First Ride: 2006 BMW R1200S Road Test and Review

More than ever, not your father's BMWs

BMW is worried about you. The German firm has spent a lederhosen-load of deutschmarks in the last few years to make its motorcycles lighter and faster--think K1200R and S--and to advertise its subsequent higher-performance image. But apparently you aren't getting the message; you're just not buying enough BMW motorcycles.

So consider these three bikes--the reborn R1200S and all-new F800S (sport) and ST (sport-touring), which BMW hauled our editorial carcass halfway around the world to South Africa to ride--Part II of that lighter, faster effort.

Those adjectives are especially true of the sportiest production boxer-twin ever, the R1200S. BMW says this latest model tapes in at 419 pounds dry--a whopping 111 pounds lighter than the R1100S it replaces. And with a claimed peak power of 122 bhp at 8250 rpm, the R1200S is decidedly fast; in fact, it's the fastest, most powerful boxer ever to roll out of a BMW showroom.

Yet despite those stellar (for a deutscher boxer)figures, BMW insists the new S is not a supersport bike,and shouldn't be compared to, say, Ducati's 999 or Suzuki's GSX-R1000. Instead, it's a Character-Sport motorcycle, with the implication we should all lower our expectations accordingly.

Of course, then BMW had us ride the R1200S over fast, swooping mountain roads and highways to a racetrack. The Killarney Motor Racing Circuit, to be precise, a 2-mile, nine-turn, medium-fast track in the Western Cape, where we gathered the majority of our riding impressions. And the majority of those were extremely positive. You should know, however, the bikes had options galore: Ohlins shocks for the Telelever front and Paralever rear ends, a 6.0-inch-wide rear wheel with 190mm tire, plus ABS and heated grips. Along with the extra-cost two-tone paint, our bike had $2465 in options, raising the $14,700 base price to $17,165.

Despite all that, and even with hotter cams, 2mm-bigger-diameter valves, forged pistons, 7mm-larger throttle bodies (52mm) and way-high-for-a-boxer 12.5:1compression ratio, there was no mistaking the GS-based engine for anything but the latest BMW flat-twin, from the classic exhaust note, to the slight feint to the right when you blip the throttle, to the mile-wide powerband. Still, this is a boxer with some 'tude, as evidenced by the way the R1200S launched hard out of Killarney's corners. Wind open the manually progressive throttle to the stop and you'll get another surprise--a manic, second stage of acceleration from 7000 rpm to the 8800-rpm redline.

The R1200S' handling also reflected traditional BMW values, with stability being the order of the day. Steering felt neutral, even if you played with the throttle mid-corner, but it did take a bit of muscle to get the S cranked over in a turn. With its steering damper, none-too-radical chassis geometry and rangy dimensions, making fast, full-lean left-right transitions requires the rider to plan ahead. Brakes were plenty powerful, but some might want more initial bite and more overall feel at the lever.

All of which helps explain the R1200S' Character-Sport appellation. What we have is the most focused, performance-driven BMW flat-twin ever to come off the Berlin assembly line. Even so, it never tries to deny its nature, its BMW-ness, if you will. It's stilldefined by that torquey (and slightly quirky) boxer motor and a chassis that emphasizes stability over the light-footed agility of a Japanese supersport motor-cycle. You'll likely know if the two of you are a match before you even ride it.

By comparison, the F800S and ST are just as unmistakably scions of BMW parentage in certain ways, but for the most part they're far more conventional. They have to be, because they're BMW's first entries into the hyper-competitive middle-displacement market segment.

These might be the most important models for BMW in a generation. Where the German firm used to focus on its domestic sales, it's now most concerned with the entire European motorcycle market. And, just as in the U.S.A., the middleweight sector is the hottest. With no middleweight to offer--especially to the vast potential number of re-entry riders, people who have a motorcycle license but no bike--BMW saw a gap that needed to be plugged.

Those needs were the driving forces behind the birth of the F800s, motorcycles BMW sees being bought by new and re-entry riders. Typically enough, the intended audience drove the bikes' design. To begin with, the S is the sportier of the two, while the ST is aimed at the, yes, sport-touring segment. Differences between the two amount to little more than a higher, conventional handlebar, fairing lowers, a taller windscreen, a luggage rack in place of passenger grab rails, painted front fender and R1200ST wheels for the ST. Those pieces account for an 11-pound weight increase; claimed dry weight for the S is 401 pounds, 412 for the ST.

Otherwise, the two are virtually identical, with the same aluminum frame welded up from extrusions and castings, conventional suspension and a brand-new DOHC, eight-valve, fuel-injected 360-degree parallel-twin engine designed by BMW and built by Austrian firmBombardier-Rotax. They're also, from the first time you twist open the throttle, instantly identifiable as BMWs, from the intake honk, to the classic t-twin-style thudding exhaust note, to the broad, predictable spread of power that comes from an equally broad and near-flat torque curve.

In fact, the F800s' engine character is defined more by torque than peak horsepower. BMW says the engine pumps out a workmanlike 63.4 lb.-ft. of torque at 5800 rpm, with 90 percent of that figure available from 5000 rpm to 8000 rpm. Peak horsepower is an unremarkable--compared to middleweight sportbikes--claimed 85 bhp at 8000; redline is at 8500 rpm. The Rotax-made mill does have a satisfyingly healthy midrange shove, but its otherwise low-key nature makes it near-perfect and unintimidating for newbies and returnees alike. A clever swiveling con rod (similar to the system used by Ducati's Supermono and Yamaha's Tmax 500 scooter) damps the typical parallel-twin shakes almost to oblivion.

The F800s' chassis performance is just as reassuring and confidence-inspiring as the engine's. As with other BMWs, stability is the overriding theme, although the bikes' light weight contributes to light, precise steering manners. The brakes could stand to offer more initial bite, especially at the front, but again, their overall power and feel should suit the intended audience just splendidly.

Most riders will find the ST's ergos preferable, with the slightly more upright body position they provide courtesy of the higher conventional handlebar. In addition, fairing lowers, and a taller windscreen that offers significantly more protection from windblast and weather, make the ST amply suitable for its role as a sport-tourer. Conversely, the S bike's clip-ons and more lithe appearance ought to appeal strongly to riders of the beveled-boots persuasion. And if they want to bring its capabilities closer in line with those of the supersport middleweights that have owned the class up till now, there's always the usual upgrade path of better, tauter suspension and sharper brakes.

BMW says the 800s will arrive in U.S. showrooms in February or March, 2007, though pricing could be problematic. Retail prices have not been announced, but rooting around on the Internet found U.K. prices that translate to about $10,700 for the S and $11,600 for the ST. It's difficult to predict how other markets will react, but in this country that's a mighty steep tariff for an entry/re-entry ride.-MC

2006 BMW R1200S


Type: a/o-c opposed twin
Valve arrangement: SIHC, 8 valves
Displacement: 1170cc
Transmission: 6-speed

Weight: 419 lb., claimed dry (190kg)
Fuel capacity: 4.5 gallons(17L)
Wheelbase: 58.5 in. (1487mm)
Seat height: 32.7 in. (830mm)

2006 BMW F800S/ST


Type: l-c parallel twin
Valve arrangement: DOHC, 8 valves
Displacement: 798cc
Transmission: 6-speed

Weight: 401/412 lb.,claimed dry (182/187kg)
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gallons (16L)
Wheelbase: 57.5 in. (1466mm)
Seat height: 32/31 in. (820/790mm)

Charles "Tuna" Everitt, giving BMW's latest S-model the berries in South Africa.
Although BMW considers its F800S and ST to be middleweights, they certainly won't be competing against headbangers such as Yamaha's YZF-R6 or Kawasaki's ZX-6R. No, these are more mature motorcycles--but don't think for a minute that means they're dull.
F800 crank utilizes eccentric weights plus a swiveling balance con-rod to counteract primary and secondary vibes.
R1200S' instrument panel features a digital display that shows remaining fuel, rance, oil temperature, time and gear position.