They were the halcyon days of motorcycling. The ultracool vagabonds played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper rolled along sun-baked Southwestern roads on their stretched choppers in 1969's Easy Rider. In 1974, Robert Pirsig's impenetrable Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance topped best-seller lists. Millions of Americans fell for the romance of two-wheeling. In 1973, they bought more than 1.5 million bikes, the most ever.
These days, that same generation is rekindling its romance with the road, and bike sales are growing by double digits, headed back toward their peak. Take Francesco Quinn, who has bought two bikes in recent years. For Quinn -- who followed the footsteps of his famous father, Anthony, into the film industry -- the open road is complemented by the intimacy it promotes with his wife on trips through southern California. "We share more in a day [of riding] than most couples share in a year," says Quinn, who owns six bikes.
Then there's Daniel Vasella, the 49-year-old chairman and CEO of Swiss drug giant Novartis (NVS ) who started riding as a teenager. Today he takes his BMW (BMW ) K1200RS around the lake near his home in Zug, Switzerland. It's a break from the daily grind, he says, and "it gives me a chance to meet people I wouldn't ordinarily."
ROADRUNNERS. Many are finding the return to the road surprisingly comfortable, thanks to a fast-growing new species of motorcycle called the sport tourer, a category that includes Vasella's Beemer. Sport tourers borrow heavily from built-for-speed, fun-to-ride racing models, the so-called sportbikes. At the same time, these hybrids adapt the comfortable ergonomics and relatively generous cargo space of traditional touring bikes -- such as Honda's Gold Wing and Harley-Davidson (HDI )'s Electra Glide -- while stripping away much of their cumbersome heft. The union yields one of the most can-do bikes you can buy, capable of biting into the winding turns on a country road yet comfortable enough to carry two riders -- and their gear -- on a weekend getaway.
The number of sport-touring models on the market has grown from a handful to over a dozen in recent years, with offerings from all of the major Japanese and European makers. Most can be yours, complete with hard-sided saddlebags, for $10,000 to $15,000, though prices can go as high as $20,000 with all the options.
At the high end, these models come packed with amenities for convenience and comfort as well as safety and performance features to make the trip more fun. Antilock brakes improve stopping distance and prevent skidding. Cruise control gives you a chance to relax your right hand from its usual grip on the throttle. Electrically adjustable windshields tilt to direct the wind or to channel the rain.
We recently took four popular models on road trips to see what all the buzz is about. For comfort on a longer trip, the BMW won top spot. The Honda delivered the sharpest handling of the lot. Triumph's model offers the best bang for the buck. But for the most exhilarating mix of speed and road manners, the Yamaha edged out the rest.
The German-made BMW K1200GT ($17,990) tops the category in creature comforts and technical features, including unbeatably comfortable seat design, cruise control, heated handgrips and seat, as well as an adjustable windscreen -- which offered welcome relief when the skies opened on our three-day jaunt across Pennsylvania farm country. BMW's four-cylinder, 1200cc engine and its shaft drive -- instead of the normal chain drive -- provide plenty of oomph to get up to highway speeds.
SMALLER AND LIGHTER. The other European in our test group, the Sprint ST ($9,999) from Britain's Triumph, was more nimble than the Beemer. With a smaller fairing -- the protective plastic shell on the front of the bike -- and lower overall weight, the Sprint looks and feels more aggressive. The Sprint's zip comes from an unusual three-cylinder engine that only Triumph uses. The 955cc power plant not only delivers the snappiest acceleration of the group but also generates the deepest, most pleasing, engine note.
It's no surprise that Honda, the world's largest bikemaker, has staked out a big niche in the sport-touring market. We opted for the sportiest of its offerings, the Interceptor ($11,999), a bike that began life in Honda's racing workshops. Honda is famous for squeezing lots of power out of smaller engines, and the Interceptor's V-4, 781cc version is no exception. Smaller translates into lighter here, making for a more agile ride. Like Triumph's Sprint, you lean slightly forward on this bike. This offers more control, but can be less comfortable on longer trips. Last year Honda bowed to customer pressure and authorized factory-designed hard luggage for the model.
Yamaha's FJR1300 offered the best blend of comfort and performance. Originally sold only in Europe, the model garnered such outstanding reviews that U.S. enthusiasts lobbied Yamaha until the company made the bike available here ($12,599). At 1300cc, its four-cylinder engine is the most powerful of the bikes we tested. It easily matches the grunt of the Triumph but with a more stable feel, akin to the BMW's. In fact, with its electric windshield, antilock braking, and shaft drive, the Yamaha comes closest to meeting the BMW point for point, but with a hotter fire in its belly.
Their versatility explains why these bikes are winning over so many riders. Stripped of their saddlebags, any of these four would also make a fine commuter bike. Sure, the ride to work is no competition for a trek up the California coast. But these models make it easier for today's easy riders to make a quick getaway or a relaxed, meandering one.
By Adam Aston & Rob Doyle
With Kerry Capell