Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Test Ride: 2012 BMW R1200GS

Image courtesy of Motoquest.com
Adventure bikes are not usually my thing. The weight does not bother me so much as the rather high center of gravity relative to a sport, or even a standard, bike. However, during my most recent trip back to the West Coast, I had the occasion to slip away from work for a day and take the gold standard of the adventure bike class, BMW's venerable R1200GS, for a full day test ride. I used the opportunity to cover a road that is popular with all sorts of riders, Southern California's famed Ortega Highway, but also spent plenty of time on it traversing the crowded suburban sprawl of LA as well as slicing through traffic as I split lanes between cars on the parking lot that is the 405 freeway during rush hour. MotoQuest, which provided the bike for the review, was extremely helpful and made sure that I had plenty of time to get acquainted and appreciate the genius that is this motorcycle.

Now, boxer engines are not a foreign concept to me at all. I have driven more than my fair share of Subarus and Porsches, all of which are well known for utilizing this rather non-standard engine layout. However, on a motorcycle, the big boxer on the BMW was my first, and it really sets the tone of the rest of my riding experience. Firing up the horizontally opposed twin, I tentatively twisted the throttle and was promptly greeted by a nice thumpity-thump from the intake and exhaust tracts, but also something that I had never experienced before on a motorcycle; the entire bike started to push to the right. This is one of the more unusual characteristics of this engine layout, which is that it has a tendency, at a stop, to want to torque the bike in the direction of the engine rotation. This is not at all noticeable once you are underway, but at a stoplight, any throttle application is greeted not only with a nice, if muted exhaust note, but also this sudden amount of twist.

That said, this tendency for twist translates into good power and nice torque down low in the RPM range, making this bike BMW a great bike for riding city streets since if offers great power for day to day riding. Of course, it runs out of revs too soon and ends up feeling a bit flat up top, making it unsuitable for riders looking for all out speed. But if it is comfort that you want, then this bike seriously delivers. The seat, which was the stock BMW lowered seat, never felt uncomfortable, even after an entire day in the saddle. Wind protection from the smallish bikini fairing and large, adjustable, windshield were quite good, keeping fatigue from wind blast to a minimum. Grip heaters come standard and are a welcome sensation on a foggy morning. Everything about this bike is set up to allow a rider to get on and spend countless hours riding without arriving at the destination feelings too exhausted to enjoy it. Except, there is one minor detail that detracts a bit, which is the torquey thumper of a boxer engine also generates a nearly unacceptable amount of vibrations at just about any engine speed, resulting in extremities getting a bit numb after a while.

Luckily, the big Beemer is quite the handler, turning in a shockingly good performance. For a heavy, high-ish center of gravity, fully kitted out adventure tourer, it hustles the backroads like a pool shark working a couple of patsies. The wide bars and light steering take some getting used to, but after a few minutes to settle in, everything feels familiar and the bike starts to shine. Despite the soft suspension with lots of travel, on the road, it tracks cleanly, requiring nearly no corrections to keep straight except in the most vicious of winds. The light steering is a tad vague on initial turn-in, but once the suspension sets, it will hold that line all day long without hardly any adjustment. The added bonus of providing a comfortable ride certainly does not go unnoticed. Still, through even the tightest sections of Ortega Highway, I was able to carry way more speed and deliver up some leans angles that surprised even me given how big the bike is. It seems unflappable even through fast transitions and sweeping turns alike.

After a stop for lunch and a quick pit stop to refuel the largish tank, I began my trek back to drop the bike off. The long hours in the saddle seemed to just fly by, made easier by the comfort of the upright seating position and adjustable screen. That also affords excellent visibility, allowing me to easily take advantage of the surprising maneuverability to lane split through the bumper to bumper traffic on the 405. However, because of the bags, as well as the wide handlebars, the bike does feel kind of wide, making squeezing into some of the tighter gaps a bit of a gamble. This is also where the light steering and lack of feel on initial turn-in work against any confidence I gained thrashing the Beemer through the mountains.

Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor and their R1200GS
motorcycles trekking through Africa.
Dropping the bike off in Long Beach, after topping it off, I have to admit that I am surprised at how well the bike performed. My time on these tallish dual sport bikes is relatively limited, but even so, it is easy to see why the R1200GS is considered among the best in its class and why Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman ultimately selected it for their multi-continent trips. While it certainly won't win any beauty contests, everything about it is functional almost to a fault. The end result is a bike that handles brilliantly, has plenty of power, and easily enjoyable all day long, if a bit homely in appearance. There are certainly a few rough edges to clean up, such as the boxer motor's tendency to torque the whole bike over with any throttle application, but these are fairly minor, all things considered. At the end of the day, this is a great ride and I cannot help but imagine that the newly revised version, with its impressive new motor, is going to be even better.

Special thanks to MotoQuest Motorcycle Tours for supplying the bike for this review.