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 sports bike 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, we’ve never had it so good. But which to go for? To help you choose, here’s out Top 10 pillions bikes, in ascending price order…
An obvious one to start off with, seeing as BMW’s best-selling and adventure class-defining GS is both so popular and also so often seen being ridden two-up, but seeing as some classic, pillion-friendly tourers (Yamaha’s FJR1300 being the most conspicuous) have been deleted for 2021, leaving the choice available slightly diminished, it’s more than worthy of inclusion here. Although an ultra-versatile adventure bike and less obviously a passenger-friendly tourer, a big part of the big boxer’s appeal over the years has always been its roomy comfort added to its premium style and huge accessory options list. Besides, BMW has always, first and foremost, been a touring brand, after all, it’s just that the GS looks more interesting and exciting than that suggests. So, although you almost certainly already know, the GS offers all the traits a good pillion-friendly tourer requires, namely: grunty, flexible performance, decent two up comfort (although taller and not quite as plush as the more dedicated R1250RT), shaft drive, lots of modes and optional gizmos such as heated grips and ESA, plenty of touring luggage options and one of the most premium badges around. As a sometime, two-up tourer, not many want more – which is why it’s so successful.
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 updated 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, and the Niken’s already decent cruising comfort, reassuring stability and things like LCD dash, traction control, quickshifter and cruise control, make the GT both an impressive mile eater and, for pillions, arguably the best blend of bike dynamics and sports car security there is.
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). In 2019 it received the same, clever, performance-boosting, enlarged ‘ShiftCam’ version of the boxer powerplant that debuted on the R1250GS, which was better than ever. Power was up from 125 to 136bhp and torque even more so, both thanks to the ingenious new switchable cam system. Now, for 2021, it’s been updated again most conspicuous with a smart, new fairing including BMW’s radar-controlled dynamic cruise control and full LED headlight, improved electronic riding aids plus a big, new 10.25in full colour TFT dash. The RT was already, arguably, the best all-round tourer of all, with 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). Now it’s better still.
Triumph’s big three-cylinder adventure bike often unfairly gets overlooked mostly for failing to ‘quite’ beat BMW’s rival GS when first launched way back in 2012 as the then Tiger Explorer. But that ignores both how much better the latest version, now called simply the Tiger 1200, is, following numerous revisions and updates, and also, like the GS, how good a pillion-friendly tourer it is, mostly thanks to its roomy comfort, grunty shaft-drive triple and numerous accessory options – so good in fact that it has out-lived its original pure touring sister, the Trophy 1200. The latest, third generation version was launched in 2018 and comes in two forms: the more dual-purpose XC and the pure road XR. The chief changes then were more power (139bhp, with bags of torque), less weight (still a heavy 243kg, but significantly more manageable) and other improvements such as a new electric screen, Brembo brakes and better electronics including a flash colour TFT dash. In XR trim, all of those make it an impressively capable tourer and, with three further trim levels available, base XR, XRX and fully-loaded XRT, with the latter you get things like semi-active suspension, heated grips and seat, cruise control, hill start assist etc etc, all of which help make it a brilliant two-up tourer.
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 now 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 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 £17K it does lose much of that bargain appeal.
The astonishing, six-cylinder, super-sumptuous BMW GT (and even more luxurious GTL) is simply the closest thing there is to a supersonic sofa. All-new in 2011 and updated since, with its sophisticated, 160bhp, electronics-laden 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, with, in GTL trim, 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 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. The GT, at under £20K, is pretty good value, compared to the Wings, Glides and Roadmasters of this world. While the GTL, at £21,355) isn’t bad either plus there’s also the ‘bagger’ K1600B and K1600 Grand America. The K16 may lack the Harley and Indian’s lazy US charm and quite the same low-slung stability, but it 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.
I know what you’re thinking. Triumph’s astonishing, all-new, power and electronics-packed Rocket III may have been one of the best news stories of 2020, but ‘pillion bike’? Surely there’s been some mistake? Well, no, actually. The new standard Rocket III may be a pure hot rod that’s more than capable of losing any pillion off the back at the merest twist of the wrist, but its sister ‘GT’ version, by virtue of its standard pillion backrest, small but effective screen and heated grips, with more to come via Triumph’s extensive accessories catalogue, actually makes a decent, comfortable tourer for two – albeit one still with phenomenal 165bhp performance. Best of all though, is how the all-new design, thanks to its impressive chassis, suspension, brakes and electronics, all gels and enables this 2500cc beast to be a practical, versatile, every-day bike. Sure, ultimately, the new Rocket can’t match the ultimate comfort of dedicated tourers such as BMW’s RT. But it’s also so good that it can excite as a ballistic hot rod yet still be a decent, all-round pillion proposition.
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, 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.
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 and slightly faster than its Harley rival and now, due to pricing changes, it’s slightly cheaper, too. 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 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.
Any consideration of pillion-friendly, ‘full-dress’ tourers has to include the legendary Electra Glide. First introduced in 1965 it was 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.
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 in 2018. 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. However, there is an upside: the base model Wing, without top box/pillion backrest, with a shorter screen and less weight, is a tempting £22,849, although the pillion experience, undeniably, is less plush.
Fancy a used option? Here’s our five of the best:
2009-2013 BMW K1300GT, £4,300-5,500
Underrated, four-cylinder is a typically brilliant BMW tourer buy.
2010-2017 Kawasaki GTR1400, £5,500-10,700
ZZ-R14-based tourer is loaded with electronics, luxury and comfort.
2016-2021 Yamaha FJR1300, £7,500-11,800
Now deleted grunty, durable and comfortable tourer remains a great used buy.
2012-2017 Moto Guzzi California 1400, £10,000-12,000
Big tourer brought Guzzi into 21st century. Comfortable, classy and underrated.