Two of BMW’s newest 650 Singles are built for some degree of off-road riding. The Xcountry extends from street to dirt while the Xchallenge will go from dirt to street if desired.
Based off the success of the F650GS and F650GS Dakar, BMW has revamped its dual-purpose machines with a trio of 650 Singles that will simultaneously expand and eradicate the existing model range. The Dakar version will have gone the way of the dodo after 2007 and the standard GS is likely to follow in the next couple years.
The popular six-fifty is still alive and well, however, inside the new X series, but as BMW aims to attract new buyer demographics, the Xs have definitely taken a step away from their predecessors. We’ve already reported on the most serious street machine of the three, the Xmoto, but well-funded off-roaders and dual-sport riders will take a higher interest in the Xchallenge and Xcountry.
The Xchallenge is by far the more off-road worthy of the two machines. Extra suspension travel, higher seat height and a more aggressive riding position are all features you can expect with the Hard Enduro. But, let’s get it out in the open right away that this machine is no GNCC weapon. Touted by BMW as an off-road machine, we consider the Xchallenge to be a dual-purpose bike. After all, it is street legal, and after a good thrashing in some decent off-road desert scenarios, we’re convinced we’ve got this one pegged. It’s not an enduro; it’s a dual-sport – a more serious one than the Xcountry. But, don’t turn away now, because that definitely isn’t a bad thing.
At the heart of this machine is a 652cc DOHC motor which is simply a re-worked version of the GS engine. Utilizing a balancer shaft to negate the notorious 650 shiver, the 4-valve mill is good for a claimed 53 horsepower and 44 lb-ft of torque; that’s three ponies more than the previous GS motor and with increased response. The level of vibration rises to noticeable amounts as the revs climb into higher rpm, roughly 6000 revs, and are annoying by 8500. Regardless, the torquey motor is easy to keep under this rpm range if desired, with the use of BMW’s 5-speed tranny. Doing so requires moderately aggressive riding, but as we discovered, it’s the preferable method of transport with both machines, at least in the dirt.
Based largely off the F650GS models, the new Xchallenge has an established history of durability and competence, but the new upgrades are BMW’s answer for increased performance and off-road ability.
In addition to the balancer shaft, other notable carryovers from the GS model are electric start, dual ignition, electronic fuel injection, 5-speed transmission and a three-way catalytic converter. That means the 11.5:1 compression ratio of the oversquare powerplant is simple to get fired and runs smooth and clean no matter what elevation or temperatures your adventure brings. A far-between, 6000-mile recommended maintenance schedule is another welcome inheritance. The e-start is especially nice considering that the motor stalls fairly easily for a 650 and absolutely refuses to bump start. A well-placed stab with your right thumb will get things moving again. The left-side stainless muffler is new for the X models.
To help the motor rev faster, the airbox and exhaust were redesigned and the 280-watt alternator was trimmed to reduce the amount of spinning mass. It’s also tucked behind a magnesium cover for less weight. The whole motor package is produced by Austrian company, Rotax, while the rest of the “German” machine is co-designed and manufactured by Italy-based Aprilia.
Having the gas tank under the seat is a concerted effort to centralize mass in the X series. With 2.5 gallons available, the X bikes have less than half the capacity of a KTM 640 and even less than the notoriously limited Honda XR650R. However, an average of 54 mpg on the Xcountry means that you can concentrate on riding more than stressing about your next fuel stop. BMW claims it’s conceivable to expect nearly 62 mpg, but we’re plenty happy with mid-50s, especially considering that we weren’t being shy about downshifting and revving the piss out of each gear.
The Xchallenge will likely be less efficient due to its riding application, more aggressive tires and shorter gearing (15/47 vs. 16/47). Having the key-accessible filler neck placed directly under the seat and oriented outwards necessitates putting the bikes on their side stand in order to fill up. Some may complain about this, but anyone who does is full of crap. Who actually holds up their 320-plus pound bike at the pump anyway?
Getting the bike to turn isn’t nearly as easy as hauling ass in a straight line, despite fairly aggressive steering geometry.
The steel bridge, tubular frame utilizes the motor as a stressed member. Without a cradle, the side spars are constructed of steel and pressed aluminum. The swingarm is a two-piece aluminum unit and the removable subframe is also made of the lighter material. With 27.5 degrees of rake, 4.6 inches of trail and a 36.6-inch seat height, these are the types of numbers you’d expect to see on a razor-sharp motocross chassis, but a claimed dry weight of 318 lbs (344 wet) is more in line with our expectations for a 650 off-roader.
The Xchallenge is exceedingly stable at high speeds despite the sharp steering angle, but where the straight line performance is a pleasant surprise, it doesn’t reflect the chassis geometry in terms of agility. The bike isn’t clumsy, but a CRF it’s not. A better set of knobbies would have undoubtedly helped the steering situation, but basically once the Beemer’s weight was moving forward, it required some deliberate effort to change direction. We found ourselves hitting plenty of obstacles that should have been easily avoided, especially small adjustments that are usually second nature. Muscling that bulk at low speeds would be much easier with the alternate 35.8-inch seat, but we didn’t have one to try out.
Why the machine is more of a straight-liner, despite the steering geometry, has plenty to do with the suspension. The fork and shock are where much of the differences between the two bikes are located. Both are held up by a set of 45mm inverted Marzocchis, but the internal settings are very different. Where the Xchallenge offers 10.6 inches of travel, the Xcountry only has 9.4 before bottoming out.
The Xcountry has suspension that is better suited to its preferred environment than the Xchallenge. Riding the scrambler bike on the street was a blast.
Both offer adjustable compression and rebound, but results varied. With the Xcountry, we never hit any large amount of off-roading that warranted stiffer performance. The occasional clunk, which really isn’t too terrible, was acceptable on small dirt G-outs or large pot-holes considering the enjoyable performance on the street. Even at law-breaking speeds, the fork handled everything we encountered on the street with ease. If only the Xchallenge could be so accommodating.
The hard enduro machine was simply under sprung for the bike’s weight and our two testers’ 190-200 lbs of girth. In stock trim it used too much travel on small jolts, but three clicks in on the compression helped with the wallowing. However, it led to further problems with the overall suspension package and steering. With the shock’s rider sag being dictated by a bubble level, like on the HP2, really getting the rear end dialed in was a hassle. Oh, and it’s that same air damping system found on the 1200cc monster. It was set at 100 lbs of pressure for our ride, which still wasn’t enough according to the all-knowing bubble, but appropriate according to our tour guide. I dealt with a stiff feel on smaller rocks and bottoming on larger/faster impacts throughout the morning until getting fed up – or at least fed.
Once we stopped for lunch at the Gadsen Coffee Cafe, it was time to mess with the valve stem to see what we could do. In an attempt to sort out the bottoming issue, bumping up to 110 lbs helped some but compounded the harshness issue with more common, smaller obstacles. While the performance on high-speed impacts was much better, low-speed compression was far too abusive. After that I tried the opposite and bled it down to 90 lbs, which produced a better result in the rubble, but had my rear end squatting noticeable.
The Air Damping shock is the Xchallenge’s weakest link. It works better on this bike than the enormous HP2, but German engineers still have a lot of work to do in order to see performance similar to traditional oil/spring units.
I actually liked the low-speed action better than the stock settings, but, obviously, the bike handled high-speed impact with much less authority. Still, I preferred to run the lower pressure for the rest of the day because our pace was relatively limited on the rocky single-track. Besides, the hand pump that is included for mid-ride adjustments is a pile.
The air shock is still a good idea, but one that remains unrefined by the German engineers. The adjustable rebound is a nice feature which actually works much better than the compression adjustment. Three clicks in was enough to keep us from bouncing around excessively. Still, the bike feels a bit unbalanced, and we’d have to say that the fork performs better than the shock on the Xchallenge. With the shock requiring a soft setting, the squatty rear end contributes to a lack of precise steering. It’s a downward spiral.
On a good note, however, there’s not much to say about the Xcountry’s traditional hydraulic oil and spring Sachs shock. The 8.3-inches of travel kept our tushes from bouncing off the frame rails until reaching speeds that weren’t condoned by our BMW hosts. It fulfills a much better-balanced package with the scrambler.
The Xcountry has one less degree of rake, and the bike does feel more nimble at low speeds and while turning in or making mid-corner adjustments. That’s not surprising, though, as the Xchallenge isn’t expected to see as many pavement miles as the scrambler model. We spent nearly 250 miles in the Xcountry’s saddle during our Tucson Moto Tours ride, 248 to be exact, and we must say that even with a ride that might be considered fairly long on a 650 Single, the trip was a relief after over a hundred miles of rocks on the Xchallenge.
The Xcountry’s stepped seat is not only three inches shorter, but infinitely more comfortable than the off-road bike’s butt rest.
Tender cheeks will attest to the fact that the seat was damn near as hard as the terrain we traversed, much like the Xmoto. Fortunately, the peg/seat/bars relationship promoted standing on the Xchallenge while the rubber vibration dampers on the Xcountry’s footpegs and 33.1-inch seat height made for a slightly cramped cockpit and more awkward standing position. The extra 3/4-inch of rubber material made a big difference for my 5’11” frame and if nothing else it consistently felt like the vibes would make my feet slip off while standing. Just take them off, you’ll feel the vibes anyway but they’re tolerable.
After spending plenty of time on the shaft-driven HP2, I was glad to find that the X models’ gearbox and drive system doesn’t clunk back and forth when rocking the throttle. It’s the same unit as used on the GS bikes and shifting the 5-speed transmission requires a little extra patience. The action is fairly smooth, but the distances between gears, especially first and second, is long which means that pounding with your left toe while under hard acceleration is met with little success. The pull at the lever is nice, however, and it handled the minimal amount of abuse we inflicted without complaint.
The tranny’s biggest problem, or annoyance anyway, was the shift to sixth gear – which the bike doesn’t have. Instead of there being resistance against the foot lever when searching for something taller than fifth, the X series machines have space which allows the lever to move upwards like an actual shift. We constantly rowed through sixth, seventh and even eighth before realizing that nothing was happening. I’m sure it would only take a little getting used to, but after three days I was still a sucker.
The Xchallenge uses wave rotors, but the Xcountry makes due with an equally powerful set of standard discs. Both machines are available with ABS.
Fortunately we were able to take solace and joy in the performance of the steel-braided brake lines, dual-piston front caliper and 300mm rotor. The Xchallenge uses a wave design, but both machines have good stopping power. A 240mm rotor out back is pinched by a single-piston floating caliper and also gives confidence to match a noteworthy performance rating. However, if the smooth, consistent braking alone was noteworthy, just imagine the angle of eyebrow-arch when we saw the red ABS button on the left side of the oversized, aluminum Magura handlebar. Adapted from the F800S, this optional feature can be turned on or off which makes perfect sense for a dual-sport machine.
If there’s another dual-sporter out there with anti-lock brakes, we haven’t heard about it. Testing the Bosch-made system, which we constantly fiddled with, proved that it’s a good match for street purposes. We even thought it wasn’t horribly bad on the dirt, but we still preferred to turn it off when the pavement ended. Every traffic light and stop sign transformed our group into a tap-dancing brigade as the right legs of journalists started jamming down on the brake lever in an attempt to make the rear end to skid. A modest chirp was about as good as anyone could muster as the system does its job well. For an extra 670 bucks and 3.3 pounds, the brake option can be fitted to any of the X models.
As you can see, the bodywork and bulbous exhaust can are susceptible to crash damage. The Xcountry has much less of a radiator shroud, but the muffler is still in harm’s way.
Other options include heated grips, which should be available by now though they weren’t during our test. Some additional warmth will be nice for those colder days since the wind protection on either machine is nonexistent. As you’d expect from an enduro like the Xchallenge, it doesn’t have a front windshield above the headlight, just a small number plate to hide the cables and hoses and protect the digital instrument panel.
The dual-purpose scrambler uses the same readout with a speedometer, odometer, dual trip meters, clock, battery indicator and assortment of warning lights. However, it has nothing to shield it from the elements as a single, round headlamp is nestled laterally between the forks and horizontally between the triple clamps. Even the front fender is virtually gone as it sits just above the Metzler rubber and is attached to the lower fork leg, therefore moving with the wheel. It also lacks any real fairing. Only a stumpy radiator shroud is attached below the faux fuel tank which is exactly opposite of the Xchallenge which has bulky shrouds that are extremely susceptible to crash damage, as we discovered. Twice.
The Xchallenge is still a bit bulky and has some suspension issues we’d like to see addressed before it becomes a true enduro in our book. But, as a street-legal dirt bike, it can still offer a ton of performance whether the terrain is brown or black.
What exactly does BMW expect to compete against with a 650 Single dirtbike that costs $8925 and has ABS? According to German brass, the Xchallenge has a major competitor in the KTM 640 Adventure which retails for $8898. The Husqvarna TE610 rings in for $7299, but is an even further stretch. With BMW attacking the