Our department director Brett Walling slid two keys across the desk. “Which one would you like?” he asked.
Without hesitation I picked up the key for the BMW R 1200 RS. He looked surprised.
Every now and then a motorcycle comes along that stops us in our tracks. Not because it’s the fastest or prettiest, but because something about it starts gnawing away deep down inside. It’s like that old Jerry Jeff Walker song, when the kid brings home a cocktail waitress as his date for the senior prom. He can’t help it, mom, that’s the kind he digs.
That’s why I chose to test-ride the 2016 BMW R 1200 RS.
It’s all but impossible to address the new RS without considering the historical significance of this model. BMW all but invented the sport-touring class with the release of the original R100RS in 1976. Its success proved that riders wanted to traverse long distances without having to sacrifice performance. Other manufacturers soon followed BMW’s lead.
In 1993, when some thought the boxer twin was in jeopardy of being phased out for the more powerful four-cylinder K bikes, the R 1100 RS was the first model to get the new boxer with oil-cooled heads. The future of the boxer in BMW’s lineup was secured.
The RS moniker was last seen in BMW’s lineup in 2004, after which the R 1200 ST replaced it. The ST only lasted two years. At the time, brands like Triumph, Ducati, Kawasaki, and Honda either completely eliminated the sport-touring category or shifted the scale of their bikes toward touring.
Unlike bikes built with a singular purpose, sport-touring bikes are a compromise of two different worlds. Enter the naysayers. A world of critics arguing that the result is too sporty for comfortable travel or too heavy to allow for fun in the twisties. BMW makes no qualms about the fact that this bike leans toward the “sport” side of sport-touring. Don’t like it? Buy an R 1200 RT and get out of the way.
With sharp angular lines, big Brembo brakes, a sporty riding position, a real sport bike suspension, and an available advanced electronics package, this is not my father’s RS.
The new RS utilizes the same boxer engine found in the GS and RT line. With liquid-cooled heads, it cranks out 125 horsepower at 7,750 rpm and 92 foot-pounds of peak torque at 6,500 rpm. I know 125 horsepower sounds a bit lackluster in this day and age of big horsepower bikes, but the RS wears it well.
The engine redlines at 9,000 rpm, but loses steam rather quickly around 8,000 rpm. The boxer in the RS has been slightly retuned to give you 74 foot-pounds of torque across a wide swath of the rpm range, which translates into thick low-end and mid-range power. If you like to spin your power out of the top end of an engine’s rpm range, this is not the bike for you.
Power flows through a six-speed gearbox with the aid of a slipper clutch and available Gear Shift Assist Pro. Gear Shift Assist Pro allows for seamless up and downshifts once you are clear of third gear. The thought of not having to use the clutch took a second to get used to, but damned if I wasn’t flying through the gears under aggressive acceleration.
BMW slows the RS using two 320 mm discs up front with radial-mounted, four-piston Brembo calipers and a floating two-piston caliper with single 276 mm disc out back. ABS is standard on the R 1200 RS with varying levels of interference, depending on the selected Rider Mode, and you can also turn it off. The brakes are linked, so the front lever actuates both the front and rear brakes while the pedal only activates the rear.
The biggest change with the suspension from previous versions of the RS is the absence of the Telelever front end, replaced with a more sport-oriented inverted telescopic fork. A BMW EVO Paralever shock keeps the rear in check. Our test bike was equipped with the latest version of BMW’s Dynamic ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment). Those riders who prefer a manual suspension setup can forgo the electronic option, but I would encourage you to at least test ride a D-ESA-equipped bike before making up your mind.
The D-ESA is just the tip of the iceberg for electronic goodies that BMW has packed into this bike. The RS comes standard with two rider modes, Rain and Road. In addition to controlling the sensitivity of the throttle response, these modes also regulate the level of interference from the ABS and the Automatic Stability Control systems.
ASC monitors rotation of the tires to regulate wheel slip. Because of the way the system works, it also functions as a manageably smooth “anti-wheelie” control. At one point, I gave the bike to our director and told him to take off and wide-open the throttle in first gear. After a hesitant first attempt, his second try had him launching the bike with the front wheel lifting a few inches off the ground before comfortably setting back to the asphalt.
The next step up in electronic rider aids from BMW is Ride Modes Pro, but our test bike did not have that option. In addition to the Rain and Road presets, Ride Modes Pro adds an additional “Dynamic” mode, with minimal interference from ABS and ASC and throttle response maximized for aggressive sport riding. It also adds a programmable “User” map and DTC, Dynamic Traction Control. DTC piggybacks on the ASC system to take lean angle into account for maximum stability while cornering.
The R 1200 RS tips the scales at 520 pounds, making the BMW lighter than most of the competition. By utilizing the boxer engine as a stressed member of the frame, engineers were able to cut weight and keep the center of gravity low. What you end up with is an extremely balanced machine (a 51/49 split of weight over the front and rear wheels) that handles quite nicely in a variety of situations.
Testing the R 1200 RS
From the moment I picked up the RS from BMW’s headquarters in northern New Jersey, I began pouring on the miles. That first weekend was spent hitting up backcountry roads outside of Philly. That included 250 miles two-up with a friend, who said the passenger seat was more comfortable than that of any of the other bikes she has ridden with me. Sunday was spent riding with my dad. Stopping for coffee, he commented that while our tastes in motorcycles are usually a bit different, this might be one of the few bikes we could agree on.
On Monday morning I put the BMW to use as my regular commuter. Faced with Philly traffic, the R 1200 RS felt like a caged bird that refused to sing. This bike craves long sweeping curves, not the low speeds of city streets, where it was a bit cumbersome.
After a week in the concrete jungle, we broke out and headed south to the scenic overlooks and snake-like curves of Virginia’s Skyline Drive. During the week, we faced rain, fog, and wet leaves, all of which made the 35 mph speed limit set by Shenandoah National Park seem a bit more realistic. As it goes with any rainy trip, our last day was absolutely beautiful, so I decided to take the long way home. Temperatures ranged from the 60s to the mid-30s, so I was thankful for the optional heated grips and cranked them to full power. The 35 mph speed limit was laughable in dry conditions, as the RS pulled through the corners like a tank and I traversed nearly all 109 miles of the drive with one eye on the road and the other on the lookout for park rangers.
By the time I dropped off the bike, I had tackled nearly 2,300 miles in just over two weeks.
BMW R 1200 RS highlights
For me, the boxer twin stole the show. This engine doesn’t give a shit about trying to impress you with some unrealistic peak horsepower number. Rather, it provides the rider with big fat torque and useable power throughout the rev range. Power delivery feels incredibly smooth and balanced across the power band and fueling was spot on. While the boxer twin sets the RS apart from the big triples and inline-fours of the competition, it is the brakes and suspension that will have you going fast.
The Brembos slow this bike down like a frying pan to the face. While I did find that the overly progressive feel to the lever took some getting used to, once I was comfortable, I had as much fun stopping as I did going. You will be able to ride harder into a corner and brake later, while the suspension works flawlessly to keep the bike completely balanced while accelerating through the twisties.
This suspension is one of the best I have ever used. I was able to dial in the perfect amount of preload and damping with the push of a button. But it doesn’t stop there. A spring travel sensor on the rear shock works in conjunction with a separate bank-angle sensor to allow the system to continually adjust damping in a matter of milliseconds, all while taking lean angles into account. If you're not a fan of manually adjusting your suspension, D-ESA is for you. The machines are learning and damned if they are not better than we are.
The engineers over at BMW designed the chassis of the RS to help bridge the gap between the worlds of sport and touring. By giving the RS 27.7 degrees of rake, 4.5 inches of trail, and a 60.2-inch wheelbase, they created a bike that is extremely stable at highway speed. Then, they used weight distribution to maintain a sporting feel. The RS handled two jobs better than could be expected, but with the relatively lazy geometry of the chassis, don’t expect the full-fledged nimbleness of a sport bike. Riders coming from the sport realm will find it requires a healthy amount of rider input to wrestle it through tighter corners.
Would I have liked the chance to play with the “Dynamic” mode offered by the “Ride Modes Pro” option? Sure. Did I feel like I was missing anything with only the “Road” mode at my disposal? Absolutely not.
R 1200 RS lowlights
Our test bike priced out at $18,245. For that price, it included a lot of great extras that I wouldn’t want to skip, like heated grips, electronic cruise control, Dynamic ESA, and Gear Shift Assist Pro, but it didn’t include hardbags. BMW, how are you going to sell a sport-touring motorcycle and not include the main item needed to actually tour with this bike? While others might find these important, I would gladly sacrifice the chromed exhaust, tire pressure monitor, tank cover, and GPS preparation kit (that doesn’t actually include the GPS unit) in favor of hard luggage.
The gearbox in our RS was a bit temperamental at lower speeds. The majority of the time, the bike shifted like a hot knife through butter, but every now and then it would get caught up in neutral or shift extremely heavy. Please note that this occurred while actuating the clutch to shift gears. Gear Shift Assist Pro is designed to work best once the bike is clear of second gear and you are shifting from third through sixth.
While I personally enjoyed the RS’s slightly more sporting tuck, it is important to note that I am 32 years old. BMW’s target audience for this bike likely ranges from guys my age to folks my dad’s age. Considering the first words out of my dad’s mouth after sitting on the RS were “I would want risers,” my guess is that this sentiment is going to be echoed by a portion of potential RS customers. A possible solution would be for BMW to offer riser options the way it offers high and low seat options.
I was most disappointed with the dash display. BMW is very proud of the TFT (Thin-film Transistor) display with three different styles riders can choose from and more information than you could possibly need. My main two issues are with the digital tachometer (it lags behind engine speed) and the analog speedometer (with numbers too tiny too see). I have 20/20 vision and at a glance I had no idea whether I was going 40 mph or 60 mph (sorry, officer). While there is a setting to offer up a digital readout for the speedometer, it eliminates the tachometer. It would have been nice to see an analog tach and a digital speedo. Keep it simple.
For all the money and design that went into the R 1200 RS, there was no electrically adjustable windshield. This is a nicety that certain touring riders have come to expect. I recognize that there is already enough electronic wizardry on this bike to go wrong, and I would hate to have to foot the bill to fix it once the bike is out of warranty.
Lemmy already ranted quite effectively in his S 1000 XR review about BMW’s confusing pricing, so I am not going down that road. To BMW’s credit, they did say that if I wanted to order a base R 1200 RS, with no extras or add-ons, for the MSRP of $14,995 it was possible to do so. This would put the new RS closer to its Japanese competitors.
I was excited to ride the R 1200 RS because I miss the glory days of sport-touring motorcycles, when manufacturers essentially mounted bags and added bar risers to slightly larger sport bikes. One of my personal favorites was my old 1999 Honda VFR800, and I have been waiting to see the shift back toward the sporting side of sport-touring.
Honda took a stab at this by reintroducing the VFR800 Interceptor to the American market in 2014. I was disappointed to see the VTEC engine hadn’t gone the way of the Dodo, but the Deluxe version comes in at $13,499 offers ABS, two-stage traction control, and a fully adjustable suspension. Pretending for a second that you were to opt for the bare-bones R 1200 RS, the Honda is still about $1,500 cheaper. And to be honest, I can't imagine many of you are considering the RS without at least some of those bells and whistles.
Like I mentioned earlier, our bike, as tested, came in just over $18 grand and the only thing missing was Ride Modes Pro with DTC. At that price, the BMW has to be compared to some larger bikes like Yamaha’s FJR1300, Kawasaki’s Concours 14, and Triumph’s Trophy.
Yamaha just announced a huge facelift for the FJR1300 for 2016. The transmission gets a sixth gear, rider modes, traction control, and ABS are now available, and the ES version features an advanced electronic suspension set up. Pricing for the new version is currently unavailable, but the MSRP on the 2015 ES version was $16,890, roughly $1,000 cheaper than our heavily equipped RS. The real question for most riders is how Yamaha’s electronics, including their suspension, will measure up against BMW’s.
The Kawasaki Concours 14 is a knuckle-dragging brute with a 1,352cc inline-4 engine putting out 160 horsepower. For 2015 Kawasaki actually lowered the price to $15,499. You’re not going to find the advanced rider aids you have on the BMW and the “Connie” tips the scales at nearly 700 pounds.
The Triumph Trophy SE is the only bike of these three that sports a higher price tag than the R 1200 RS. With an MSRP of $19,499, it could be argued that the Trophy is approaching R 1200 RT territory. And we’re back to the eternal debate of the sport-touring machine.
In BMW’s lineup alone you could look at bikes like the F 800 GT or the R 1200 RT as possible competition for the RS. With a base MSRP of $12,095, the GT appeals to riders looking for a smaller, lighter, more affordable machine, while the $18,125 RT is designed for riders looking for boxer power with a focus on touring and comfort.
Finally, many riders have seen bikes like BMW’s S 1000 XR, with street-oriented parts and a dash of adventure-bike style, as the newest incarnation of the sport-tourer.
In case you were wondering, the other key Brett offered me was for the BMW S 1000 XR that Lemmy reviewed. I don’t regret my decision for a second.
In BMW’s lineup, the R 1200 RS gets lumped into their sport category, a designation I don’t agree with. This is the closest thing to a classic sport-touring motorcycle that BMW has released in years. And with that it bears a cross of dual functionality. Like the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it is part backroad burner and part refined touring machine, and it works hard to split that difference well.
The R 1200 RS is an odd duck boxer twin in the world of big-triple and inline-four power. It’s too touring to be a sport bike and too sporting to be a touring bike. Lord knows its price will make some riders scoff and dismiss it as luxury item. Personally, I like to think of it as something to aspire to.
From the first time I threw my leg over the R 1200 RS, I was grinning like an idiot. This is my kind of machine. Then again, I too am an odd duck.