Dual-purpose adventure motorcycles have enjoyed steadily increasing sales recently, and most of the really appealing models are on display at the Johannesburg International Motor Show from 8 to 16 October.

Motorcycles at the Johannesburg Motor Show

For many riders the best possible motorcycle is a dual-purpose machine that can easily out accelerate virtually any car on the road to 160 km/h, cruise on tar at high speed, and transport the rider and passenger across continents on below-par dirt roads that most of their countrymen don’t even know exist.

European manufacturers Aprilia, BMW, KTM and Triumph are currently locked in a fierce battle with the Japanese big four comprising Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha for market share, and visitors to Africa’s biggest motoring extravaganza to be staged at Expo Centre, Nasrec, will be able to see just about every dual-purpose motorcycle available in South Africa on display.

Motorcycles at the Johannesburg Motor Show 2011

The perfect adventure motorcycle would ideally weigh in at about 160 kg, be big enough to comfortably accommodate two people and their luggage, have a top speed of at least 220 km/h, offer a fuel range of 500 km and, in the hands of a reasonably skilled rider, be capable of keeping up with superbikes on a nice winding tar road.

Because it would be virtually impossible to satisfy all of those demands with one machine, the available options are all compromises in one way or another. Generally speaking, the bigger bikes with engines of a litre plus capacity and top speeds of over 200 km/h are at their best on tar, but their extra weight – usually more than 200 kg dry – makes them less nimble in the dirt.

Motorcycles at the Johannesburg International Motor Show 2011

Johannesburg Expo Centre, 6 – 16 October 2011

The smallest, lightest true adventure bikes with 650cc single cylinder engines weigh perhaps 50kg less and are around 50 km/h slower but their lower power outputs make them less useful on hardtop roads and their smaller dimensions mean they’re potentially less comfortable on long trips when laden with two people and their luggage.

Then we have the growing number of 2- and 3-cylinder bikes in the 650 to 800cc class that many people view as the best all-round packages, with performance, size and weight smack in between the 650 single and litre-plus bikes.  BMW, Triumph, Suzuki and Honda all offer adventure bikes in this category.

Rugby Girls at the Show

Most mainstream importers sell bikes in the 650cc single cylinder class at prices ranging from R50 000 to R95 000.    These are extremely reliable and powerful enough to carry a rider and passenger with luggage across South Africa without too much fuss – the more back roads, preferably dirt, included in the route, the more at home the motorcycle will feel.

Aprilia’s Pegaso 650, BMW’s G650GS, Honda’s XR650, Kawasaki’s KLR 650 and Suzuki’s DR650 are all easily capable of crossing fairly rugged terrain – think Sani Pass – without breaking into a sweat, and all are able to travel long distances on tar at 130 km/h or so without problem.

The best news about the three Japanese offerings is that they’re all very affordable, being priced at under R60 000. The air-cooled Honda at R49 900 is the cheapest of the lot, and is more dirt-focussed than the others, while the R58 995 liquid-cooled   Kawasaki is the best of the three for covering hundreds of kilometres on tar before hitting the gravel.

Celebrities at the Johannesburg Motor Show

Suzuki’s DR650, also aircooled, sits cheerfully in the middle in terms of on and off road balance as well as price, at R55 000. From Europe we have the Aprilia Pegaso 650 at R83 250, the BMW G650 GS at R88 500 and at the top of the heap the 690cc fuel-injected KTM 690 Enduro, a state-of-the-art dirt-focused performance motorcycle that far outperforms the rest in the rough but doesn’t really fit in on highways or around town. The KTM retails at around R95 000.

Next up come the twin and triple cylinder machines that are the most versatile all-round motorcycles in the already versatile world of adventure bikes. Both Suzuki and Honda offer V-twin motorcycles of 650 and 700c respectively, each capable of easily travelling long distances on tar or dirt in comfort.

The Suzuki DL650 V-Strom kicks off at R78 000 (R83 000 with ABS brakes) and the 700cc Honda Transalp at R87 000. The British Triumph factory offers a pair of 800cc three cylinder machines – the Triumph Tiger 800 and the more dirt capable Tiger 800XC – at R104 500 and R109 500 respectively, both with ABS brakes.

Also representing Europe is the German giant BMW, with two 800cc parallel twin dual-purpose motorcycles. The F650GS is actually an 800cc machine tuned for less power than the equal capacity F800GS, and it kicks off at about R18 000 less than the F800GS’s base price of R106 700.

When it comes to the crème de la crème of adventure bikes Europe rules the roost, with BMW and KTM sharing the honours.  BMW’s 1200cc horizontally opposed R1200GS twins are available in standard GS and Adventure variants, with the Adventure model being more suitable for hard-core adventure riding over rough terrain.

Pricing ranges from R136 600 for the basic GS to R156 858 for a full-house Adventure with traction control, tyre pressure monitors, 15-way adjustable electronic suspension and countless other features.  The similarly priced 990cc KTM V-twins are more focussed desert racer type machines but less road capable and less comfortable than the easy-going BMWs; fans of either marque swear by them.

South Africa is possibly the best country in the world for adventure biking, because it’s possible to go places that feel a thousand kilometres away from civilisation within 20 minutes of leaving the city and the tarmac. With motorcycling as popular as it is and a strong dealer network for all marques, riders are spoilt for choice when deciding on a dual-purpose motorcycle, whatever their budgetary constraints.