Progress is a never-ending feature of any endeavor, in motorcycling as much as any other field. We might be only 23 years into the 21st century, but already there have been game-changing and ground-breaking motorcycles that have nothing to do with the last century but which are pointing the way to the next 77 years. Of course, there have also been developments of motorcycles that had their start in the 20th century but which are still important models for their respective manufacturers today. Where motorcycling will go next will largely be informed by the inevitable move to electric power, but we have to hope that the good old internal combustion engine won’t give up without a fight.
10 2001 Triumph Bonneville
2001 Triumph Bonneville in blue and white studio shot
‘New’ Triumph, launched in the early 1990s, concentrated almost exclusively on thoroughly modern designs that, beyond their names, owed nothing to what had been before. Triumph seemed determined to resist becoming known for simply re-creating old models to tug at the nostalgia strings but that all changed in 2001, when the first of the new Bonneville models appeared. It was a near-perfect facsimile, with all the charm but none of the drawbacks of the original. If anything, the new Bonneville achieved the impossible and added to the legacy of the original rather than detracting from it. Not only did the Bonneville and its associated variants practically invent the whole ‘modern classic’ movement that is so important to so many manufacturers today, it contributed hugely to Triumph’s 21st century success.
9 2005 Suzuki GSX-R1000
2005 Suzuki GSX-R1000 sports bike, right hand view
No class of motorcycle displays progress and evolution more than the litre-superbike class, since 1992 the flagship models of the Japanese manufacturers. Honda set the ball rolling with the CBR900RR Fireblade, followed by Yamaha five years later. Suzuki was relatively late to the 1000cc class but when it got going, it got going properly. By 2005, the GSX-R1000 was re-defining the class, with razor sharp handling and a monstrously powerful engine, pushing out 175 horsepower. The engine was so good that it is still being used by Suzuki today in the GSX-S1000 and Katana models. At the time, superbikes were still selling in huge numbers and to be top of the heap was prestige that reflected down through the entire range.
8 2006 KTM 990 Adventure
KTM Adventure 990 facing right
If BMW created the adventure category, then it took KTM to add high performance to the mix and start the adventure bike war. KTM already had an unassailable reputation in off-road, MX and enduro racing and riding, and the company used that expertise to inform its adventure bike offerings. Powered by a brand new 999cc V-Twin engine developing 105 horsepower, the 990 Adventure was big but also extremely capable in the hands of expert riders. That identity continues to this day, the current 1290 Super Adventure models being hugely powerful – up to 160 horsepower – and even more capable off-road. But it all started with the 990 Adventure, the first genuine competition BMW had faced in the class.
7 2010 BMW S 1000 RR
BMW S1000RR in BMW M colors
No doubt the established sports bike manufacturers were feeling pretty secure on their pedestal in the 2000s, with no new manufacturers having jumped on the bandwagon. Complacency was shattered, therefore, when BMW, of all manufacturers, arrived with the S 1000 RR. This truly was a bike that re-wrote the sports bike rules, all the more galling because it was that company’s first attempt. If 190 horsepower wasn’t enough, then the super-sharp chassis, suspension and brakes drove the point home. Then there was the unheard-of electronic sophistication, with lean-sensitive traction control and four riding modes. All of a sudden, the Japanese and Italians had to start scrabbling to catch up. The BMW S1000RR is the reason why sports bikes are as they are in 2023.
6 2013 BMW R 1200 GS LC
BMW R1200GS Adventure facing right
Obviously, the big BMW adventure bike had been around for 20 years at the turn of the century and, for the first 12 years of the 21st century, it continued pretty much as it was, with updates every now and then, but nothing significant. Then, it 2013, the engine was converted to partial water-cooling, which unlocked 15 horsepower, bringing the total to 125, with an attendant improvement in overall torque. BMW updated everything, from the suspension, brakes, electronics and comfort, giving the GS a much more sporty feel, improving its road manners without losing an ounce of its off-road ability, which was, if anything, even more impressive for such a large bike. This was the model that spurred KTM to build the 1290 Super Adventure and the adventure wars were well and truly joined.
5 2013 KTM 1290 Super Duke
The RR has a coveted 1:1 power-to-weight ratio
The Europeans have always loved naked sports bikes and, in the 2000s, Ducati, Aprilia and Triumph were doing great business with their models. With the V-Twin engine with which it was attacking the adventure market, KTM realized it had an engine that, when shoe-horned into a naked chassis, would re-define the class. 180 horsepower in a lightweight chassis, with top-spec suspension and brakes certainly got the adrenaline flowing: no wonder KTM dubbed it ‘The Beast.’ More importantly, it took KTM away from dirt and established the company as a major player in the street-bike market, completing its transformation from a niche to a mainstream motorcycle manufacturer. It’s not looked back since.
4 2015 Kawasaki H2
Action shot of a Kawasaki Ninja H2R
The best motorcycles are ones that are built for the hell of it and not for any practical or financial purpose. That’s the Kawasaki H2 in a nutshell: a way of reminding everyone that Kawasaki is still an engineering force to be reckoned with. With the previously-flagship superbike class no longer bestowing the glory on parent manufacturers they once did, Kawasaki took a different route and pulled in expertise from other divisions in Kawasaki Heavy Industries to supercharge the 1,000cc, four-cylinder engine. The result was not necessarily faster around a racetrack than the same company’s ZX-10RR superbike, but it fulfilled its intended role: divert attention away from everyone other manufacturers’ models. 230 horsepower for the H2 and an insane 300 horsepower for the track-only H2R should be just about enough! Both reminded us that the obsession with power and speed is thankfully not a thing of the past.
3 2020 Ducati V4 Panigale
A Ducati Panigale V4R on the racetrack.
Finally, Ducati reached the end of the development road of the V-Twin engine and the result was the astonishing 1,103cc V4 engine, based on the MotoGP engine, very little bigger in external dimensions than the V-Twin but with a whole new dose of development potential, not to mention power. If 211 horsepower wasn’t enough, you could opt for the World Superbikes homologation special V4R, with 998cc developing 231 horsepower. Incredibly complex electronics package, stunning dynamics, massive performance and drop-dead good looks. If the ‘standard’ V4 Panigale wasn’t enough, you could save up for the Superleggera V4, constructed primarily of carbon fiber – the first road-legal, on-sale-to-the-public motorcycle to be so constructed. Best not to ask how much it costs!
2 2020 Zero SR/F
A side angle shot of a Zero SR/F with rider sitting in an urban environment.
No-one ever said the path to convincing the public that alternatives to fossil fuels would be easy and many start-ups have faltered but not Zero. For 13 years, the first company dedicated solely to electric vehicles struggled to find acceptance but that all changed with the SR/F. Arriving at the same time as the Harley-Davidson LiveWire (itself a candidate for inclusion in this list), the Zero SR/F was, crucially, a third of the price which made people sit up and take notice. They noticed even more when it was ridden, with the acceleration being mind-bending, the chassis, suspension and brakes excellent and quality beyond reproach. With the SR/F, the electric motorcycle went from being a gimmick to being a completely viable entity in its own right. Maybe the future of motorcycling isn’t as bleak as we all thought?
1 2020 Harley-Davidson Pan America
Vivid Black 2022 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 parked on a barren flat
Massively significant model for Harley-Davidson and for adventure motorcycling in general. Harley went completely out of its comfort zone here, choosing to not only introduce a brand-new engine – the Revolution Max – but to put it in a style of bike that was as different to its traditional output as it is possible to get. But this was no ham-fisted attempt: here was an adventure bike that was very close to being the equal of long-standing models from BMW and KTM, even managing to incorporate new technology in the form of self-lowering at standstill rear suspension. Harley-Davidson not only stepped into new territory but also stepped up to the plate and was not found wanting. The future of this most traditional of manufacturers all of a sudden looks very interesting.