Twin
In what must have been an oversight, Spurgeon got all the good assignments in 2016, including riding the new Honda Africa Twin in Utah. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The truth is Honda came out swinging for the fences with this bike. For a company that hasn’t had a true ADV bike in the United States since the TransAlp went the way of the dodo bird, they knocked it out of the park.

Lemmy commented on the weight and I just want to add that despite the fact that this bike has 25 pounds on my Tiger’s 487 pounds, the Africa Twin feels much lighter. Most of the weight is carried lower on the bike and where I feel like I am wrestling the Tiger off-road, I felt like I was dancing with the Africa Twin. For riders looking to really take their ADV bike off-road, the Africa Twin is the new middleweight to beat.

Triumph Street Twin
Spurgeon took the new Triumph Street Twin on a long ride through the South. We weren't sure he'd come home, but he did. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

When I think back to my long ride on the Triumph Street Twin, I can still feel the humidity of the French Quarter and taste the beignets at Café Du Monde. Triumph had a lot at stake when it came time to update the entire line of wildly successful Modern Classic motorcycles. The Street Twin features a newly designed liquid-cooled 900 cc engine with a 270-degree crank, a real departure from the old air-cooled 865 cc powerplant with a 360-degree crank.

It was a risky move, but the result is a lovely little engine that gives up top-end horsepower in favor of a beefed-up torque curve. Combine that with ABS and traction control as standard equipment and a lower wet weight of right around 480 pounds and Triumph’s entry-level option is a bike that also appeals to veteran riders. Based on my time with the Street Twin, I would say Triumph’s gamble has paid off.

Yamaha FZ-10
The Yamaha FZ-10 sets new standards in naked street bike competence and price. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The dark horse of the year for me is the Yamaha FZ-10. It comes with electronic cruise control, four levels of traction control, YZF-R1-derived suspension, and three different throttle modes to control power delivery. I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, but Spurgeon, it only makes 160 horsepower. I can get a KTM Super Duke R that makes 173 horsepower or an Aprilia Tuono V4 1100 that claims 175 ponies.”

You would be correct, but the FZ-10 comes in at $12,999. The Aprilia will set you back $14,799 while the KTM is now $17,399. The BMW S 1000 R has a base price of $13,495 but I’ve never seen one sitting on the dealer floor for that price. The FZ-10 also has the ability to tackle 26,600 miles between major service intervals and should I need a part or two, I probably won’t have to wait weeks for them to come in.

As I mentioned in my original article, I didn’t want to like this bike. Yet, after one ride, I found myself cornering Yamaha’s marketing director to see about buying one of the press bikes. The FZ-10 is the hypernaked superbike for the everyman.

Significance is about what changes the game

Lance Oliver
Lance Oliver
Common Tread Managing Editor

How do I define significance in the motorcycle world? To me, it’s about something that changes the game. In a world where income inequality is growing and in a U.S. market, specifically, where motorcycle sales are stagnant, it’s not about the Ducati Superleggeras and the Honda RC213V-Ss for the moneyed elite. Rather, it’s about what will shape the future by allowing new riders to join in the addiction we Common Tread readers already enjoy.

Yamaha FZ-07
The Yamaha FZ-07 isn't the best bike you can buy, just the one that arguably gives you the most for your money. Yamaha photo.

That’s why I’m giving a tip of the visor to the Yamaha FZ-07. No, it’s not new for 2016, but maybe no other motorcycle you can buy in the United States in 2016 gives you more bang for your bucks. Lemmy already mentioned the Suzuki SV650 in the same vein, and that’s a sweet motorcycle, no doubt. The only news here is that Yamaha is adding ABS, and for 2017, with ABS — and I think you should get ABS — the FZ-07 comes in at exactly the same price as the SV650, $7,499. And it’s a more up-to-date motorcycle. A noob can ride it. A guy like me, who bought his first motorcycle before Lemmy and Spurgeon were born, can ride it and enjoy it. That’s significant.

There’s a theory that by the time large corporations notice a popular trend and gear up to capitalize on it, the trend is played out. That’s the way the retro fad smells to me (BMW has expanded its “Heritage” line from one motorcycle to five in a year, Ducati keeps adding Scrambler models and Yamaha just built a “scrambler” out of a cruiser). The one bike in this corporate-co-opted retro trend that I really enjoyed is the Yamaha XSR900.

Yamaha XSR900
Lots of people love the style. Even if you don't, the Yamaha XSR900 is simply a good motorcycle. Lance stole the keys from Lemmy and went off to explore the alleys and back streets of southeast Pennsylvania. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Why? Again, an affordable price is part of it, but mainly because it just plain works and is fun to ride. I’m a personal fan of triples (I own two), the components are good for the money you’re spending and while the styling is not my preference, I can live with it and some folks love it. Initially, there were some issues of long-term reliability with this engine, as Lemmy pointed out in his review. Yamaha says they've been addressed. If the fixes work, there's nothing left not to like.

My esteemed colleagues have already mentioned the Honda Africa Twin. Personally, given the kind of riding I do these days, I need a big, dirt-worthy adventure bike about as much as Jorge Lorenzo needs a set of knobbies for his new Ducati, but I still occasionally daydream of owning an Africa Twin. What has me more intrigued, however, is the possibility that we are seeing the emergence of a new class of adventure bikes. Lightweight ones.

Kawasaki Versys-X 300
Let's hope that when we get our hands on the Kawasaki Versys-X 300 we find out it has performance to back up the ADV looks — and that other lightweight adventure bikes follow. Kawasaki photo.

Since this is mostly theoretical at this point, I can’t single out one motorcycle for praise, but I’m talking about the BMW G 310 GS, the Honda CRF250 Rally, the Kawasaki Versys-X 300 and what I hope will be others to come. For a long time, I’ve heard people complain that adventure-touring bikes are just too big and heavy. Well, now we’re getting some lighter options. Lots of details are still missing (Will the BMW get a spoked wheel option for off-road use? Will the Versys-X, once we see the final specs, be “all hat and no cattle,” or will it have capability to go with the looks? When will KTM come out with a 390 Adventure?), and I can already hear the grousing (Why not a 450?), but there’s promise here. If the Kawasaki Versys-X gives us decent capability in a lighter, inexpensive package, I’m more than secure enough in my manhood to say I don’t need more than 39 horsepower and I don’t have to spend $20,000 on a round-the-world bike. Even a Versys-X 300 would be a “big” bike in most countries on a RTW trip.

Why am I not including the Suzuki V-Strom 250? Because it’s the opposite of the Versys-X, which diverges from its bigger siblings, which use 17-inch tires front and rear, and has a 19-inch front. The small V-Strom goes the other way and replaces its bigger siblings’ 19-inch front with a 17-incher. In my thoroughly biased opinion, a 19-inch or 21-inch front is a requirement to be considered an ADV bike, if only because it gives you a much wider choice of dual-sport tires.

I’ll be really disappointed if in the next two years we get five more "scramblers" and we don’t see new entries in this small ADV category.