Despite the impression motorcycling sometimes gives, biking is not always a solitary pursuit for solo riders.
Instead, taking a pillion or passenger, usually your partner, opens up a whole new world – sometimes quite literally – of motorcycling fun. Sure, being pillion on an enthusiastically ridden sportsbike certainly isn’t for everyone. Nor for that matter is two-up off-roading (in fact it’s positively daft if not dangerous). But conversely there’s nothing quite like touring two-up, exploring new places with the wind in your face on a holiday or weekend away and then sharing that experience over dinner or a well-deserved drink.
Which is why touring bikes primarily – but not exclusively – make the best pillion machines, too. Ever since the first ‘Batwing’-faired Harley Electra Glide of the 1960s, and particularly since the first Honda Gold Wing a decade later, purpose-built touring machines have proved both increasingly luxurious and comfortable for two – and more and more popular. So much so that, today, the latest Gold Wing and Electra Glide, not to mention more modern rivals such as BMW’s stupendous, six-cylinder K1600GTL and Indian’s ‘Glide-rivalling Roadmaster, aren’t just equipped with sumptuous seats including pillion backrests which are sometimes even heated, but today also offer ultra-sophisticated ‘infotainment’ systems, expansive luggage provision and more all powered by big, meaty engines.
But if you’re worried all that adds up to a bike with the massive price tag to match its lavish proportions – which it often does – they’re not the only ones. Today, more than ever before, there are also lighter, more sporting ‘sports-tourers’ with almost as much pillion consideration, adventure style bikes the missus will be more than happy to spend a week on the back of and even stylish retros that pay due diligence to your passenger as well. In fact, in 2019, we’ve never had it so good. But which to go for? To help you choose, here’s out Top 10 pillions bikes of 2019, in ascending price order…
Introduced in 2018 and with a new Cobalt Blue colour option for 2019, the Speedmaster is effectively the British firm’s pillion or touring-orientated versions of its popular Bonneville Bobber. That bike, introduced in 2017, was a post-WW2, US-style, chopped back ‘bobber’ take on its already brilliant, 1200cc Bonneville roadster, featuring a solo seat, pseudo ‘hardtail’ rear end and cruiser minimalism that defined the originals of the era and is again so popular today. The Speedmaster, meanwhile, retains most of that look (strictly speaking its based on the fat front tyred, twin disc-ed ‘Bobber Black’ version) but adds a new rear subframe allowing both a detachable pillion seat and panniers (plus backrest, screen and more as options). The result, powered by the impressive Bonneville 1200’s ‘High Torque’ 76bhp twin and with an easily manageable, low-seated but fine-handling chassis, adds up to a true retro with genuinely entertaining performance, unintimidating manners and yet also decent pillion and distance potential, too. It’s a true touring retro for two!
Although always something of an odd-looker, being an adventure-style bike based, uniquely, on a transverse, four-cylinder platform (that of the excellent Z1000SX sports-tourer, to be exact), Kawasaki’s big Versys 1000, throughout its three guises since 2012, has also always been a brilliant-value tourer and pillion machine – and for 2019 it’s better than ever.
Although the basics are unchanged, in being a detuned, 118bhp version of the SX’s 1043cc four in a tall, roomy package thanks to longer suspension and an adventure-style riding position, it’s been revised and updated again for 2019, with a new SE version with semi-active suspension and improved spec added. The base version is better than ever: roomy, comfortable for two thanks to the broad seat, smooth, fast (for an adventure bike) and, considering the spec, brilliant value. While if you get the Grand Tourer version, complete with full luggage and pillion backrest, it’s an excellent value pillion machine as well. The SE, with its posher clocks, semi-active suspenders, flashy riding lights and more lifts things to an even higher level, although pushing £16K it does lose much of that bargain appeal.
The RT version of BMW’s classic boxer twin has universally been considered the definitive touring machine for eons, first as an 1100 then 1150, more recently in three succeeding 1200 forms. The reasons are simple: fabulous long distance comfort for two; lavish equipment options plus handling and practicality that defies its capacity (and makes a mockery of leviathan ‘full-dressers’ such as Honda’s GoldWing). Now, for 2019, by receiving the same, clever, performance-boosting, enlarged ‘ShiftCam’ version of the boxer powerplant that debuted on the R1250GS, it’s better than ever. Power is up from 125 to 136bhp and torque even more so, both thanks to the ingenious new switchable cam system. Much of the rest remains unchanged but as the RT was already head and shoulders above its few rivals there’s nothing wrong with that. So, you get exceptional rider and pillion comfort (something improved even further if you take up the top box/pillion backrest option), vast adjustable screen, comprehensive dash, almost sport handling and options including ESA (electronic suspension adjustment) that are the envy of most. The base version’s great but tick all the boxes or get the SE version and the RT is almost regal.
Yamaha’s weird, wonderful and undeniably technically-accomplished Niken leaning three-wheeler, as introduced in 2018 and based on the proven MT-09 powertrain, certainly isn’t for everyone. Although able and with astonishing front end grip and security thanks to those two, banking front wheels, it’s also a little heavy, lethargic and, to many two-wheeled fans, somewhat pointless. But in new-for-2019 GT sports-tourer guise, however, it does start to make sense – especially if you or your pillion is the sort who likes the added confidence of its front end. The core chassis and perky 113bhp MT-09 three-cylinder powerplant is unchanged, but in GT trim the Niken gets a pair of 25-litre semi-soft panniers, heated grips, a taller screen, comfort seat, an extra 12v charger socket and centre-stand. All of these, even though the screen has been criticized for being a little noisy, add the Niken’s already decent cruising comfort, reassuring stability and things like LCD dash, traction control, quickshifter and cruise control, to make the GT both an impressive mile eater and, for pillions, arguably the best blend of bike dynamics and sports car security there is. Not a bad price, either…
Yamaha’s big four-cylinder, shaft-drive sports-tourer is certainly no spring chicken, having originally been introduced in 2001 as the successor to the much-loved FJ1200. But one of the last heavyweight, comfortable, old-school sports-tourers that’s been built for two and by also being successively and usefully updated over the years, it remains arguably the best of its type and still a great pillion machine. Its 1298cc four produces 146bhp and stacks of creamy grunt making it brilliant at easily hauling two people and plenty of luggage; its saddle, riding position and electrically-adjustable screen are brilliant; it handles well for such a big heavy bike; it’s proven and reliable and, the latest updates in 2016 have kept it, if not bang up to date, then certainly relevant and better than ever. (These, incidentally, include updated looks, LED lights, refreshed dash and added sixth gear.) Three versions are available, the stock A (£14,299), AE with new electronically adjustable suspension (£16,599) and AS (£17,099) with both the trick suspension and Yamaha’s clever, clutch-lever-less paddle gearchange. But plonk some extra panniers and maybe a top box with back rest on the rear and pillion-carrying mile-eaters don’t get much better.
Merely the name ‘Moto Guzzi California’ manages to conjure images of US-style, two-up touring bliss, ever since the Italian marque’s original, launched in 1971 as developed out of its LAPD police bikes. That bike has deservedly become a legend for its lazy, V-twin, shaft-drive touring manners allied with a sprinkle of Italian style and handling. Through much of the ‘80s, ‘90s and Noughties, though, its aging design meant its star faded. However the all-new version launched 2014 and designed by Ducati Monster creator Miguel Galluzzi, re-established it as a worthy tourer and sumptuous pillion bike for those wanting American character but Italian style. Its enlarged 1380cc transverse V-twin is grunty and characterful and has three useful riding modes; it’s great looking, handles impressively and is well-equipped. While the up-specced SE version, launched in 2015, complete with pillion backrest to go with the massive grabrail, slightly larger screen, forks covers and different paint adds both pillion and distance comfort and allure. If you want a pillion-friendly full-dress tourer but without the excess and expense of some and a touch of Italian style and exclusivity, it’s a great choice.
The astonishing, six-cylinder, super-sumptuous GTL is simply the closest thing there is to a supersonic sofa. All-new in 2011 and updated since, with its sophisticated, 160bhp, electronics-laded transverse six on the one hand, which makes it both bahn-storming fast and blissfully smooth, yet on the other, armchair-like full-dresser comfort including pillion backrest, arm supports, heated seats and surround-sound stereo, there’s simply nothing on two wheels both as fast – and pillion comfy. Nor does it end there: despite its size it, the K1600 handles well, benefits from BMW’s electronic suspension adjustment (ESA) which lets you choose taut or plush damping at a push of a button and has all the electronic gizmos (although some are starting to date a little now) and luggage space (c/o two pannier and a top box) you’ll need. And, with prices starting at under £19K for the base version, compared to the Wings, Glides and Roadmasters of this world, it’s pretty good value as well. The K16 may lack those bikes’ lazy US charm and quite the same low-slung stability, but the GTL blows them away in terms of speed and sports handling and will take any pillion on a comfort thrill ride you simply can’t get anywhere else.
Any consideration of pillion-friendly, ‘full-dress’ tourers has to include the legendary Electra Glide. First introduced in 1965 as an electric-start successor to Harley’s popular Duo-Glide (twin shock) and previously Hydra-Glide (hydraulically damped telescopic forks) V-twin tourers. By 1969 the Electra had also adopted its fork-mounted ‘Batwing’ fairing to go with its panniers, top box and sumptuous comfort and the full-dresser template, which remains to this day, was set. It’s remained the go-to two-up American touring machine ever since. Despite those historic overtones and unchanged style, the latest version, particularly since 2013, is decently modern. Now 1690cc the big V-twin produces around 100bhp, bags of ‘potato-potato’ torque, has a much improved chassis, suspension and, particularly brakes, while LED lights, touchscreen ‘infotainment’ system and more gives some of the latest tech. Secure, armchair comfort for two, meanwhile, doesn’t get much better. The ‘Glide may still not have the performance of BMW’s GTL or ultra-smooth and slick tech of the latest Honda GoldWing, but it aces both for classic appeal and character, is a bike any pillion will be impressed by and will make you the talking point of the street.
Pre-WW2, Harley-Davidson’s biggest US rival was Indian. That all ended in the early 1950s when the latter collapsed but now they’re back and giving Harley a run for their money once again. The Roadmaster is Indian’s rival to the iconic Harley Electra Glide and in many ways is the better bike.
The reason for that is two-fold – ambition and investment. The Indian brand was bought by automotive giant Polaris, who also owned Victory, in 2011 and they promptly went all-out after H-D. The first all-new Indian ‘big twins’ came in 2014, these were supplemented by the smaller Scout family in 2015 and, using that bike as a base, Indian has also now won the US flat track racing championship, after decades of Harley dominance, for the past two years.
The full-dress Roadmaster, therefore, first introduced in 2014, demands to be taken seriously. At 1811cc with larger, plusher proportions, the Indian is both bigger, slightly faster and a touch more expensive than its Harley rival – but is worth it. Performance and handling both beat (slightly) its US rival, the roomier proportions are more comfortable for larger riders, there’s masses of quality touches such as the pigskin seats and ‘war bonnet’ fender motif but also plenty of tech in the form of 2019’s new rider modes, LED lighting, heated seats, remotely-lockable luggage and more. Yes, Indian’s the new kid on the block and currently lacks Harley’s proven residuals, dealer network and mass-following, but if you want US luxury and don’t want to follow the herd, the Roadmaster is brilliant.
There’s surely no bigger name in pillion comfort than the Honda GoldWing. Launched as a ground-breaking four-cylinder 1000 in 1975, it quickly became the go-to distance tourer then evolved through ever-more luxurious 1100, 1200 and six-cylinder 1500cc forms to become the benchmark ‘full dress’ tourer. In fact, that original, 1988 GL1500 six was so good, and raised the touring/pillion comfort bar so high, it was virtually unopposed, gaining legions of devoted followers, for the best part of 20 years.
After morphing into the GL1800 in 2001 then facing new rivals such as BMW’s K1600, Honda finally launched this all-new GL1800 last year. Its new-four-valve six boosted performance from 116 to 125bhp; its all-new aluminium chassis, including a novel, double-wishbone front-end improved handling while helping cut weight by 41kg; there’s a full-suite of electronics including rider modes, infotainment, TFT screen and more while rider and pillion comfort is plush and aided by heated seats, electric screen, you name it. The result goes, handles and cossets better than ever and almost anything – any pillion will rightly feel like a queen (or king!), but the downside is a price approaching £30K. For 2019, though, there is an upside: the new base model Wing, without top box/pillion backrest, with a shorter screen and less weight, is a tempting £22,229, although the pillion experience, undeniably, is less plush.