Having shaped this class over decades, BMW’s R1200GS is a standard in the adventure touring world. BMW has refined its iconic do-all motorcycle into a near perfect blend of durability and function. This may be the last year that BMW offers an air-cooled 1200GS, but it’s still has to fend off the new wave of challengers.
BMW’s Flat Twin uses dual camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The 101 x 73mm bore and stroke equate to 1170cc of unique displacement. Year after year our testers make note of the Boxer’s torquey, soulful output. The Beemer is just a hair shy of 95 horsepower, missing the KTM‘s output by less than 0.3 horsepower. On the dyno the GS curve isn’t as smooth as the others, but our riders didn’t mention any surges or lapses coming from their right wrists. Most riders shift before 7000 rpm, but the R1200 doesn’t cut out until 8300. Maximum torque is 71.26 lb-ft. and the German mill produces more than all but the Ducati, though it hangs with it until peaking at 6200 rpm.
“The Yamaha may actually be faster, but the torque of the Boxer engine makes the BMW feel like it accelerates harder than the rest of the group, minus the Ducati,” claims Dawes.
The lumping Twin churns out respectable numbers with its second-lightest weight of 564 pounds (Triumph not withstanding). Combined it propels the Bavarian through the quarter-mile in 12.18 seconds at 112 miles-per-hour. Leading fuel economy of 43.21 mpg gives the BMW a range of 229 miles (5.3-gallon tank, same as KTM and Ducati).
Driveline lash causes some jerking in slow, technical riding, but the BMW has plenty of usable torque to pull through.
“Where the Yamaha suffers from being too ‘vanilla,’ and the Ducati is an uber-technical Superbike engine, the BMW Boxer oozes character,” describes Madson. “And while ‘character’ can be a loaded compliment, the BMW Twin delivers character without being quirky or strange. I dig the engine sound and the exhaust tone, and the slight input of the longitudinal crank adds a ripple of personality that the other bikes can’t match.”
With an engine that riders enjoy on many levels, the BMW isn’t as well-liked for its drivetrain. In typical GS form, the six-speed transmission is clunky by comparison and doesn’t respond well to aggressive shifting. Multiple riders also noted a false neutral when upshifting from fifth to sixth. Also, while the single-sided swingarm with sealed shaft drive has earned a reliable reputation, it still has slack in it which causes the bike to lurch at times. The Yamaha’s drive shaft is smooth and solid.
“It has more engine braking than the other bikes. At low speed the throttle response becomes very choppy while easing along with slow traffic,” Maddox says about the BMW. “This sensation is exaggerated by the slack in the shaft drive. When the speeds pick up it’s not as noticeable, although a hard downshift will result in a chirp of the rear tire.”
Despite the engine braking, the BMW resists diving under deceleration thanks to its unique Paralever/Telelever suspension. The Telelever wishbone up front uses a central 41mm shock. Combined with the rear shock, the BMW settles in as a singular unit rather than pitching fore and aft. Our bike is equipped with electronic suspension adjustment (ESA) which allows the rider to control preload settings with the touch of a button. A rider can select preload settings as well as Soft, Normal or Hard damping for both front and rear suspension.
Suspension and handling are excellent on the BMW. Despite its somewhat ungainly appearance, the Beemer carves corners with agility and surefootedness.
“Very nice, well-balanced suspension,” admires Dave. “The Telelever gives excellent directional stability and the ESA allows on-the-fly suspension adjustments as the road surface changes. It’s the best all-around dirt/street combo.”
Thanks to its suspension and low center of gravity afforded by the Boxer design, the BMW garners top marks for its handling. Riders who first sample the GS are given a false sense of bulk from its protruding cylinders, but the reality is a bike that’s nimble and stable. Several riders commented that this was one of the machines they were most comfortable with carrying the highest cornering speeds. In addition to its excellent handling, German designers have infused the R1200GS with a high level of rider comfort. The adjustable windscreen is one of the better and amenities like heated grips, ESA and adjustable traction control and ABS give the rider ultimate control over the cockpit. The seat foam is soft but supportive, though a bit small if left in the low position.
“I would need a taller seat on the BMW and my legs felt cramped after long stints on the street,” says Justin, “but the profile and firmness was spot on. One other gripe – put some real footpegs on the GS!”
An onboard computer adds even more information to the analog/digital display. Our testers praised the GS unanimously for its wealth of info and the ability to scroll through using the provided thumb control. We also cursed the speedometer for being difficult to read. A tire-pressure monitor is especially useful and proved its worth after we suffered a rock puncture on the 17-inch tubeless rear tire (19-inch up front, spoked wheels optional).
All of our testers enjoy the BMW’s abundant information, but the speedometer is hard to read at a glance.
“The print is so small I couldn’t read it without reading glasses,” says the 58-year-old Maddox about the analog speedometer. “I had no idea how fast I was going. On the other hand, I loved the way I could switch modes easily with the handlebar switch. It also had the only tire pressure readout on the dash, which I used continuously after repairing a flat. I could monitor the tire pressure, making sure the plug worked, while on the bike.”
Braking on the GS comes from dual four-piston fixed calipers up front squeezing 305mm rotors. The rear is a single 265mm disc with double-piston floating caliper. The ABS is an $1100 option, but one we consider worthwhile. It can be switched on or off from a standstill via a thumb button. It’s by far the easiest to control which scored major points with our testers as the course wandered into remote territory. The traction control is very intrusive but can be toggled between two levels or completely disabled while the bike is in motion. This was another favorite feature of ours and helped the BMW top the electronics and instrumentation category, even besting the high-tech Ducati.
The Beemer’s base price is right at $15K, but that comes without many of the features associated in this test. Many items such as the spoked wheels ($500) and ABS are not standard. Factory-installed packages are common with the Bavarian steed and our bike was equipped with enough to rack up a total bill of $19,683. That’s right between the bank-robbing Ducati and Dakar-model KTM. The BMW comes with a three year/36,000 mile warranty, and while they are renowned for their durability, recommended service maintenance is in 6000-mile intervals. With a water-cooled version on the horizon, this may be a swan song for the big GS.
“The GS is BMW’s most prolific motorcycle for a reason,” says Bart. “It’s a fantastic street bike, sturdy touring platform, and I also felt the most confident in the dirt aboard the GS. Having ridden all the bikes back-to-back in this test, I think the most impressive thing about the BMW is its durability. Where some of the other bikes ran into reliability issues, the BMW was unfazed. I imagine there will be a ton of air-cooled GS chugging along decades from now.”
BMW has the formula for adventure touring all figured out. Where it might not dominate any particular area, it’s at or near the top in every category. It was aided by the Ducati’s missteps, but the BMW scored top marks in six divisions, two of which are the very important, personal preference and touring performance categories. Most importantly, it was the only bike not to be ranked last in any area. The R1200GS is consistently good and it runs strong no matter the conditions. This year the BMW defends its reputation as the best.
2011 Adventure Touring Shootout
2011 KTM 990 Adventure Dakar Comparison
2012 Yamaha Super Tenere Comparison
2011 Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Touring Comparison
2011 BMW R1200GS Comparison
2011 Triumph Tiger 800 XC Comparison
2011 Adventure Touring Shootout Conclusion