In Brazil, Sertão is the desiccated, rocky section of dirt-poor badlands just inland from the relatively lush northern coastline where most residents, animate or inanimate, project varying degrees of menace. At BMW, it's the tag distancing this latest, most adventurous G650GS from its relatively tedious, entry-level brother. Call it credibility by association. Both bikes rise from the same basic steel frame, and share the same Chinese-built 652cc four-valve single and bin of supporting hardware. But Sertao also means more suspension travel, ground clearance, engine armor and seat height, dirt-worthy wire-spoke wheels with a proper 21-inch front hoop, along with standard plastic handguards and a bigger windscreen.
The Sertão weighs-in at an alleged 425 lbs. topped off with 3.7 gallons of fuel and assorted essential fluids-lighter than Kawasaki's KLR650, but a lot heavier than Honda's ageless XR650L. That's 4 lbs. more than the basic G650GS-not that you'd notice, since unleaded lives in a plastic tank under the seat. Vertically challenged types will notice a contoured standard saddle sitting 2.4 inches farther from terra firma. The net result is more comfortable for most riders, but a bit wide between the knees when you're standing on the narrow, strangely stubby serrated-steel footpegs.
BMW's latest two-channel ABS system is effective on the pavement and easily switched off when it ends. Generous ground clearance keeps the Sertão from running aground prematurely, while a functional skidplate protects the sensitive engine bits from unavoidable hazards. Suspension does an admirable job of keeping the chassis under control most of the time, but a long wheelbase and lazy steering geometry make tight, muddy trails seem more difficult than they should be. And harder still once the standard Metzeler Tourance EXPs coat themselves in a thick layer of muck. Fluffy low-speed throttle response and an all-or-nothing clutch hardly help the cause, but you get used to all that. After awhile, steady hands and 22 psi at either end let the Sertão plonk along at an easy, recreational clip over straightforward terrain. Just don't stray too far from the bunny trails without knobbies.
This latest GS single is more tool than toy, gaining revs with more determination than enthusiasm. But spin it above 1500 rpm and the five-speed gearbox turns torque into (mostly) forward motion over any surface the rear tire can get hold of. According to the LCD tachometer, it's capable of spinning all the way to 7000 rpm, and it will if you're in a hurry. A handy red light makes it easy to cue the next gear ahead of the electronic rev limiter, but shifting closer to the 5000-rpm torque peak moves things along just about as quickly with less effort.
The single front disc and two-piston caliper are plenty strong enough on the street. ABS is refreshingly unobtrusive as well, but rapid progress is all about holding onto momentum. Light steering and abundant cornering clearance let you exploit prodigious cornering grip on the tires' preferred surface. Aside from some harshness from the non-adjustable fork over square-edged hits, the long-travel suspension serves up a comfortably taut ride. Rural, urban or anywhere in between, the Sertão is more capable and, for average-sized humans, more comfortable than the basic G650GS.
There's plenty of room to move around behind that small-but-effective windscreen. With some help from the standard handguards, optional heated grips and a firm, supportive seat, the cockpit is livable enough to let you inhale 3 hours of freeway or a full tank of regular 87-octane unleaded-no need for pricier super-unleaded here-in one sitting.
The Sertão is clearly BMW's best GS single in a dozen years. Whether it's the best single-cylinder adventure-bike depends on what sort of adventure you have in mind. It's more capable and composed than Kawasaki's omnipresent KLR650 despite less fuel range, regardless of the surface du jour. The base model costs $1551 more including ABS, which the KLR doesn't currently offer. And as opposed to most of its single-cylinder ancestors, the Sertão is a GS first-and an affordable single second or third.