A Quartet of Electronically Enhanced Superbikes | MC Comparison

Class of 2011: Divine Intervention

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kevin Wing, Matt Samples, Joe Neric

Best Lap: 1:53.8

How fast is too fast? BMW’s awesome S1000RR comes uncomfortably close to answering this question. Even in this crowd of alpha superbikes, the brutish Beemer feels heart-stoppingly fast. Cramming a 177.8-bhp inline-four into a 458-lb. package, with just 56.4 inches between axles, the pirate-faced Beemer is undeniably thrilling on an open stretch of tarmac. You’ll still laugh out loud the thousandth time the bike power-wheelies its way through fourth gear!

“You’ll still laugh out loud the thousandth time this bike power-wheelies its way through fourth gear!”

As entertaining as this anti-social excess is, however, the S1000RR can be a handful in the canyons and downright overwhelming on a technical racetrack. Fast laps require constant recalibration: Get an especially good drive out of one turn and the BMW builds so much more speed, so quickly that you inevitably blow the next. The Beemer will deliver a quick lap—indeed, it was the second-quickest bike here—but it requires significantly more mental effort and attention. You’ve heard the line about flying a fighter jet inside the hanger? That’s riding the S1000RR at the racetrack.

It’s a credit to BMW’s sophisticated electronics package that we can handle this mega-motored monster at all. Traction control, wheelie control and race-grade ABS are all in effect, and all necessary to manage this beast at speed. The three systems are not independently adjustable, but instead integrated into four preset ride modes—Rain, Sport, Race or Slick—which also alter power level and throttle response. This makes the systems easier to navigate, at the expense of some ability to fine-tune the response. Modes can be changed in motion, but you have to close the throttle and pull in the clutch for them to take effect. You can also disable ABS and TC completely at start-up—at your own risk.

BMW’s TC, driven by dual gyroscopes that monitor lean angle and acceleration, is effective but somewhat more invasive than on the other bikes. Lacking the ability to adjust the level of intervention proved frustrating, especially in Race mode where the TC would sometimes cut power so much that the front end would dive and cause the bike to run wide at corner exits. The wheelie control was also too abrupt, allowing too much lift and then cutting power too drastically, causing a pogo effect. Switching to Slick mode disabled wheelie control (along with rear-wheel ABS), but ultimately the bike handled better with the front wheel on the ground. This one-setting-fits-all mentality inevitably shows some holes.

BMW’s Race ABS, on the other hand, is essentially transparent, despite the most powerful brakes in this group. Massive initial bite and fade-free deceleration, combined with firm, predictable feedback from the fully adjustable, 46mm Sachs fork made the Beemer easy to bend into corners. Last year we struggled to find a good track setup for the S1000RR. This year, with able assistance from Evan Steel, who currently supports BMW-mounted Chris Peris in the AMA Superbike Championship, the BMW cooperated from the word go. Flipping the shock eccentric raised rear ride Height by 15mm for quicker turn-in and better completion of corners. Though it felt agile for a four-cylinder—and was quicker side-to-side than the Kawasaki—the S1000RR still required more steering effort than either the Aprilia or the Ducati. There’s only so much you can do to hide the inertial effect of that wide, heavy crankshaft.

Not surprising from a brand that built its reputation with luxurious touring bikes, the BMW is the most refined bike in this bunch. The white LED dash looks luxe—the entire bike looks luxe, in fact, especially in our test unit’s optional red/white/blue Motorsport livery. Navigating the electronics is simple and intuitive, changing multiple parameters with the single push of a button. If only BMW would incorporate Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) as used on its sport-touring bikes, you could likewise alter suspension settings at the touch of a button.

Of this quartet, the S1000RR is the best outright streetbike. The riding position is relatively roomy, the fairing is more functional than its shape suggests, the saddle is supportive and it has the most legroom. The only street critiques have to do with the engine: Fluffy fueling at low revs and constant throttle openings causes some surging, and at higher revs a bit of buzzing transmits through the bars. The transmission feels a bit clunky around town, too, but you’ll never notice this at speed if you’re using the optional Gear Shift Assistant quick-shifter, which upshifts seamlessly in milliseconds.

Any criticisms seem minor, however, when judged against such an awesome powerplant. That BMW has harnessed such overwhelming output in a package that is almost easy to exploit is a testament to the excellence of German engineering.

So, then, just how fast is too fast? We don’t know yet. A bit of courage at the controls—and lots of blind faith in the electronics—proves that as fast as the S1000RR is, it’s still not too fast to be fun.

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