For a long time the adventure bike landscape was dominated by big displacement motorcycles – primarily the BMW GS.
Over the past two decades (actually since its inception), we’ve seen the GS grow in engine size to its current 1250cc displacement – and soon to be 1300.
With bigger engines usually come overall bigger motorcycles, and while the GS (and its competitors) offer a lot of performance and capability despite their size, you can’t deny these bikes are simply huge and intimidating.
This has opened the door for manufacturers to introduce middleweight adventure bikes, such as Ducati with its DesertX and KTM with its 890 Adventure R. These models use smaller engines, and are thus physically smaller as well, to provide a more manageable riding experience – one some would even say is more enjoyable!
While we’re not here to tell you which one is better than the other, this guide is going to break down the differences between heavyweight and middleweight adventure bikes.
Once you have a better understanding of what each size offers – and doesn’t offer – you can make a more informed decision on which is right for you.
Despite the resurgence of the middleweight category, the heavyweight class is still the flagship of most manufacturer’s adventure lineup. We’ll use the venerable GS as our example, but the concepts generally apply to other bikes as well.
The big-displacement GS is the model BMW introduces its latest tech into first. It still has to make a splash wherever it goes (figuratively and literally).
The list of technologies BMW has introduced in the big GS is too long to list here, but it is fair to say the flagship GS usually gives a taste of what’s to come in the smaller middleweight siblings to come.
Of course, the most obvious advantage is bigger engines mean more power. And who doesn’t like more power?
Assuming you have the skill set to handle it, bigger engines and added power help do more of the work for you so you can be a little lazy at times. It always helps to know proper techniques, but sometimes, especially when you’re tired, you simply want to use the throttle to help you out of a situation.
The bigger physical presence of the bigger bikes usually means larger fairings and bodywork, which translates into better wind protection when you’re cruising along at highway speeds.
Over the course of a tour, the wind blast can wear you out. Having the fairings and bodywork divert some of that air for you is a benefit we sometimes take for granted.
Lastly, the big ADV bikes are usually the models that get attention from the aftermarket first. This is a big deal in the ADV world, as any new model is never perfect right off the showroom floor.
Having the first crack at accessories that will let you venture farther, faster, more comfortably, or with better protection is a big point in the Pro’s column.
The biggest downside to heavyweight ADV bikes is right there in the adjective – they’re heavyweight. There’s no getting around the fact that motorcycles like the BMW R1250 GS or KTM 1290 Super Adventure, and other bikes like it, are physically big and heavy.
If you’re not ready for it the extra heft can be a lot to handle, especially if you fall. Even experienced riders can have a hard time wielding the extra heft of these big machines.
As far as we know, when you’re riding off-road, any rider would prefer to have an easier, more nimble bike to handle.
While this is dependent on the rider and the conditions, generally speaking, the bigger bikes can go through consumables faster. Think tires, brake pads, and fuel. More power and weight translates into more work for the tires and brakes. And bigger engines are usually more thirsty, too.
Another thing to consider: your big adventure bike might be more money to insure. Many people don’t think about insurance when they’re factoring all the variables in their buying decision, and sometimes the difference is negligible, but its possible insurance for a big bike could be large enough to consider its middleweight alternative.
On the topic of money, there’s also another big difference between heavyweights and middleweights – price! This one should have been obvious from the start, but the bigger bike is going to cost more than the smaller one. Sometimes that price difference can be huge, especially if you load it with every option on the spec sheet.
The biggest advantage the middleweight ADVs have is their smaller size. This smaller, more manageable stature is less intimidating to ride, less intimidating to pick back up if you fall, and overall more manageable.
Manufacturers know riders are still looking to have a similar thrill as they did with their larger bikes (if that’s where they came from), and these middleweight engines still deliver a lot of power riders can enjoy.
Heavyweights might get the latest electronics first, but considering the popularity of the middleweight class right now, manufacturers are outfitting these middleweights with very similar – if not, exactly the same – electronics.
Then again, if you hate rider aids, Yamaha has made things simple with the Yamaha Tenere 700 – it doesn’t have any electronics at all!
Picking up on the consumables theme from the heavyweight list, it’s natural to assume middleweights will be a little easier on your wallet when it comes to consumables. Lighter weight and less power should stress tires and brake pads less, while a smaller engine size generally means you’ll get better fuel efficiency too.
Middleweights are also easier on the wallet when it comes to the initial purchase. The whole point of the middleweight class is to have a more attractive option compared to heavyweights, and that also includes a lower price tag.
Beyond the purchase price, you might also get lucky and have an insurance carrier that will charge you less for the smaller bike as well.
While we don’t think it’s a negative, there are always some people out there who want maximum horsepower. If that’s you, the middleweights could be a letdown.
The smaller stature of the middleweight class could also mean less protection from the elements. A physically smaller motorcycle means the bodywork and windscreen could also be smaller and less effective. Keep this in mind if wind protection is a major concern for you.
Unfortunately, the middleweights meet a certain price point by sacrificing somewhere. Usually, this means inferior suspension or brakes.
These are usually the first thing the aftermarket will tackle, but if you’re critical about such things, having a subpar set of forks or brakes could put a damper on your next ride.
The differences between heavyweights and middleweights may have been something you’ve considered before, but when you see a list of pros and cons laid out like this, you come to realize that the middleweights don’t suffer too much compared to the heavyweight siblings.
Consider this a testament to the manufacturers for being able to build such capable middleweights that offer nearly the same amount of performance – and arguably more fun – than the bigger heavyweights.
Riders have started to learn that wrestling a heavy adventure bike can be daunting and exhausting, making middleweights a viable alternative. Then again, capable and experienced riders looking for the biggest, baddest ADV out there will definitely be happy with the big bike choices out there.
After viewing the list above, hopefully, you can make a more informed decision about which is right for you.