Review: 2013 BMW R1200GS

It seems that everyone in the news is getting excited about the enhanced flavour of BMW’s water-cooled R1200GS Adventure, but I’m too short to be interested in something that’s even taller than the standard GS. Plus, I hate spoked wheels, and don’t have any intention of taking a 250kg motorcycle off-road. And I’ve never actually ridden a GS of any variety, so last weekend I headed down to Bahnstormers in Alton and tried out their two big boxers – the GS and the R1200RT. I’ve already written about my experiences riding their epic tourer, so what was the best-selling adventure bike like?

For starters, it looks tall. Really, really tall. The effect is pronounced by the 19″ front wheel, raised instrument cluster and tall handlebars, but parked up next to my diminutive Street Triple you realise that it’s nowhere near as monstrous as the photos make it look.

On paper the new water-cooled Gelände-Strasse (terrain-road) weighs 238kg, 12kg less than my Suzuki Bandit 650 – but a significant 56kg more than the Triumph. Pushing the bike around the parking lot at the dealer, the weight was certainly evident, and the high bars actually made it quite tricky to move it around whilst off the bike. I’ll admit that I was starting to get rather worried.

Climbing onto the seat, the 30mm height difference over my Street Triple was immediately obvious. I could flat-foot one leg, but only tiptoe with both, the narrower profile created by the repositioned airbox allowing a more stable footing compared to the air-cooled RT. The ultra-wide handlebars meant balancing on one leg was fine, although I wouldn’t have minded a slightly lower suspension setup in my case.

After Tom from BMW had explained the switchgear (even more complex than that on the RT), I set the suspension, riding mode, traction control and ABS settings, as well as activating the heated grips and playing with the new LED daytime running lights. These deserve a mention, as they mean that for the first time in about a decade a new motorcycle comes with the option of switching the main beams off during the day. Not sure if that’s worth the extra cash, but if you’re planning on running loads of electrical accessories perhaps every watt counts.

Thumbing the starter it quickly became clear why this new engine was a big deal for BMW. Redesigned from the ground up and featuring a new counter-balancer and wet-clutch gearbox, the new power-plant doesn’t shake anywhere near as much as the old one when firing up. The torque reaction is reduced by the new lighter internals, and the gearbox now makes a distinctly Japanese “clunk” when dropping into first.

Pulling away was a surprise as well; the engine revs up far, far faster than a 1200cc twin has any right to, with an extremely sensitive fly-by-wire throttle. Changing up into second, I misjudged the amount of throttle and the biting point of the ultra-light clutch and almost dropped Rosa off the back as the bike surged forward. This thing is fast.

Single-sided swingarm, Brembo brakes, quality suspension...the 'R' is in the name!

Single-sided swingarm, Brembo brakes, quality suspension…the ‘R’ is in the name!

In fact, speed is my overriding memory of my ride on the GS. Sure, the suspension was extremely competent, the steering light and precise, and the seating position comfortable and confidence inspiring, but all my attention was focused on my right wrist. After a while I stopped bothering to change down from 6th, there was so much torque available even at lower speeds. It’s easy to see how people pull wheelies on these things so easily.

The free-revving nature of the engine is closer to my 675cc triple than the heavy oil-cooled lump in the older RT, and even in over an hour of twisty roads and dual carriageways I never quite got the hang of clutched up-shifts, constantly over-estimating how much throttle was required when rev matching. Track days on an overgrown trail bike like this suddenly don’t seem silly anymore.

That’s not to say that the bike’s low-speed manners have been fouled by the new power plant. A good quarter mile of road was under several inches of water, and desperate to avoid putting my foot down I was very pleased to find that I could hold the GS upright almost at a standstill, even with a passenger. The bike is beautifully balanced, and the three suspension modes (Soft, Normal and Hard) make less of a difference than they seemed to on the RT, whilst remaining useful.

On my own, with the suspension set to single-rider, the reduced preload lowered the bike closer to the ground (I daresay BMW’s pillion setting assumes a heavier combined load than Rosa’s tiny frame offers!) making footing even easier. U-turns were a complete joke; the steering lock and light clutch mean I could turn this bike around your kitchen. I would never have guessed the wet weight was so high if I’d not seen it written down beforehand.

Boxer engines carry weight low in the frame

Boxer engines carry weight low in the frame

Heated grips could have benefited from a setting between low and off, just like on the RT, and I still don’t like short-travel indicator switchgear. I had to use the instruments to check whether I’d hit the switch almost every time. Speaking of which, the instruments seemed hard to read with the sun low in the sky.

The speedometer is less than helpful, being analogue with tiny numbers, and the deceptive way the bike builds speed means that avoiding tickets could be a challenge. The factory-option GPS mount obscures the tachometer, and the (also factory-option) tinted windshield obscures the road ahead in all but its lowest setting. At least adjustment is easy, and at the higher setting I was able to almost eliminate buffeting, if not to quite the same degree as on the RT.

I was also surprised to find that the brakes didn’t have the same initial bite as on the far heavier RT, despite being equipped with the latest Brembo monoblock radial calipers and steel brake lines. Stopping power was certainly there with a slightly firmer squeeze, so I’m sure it’s all a question of feel vs bite. And I have to confess that both Rosa and I were suffering from numb bums after just 45 minutes of riding. Perhaps the comfort seat option isn’t really an option for us?

The mirrors looked small, but were vibration free and easy to adjust for a good view. My personal feeling was that they seemed a little of an afterthought. With so much of the bike benefiting from a strong vision of industrial design, like some sort of alien insect, these slightly downmarket-looking mirrors were a bit of a disappointment.

But in all honesty, I’m really nitpicking here. The bike is comfortable to ride, has more than enough power, excellent brakes and suspension and with hand guards, heated grips and every accessory under the sun available, this really could be the do-everything bike I have been looking for. Track days or trans-continental riding would be a breeze on this, and the light weight and low-speed balance might even tempt me to try some light greenlaning.

The biggest sticking point for me, as with the RT, is the cost. With the RT I worried that the investment would be something of a waste, as the sheer bulk would be too much for me to use one for threading through morning traffic. The GS would actually be better at this than my Triumph, and with fuel economy in the mid-50’s during my 60 miles of mixed riding it’d be even cheaper to run.

But there’s no escaping the purchase price of almost £15,000 for the Touring Edition, otherwise known as the bike you actually want to buy (the vanilla GS doesn’t even have heated grips, never mind the suspension, traction control or riding modes, and the panniers and top box are around £1000 extra). And with even more electronics comes even more trepidation at owning one of these modern techno-wonders out of warranty.

Yes, I'd like one. But £15k?

Yes, I’d like one. But £15k?

I think BMW are a step ahead of me on this one, with Bahnstormers happily recommending PCP as the way to buy a new BMW of any variety. Low(ish) payments, you get a new bike every three years and never have to worry about anything failing out-of-warranty. The downsides are that you’re limited on annual mileage, lose any accessories you bolt on afterwards and never ever stop paying for it.

Even so, for me, for all that performance, it might be worth it sooner rather than later…

Bonus Round: The View From The Back Seat

The GS benefitted from its narrower seat during the initial phase of pillion riding. Getting on was easy. Hanging on was more of a challenge, as the model we rode had no top box – and by extension, no back rest – and the grab rails were not by themselves sufficient under the bike’s considerabe acceleration. The tactic I used to employ on Nick’s VFR (one arm around the rider, one on a grab rail) was the only way to stay onboard. The lack of a heated seat, and what I perceived to be a slightly more vibey ride, gave a more conventional impression of pillion riding on the GS as compared to the RT, and I suspect that whilst it would still be survivable on long days in the saddle, more breaks would be needed. Then again, compared to the RT almost any non-thoroughbred tourer would suffer from a comfort perspective. – Rosa