Elefant vs R100GS
Mass sales of large capacity trail bikes have so far eluded the UK
importers despite the fact they are the marketing success story in the rest of
Europe. The reason is probably the fact that the style base is the Paris-Dakar
rally, and media coverage and involvement this side of la manche is
minimal compared to the three weeks of overkill the French, Italians and Spanish
get every January. The reigning champions of the Dakar are Cagiva with their 900
Elefant, a fearsome machine in works guise with a seat height of nearly 40in!
Fortunately, the production replica is a good bit lower but is still a pretty
But if you're looking for a benchmark in the big-cube trail arena, it has got
to be the BMW R100GS, the longest lived, if not the most popular bike in this
particular niche of the market. In some ways it was BM that started the ball
rolling with their Paris-Dakar achievements with a very long legged -
literally and metaphorically - and highly tuned version of their Boxer twin.
But unlike their late-arriving Japanese and Italian counterparts they didn't
offer a production version with an evocative name like Tenere or Tuareg. You can
even understand Morini using the model name Camel, but what about the Cagiva
Elefant? It doesn't exactly conjure images of a svelte desert racer; perhaps it
was named after that ancient geneticist Hannibal who crossed the Alps with an
elephant. Was he hoping for a camellike quadruped with snow-capped humps and a
trunk? Whatever, Cagiva have produced a winning machine this year using the fuel
injected V-twin motor more usually found in a hard charging road bike, so the
formula isn't that different to the one employed by BMW.
The Elefant's power comes via the 900SS, its 904ccs being produced by a very
fat 92 x 64mm bore and stroke running a compression of 9.2:1. Carbs are
dispensed with in favour of indirect fuel injection controlled by the obligatory black
box. Standard Cagiva practice runs through the rest of the power train with a
hydraulically operated dry seven-plate clutch feeding the five-speed box.
Cooling is taken care of by both air and oil, the latter being pumped through
two radiators. It's necessary, too, as most of the motor is covered by plastic
bodywork. Unlike the sports road bikes, the. Elefant's frame is a fairly
standard tubular cradle but with a few rectangular struts bolted on to hang
things from. The rear end is suspended by Soft-Damp which is Cagiva's name for
their monoshock rising-rate link, with the damp bit being provided by Öhlins. Up
front you've got the solid 42mm Marzocchi fork holding a 19in front wheel shod
with a 100/90 boot. The rear sports a useful 140/80x17in doughnut.
BMW's power plant should be well known to most. The actual capacity is bigger
than the Elefant at 979cc with its dustbin lids measuring 94 x 70.6mm. The old
flat twin has undergone a few changes over recent years apart from capacity
increase; the rocker gear receiving the most attention. Various carbs have done
service and the ones presently fitted are 40mm Bing instruments. Perhaps the
100GS's biggest claim to fame is its Paralever rear suspension, which also
graces the K1. BMW also use a Marzocchi fork but with 2mm smaller diameter
stanchions. Another similarity is the use of an oil cooler to stabilise running
temperatures, though with a cylinder stuck out in the breeze either side its job
is less demanding than those fitted to the Cagiva. Other than this, BM make no
real concession to the engine for off road use. The Metzeler tyres are fitted to
rims of more conventional size if not construction, 21 in at the front and 17
rear. BM's ace in this department is the spoking pattern on those alloy rims
which are laced to the hubs by spokes from the outside of the rim and so
can be replaced without removing the tyre. That's about as high-tech as this
dirt boxer gets.
Funny how time alters things really, the R80GS was launched in the company of
much less porcine, single-cylinder trail bikes and was considered by many at the
time to be something of a lorry, ill-suited to off road use. Then the biggest
got bigger - the 100GS arrived and the handling improved with the double-knuckle
rear end. Luckily for BMW, Yamaha brought out their Super Tenere, and although
it has style aplenty, it is very big for a trail bike and even less well-suited
to dirt. The BMW suddenly seemed well-behaved by comparison, so my reaction when
faced with the Elefant for the first time is probably best left to your
It isn't much different to the Super Tenere in size, but it does look more
foreboding with that mass of plastic up top. Throwing a leg across doesn't do
anything to diminish first impressions either, the seat is high and hard and the
rear end doesn't settle to allow a comfortable foot to be planted either side.
But as is often the case with first impressions, they can be deceptive. Once
fired and rolling the Cagiva becomes more 'normal'. The tyres help a good bit,
even if they have a compromise tread pattern, as the profile is strictly road
orientated and there's enough rubber in contact with the tarmac to handle the
power under most conditions.
Speaking of power, we can safely say that the Elefant is the most powerful
production trailbike available, even if Cagiva are coy about putting a figure on
it. The benefit of the fuel injection can be felt in the smoothness and pace of acceleration and
gone is the hesitation sometimes felt on big vees when a large handful is
applied at low revs. In every roll-on test we tried, in any gear, the Cagiva
stomped away from the BM. The injection system also makes sure that the
carburation is perfectly balanced between the cylinders which removes virtually
all the roughness that can affect normally carburated engines. This means that
the Elefant has an unexpected lack of vibration all through the rev range - just
as well as the plank-like seat would soon induce numb bum syndrome.
As the fuel has to be pumped up to pressure for the injection system, the
petrol tank can be carried low either side of the motor and help keep down the
centre of gravity, something that the layout of the motor is inherently good at
anyway. Despite all this the bike still feels high, that front wheel is a long
way from the rider. In handling terms, the bike will drop into turns if you let
it but it is easy enough to pick up on the throttle. It helps if you drive the
bike through corners, slow in and power out. Braking deep into a corner then
throwing it over can cause the odd moment due to the change in attitude caused
by the long-travel suspension. The forks work superbly well in both directions but the rear suspension would be
better matched if the spring was softer. Perhaps the strong spring rate is
needed to stop the back end squatting down too much under hard acceleration or
for off road use.
Braking is adequate for a big trail bike with the Nissin caliper having a
firm grip on the front disc; don't worry about there only being one, the forks
aren't likely to flex. The rear brake can be a little sharp but unlike the BM's
at least you can feel it.
By contract, the BM as a roadbike is more flickable and has more grunt at
very low revs, but this aside it feels like what it is, a machine from an
You're also stuck with the torque and shaft reaction even though the latter
is much alleviated by the Paralever. This was amply illustrated during a couple
of trips into soft sand where the BM just dug its rear wheel in despite having
more suitable tyres. The Cagiva was easier to roll over the top with. We can't
pretend that either of these bikes are ideal trail machines but the BM with its
low down torque and longer throttle action is easier for the novice to handle.
If you're capable of riding bikes very fast off road and don't mind an abundance
of wheel spin, I suspect you could have loads of fun on the Elefant.
The BM still has many virtues, its tractable power and comfort being the main
ones. The riding position is more relaxed than on the Cagiva which tucks the
knees up a bit more. For town use, the BM could use an inch off either end of
the bars which are wide even for the long armed. The seat does have the edge on
the Cagiva despite having to absorb more vibes from the engine though most
vibration is felt through the footrests. One criticism though, the rear brake
lever is tucked tight into the right pot and can be elusive to a motocross boot.
The brake itself isn't massive which makes you rely more heavily on the front Brembo (the
German machine has Italian stoppers and the Italian has Oriental brakes?). Using
the front brake hard produces the old BM trait of excessive fork dive, not
helpful if you need to apply it when cranked over.
Fork dive aside, the GS handles well. The Paralever back end allows the
considerable engine braking to be used - much more than with any ordinary
shaft-drive system. This is true also of downchanges where the characteristic
tyre squeal is noticeably absent. The BM's box, however, still needs time, regardless of which way
you're changing. The Italian's cogs, by contrast, are swapped effortlessly.
Given that the GS isn't quite in the same go-for-it league as the Cagiva, it can
still provide what traditional BMW riders like to refer to as the 'true spirit
of motorcycling' on twisty A-roads. In fact, the twistier the roads get, so the
gap between the bikes narrows with the Cagiva eventually becoming a point and
squirt machine. The GS will just roll on until it runs out of ground clearance;
admittedly, this this is well before the Cagiva. The GS is a much less frantic performer and doesn't tempt the rider
to explore limits in the same way as the Cagiva.
The Elefant is a high profile machine and certainly won't disappoint anyone
prepared to pay the eight grand-ish price (available in limited numbers from
Three Cross Motorcycles). The styling is superb and, for once, 'Italian style'
is not a euphemism for poor engineering. The exhaust system illustrates this
best perhaps: it's virtually all hidden until the upswept silencer pops out
under its brushed aluminium cover (Yamaha eat your heart out). Everything is as it should be - nothing catches the eye
to make you think they could have done better; the reversed rear brake lever and
master cylinder are tucked into the sumpguard, and on the other side the fuel
pump takes its place. Even the plumbing to the twin oil colours in the fairing
looks thought out. Instruments and switches are on par with most sports-tourers
and the neat clocks are set in a soft rubber facia. There's even a digital time
piece so you can keep to all those important schedules.
As a race replica the Elefant comes closer than most: colours, striping and
decals are all there. Even the suspension is pretty close to the real thing but
the bike, unlike some, doesn't fall down in the user friendly department. This
almost puts the bike in a class of its own, particularly when you feed power
into the equation. In the end it is a very able touring machine with some
off-road capability. The BM is still the benchmark, but looks low-tech in
comparison. But if you want the ultimate sports touring trail bike, then the
Cagiva Elefant is it.
Source Motorcycle International 1990