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ADV BikesMid-Size ADV Matchup: BMW F850GS vs Triumph Tiger 800 XCa

Mid-Size ADV Matchup: BMW F850GS vs Triumph Tiger 800 XCa

 Long-time rivals go head-to-head after a recent revamp of their platforms.

Published on 05.28.2019
Adventure Motorcycle Comparo BMW F850GS vs Triumph Tiger 800
The adventure motorcycle segment has seen significant change in the diversity of its product offerings in recent years. While displacement one-upmanship continues at the far end of the cc spectrum, roughly 10 years ago a “middleweight” twin-cylinder category began gaining traction among adventure traveling enthusiasts.

In the early 2000’s, other than the KTM 950, most big adventure bikes were over 1,000cc. Around 2008, things began to change as BMW introduced the F800GS, and Triumph introduced the Tiger 800 a couple years later in 2010. Today, either V-twin or parallel-twin bikes dominate this sector, the Triumph being the outlier with its in-line triple powerplant. With recent updates to the Triumph Tiger 800 XCa and the release of the all-new BMW F850GS, we decided to take a fresh look at these long-term rivals. Read on to see how their latest iterations match up.

At First Glance

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo BMW F850GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCA

Aesthetics between these two bikes are left up to the eye of the beholder. Attempting to break down design aspects of each bike in a logical way, the Triumph has more symmetrical lines, where asymmetry has been built into BMW’s design philosophy for years. Svelte frame and crashbar bends on the Triumph meld together resulting in the Tiger looking like something Ducati might have built. The familiar “raised eyebrow” headlight arrangement on the BMW is echoed by a trapezoidal pipe and header arrangement, connected by a somewhat voluminous catalytic converter when viewed from the right side.


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On the surface, both bikes were similarly equipped with color-TFT display, ABS, 21″/17″ wire-spoke wheel combo, heated grips, hand guards, sump protection, cruise control, center stand, and traction control with multiple riding modes, yet several key differences exist. And while Cagiva wasn’t involved in this test, there was an elephant in the room: Price. As tested, the Tiger comes in at $1,400 less than the F850GS. But that doesn’t mean the Tiger lacks features compared to the BMW. Let’s take a closer look…

BMW F850GS vs Triumph Tiger 800

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo BMW F 850 GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCA

The Tiger 800 XCa model gets a larger windscreen than the BMW which is also adjustable. Also larger footpegs, one gallon more fuel (5.0 vs 4.0 gallons), aluminum radiator guard, crash bars, heated driver and passenger seats, LED fog lights, and fully-adjustable WP suspension (except front preload). Our F850GS was loaded with BMW’s Premium, Comfort, Touring, Dynamic, and ‘Exclusive Style’ packages. Stand out features on the BMW included Keyless Ride (ignition fob), Gear Shift Assist Pro (i.e. quick shifter), Dynamic ESA Electronically adjustable rear shock, a TPMS on tubeless rims, and lean angle sensing for ABS and Traction Control.

While both bikes are stacked to the brim with technology, the Tiger gets some additional off-road and touring equipment the F850GS doesn’t. Yet the BMW receives a more-advanced electronics package that helps to justify the premium price.

The Motors

While the feature set in each of the two builds is a glaring contrast based on price, the experience behind the bars brings up other nuances. Given the Triumph is unique in this category by virtue of adding an extra cylinder to the mix, the familiar grunt of the BMW’s parallel twin is a welcome feature while on the trail. Wanting empirical verification of the riding experience between the two bikes, we rode them over to Rottweiler Performance in Newport Beach, California, for testing in their state-of-the-art dyno room.

Dyno Test Comparo BMW F 850 GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCA
While the BMW has the grunt advantage, the Tiger offers smooth, consistent torque that is available right off idle and doesn’t drop off until after 8,000 rpm. | Dyno test courtesy of Rottweiler Performance.

Dyno tests bear out the additional power and torque provided by the higher-displacement motor of the BMW, and distinctly illustrate the perceived smoothness of the Triumph’s triple-cylinder powerplant. While the BMW has an advantage in grunt, the Tiger offers smooth, consistent torque that is available right off idle and really only drops off after 8,000 rpm.

Just as comparing a single to a twin results in numerous caveats, comparing a twin to a triple presents certain challenges as well. Both engines produce great power, but they do so very differently. Having both sound and feel that seems borrowed from a road race bike, the Tiger produces its best power in each gear around 1,000 rpm higher than the GS. That addicting quickness comes at the price of the familiar “hit” of a twin. Carrying this train of thought down to thumpers, where the low-end torque can be even more readily apparent, highlights the idea. In slower, more technical conditions, the GS powerplant felt more predictable with a bit more pop where the Triumph’s soft-hitting, tractable power was a little distracting at first.

While using the subtle buzz of a triple takes some getting used to on the trails, the learning curve on the tarmac is much shorter. With almost no perceptible kinks in the torque curve, the Triumph offers up whatever power is desired, in whatever gear, at whatever speed. Those more oriented to off-road riding just have to get used to hearing the scream of a three cylinder motor moving them along.

Ergonomics

Adventure Bike Comparo BMW F850GS vs Triumph Tiger 800

Extensive road miles in pre-dawn freezing temperatures proved the Triumph to be the clear winner in the touring category. While both bikes were equipped with heated grips, Triumph’s inclusion of heated seats and a larger, adjustable windscreen were key features to improve the riding experience in less-than-desirable weather. The uniquely simple adjustment mechanism for the Tiger’s large windscreen is likely the easiest to work with while riding of any bike in this category. Once moved to the desired detent, helmet buffeting was minimal.

Adventure Motorcycle Triumph Tiger 800 vs Comparo BMW F850GS

Off-road, the cockpit arrangement of both bikes inspired confidence. Bar and peg arrangement of either machine agreed with my 5’ 11” frame. The Tiger’s larger footpegs, and fully-adjustable WP suspension resulted in noticeably better handling when the desert roads turned to whooped out, rocky trails. Wheel travel between the two bikes is very close in the rear, with the Tiger having about 2/3” more suspension up front (8.7″ vs 8.0″).

Handling

One of the first things noticed on tight, rocky trails where muscling the bike through was required, was the greater amount of leverage and more solid boot contact provided by the Tiger’s comparatively larger footpegs. Simply having a bigger and more grippy platform to work from allowed the WP suspension to shine. Other than on a couple high-speed boosts over steep sections of dirt road, we didn’t notice either the front or rear bottom out once during the entire trip. Even fully loaded with camping gear, both the front and rear suspension on the Triumph maintained a solid progressive feel. Damping tuned for rough desert conditions allowed the Tiger to walk up and down steep, rocky obstacles like a large three cylinder mountain goat.

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo BMW F 850 GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCA

Nearly two inches longer than the Tiger, the BMW’s 62.7 inch wheelbase gave the bike a more stable feel in many situations. The longer chassis had a more open cockpit feel as well, which helped to compensate for the F850’s unusually tiny footpegs. Relatively soft forks compromised that stability as conditions became more challenging, and the front end could be felt diving and wandering into sandy whoops as speeds increased. The torquey parallel twin helped overcome some of the front-end vagueness by offering up corrective blips of power when needed, even at lower rpms.

At 504 pounds wet, the F850GS’s claimed weight is roughly 10 pounds heavier than the Tiger 800 XCa fully fueled. On paper, this would tip the scales in favor of the Triumph being the more nimble machine. Behind the bars, however, the BMW uniquely carries this weight in a way that provides a strangely lighter feel in many situations. Overall, initial impressions of the F850GS’s handling, both on-road an off, is preferable to the older F800GS. Despite this latest iteration of the model line carrying 25 pounds of additional weight over its predecessor, the 850 tracks better off-road, and has a more balanced feel on twisty pavement.

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo BMW F 850 GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCA

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo BMW F 850 GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCA

The Electronics

Like so many things, modern motorcycles have adopted aspects of the “device” era. Given that truth, menus become an integral component of the riding experience. While very difficult to determine a best practice in the arrangement of these various means for selection of desired features, the idea can perhaps be distilled down to a number of required steps. In this regard, both the Triumph and BMW came out ahead, and both behind.

In standard configuration, the Tiger comes with six riding modes: ‘Road’, ‘Off-road’, ‘Rain’, ‘Sport’, ‘Rider-Programmable’, and ‘Off-Road Pro’. Although the GS only comes with two standard riding modes, ‘Rain’ or ‘Road’, the available option of “Ride Modes Pro” adds two more, ‘Dynamic’ and ‘Enduro’, as well as a third, ‘Enduro Pro’, which is accessible when an optional dongle is installed under the seat. The F850GS also has a lean angle sensor which works in concert with adjustable dynamic traction control, and a cornering-optimized “ABS Pro” feature.

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo BMW F 850 GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCA

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo BMW F 850 GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCA

Triumph requires less button pushing from the rider to enter the “Off Road Pro” mode (preferred mode for the nature of the riding in this comparison test), where BMW requires more “clicks” to achieve the similar settings in the optional Ride Modes Pro package. BMW, however, features the ability to store one’s settings indefinitely when the optional Enduro Pro dongle is installed. Having the ability to simply fire up the bike and roll away without navigating through menus to enter the desired ride mode, however brief, results in a significant difference to the overall experience during the course of a multi-day adventure ride. Although BMW’s optional dongle overrides the F850GS’s slightly more complex menu arrangement and mode selection process, Triumph’s computer is more direct in that “Off Road Pro” not only adjusts the power delivery, but also disengages both ABS and traction control in one fell swoop. Which system wins out is entirely a matter of rider preference.

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo BMW F 850 GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XCA

Unique to the BMW, the Electronic Suspension Adjustment, or “ESA”, was fun to work with, but only applies to the rear shock. Non-adjustable front suspension meant most tweaks to the rear shock were inherently out of balance overall. For simple rear preload adjustments to compensate for luggage or passenger, BMW’s ESA system is much more convenient than typical manual adjustment methods. At a standstill, one’s left thumb simply has to push a button and the rear end can be felt raising or lowering itself as preload increases or decreases. While rolling, the same thumb switch can affect shock damping on-the-fly.

With fork settings remaining unchanged through ESA selections, frequent adjustments to the rear shock seem intended for urban settings where payload changes might be likely to occur multiple times a day. Off-road, suspension is generally set for what the terrain requires, or based on the payload weight involved in a multi-day adventure ride. While the Triumph requires tools for the conventional adjustment of the WP forks and shock, it becomes a “set it and forget it” exercise in most cases.

Conclusions

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo

Although in the same class, these two machines are different enough that choosing a “winner” can depend on preferred feature set and riding style. Side-by-side, each has a mix of features which seem to steer both bikes more towards the off-road world, and more towards the on-road world, at the same time.

In spite of its greater weight, the larger BMW chassis and torquey parallel twin initially feel more at home on smooth gravel roads than the Triumph. A smallish, non-adjustable windscreen further lends itself to the GS having an “enduro” feel. Yet its tiny footpegs and a comparatively soft front end undermine the off-road characteristics of the GS when the going gets rough, giving the advantage to the Tiger in more difficult terrain. Advanced features such as Gear Shift Assist Pro, lean angle sensors,and electronic suspension speak to the BMW being a more street-oriented machine.

Adventure Motorcycle Comparo

Features such as a high-revving triple power plant, large adjustable windscreen, and heated seats on the Triumph all sound like specs of a sport-touring bike. However, slightly taller and adjustable WP suspension, followed by a long list of trail-friendly accessories typically reserved for the aftermarket realm, pushes the Tiger firmly back over to the off-road side of things.

By the numbers, the Tiger provides the most bang for the buck with its inclusion of many features normally seen as optional in this bike class. Triumph’s list of standard accessories covers a wide range of elements, meeting the needs of both on-road and off-road performance. BMW’s numerous electronics package options bring a trick futuristic element to the mix, and possibly make the GS a more road-friendly machine, especially for a newer rider. Numbers and build sheet roster aside, these two machines have different enough characters that aesthetics, riding style, and simply “which one turns your key” will likely become prominent deciding factors. Unless, of course, one chooses Keyless Ride. In that case “which one pockets your fob” could be said, but that sounds weird.

Specs Comparison

 Adventure Bike Models  HP  Torque
(lb.-ft.)
Wet Weight
(lbs.)
Suspension Travel
(Fr./Rr.)
Seat Height
(in.)
Fuel Capacity
(Gallons)
Price USD
 Triumph Tiger 800 XCa 76 48 495* 8.7/8.5 33.1/33.9 5.0 $16,200**
 BMW F850GS 80 56 504 8.0/8.6 32.1/35.0 4.0 $17,560**
* Estimated wet weight; ** Price as tested

Photos by Jon Beck

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.

Author: Jon Beck
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8 thoughts on “Mid-Size ADV Matchup: BMW F850GS vs Triumph Tiger 800 XCa

  1. Great article… foot pegs and windscreen are somehow inexpensive add-on, I don’t see any reference to the tubeless vs tube setup.

  2. Thanks for the review and great timing for me as I’m shopping. I want the tiger, but after riding a rented 1200gs from San Diego to Cabo, I know how much value the key fob, tubeless wheels, and retained riding mode after start up are worth to me. So, I feel like i need to hold out for a 2020 tiger and see if the offer any of these. Otherwise I might got with the 850gs.

  3. The new KTM 790 Adventures seem like a huge bargain in comparison and no doubt they are the best at off road riding (Chris Birch in the Hellas rally!). Looking forward to shootouts between them all soon though I’ve already got a deposit on the next 790 R at my local dealer expected in Sept.

  4. “What turns your key” I expect will be the deciding factor in most people and their choice. Because that’s why I’ve decided on the Tiger. Something about that triple “turns my key”. Fair comparison for sure in this article.

  5. I’ll openly admit I’m pretty anti-BMW. I’ve read entirely too many accounts on forums about reliability problems on their bikes… between final drives (on shaft models), electrical issues, oil leaks, etc, etc. I just don’t trust them. Meanwhile, I’ve really not heard anything truly negative about the Tiger. I know of one guy in particular who bought the first-year Tiger 800 back in 2011 and proceeded to beat the living crap out of it, and it never winced. That’s why I bought an 800XCA in 2017. I don’t ride mine anywhere near as hard, but I know it’ll last a very long time.

  6. Anyone considering either should ride them both. They are both capable machines but numbers and charts won’t tell you about the bikes’ personality. The Tiger 800 XCx engine is amazing. It needs to be rev’ed higher off-road not to stall in tricky terrain, but if your’e out in that terrain you love a challenge and will master it. The BMW’s engine left me flat. Although BMW may have tubeless wheels, the spoked rims are wide and subject to damage when riding in rocky terrain.