When I was four, my mother went to McDonald’s and brought me back some grub.
She insisted I take my french fries and dip them into my chocolate shake. I refused, and as parents often do, she forced me to try ‘em. I did. It was thrillingly delicious. Sweet and salty, two tastes I had never had at once, but each flavor enhanced by the other. Different, but good-different. Riding the new K 1600 B was a lot like dipping that pawful of fries into my frosty shake. An unlikely blend of parts live cheek by jowl, but the package makes more sense after a ride.
BMW invited us to test their new bike in Asheville, North Carolina, during the height of the now-forgotten eclipse. Lots of traffic gave me few opportunities to open it up, so I rode it home. We’ll have it in the ZLA compound for a little while, so I expect to use it on the remaining runs I have slated for this year. Needless to say, I almost never get a 1,000-mile road trip for my first ride on a test bike, so I'm far more confident about my first impressions of the BMW than I am about most motorcycles I meet for the first time.
The yin and yang of the K 1600 B
Mentally, if you will, split this bike into two pieces, drawing your dividing line right at the front of the saddle. To me, this bike looks like the front half of a sport-tourer (Yamaha FJR1300? Kawasaki Connie?) mated to the back end of a neobagger. The back half looks very close to a Honda F6B to me, which would have been a competitor for this bike if it was still in production.
And really, that’s about what it is. Its huge, honey-smooth, inline-six-cylinder motor has more snort than grandpa’s V-twin, but it’s happy to be be a big, dopey puppy, too. The bike wears 17-inch wheels wrapped in sensible rubber (Bridgestone BT-021s) that also happens to be dual-compound, so the handling is exceptionally reminiscent of a sport-tourer. You don’t have to slice and dice every corner on a B, but you can.
And really, those juxtapositions are almost the hallmarks of the whole bike. Because it’s neither fish nor fowl (and because it’s a BMW, created by bizarrely logical and practical Germans), the K 1600 B sort of marries the concept of a sport-tourer with a straight touring machine, with enough differences to piss off and titillate fans of either — at the same time. Here, let me illustrate what I mean.
Look at those foot controls. The floorboards are optional, but I believe this is the first time I’ve seen floorboards used in the highway position from an OEM, with pegs as the main control point. The angle on them looks nutty, but they’re quite comfortable, and actually support the bottoms of your footsies, unlike most highway pegs. It’s weird, but it works.
Why a K?
Because it goes. And it goes toot sweet.
Inline-six bikes are the stuff of legend. Just look into the eyes of any Kawasaki KZ1300 or Honda CBX owner, and you’ll see what I mean. Riding a K 1600 B gives you a case of the “tee-hees!” just like watching Jerome Bettis (or for you older sports fans, Earl Campbell) did: The damn thing is too big for the job to beat the really nimble players, but something that big (741 pounds; the BMW, not Bettis) ain’t supposed to move that fast.
“Motor” is the only part of a motorcycle listed in the name, so I'll state the obvious: That’s an important part of the bike. The latest iteration of the K-series makes numbers that I actually find a little funny: 160 horsepower. OK, that’s not hilarious. A 12.2:1 compression raises my eyebrow. But 129 foot-pounds of torque? B-A-N-A-N-A-S. (And 70 percent of its peak torque is achieved at just 1,500 rpm!) You may remember that I knocked the Moto Guzzi MGX-21 for being too small in it’s motorvatin’ parts. The reason engine size matters is for bragging rights, and bragging rights only. If you have a BMW, you have six pistons, 24 valves, and more torque at a sleepy 1,500 rpm than the peak torque of most literbikes. These are numbers to brag about.
It’s complete overkill. Of course it took Germans to dissect the problem of how to make a motor that was somehow more American than an American offering and then solve it. It’s bigger. More cylinders. More valves. More ridiculous.
The rest of the bike is no slouch, either. BMW bringing a bike to this party was a lot like Harley unveiling the Street Rod: great bike, but they’re entering a segment with seasoned competition whose products are nothing short of amazing. They must know that, though, and I think this bike has a place in motorcycling.
BMW ain’t asleep at the wheel on how to build a bike, so they packed my test unit up with features that most B buyers are likely to opt for like LED driving lights, Keyless Ride, and a self-leveling headlight. Electronic suspension, cornering ABS, traction control, power locking bags, cruise, a power windshield, and adjustable levers, however, all come with even a base-model K 1600 B.
Other specs are very respectable for a bike in its category. A seven-gallon fuel tank is pretty boss. (Interestingly, I tracked fuel mileage, and even with some asshattery included, the big B turned a gallon of fuel into 39.67 miles of mixed riding, and 42.59 on the highway. Very impressive, considering all the slugs pounding away in there.) Front and rear suspension travel of 4.5 and 4.9 inches, respectively, means most every corner is free to be assaulted at will. The Big B offers a few zero-cost options, too. Forged handlebars from the K1600 GT (not the new welded tubular units for the B) are available fo’ free and so is a low seat (29.5 inches).
Honest-to-goodness tires and brakes are not just reassuring, but they are also very necessary on a machine such as the K 1600 B that gathers velocity with such alacrity. It’s fries dipped in milkshake: This bike looks like an updated take on a touring bike, but has considerable chops on the backroads. It’s pretty nice to have a bike hustle underneath you as you maintain the Barcalounger position.
And putting the antenna on the front of the bike makes packing a damn sight easier.
What’s not so good?
As expected, a new bike in a new category for a manufacturer is going to have a few bugs to be worked out. For starts, the throttle on this bike is so vague; it’s arguably one of the worst I have ever used. It's not even capable of back-to-back revs. (You know, your classic "Vroom-vroom!" from the movies?) Here, check it out:
I could understand if this was a teething issue, but this is not a new powerplant. How is this thing so so bad from BMW? Is our test bike a fruitcake? (I even asked one of our reps if I had it stuck in Rain mode or something. He assured me I selected the most aggressive throttle setting, but the look in his eyes said that he knew what I was talking about and felt my pain.) It's just off-idle; the throttle works fine with no delay even a little higher in the rev range. But still, low-speed, traffic and parking lot work are a real bear.
Black Storm Metallic is a nice color, but the only one? Yick. And BMW also has this deal going where if you pick up a set of mufflers from them, they throw in a new K 1600 B. Seriously, dig on the size of those pipes for a moment. I don’t tally comments, but sometimes common ones shine through, and that is an almost universal comment about this motorcycle.
The sound system is particularly anemic in terms of power. Admittedly, I have not tried either a 3.5mm audio line nor Bluetooth as an input source just yet, so signal loss may be partially to blame. On the highway, the only station I can pull in is WNDY.
There’s also an odd gap in the body panel that leaves the battery and some of the brake plumbing visible. It’s not really “wrong,” but it does look weird.
Only four of the buttons on the left fairing are backlit. On a bike with this many things to play with, this is a necessity. And I am personally confused with what menus are controlled by what buttons, but some time with the bike may ease that. (Why are some of the audio controls hard buttons on the fairing, but others things are soft-controlled by the multi controller?)And the transmission. Man, I can’t find neutral with both hands and a flashlight. It’s as though the detents in the shifter drum are cut as deep as the ones for the gears. (They should be less deep for that “baby-shift” feel that lets you know you found neutral.) I’m not sure if this is an issue on our bike or all of ‘em, or if this trans will slick up a little after a service, but it’s far easier to find inner peace on this bike than it is to find the spot between first and second.
So what's the verdict on the K 1600 B?
I’m being tough on this bike A) because it’s not cheap ($19,995 is inexpensive for the class, but expensive as far as motorcycles go) and B) because it’s BMW. BMW sweats the small stuff and they make a good bike. These problems are all pretty insignificant — but I catch little things, and it’s my job to do so.
The reality is that this is a great bike. Brian Carey, BMW Motorrad’s U.S. Product Manager, told us that the intent with this bike was not to dethrone Harley and Indian. “The intention was never to say ‘Hey, it’s the Three Amigos!’” And that’s good, because the last thing motorcycling needs is another “me, too!” motorcycle. It’s different and unapologetic, and it’s also very competent. It’s perfect for the rider who does not fit squarely into the “dresser without a top box” mold.
It’s not like an Indian, nor is it like a Harley-D. It’s similar in some ways to a Guzzi Flying Fortress, but it’s sure as hell different in a lot of ways, too. It’s not a sport-tourer, and it’s not really a traditional tourer, either.Actually, you know what? It’s a lot like that time I dipped my fries into my shake.