2003 Touring cruiser motorcycle comparison bmw r1200cl, harley-davidson electra glide ultra classic, yamaha royal star venture motorcycle cruiser

And then there’s the BMW. It is, to use a simple declarative, weird. The bar ends are high and improbably flat, like some strange beach-cruiser bicycle’s, and the diminutive floorboards are high and far back. You can blame the Boxer engine if you must, but there’s just not much room in this configuration to provide proper, foot-forward ergonomics. Only our cruiser-newbie tester found any semblance of comfort on the BMW, claiming the more upright body position was preferable to the slouch.

Cruisers typically place you in a position that puts a lot of weight on the saddle, and touring cruisers, by definition, tend to do this for long stretches of time.

Again, the BMW received scorn for its comparatively rock-hard seat — "soft touch" covering and electric heating notwithstanding — and odd ergonomic layout. The other two are pretty much a wash; both the Harley and the Yamaha have deep, softly appointed seats with sufficiently firm underpinnings so that you’re never resting right on the seat pan. Good form here.

Allow us an entire paragraph on the demerits of BMW’s unique windscreen design. First understand that we received the taller of the two options, and that none of us is exactly ready to play in the NBA. That said, we all hated the V-slit screen. Imagine riding on a twisty road. You look straight through the notch most of the time, but you must peer through the upraised "bat ears" to see through the corner. Lean the bike over and the wing disappears from view — thank goodness. But if the next corner is going the other way, you must look back through the opposing raised section until you lean the bike well into that turn. And on it goes, with the pointy parts of the screen forever poking into and out of your view. Annoying is way too tame a description. Try again, BMW. Soon.

Once more, the Harley and the Yamaha are nearly tied, with the Ultra providing a shorter stock screen that most of us can see above without too much trouble and that provides very good wind protection with minimal buffeting. Moreover, the Harley’s lowers are larger and closer to the rider, so his shins and feet are better protected. And there’s the added bonus that you can remove these lowers without too much trouble, making the Harley the best for hot weather. (With the lowers in place, prepare to be boiled like a lobster when you’re in traffic.)

Overall, the Yamaha is close, with slightly less protection from the main fairing and more from the unpardonably tall windscreen. (Recall that our Alaska trip in 2000 gave us cause to chop the screen en route, and although a similar fate was averted in Baja, there was much talk…) As such, the Venture offers a slightly quieter ride at the expense of a big push of wind on your back and the necessity of always looking through the shield. Yamaha does offer a lower shield as a $161.95 option.

And how could it not be? The Venture packs the most power — 76.9 horsepower — from the middle-sized engine by dint of carrying around an extra pair of cylinders. But there’s more to the Venture’s appeal than the extra pots; the V4 hums along the main road with a subdued purr and virtually no vibration evident to rider or passenger. It packs just enough roll-on power to make downshifting an option, something that cannot be said for the Harley and doubly not so for the wheezy BMW. When you’re on a charge, the liquid-cooled engine seems more than willing. Yes, we’d love it if Yamaha had given the Venture all the beans you find in a can of V-Max, but in this crowd it’s fine, thanks.

In years past, Harleys have come in for appropriate criticism when the topic of horsepower came up. No longer. Although not overly potent — our bike produced 59.4 horsepower and 69.9 foot-pounds of torque — the Ultra seemed sprightly most of the time, the exceptions including long, steep grades tackled with heavy loads. We encountered a handful of occasions when we wanted more juice and, perhaps, a bit more rev range so we didn’t have to row the Harley’s hefty, clunky (though positive) gearbox. The Motor Company has worked hard on civilizing the fuel-injected Twin Cam 88. It starts right up, runs smoothly and returns decent fuel mileage. (On our trip, the Harley averaged 33.4 mpg over more than 2000 miles. The BMW was best at 38.1 mpg average and the Yamaha worst at 32.1 mpg. (A note about the BMW: We verified that the bike’s speedometer reads unusually fast, leading us to believe the odometer might be optimistic as well. Literally, your mileage may vary.)

Now it’s the BMW’s turn in the barrel. Although by the numbers the R1200CL isn’t so far behind in power, the bike feels dog-behind slow. Not just under harsh conditions, but pretty much all the time. What’s worse is the super-tall sixth gear, which simultaneously saps roll-on performance while inducing a terribly annoying throb from 70 to nearly 90 mph. In our view, BMW needs to pump up the horses, recut some shorter gears and generally go back to the drawing board with this setup.

With the oldest chassis and the least advanced running gear, the Harley might be expected to hold up the caboose position. No way. Although the suspension tends to work in sort, slightly spastic strokes — hurting the ride over choppy pavement — the bike gives back superior confidence and the air of utter unflappability. It turns when you ask it to turn, it has commendable cornering clearance — though the BMW has vastly more — and it is perhaps the best balance of straight-line stability and apex-searching fun. On a wish list, we’d include longer travel, more adept suspension and brakes with better feedback; they’re powerful but as numb as Uncle Lester.

Somewhere in the dark, cigarette-smoke-filled rooms of Yamaha engineering, someone decided to make the Venture the cush-king of the category. That’s a fine idea, but in the flesh it costs the bike a few points. Overall, the Venture feels soft, right on the verge of floaty, with feedback from the front end coming in for the lion’s share of complaints. Most of the time, you can tell what the front tire is doing, but then sometimes, for no apparent reason, you’d want to see if the bolts have fallen out of the handlebar mounts. Although the Harley bottoms its suspension with greater vigor than the Yamaha, the Venture does it more often. Maybe we need to whip that boy called compromise — on the flat, open road the Venture is the ride king, but it loses composure when you really start to push the pace.

Circular reasoning has once more put us in the BMW’s saddle with a perplexed expression. Here are the high points: The BMW’s chassis feels the most taut, with the most suspension travel and sophistication. Our heavier riders praised the R1200CL’s resistance to bottoming, while the wispy types complained of a coarse ride over some surfaces. Its steering is a mixed bag. You can make the R do what you ask, but the combination of a curiously fat front tire and the Telelever’s inherent numbness intercepts signals from the contact patch. Hello, who’s there? While the BMW’s brakes are the most powerful here, their Integral ABS makes them inscrutable. Pull a bit on the front-brake lever and you get almost no braking. Pull a bit harder and — wham! — the bike hits the metaphorical brick wall. Things are better with the oddly placed pedal, but even after a couple thousand miles none of us felt at home with BMW’s Next Greatest Technology.

We’re not the type to pull punches, so here it goes: Take a pass on the BMW. Even the most ardent Beemophiles will find little to love with this underpowered, overweight Boxer. It has its moments, for sure, but the package simply fails the critical tests. It’s too slow to be fun, is too quirky to be an easy step-up model and, despite its lowest-in-test price, can’t be considered a good value.

That leaves the Harley and the Yamaha on the top two steps of the podium. This is not an easy decision, but we’re going to give the nod to the Yamaha by a tortilla-thin margin. Why? It’s overall the most sophisticated, a position hard-earned by the excellent (yet totally down-to-earth) engine and an overall level of refinement that the Harley can’t quite match.

It could go the other way. Each of us declared the Harley to be the personal favorite, with the usual mealy-mouthed excuse of personality and "originality" overcoming power and suspension shortcomings and the higher price. Where the Venture can be shy and retiring, the Harley is out there, your best bud ordering another Negra Modelo and a big bowl of guacamole. You may have a headache in the morning, but at least you’ll remember what you did the night before.

I’m convinced this class of motorcycle is the closest thing to a car, but I was happy to have such room on a trip of this length. BMW’s CLC got all the looks, but the bike’s top-heaviness and surreal fairing make for unpredictable riding. A buzzy powerplant and a jerky ABS don’t inspire confidence either, which is a shame because the CLC’s steering is agreeably nimble. The Yamaha is smoother and tracks more predictably than its plump profile would have you believe, but the luxury liner of choice for me was the "Ultra Glide," with ergos that fit me perfectly. Its smooth, rangy powerband is unimpeachable, and my only complaint was lack of stopping power. I can’t justify one of these behemoths in my personal garage, but I wouldn’t say no to taking one on another high-mileage stint. Comfort can be addictive.

The Harley’s Twin Cam 88 engine isn’t overpowered, but it felt like a Pro Stock dragster compared to the utterly anemic BMW. And although the Yamaha is smoothest, the Harley felt like a blender after the lumpy, shuddering Beemer. Where the Harley’s handling was light and reassuring, the BMW’s was clunky and odd. In every way besides suspension compliance and outright braking power, the Harley waxes the BMW. Game over.

It’s no secret I’m fond of the Yamaha. I’ve put more than 25K miles on the bike since its release in 1999, and I consider it an excellent touring mount. However, each time it rolls out against the Glide it comes up a pinch short. It’s an apple and orange thing — and an intended juxtaposition in my opinion. One is nebulous and comfy as hell, while the other is hard-edged but sweetly predictable for its honesty with the road. There are riders for each. I would take either bike to Alaska and back. (Have, in fact.) The BMW, on the other hand, was a donkey bringing up the rear of this photo-finish horse race. Its short legs, finicky gate and overall lack of majesty left me unimpressed. If I were to buy one? It would be the Yamaha, for its Cadillac-like ride and groovy retro-style. You could also blame the reverse snob in me. I’m just not ready to follow.