There aren’t many motorcycles that can do everything very well.
Tour, scratch, commute and maybe hit 90mph on a farm track in rural France on your holidays. But the BMW R1150GS is that rare thing, a bike for all seasons. Now with its biggest ever engine fitted, sharper styling, plus a sixth overdrive gear, the GS is something of a two wheeled Range Rover – functional, yet classy.
BMW claim in their press kit that they pretty much invented the large capacity, dual purpose sector of the market with their R80GS back in 1980.
This must be news to all those Yanks and Aussies who bought BSA Victors, Triumph Adventurers and TR6s back in the late 60s, but let´s not get too picky. BMW certainly were the first factory to make the concept work reliably in wet, cold, mucky old Northern Europe – Joe Lucas electrics never played well in Lancashire winters, especially if you decided to venture off-road.
All credit to the Germans then and their outward bound tendency, as the GS model has evolved into one of the most complete motorcycles you can buy. First enlarged to 1000cc, then 1100cc, the latest version gets bigger again by some 45cc inside its huge twin pots, but more importantly, gains an overdrive sixth gear for motorway cruising.
The new screen also makes touring at a steady 80mph a fairly comfortable experience. Massively underrated in the UK, the bike remains one of my favourites because it´s a beautifully engineered workhorse.
The strange looks and BMW badge ( the image most UK bikers have of a BMW owner is still retired accountant meets ex-copper ) put people off one of the best motorcycles ever made, for the business of racking up miles.
The VFR800, Triumph Sprint ST and the Beemer, are the three bikes I would actually spend my own money to own – plenty of journos will secretly confess the same in hotel bars, but never write it. Most of all, the GS is outrageous fun.
SORRY, DID YOU JUST SAY A GERMAN BIKE WAS FUN?
I did, and before you spit on this webpage in disgust then fire off several emails in green ink to me, I suggest you book a test ride on a R1150GS. You´ll be intimidated at first by the sheer height of the thing. It is a bike with serious pretentions to off-road travel, so it has to have a bit of ground clearance.
In fact BMW GB launched the new 1150GS at Thruxton´s mini Moto-cross track, which was pretty scary on board a 219kgs of motorcycle. It needs skill off-road, no question. The boxer 1130cc motor now pumps out 85bhp, rather than the old model´s 80 horses, with improved torque and the benefit of a six speed gearbox to make life easier on faster, straighter roads.
It´s pretty rapid up to around 110mph, then starts to run out steam, but as a backroads scratcher, it has the perfect amount of poke at almost any engine speed above 2,000rpm. In a word, it´s meaty. Speed is one thing, but plenty of dual purpose, or enduro style bikes can feel kinda skittish, twitchy even, when it comes to high speed twisties on the tarmac.
But not the big BMW. The Telelever front may look bizarre, but with every model year the factory seem able to build a little bit more `feel’ into it, which gives you loads of confidence.
There’s no need to be scared of this trick suspension, it really works very simply in practice; Basically, there´s a wishbone attached to the front of the engine (no frame on the BMW boxers), with a monoshock hiding under the fuel tank and a set of forks (minus springs) which are just there to actually hold the front wheel in place. The system works well on the road because it separates braking from suspension action going hard into corners.
So, yes, it´s an enduro style bike, but it doesn´t dive eight inches at the front when you hit the brakes hard. The Paralever back end is equally secure and there´s never a hint of the old `torque reaction’ that old generation BMW flat twins were renowned for. You soon learn that this shaft driven bike isn´t going to lock the rear wheel and send you sideways when changing down a gear, unless you do something totally stupid.
All this translates into an adroit handling package, that lets the rider stuff the bike lower and lower into corners, until even skilled R1 jockeys will find themselves working hard just to stay ahead of the GS. Hard to believe I know, but this bike is capable of decking the cylinder heads on roundabouts with the right set of sticky road tyres on it, so go and try it – it really does handle exceptionally well on the road.
LONG DISTANCE INFORMATION
Much of the GS model´s sales success on the continent is wrapped up around the Paris-Dakar exploits of various crazed Gallic/German types, who enjoy jumping over camels in the Sahara. But most European riders buy the GS because it combines road touring ability with the sit-up-straight enduro style. The 1150 version does all that, and more.
The two piece seat is remarkably comfortable, with the back simply unlocking to reveal a well equipped tool tray. There´s no room for stashing your leggings underneath though, so you need some optional luggage. Details like the accurate bar graph fuel gauge and the digital clock are handy, but the mirrors tend to shake about on motorways. The new ellipsoidal headlight system is excellent on unlit backroads and the switchgear makes it almost foolproof, even in thick gloves. BMW still persist with their separate `bar mounted indicators, but at least the GS now has the more thumb friendly indicator cancel button on the right hand side.
The real touring benefits for 1999 are undoubtedly the sixth gear and the bigger screen however. The first five ratios are very evenly spaced, making the GS a deceptively rapid bike off the line. The factory claims it can do 0-100mph in 10.9 seconds, which is more than respectable. However, slot the BMW into overdrive, which you can see on the dash reading as an `E´ on the gear display, and the GS simply thrums along all day between 3500 and 4,000 revs, which is where the most engine torque happens to be. You still have plenty of lunge to overtake, but the bike feels like its ticking over.
A great way to travel, very relaxing and the re-sculpted nose fairing does a remarkable job of deflecting the windblast up to 90mph too. You´ll still need earplugs on motorways, but the wind pressure on your upper body is minimal.
DO YOU WANT IT SIR, REALLY WANT IT?
I do. The R1150GS is a well thought out motorcycle down to the finest detail. The new exhaust doesn´t pop and bang on the over-run like the old model did, it also looks better finished, more durable. The comfort level has been raised just enough to balance the slight increase in performance. It´s still got a bit of enduro heart, but I love the GS for its scratchability and the wacky style of the thing.
Women gasp in disbelief at the size of its cylinders, steam train enthusiasts drool over the Paralever power train, whilst little kids point at the ‘big Tonka toy’ parking up at the petrol pump. The GS is easier on fuel with overdrive by the way, a tenners worth will get you around 140 miles. It doesn´t seem to matter how many roadtests sing the praises of this bike, only a few hundred open minded bikers in the UK each year actually buy one, although the number is steadily increasing.
At a cheaper price of £8200 on the road, the R1150GS is the sort of bike that could cover 50,000 miles, loaded with luggage, during the next five years, across three continents. Try that on a Hayabusa.
Get BMW bike insurance for the bmw r1150gs.
|Engine||1130cc four stroke, flat twin cylinder, air cooled valves|
|Claimed power (bhp)||85bhp|
|Transmission||6 speed Final drive|
|Front tyre||110/80, 19 inch diameter|
|Rear tyre||150/70 17 inch diameter|
|Front brakes||Twin 305mm front discs|
|Rear brakes||Four piston calipers, single 285mm|
|Top speed||120 mph|
|Fuel capacity||22 litres|
|Current price||cost £8,200|