2004 BMW R1200GS – Taking the Streets

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2004 BMW R1200GSWho am I to turn down the offer to ride the newest BMW offering, the ground-up reworking of the GS theme, the R1200GS.  Especially when that offer involves cavorting about the streets of San Francisco in a riot of location shots and twisty roads.  Right off the top I can tell you this; there is a major flaw with the bike, it’s so much fun you’ll be hard-pressed to find the time to clean it.  Which explains why in our photos it looks dirty, buggy, and a bit grimy – in short the prefered style for GSs this season.

The new generation GS is a bit more or a bit less of everything in comparison to it’s prodiginator R1150GS.  It’s a bit narrower and a bit more powerful; claimed output is up 18% bringing it to 100hp.  It’s a bit lighter after taking the Germanic version of the Atkins diet, having lost 66lbs/30kgs (let hope it can keep it off). The new bike holds a little less fuel at 20 litres but is purported to get a bit better mileage to make up for it.  The bags hold a bit more, and if that’s still not enough they now expand outwards.  It’s also just a little bit more stylish.  There are so many differences and upgrades from the R1150GS that one review can’t hope to cover them all.  So let’s get to the important part, how R1200GS rides.

It rides like this: “Shudder, Rattle, Bwaaaaaaaaaa-growl, Clunk, BwaaaaHAHAHAHAHAHA!  Hmmmmmmmmmm.”

Which is a technical way of saying that this bike’s engine is smoother than it’s rattling, torque-y, piston-slapping predecesesor 1150, but in comparison to a lot of others out there a lot of folks will still be talking about the R engine’s “character”.  Honestly though, the powerplant is much improved. For one, the balancer-shaft system that BMW has added to the R1200 engine has removed a lot of “vibe-vibe-vibe” and “shake” from the ride experience.  The balancer shaft turns in the opposite direction to the pistons and carries two balance weights 180 degrees apart, providing a counter-force to the mass in the crankshaft – according to the BMW tech folks anyway.  While this counter balancer system smooths out the 1170cc horizontal flat-twin, I could almost swear you can hear an additional noise as weights are frantically hustled back and forth – so that would be the “shudder” and “rattle”.

The “Bwaaaaaaaaaa-growl”?  You guessed it, those extra-smoother ponies.  With the R1200GS having up to a claimed 100hp at the rear wheel, you can feel the extra stomp in comparision to it’s forerunner.  But while an 18% gain looks huge on paper, the actual operational difference isn’t really told until you’re out on the road.  The 6th gear on the R1200GS is usable, whereas the powerplant on the R1150GS was feeling out of breath.  Mind you, if you’re an R1150GS owner, that can be sorted with an after-market can.  Indeed, during a back-to-back ride the R1200GS and a R1150GS with a Remus pipe felt neck and neck power-wise; a completely subjective test that could have garnered us tickets for street racing as we pushed the bike up and down through the ratios.

The R1200GS’s rev range tops out at 7750 RPM, but the bike seems happiest, smoothest, and pulls the best below 5000.  Reading that, you might think that the R1200GS would have you lever-dancing through the gears, but the engine’s torque pulls you comfortably onwards from about 1500RPM.  All-you-can-eat-buffet-size portions of low and mid-range power and the tall gears make this powerplant a really good match for the “clunk”.

Yep, that “clunk” is the gearbox still.  The R1200GS is smoother to the foot, and shifting is easier, but there’s still that “mind the gap” drop into first with the “clunk”.  It’s a BMW thing, part of the character and we’ll just accept it as-is.  This idiosyncracy aside, the rest of the gearbox is smoother; clutchless upshifting is doable without much planning…  All of which brings us to the really important bit, the “BwaaaaHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

“BwaaaaHAHAHAHAHAHA!” is the R1200GS riding experience of laughing maniacally in your helmet, if you hadn’t sussed it out.  This bike leans in ways that makes tall slanty things stare in jealousy, give up, and head off in search of better posture.  It’s a hoot.  Huck the worst bumps the City’s streets have to offer at the GS and you discover it’s suspension travels for days, and possibly a few nights, soaking up road noise like an alcoholic hoovers a spilt bevie off the table after last call.  This is all sorted out by the redesigned and lighter paralever and telelever attached to WP Shocks, which should offer an improved lifespan and ride over the suspenders attached to the R1150GS.  This, along with the stiffened trellis frame and overall weight loss, has done something to the GS…  it’s become nigh flickable!

Push on those wide moose antler bars and you can really, really hustle this bike through the corners, almost without trying, and you’ll be leaning madly all the way.  It’s a giggle and as photographer Kevin put it, “By the third corner I was going through at speed – standing up… looking around!”  Not that we’d endorse such antics.  There is a downside here, though just a minor one; the increase of power, the lighter bike, the lighter front end… all result in a Beemer that may actually need a steering damper!  Coming out of corners with a whack of torque and the front end gets all light and sketchy, same with rough road and a good whack of the loud handle – but that’s fine, under normal riding conditions its not an issue and there is a joy to the bulldog boxer’s torque that leaves you craving this feeling after a spell.  Which is to say 2nd gear and the front wheel off the ground… not a stretch!  But that’s not the good part, no the really good part is how sure-footed this bike feels.

It may be a psychological perk of being on a ‘big trailie” style bike, but on our outing a good number of the corners we hustled through were peppered with sand and gravel, and even at a proper lean angle there’s no sketchiness about the bike.  It feels stable, confident and solid in a hanging-off-be-damned kind of way – which is fine as the seat is well into hand-me-the-remote comfortable territory.  And the confidence wasn’t because of the tires; our tester’s Meztler Tourances had a good 3500 miles on them so they weren’t fresh, they offered that “special” hop as you transitioned from upright to leaning that can only be provided by a bike that has suffered the abuse of freeways miles.  The confidence is inspired by the fact that this bike is just an exceptional total package; everything works well together.  Actually, it all seems to be working together to say, “do it”, “try it”, “give it a whirl”, egging you on, not in a street-fighter or hoodlum sort of way, but in a comforting manner that simply gives you a go-ahead… which means that our pure street riding review got derailed.

It started off with trying the bike out in some low-speed maneuvering.  The R1200GS is frighteningly well balanced.  I periodically forgot to put my feet down while obeying stop signs at empty intersections, not as a test but simply because for brief stops it wasn’t needed.  Then we started playing with the GS doing u-turns, figure-eights and the like.  It performed better than it’s predecesor thanks to the lost weight, but something was missing.  Let’s not actually say where we found the gravel and the path, but it is the first time I’ve felt confident enough on a bike to go and play in the dirt, let alone the grass.

I can’t give the dirt rider’s take on the R1200GS, because I am not a dirt rider (which is why we had Charlie do that for us).  In fact, I take pains to avoid dirt, gravel, and the general off-road genre while on two wheels.  The R1200GS, however, just kept politely telling me I could give it a try, that it would be ok.  So I did.  Even without turning off the ABS the bike just encourgaged me into heading off of the gravel and onto the grass, and it felt good doing it.  The off-road junket was refreshing, enlightening, and amazingly competent feeling (if only because my skills could take the bike nowhere near it’s off-road limits).  It was also lucky – we finished up before the park rangers swung on by – obviously it was time for some more asphalt.

It was in our off-road playtime that I was struck by the true nature of the R1200GS; it’s a big, well-trained and good natured dog.  The R1200GS isn’t just a bike, it’s friendlier than that, it’s a companion; it makes you feel safe, it encourages you, and if possible for a bike it gives you that “unconditional positive regard” all the new-agey psycho-babble types are on about.

Back on the road we began to notice a few other ways the new GS takes care of its rider.  The wind protection offered by the five-position adjustable windscreen is spot on.  The envelope of calm air seems a bit wider and higher even at mid-settings than that of the R1150GS’s.  Indeed, our photographer had no issues riding the bike with an open face bucket, leaving him chuffed in a way only an dedicated open faced rider can be.  The wind protection on the legs, as offered by the narrower tank and cylinder heads, seemed good but we didn’t have a chance to test the bike in the wet.  The ABS is there for you if you need to grab a handful, and the EVO braking gives great gobs of grab and much improved feel over the previous generation.  Even during the playtime in the gravel the EVO braking worked well without being overly sensitive.  Comfort is given by a plush seat, with two positions providing 840mm and 860mm (33.1in and 33.8in) of inseam.  The tank contributes to the seating position; it’s narrower to the rear and provides a more comfortable seating postion over the R1150GS.  All of it, on road and off, left me grinning to myself in the helmet, but that’s not the “hmmmmmmmm” part.

The “hmmmmmmmmm” part is the looks of the thing.  Depending on the eyes of the beholder, the R1200GS is a German industrial reinterpretation of a Japanese Manga comic; handsome, butt ugly, ungainly, or a work of art.  People cross parking lots to ask you about it.  As a design, the trellis frame, hexegonal cylinder heads, shark-face side tank covers, aluminium highlights, and squinting ovalized headlights make this bike stand out.  There are nice design touches too; the ovalized theme of the headlights is carried through to the guages for example, but this is one place where the practicality loses out to looks.

While the look, weight and functionality of the instrument cluster has been refined, readability suffers in comparison to the R1150GS, in that you have to actively look down to get a good sightline on the newer bike.  It’s distracting.  Additionally the bike was issuing a low fuel warning even when the tank was better than half full; there may be some first-year growing pains to be sorted out on the R1200GS it seems.  Also there are fit and finish issues in the fairing that one would not expect to see in a BMW.  Gaps between the forward top fairing and the tank cover detract from the look of the R1200GS,  considering the amount of time and effort that BMW took to build a “revolutionary” bike such slips seem out of place.

Ah, there’s the word “revolutionary”, the question is begged.  Is the R1200GS really a revolutionary bike over its precursor?  Should R1150GS owners of the world throw chequebooks down on financial officer’s desks and take up the pen to the tune of $17,850.00 CDN?  Well, actually no.

The R1200GS is, despite being a ground up re-work of the GS theme, not a multi-rung jump up the evolutionary ladder.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s an exceptional road bike – but in a lot of ways so was the R1150GS.  Almost everything is a little better on the R1200GS, but this bike is not going to leave it’s brethren in the dust or out shine it in a massive way.  That being said, the R1200GS is simply one of the friendliest bikes we’ve ever tested.  Off-road, for the novice, it is confidence inspiring enough to open up a world of previously inaccessible gravel and logging roads, giving one a new range of touring options.  On-road the suspension, handling, ABS, and comfort give you range as well as city comfort that you’re hard-pressed to find in sportier or trailier offerings.  In summary it’s practical, comfortable, comforting, a huge amount of fun, and it’s all wrapped up in a brilliantly friendly package.

Special thanks to Charlie Rauseo, the folks at MaxMoto for the use of their shop as our command centre in “the City”, and BMW Motorrad USA.

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