Harley-Davidson’s Pan America 1250 Special, entering the realm of the adventure touring motorcycle, aims to dethrone the BMW R 1250 GS in this highly competitive market. Ducati, on the other hand, is determined to achieve the same with its brand-new Multistrada V4 S, setting the stage for an ultimate showdown in the ADV (Adventure) segment. An esteemed American motorcycle testing organization has planned a high-displacement adventure duel, traversing five national parks, multiple state parks, camping, and covering long distances daily. Post-testing, they aim to provide tailored travel adventure plans suitable for most ADV owners.

While the dream of embarking on an extended adventure ride aboard a large-displacement adventure motorcycle is universal, the reality is that many enthusiasts may not have the luxury of a lengthy weekend. Therefore, we’ve opted for a shorter three-day intensive test in the southern part of Utah – a land seemingly crafted by the gods for adventure motorcycles.

There’s nothing more fitting than loading up luggage on a large-displacement ADV (Adventure) bike and embarking on a long weekend journey. The three machines chosen for this test are all capable of handling the miles and the task of discovering new vistas. Close your eyes and think of ADV, and the first thing that comes to mind is the GS. BMW has dominated this submarket for so long, and for our selection, we’ve opted for the 2021 R 1250 GS 40th Anniversary Edition, a model inspired by rally racing with a storied name.

The BMW R 1250 GS sets the benchmark for all large-displacement ADV motorcycles. Ducati’s Multistrada V4 S stands out as the most aggressive in the ADV world. Ducati introduced the Multistrada in 2003 and has been continuously evolving and improving it over the years. Fast forward 19 years, and the 2021 model comes equipped with Ducati’s Panigale super motorcycle-inspired V4 powerplant, featuring traditional valve springs for longer valve check intervals, even without desmodromic technology. The V4 S is a superbike in the ADV world, exuding confidence both on and off the road. Multistrada, in Italian, means “many roads,” and Ducati epitomizes this, especially with the latest generation V4 S.

In the 2021 lineup, Ducati’s Multistrada V4 S boasts the most substantial power in this competition. Harley-Davidson shocked adventure motorcycle enthusiasts when it unveiled its Pan America concept in 2018. Three years later, the Pan America 1250 Special hit the market and received acclaim after our first ride. It’s not a hidden gem in this segment; it comes equipped with all the features needed for a large ADV, with some clever assists. The new 60-degree DOHC V-twin engine provides the Pan America with modern and potent characteristics. It stands as a new challenger in the intense competition, indicating that Harley is serious about taking the crown.

Harley-Davidson enters the adventure touring arena with the Pan America 1250 Special. At the testing grounds in St. George, Utah, we encounter various road conditions: winding asphalt roads, fast and flat dirt paths, rugged terrains, and everything in between, allowing us to ride on hot and dusty roads with occasional bursts of cold rain. This route will test our patience as we navigate through Zion National Park and challenge our driving skills in the rocky and loose terrains of Dixie National Forest. To truly understand these three adventure travelers, it’s necessary to cover longer distances and spend extended periods with them. In preparation for the test, we meticulously collect data, run each engine, weigh and measure them, conduct power tests on the dynamometer, and evaluate their performance on our makeshift airport testing platform. Each step of this testing is performed using street-standard tires on off-road wire-spoke wheels for each model; once completed, optional off-road tires from each brand are installed, along with OEM luggage. BMW and Harley-Davidson are equipped with soft waterproof luggage, while the Multistrada’s plastic hard cases are its only option and come standard on the V4 S.

As we traversed Zion National Park, temperatures soared into the triple digits (Fahrenheit). The first day began early, entering Zion National Park. Due to the thriving outdoor activities, traffic congestion ensued. With rising temperatures, it was the first test of these large-displacement engines’ heat management capabilities. As we made our way through the park, with frequent stops, over the next hour, we found that, as expected, each motorcycle would engage its fan to dissipate heat when the ambient temperature became excessively high in the area. Exiting the gates of Zion National Park, the heat on all motorcycles subsided. On the open roads, the Multistrada V4 S proved to be the king. The V4 S outputs 143.8 horsepower at 10,580 rpm, continuing to accelerate in higher rev ranges.

Powered by the engine derived from Ducati’s Panigale superbike, the V-4 in the Multistrada is the fire-breathing monster in this test. Following closely is the Pan America’s Revolution Max 1250 V-twin, producing 128.2 hp at 9,130 rpm. While it may not be a MotoGP ADV like the Multistrada, its torque output is very prompt, reaching 80.9 pound-feet at 4,340 rpm. In comparison, the Multistrada produces 77.8 pound-feet of torque at 7,410 rpm.

The Pan America is the first model equipped with Harley-Davidson’s all-new DOHC (Dual Overhead Cam) 60-degree V-twin engine, known as Revolution Max 1250. BMW’s Shiftcam boxer here boasts 117.39 horsepower at 7,770 rpm, while its torque excels with a robust performance at 91.5 pound-feet.

The BMW Boxer engine is an icon in the adventure touring world, and it stands out as one of the best ever, thanks to the ShiftCam technology.

Each motorcycle comes with a comprehensive set of riding modes, linked to traction control, throttle response, power delivery, and ABS, allowing all these large-displacement motorcycles to be manageable both on and off the road. Eco, Rain, and Road are BMW’s standard choices; our test equipment is equipped with the $3,750 Premium Package option (which 99% of GS models sold in the US have), adding Dynamic, Dynamic Pro, Enduro, and Enduro Pro modes, totaling seven. The Multistrada offers four modes: Sport, Touring, Urban, and Enduro. The Pan America 1250 Special provides a total of eight, including Sport, Road, Rain, Off-Road, Off-Road Plus, and three customizable modes, two for the street, and one for off-road.

Navigating through these modes on each motorcycle is quite straightforward, but the user interface for other functions varies significantly between the three. Each comes with a full-color TFT dashboard, with some being easier to read than others. Harley-Davidson ranks at the bottom, with some fonts being too small. The Multistrada and BMW share similar issues, with the GS being the most user-friendly. Resetting the trip meter with five buttons at the gas station proved to be frustrating, particularly for HD. Multi provided us with appropriate choices, and everything became simple and delightful.

Although clear and bright, some fonts on the Pan America dash are too small for quick reading. Heading north on Highway 89, past the Carmel Mountain Road intersection and Glendale, we turned east onto the plateau between Escalante and Kanab, where wide, loose, sandy roads allowed us to play with off-road modes and tweak traction control settings. Modern off-road traction control is a revelation for adventure motorcycles, boosting the confidence of ordinary riders; any motorcycle equipped with such features becomes friendly and easy to ride. Flying down the road using these gadgets, taking easy turns, you can only marvel at how wonderful it is to be a motorcyclist.

The fast and sandy dirt roads are where these technologically advanced adventure travelers can truly showcase the benefits of lean-sensitive traction control and off-road ABS. Here, Harley-Davidson excels, demonstrating the most capable turns in Off-road Plus mode. The mode’s power delivery perfectly blends strong torque with dirt road conditions; rear tire rotation is predictable and smooth, and when TC intervenes, there are no real signs that it is restricting rotation. You just feel like a very skilled rider. The Enduro Pro mode on the BMW is almost equally impressive, and the torque-rich characteristics it generates during sharp turns propel the R 1250 GS forward.

The torque-rich characteristics give the R 1250 GS excellent controllability, allowing it to break free from the pack as long as the bumps aren’t too severe.

Ducati’s rocket-like acceleration is intoxicating, and if you have enough space, achieving triple-digit speeds in the dirt is certainly possible. In corners, with TC dialed down to the minimum, intervention is still too much.

On flat roads, in terms of speed, nothing compares to the Multistrada V4 S. While heading to the top of Brian Head Peak, the highest point at an elevation of 11,312 feet, through the top of Dixie National Forest, the smooth dirt gave way to rough and rocky terrain. Here, the surprising balance settings of Ducati’s semi-active Skyhook suspension, with front and rear travel of 6.7 and 7.1 inches, respectively, were evident. Although the rocks were managed, you could indeed feel the weight and width of the large fuel tank. Compared to the BMW, the latter has a lower center of gravity and an overall narrower feel.

On the BMW, intervening in the ability of the suspension to control rebound damping in rough terrain was applied. Harley-Davidson equipped the Pan America with Showa semi-active suspension; in the off-road stiffness setting, it performed the best in controlling wheel movement with a front and rear travel of 7.5 inches. Even when pushed hard, HD handles large volcanic rocks, tree roots, and crevices on winding forest trails in the most composed manner among the three machines.

When pushed to the limit, the Pan America feels most like an off-road vehicle. All three motorcycles feature electronically adjustable preload, with BMW and Ducati adjusting preload based on the rider’s selection and the items carried on the motorcycle. Options include rider-only, rider and passenger, rider with luggage, and rider and passenger with luggage. Harley equipped the Pan America in our test with Adaptive Ride Height, taking automatic preload further; the system automatically sets the rear sag to 30% and then lowers the rear suspension when you come to a stop, reducing the seat height by 2 inches. This means turning on the Pan America’s roads and stopping on uneven ground is easier than elsewhere. Our late-night rides also proved protective, with all three performing admirably. Heated grips are standard here, keeping our hands warm, and the adjustable windscreen set at the highest position cuts through the wind. The GS and Multistrada’s screen adjustment mechanisms are easy to use; the Pan America’s adjustment mechanism is much less. The wind deflector is sturdy, but the screen feels fragile, and the adjustment lever is both clumsy and small. Additionally, it becomes difficult to adjust due to dust accumulation.

When the road conditions are fast and rugged, the Pan America is the ideal motorcycle. In late summer in Utah, the weather changes quickly and frequently, and we unexpectedly found ourselves in a thunderstorm. Gravel roads quickly turned into wet and slippery mud with puddles. Here, the traction control for the rear wheel and the feel of the front tire become more important than ever. Each motorcycle’s traction control system handles the mud in the same way, but when plowing through more greasy surfaces, the feel at the front end becomes vague. Despite the Multi weighing only 1 pound more than the BMW and the same as the Harley (604 pounds vs. 603 pounds), it feels tall and heavy on fully saturated ground. The low center of gravity of the GS helps boost confidence, but it still feels heavy, especially when seated and on slow, smooth surfaces. All three large ADVs perform exceptionally well in covering long distances. Just after the rain, the sun came out, and the road dried up. In the curves, the V4 S is the king, thanks to its ability to quickly exit the apex in sport mode, as the ride is both tight and stable. The Pan America also enhances the ride in sport mode but doesn’t reach the level of Ducati’s sport motorcycles; it’s not as precise. On the R 1250 GS, choosing Dynamic surprises with the change in chassis attitude; preload increases, the GS leans forward for quick and extremely light handling; unfortunately, dull rebound damping is also an issue, and bumps can disrupt the chosen line.

Traveling long distances on both mud and streets is a necessary condition to truly understand these adventure touring motorcycles. All three large ADVs excel in covering long distances. For general street riding and light to moderate forest roads, you will be very satisfied with BMW, Ducati, or Harley-Davidson. Pushing the limits further separates and exposes their strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the third day, it is clear which one of these large adventure motorcycles is our winner.

If you’re looking for power and speed, the Multistrada V4 S is the first choice. The Multistrada V4 S is indeed ready for all roads but not as much as Harley-Davidson and BMW. Ducati’s high-performance superbike DNA shines on the V4 S. When you hit the dirt roads and reach the mountaintop, the 2021 Ducati Multistrada V4 S is your go-to option.

The BMW R 1250 GS has been at the top of the ADV world for many years. BMW’s GS is, of course, the gold standard for adventure motorcycles, and the R 1250 GS is an outstanding bike. Its horizontally opposed engine has characteristics that set it apart from any other product in the ADV world. It’s almost too easy to ride, and it remains a well-crafted motorcycle.

Harley-Davidson (Harley-Davidson) has dispelled any doubts about whether it can manufacture adventure touring motorcycles with the Pan America 1250 Special.

Harley-Davidson achieved all of this in its first year. In the initial tests, the Pan America thoroughly outperformed the reigning champion of ADV history and a very interesting and fast Italian beast. Its lively engine bridges the gap between the V4’s high-rev thrill and the GS’s burbling power, and it works in more situations than its competitors. Regardless of terrain or surface, its suspension is balanced, refined, and controllable, making it more effortless when faced with challenges. Most importantly, this is the most crucial feature of an adventure bike.