One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote up was going on about how many great motorcycles there were (and a lot of them were BMWs), but when I actually finally bought one, I forgot to mention it! This post is to correct that oversight.
I’ve been in love with BMW motorcycles since cutting class back in high school. Looking back, it seems somewhat apropos that my dad told me motorcycles were for rebels and those were the shops I most wanted to frequent as a truant. The best of them was Iron Horse Motorcycles. Around 1995-1996 I simply couldn’t stop daydreaming about owning and riding a green R850R. Sure, the 1100 had more power, but what did I know about motorcycles? I wouldn’t be able to use all that “oomph” anyway and an 850cc motor just sounded so strange and intriguing to me. And the 850 was cheaper, so easier to imagine affording someday. (Later my daydreams dropped in scope to an MuZ Skorpion 660cc single cylinder because it was only $6000 and even closer to being attainable.)
Anyone who’s read my other motorcycle posts knows that Harleys have just never done it for me (though Buells did). They’re too dime-a-dozen, or appear that way because of Japanese knock-offs, and bolting on Arlen Ness or factory parts is a cheesy way to call it “custom”. But BMW? It was just so… odd! And delightfully so, with a long heritage of building tough and reliable bikes. I was hooked, and I’ve never kicked the desire to own a BMW R-series bike since then. (I should probably go for the full effect and listen to some old Pearl Jam or Weezer’s blue album while I type this.)
So now that I own one, what’s the verdict? Is it everything I hoped for and more, or have years of dreaming about one led to the reality becoming a let-down? The truth is, it’s a little bit of both, so let’s dive in.
The bike itself is great as an all-around bike. I’m not a moto-journalist and can’t tell you how it handles or performs any better they’ve already done here, here, and here. What I can do though is talk about what it’s like to actually live with. Where I love it, but also where BMW Motorrad got it wrong.
I bought this bike when I was living in Las Vegas, NV because I wanted a standard motorcycle and this was the best option. I don’t care for feet forward cruisers because I want better control for tight turns in mountains and canyons, but my commute was 40 minutes of straight and boring highway so a sport bike was ruled out for luggage limitations and wrist strain. With no Triumph or Ducati dealers in town (Bonneville or Monster) and all the Japanese bikes looking rather garish, the only other option that appealed to me was Haley-Davidson. I came very, very close to buying one, but the only bikes without forward controls were Sportsters with fuel tank issues; they were either too small for my commute to be practical, or plastic and had issues with warping in the XR1200.
The ergonomics and power on the R1200R made it a no-brainer.
The 2011 R1200R got a revised head based off the HP2 and it makes plenty of power. BMW’s “1200” is actually 1,170 cc and slightly smaller than Harley’s 1,203 cc motor, but it makes far more horsepower and torque (which Harley always touts). But this does come at a price, as Harleys tend to get better gas mileage and I only average 42 mpg (USA). Not bad (gas mileage and tank size are why I opted against a Diavel), but for my Vegas commute I’d have appreciated even better. The power is addicting though, and the number one reason I hesitate when I start thinking about trading it for something else. I don’t feel a real need for more power though I wouldn’t call the Roadster overpowered either. I’d just hate to knowingly get with fewer ponies because twisting the throttle to escape any car I choose on the Interstate is immensely rewarding. And a big reason I bought this bike was the power and the sound of the exhaust- it was perfect just as delivered from the factory. I love that it’s not too loud and obnoxious (seriously, I hate loud, obnoxious pipes), but it’s got just the right amount of snarl. I refer to it as the Gentleman Hooligan.
Speaking of gentlemanly behavior, my bike has anti-lock brakes and traction control, both great features. BMW has now made ABS standard across all their bikes, and I applaud them for it, because despite the protestations of old know-it-alls the fact is a panic stop is exactly that: panic. Grabbing a fistful of brake and not losing control in an emergency is invaluable. Traction control can be turned off if I feel like lofting the front wheel in a “display of speed and power” (the ticket written for wheelies in Tucson), but the reality is it kept me from going ass-over-teakettle on some remarkably slick roads in Las Vegas. It may be more computer controlled complication, but they’re sure nice to have and safety features are hard to bemoan.
Another of my favorite aspects to the bike is how well designed it is. The rails for the panniers integrate almost seamlessly and the quick-release for them is great. On and locked or off the naked-looking bike in 30 seconds and it looks natural in either state. Harley made a big deal about this capability (and named yet another motorcycle, the Switchback, after one silly feature) that BMW has incorporated for years. I like being able to rest my feet out on the cylinders on the highway, but have my engine stay cool when stopped in the desert because the jugs are actually out in the wind to be cooled. I like the dash display more than many other bikes, and liking the looks of the dash is important since it’s the part of the bike you should be seeing most often!
So why does trading it in for something else cross my mind every now and then? Mostly the aesthetics of the Classic trim package. It looks good at first blush, but before long it begins to feel like it doesn’t really fit with the character of the bike. Frankly, I think the bike looks more genuine in a flat, more modern color and wheels. In particular, pay attention to the hand rails of the tail section, and the taillight- there’s just no way to vintage-ify it. The angles there and on the frame are just… Well, wrong for a “classic” motif. The sharp angles cut into the tank for riders’ knees and the telelever front suspension (the part with the spring behind the forks)… In the darker shade they blend better, but the bright paint in Classic trim just shows how modern it is and conflicts with the rest of the bike’s theme. (I also think the frame should have stayed black, rather than drawing attention to itself.) Look back at the R850R picture and you can see how much softer the whole look of the bike is. It would just lend itself to the paint scheme, chrome, and spoked wheels so much easier. One of Dieter Rams’ ten principles of good design states “Good design is honest”, and the classic package on this particular bike just doesn’t seem very honest at all. Such a modern design splashed with affectations of yore rings false.
Look at the above photo of the post-2011 all kitted out and it seems natural. But a tank bag on the Classic package would cover the only visible (to the rider) part of the racing stripe. I suppose if I add the rear top case I could repaint it and continue the racing stripe there…? I jest, of course, and I realize quite a bit of riding a motorcycle is suiting one’s vanities at the expense of practicality. The Classic just strikes me as a bit too far since touring would leave only the wheels, front fender, and exhaust to truly stand out.
There are two options to correct what I perceive as a grievance- either strip it off to resemble an un-optioned bike or take the retro theme even further. I’m opting for the latter, because it’ll look good and be less expensive than buying a new set of cast wheels and exhaust.
Finding chrome valve covers for the post-’11 hex head is tricky and they’re $350 US each. Ouch. I’ll opt instead for this retro looking crash bar that’s half the cost of a single cover and looks like it came straight off an old R60. It’s from Wunderlich, a company with the sole focus of creating products for BMW motorcycles, and the chrome finish should compliment the exhaust and mirrors, while it’s simple line looks perfectly at home next to the broad white racing stripe.
Speaking of the racing stripe, the bike simply needs more of it! Since the tail section doesn’t have a rear fender like more classically styled (or truly vintage) motorcycles for the flash of contrasting paint to display itself across, this front fender also offered by Wunderlich looks like the perfect device way to be a little more showy even when using a tank bag. With a truly clear windscreen it should display the continuing stripe much better, it gives the bike another much more pronounced retro nod to the cafe racers of yore, and should provide some more wind protection than my currently fitted “sport” shield pretty handily. Which leads to my only other real gripe…
The bike itself is fairly quiet and pleasant, but the wind noise is bizarrely LOUD. The little sport windshield does a wonderful job of keeping wind blast off my torso and making a ride comfortable, but the noise roaring in my helmet is insane. I’ve taken the shield off, and it’s better at times but then I feel battered at speed. A Triumph Bonneville is still dead silent at the same speeds, so all I can figure is it’s being caused by turbulence coming off the instrument cluster. On my long commutes to and from Vegas it wasn’t uncommon for me to actually stand up on the pegs just to get my helmet into clean and undisturbed air for some silence. Hopefully a new windshield will correct this.
The only other quibble I could muster is the hard luggage. I love the quick on-and-off and that it’s keyed to the ignition, but the shape could use some tweaking. The bags are designed to accept a full face helmet and seemingly nothing else- they’re very wide, but despite the massive volume I can’t fit a 15″ laptop into them except at bizzare angles that take up most of the usable space. They’re a very poor physical profile for city commuting.
This seems somewhat long winded for only two real gripes of aesthetics and wind noise (bags can be taken off or replaced) and not nearly enough praise for a wonderful motorcycle. In standard paint, and for a different length torso or windshield this would very likely be the perfect all-around bike. Add luggage and handlebar-mount GPS for touring, the bike comes stock with power outlets for heated clothing. Strip it all off and blast through canyons at top speeds I’ll not admit to seeing. Or simply enjoy riding a unique and good-looking European bike as you strut around town to various coffee shops.
I don’t own any of the pictures used and I’m not advertising anything, these are simply my observations. But I can teel you this: finally owning a BMW R-series bike after years of fantasizing hasn’t been a let down at all, and if anything has only strengthened my affinity for the brand.
BMW. Das schnellste Motorrad der Welt.