“Naked bike” or sportbike? Superbike or “supernaked”? 10 years ago, the answer to this question was much more obvious -“supernakeds” didn’t exist, so it was more a matter of “how fast do you want to go”. For many, the answer was “real fast” and that fuelled the sportbike craze that carried well into the new millennia. Today’s reality looks a little different however.
We live in an era where manufacturers have realized that big power and precise handling can (and should) be available both with and without fairings; with either clip on or upright handlebars. Enter the age of the supernaked.
The scope of this test (or experiment, really) was to spend a week end riding one of the top contenders from each category, across a variety of terrain around southern California to answer a frequently asked question: should I buy a sportbike or a naked bike? We evaluated the bikes during real world usage scenarios, using test riders that reflect “the everyday rider”, to clearly define the strengths and weaknesses of each bike, but more importantly, to understand how this relates back to the ethos of their respective categories as a whole.
Representing sportbikes is Yamaha’s 2016 R1. Heavily inspired by their MotoGP program, Yamaha took a performance-biased approach in developing this bike (“track first, street second” in Yamaha’s own words) and delivered a potent machine that certainly qualifies it as a yardstick for our test’s purposes.
Representing the super naked category is BMW’s 2016 S1000R (reviewed here). A direct descendant of the much-acclaimed S1000RR sportbike and following German design philosophy, BMW created a machine that retains its superbike DNA, while allegedly making it more user-friendly as a daily mount.
We will examine these bikes across 5 dimensions (Power, Handling, Ergonomics, Electronics and Easthetics) to extrapolate each bike’s strengths and weaknesses.
So, without further adue, wheels up!
Let’s get the first point of contention out of the way: for 90% of riding environments and 99% of riders, any difference in HP or torque between these 2 machines is a moot point. The BMW’s inline 4 makes 151HP and 77 lb/ft of torque whereas the Yamaha’s crossplane inline 4 makes 167 HP and the same 77 lb/ft (all figures measured at the wheel). Digging more closely into the numbers however, we can see that maximum torque happens earlier in the RPM range on the BMW as a result of its “re-tuned” superbike motor. We realize that to the riding public, “tuned for more torque” or “tuned for better street rideability” sounds like marketing hyperbole or an excuse for cutting production costs. In real-world riding scenarios though, the result is that that there is no discernible power advantage for the higher revving R1 (this would be less true on a closed course however, where the superbike would have the edge in the most capable rider’s hands and where triple digit speeds are a regular occurrence.
What’s immediately obvious from the R1’s powertrain is that it’s intended to be ridden extremely fast, as evidenced by its tall, close-ratio stock gearing. During our test, the R1 would run a full gear or more lower than the BMW with first gear on the Yamaha reaching well over any legal speed limit and 6th being more or less useless for anything other than conserving fuel on the highway. As such, the BMW spends more time in the middle of its powerband whereas the Yamaha could rarely be unleashed as we would run out of courage, road or demerit points well before the bike would stop pulling.
Sure, one could re-gear the R1 lower (as many owners have done) but the bike’s uncompromising performance bias runs far deeper than only its gearing. The BMW, on the other hand, strikes a balance between everyday usable power and long enough gearing to warp your mind as the revs climb.
To make this test fair, we set the BMW’s semi-active suspension to its sport mode and adjusted the R1’s fork and shock to its stock values. On the highway, both bikes dealt well with small irregularities in the pavement, but offered a jarring ride over any real bumps and frost heaves (setting the BMW’s electronic suspension to “soft” alleviates most of the issue but is outside the scope of this comparison).
At a brisk street pace, both bikes offer an excess of prowess for handling switchbacks, esses, sweepers and g-outs. At slower speeds, the R1 feels a little lazy, as if yawning at the lack of triple-digit velocity. Conversely, the BMW feels content and willing, never breaking a sweat, regardless of pace. Where the Yamaha distances itself from the BMW is when ridden on the sharpest edge, at which point the true sportbike chassis (and ergonomics) all mould into a purpose-built object, allowing for tire-shredding corner exits and rear-wheel raising front end braking stability. It’s not that the BMW isn’t capable of that, it’s that the R1 was designed to do exactly that.
Result: Advantage R1
This is the area in which these two classes differ most. The BMW offers an upright riding position with a high and wide set of bars, a padded single rider seat and mid-rear foot peg placement. It has a bikini fairing and small side fairings with afterthough passenger accommodations. The Yamaha makes no excuses for its track-bias, sporting low and narrow clip-ons, a flat, firm seat and high rearward set pegs. It is (as is to be expected) fully faired and the presence of a passenger “seat” (strip?) seems more like a marketing checkbox than a legitimate destination for anyone you remotely care about.
On short rides around town, both bikes are usable, the BMW offering a more commanding view of the surroundings and featuring mirrors that actually work. The Yamaha’s mirrors offer a 50/50 view, split between what’s actually behind you and your shoulder armour.
After a 2 hour highway jaunt to reach “the good roads”, the BMW rider was fresh, if only a little worse for wear from prolonged wind blasts of the naked bike. The R1 rider was in much worse shape, having had to deal with cramped legs (from the high, rear set pegs), arm pump, neck cramping (from the clip ons) and wrist fatigue due to the lack of options for shifting body position.
Once underway on California’s canyon and mountain roads, the equation changes once more. Whereas the BMW rider continues his relatively effortless piloting of the Bavarian steed, the R1 pilot can morph into full attack mode and it’s here again that the Yamaha’s ergos begin to make sense. The flat seat suddenly becomes useful for hanging off the bike, the clip on bars allow you to get that much lower to the ground and the fairing offers refuge from neck snapping windblasts as the revs (and speed) climb into the stratosphere. Indeed, when the pace verges on “race” and the legal limit is blurred, the superbike can grit its teeth and leave the BMW behind.
Recreational riding isn’t always about going fast however, so if wheelies or hooligan antics are on the menu, there’s another dimension where these bikes take different approaches. Where the R1 is happy to lift its front end under acceleration, it’s clear that the machine was specifically designed to inhibit this. Electronics aside, the low ergos try to keep the rider’s weight over the front end and offer little leverage to apply “body English”. Due to its race inspired damping characteristics, the fork isn’t going to like anything but the most gentle landings and is prone to headshake. The BMW conversely welcomes front end lifts by way of its bars and seating position which provide ample leverage. Our stance on public wheelie displays was made clear in our recent article (The Comprehensive Guide to Motorcycle Wheelies) but suffice to say that one of these bikes is much better suited to them than the other, although each offer a different flavour.
At the end of the week end, after 600 miles and countless fuel stops, the BMW rider is fulfillingly sore but can look forward to taking the S1000R to work Monday morning. Conversely, the R1 rider gazes upon the bike and sees not a motorcycle, but a medieval torture rack, one that has caused him significant pain that will last well into the following work week. The older you are, the more true this becomes.
And therein lies perhaps the biggest decision criteria when evaluating Superbike vs Supernaked: although one model sportbike may fit better than another, the fact remains that the core engineering brief -the very essence of why superbikes exist, is to operate confidently at the limit of traction and at extremely high speeds. On the other hand, the design philosophy behind bikes in the supernaked category is to offer as much of the performance as possible from the superbike category while still maintaining a high level of real world usability.
Result: Advantage S1000R
We view modern motorcycles as having 2 primary categories of electronics. 1) systems designed to keep you safe on the road, such as ABS, Traction Control (TC), semi-active suspension and throttle mapping/ride modes, then 2) systems designed to let you ride predominantly faster (but also more safely) on the track such as quick shifters, wheelie control, lean-angle sensing technologies (including Inertial Measurement Units or IMU’s) and launch control.
First, let’s get something out of the way: both bikes (and categories) feature electronics packages that are complete overkill for street riding. The BMW has an extensive suite that features ride modes, ABS and TC and has the advantage of semi active suspension. The Yamaha doesn’t feature semi-active suspension in standard trim level (it is however available in R1M trim) but offers even more electronics than the BMW, including an IMU that enables “slide control”. Without getting into a PSA about street riding and public road safety, we have to draw the line in that sophisticated features like “slide control” are really of no benefit, even for aggressive street riding and that only a very experienced track rider could actually begin to tap into this feature’s potential.
Again, what we have here is more evidence about each bike’s intended purpose with Yamaha raising the bar even further for high caliber closed circuit enthusiasts and club racers.
This criteria inevitably leads to a philosophical discussion about why people ride. The feeling we get from a bike is inspired by multiple factors and aesthetics is one of them. For some, it’s everything, for others, it’s secondary to performance. Variety, it’s the spice of life and makes us all different.
There is no denying the sex appeal of a well designed sportbike. Its smooth lines, framed by a race fairing and its low, attack-ready stance. Sportbikes look fast when standing still and conjure up emotions from every Moto GP race and Isle of Man TT we’ve ever dreamed of. From the guy we’ve all made fun of who rides his superbike 2 miles to the coffee shop every Sunday (to then wash it and park it back in his garage), to the club racer who dreams of tenths coming off his fastest lap time; Superbikes are timeless and for some, that matters more than any performance, ergonomic or economic criteria.
The supernaked is an excercise in excess. Designed for street riding first, no one “needs” the amount of power they make and their aesthetics usually echoes that thinking in a visceral way: an exercise in excess. They’re the rebels and the of the motorcycling world, originally inspired by fairing-less, post-wreck sportbikes and have come into their own with more refined lines and an increasing array of dictated hard parts.
Indeed, beauty is in the eye of the beholder so far be it from us to tell you which looks better.
In the end, you could substitute Yamaha with most any other superbike and the BMW with the bevy of other Supernaked contenders. What was evidenced from our street test is that these categories of bikes are intended for different purposes. A superbike such as Yamaha’s newest R1 is a track weapon first. In the right hands, it will exhibit moments of brilliance during street riding, while exposing weaknesses when it comes to ergonomics (and often economics, as evidenced by fuel consumption and insurance rates). A Supernaked offers most (often all) of the performance of its superbike counterparts with much more homosapien-friendly ergos, yet leaving a small performance gap that is only exposed when ridden at the highest pace.
Thus, answering our original question about whether you should buy an sportbike or a supernaked: logic and data point to naked bikes being significantly more suitable for the majority of riders. That could explain the recent boom in production naked bike models, with every manufacturer now having one or more candidates in their brand stable. Data also shows that the emergence of the supernaked category has largely been at the expense of the sportbike category so riders are voting with their wallets.
In the end, motorcycle ownership and the experience of owning and riding a bike is as individual as the type of food you prefer or the sports team you cheer for. And for that reason, sportbikes will continue to have a place on the street, even if they were designed for the track.
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