Class of 2010: European Sportbikes - Foreign Exchange

While Japan throttles back, Europe delivers its most serious sportbikes yet

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Joe Neric, Adam Campbell

Unlike the Aprilia, there was no ambiguity surrounding the BMW's spec sheet. The all-new Beast from Bavaria pumped out an astounding 174.2 horsepower at the rear wheel. That's 2 more than the last Suzuki GSX1300R Hayabusa we dynoed, and a full 17 more than its next closest competitor here, the MV Agusta F4! With a full complement of electronics including traction control, Race ABS, selectable drive modes and even a quick-shifter, the S1000RR was wired to put all that power to good use-on paper, at least.

The S1000RR was the bike everyone wanted to ride on the street. BMW reportedly used Honda's CBR1000RR and Suzuki's GSX-R1000 as benchmarks, thus it's no surprise that the S1000RR feels almost indistinguishable from a Japanese four, with moderate ergonomics and the same wide, top-weighted feel. Engine character is likewise familiar, with a muted exhaust note and slight upper-register vibration. It's a mostly pleasant motorcycle for commuting or cruising, with none of the rawness of the howling MV Agusta, to say nothing of those three rowdy Vees.

Whatever it lacks in personality (Duh, it's German!), the S1000RR makes up for with performance. Acceleration is brutal, with arm-stretching power available at almost any rpm. Excepting a lean spot around 5000 rpm causing some surging on the street and part-throttle sluggishness at the track, power is copious and easy to access. There's a reason BMW's DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) incorporates wheelie control: It activates almost constantly.

The electronic controls are highly integrated and reasonably intuitive to use. Selecting one of the four available drive modes changes the parameters for both DTC and ABS. Rain mode reduces power, blunts throttle response and maximizes ABS intervention. Sport mode offers full power and quicker throttle response, along with fairly aggressive ABS and DTC settings. Race mode quickens throttle response even more, while allowing less ABS and DTC intervention. Slick mode (which is only accessible after plugging in a jumper under the seat) disables rear-wheel ABS functionality entirely, engages wheelie control only at extreme lean and permits plenty of wheelspin before the DTC activates. You can change drive modes on-the-fly (your selection is cued when you close the throttle and pull in the clutch), or turn off the DTC and/or ABS entirely-at your peril.

We've now drunk the rider-aid Kool-Aid, and generally believe in the power of electronics to make us faster, safer, more satisfied riders. The BMW, however, makes an argument against too much intervention, or at least too much integration. The faster you go on this bike, the more e-compromises you uncover. Sport mode is mildly annoying on the street, as the ABS numbs the front brake lever to keep the rear wheel down and the wheelie control engages abruptly whenever the front snaps up. Race mode is better, but the ABS still occasionally stepped in too much-especially approaching Infineon's hard-braking, rear-lifting downhill turns-causing a soft lever and missed apexes. The ABS is unflappable in slick mode, but then DTC only works at lean angles greater than 53 degrees, and the tire often lights as soon as you pick the bike up! We think the lady doth protest too much.

We were also less than overwhelmed with the S1000RR's handling. The Sachs fork and shock both offer 10 clicks of everything, but are softly sprung and harshly damped. The rock-solid stability that made the BMW such a trustworthy companion on unfamiliar backroads translated into sluggishness at the racetrack. It felt heavy and lumbering in transitions, the polar-opposite of the razor-sharp Aprilia. You can flip the eccentric upper shock mount to raise the rear 10mm and quicken steering response; unfortunately, it wasn't until we were almost done testing that the attending BMW racer shared this information with us! The potential is there, but like BMW is finding in SBK competition, it will take more time and tuning to extract it.

One other area where the S1000RR recalls a Japanese machine is in terms of value. Even fully equipped with Race ABS/DTC ($1480), Shift Assist ($450) and the optional Motorsport red/white/blue paint scheme ($750) it's still the cheapest bike here at $17,480. It's also the least demanding to ride, especially if you're one of the "conquest" buyers BMW is targeting with this bike. You can jump straight off a GSX-R and feel right at home on the S1000RR, which is certainly not the case with the other bikes here. BMWs are typically iconoclastic, odd-mannered bikes, so it seems strange to describe the S1000RR as conventional. In this case, conventional is the best compliment.

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