2013 BMW R1200GS First Ride

January 30, 2013
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

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Watch MotoUSA get its first ride on the redesigned BMW R1200GS in the 2013 BMW R1200GS First Ride Video.

One imagines more than a few sleepless nights were in store for the engineers tasked with designing the 2013 BMW R1200GS. The new Beemer was cause for our own sleepiness after 33 hours of air travel delivered us to the international press launch in George, South Africa. But eyes perked wide open as BMW brass made no bones about the importance of its showcase mount: Nine years of ADV class dominance and more than 180,000 GS sold, making it the best-selling BMW motorcycle of all time… It’s safe to say expectations for the 2013 GS are high!

The challenge for BMW’s engineering team was straightforward: take an overwhelmingly popular mount and make it better – but without ruining its essential character. In the process, completely redesign the R series’ iconic Boxer Twin to be more powerful and efficient via liquid-cooling – again, without spoiling its inherent character. And, of course, they must update everything else on the bike, so that this latest GS squashes all the upstart Adventure-Touring rivals that its own immense success has spawned.

Easy, right?

Or, daunting, petrifying, grim. So why then are the men responsible for retooling the most important bike in the BMW lineup so relaxed? No nervous smiles or sidelong glances while jetlagged journos peppered them with questions about an all-new powertrain, sophisticated electronic aids, semi-active suspension, high-performance chassis upgrades… Instead, the German gents exuded a comfortable confidence and genuine eagerness to explain the new bike’s changes.

And after a full day sampling the GS in the South African terrain, both on and off-road, I understand the calm. This new 2013 R1200GS more than fills the big shoes of its predecessor.

The 2013 BMW R1200 GS sources a newly designed liquid-cooled 1170cc horizontally-opposed Boxer Twin.


Straddle the new fifth-generation GS and there is an overriding feeling of continuity from the previous designs. This feels and looks like a BMW GS, sure enough. Yet, while familiar, the GS overhaul is deceptively comprehensive. The long-rumored switch to liquid-cooling for the Boxer Twin overshadowed a laundry list of changes.

There’s a lot of new ground to cover on this GS reincarnation, but it starts with the now liquid-cooled 1170cc horizontally-opposed Twin. BMW concedes exhaust emissions as the reason for ditching 90 years of tradition for its Boxer. BMW specifies the liquid-cooled Boxer as “precision-cooling”, as the water circuit cools only the most thermally stressed engine spots. The lion’s share (we’re in Africa remember…) of the cooling load remains handled by those familiar fins on the exposed heads, which dissipate 65% of the heat (the previous model was 78% air/22% oil cooled). Two radiators, tucked under the shrouds, add six pounds to the 525-pound bike (claimed).

While there’s no getting around some bulk added by the radiators, the bike does not feel bulky. If anything it feels more slender and trim. Credit is due in part to the compact nature of the new powertrain. Comparing this Boxer side-by-side with its predecessor and the consolidation of space is remarkable. It still looks like a Boxer, with those twin jugs anchoring the aesthetics of the bike, but the entire package is clean and spare by comparison.

The new Boxer engine sounds racier and puts out a claimed 15 horsepower more than its predecessor.

Fire up the new Boxer and it retains some snap and snarl, though it sounds racier and more eager to get to business. While displacement is unchanged, with identical 101mm bore and 73mm stroke, the 2013 GS benefits from a claimed 15 horsepower advantage (125 peak), with torque jumping to 92.2 lb-ft (from 88.51). BMW didn’t go all in to try and match the obscene (for an ADV mount) power of the Superbike-derived Ducati Multistrada – not to mention the forthcoming KTM 1190 Adventure (which sources a version of its RC8 Superbike Twin). That said, the new Beemer packs a fierce wallop – and it pulls harder throughout the rev range, more potent than its predecessor.

The new Boxer sheds some of the rattle and rough edges of the old air/oil-cooled engine, but it won’t get mistaken for those Twins powering the GS’s ADV rivals. Slam the throttle and the bike dips to the right from the Boxer’s spinning crankshaft – though the dramatic effect is far reduced from recollections of the previous version. The new engine revs faster and far smoother, and it sports a livelier throttle. The engine is more responsive to input, with its fly-by-wire throttle delivering immediate control at the right wrist.

Riders can further dial in the Boxer’s mojo via the five engine maps: Road, Dynamic, Rain, Enduro and Enduro Pro. BMW speak dubs its fly-by-wire system E-Gas, and it’s incorporated on the GS for the first time. It works in tandem with the optional semi-active electronic suspension (more on this later), and BMW’s more familiar ASC (Automatic Stability Control) and ABS systems.

The variable engine maps transform the bike into different roles. The most unrestricted mode, Dynamic, delivers hoon-tastic throttle and engine play. Once the idiot-proof ASC & ABS fail safes are turned off, which is easily done via switchgear button, the GS is perfectly viscous for the aggressive street rider. The Road and Rain modes are smooth and steady, with the latter offering more electronic assist for poor surface conditions – though far less gelded than some Rain modes I’ve sampled. These two are imminently street/touring friendly, and I was quite content to leave the GS in the default Road selection.

The GS begged for a blistering pace as our test ride blitzed north from the coast into the Outeniqua Mountains north of George. Riding on the left-side of the road always takes some acclimatizing for our American sensibilities, and the same can be said of the GS’s Telelever suspension. There’s still an off-putting vague feel from BMW’s proprietary front end, at first, but after a couple miles on the high-speed curvy stuff I regained my faith. The new bike retains its settled, composed handling traits. Turn in is not as sharp or quick as its rivals, perhaps, but once on its side the GS is as steady as they come.

Here the optional semi-active suspension plays its role well. Tinkering with the three street settings – Road, Dynamic, Rain – the BMW reacts with consistent handling from the chassis. Whether at a frantic pace in Dynamic, or steadier tempo in Road/Rain, the Telelever/Paralever components deliver a stable ride and damping is altered electronically.

The handling character is further altered with the Dynamic ESA, which offers variable damping settings of: Soft, Normal, Hard. In this manner the GS can be fine-tuned for a versatile range of roles, from aggressive canyon carver (Dynamic/Hard) to more subdued tourer (Road/Soft). It’s all up to the GS rider’s particular need, or whim.

Wider tires adorn the GS this time around, 120/170 instead of 110/150. These further aid street performance and the Metzeler Tourance tires spooned onto our test bikes provided a confident connection to the street.

Radial-mount Brembo calipers are a fantastic upgrade from the previous version. Precise modulation and feedback allow for hard-charging corner attacks and more subtle trail-braking alike. Particular note is owed to the Telelever here, which eliminates the front end dive indicative of many tall traillies similar to the GS. The standard-issue ABS intervenes on the Beemer with a more refined feel than the hand-banging pulses of yore. By the way, South Africa demands some unique panic stops for the American visitor… All I’ll say is watch out for mean-looking baboons in the road!

The GS test route included off-road sections as well, allowing us to test the 2013 R1200 in the dirt and gravel.


The GS test route included a substantial portion of well-maintained gravel/dirt highways, as our group climbed over the Outeniquas into the arid interior. This inland region, known as the Little Karoo, offered long dusty stretches to engage the Enduro mode. Made for light off-road work on the street-oriented tires (as opposed to Enduro Pro, which is keyed to knobbies), Enduro offers an entirely different feel and intervention from the electronic package.

A disclaimer for the hardcore GS-ites here: I am a relative novice off-road, as compared to most of my editorial kin, who learned to ride in the dirt and at a young age (it would seem some may have exited the womb crossed up and roosting the doctors). My skill set found the Enduro mode’s gentle throttle encouraging on the loose stuff. I was able to initiate easy, controllable slides. Even more impressive is the ABS setting.

ABS + dirt = pucker-inducing moments. At least that has always been my experience on two wheels, so I was reluctant to heed the advice of our BMW tender, who insisted we keep Enduro/ABS engaged during our first off-road incursion on the day. My faithlessness was soon chastised, however, as the linked braking proved incredibly effective at scrubbing speeds. So much so that I prefer to keep it on for casual dirt surfaces.

In this dusty terrain the GS hacks around far better than a tall 500-pound motorcycle ever should. Throttling along at brisk, but reasonable, speeds my overriding impression was one of smooth and steady handling – the electronic package doing its job well. I should point out that the ESA Soft/Hard settings offer up distinctly different handling in Enduro mode, with Hard seemingly preferred by the more experienced riders. Twist the grip and the Beemer continued to acquit itself, although I didn’t press hard except in short bursts. Later I would hear two editorial colleagues claim a disheartening head shake on the loose stuff at higher speeds – a question mark that will require further evaluation.

At midday I relished the opportunity to sample the fifth ride mode, Enduro Pro, on specially equipped GS models. Activated by a special plug in chip, Enduro Pro is calibrated for knobbies and more aggressive off-road use, including stiffer suspension and independent actuation of the rear brake. The mode also remembers its settings, rather than returning back to a default when started – so ASC/ABS remain off, if so chosen.

Swapping for an Enduro Pro GS kitted with Metzeler’s fittingly-named Karoo tires, I charged off on a more technical off-road loop. This challenging section included some rocky terrain and cambered inclines that required crawling along in low gears and stepping out the rear end. One of our favorite features of the old GS was how it would tractor along up jeep trails without issue. The revvy new edition does the same, even if it sounds less burly down low. Still, it’s quite remarkable how effective the big GS can be in the right hands – much less our own…

A couple ham-fisted stalls from a dead stop were owed to the clutch engagement near the end of the lever. But this is more than off-set by the feather light clutch pull, with one-finger actuation. And the notchy, deliberate gearbox from past GS excursions is replaced with pleasant, almost unnoticeable, gear throws. The GS clutch is all-new, now a wet, multi-plate unit. It’s also been repositioned in the new Boxer design, moved up to the front of the engine block, instead of between the engine and transmission. Not to be lost in the shuffle its slipper functionality, which does a terrific job smoothing out downshifts on the street. No dramatic hops or skips.

The 2013 BMW R1200GS is a ready touring mount, with improved ergonomics and new components for long hauls.

The shaft final drive also delivers a refined feel, without any harsh lash or chatter. Like the clutch, it also been relocated in the 2013 powertrain reset, shifted from BMW’s usual right-side quirk, to the more conventional left.


Blazing trails and pressing ADV bikes to rugged off-road locales may be the allure that sells bikes, but it’s not lost on anyone that the vast majority of mileage tallied on Adventure-Touring mounts will be in the latter capacity. In this regard BMW has upped the GS’s long-distance touring chops with revised ergos and new components.

A new windscreen features easy adjustment. Airflow underneath the screen lessens wind buffeting, one of my few gripes with the previous GS, and I believe BMW’s claim that the new configuration reduces wind noise. The previous GS sported an adjustable windscreen too, but this year’s design can now be altered on the fly via knob on the right side of the shield’s interior. One engineer made special note that the placement, while counter-intuitive at first, is ergonomically sound – as riders will reach across their bodies to adjust it with the left hand, but keep their right hand on the throttle. The screen adjustment knob, resides right next to another touring-friendly change – the repositioned power socket, for heated gear and accessories (a second power socket may be installed under seat, near site of the former accessory plug). Panniers are, of course, available – though we did not ride on any bikes equipped with them.

The GS’s perch is adjustable for height (33.5 to 34.5 inches) and pitch angle. The passenger seat is adjustable as well (one BMW rep joked that onlookers will be able to accurately gauge a rider’s marital happiness by the pillion’s closeness). The seat shape is also new, tapered in for easier reach to the ground, with a wider base at the rear to allow rider thighs to rest comfortably. I found the position comfortable for my 6’1” frame. Leg room to the footpegs, which are 10mm lower (0.4 inches), feels even roomier thanks to the Boxer’s repositioned throttle bodies – now atop the cylinder heads, instead of crowded behind and toward the rider. Notably, the entire passenger footpeg bracket can be removed if so inclined.

The GS has an adjustable perch as well as a new seat shape to help accommodate riders of different sizes.

Ergos live up to the improved touring claims. My only gripe is slightly hunched shoulders when standing on the pegs off-road. BMW reps promise this can be remedied by an upward tweak on the handlebar, a mandatory fix for taller riders that plan to spend any considerable time off-road.

Excellent controls improve fit and finish. The brake and clutch levers in particular feel high quality and are easily adjustable. The foot controls appear more robust and larger than the previous model. One colleague, an ADV riding instructor and tour guide for RawHyde Adventures, noted the sidestand and centerstand are now unobtrusively placed – the sidestand formerly crowding the left heel of a larger rider’s boot.

Switchgear is intuitively placed, though we confess less than 100% proficiency with the left-side Multi-Controller (spending most of our time getting lost in the accessory GPS menu…) However, it is an elegant way to handle the myriad of electronic input. The remaining buttons are logically placed, the ride modes on the throttle side, with ASC/ABS and ESA on the left side – along with a toggle switch for the info displayed on the LCD display, not to mention Cruise Control – yeah, the GS has that too…

Speaking of the instrument display, the GS’s instrument console has a lot to look at. Analog speedo dominates the left, with analog tach above the LCD screen. The latter displays a gear position indicator, with Ride Mode and ESA displays, as well as clock, trip meters, ambient temperature… plus plenty that we’re probably forgetting.

And we haven’t even gotten to what’s on the other side, with the GS boasting an LED headlight and daytime running light. Unfortunately, we never got a chance to sample its effectiveness in the dark, although quite eye-catching when illuminated. It’s one more example of where the new bike exceeds its predecessor.

Another will likely be MSRP… US pricing is still to be determined, with the 2012 base model retailing for $16,150. UPDATE: BMW annouced US price for the base model at $15,800. The GS models we tested will certainly jump well beyond that mark, kitted out with optional features including ESA and semi-active electronic suspension.


The standard GS has long been the ADV standard bearer and a favorite at the MotoUSA offices. The latest version only increases our admiration. Staunch Boxer disciples may not warm to the 2013’s water-cooled ways, but BMW has done an admirable job of pressing forward it GS project – the most successful model line in company history. While recent years have finally seen legitimate challengers to the GS’s position as class leader (succumbing in our 2012 AT comparison to the Tiger Explorer), the benefactors have been consumers. Riders have embraced those worthy mounts designed to best the BMW benchmark. Now add to the list the 2013 R1200GS.

The German marque refurbished its best-seller into a more refined class leader. It’s stronger, faster, smarter and nimbler – but hasn’t lost its GS character. Those BMW engineers can rest easy in a job well done.

Remembering Kevin Ash

Riding motorcycles for a living, and writing about them, is an amazing way to make a living. It can also be dangerous work. Sadly, we were all reminded of the fact on January 22, 2013, when esteemed British journalist Kevin Ash crashed and died at the R1200GS launch.

The crash occurred on a gravel road outside of Willomore, South Africa, with a second rider also injured. The incident cast a pall over the remainder of the GS launch. BMW went on to cancel the second day of planned riding, as well as the second wave of the launch, while the circumstances of the crash were investigated.

Ash was a revered figure in motorcycle journalism. A former editor for MCN, regular columnist for The Daily Telegraph, he also maintained his own website, Ash on Bikes, a repository of motorcycle reviews and technical data. Universally respected by his peers for his incisive writing and journalistic integrity, his words and opinion cast a long shadow over the industry. His loss is deeply mourned.

Aged 53 at his death, Ash is survived by his wife and three daughters. May he rest in peace.

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