BMW HP2 – True Grit

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bmw-hp2-p0018260All the hype about this new big dirt bike from BMW, the HP2, has the adventure biker set all worked up. I try not to get too excited about new bikes because I just can’t afford to, but I was really looking forward to riding the HP2. Especially since the weather was going to be perfect. As we drove up from San Francisco to Cow Mountain Recreation Area near Ukiah, the sun intermittently poked through thick clouds as the drizzle of the night before petered out. This is the kind of weather dirt bikers pray for!

We stopped at James Renazco’s seat-making shop in Santa Rosa. James was lending us his too-new HP2 for the day. That alone makes James a hero, but he also makes the best dual-sport seats I’ve ever seen. We (team Rally Pan America) have 3 of his suede beauties on our KTM 525 EXC Dakar Rally bikes. Our BMW for the day also had one of James’ seats, cut a little lower than stock.

The HP2’s test run included some wet fire road, some muddy trails, some almost dry single track, but no pavement. How was it? The motor is impressive. Off-road, it has way too much power; a 105 bhp and 85 ft-lb of torque at 5,500rpm are claimed. That power might be useful in the desert or on the street, not in the wet Northern California woods. You can spin the wheel anywhere, any time. It is amazingly tractable and predictable, however.

That makes it easy to flat-track (laying on the power and sliding the rear end around the bend. In the tight stuff, it’s better to leave it a gear or two too high, where it hooks up well. The clutch action was perfectly light and linear, and I never noticed the notchy shifting I’ve experienced on other BMW twins. Whacking the throttle open coming out of corners hustles the big machine forward with authority, but the horizontally opposed twin lacks the violent “snap” of quicker-revving smaller dirt bikes, but that also reflects the near flat torque curve.

The suspension and chassis work well off-road, even riding aggressively. Good damping and low center of gravity help. It is heavy, so it naturally soaks up the little bumps well, but it also was not upset by big hits, jumps and whoops. We didn’t have the time or manual-interpreting skills to set up the suspension, but it still floated just fine over various nasty holes and ruts.

The single biggest limiting factor on all dual-sport bikes is the tires. BMW gave the HP2 Metzeler Karoos, which are not the hot ticket for wet riding. Right up to the point where the tires let go, this bike feels easy to toss around, even when charging through the underbrush like a bull elephant. The HP2 is heavy, 196.5kg (claimed) wet, but the center of gravity is also low so you don’t feel the weight when flicking the bike. You do feel the weight when trying to stop, however. Big bike, low traction, wet trails, borrowed bike, and semi-knobbies combines to have me braking very early. With a real set of knobbies, I think you could have fun riding this bike quickly on all but the tightest trail. I’m impressed (this coming from a man whose annual holiday involves a sandstorm in Mauritania – Ed). While a BMW GS may look a little like a dirt bike, the HP2 IS a dirt bike. No excuses here.

Even though all the components work well in the dirt, I never felt completely comfortable on the bike. It seemed to me that the seating position was just a little odd, mainly because the foot-pegs are a bit too far rearward, making it awkward to climb up over the front of the bike to load the front end for tight turns. BMW may be aware of this, but the pegs must stay where they are. Any further forward and your shins hit the fuel injectors. I’ve had no reliability problems on any new BMW, but I’m a bit concerned about two unorthodox elements of this bike: (Please take into account my knee-jerk fear of new technology.) The air-filled rear suspension seems to be just begging for a burst or leak. The single-plate dry clutch can’t possibly hold up to this much horsepower when fanned mercilessly by an aggressive dirt rider, can it?

Driving home after our ride, I tried to figure out what the HP2 is supposed to be. Off-road race bike? No, even in the desert where you could use its legs, it will never be as good as a Honda XR650R. Adventure Tourer? No, the tank is too small and it’s fairing-less. Trail bike? No, it’s too big and powerful. Then I realized that I was considering this BMW in the company of smaller lighter bikes like the XR650R, Yamaha WR450 and KTM 525 EXC. No other BMW could feel at home in that crowd, not even the F650GS Dakar. I figure the HP2 is a big, powerful, well-balanced street-legal dirt bike, and a hoot to ride – but at around $23,000.00 CDN/19,990.00 USD it should be!

– Written by Charlie Rauseo + Photos by BMW Press

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