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Common Tread

2017 BMW R nineT Racer and Pure first ride review

Apr 24, 2017

There’s a fine line between a platform vehicle and straight-up badge engineering.

Badge-engineering is awful. Two words: Cadillac Cimarron. (Whippersnappers: That was a piece-of-shit Chevy Cavalier tarted up in Cadillac clothing.) Platform vehicles, on the other hand, offer the ability to create diverse products from a common, centralized core, the success of which is almost always measured by the platform’s flexibility at fulfilling different roles. Enter the BMW Heritage line, based on the R nineT.

I rode the R nineT Scrambler in October of last year. I liked it. I’m a sucker for all things pancake, though. I’m not the intended audience for that bike, but I was a fan of the build quality, most aspects of the ride, and the styling. After getting on the new Pure and the Racer and spending some time with them last week, I was intrigued at how different the three bikes feel. They were a reminder that “platform” doesn’t have to be a dirty term.

Before we get too far, in case you haven’t been keeping up with BMW: The R nineT, the flagship, is the most expensive bike in the Heritage line, (mostly) because it wears an aluminum fuel tank, Ohlins suspenders, radial-mount Brembo monobloc calipers and spoked wheels. The other models in the family are more value-oriented, substituting steel fuel tanks, cast wheels, and lower-spec suspension and brakes.

I won't be sad to see another color option open up on the Pure. RevZilla photo.

Riding the Pure

I rode the Pure for about 15 miles. (In fairness to BMW, the event was designed to be a ride-away affair. I tried to convince Lance to let me take four days to come home from Long Beach, California, on a bike, but he wasn’t buying what I was selling.) That 15 miles was enough to convince me that the Pure is a fine bike. I cut my teeth on UJMs and nakeds; I love them. I enjoy spirited street riding in an upright riding position. Fifteen miles wasn’t much, but it was enough to get a feel.

The engine fired up with a growl. I have to say, up until this point, the Triumph Street Twin has had my vote for nicest sounding bike as delivered from the factory, but the BMW has usurped it. I twisted the wick and got a hefty dose of sideways roll at each twirl of my right wrist. With 110 horsepower on tap, an 8,500 rpm redline, and fat, meaty torque available through most of the range, the BMW’s powerplant satisfies. It’s got enough power to put a smile on the face of most any rider who is riding on the street, I would think.

The engine (shown here on a racer) is a bit rough and rude — perfect for the intended usage in a series of bikes with a throwback vibe. RevZilla photo.

With the way it wants to lay over to the right if you blip the throttle at a stop light, the noisy boxer exhaust “honk” and the ragged buzzing at certain rpms, this BMW engine is unmistakably Bavarian. It is a very solid performer without being sterile. That’s odd, too, because BMW has become BMW by building bikes that are almost relentlessly improved in ways that don’t always make sense to riders of other makes. Still, the older air-and-oil-cooled lump BMW uses in this bike has been repurposed perfectly: Retro bike shoppers want a bike with some flavor, but that does not mean they want to become mechanics.

Which brings me to my next point: The Pure is marketed as being a retro bike. I don’t think of this as a retro at all. In my world, this bike is a straight standard motorcycle. I’m not going to argue with BMW about what the bike is, but I see little of yesteryear in this machine. The styling is so subdued compared with every other retro on the market. Metric “standards” now have more face plastic than Joan Rivers. The Pure deviates from that: It is styled not as a retro so much as it is simply left unadorned. BMW USA Product Manager Brian Carey made it fairly clear he expected the Pure to be the bike snapped up by the rider who wants to customize heavily, given that it’s one of the cheapest routes into owning a new boxer. Thusly, a prospective owner wouldn’t be paying top-dollar for parts that would get binned anyway.

That may be true, but I also think there will be another class of purchasers like me who buy it because it’s just a basic stripped-down bike with some lineage and history — people who want a bike that’s a little less overtly “retro.” Think Ducati Monster, not Yamaha XSR900.

Sex appeal, Dunstall-style. RevZilla photo.

Riding the Racer

Oh, how I lusted for this machine. I was drooling. I wanted to put my money in a dealer’s hand. After my brief stint on the Pure, I swapped for a Racer, and had that for quite a few more miles. I like the way this bike looks. It’s pretentious to some degree, and I don’t particularly care. I want to bring it into my garage, crack a beer and slide my old folding chair over to it, and just look at it.

This side-by-side comparison shot should give you an idea how the foot position changes between the Pure and Racer. Obviously up top things are drastic, too. One bike uses clip-ons, and one utilizes a handlebar. RevZilla photo.

The engine is the same as the Pure. Loved it. Same lovely exhaust note. The riding position is aggressive. Hands down, that is the biggest change I felt sliding onto the bike. The rearsets are high and slid way back, and the clip-ons aren’t a joke: This baby puts you damn near into a full race tuck. It’s fun to bomb the bike around this way. Even though the motorcycle feels similar to the Scrambler and the Pure in the way the powerplant behaves, controlling it and throwing it into the corners is very different, just due to the radical redistribution of rider weight.

I had no preload tool, but room for more adjustment. The suspension is not set up for gorillas. RevZilla photo.

The bike we had probably could have used (at minimum) more preload on the rear shock, and probably heavier fork springs up front for my use. Those are easy and cheap fixes that are expected when you’re built like a bread truck. The suspension is definitely an area where BMW kept the price down, but I’d argue that for someone who plans to do a bit of wrenching and experimenting, a right-side-up fork is very easy to work with. I am sure it will soon have a truckload of aftermarket bits. A well sorted right-side-up fork will beat out an upside-down unit that’s not. The Racer’s power level and intended riding mean this is a trivial matter for me, and probably most other people considering the bike.

Don't believe everything you read. There's plenty of brake on this bike. RevZilla photo.
Back when Spurgie was reviewing the Scrambler R nineT, the brakes were an item we both agreed on: They’re pretty good. Yeah, I know, the standard R nineT has the monobloc radial-mount blah blah blah. These “downgraded” bikes still sport four-pot Brembos with stainless lines. These have plenty of clamping power for Joe Average doing 110-horsepower-bike stuff.

And the handling? The Scrambler I rode could be described charitably as “a pig.” The Scrambler has more rake and trail than all the other Heritage bikes, and it shows. The larger front wheel and semi-knobby tires make the fork feel like it's filled with Novocaine in one tube and lead in the other. I am pleased to say the Racer shared no such heaviness, nor did the Pure. The Pure goes where you point it, and the Racer goes where you lean with no fanfare. At 480 pounds (give or take, by model), the bikes feel friendlier and more playful than their demeanor and price tag would belie.

Wheel and tire
Cast wheels and sport tires. Finally. RevZilla photo.

I dug the Racer. A lot. Ultimately, though, Practical Lem would forego one for the Pure. I lovelovelove the Racer’s whole vibe, but I’d ride three times as many miles on a Pure if I had them parked side-by-side in the shop. That does not mean if I see one of our readers on one that I won’t be irrationally jelly af.


I don’t normally recommend OEMs overhaul their structure and pricing based on my whim, but I have some ideas for the Heritage line. Let’s talk structure first. Sean MacDonald (He writes for Cycle World. He used to write for Common Tread, and I tell everyone he worked for me.) pitched me on the idea that the Racer should be top dog in the Heritage family. At first I didn’t like that idea, then I realized I came to a similar idea by a different path.

Let's say the Heritage line had two street variants and two “offroad” ones instead of the five models BMW has. Nix the R nineT and have the Racer and Pure for the street, with the Racer being the hot-rod model with all the upgrades now on the R nineT. Let the Pure be the down-spec model, or just add an R variant that is effectively an R nineT. Lather, rinse, and repeat on the offroad side of the house: The yet-to-be-introduced-but-oh-so-sexy Urban GS can be the top dog, with spoked wheels and the better inverted fork, and the Scrambler can be the “entry-level” model.

Row of bikes
This is the stuff of dreams. RevZilla photo.

While we are making changes, all the street bikes should have cast wheels. (Why does the R nineT use spokes with such low-profile tires? What a pain.) All the off-road models would have spokes. Standard spokes could go on the Scrambler, and the Urban GS should get edge-spoked wheels, as it would be the upmarket bike. There you go, BMW, I just sorted out your Heritage line and didn't even send a bill for consulting fees.


Time for me to complain some more. First, cast wheels are supposed to cost more than spokes, not vice versa. Second, the Pure ($11,995) has a two-up seat and subframe and passenger pegs, yet it is cheaper than the Racer ($13,295), which gets a tach and a Dunstall-style fairing, but has no provisions for the cutie at the bar you’re sure to impress. BMW was quick to point out that the passenger setup can be purchased for the Racer, but the subframe alone (forget the seat and pegs and such) runs $915.97. That is absurd.

I get that the Racer is the “cool” bike, but in no way can I picture someone shelling out $1,300 more for a solo bike. Maybe my practicality is showing — or maybe I know that I won't be the only one who realizes that buying a Pure, mounting a real Dunstall fairing and getting it sprayed to match colors ain’t gonna cost as much as it would to make a Racer into a two-up machine.

And the price? I give BMW a pass like I give Harley a pass, because I think they’re cool and I pay more for stuff I like. But the market isn’t made up of sentimental idiots like me. This family has some really stiff competition — the whole Triumph Modern Classic series, the Yamaha XSR900, the Ducati Monsters and Scramblers come to mind immediately. Will buyers fork over the extra few bones for the BMW? I’m not sure. I think older ones might. BMW says current R nineT owners are equal to BMW K 1600 GT/GTL (BMW’s flagship touring machine) owners in terms of household income, and the average buyer age is 49! I imagine these offerings will drag those numbers south, which is likely the intended goal, but BMW may have a tough row to hoe. These babies still ain't cheap.

It's hard to believe this bike is as versatile as the line has proven. RevZilla photo.

When the bikes were released, I was excited about the looks — especially the Racer's, and critical of what the price would come in at. I’d personally think long and hard about a Pure, knowing the XSR900 exists, and I’d have an equally hard time selecting a Racer over something like a BMW S 1000 R. Just sayin’. The Pure for $12,000 seems like a pretty square deal to me, but the Racer is harder for me to swallow.

Others may jump in and say that I don’t understand; that these bikes are simply a basis for customization. I’d agree: R nineTs I’ve seen in the wild are like Sportsters. Every damn one has been modified and personalized within an inch of its life. If one’s goal is making a bike that’s different from the one on the showroom floor while riding it the whole time, the R nineTs are wonderful. They boast an easily removable rear subframe, a separate body and engine wiring harness to ease electrical woes, and a powertrain and chassis that are well suited to a variety of riding tasks. They seem very, very adaptable. So alike, yet, as BMW has shown, so different.

Platform indeed!