MD Opinion: (Can't Get) Home on the Range?

August 29, 2011


Isn’t it time that someone in the motorcycle business, anyone, tried to reverse a trend in motorcycle fuel-tank size and carrying capacity that seriously affects motorcycling?

A basic criterion for a sportbike ride, given an ergonomics package acceptable for physical endurance, is range. Next to that need is the ability to carry a modest amount of gear—say, a change of clothes—leathers, jeans, underwear, sneakers, cell phone and bottle of water. Considered here, primarily, are the 600-1000cc bikes that are among the most popular sold. Though a tiny proportion end up on the track, most are bought by riders who seek utility as well as sport pleasure. They want to go places, not just beat up the nearest twisty. Secondarily, we should include ‘cruisers’ that are notoriously short legged.

For sportbikes, lack of range is a serious problem. One hundred miles is much too short a range (straight out or 50 miles out and back to a gas station), 125 miles is marginal and 150 miles the minimal acceptable distance a rider should be able to go, riding at his or her safety level on roads sufficiently remote that conflicts with civilian traffic are minimal while using the motorcycle to its design specifications: fast, with a lot of pinned throttle.

Most of today’s sportbikes, ridden aggressively to limits acceptable on remote public highways, deliver, at most, 100-125 miles of range to reserve. They are designed and built in Japan or Europe, where longer range doesn’t matter much. In the U.S, particularly in the West, it does matter. A lot.

All the latest middleweight and open-class sportbikes are great motorcycles that can be ridden fast for 6-8 hours, as they are designed to be ridden. At fuel-consumption levels these bikes deliver on wide throttle openings—roughly 25 mpg for the open-classers, 30 mpg for the middleweights, at best, on four-gallon tanks—a rider can go about 85 to 110 miles before risking running out of gas. If you’re more than 10-15 miles from a gas station (25 if you baby it—.ed), after riding those distances, prepare to walk.

Back off the throttle, negating the bikes’ purpose, and you get 110-135 mile ranges. Drone for maximum economy (why buy such a bike?) and you might get 135-150 miles at best. Most sportbikes are miserable to ride slowly.

Consider, in evaluating the above range, a typical popular motorcycle road for California sportbike riders, ridden by thousands annually: Highway 58. Check the map. It comes in from the Arizona state line, passes through Buttonwillow on I-5 (gas stations), becomes ‘interesting’ at McKittrick (no gas station) and ends at Santa Margarita (no gas station), where it meets Highway 101. You must ride 12 miles further, to Atascadero, for gas. Los Angeles-area riders typically take 33 through Taft to McKittrick. Buttonwillow and Taft are each 90-plus miles from Atascadero.

A sport-bike rider using the full performance of a sport bike cannot get from Buttonwillow or Taft to Atascadero reliably. Starting from Atascadero and riding east, a rider must turn round long before the ‘interesting’ road goes straight, or run out of gas. A favorite turnaround spot is the so-called ‘Dinosaur Ranch,’ 70 miles from Atascadero. An enthusiastic rider cannot turn ’round there but must continue into Taft for fuel (if he or she can get there), unacceptably lengthening the day’s ‘interesting’ ride. This is only one of many roads that cannot be ridden comfortably in the American West on typical modern, range-limited sport bikes.

Reverting to the popular Ducati 1198 and 848, among the most desirable bikes sold, with four-gallon tanks, it should not take engineering genius to add two gallons of fuel (the 851 and 888 of blessed memory had 5.2-gallon tanks). Two gallons would add 16 pounds to the wet weight but would extend their range to the minimum acceptable length, ridden to design capability.

The Ducatis are only examples: most of today’s high-performance sportbikes have identical range problems. Honda’s and Suzuki’s big V-Twins of the 1990s were similarly afflicted and did not become market leaders. The ‘new, improved’ Honda VFR1200 has a range, including reserve, of about 160 miles and its tank is less than five gallons.

Turning to the cruisers, this test rider had to ferry an H-D Street Rod from San Francisco to the H-D Press shop in Los Angeles and bring back an 883. Going down on I-5 (no back roads were feasible—no gas), with gas stations often 35-40 miles apart, one had to stop frequently—about every 60-65 miles—or risk running dry. On the 883, with its tiny peanut tank, some of the ‘Next gas 30 miles’ warnings meant stopping even more often. These were difficult trips, yet not at all atypical of the kinds of riding many owners would want to undertake.

When will manufacturers step up and give us range? Is it too much to ask?

Carrying a small amount of gear is yet another issue most manufacturers give little or no thought to addressing. On most sport bikes, there isn’t even storage space for a credit card. Yet even vestigial thought would provide space. If, as we observe, bikes will start to use under-engine mufflers (as Buell did), providing a small storage space in the tail should be well within the capabilities of engineers who can coax  more than 120 hp from 600cc engines.

Designers, start your brains.

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