Nothing you’ve been told about power will prepare you for this year’s crop of motorcycles. Manufacturers have broken the gas ceiling, offering ready-to-wear 200-horsepower bikes. In some cases they’ve rediscovered the power of cool—the subtle and the sexy. Want a ride? Here are our picks for 2012.
When Triumph rose from the ashes in the 1990s, it refused to capitalize on its past as the hip bike of the 1960s. Instead, the company made kickass, thoroughly modern motorcycles. When the Brit brand finally decided to go retro, it did so with style. Steve McQueen rides a Triumph TR6 Trophy—painted to look like a Nazi bike—in The Great Escape. That movie is probably the reason you’re reading this article and why Triumph issued this signature model. The Steve McQueen special is a Bonneville T100 painted matte khaki green with black frame, headlight and mirrors, spoked wheels and a solo seat with a luggage rack. Only 1,100 signature models will be released. Barbed-wire fence optional.
Claudio Castiglioni was a design genius, a giant in the industry. He bought struggling Ducati in 1985 and revived the brand. Today it’s a powerhouse. He purchased MV Agusta in 1991 and performed similar magic, eventually selling the company to Harley. Before his death in August, Castiglioni reacquired Agusta and launched mind-boggling models like the Brutale and the F3. The brand continues its comeback story with the money-is-no-object 185 mph bike seen here. The manufacturer boasts of “maniacal care of every detail”; the result is near perfection. Aerospace alloys abound. The bike has race-ready Öhlins shocks, Brembo monoblock radial brakes and Traction Control MKII with eight levels of adjustability. Riders can switch between two engine maps. Bonus: a 4-2-1-4 exhaust system that makes the tailpiece look like the Millennium Falcon. Beauty has never been this fast.
In the beginning, all bikes were naked. Then came fiberglass and streamlined, swoopy fairings. No one did bikes as sculpture, art you could ride, better than Ducati. But now the company is known for its bare-to-the-bone beauties—naked once again. The original Streetfighter (2009) was generally considered the sexiest motorcycle on the planet: all the naughty bits of the Superbike 1098, nude and on display. Now Ducati offers the same treatment on its midsize powerhouse. The younger brother of the Streetfighter offers radial-mount Brembo brakes, Marzocchi adjustable forks, a steel trellis frame and Ducati Traction Control—all the bells and wolf whistles you need.
BMW dominates the adventure-touring market with the iconic 1200 GS and the purebred F800. How many times can you watchLong Way Round before you succumb to the BMW bug? (Recognizing the market, Triumph and Honda both introduced big-brute adventure tourers last year.) For 2012 BMW offers two new versions of its 650—a street model and the purpose-driven Sertão for off-road addicts. Both are powered by a modest but muscular single cylinder. The Sertão will be called a beginner GS—but trust us, there is no such thing as a beginner’s motorcycle. Around town or lost in the outback, this is affordable fun.
Kawasaki set out to regain the crown of most powerful production bike ever, and it looks as if it succeeded. The ZX-14R—stock, right out of the box—clears a quarter mile in 9.71 seconds. Like the road itself, the fun never ends. With power comes great technology: ram air, a slipper clutch (no wheel hop) and KTRC traction control. For a decade, motorcycle companies have limited top speed to 185 mph—part of a gentleman’s agreement with European manufacturers. Most people who buy this bike will remap the engine, get rid of the speed governor and wet themselves. To hell with the euro.
WHEN HARLEY introduced the V-Rod in 2002, it rattled cages. This was not your grandfather’s Harley. This was a Euro bike, a sport bike in cruiser togs. It was water cooled, the ultimate heresy. Unleashed five years ago, the Night Rod Special—the most sinister looking of the V-Rod family—took the oomph of a Porsche-designed engine and harnessed it to a Michelin Scorcher rear tire. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the V-Rod in 2012, Harley added better suspension, lighter wheels and beefier braking to a new Night Rod Special. The real treat is the subtle styling cues—a slender fastback rear fender, a trick LED taillight and enough black to move the night.