2018 BMW R nineT Urban GS first ride review

Sep 23, 2017

If you’re planning to ride trails, you buy a dirt bike.

If you come upon a trail, however, you take whatever the hell you're riding at the time. If you are more “itinerant” than “itinerary,” well, you’d best have a motorcycle that’s flexible. Scramblers, dual-sports, and adventure bikes are all capable of handling a wide range of riding situations, and before their ascension to popularity, the jack-of-all trades and master of none was the standard motorcycle. For a rider who isn’t sure what kind of riding lies ahead, flexibility is the name of the game. Enter the BMW R nineT Urban G/S.

As the latest entry in BMW's Heritage line, the heritage the Urban G/S pays tribute to is the old R80 G/S, the motorcycle that basically invented the adventure-touring category. At the time, dirt bikes were lightweight, single-cylinder machines. The original G/S was a street bike fitted for off-pavement duty, a motorcycle made for exploring. The modern version, the Urban G/S, really is no different.

R80G/S
The R80 G/S was a cool bike. The new Urban G/S closely follows its pattern. I am not normally a sucker for retro-styled modern motorcycles like the R nineT Urban G/S, but... hhhhnnnggggg. BMW photo.

The Urban G/S and the ol’ R80 are both sort of a mishmash of parts that work because… well, they work! Both bikes feature a nice flat-twin engine with considerably more chutzpah than a single-cylinder trail bike. The shaft drive that BMW has used so famously for so long makes a bunch of sense. Have you ever ruminated on the fact that mandatory chain lubricant tainted with sand, silt, mud, dirt or grit transmogrifies into an unbelievably effective lapping compound? A motocross fender doesn’t offer much of a penalty on the street, but the additional clearance between tire and wheel make it much more effective on loose terrain.

G/S on trail
In my part of the world, all bikes are partially dirt bikes. Photo by Lemmy.

Ridin’ around on the R nineT

I knew all that stuff when I went to pick up the Urban G/S. I liked the other R nineTs I have ridden, but I expected to dislike this motorbike due to its middling nature. I’ve told Spurgeon a thousand times that a bike that claims to do many things usually does many things pretty poorly. I also knew full well that this bike wasn’t made for me. Instead, it’s made for someone who hasn’t the time, space, or money for many motorcycles, and is probably less picky. With that said, I made a conscious effort to assess this bike from a young urbanite's viewpoint. Unexpectedly, for about a week now, I have had some of Spurg’s Zen-like joy: I ride where I want, and usually I can plow the Urban G/S where I want it to go. No thought. No selection. Just point and shoot. Deal with whatever the road throws at you as it comes. Maybe not quickly, but steadily.

I picked up the GS at BMW North America in north New Jersey. Initially, I loved how it looked, thought the tires were a bit ridiculous (Conti TKC80, a 120/70R19 up front and a a 170/60R17 in the rear), and was reminded once again of how big the boxer appears (and how small the bike is). I wasn’t real keen on the idea of a long highway blast back home, but I clicked off the traction control and ABS. (It’s one button that can be turned off at any speed, whenever you like, but it’s not a sticky setting. Pretty good in today’s world.) I put the spurs to the bike, and hooned my way to the superslab. Once I got there, I cranked up the speed, and remembered that the air-and-oil-cooled previous-gen boxers are always more powerful than I recall. (1,170 cc making a max of 110 horsepower and 86 foot-pounds of torque. Not shabby.) 80 mph was just perfect for cruising velocity.

I soon got tired of that and was happy to be back on the two-laners, where this bike simply shines.

Trail
2018 BMW R nineT Urban G/S. Photo by Lemmy.

On the way home, I still had a touch of daylight, so I decided to explore a trail. There’s this one spot by casa de Lem-lem where I can see a trailhead. I remembered that I was using my new “method-acting” attempt to review this bike, so I headed for the trail. It was this gorgeous, super-nicely-groomed two-track. There were no tire marks, nor hoofprints, so I don’t really even know why this trail exists. I threw a little mud up with the rear tire, but I felt bad about tearing up the trail, so I stopped. I wound all over this mountain, knowing that I’d know where I was regardless of where I popped out.

I eventually discovered this little concrete pad at a clearing that overlooked the whole town next door. It was really nifty. After admiring it for a little bit, I peeled wheel back out of there and made a few wrong turns. Backing the Urban G/S was not easy on a grade; all of its 485 pounds were noticed and they were not appreciated. But hey, this is what the bike was made for — checking out something new off road after spending a lot of life on the road, right?

Crab
I try to take Mrs. Lem out to a place where the food ain't served in paper from time to time. Photo by Lemmy.

Immediately after this, I got home and asked Mrs. Lemmy if she’d like to go to dinner. I took her to a little spot we hit occasionally. Oddly, for as small as the bike is, she really liked it. I think she had fun on the back, and I realized this is likely what someone who bought this bike was liable to use it for. I learned at this time that the instrument/idiot lights are auto-dimming. That was a really nice touch on a cost-conscious bike. Mrs. Lem mentioned that she liked how soft the bike is. I feel it’s too soft for us because I weigh so damn much, but many collectively smaller couples may love it. She has a point, though. I like the squishy travel for me, because it does make the bike nicer when dive-bombing potholey streets at city speeds. Travel up front is 4.9 inches, and the rear 5.5 inches.

Let’s step back for a second. When riding the R nineT Pure, I had stated that “The Scrambler has more rake and trail than all the other Heritage bikes, and it shows.” BMW’s website was incorrect for a bit. BMW NA has fixed the error, and triple-confirmed for me that these bikes are the same in terms of chassis. Yet for some reason, the bikes feel very different. The Urban feels much softer — too soft — and the Scrambler never did. The Scrambler’s steering felt ungodly heavy to me, but the Urban G/S, wearing even knobbier tires, feels fine.

I handed the keys to Spurg, who also rode both bikes, and he seemed to agree about the suspension. In fairness, we also rode that Scrambler about a year ago, so maybe we are both just misremembering the bikes. I still feel like the Urban G/S rides differently; squishier and better handling. I don’t have empirical evidence to prove my point, but I do have input from Reinis Traidās, a CT reader. I remembered that comment, so I emailed him. Apparently the tires are to blame on the Scram.

“My brief experience with the Karoo 3s on the Scrambler before promptly switching them out was that they felt squirmy and unstable, especially at slow speeds. I kinda got used to it after a while, but then switching the tyres to more road oriented Anakee 3s made the bike feel immediately more planted and predictable, especially around town.”

I talked to other moto writers about this puzzle. I’ve never experienced such an amazing handling difference between new tires, so this is probably really important info for anyone considering a Scrambler model with Karoos.

Back to the riding: The next day, I took the Urban G/S to work. I gassed it up, and did a little bit of math. I rode all over — off-road, on road, power wheelies, you name it — and I got 31 mpg. Not great, but not really terrible. I did not test tank range or reserve range in the time I had this bike. On the highway, I realized this bike has some sort of vibration beyond the tires, but I actually think it is the tires throwing something in the front end into a weird harmonic. Backing out of the throttle or tossing the bike around the lane seems to break it up. I could confirm this with a new set of skins, but I ain’t that thorough a reviewer.

I realized after a few more commutes that I really liked the Urban G/S. There’s not really a reason; I have other bikes that do similar things, but this one just makes me smile. As I noted when I rode the Racer and Pure, I do really love the soundtrack. The spec sheet isn’t particularly strong. The bike is not groundbreaking. (Hell, Spurg and I don’t even know why the Scrambler and the Urban G/S both exist. They’re like carbon-copies. Lance says it's because the G/S is really a styling exercise. Anyway, I think I like it because it’s just a standard motorcycle — just a good do-all standard.

I do have a lot of tools, but sometimes it is kind of fun to see how far you can go with just a Swiss Army knife.

Things I want to see change

The name. Seriously. How stupid. They already had an R90 series; this is just confusing. (I'm not sure if this is worse, or Harley's decision to rename all the old Dyna models Softails this year.) I’ve taken to mentally calling the bike the “Ernie Nay,” all classy and French-like.

Dash
Pro: auto-dimming dash is a high-end feature on an inexpensive bike. Cons: where's the gear counter and tach? Photo by Lemmy.

Next, I’m gonna quote Spurg. “I would love to see a few additional niceties, such as a fuel gauge, tachometer, and some suspension adjustability.” He was talking about the Scram, but we’re in the same boat here. $12,995 is about as expensive as an entry-level bike can be. Bavarian, people, not Spartan. I was OK with the Pure not having these items at $11,995, but I whined about the Racer’s increase in cost. Similarly, I feel the Urban G/S should not cost a thousand more bucks. That seems steep for a 19-inch front wheel, different color seat vinyl, and a headlight mask (their words) on the headlight. So, like Spurg, for that money I demand more stuff.

I don’t really care about the cross-spoked wheels as an option, but they make no sense here, especially with a 170/60R17 rear tire. The spoked wheels are unnecessary; no rider with a lick of sense will ever off-road this bike hard enough to need those. I think the tire choices are too far in either direction, either too street-y or too dirt-y. A set of TKC70s would be more appropriate. (As I discovered on the way into work one day on a gravel road detour, high speed and potholes are a bad combo for the R nineTs. You can’t do serious offroad speed work with this, but an exploratory pace is fine.)

With all those harsh things in the open: I still really love this bike. I just think the Pure is a better value. Both bikes make more sense in their base form. The Urban G/S is the more flexible bike, but the increase in cost ain’t justifiable.

BMW in the city
2018 BMW R nineT Urban G/S. Photo by Brett Walling.

A reluctant comment on style

I don’t love talking about bike styling. It’s super subjective. We all have different tastes and trying to rank or categorize them is a dangerous and fruitless game. But Lance insisted on this paragraph for good reason: This bike exists as a styling riff only. It’s got similar paint to the Racer. It’s got the same exhaust as the Racer. The clocks are the same as the Racer and Pure. The footpegs we saw on the Scram. The seat is off the Pure with different vinyl. The fender and cowl are unique to the UG/S. And damn near everything else on the bike is a carbon copy of the other bikes. There’s nothing the Scrambler can’t do that this bike can.

Is that a problem? I don’t think so. BMW isn’t trying to hide anything. The flavors in the R nineT series are all different by creatively swapping the parts that make the biggest visual impact. Isn’t that what we do when we customize as individuals in our garages? We try to change the look a lot for little money. To me, it’s hard to blame BMW for that. I won’t pretend these are vastly different bikes. They ain’t. They’re a family, which is why we reference the other models so heavily. But they’re a great family.

Trail again
Happy trails. Photo by Lemmy.

Conclusion

The Urban G/S makes me happy when I ride it. If I bought one, I would plow some money into a set of front springs, and I would slap one of my ever-present fuel bottles onto the bike like I always do. If I kept it for a long time, I would buy a HealTech gear indicator. Almost every bike has a few things I want to change. For $13k, if that’s the list, I feel like that’s pretty acceptable — but it would be better for 12 and change. The standard motorcycle has proven itself once again, and once again I have proven myself a fan of the standard.