R1200GS – Beautifully Teutonic or Ungainly?

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p1011117I was jazzed at the opportunity to test the new 2005 BMW R 1200 GS, but not particularly impressed by the choice of venue: Las Vegas.  I don’t really gamble and have a hard time sitting still through a stage show, though that last Siegfried and Roy show may have been interesting.  More importantly, I thought the roads around Vegas would be a bit tame for the stomping this new GS could dish out.  It wasn’t my call, however, and I loaded my dirt gear into the BMW-provided limo, rode from the airport to the flash hotel, and sipped complimentary cocktails as we waited for the official introduction.

BMW practically invented the Adventure Touring motorcycle with the 1980 R 80 G/S, a nice, comfortable street bike and a surprisingly good off-road performer.  Later, bigger GS models are more powerful and make great street bikes, but are also heavier, and can be a handful in the rough stuff.  BMW may have felt the heat from the new KTM 950, because they struck back right where, numbers-wise, they were beaten last year: they reduced weight by almost 70 pounds (30kg) and added 15 horsepower.

The 1200 is really a new design.  BMW says only 2% of the parts on this bike carry over from the previous R 1150 GS model.   They used some innovative ideas and automotive technologies, some of this stuff is really cool!

With all the improvements, the bike still looks and feels like a GS, not a radically new bike.  But its certainly smaller, narrower, and lighter looking and feeling.  Styling is certainly GS, beautifully Teutonic or ungainly, depending on your vantage point.  I think it looks great.

Getting on, I noticed that the seat is very comfortable, but also allows you to move around when needed.  The standard seat is adjustable to two heights.  I felt that it tipped me a bit too far forward, so I set the back of the seat to “low” and the front to “high.”  Perfect.  My long legs would have liked more distance between the seat and pegs, and BMW offers an accessory Tall seat for those like me.  With the standard seat, my feet were flat on the ground with slightly bent knees.  Not too many people will find this bike too tall, but BMW offers an accessory Short seat for those who need it.  Nice touches. 

Even though BMW’s itinerary of multi-course meals and high-end entertainment (the Blue Man Group and the USAF Thunder Birds) seriously cut into our riding time, we did get a session and ride with Jimmy Lewis, off-road racing legend and training guru.  Certainly the highlight of my trip.  Jimmy took us out to a dry lakebed and taught us some drills:  riding slow in a circle using the clutch, brakesliding, riding with the front wheel locked up (the ABS can be switched off for this), little wheelies, and panic stops.  Then, we went for a few hour trail ride.  Some singletrack, rocks, sand, and fireroads. 

The R 1200 GS is not a dirt bike.  Sure, the wide bars and torquey motor make it competent on a dirt road, but this bike was not designed to handle sand, rocks, bumps, or mud.  Yes, a competent rider can make it through just about anything on the GS, just don’t wick it up!  The front hunts and pushes in soft stuff, probably because of the same steep geometry and wider, smaller wheel that make it handle so well on the pavement.  The comfy street seat doesn’t let you move forward or back enough in the dirt.  The bars are too low, and the tool kit doesn’t have a wrench to loosen the torx-bolt clamps.  Landing off even small jumps feels and sounds like a train wreck.  Keep to an adventure touring pace off-road.  And, buy some accessory valve cover protectors if you plan to tip it over in the rocks.  One of the testers holed the magnesium cover, causing a messy oil leak. 

Street riding around Las Vegas, I didn’t get much of a feel for the bike.  The roads were too straight, it was too windy, and the corporate pace was sedate.  But they cut me loose a bit early so I could ride the GS back to San Francsico, and I picked the twistiest route I could make in a day.  This bike rips!  Really grunty off the bottom, excellent throttle response, decent, smooth power all the way to the rev limiter.  The GS has always been this way, and the 1200 is a GS with more.  This bike will continue the GS tradition of embarrassing sport bikes in their element. 

Coming through the Sierras on Hwy 89 and 88, I started to think about the ride.  I had been in the saddle 8 or 9 hours and I wasn’t fatigued at all.  This bike is very comfortable.  Great seat, good adjustable windscreen, wide bars, and very little vibration.  I was also laying down a decent pace without really trying.  Steering is light and neutral.  The suspension works great and the brakes are awesome.  The partially linked ABS gives you a little rear brake when you use the front, so I got lazy and just grabbed the brake lever late in corners.  The shaft drive doesn’t upset the chassis at all.  BMW’s telelever keeps the front from diving much, and the ABS kicks in nearly seamlessly, so you can rail without really concentrating on settling the chassis through turns.  I was spoiled.  Happy to have the heated grips going past open ski areas too. 

Even with my dirt bias, I really liked this bike, especially as a comfy way to spend a day or a week in the twisties.  But I have one big gripe.  BMW fans will tell you that the transmission is greatly improved.  I believe them.  But, if this transmission came on a new Yamaha, it would be replaced under warranty.  By today’s very high motorcycling standards, it is still clunky.  On both of the bikes I rode, each well broken-in with over 1500 miles, I had trouble upshifting without the clutch and I missed shifts.  I’m sure I could get used to it over time, but why?  Then there’s my little gripe: the fuel gauge with a sense of humor.  Not a terminal problem, but electrical glitches are a concern on a bike that could take you to Peru and back. 

At $15,100 USD ($17,850 CND), this beemer ain’t cheap.  Don’t buy this GS to go trail riding, and, for real adventure touring, a 10-year-old XT600 will get you in less trouble.  Buy it to get a bike you can use to chase repli-racers or Gold Wings all day, and then ride to a campsite far from the pavement.  Most importantly, buy it to own a GS.

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