Thrrrazzziiinnnn! The engine spins up, the tach sweeping past 7000-red. What a subtle thing motorcycle design must be? Snic-klink – another clutch-less upshift then back on the throttle. It’s the same chassis, the same engine, just a bit softer suspension, flat bars, some fairing and a taller windscreen… Preload the shift lever, hit red line, and the upshift is sweet and smooth. How could this be? For me the F800S felt like exercise in product differentiation for its own sake. So how is it that small and subtle differences make its fraternal twin, the BMW F800ST, absolutely sing?
The F800ST is clipping through the sweepers, passing 160kph completely unflustered. Each transition is an easy push on the bars as the bike swings below me. It’s effortless, none of this sportbike hanging off malarkey one perpetrates on the F800S or Honda’s venerable VFR800. With sit upright and go ergonomics the F800ST isn’t some sombre and lubberly ride, it’s a hoot through twists and clever traffic.
On the ST your upper body is upright and loose in comparison to the F800S’s economy flight accommodations or the even VFRs. Meanwhile those long-of-leg will find the seating position relaxed at the knee with the thigh slightly more parallel to the ground than the Viffer. Sitting upright like this gives you a better command of sightlines and reduces muscle fatigue, and contributes to the ST having a more neutral feel than the S.
Part of that neutrality is down to the ST’s wide flat bars, which provide better leverage than the F800S’s clip-ons. But the seating position also takes your weight off your wrists, and hence the F800ST’s front, distributing your weight more neutrally on the F800ST than the F800S. The quickness isn’t just “feel”, objectively the speedo says we’re carrying more speed into the corners than the “sportier” model – and I can see the scenery.
Under the F800ST’s additional 5 kgs wet weight (at 209kg claimed) and luggage, the suspension setup seems softer than the F800S, but the front and back feel to operate in greater harmony. Overall the suspension flattens out whatever bumps and ripples are chucked at it, only wallowing when thrown through heaves at a good lean.
Built to a price the front forks are un-adjustable, but the rear shock offers what a sport-tourer needs; easy preload and rebound adjustment. The setup is just grand for sport-touring and, unlike the ST’s sibling, there’s no visual track-day terror pretence muddying expectations. Instead the ST just gets on with whipping the local twisties with neat handling that will threaten the F800S… and the R1200S for that matter.
Extending the ST’s core values of seeming well-rounded reasonableness in all directions, the Rotax produced 798cc parallel twin fits this bike to a tee. With the F800S’s affectations of sport the BMW designed engine grinds out torque on deaf ears – feeling complacent and uninspired. In this sport-touring incarnation the parallel twin is at home as houses.
You can appreciate the torque spread evenly across the range, as it lays down tractably though the low maintenance belt drive and rear Metzeler Roadtech. And, as with the F800S, the fuelling is faultless. The only glitch we found was what felt like low-speed lean surging and “clanking” from the transmission, which, in a fit of previously unheard of responsiveness, BWM has already issued a fix for.
Replacing the two-piece hard mounted front belt pulley with one using 4 internal rubber, the vibrations transmitted by the drive belt back into the transmission at low speeds have been dampened. The result is noticeably smoother on-off throttle response, better shifting around town and during pull away, and likely an unemployed engineer. The fix also rids the bike of much of the clatter that made the transmission sound like a half-empty box of cogs rather than a mechanical whole. Beyond those low speeds, shifting is smooth if a little agrarian, and the F800ST will climb clutchless through the ratios should you feel the urge to finesse.
One of the biggest differences between the F800ST and its sibling F800S is the amount of vibration you feel from the parallel twin. The F800S’s persistent vibe ground away at your weight-bearing wrists from below, a trait that would completely fail to win me over mainly because I’ve a skeleton and soft tissue.
Ergonomics are the salve to heal this wound. The F800ST’s upright seating position lifts that weight from your wrists. While the flex in the ST’s flat bars allows the weighted bar ends to actually do the business of killing most of the vibration, in comparison to the F800S’s stiff clip-ons that simply conducted it – an experience akin to holding an electric toothbrush set to “excessively bleeding gums” in both hands for a day. For the ST it’s a matter of good vibrations – or at least unobtrusive ones.
Rounding off the sport-touring experience is the F800ST’s fairing. Debatably handsome, it offers a number of objective benefits.
The fairings and windscreen provide better airflow, creating a pocket of relatively calm air around the rider. Chewing up the miles is restful even as you approach speeds that flirt with the words “suspension” and “revocation”. Indeed the F800ST’s larger windscreen wins out over the VFR800’s for protection and smoothness of the airflow – though not entirely buffeting free. There’s another bonus of those plastics – noise reduction. Muffled by the fairings the churnings of the parallel twin are quieted leaving the 798cc engine sounding relatively pleasant.
On the downside the fairings create a heat management challenge for the F800ST, which keeps your inside right calf toasty while in traffic’s Sargasso. Also, the mirrors though vibe-free, have been lifted directly from the F800S without modification for the ST’s ergos. If you’re leaning forward in a tuck mimicking the F800S riding position they work great… but upright on the ST the stalks need to be about an inch longer to clear your elbows. I like my elbows, I’m attached to them, but I don’t need to see them all the time.
As with its S sibling, the ST has soft braking, but divested of pure sport intentions the feel and the ABS system are well matched to the bike’s genial nature. The ABS does still come on early for my tastes, but I’ll roll with it, literally, for the safety it provides in emergency situations and over long touring days in the saddle. And for finesse the F800ST’s brakes are preferable to the VFR800’s linked system by giving you independent control over front and back binders.
As one would expect of a BMW sport tourer, considerations on the ST abound; optic-blasting headlights, tail luggage rack, funky and functional luggage and LCD panel featuring time, fuel consumption, temperature, coolant temperature and gear indicator. Better it’s all tied together with exceptional build quality. Even the pillion accommodations are right minded. On most bikes these have been penned by a designer whose dream lover has the stature of a garden gnome. Luckily, the ST’s pillion seating is relatively loose and comfortable – though the engine would benefit from a bit more grunt and the suspension more preload for two-up riding.
Testing the F800S I’d come away wondering what British magazine Bike was on about claiming the F800 was a VFR killer. Delivered with marketing that promised “serious sport” the F800S failed to inspire unless absolutely thrashed. With the F800ST, though, BMW actualizes the F800 potential, creating a usable and enjoyable riding companion that complements the genial and overwhelmingly competent engine, chassis, and suspension. Will it edge out the VFR800?
Not entirely, but Honda should be sweating.
The VFR is barge-like compared to the F800ST’s lighter, nimbler feel. Handling wise F800ST (and the S) will put the VFR in its place. It pains me to say that, I’m a VFR owner who’s just pushed his bike’s resale value off a cliff.
The Honda has points that the F800ST can only aspire to though. Regardless of counterbalancing trickery the F800 parallel twin never attains the V4’s glassy-smoothness. The VFR has markedly better weather protection from the fairing and less fiddly hard luggage than BMW’s fabric and plastic contraptions.
Where the VFR loses the plot is with awful throttle response and by forcing the rider to constantly avoid a white VTEC-surging elephant sitting in the middle of the rev range; the F800ST rider can simply get on with riding. Also, given the F800ST’s lighter mass, narrower seat width, and optional lower seat height the ST makes a better choice for shorter riders than the VFR. The more interesting comparison may not be with Honda’s sport-touring Grand Dame, but between the F800S and ST.
The F800ST shows how a collection of subtle changes can take the F800S, whose sales brochure claims “Absolutely no sense of humour. Quite right too.”, and create a fun-and-games all-rounder over which one can enthuse. Moreover, BMW by focusing the F800ST on being a sport-tourer has met the need for a fully appointed re/entry bike capable for traversing the distances between North American destinations and interesting roads, a nonsensically underserved market.
With the F800ST, BMW promised to build a good light sport-tourer and the result is a smashingly brilliant sum that outweighs the parts to the point of over delivery – by leaving the sport to its sibling the F800ST can get on with being the smart one.
– Written by Neil Johnston with Photos Kevin Miklossy
Model Tested: BMW F800ST
Base MSRP*: $13,000.00
More Information: http://bmw-motorrad.ca
* Freight, retailer preparation & taxes extra. Retailer may sell for less.