Why don’t we go to Baja more often? Well, one reason is the manufacturers want us to get special dispensation before we take their bikes to a foreign country, you need to buy Mexican insurance, everybody speaks a weird language down there, you can’t drink the water… those are all really easy obstacles to overcome, and I’m told you can drink the Baja water now.
In fact there are no good reasons not to go, most things are 50% off – and when a couple of people mentioned to me the recently chic Ruta de Vino, or Wine Route, inland from Ensenada, well, when do we go? Baja is perfect for testing these three little ADV bikes: It’s only a couple hours of freeway from SoCal down almost to the border, followed by a bit of nice, twisty two-lane east to cross at Tecate instead of Tijuana. Naturally, since we were all careful to have all our papers in order, we didn’t need any of them to get in. We were the only ones who wanted in to Tecate. A gate went up and a green light went on, no human attendant in sight. Welcome to Mexico, land of taking it slow, manãna, and many dirt roads and sandy beaches to explore. Also wine.
Who knew that in the Valle de Guadalupe, only a couple hours south of Tecate and on the way to Ensenada, there are 64 wineries, many of which have been producing great wines for over 100 years, thanks to the dedication of a bunch of Italians, Spaniards and Russian vintners who are intent on making this valley the next Napa. On the cheap. Highway 3, a nice two-lane which runs rights through it all, is perfectly suited to the 65-or so mph rhythm all three of these little bike fall naturally into, an excellent change of pace from the 80-85 mph California freeways insist upon. None of the three bikes really distinguished itself from the others on the ride down as being anything other than perfectly acceptable. For an all-day high-speed run, you’d definitely be happier on something bigger with cruise control, but for a couple hours the little ADV bikes are fine; all engines are counterbalanced, and none of them vibrate enough to mention.
As usual, my dream of a leisurely roll through a few wineries for a quick swill (and spit!) taste test were dashed by the need to ride the hell out of the Royal Enfield Himalayan, Versys X-300 and new BMW G 310 GS, shoot video, and get where we were going before dark – God forbid anybody should put up a street sign or street light in the Baja outback. Where we were getting to was the hotel/resort Posada Balaprada, which sounded and looked much more exotic and resort-like at booking.com than it did when we got there. (Why I didn’t check Airbnb I’ll never know.)
It’s like I told Brent, Ryan and Sean (as well as my own child Ryan when I booked us into the Laura Motel in Coalinga on the way back from Calistoga last month), an important part of travel is to experience a little hardship and poverty now and then in order to appreciate the finer things. In any case, Mary’s casa got us off onto some nice dirt roads, and the Greek food down at Dimitri’s on Highway 3 was really good.
Anyway, it was all good. Sean packed up his camera gear on the Triumph Tiger 1200 pack mule, and we were off as usual at the crack of 11. Maybe it’s the slowed-down nature of Mexico, and maybe it’s because all our destinations in northern Baja were pretty dang close to each other. Little bikes encourage you to bite off smaller chunks of country. Ensenada was right down the road, on the Pacific coast of northern Baja, not more than about 60 miles from the US border.
The Kawasaki is the all-around best-put-together motorcycle here, with the best systems integration – but it’s also got the hardest seat and running that many rpm all the time, no matter how smooth they are, takes a slight mental toll, kind of like keeping track of a hyper chihuahua.
Brent says: “Despite having the smallest engine displacement of the three (296cc), the Kawasaki Versys X-300 actually made the most power. The motor also revved the smoothest, and kept pulling consistently all the way up to its redline. This made the Versys the most freeway capable bike of the three when cruising at 80 mph or more. It just had that little extra in its tank to pull a little harder than the others.”
The BMW’s not bad at all, and its lower handlebar gives it better ergos for freeway use, which is not so good for standing up on dirt roads. Its rear shock was super soft until we jacked up the preload, which then highlighted how soft its front end is every time you roll off the gas or get hard on the front brake.
And the Royal Enfield, though definitely rough around the edges compared to the other two bikes, was perfectly acceptable. Down on horsepower to the Kawi and the BMW, and all out of rpm way before either of them, at just 6500, the Himalayan nevertheless uses its bigger displacement and most torque to mostly hang right with the others, if in a more agricultural way.
The RE only won one Subjective category on our scorecard, but possibly the most important one – Ergonomics/Comfort – where it beat down the other bikes’ 80.8% ratings with a solid 85%. The RE’s suspension racked up a solid 80.8 also, behind the Versys but 10 points ahead of the wonky BMW, which really ought to know better with those GS letters on its plastic.
Ryan says: “22 hp is kind of a bummer, but the Himalayan will do 85 just fine and with 22 lb-ft of torque, it chugs along somewhat reminiscent of a tractor. It’ll getchya there, and force you to go slow enough to take in the sights along the way. The Himalayan feels comfortable sitting or standing and as long as you’re not always on the freeway or drag racing (ask Brent how that went), the bike will do just fine, albeit at a slower pace, which could be seen as a benefit.
“It gives everyone around you the chance to see how cool you look. There’s style for miles. I love the looks of the Himalayan. The retro-British exploration bike makes me feel like Indiana Jones, constantly on the hunt for the next adventure: High-crowned, wide-brimmed sable fedora and bullwhip not included. The rack and side bars are perfectly functional, offering points to strap and tie down all of the shit you think you need to bring with you.”
As we rumbled into, okay more sewing machined into Ensenada – if any of these bikes has a stimulating soundtrack, I’d say it’s the BMW’s higher-revving Single, which semi-sounds like a high-performance thumper through your earplugs once past about 5000 rpm.
I remember how disappointed I was the first time I got to Cannery Row in Monterey to find it was nothing like Steinbeck described it in the novel. On the outskirts of Ensenada, I got what I’ve been missing all these years – a mixture of rotting and fresh fish, backed-up sewer, old seawater, rust, prowling tomcat, diesel and impoverished armpit all roiling above the dusty, cracked asphalt in a cloud of smell you could almost see. Ahhhhh…
In Ensenada proper, though, we might as well have been back in SoCal in a nice little beach town – if you were able to ride your off-road vehicles around in SoCal, anyway. Who knew the Baja 500 was about to kick off that weekend? (Brent claims he did.) The town was packed with guys about to blast off in their trophy trucks, a thousand Polaris Razors and 5,000 dirtbikes – so it was nice to be able to pick our way nimbly through all of it on our mostly sub-400-pound ADV machines and find a taco.
An hour north of Ensenada brings us to La Salina, a gated community of nice houses with a private beach. Slipping 200 pesos to a guy who claimed to be security, but may have been just a dude who emerged from the bar, gains us entree to a long, private beach with four or five people and a couple of dogs strewn upon its five-or-so mile length.
For beach riding, I think the only bike you really don’t want is the Triumph Tiger 1200, but Matic got it up and down to the waterline anyway. The others are a hoot, though none of them were mounting the kind of tires that would’ve made riding in sand a bit easier. It didn’t much matter. Once down where the sand is wet and hard-packed, it’s all gravy, though I think I fell over on each bike at least once anyway. They’re all easy enough to pick back up.
The Kawasaki’s narrower handlebar gives less confidence on loose surfaces and its tires are the streetiest, but its 384-pound light weight and lowish seat make it easy to paddle across the burning sands and the nice, Pacific-cooled ones as well.
The Himalayan’s at home at the beach too, with its 21-inch front Pirelli, low seat and superb ergos. Its heaviest weight of the bunch, though, and the fact that it really could’ve used a bit more horsepower in the sand, kept it from being our favorite.
Kickstand shmickstand. The GS has less windscreen than the other two but buffets your head less as a result. Its 2.9-gallon tank is the smallest, and slows down the rest of the pack. The Beemer’s got the best brakes, and you can switch off its ABS. On the beach…
… Brent seemed to enjoy himself most on the BMW: “Although the dyno chart doesn’t exactly back it up, the BMW G 310 GS felt like it made the most torque, which made taking off from stops a lot of fun. The Royal Enfield actually makes more, but perhaps it was the gearing of the lower cogs that made the Beemer feel snappier. I also really like the clutch feel of the GS; the feel at the lever provides the most direct connection between the motor and tranny. The friction zone feels the most crisp. On the other two, the feel is a little drawn out and also a little vague. The BMW’s suspension see-sawed the most of the three bikes. It rides real nice while cruising, but as soon as you hit the brakes, the front end dives considerably. Also, the ergonomics are a little funky. The footpegs are a little too far forward.”
Bill the Motonation guy, had suggested La Salina as the beach to ride, which was spot-on, and by the time we were packed up, we decided to hit up another suggestion of his, Gary’s La Fonda Hotel & Restaurant, not far north up Highway 1. Eureka! For $75 a night (cash), you’re in a rustic, not run-down, oceanfront room in a small establishment, the rest of which consists of a big bar surrounded by a big restaurant under a huge palapa.
Gary’s is neither Ensenada nor Rosarito, but in a “tourism zone” between those cities, so if you get tired of Gary’s food and drink, there are quite a few others in strolling range. The week after Memorial Day, we had no reservations and the place largely to ourselves. When I asked about a secure place to leave the bikes, Guillermo the manager had us pull them inside the front courtyard and locked up the big gate behind them for the night.
After that leisurely morning ride up the beach and big plates of Mexican food on the ocean deck, we caught up on the comforts of home we’d pined for our first night at Mary’s, cozying up to the bar inside to watch hockey on the big screen after the sun had set and it was chilly and dark outside.
Hockey segued into an excellent and very graphic documentary about Komodo dragons mating, which made us drink one more margarita, maybe two, and miss our mamasitas in el Norte. We stuck Ryan with the bar tab; it was $46 for the four of us… yes, yes I like it here.
Back in our room, Sean and I left the screen door to our private deck open but latched so the sea breeze could get in but not the banditos. Not that we saw any. There was plenty of free firewood if we wanted a fire in our fireplace, but it was time for the sandman. With mother ocean rocking us to sleep and great firm mattresses (there was a King in our room and a Twin bed), I slept like a dead man and wouldn’t have been seriously disappointed to wake up one.
And yet, duty calls. Thankfully, by the time we made more video magic over breakfast and got on the road north to Tijuana, we didn’t have much time to spend there. Even the other residents of Baja have nothing nice to say about TJ, of which I am sure there must be nice parts which are nowhere in evidence on the way to the border crossing. The road that gets you to TJ from down south, though, the toll Highway 1D, is almost as nice as any expressway you’d find in Germany or Spain. A nice new VW Passat passed us doing 90; a few miles down the road it was upside down off the right side of the road, because? Mexico. Whatever they do to keep the population down, I think I approve.
South of Tijuana and all the way down to Rosarito, high-rise condo developments are springing up all along the beach. I keep telling people the Mexicans need to support Trump’s wall – not to keep Mexicans out of the US but to keep all us deadbeat gringos out of Mexico in a few years. I’ll be needing a cheap condo on the beach and a good earlybird special…
Usually we’re all about splitting hairs to deduce the best motorcycle, but Baja put the focus more on the riding experience. I think I’m with Brent J.: “Whenever we do a shootout, there’s almost always a bike that I favor over the others. This time, I think I liked each bike equally. There were definitely certain aspects I liked better hopping from one bike onto another, but overall, for me, there wasn’t really a clear-cut winner. You really can’t go wrong by choosing either of these bikes over the others. Each bike has its strengths, but there were definitely shortcomings that ultimately leveled the playing field, none of which are deal breakers.”
And yet, there have to be weeners and losers, Senor. Here’s how the Scorecard scores it:
#3 Royal Enfield Himalayan 76.08%
Brent: “The Royal Enfield surprised me the most. Going into this shootout, we all felt like the Himalayan would be the underdog, and I didn’t have the highest expectations for it, but after jumping between the three, I was the most impressed by it. Sure, it’s a little sluggish compared to the others, but it’s really comfortable and also more rugged feeling, which if you plan on doing any off-roading (which you totally should), is a good thing. I also really liked that it has a compass built into the dash, though it definitely needs to be recalibrated. Overall, the only place the Himalayan faltered was in the power department, but it did everything else without complaints. I was always happy to throw a leg over the Himalayan.”
Yeah, me too. The Himalayan was doing everything right provided you didn’t want to go faster than 85 mph, but when we went to pull back out of a rest stop after our final stop back in the suddenly way overcrowded Estados Unidos, she wouldn’t engage first gear anymore. RE says it may just be the shift drum detent. We’re waiting to hear back as we go to press, but we had to mark her down severely in the Clutch/Trans category just the same. Barring the transmission calamity, the RE would’ve finished much closer to the…
#2 BMW G 310 GS 82.19%
Not a bad effort for BMW’s first made-in-India bike, but with a couple of missteps including suspension that’s just tooooo soft for us tortilla-fed Americans, and… well, that’s the only thing that’s really wrong with it. Handlebar risers should be easy enough if you want to be able to stand up offroad, and the 313cc thumper’s a bit flat in the middle but feels like it would respond well to a little tuning to wake it up. Ryan would like more wind protection, which is a thing that’s also easily addressed. For real adventuring, that 2.9-gallon tank and 150-mile range might not be enough. Apart from those things, we all like the way the BMW looks and its general, shrunk-down GS demeanor – what do you want from Munich for $4 less than the…
Numero Uno Winnah! Kawasaki Versys X-300 84.62%
Ryan A.: “Even as the Kawi revved higher than the other bikes on the freeway, it never sounded as if it was being tortured which I can’t say for the other two. The parallel Twin in the Versys-X provides the most horsepower (and the least torque), all the while feeling the most refined out of the group. Ergos are entirely neutral while sitting, providing a comfortable rider triangle, though while standing, the bars feel a bit narrow, reminiscent of one of Brent’s choppers with a 12-inch wide handlebar. The biggest miss is the rock-hard seat. With a more comfortable seat, you could burn through its projected 225-mile range with ease.
“Since the only suspension adjustment on these three is rear preload, it’s important to have things working well straight from the factory, and the Kawi gets my vote. While having the least travel, the Versys has the best tuned suspension, well-damped, not overly-harsh on or off-road, just perfectly in the middle for the most broad range of use.”
It’s true. Apart from the hard seat, there’s nothing not to like about the littlest Versys and plenty to love including the world’s lightest clutch pull and the least weight in this group (it holds 9 pounds more fuel than the BMW). The little Twin does need a lot of revs all the time, but you get used to that and it’s no problem; an eighth-turn throttle would make it perfect. The only thing that would make it more perfect would be if Kawasaki sticks in the Ninja 400 motor next year. D’oh.
If they do, we’ll have to go back to Ensenada. Play us out, amigos.
|Lightweight ADV Shootout ScoreCard|
|BMW G310GS||Kawasaki Versys-X 300||Royal Enfield Himalayan|
|Total Objective Scores||91.0%||90.6%||89.3%|
|Quality, Fit & Finish||80.8%||83.3%||72.5%|
|John’s Subjective Scores||81.7%||84.4%||70.0%|
|Brent’s Subjective Scores||80.0%||84.2%||76.0%|
|Ryan’s Subjective Scores||78.3%||80.8%||72.3%|
|BMW||Versys X||Royal Enfield|
|Type||310cc DOHC liquid-cooled Single-cylinder||296cc DOHC liquid-cooled parallel Twin||411cc SOHC air-cooled Single-cylinder|
|Bore and Stroke||80.0 x 62.1mm||62.0 x 49.0mm||78.0 x 86.0mm|
|Fuel System||Electronic fuel injection, Euro 4||Electronic fuel injection; two 32mm throttle bores||Eectronic fuel injection|
|Valve Train||DOHC; 4 valves, finger-type cam followers||DOHC, 4-valve/cyl.||SOHC; 2 valves, screw/locknut adjusters|
|Transmission||Constant-mesh 6-speed||Constant-mesh 6-speed||Constant-mesh 5-speed|
|Final Drive||O-ring chain||O-ring chain||O-ring chain|
|Front Suspension||41mm inverted fork; 7.1-in. travel||Telescopic fork; 5.1-in. travel||41mm telescopic fork; 7.9-in. travel|
|Rear Suspension||Single shock; adjustable spring preload; 7.1-in. travel||Uni-Trak single shock; 5.8-in. travel||Single shock, linkage-type; 7.1-in. travel|
|Front Brake||300mm disc; 4-piston caliper; switchable ABS||Single disc, non-switchable ABS||300mm disc; 2-piston caliper|
|Rear Brake||240mm disc; 1-piston caliper||Single disc, non-switchable ABS||240mm disc; 1-piston caliper|
|Front Tire||110/80 R 19 tube type||100/90-19||90/90 – 21 tube type|
|Rear Tire||150/70 R 17 tube type||130/80-17||120/90 – 17 tube type|
|Rake/Trail||26.7°22’ / 98mm (3.9 in.)||24° / 109mm (4.3 in.)||26.5 deg/ 110mm (4.3 in)|
|Wheelbase||55.9 in.||57.1 in.||57.7 in.|
|Seat Height||High Seat: 33.5″, Standard: 32.9″, Low Seat: 32.3″||32.1 in.||31.5 in.|
|Curb Weight||380 lbs.||384 lbs.||430 lbs.|
|Fuel Capacity||2.9 gal.||4.5 gal.||4.0 gal.|