Pack your saddlebags and get some sunscreen too. Roland Brown is here to guide you around the world on not one,not two but three German globe tourers
Photography: Paul Bryant and Jason Critchell
It’s a classical GS experience. Half an hour ago I was cruising comfortably along a Spanish motorway; ten minutes ago I was scratching down a twisty, smooth surfaced back road with my boot-toes clipping the Tarmac. And now I’m standing up on the pegs on a gravel covered path through the arid Andalucian countryside, gassing the big boxer motor to send up a satisfying rooster-tail behind me.
This off-road excursion isn’t very ambitious or exciting; just a short dirt detour before it’s time to get back on the road and head back to our hotel. There again, most R1200GS owners’ globe crossing daydreams aren’t matched by reality. And that hasn’t prevented the amazing success of the dual-purpose boxer, which contributes more than half of BMW’s total two-wheeled production and has notched up almost 200,000 sales since being launched six years ago.
Both the GS and its heavy duty Adventure sibling have been updated for 2010 with a new version of the air/oilcooled boxer motor, incorporating twin overhead cams for the first time. The engine, which is developed from that of the HP2 Sport (and is shared with the latest R1200RT) keeps the traditional GS capacity of 1170cc and features four radial valves per cylinder.
Performance is increased to a peak of 110bhp at 7750rpm, 5bhp up on the old unit. The new motor revs 500rpm higher to 8500rpm. It’s stronger by several horsepower almost everywhere from 2500rpm to that limit, especially at 5000rpm and 6500rpm, where it’s about 10bhp more powerful. The exception is a distinct dip between those points, where the old engine (whose own dip is 500rpm earlier) briefly goes ahead.
This GS update is pretty much confined to that new powerplant. The exhaust has a new cable operated valve, plus reworked internals for the single silencer. There are a few other fresh details: restyled instruments plus brake and clutch master cylinders, larger locating screws for the adjustable windscreen and a new fuel gauge sensor.
Styling is unchanged except for four new colour options, and the red bike I chose looked good in its accessory hand protectors. Having always admired the GS’s tall, bird-like profile I was glad about that, but less impressed by the appearance of that new exhaust valve. The valve with its twin cables is fixed to the exhaust pipe low on its left, and the whole thing looks a bit messy and tacked-on.
My negative thoughts were banished as soon as I’d hooked a leg over the BMW’s tall saddle, and fired up the motor to unleash a notably louder exhaust note through the repacked silencer. After the mild mannered old GS, this bike’s harder, thrappier note — still a distinctive flat-twin bark — gave an instantly more aggressive image. The bike’s ability to pass emission tests presumably owes much to that valve, so all credit to it.
The aural accompaniment made me even keener to give the GS some stick as we set off from the launch base near Malaga in southern Spain, with a plan to follow the coast road eastwards to Motril before veering northwards onto the steeper, twistier roads of the Sierra Nevada. Even before we’d got out of town and reached the A7 coast road, it was clear that the new sound was matched by extra straight-line performance.
The improvement is not dramatic and was it not for the exhaust note, you might not even notice it unless you’d just climbed straight off the old model. But I’m sure I wasn’t imagining an extra spring in the boxer’s step as it charged forward in response to a tweak of the throttle. It pulled from 2500rpm without complaint, punched hard through the midrange, and generally felt lively and impressively flexible.
Just occasionally I was conscious of a slightly slow response in the midrange, at about the 5500rpm mark, where that torque dip occurs. But it certainly wasn’t a problem and there was always acceleration at hand even when the Bee-Em was loping along at a lazy 130km/h in top. If anything I was more conscious of the bike pulling with extra enthusiasm as its torque curve headed sharply upwards approaching 6000rpm.
The GS was happy to rev, heading towards that higher 8500rpm redline with only a touch of vibration. But apart from one top-speed blast —it managed 185km/h into a very strong headwind — there was no real incentive to work it that hard. I much preferred to short shift through the six-speed box, which worked very well except on a couple of later occasions when, wearing motocross boots, I struggled to get my foot under the lever.
Fuel economy doesn’t seem to have been hit by the four-valve layout either. The GS was drinking less than 7 litres/100km despite some pretty high cruising speeds (assuming the accessory onboard computer could be believed), giving a range of well over 250km from its 20 litre tank. That computer also shows remaining range, and is a useful accessory. But talking of electrics, I was slightly disappointed to find BMW have retained their old style indicator switches on each handlebar instead of fitting a conventional button on the left as they have with the R1200RT (and S1000RR).
Comfort is another aspect of the GS that’s basically unchanged, which is no surprise because it’s outstanding. The one-piece bar (which can be reversed for standing up riding off-road) and thick two-piece seat give plenty of room in conjunction with well-placed and grippy footpegs. And although short riders will struggle slightly with a standard bike whose seat height is adjustable between 850 and 870mm, the accessory lower seat and suspension combine to reduce this to a much more manageable 820mm. Can’t ask more than that, you shorties.
Unfortunately very tall riders aren’t quite so well catered for. The screen is more easily adjustable than ever, thanks to its bigger screws, and at its highest setting gave useful protection. But at 1.93m I had to crouch slightly to get out of the turbulence. BMW don’t recommend using the Adventure’s taller screen, which does fit, because the standard bike’s mounts aren’t as strong. But some riders do fit it and I’d be tempted to do the same.
One adjustment option that I was very glad of was the red bike’s Enduro ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment), the GS’s version of the push-button wizardry. Unlike the R1200RT’s new ESA II system, the GS’s can’t change spring rate. But the ability to substantially alter damping rates without even slowing down is arguably even more valuable on a dual-purpose bike, with its extra suspension travel.
If buying a GS, I’d certainly pay the extra for ESA which allowed me to select a Comfort setting that effortlessly soaked up road surface imperfections in town and on the autopista at the start of the ride. Then, when we reached Adra and swung north into the hills, a quick press of the ESA button firmed up both the front Telelever set-up and the Paralever rear end, making the bike tauter and more stable in the bends.
We had to take a diversion to miss some of the best roads due to landslides that made some of the Alpujarras mountain roads impassable even for the GS (let alone the RTs that we had in tow). But there are so many twisty, generally well-surfaced and almost traffic free roads in this part of Spain, that it was easy to be reminded of just what a sound handling bike the GS is.
Six years after the bike’s launch, I can still vividly recall my first few hundred metres on one, riding down the twisty hotel driveway on the launch in South Africa — and being amazed by how agile the 1200 felt, after BMW had shed 30kg from its R1100GS predecessor. There’s no weight loss this time, but that’s because at 203kg the GS is light enough to be very manoeuvrable, at least on the road. That wide handlebar gives enough leverage to allow easy direction changes despite the bike’s dual-purpose geometry and 19-inch diameter front wheel.
Bridgestone’s road-biased Battlewing tyres gripped well enough to make good use of the GS’s ample ground clearance (and later seemed okay off-road too). The BMW also stopped hard, helped by an optional ABS system that links front and rear wheels. Our testbikes were also fitted with ASC traction control. I can’t say I noticed it on the road, but it’s not a bad thing to have in reserve. Like the ABS system, it’s very simply disconnected for off-road riding (or for wheelies, which it prevents), by pressing a button on the bars.
I’d need more time to experiment with the traction control, but at least it’s one of the less expensive accessories our bikes were carrying. The ABS brakes and ESA suspension adjustment add considerably more; the handy heated grips and sweet little LED indicators add further to an already pretty expensive bike. At least its used values are famously high.
Given more time, it would have been great to have pressed the ESA button again to select off-road suspension mode and headed much further along some of the dusty tracks that criss-cross southern Spain. But it’s really the GS’s road going performance that is boosted by the new motor, and we were short of time. So after a brief play in the dirt, I was back onto the hard stuff, heading to the overnight stop at Mojacar.
We’d been riding pretty much all day on a wide variety of surfaces, but the GS had barely been stretched; its remarkable all-round appeal enhanced just a bit by its extra power and that bonus of a character enhancing soundtrack. The R1200GS will be getting a new rival soon, of course, in Ducati’s comprehensively revamped Multistrada. The Italian V-twin looks very promising, but it will have to be mighty good to match the old master.
R1200 ENGINE TECH
This new 1170cc motor is closely based on the dohc unit from the HP2 Sport, though it contains some differences including using two spark plugs per cylinder, like the previous GS, instead of a single plug like the Sport. Each pot’s camshafts are chain driven and operate four valves that are arranged radially, operated via rocker-arms and semi-hemispherical shims.
The cams sit horizontally, in line with the bike, giving the unusual arrangement of each cam operating one inlet and one exhaust valve. The cams have a slightly conical profile, to suit the radial layout. Valve lift is increased from the old GS engine, and valves are bigger: inlets up from 36 to 39mm; exhausts from 31 to 33mm. Pistons are redesigned to suit the new combustion chambers, but bottom end parts including crankshaft and conrods are retained.
The intake system is uprated with redesigned trumpets and larger manifolds (50mm diameter from 47mm). The new electrically controlled exhaust valve also helps allow the increased peak output of 110bhp at 7750rpm, 5bhp up on the old high-cam GS unit. Maximum torque is also increased, by 5N.m to 120N.m at 6000rpm. The six-speed, shaft drive transmission is unchanged except for a slightly taller final ratio.
The Adventure is a brilliant bike; no doubt about that. It’s also undeniably, unmistakably huge. At 890mm, its seat is 40mm higher than the standard GS’s, and there’s no option of lowered suspension. At 223kg dry, it weighs 20kg more than the standard model — and that’s before you start filling that enormous, 33 litre gas tank, let alone adding running lights, aluminium panniers and other globe crossing accessories.
Inevitably, this size sometimes leads to problems. One short guy on the launch loved the lowered stock GS but didn’t even want to ride its giant brother. I’m tall and had no trouble getting both feet on the ground, but still had to concentrate hard at a standstill. Once this bike leans more than a certain angle, you ain’t going to pull it upright again.
This latest Adventure gets an identical upgrade to the standard GS. Same new dohc radial-valve engine and same extra torque, which is arguably even more useful with that extra weight to shift. Like the standard model, it retains its existing chassis, complete with extra suspension travel. It comes with the hand protectors and aluminium cylinder head guards that are an accessory for the standard bike. It wears wire-spoked wheels instead of cast, with the option of knobbly rubber.
Given that the standard GS is an exceptionally tall, well-equipped, rugged machine with a very generous fuel range, you have to wonder whether many riders really need a more expensive, heavier and more unwieldy version with even more of the same attributes. Most people would undoubtedly be better off on the standard GS.
But there was undeniably something very special about sitting on that wide, comfortable seat, sheltering behind the more protective, similarly adjustable screen that allowed me near-silent 150km/h cruising (unlike any pure bred touring bike I can recall riding), and glancing down at a digital display that was showing I had more than 500km ahead before needing to stop for gas.
It was also inspiring to know that I could simply have turned off the road onto a dirt track, and kept on going almost no matter what got in the way – at least until I fell off and had to pick up the great brute, anyway. My short off-road excursion was fun, and for once I actually stayed upright, but the BMW’s size and weight were never far from my mind.
I spent my last blast on the Adventure back on the main road, thinking that it was simply the most complete, do-it-all bike I’d ever ridden; and that if I had to own just one bike for ever, this would be it. But I had to conclude that for me, as for so many others, it would be excessive.
Just as with the standard GS, the Adventure’s new engine makes a very good bike better still. But even if you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford a very substantial basic price that is sure to grow considerably with accessories, it’s important to be sure that this is a bike you really need and can use. The Adventure is up to the challenge. The question is: are you?
The bike is new; the BMW touring experience is timeless. At a steady 130km/h on the motorway, I’m sheltered by a broad, adjustable screen. A relaxed riding position and heated seat add to the comfort. The flat-twin motor beats effortlessly down below. I glance at the digital instrument panel to find that the bike is averaging 15.3Kmpl, and will not require a fuel stop for more than 300km. Bring them on…
BMW has introduced so many totally different models of late, from middleweight parallel twins via mad naked fours to the insanely fast S1000RR, that it almost seems strange to be riding a new German bike of the old school: a fully-faired tourer with big fairing, boxer motor, shaft final drive and panniers; even if this RT has been updated for the iPod era with extra performance as well as a new sound system and numerous other tweaks.
It’s the engine that provides the main news. The air/oilcooled, 1170cc flat twin is developed from the HP2 Sport unit, and is identical to that of the latest R1200GS. That means it has twin overhead cams and four radial valves per cylinder and produces 110bhp at 7750rpm. That maximum output is unchanged from the previous RT’s, but the new motor makes more torque through most of the range and its 8500rpm limit is 500rpm higher.
With its broad fairing, standard fit panniers and those sticking out horizontal cylinders, the new bike looks subtly different but still very much an RT. New headlights and reshaped fairing nose give a sharper look, although the modernising effect is limited by the limited paintwork options. There’s a generous four to choose from, but all are variations of grey, with no colour to be seen. Maybe a bit too traditionally BMW.
The view from the rider’s fairly low seat is bang up-to-date, though, especially on the fully accessorised RT on which I spent most time. Between the two main analogue dials is a digital display that can show everything from average speed to the music selected on the MP3 player (or memory stick) that can be kept in a lockable compartment in the right of the fairing.
The right bar has buttons for heated grips and seat but it’s the left handlebar that gets complicated, at least on a fully loaded RT. As well as a conventional single button (at last!) for the self-cancelling indicators, this BMW has buttons for windscreen height, ABS, traction control, cruise control and ESA electronic suspension adjustment. Oh, and a rotating wheel to control the sound system, which also has an array of buttons on the fairing.
It was all a bit confusing at first inspection, but at least the RT itself is relatively simple. Inevitably the broad fairing makes the bike feel quite bulky, but the air/oilcooled twin-pot motor contributes to a dry weight of 229kg. That’s light by touring standards — in fact it’s 35kg lighter than Yamaha’s FJR1300, the lightest of the touring fours, and an incredible 171kg down on the 400kg figure of Harley’s Ultra Classic Electra Glide.
That lack of weight helped the RT feel reassuringly manageable when I climbed aboard on the launch in southern Spain, midway through a two-day trip shared with the R1200GS. At 820-840mm, the standard seat is low enough to allow most riders to get both feet down (and there’s an optional low seat that’s just 750mm). The new motor fired up with a distinctive boxer throb but sounded less throaty than the new GS, despite also gaining an electronically controlled flap on its exhaust.
Straight line performance was pretty similar, though. That 110bhp maximum is nothing special by big tourer standards, but it’s backed up by a broad spread of torque that gave effortlessly strong acceleration. The BMW happily pulled from 3000rpm out of the bends, as we headed west on the generally well-surfaced roads near Almeria, and always seeming to have the right gear in its smooth shifting six-speed ‘box.
There’s slightly more torque all through the range, except for at the very top. Such is the midrange performance that I rarely revved it near that new 8500rpm limit, although vibration levels remained low — perhaps a bit lower than the old pushrod engine’s. With a crisp response from the injection system, and plenty of punch at five or six grand, it was simpler and more satisfying to change up early and enjoy the BMW’s long legged character.
The RT’s new found grunt will be useful when it’s heavily loaded, and was welcome when we hit the A92 motorway. The bike was happy sit at a relaxed 120km/h plus in top gear and then delivered a burst of acceleration when its predecessor might have demanded a downchange. Comfort was as important as performance and predictably, the BMW scored highly, starting with a riding position that is unchanged but now incorporates rubber mounted bars and an adjustable gearlever.
The fairing and screen are both wide enough to give plenty of protection, in conjunction with the big, low set mirrors whose view was slightly obscured by my hands. For my money, an adjustable screen as almost essential on a serious tourer, and the RT’s is among the best. Being very tall I found it wasn’t quite high enough even when fully extended, and generated mild turbulence that disappeared if I crouched slightly, but most riders won’t have that problem.
After a couple of hours, I was enjoying the RT’s effortless distance eating ability, slightly annoyed that I couldn’t find anything worth listening to on the radio (which has 24 presets instead of the previous six) and that I didn’t have the necessary adaptor for an iPod. Having set out with my overjacket in one of the big panniers, and with no chance to stop, I was grateful for the bike’s heated grips and seat. Then we turned off the motorway, and the RT had a further chance to shine.
This bike has an updated, ESA II version of BMW’s electronic suspension system. This allows preload and spring rate, as well as damping, to be set with the press of a button, and also has a broader range of damping adjustment. The ability to adjust the spring, which will be useful when adding or removing a pillion or luggage, wasn’t needed on our trip. But when we reached a twisty road it was great to be able to firm up the RT’s handling by changing damping from Comfort to Sport mode, without even slowing down.
Within seconds, a bike whose suspension had been supple enough to absorb motorway imperfections became a much firmer, more responsive machine that was happy carving through the bends. The RT wasn’t as agile as the lighter, wider-barred GS boxer, but it could be hustled along pretty quickly, with the help of excellent Metzeler Roadtec tyres, ample ground clearance and powerful, ABS assisted brakes.
The RT was certainly taut, light and controllable enough to be fun, and to encourage spirited riding, on a twisty road — which is more than can be said of plenty of its heavier and no better equipped rivals. The ESA system is so easy to use that after a bout of back road scratching it was no problem to switch back to Comfort for pobbling through villages, over road repairs or speed humps. The ESA is not cheap, but I’d pay the extra every time.
The test bikes were also fitted with BMW’s accessory ASC traction control system, which was worth having just in case, although I didn’t notice it working. Back on the motorway heading towards Malaga, I put the screen back up, flicked the cruise control on, and got back to searching for a radio station. It’s tempting to dismiss some of these features as gadgets, but they certainly help make life more pleasant on a long trip.
And the important thing about the RT is that its basics are right too. Both panniers are big and easy to use, with space no longer wasted by a CD player, and the tank is designed to take a tank-bag. The 25 litre fuel capacity combines with the boxer’s efficiency — 7 litres/100km when ridden hard, with under 6 litres/100km possible — to give a typical range of 350km.
A pillion gets a broad seat and plenty of legroom, plus a switch to control their half of the accessory heated seat. There are countless other accessories, of course, from top-boxes and inner bags to chromed parts and additional power sockets. Most buyers will doubtless opt for several although the RT is not cheap, either in its basic form or in the more expensive SE model (which, depending on market, includes ESA, heated grips and seat, computer, cruiser control, extra socket and chromed exhaust).
Perhaps this grey BMW sometimes lacks a little excitement, in its performance as well as its paint schemes. But by the time we reached Malaga, the RT had done enough to suggest that it’s a very worthwhile improvement over its predecessor and a bike that makes that timeless BMW touring experience better than ever.
The RT is powered by the same dohc, air/oilcooled flat twin engine as the updated R1200GS. Developed from the HP2 Sport motor, the radial eight-valve boxer is detuned to give a maximum of 110bhp. That’s an identical peak output to the previous RT (and 20bhp down on the Sport), but torque is increased from 2500rpm to the 7750rpm point at which maximum power is delivered.
Like the HP2 Sport motor, the new unit features chain-driven cams that are conically shaped to suit the radial valves, which are operated via rocker-arms. This engine differs by using two spark plugs per cylinder, like the previous GS, instead of a single plug like the Sport. The cams sit horizontally, in line with the bike, with each cam operating one inlet and one exhaust valve.
Changes from the old RT engine include bigger valves (inlets 36 to 39mm; exhausts 31 to 33mm), new pistons and reshaped combustion chambers. Bottom-end parts including the crankshaft and conrods are unchanged. The intake system is uprated with redesigned trumpets and larger manifolds (50mm diameter from 47mm). The exhaust gains an electronically controlled valve.
The RT’s main chassis change is the adoption of ESA II, an updated version of the Electronic Suspension Adjustment system. This allows adjustment of preload and even spring rate for the first time, to one of three positions intended for riding solo, two-up, or two-up with luggage. In each preload position, there is a choice of three damping settings: Comfort, Normal and Sport. (Only damping can be altered with the bike moving.) The differences between the damping settings are significantly greater than with the previous ESA system.