BMW Turns Up the Wick
When we got the invite to come out and test the fastest twin-cylinder BMW ever produced, we of course wanted to be there. And when the Beemer brass told us the event would begin at the world-famous Playboy mansion in L.A., the jockeying for position around our office resembled wide-eyed MotoGP fans edging in to get Valentino Rossi’s autograph. Proximity was my ally, and so it was that I visited the residence of one Hugh Hefner, a place that is Mecca for many a hormonally riotous male. Never did get to meet Obi-Wan himself (he was either busy with his wife or one of his three girlfriends.), but the natural beauty of the surroundings was enough to inspire me to bang out this test posthaste. My job sucks.
BMW has a rich heritage in motorsports, especially in the automotive realm where it is strongly represented in Formula 1 and sports car racing. But until recently, the motorcycle division seemed content to deliver modestly performing and unconventional road tools for idiosyncratic riders more familiar with AARP than MTV.
Then, early in 2004, the totally revamped R1200GS signaled an invigorated team of engineers back in Munich. With nearly a 20% boost in power and a claimed 66-lb weight reduction, the new Boxer platform was the harbinger of more exciting times to come. Then, late in 2005, BMW unveiled the wonderfully capable R1200RT, fresh with many of the components that made the GS so remarkable.
BMW’s new R1200S is the sportiest Boxer yet, backed by a claimed 122 horsepower. Expect nearly 110 ponies at the wheel.
Now comes the R1200S, the most powerful production Boxer BMW has ever created and a significant leap forward over the mild R1100S that debuted in 1999. With a purported 122 horsepower on tap and a claimed tank-empty weight of 430 lbs, this sportingest of Boxers is capable of dissecting a twisty backroad during a daytrip or even humbling some crotch-rocket pilots at a trackday. To give you an idea of the S’s intended mission, BMW won’t offer saddlebags for it. “It’s truly thought of as a sportbike,” says Roy Oliemuller, BMW’s head PR wag.
But let’s be level-headed enough to realize the S will never be able to outrun a comparable rider on, say, an Aprilia Mille or Ducati 999. Instead, this is a gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s) sportbike, as far away from your neighbor’s Gixxer as your oat bran is to his Cocoa Puffs.
So, if the milk in the bowl of cereal in front of you has turned brown from chocolate residue, you might want to browse a different bike test. But if you’re a well-heeled motorcyclist who likes railing corners but no longer is willing to put up with a riding position more appropriate for babies inside a womb, this new Beemer has plenty to offer.
At the core of the S is a version of the 1170cc horizontal-Twin engine. Whereas the similar motor in the GS is claimed to crank out 100 hp (and 110 in the RT), this new S boosts the rating to 122 ponies via a host of hot-rod tricks.
Mixing fuel and air is the responsibility of 52mm throttle bodies, up 5mm from other models. Modified cylinder heads greet the intake charge, and bumpier cams maximize top-end performance. With a redline higher than any previous Boxer motor at 8800 rpm, most internal components have been beefed up, including stiffer valve springs, reinforced rocker arms, stronger conrods and new pistons that squeeze the incoming mixture at a lofty 12.5:1 compression ratio. The engine exhales through exhaust headers that have been bumped up in size by 5mm to nearly 2 inches (50mm) and a catalytic converter mounted under the transmission. Unleashing all 122 ponies requires premium fuel; the engine’s knock sensor will dial back ignition advance (and power) if lower-octane petrol is used.
The S’s riding position isn’t nearly as painful as the track-bred sportbikes from other manufacturers. The smallish windscreen actually does a decent job of diverting oncoming air.
The steroid-injected motor is also a key part of the chassis, serving as a stressed member for the three frame components. The triangulated front and center sections are created from tubular steel, but the rear subframe is constructed of square aluminum tubing and is removable for easier crash damage repairs. Up front, 41mm fork stanchions are held by a stiffer Telelever A-arm made from forged aluminum. The EVO Paralever driveshaft/swingarm combo is the same no-maintenance aluminum unit used on the latest Boxers.
The cockpit environment of the R1200S is new yet familiar to GS owners. The gauges consist of two circular, white-faced dials for the speedo and tach, augmented by an info screen that includes a clock, gear-position indicator and range-until-empty readouts. BMW says there’s a fuel gauge but we didn’t find it. The info screen’s has a photo cell that adjusts its brightness according to ambient light. Mirrors are effective and stylish with integrated turnsignals. The nose fairing is held by a support made from lightweight pressure-cast magnesium and secured by aluminum bolts, helping lop off a total of 29 lbs compared to the R1100S.
Firing up the S, the sensations it gives off are similar to other Boxers, but the higher-lift cams produce a rougher idle that shakes the bike and mirrors – the engine feels slightly coarser than the GS’s despite the presence of a counterbalancer.
Response off the bottom is immediate and healthy, with no hint of a soggy low-end that sometimes results from a more high-strung powerplant. Roll-on performance is exceptional, and more than once I was surprised to see a “6” instead of a “5” on the gear-position indicator after feeling its formidible highway acceleration. Its power surge is linear and predictable yet potent and exciting.
Perhaps the least elegant aspect of this latest Boxer is its boxy undertail muffler. The bike is otherwise a glamourous design.
Two more notable observations about the engine: This is the first Boxer-powered Beemer that will wheelie strictly with the throttle, with no clutch work required. I was duly impressed when the front end came up in a controllable wheelstand while exiting a tight first-gear corner, and I was able to hold it with the bars crossed up while I shifted to second – not typical BMW.
Second, it seems as if the S’s ECU has a program that limits wheelies. My attempts to bring up the front end high enough to carry a long wheelstand were continually thwarted. It wasn’t until after several more attempts – all in the name of science, of course – that I came to the ECU nanny theory. BMW has yet to comment on it.
As rambunctious as the motor is, the riding position is fairly accommodating. Its handlebars are mounted level with the relatively high upper triple-clamp for a sporty yet comfortable riding position. Although leaned forward, a rider doesn’t carry much weight on the wrists. The seat, at a height of 32.7 inches, is fairly tall, but the narrow width at its forward end allows legs a straight shot at the ground so it’s effectively not as tall as it sounds. Protection from the windscreen is quite effective, offering better wind management than its small size would suggest.
But this Beemer is more about tackling twisty roads than touring comfort, and here the R1200S impresses. With a rake angle of 24.0 degrees, the S is on par with contemporary sportbikes (and 1 degree steeper than the R1100S). Trail numbers are even more radical, being reduced significantly from 3.93 inches (100mm) to 3.43 inches (87mm). Wheelbase is up a scant 9mm to 58.5 inches.
Hauling ass around SoCal’s Santa Monica Mountains, the S stands out most for its unflappable stability. It’s amazingly composed over bumpy pavement as the Telelever front end tracks wonderfully over bumps without upsetting the chassis. With the Telelever, there is only a hint of front-end dive under braking, and the Beemer has no trouble turning while trail-braking, all the while leaving critical suspension travel available to suck up road imperfections.
Bumps are tackled nicely by the peculiar Telelever front end and Paralever rear with a travel-dependent-damping shock. The stock suspension pieces are from Showa, and they do a perfectly adequate job.
For those who demand only the best, Ohlins shocks can be fitted front and rear from the factory for an extra $690. The Ohlins rear shock has the Showa’s travel-dependent damping and rebound-damping adjuster but adds adjustments for compression damping, ride height and spring preload, the latter sadly lacking a convenient hydraulic adjuster. I was impressed with how well the Ohlins shock works despite the excess rear preload on our test bike – stiff yet somehow still supple. Extra comfort was gained by dialing out some compression damping from the shock via its handy knurled adjuster. A ride on a Showa-equipped S revealed a shortcoming in rear-wheel control, although a tweak to its rebound-damping adjuster likely would have alleviated this condition.
Turn-in effort is nowhere near R6 levels, but the S bends in with a decent shove on the inside clip-on quicker than you might expect. It leans over at a linear rate with its standard 180-section rear tire, a little less so with the optional 190 but still easily acceptable. BMW says the S can attain a 52-degree bank angle, and it takes some bravery to drag its pegs. Smooth on/off throttle response aids confidence when dialing on power after a corner’s apex.
The mechanical elements of the sport Boxer are on full display. The exposed rear wheel, borrowed from the K1200, is a thing of beauty.
The R1200S has a nice set of brakes, with braided-steel lines feeding four-piston calipers and 320mm front rotors up front and a two-piston caliper and 265mm disc in the rear. Free from the artificial feeling of BMW’s Integral linked brakes or its power-brake servos, the brakes respond naturally, immediate without being harsh, and with good feedback.
Optional on the S for an extra $925 is a new, lighter two-channel ABS system that adds just 3.3 lbs to the standard brakes. Our test bike was fitted with this option, and I’ve yet to feel any ABS intrusion from the front brakes after 400 miles in its saddle. Trackday junkies have the option of deactivating ABS if that’s their preference.
Now let’s discuss the appearance of the R1200S. Its funky styling is typical of David Robb’s designs, but we think this bike in its stripped-down glory is an aesthetic success with a purposeful and cohesive look. The motor is on full display and looks suspended by nothing, and we also like how the single-sided swingarm and undertail exhaust fully exposes the gorgeous rear wheel. Sure, its toaster-sized muffler isn’t as sexy as we’d like, which also raises the pillion pad to an uncomfortably high level, but the bike is a classy design overall. The S fit in well when cruising through upscale Newport Beach surrounded by Bentleys, Mercs and Porsches, drawing several compliments.
Nits that need picking are relatively few. At the head of the list is a seat that compromises long-distance comfort because of its narrow forward section that offers little support. Hour-long stints will have you squirming, especially shorter riders who sit closer to the 4.5-gallon fuel tank that should be good for nearly 200 miles at the excellent 44 mpg I averaged in mixed use. Smaller niggles are grips that are thin on padding and that a helmet holder is an optional accessory. We’re also perplexed why the S doesn’t have the self-canceling turnsignals fitted to other Boxers.
One of the best atttributes of the R1200S is its ability to shrug off bumps in the road while leaned over. The Telelever front end has a distinct advantage over a conventional fork in this regard.
We also weren’t entirely thrilled with the response from the throttle. BMW says the throttle butterflies are governed by “progressively acting kinematic control” in which the throttle butterflies respond to several factors, not solely on throttle position. This sometimes results in an unnatural reply from the twistgrip, and I once got a brief and unexpected throttle surge after throttling down to enter a corner. Plus, I’d rather not have electronics stipulate how high I prefer to wheelie.
At a base MSRP of $14,725, the new Beemer isn’t for everyone, and the addition of premium options can take it much higher. Factory options include: ABS ($925), Ohlins ($690), fat rear wheel and tire ($205), alarm ($235), heated grips ($235), on-board computer with oil-level warning ($275), and two-tone paint ($900). A tire-pressure monitor is available beginning in September for $260.
Clearly, the R1200S is priced out of reach of the desirably large 20-something market, but it does offer a European flair unique in the sportbike world. It’s sure to appeal to motorcycling’s elite class who don’t have reservations about dropping $15K on a recreational vehicle that is as attractive, well-polished, composed and competent as this.
I don’t intend to damn with faint praise when I say that this might be the best geezer sportbike on the market.
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