See what we think about the best of the best

As another year ticks away, MotoUSA ushers in 2016 by looking back at the best of 2015. Our annual Best of Awards follow the familiar pattern, with 12 categories ranging from Industry Leader and Rider of the Year to our bike selections, including Motorcycle of the Year. MotoUSA thanks all of you, our readers, for supporting the website and magazine. We wish you a Happy New Year and another season of good riding!

Industry Leader: Roland Sands

The AMA selected Wayne Rainey as its 2015 Motorcyclist of the Year for his leadership of the inaugural MotoAmerica season. It’s a recognition we’d second by selecting Rainey as our pick for Industry Leader, except we already did exactly that in last year’s Best of Awards! While we acknowledge Rainey’s work and wish for his continued success, MotoUSA names Roland Sands as Industry Leader for 2015.

Sands is no stranger to the limelight, having played the role of industry “cool kid” for going on a decade or more. In recent years, however, Sands’ design input has crossed over from custom builder status to mainstream production models. And Sands hasn’t restricted himself to one manufacturer either, the former racer having worked with several brands including BMW, Indian, Victory and Yamaha.

The BMW R nineT, a surprising hit for BMW, reflected Sands’ styling influence, and the German marque touted Sands’ input on its intriguing Concept 101 Bagger earlier this year. When Yamaha hyped its FZ-09 turned street-tracker XSR900, Roland Sands was invited to display his take on the concept. When Indian wanted to promote its new Scout Sixty, they got Sands to customize some stock units into flat track-ish hooligan bikes. Same goes for when Indian promoted its new Thunder Stroke 111 Twin by showcasing the engine in a racing-inspired tracker custom build designed by you know who. Roland Sands holds a lot of sway as an influencer of taste in the motorcycle industry.

Rider of the Year: Ryan Dungey

Yes, Rider of the Year should have been Valentino Rossi … but then there was that whole #SepangClash kerfuffle. Or ROY should have been Ryan Villopoto, who’d conclude his racing career by extending his domination of American MX/SX into the FIM MX Championship … but that didn’t quite pan out either. Instead, MotoUSA’s Rider of the Year honors go to Ryan Dungey, who swept the 2015 AMA Supercross and Motocross titles for KTM.

Dungey goes about the business of winning championships without controversy or braggadocio. He’s been overshadowed by past rivals, as he’s not the outright fastest (James Stewart) or most dominant (Ryan Villopoto) rider of his generation. But Dungey is the most consistent rider. He may not win every race or moto, but his presence on the podium is virtually guaranteed. And perhaps an even more important factor in Dungey’s career success is he’s managed to remain consistently healthy. Mr. Consistent isn’t the flashiest of titles, but Dungey’s 2015 campaign speaks for itself. Another pair of number-1 plates in the premier class makes for another banner year and ROY honors.

Manufacturer of the Year: Polaris Industries

Polaris Industries continues to rake in piles of cash from its UTV business, where it dominates the domestic market. But the Minnesota-based company’s success in its two-wheeled enterprises are what earn MotoUSA’s designation as 2015 Manufacturer of the Year. Polaris continued to carve into Harley-Davidson’s market share backed by the success of Indian, which essentially doubled year-over-year sales figures. Matched up in head-to-head comparisons, more often than not the Indian bike outpaces its Harley rival – most recently with the all-new Scout model. Indian continues to grow.

It’s not all sunshine and daisies for Polaris’ motorcycle business, as the Victory marque has suffered some decline to contrast Indian’s boom. Despite this, Victory retains a strong brand identity, including a particularly loyal relationship with American veterans. And Polaris seems to be hinting at new direction for the Victory marque, supporting an NHRA team in 2015 and building the Project 156 Pikes Peak racer, as well as assigning the electric-powered, Brammo-derived Empulse Victory badging and racing it at the Isle of Man.

And then there’s the Slingshot … it’s not a UTV, but it ain’t no two-wheeler either. Polaris has spun the three-wheeler off into its own separate brand, serving its own unique market segment. And Polaris has sold a lot of them. In the Q3 financial statement Polaris claimed sales had exceeded company expectations to the point where dealer inventories, despite being 30% higher this year, can’t “meet current and backlogged retail demand.” In other words, Slingshots are so popular Polaris can’t make ‘em fast enough. Not the worst problem to have for a manufacturer!

Best Cruiser: Indian Scout

Given our choice for Manufacturer of the Year, the selection of the Indian Scout as the Best Cruiser of 2015 should come as no surprise. Resurrecting a classic model name like the Scout is a delicate task and easily fumbled. But the all-new 2015 Scout isn’t just an acceptable first attempt, it’s a prime example of Polaris engineering relaunching the Indian brand as a genuine challenger to its domineering American rival.

Powered by a revvy 1133cc V-Twin mated to a capable chassis, the Scout delivers invigorating performance on the road. It delivers an affordable point of entry to the Indian brand (a role further extended by its 2016 Scout Sixty sibling) and defeated the Sportster in our head-to-head comparison. The Motor Company still owns the domestic market but will keep giving ground until it ups its game. If the Scout spurs H-D into improving, or even (gasp) reimagining its Sportster design, the winner will be motorcycle consumers.

Best Sportbike: BMW S1000RR

Up until a month ago, the redesigned Yamaha R1 was the shoe-in selection for sportbike of the year, but then a “do not ride” recall grounded the nearly 3,000 units sold in the U.S., as some faulty gears require a complete transmission change. The massive recall blemishes an otherwise impressive redesign effort from Yamaha, with the all-new R1 claiming top honors in the track portion of MotoUSA’s 2015 Superbike Smackdown. However, there is an easy backup pick for Best Sportbike in BMW’s S1000RR.

The S1000RR has won Best Sportbike multiple times in the past, and the updated 2015 model is improved over its predecessor. In fact, while the BMW placed runner-up to the Yamaha on the track, the S1000RR actually bested the R1 during the street portion of our Superbike Smackdown. The S1000RR still delivers phenomenal engine performance, and the 2015 version has an even more refined electronics package.

Best Street Bike: Tuono V4 1100 RR

Last year’s Best Street Bike selection, the KTM 1290 Super Duke R, was the biggest, baddest V-Twin on the road, destroying its fellow Twins in a Streetfighter Shootout. The beast from KTM was 1301cc of exhilaration and pure hooliganism incarnate. It was unbeatable, or at least so we thought … but a funny thing happened when we tested the KTM against its latest 2015 rivals: Aprilia’s Tuono V4 1100 RR beat the 1290 Super Duke head-to-head.

This fact alone testifies that the latest Tuono is something special. For 2015 Aprilia beefed up its already potent V4 with an extra 78cc of displacement, as well as several electronic and chassis enhancements derived from the RSV4 Superbike. Reasons for the Tuono’s success include the fast and thrilling V-Four, which proves a unique and engaging engine platform. There’s the flawless Sachs suspension, the functional and customizable electronics suite, the exquisite handling capabilities. Everything works well, but the Tuono embodies the age old dictum that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Best Touring Bike: BMW K1600GTL

Touring bikes are an expansive category, which encompass a vast range of models. And within this segment there are levels of specialization that make it difficult to distinguish a stand-out favorite. Truth be told, some of us rate the latest Adventure-Touring mounts the best long-distance touring rigs thanks to their upright stances and ample leg room. However, there remains some stalwart Touring bikes (touring with a capital T!) purpose-built for comfortable and luxurious long-distance riding. In this regard, MotoUSA returns to a familiar favorite in the BMW K1600GTL.

Powered by BMW’s Inline Six, the K1600GTL continues to deliver a riding experience that is both comfortable and exhilarating. If that sounds paradoxical, one only needs to crack open the GTL’s throttle. Performance from the Inline Six is supported by all the touring amenities expected from a BMW, putting the luxury in luxury-touring for both the rider and passenger. Well, the $23,995 MSRP also puts the luxury in there too …

Best Adventure Bike: KTM 1190 Adventure R

The 2015 KTM 1190 Adventure R again reigns as the best all-around adventure bike. The most dirt-oriented of the KTM Adventure bikes, the 1190 R is able to conquer off-road terrain that leaves lesser bikes in its dust thanks to long suspension travel, impressive ground clearance and dirt-focused 21”/18” wheels. The Superbike-derived powerplant provides incredible power, but the ample torque is harnessed via sophisticated electronics, including a traction control system that allows a multitude of choices to suit any terrain. The 1190 R’s ABS system can also be tuned for the surface and style of riding. While other bikes in the Adventure-Touring class skew more toward performance on the pavement, the 2015 KTM 1190 Adventure R is all about off-road performance – where the real adventuring occurs.

Best Dual-Sport Bike: Husqvarna FE 501 S

When it comes to a dual-sport bike as capable off road as any true enduro bike, the Husqvarna FE 501 S can’t be matched. Yes, it has very close ties to the KTM 500 EXC, but there are plenty of distinguishing features. For example, the FE 501 S sources a WP 4CS fork and its shock uses linkage, while the KTM is a PDS system. Even if it were a direct clone, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, as the KTM 500 EXC has long been the standard for a true off-road performance dual-sport. In back-to-back testing of the Husky 501 S against the KTM 500 EXC, we preferred the overall balance of the Husky suspension. The engines, because they’re identical, perform virtually the same. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, as the thumping Single proves ideal for off-road work. The FE 501 S is an FE 501 enduro bike with the necessities to make it street legal. In other words, this is as close as you get to a full-on dirt bike that won’t get you pulled over.

Best Enduro Bike: KTM 250/300 XC

In a world of sophisticated four-strokes and fuel injection, it is hard not to gravitate toward the simplicity of a two-stroke off-road enduro machine. The 2015 KTM 250/300 XC two-stroke is the bike that dares riders to challenge the nastiest terrain around or simply enjoy a day exploring flowing single-track. The KTM two-stroke engine lugs down incredibly low, providing traction in slippery conditions while the overall light weight of the XC preserves rider strength. Another big plus for riders who wrench on their own bikes: Maintenance of a two-stroke is remedial in comparison to a four-stroke, appealing to those who don’t mind mixing gas and hitting the trail. Forget what you’ve heard, two-strokes aren’t dead!

Best Motocross Bike: Yamaha YZ450F (2016)*

The 2016 Yamaha YZ450F wasn’t an easy choice for Best Motocross bike, much like it wasn’t an easy win for it in the MotoUSA 450 shootout against the all-new KTM 450 SX-F. The 2016 YZ450F is proof that great suspension trumps weight and horsepower, providing an easy-to-ride, great-handling bike. This was the year of air fork versus spring fork in the motocross world, and spring forks proved dominant. The crystal ball tells us more and more bikes will come with air forks in the future, as they are lighter and cheaper to manufacture. Will the 2017 Yamaha YZ450F, with the most revered suspension in the class, go the way of air in the future? We hope not.

*Alright, simmer down! Yes, we realize that this year MotoUSA broke with protocol and selected a 2016 model for its Best of 2015 Awards selection. We started this exception because our Best of Awards almost always come after the most current model year’s MX bikes have been rated and reviewed – effectively making our Best Motocross pick a year behind and sometimes at odds with our opinions developed in the latest Motocross Shootouts. This exception is for the MX bike selection only.

Motorcycle of the Year: Kawasaki H2/R

Selecting Motorcycle of the Year is usually a contentious affair, but this year seemed like a no-brainer with the impressive, practically faultless R1 … but then we had to recall that idea and put our heads together once again, and MotoUSA selects the Kawasaki H2/R 2015 as Motorcycle of the Year.

The H2 and H2R garnered much attention thanks, of course, to its supercharger design and the R model’s 300 horsepower claims. The extended teaser campaign before the H2’s official debut may have been tedious hype at times, but the finished product delivered the goods. The H2/R design showcased engineering input from across Kawasaki’s organization, including its aerospace division. And in a class where engine specs and performance are so close they verge on uniformity, the H2 was radically different thanks to its supercharger. And different is interesting. Plus, the bike looked pretty cool too.

Detractors may write off the track-only H2R as a $50,000 special-order, engineering showpiece. They can also whine that the street-legal base model H2 weighs 525 pounds and puts out only 200 horsepower – relatively heavy when it comes to the current Superbike class, a handful of which make 200-hp claims of their own. The H2’s $25,000 MSRP is also on the steep side too, but it’s not outlandish. In fact, it’s comparable with some top-spec Superbikes, such as the Ducati 1299 S, and is actually more affordable than several production models in the Harley-Davidson lineup. Pricing is part of the H2’s allure – it is attainable unobtanium.

Even viewed solely as an engineering concept, the H2/R design deserves recognition. It displays the engineering might of Kawasaki Heavy Industries and hints at future developments for motorcycling. It’s an ambitious design worthy of Motorcycle of the Year honors.