Comparing Four Leather-Bagged Cruisers

Searching for aliens aboard the BMW Montana, Harley-Davidson FXDX T-Sport, Victory Deluxe and Yamaha Silverado

UFO motorcycle ride
We take BMW's Montana, Harley-Davidson's T-Sport, Victory's Deluxe, and Yamaha's Road Star Silverado to the outer limits.Dean Groover

This article was originally published in the August 2001 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

Regular readers of this magazine know we like to travel. In fact, we can’t think of a better way to get from Point A to Point B than by two wheels. Of course, Points M, N and Q must be investigated along the way. So, when we decided to see how the Victory Deluxe stacked up against the rest of the leather bag set, we needed to find a suitable destination. Since we couldn’t think of a good location, we came up with a UFO theme, and the route just fell into place. We’d tour famous UFO-related sites throughout the Southwest. Yes, the trip would take us a little beyond our usual haunts. But what better way to find out how these bikes worked than spending five days in their saddles?

Logistics

Since editor Elvidge (aka Jamie) had already planned to pick up the Deluxe and ride it from the Victory factory in Minnesota to Los Angeles via Route 66 (look for her story in our next issue), the first portion of the trip would involve just the BMW Montana, the Harley-Davidson T-Sport and the Yamaha Road Star Silverado. Manning the controls of these three bikes would be associate editor Andrew Cherney, feature editor Evans Brasfield and photographer Dean Groover. With riders traveling from opposite sides of the continent, planning for the trip needed to be timed down to the second—otherwise, like a spacecraft attempting to enter the Earth’s atmosphere at too shallow an angle, one of us might miss the rendezvous and go spinning off into the void, never to be heard from again.

After a prelaunch provisioning at Denny’s, the Motorcycle Cruiser gang of three pointed front wheels east on Interstate 10. Our destination for Day One: Rachel, Nevada, the town nestled against the famed Area 51. The only good thing to be said about spending most of the day on the Superslab is that we had time…lots of time…to consider the relative comfort of our trio. When we reached Baker, California, home of the Bun Boy and its famous 134-foot tall thermometer, we’d been battling a headwind for two hours.

Having the smallest shield of the three, the T-Sport, predictably, offered the least torso protection—a boon in the desert heat. What the FXDXT lacked in windshield size, it gained in tunability, being the only unit that offered on-the-go adjustability, which gave riders a choice of a breezy cockpit with a bit of noisy turbulence or, by cranking the shield higher, a relatively calm pocket to cruise in. Our riders could easily see over the T-Sport’s windshield, which is a far cry better than that of the Convertible, the bike that formerly filled the removable bag and windshield niche for Harley.

motorcycle road closed by snow
Mother Nature (and we suspect some aliens) messed with us during our tour with a few road blocks.Dean Groover

The Montana provides slightly better protection from the breeze than the T-Sport. Like the T-Sport’s windshield, the BMW’s is shorter than previous models made for the R1200C. We had a variety of torso lengths in our crew, and all could see over the Beemer’s shield with ease. Considering that hopping and flying bugs were in full springtime swing, this is a positive development. The shield gave testers a mostly turbulence-free ride with only a little buffeting noise affecting the tallest riders. BMW sells shorter and taller versions of this shield, but we thought this one was much better looking than the first generation shield and feel there should not be any reason to change it.

The Silverado’s windshield provided the best protection of our original trio without obstructing the vision of our shortest waisted rider. The shield was also one of the best looking on the trip. The only criticism we have for this shield is it created some high frequency buffeting at highway speeds—southwestern speeds of 75 mph and above. For some reason, the most colorful bugs were attracted to the Road Star, with the painted lady butterflies providing the biggest splash.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, the Deluxe was the windshield champion of this tour—if you gauge by only weather protection. On cool mornings the cavernous pocket of still air was welcome. This, no doubt, is due to the fact that the Victory was the sole bike with lowers. Unfortunately, the extra wind protection came at the expense of vision for our shorter riders, who could only see over it if they stretched. Riding into the setting sun with a shield full of bug goo was a bit of a challenge on the Deluxe.

Andrew Cherney BMW bike near the grand canyon
Andrew Cherney posing with the BMW Montana near the canyon.Dean Groover

Into the Open Range

With Las Vegas retreating behind us like a bad dream after a morning cup of coffee, our trio blasted down rural highways trading bikes at every gas stop. Although the average range for the leather baggers was 140 miles, we tended to pull in to the first station we saw after the trip meter rolled past 100 miles. Only people familiar with the wide-open spaces of the Southwest can understand how vast, empty and forlorn the countryside can look after switching to reserve with the nearest town 40 miles away. Otherwise, the rolling hills and the erosion process laid bare provide ample time to ponder nature, inner growth and engine performance.

In the acceleration department, the BMW was the surprise of our trip. Every time we engaged in roll-on duels, the Montana simply walked away. The T-Sport followed, lugging Evans’ two tons of gear, while the Road Star felt under-powered by comparison. In defense of the other bikes, the Montana had a gearing advantage, but still won in both fourth and fifth gears. The T-Sport’s Twin Cam engine continues to win over our hearts the more we ride it. Although the Road Star’s power­plant looks the part of a bruiser, in this company we soon discovered it didn’t have the grunt to back up the sweetest sounding engine of the bunch.

Rolling west into the setting sun, we took a left onto Nevada Highway 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway. With occasional signs clicking off the mileage to Rachel, an impromptu session of supra­legal riding developed. While we don’t make a habit of posting top speeds at Motorcycle Cruiser, unlike our sportier brethren, let’s just say all three of these bikes remained stable—even in their heavily loaded states—all the way up to their maximum speeds. When the run began, the BMW leapt ahead until the gearing that serves it so well in roll-ons petered out. Then the FXDXT took over, besting the BMW by 7 mph with the Silverado trailing about 6 mph further behind. Now, a note of caution should be sounded before undertaking such shenanigans in open range. For all you East Coasters, open range means you could round a blind corner to find a solo cow or an entire herd of bovines taking your line. So, when we couldn’t see more than a mile ahead, we played it cool, but when diving into the valleys where visibility ran in the neighborhood of 10 miles, well, boys will be boys…. And the Harley kicked booty. (For those of you who are keeping score, when we gathered all four bikes, the Victory topped out slightly higher than the BMW for second place.)

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico
Stopped by the UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico.Dean Groover

After 435 miles, with smiles on our faces and bugs in our teeth, we gladly settled in at the Little A’Le’Inn in bustling downtown Rachel. Over a home-cooked dinner and under the watchful eye of our bartender, we planned the next morning’s assault on Area 51 before walking to our spartan accommodations. Rooms 51 and 52, naturally.

Use of Deadly Force Authorized

Before tempting fate at the Groom Lake entrance gate of Area 51, we made some minor suspension adjustments to the bikes. The previous day the FXDXT had exhibited a disconcerting wobble in the few corners we had managed to find, and we suspected load-induced rear suspension squat to be the cause of the wobble in sweepers and bumpy corner exits. Since Harley-Davidson still doesn’t bother to include tool kits with its bikes, we turned to the BMW’s excellent tool selection. (It even includes a flat repair kit.) We cranked the T-Sport’s rear preload all the way up and firmed up the compression damping a bit. Moving on to the Road Star, we added two full turns of preload to the rear to minimize its low riding rear. The Beemer carried the lightest load and was left alone, suspension-wise.

Just 10 miles from the motel, we turned onto a nondescript dirt road heading west into the desert. Another 13 miles later, we reached our goal for the day. The warning signs were none too friendly—downright threatening, in fact. Up on the hill to our left, a television camera monitored our moves. On the hill to our right, a Ford pickup idled. Although the two camo-clad occupants never left the vehicle, we knew that if we crossed the line demarcated by the signs and the rows of neon orange posts trailing off into the distance, we’d see our tax dollars at work. Naturally, we posed for pictures in front of the “no photography” signs.

Roadster New Mexico satellites
The Road Star's seat was just about perfect.Dean Groover

Back on the paved road, we needed to make some time. Frittering the morning away talking with Area 51 expert Chuck Clark cost us valuable daylight. Our planned route through scenic Utah left us with 630 miles to travel in the next day and a half. Again, we wicked up the throttles—only to meet Nevada’s finest. While Officer Killjoy completed our driver appreciation certificates, we pondered the notion that we’d seen nary a copper the previous day, but less than 30 miles from Area 51 we were being hassled by The Man. In fact, we saw four more patrol cars before we managed to shake the tainted dust of Nevada off our boots.

Coincidence? We think not….

The Road to Aztec

As we hit the groove on our second day in the saddle, our thoughts naturally turned toward posterior distractions. Since bun burn usually becomes a factor after the initial rush of leaving daily life has passed, we settled for some serious seat testing. And the verdict was that the Road Star’s seat is just about perfect. The saddle’s bucket shape coddled our variety of buns from well padded to, well, not padded at all. The only complaints about the Silverado’s seat were more directed at its riding position. The shape that cupped our hind-parts so well didn’t offer too much room to move around in, but the desire to move didn’t originate from the derriere. Instead, the Road Star’s riding position offered few options for relieving leg cramps.

In contrast, the Beemer offered three foot placement options. The cleverly designed engine guards really let the rider stretch out on the road, while the standard-ish rider pegs don’t fold up the rider significantly. The passenger pegs help to stretch cramped quadriceps. But the major player here was the broad, flat, unobtrusive seat providing firm support without the dreaded hot-spots. The T-Sport also offered three foot positions, but the one where the rider actually has access to the controls was quite cramped. The center pegs are mounted high and slightly forward, causing longer-legged riders’ knees to stick up above the tank. The forward mounted highway pegs were so comfortable and naturally placed that we found ourselves occasionally reaching for the shifter or rear brake only to remember that we needed to use the center pegs. The FXDXT’s seat was exactly that—a seat, which performed its duty quietly, registering neither complaints nor compliments. The Victory’s seat ranked in the same neighborhood as the Harley, but one taller rider noticed that when he stretched his legs and moved his feet rearward on the floorboards, the rise in the saddle to meet the pillion became uncomfortable. The foot placement options place the Deluxe in a dead heat with the Road Star.

T-Sport with aliens
The T-Sport picked up some hitchhikers along the way.Dean Groover

When our route entered the canyon country of southern Utah, the character of the roads changed to that of a rattlesnake working its way through the rocks, leaving us with the tough decision to either look at nature’s best or enjoy the tarmac undulating with the topography. The more convoluted the road became, the more we appreciated the Montana’s quick steering. On the serpentine riverside roads, the BMW was always willing to go just a little faster…until the road got bumpy. In sweepers or on bumps, the R1200C’s rear suspension showed a lack of rebound damping that quickly robbed rider confidence by making the bike feel unstable. At the other end of the steering spectrum, the Road Star was lethargic when it came to changing directions. Even with the wide bar, the Yamaha required noticeably more effort to turn. Once leaned over, however, this reluctance to turn translated into a stable feel throughout the corner. Moderate bumps didn’t upset the chassis as the Road Star’s considerable mass carried it over pavement imperfections. When the time came to drag the floorboards, the Star touched down cleanly, giving ample warning before inflexible parts hit.

The Victory weighs 80 pounds less than the Yamaha and is the second heaviest of our quartet. Unfortunately, it lacks the ground clearance of the Road Star. Although the floorboards fold up quite a ways, the brackets supporting them dig into the pavement almost immediately after the benign floorboards touch down. We left a much larger margin for error on winding roads when riding the Deluxe.

While Victory has tamed most of the harshness out of the shock, the fork displayed the unpleasant tendency to transmit the bulk of a sharp-edged bump’s force to the handlebar. On bumpy roads the jolts were so strong that riders felt as if they were holding a jackhammer. On smooth roads, the Victory steered much easier than the Road Star.

Star Child diner
Plenty of stops for UFO buffs.Dean Groover

When the road became seriously twisty, the T-Sport was the bike to straddle. Although the front end offered little feedback exiting corners (at least partially due to the heavy load on the rear of the bike), the FXDXT offered the best compromise between the classic cruiser riding position and function. With the most ground clearance of the bunch, the Harley didn’t make those nasty scraping sounds when a corner unexpectedly developed a decreasing radius. The bar placement gave the rider good leverage to muscle the bike through directional changes. The only other bike to receive so many comments on its handlebar was the BMW, but riders were split almost 50/50 between liking the pullback bar and feeling like it cramped the cockpit.

Hauling these puppies down from speed required an exceptionally firm grip from all but the BMW. The Montana not only has ABS, but also BMW’s signature Telelever front end. The ABS means riders can brake with confidence in less than ideal traction conditions, and the Telelever keeps the front from diving under deceleration, which prevents the front end geometry from changing and allows consistent control of steering inputs while decelerating. Ranking second in brute braking power, the T-Sport delivers quick stops as long as the rider provides the requisite muscle, although the effort is light-years ahead of the pre-Twin Cam era brakes. The Victory weighs in with powerful brakes that display a bit of initial grabbiness but calm down once you get into the meat of the power. The Road Star’s brakes were down on grip when compared to previous models we’ve tested. Since there was some mushiness at the lever, we suspect a good bleeding would bring it up to par.

Lights in the Darkness

After a night in Aztec, New Mexico, and our first civilized coffee since we left La-la land, we set out to find the Aztec UFO crash site. Although the directions provided by the Aztec Public Library were good, we were able to find the valley, but not the plaque marking the exact location where the crash was supposed to have occurred. Unfortunately, we had a long way to go and a short time to get there, so we swallowed our disappointment and proceeded south to our rendezvous with Jamie. After battling road construction and Dean’s road-food-related intestinal disorders, we hooked up with Jamie at dusk for the last 200 miles to Roswell. Our after-dark blast through the sinewy wilderness highway became a celebratory dance with roadside reflectors and the green eyes of critters acting as constellations to guide our way. Our floorboards provided the occasional shooting stars to complete the scene.

Bike test Southwest USA UFO tour
Our tour took us all around the Southwest and away from our usual haunts.Dean Groover

Since we finally had our reason for taking this ride gathered into the fold, we could actually complete our comparison of the soft-bagged cruisers. Within a few blocks of riding, two characteristics of the Victory revealed themselves. First, shifting gears no longer sounds like it involves a sledgehammer against the engine case. Shifting action was improved, too. The second obvious change—and not for the better—was the Deluxe’s grabby clutch. Out on the open road, this wasn’t a problem, but in the around town stop-and-go, the clutch was a bother. If not for the clutch, the Victory, with its massive bottom end grunt, would have been our choice for boulevard trolling. In its stead, the Road Star earned the Saturday Night Special honors. The other bikes held no urban surprises.

Sitting in the Roswell Denny’s sometime after midnight more than a thousand miles from home, we periodically looked out through the window at our steeds wearing their coat of road film with pride. That night, the lights descending into Roswell had been nothing more than us riding in formation. Soon, we would go our separate ways. Who knows where these motorcycles could take us? The journey had just begun.

Riding Positions

Evans Brasfield

Height: 5 ft. 11 in.
Weight: 185 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.

Well, the folks in Milwaukee finally built a bike that could live up to the Convertible name—and then gave it a different one. I guess it’s a good thing since the Convertible had an annoyingly tall windshield and saddlebags that tended to eject themselves at inopportune times. (I lost one along with a favorite Vanson jacket on the West Side Highway in New York City.) The T-Sport could become my favorite cruiser by fulfilling two niches. I reveled in my week on this bike in touring trim. For the stripped down urban mode, the windshield pops off in minutes. The bags in seconds, but only when I want them to. Everything else—the engine, the handling, even the looks of the bike—says let’s go ride. This bike is all I’d ever want in a soft-bagged cruiser.

I want to apologize to the other cruisers in this test. They’re all great bikes, but it’s hard to compete with love.

Andrew Cherney

Height: 5 ft. 7 in.
Weight: 149 lb.
Inseam: 31 in.

For our yearly long distance road tour, baggers with shields seemed like perfect vehicles to traverse the Southwest. Who knew the bikes would be so different?

I thought the Road Star’s 1600cc would kick serious BMW butt on the highway, but the Beemer’s snappy acceleration and lighter steering held sway. Literally. And what the Harley FXDX T-Sport loses to the Beemer in refinement, it more than gains back in brute strength—this was the true hot rod of the bunch. Its voluminous bag capacity blew all other contenders away, and it gulped up miles with glee. Glitches, like useless mirrors and disturbing headshake didn’t stop us from pining to ride it. And the Victory tried so hard to be serious, it proved to be an unworthy playmate. A bit sloppy, too. The Beemer ultimately gets my vote for most well-rounded touring companion here, and wins by a wallow and a nod.

Jamie Elvidge

Height: 5 ft. 10 in.
Weight: 135 lb.
Inseam: 34 in.

I'd been riding the Victory exclusively for a couple thousand miles before I met up with the guys, and I'd grown very, very fond of it. It's comfortable, compliant, has a great motor, good solid looks and plenty of autonomy on the road. I was convinced the Deluxe was going to clean up in the comparison, although I did expect the Harley T-Sport (another bike I've toured extensively on) to give it a run. So, we meet up and I jump from the Deluxe to the BMW: Zippy and cute, but not the kind of long-road tourer I’m looking for. Next was the Road Star: Whoa. It's big and long and slow and really kinda unpleasant compared to the others. Finally, the Harley: Click. Everything I could ask for in a light-duty touring mount right in one package. It all came back to me: great feel, tailored suspension, nice motor, respectable handling, incredible brakes and those ultra cool detachable bags. I love those bags. The Harley, although ugly in my opinion, reigns supreme.