Common Tread

2019 BMW R 1250 GS and GSA first ride review

Mar 11, 2019

It’s been almost two years to the day since Abhi Eswarappa and I took off down the length of the Baja Peninsula on a pair of BMW R 1200 GSes. Armed with a couple of cameras and nothing to do for seven days, we had a hell of a good time, as documented in a pair of Common Tread articles. That was the first and last time I had ridden a big GS off-road. So, it seemed only fitting when, a few days before the U.S. launch of the new R 1250 GS, I discovered Abhi would also be attending.

The launch was scheduled to take place in Palm Springs, California, and as I was already in Los Angeles for another project, I rented a car so we could drive out together. Another L.A.-based friend, Zack Courts, got wind of this arrangement and asked if he could join our caravan. In addition to being an extremely accomplished motorcyclist, Zack is a talented adventure rider with great stories and plenty of experience on BMW’s flagship ADV machine.

On the three-hour drive across the desert in our bright red rented Kia Soul, Zack regaled us with tales of participating in the 2016 GS Trophy while Abhi, who has tackled quite a few treks on R 1200 GSes and owns an R 1150 GS with more than 95,000 miles on the clock, filled in more details. By the time we got to Palm Springs, we were three motorcycle-loving dudes who were excited to test the newest iteration of a very famous motorcycle, the BMW R 1250 GS and GSA.

BMW R 1250 GS First Ride Review
The key change to both the GS and GSA is the all new 1254 cc ShiftCam Boxer motor. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The engine

The R 1200 GSA is BMW’s number-one-selling model in the United States, with sales of both the GS and GSA making up 27 percent of all BMW motorcycles sold in America. Additionally, boxer models accounted for more than 50 percent of U.S. BMW sales in 2018. BMW sees this engine playing a crucial role in their continued success and understands the significance of any changes and how important it is to execute said changes perfectly.

Therefore, the most notable change to the new R 1250 GS and GSA is the motor. BMW claims that  customers were asking for more power from the boxer twin. Between you and me, I think the outgoing liquid-cooled R 1200 GS made plenty of power, but what do I know? While I’m sure customer input was a consideration, I’d be willing to bet compliance with Euro 5 emissions requirements (which go into effect in 2020) was the driving force behind these changes.

Whatever the reason, displacement was bumped from 1,170 cc to 1,254 cc. This was achieved by increasing both bore and stroke to 102.5 mm and 76 mm, respectively (the R 1200 GS bore and stroke was 101 mm X 73 mm). While that in itself is significant, the real story of the new engine lies in BMW’s new ShiftCam system, which introduces variable timing to the boxer.

BMW R 1250 GS and R 1250 GSA ShiftCam
BMW image.

While the engine still features four valves per cylinder head, the intake camshaft now has two sets of cam lobes per valve. The “partial-load” cam offers lower lift and helps to reduce fuel consumption. The “full-load” cam offers maximum lift and enhanced performance.

The beauty of this is that BMW was able to optimize the partial-load cam for low-rpm operation while allowing the full-load cam to take over for better mid-range and top-end performance. The shift between the two profiles occurs at 5,000 rpm or when there is an increased load detected by the machine. BMW had a little trouble explaining how the increased load was measured, but Mark Hoyer of Cycle World speculated that it is most likely determined by a sensor measuring pressure at the intake.

The term ShiftCam comes from the fact that the camshaft literally shifts its position in the head of the motor. There is a mechanical actuator that utilizes an indexing pin in a shift gate, or track, on the end of the camshaft. Depending on the pin selected by the actuator, the camshaft slides back and forth between the partial-load cam and the full-load cam. The easiest way to understand how this works is to watch the video that BMW provided on the technology.

Regardless of how they do it, the result is more power, with better (claimed) fuel economy, and reduced emissions output, which means it will comply with the upcoming Euro 5 requirements. BMW claims a nine percent increase in top-end horsepower with the new R 1250 GS laying down 136 horsepower at 7,750 rpm, up from 125 ponies.

BMW R 1250 GS and R 1250 GSA Horsepower and Torque
BMW claims impressive gains in horsepower and torque while also increasing efficiency. BMW image.

The torque figures are even more impressive, with a 14 percent gain in peak torque hitting 250 rpm earlier in the rev range. The new engine claims 105 foot-pounds of torque at 6,250 rpm. The overall result is a GS that can be lugged much easier at lower engine speeds without stalling while also pulling hard until power begins to taper off just prior to hitting the 9,000 rpm redline.

Service intervals remain the same with valve checks hitting every 12,000 miles. BMW claims that service cost should not increase much despite the additional clearance checks with the more complicated system.  

BMW R 1250 GSA Crash Bars
Note: the exhaust header now sits behind the factory crash bars. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The new units will be identifiable via their new cam covers and routing of the header pipes. The header has been rerouted in order to get exhaust gases to the catalytic converter faster to comply with the new emissions requirements. The added benefit of this is that the exhaust is now routed behind the crash bars (stock on the GSA) for additional protection.

More new features on the BMW R 1250 GS and GSA

The first thing you’ll notice on both the new GS and GSA models is the large TFT display, which is now standard. It acts as the main control hub for everything on the motorcycle. While it is super clear and easy to read, some basic functions, like resetting the trip meter, are a bit confusing. It took a few of us working together to figure that one out.

BMW R 1250 GS and R 1250 GSA TFT Dash
The large TFT dash is now standard on both the R 1250 GS and GSA. Photo by Kevin Wing.

This now allows for seamless integration of your smartphone for controlling music, navigation, and phone calls right through the dash. There is a BMW smartphone app, but it’s not required for connectivity. As neither the GS nor GSA have speakers, these features would be used to control a phone that is also paired to some type of Bluetooth communication system.

While BMW didn’t publicize it, the brakes on both our GS and GSA test bikes are now manufactured by Hayes and are branded as BMW units, while the previous generation GSes all utilized Brembo brakes. I’ve read rumors that some bikes will still be shipped with Brembo units, but all the bikes I’ve seen have the new BMW calipers at the front wheel with a single Brembo caliper at the rear. Either way, braking is phenomenal, so I don’t foresee any complaints in that department.

BMW R 1250 GS and R 1250 GSA Brakes
The BMW-branded brake calipers are now manufactured by Hayes. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The other new addition in regard to the brakes is Dynamic Braking Control. This is a safety feature that automatically rolls off the throttle in panic-stop situations. The computer can sense if you’re holding the throttle open under hard braking and will roll off the throttle automatically. BMW made a few references to this being an important safety aid for new riders, but all I kept thinking was, how many new riders are starting out on an R 1250 GS/GSA?

Hill Start Control is now standard on both models, as well. When you come to a stop on a hill you can activate this feature by tapping the front brake twice. This will automatically employ the rear brake, which will stay engaged until the rider starts applying the throttle. Hill Start Control Pro is an optional feature which does the same thing but it can automatically determine if the bike is on an incline, without the rider tapping the front brake.

BMW R 1250 GSA First Ride Review
Studying the spec sheets between the R 1200 GSA and R 1250 GSA, it appears BMW made changes to the geometry, yet there was no mention of this in the press presentation. Photo by Kevin Wing.

While BMW made no mention of it, I noticed differences between the outgoing 2018 R 1200 GSA and the new 1250 GSA in respect to wheelbase, steering head angle, and trail. According to BMW’s website, the 1200 has a wheelbase of 58.9 inches, a steering head angle of 24.5 degrees, and 3.7 inches of trail. By comparison, the new 1250 GSA has a longer wheelbase of 59.7 inches, a more relaxed steering head angle of 26.3 inches, and 4.1 inches of trail. The standard GS, by comparison remains nearly identical.

BMW R 1250 GS and GSA
Seen here side by side, the most noticeable difference between the R 1250 GS (left) and the R 1250 GSA (right) is the sheer size of the gas tank. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

GS versus GSA

There are three main areas of difference between these two bikes that should be a consideration for potential buyers: size, protection, and suspension.

Next to the GSA, the GS looks almost tiny. The GSA is a massively large machine, and a lot of that girth comes from its 7.9-gallon tank. It offers an additional 2.6 gallons of capacity over the base GS’s 5.3-gallon tank. The GSA tips the scale at a whopping 591 pounds, 18 pounds heavier than its predecessor and 42 pounds heavier than the base GS.

BMW R 1250 GS First Ride Review
Compared to the GSA, the standard GS looks almost small by comparison. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Some of that weight comes from the crash protection that’s standard on the GSA. Factoring this in, the weight difference between the two bikes becomes smaller, since most folks who buy a standard GS will still install crash bars.

BMW R 1250 GSA First Ride Review
The main performance difference between the two models is the increase in suspension travel that the GSA receives. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The most important performance-oriented difference between the two bikes is the fact that the GSA gets a longer travel, taller suspension. At the front end, the GSA features 8.3 inches of travel whereas the GS only gets 7.5 inches. At the rear shock, the GSA offers 8.7 inches of travel to the GS’s 7.9 inches. This translates into a standard seat height of 35 to 35.8 inches for the GSA and 33.5 to 34.3 inches for the GS. There’s also a lowered-suspension version of the GS, which gets that bike down to a 31.5-inch seat height. A lowered seat can drop the height even more.

While the GSA felt tall, even to this six-foot, three-inch-tall rider, the truth is it also felt incredibly balanced and stable, even off-road.

BMW R 1250 GSA Spurgeon Dunbar
Riding through deserts outside of Palm Springs, the landscape was alive with color. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Riding the GS and GSA

Palm Springs has received a massive amount of rain this year, which has resulted in what is referred to as a “super bloom.” This is when the desert blossoms with all types of plants and flowers. I’ve never seen this area of California looking so colorful. The downside is that a lot of the roads on our planned off-road route, mainly Berdoo Canyon Road, were closed for repairs due to flooding.

BMW split us into smaller ride groups for the day. In addition to Abhi, I was placed with Mark Hoyer from Cycle World, Mark Tuttle from Rider Magazine, Derek Mayberry from META, and Scott Brady from Overland Journal. To say that we had a fun and experienced group is a bit of an understatement. Especially once Mr. Courts snuck his way up into our group after the first rest stop.

BMW R 1250 GSA Spurgeon Dunbar
While the R 1250 GSA was a bit intimidating at first, it is actually quite easy to ride, once you get over its size. Photo by Kevin Wing.

I started off the day on the GSA, and while I’ve ridden the standard GS in plenty of different situations, this was my first time on the larger sibling. Pulling out of the hotel, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit intimidated. Even for me this bike felt massive.

However, as the pace increased, these feelings decreased. The GSA is incredibly stable on the street and turns in rather easily. Our test bikes were equipped with the Premium Packages, which means they received BMW’s Dynamic Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) and Ride Modes Pro (among other things).

With both the 1250 GSA and 1250 GS, the D-ESA controls have been simplified since my last experience. Preload is now automatically determined by the bike’s on-board computer. You can override this feature and choose either “Min” or “Max” for the preload, but other than going to extremes, your only option is to allow the bike to set the rear preload.

BMW R 1250 GS and GSA Front Suspension
Suspension components are now made by ZF out of Germany. Photo by Kevin Wing.

While preload settings only affect the rear shock, damping settings control both the rear shock and the front Telelever suspension. You can choose between Road for a plusher ride or Dynamic for a more sporting experience. If Enduro Pro mode (part of the premium package) is selected, the damping is set to a fully automatic “Enduro” setting that is optimized for off-road use. The previous generation of BMW's ESA was built by Sachs. It looks like these components are manufactured by ZF Friedrichshafen, a German suspension manufacturer known for building components for automotive and commercial industries.  

The TL;DR of all of that is that the ESA active suspension works really well and is ideal for folks who don’t like or understand standard suspension tuning.

BMW R 1250 GSA First Ride
Having never ridden a GSA before, I was impressed with its off-road manners. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Blasting down the first off-road section of the day, we were met with rocks, sand washes, and a few deep ruts and hills, but overall, nothing too technical. Again, the stability of the GSA really impressed me. I was expecting a bit more of a struggle in the sand, but it handled everything well, as long as I kept it moving.

The desert sand in California has a way of sucking the bike down if you decide to stop, making it extremely hard to get moving again. When my teammate Derek pulled over to take a drink of water, I stopped with him, at the bottom of a sandy hill, to make sure he was alright. What ensued was a comical mess of me trying to wrestle a nearly 600-pound motorcycle up a sandy wash from a complete stop. I was drenched in sweat by the time we completed the task.

Catching back up with our group at the following photo stop, we took a few minutes to snap some photos and gas up before moving on. Merging onto the 10 freeway just outside of Coachella (a town made famous for the music festival hosted on the edge of the desert), we made our way into Joshua Tree National Park.

R 1250 GS First Ride Review
While my gut reaction was to favor the smaller R 1250 GS, the GSA was actually more composed both on- and off-road. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The GSA made easy work of the highway portion of our day, reminding me how great these bikes are at destroying long miles of super slab as well as chewing up the dirt. At the next stop, Abhi and I swapped bikes and the standard GS immediately felt small by comparison.

My initial gut reaction was that I liked the smaller, GS better. It was outfitted nearly identically to the GSA, but because of its size, it just felt tighter and nimbler. But after moving on to the next off-road section, I found myself missing the GSA. The base GS didn’t have the brake pedal extender, so like the F 850 GS, I found it nearly impossible to reach the rear brake pedal while in the standing position. The bigger boxer actually felt more stable and confidence-inspiring off-road when compared side-by-side with the standard GS. That was pretty impressive.

That being said, neither bike offers the best ground clearance, as I found myself banging the skid plate over rocks, even with the GSA’s taller suspension setup. I also had a problem with my left boot smashing into the kick point for the center stand. For anything more aggressive off-road, I’d probably remove the center stand and passenger pegs.

The GSA comes standard with the larger Enduro-style foot pegs (the HP package on the 1250 GS includes these, as well). These are a must have if you’re planning on using this bike off-road. Even on the street, I preferred them to the skinny little stock foot pegs on the base GS.

BMW R 1250 GS and GSA GPS Mount
The placement of the GPS mount makes it incredibly difficult to see the TFT screen when standing. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Another problem I had with both bikes is the location of the GPS mount. When you're standing up, it completely blocks the view of the dash. It requires you to return to your seat if you need to gather information from the TFT screen or engage with the more technical controls.

Over lunch, we compared notes. While we each enjoyed different aspects of the new bike (Mark Hoyer, for example, liked the fact that you could lug the new engine almost to a complete stop without stalling it and Zack dug how easy it was to drift it through the corners on a graded dirt road), we all agreed that it was, in fact, a better engine than we expected.

When I first heard of the ShiftCam technology, all I could think of was the Honda VFR800 with VTEC and the noticeable surge of power that could be felt when the system kicked in. BMW’s system is seamless, by comparison. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t feel the transition from the partial lobe to the full lobe.

As far as I am concerned, the new engine delivers in spades and steals the show on this bike. There is so much that went into this updated design and you can tell that BMW was extremely diligent in making sure they maintained the unique character of the boxer twin.

BMW R 1250 GS and R 1250 GSA First Ride Review
As tested, the BMW R 1250 GS with the HP style package is $21,770. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Competition and pricing

Discussing pricing on BMW models is always the most difficult part of reviewing their bikes because they make it so damn confusing.

The R 1250 GS has a base MSRP of $17,695. But all of the bikes will be imported with the Select Package as the standard offering at $18,645. This adds GPS preparation, chrome exhaust, heated grips, TPM system, plastic hand guards, and saddlebag mounts (for the standard plastic luggage). All of the bikes we tested were outfitted with the Premium Package, which includes Dynamic Traction Control, Next-Gen Dynamic ESA (with Auto-Ride Height Adjustment and Auto Damper Settings), Keyless Ride, Gear ShiftAssist Pro, Ride Modes Pro (adds Enduro, Enduro Pro, Dynamic, and Dynamic Pro modes), Hill Start Control Pro, Dynamic Brake Control, cruise control, and ABS Pro.

BMW R 1250 GS Pricing
BMW R 1250 GS price breakdown. BMW image.

As tested, the price of the R 1250 GS ranged from $21,245 for the Black Storm Metallic color with the Premium Package and cross-spoked wheels ($500) to $21,770 for the HP Style Package with the 413 passenger kit (which adds a center stand, standard seat, and standard windscreen back to the HP). BMW also cites $495 as the Dealer Delivery charge.

The R 1250 GSA is a bit simpler as it has a base MSRP of $19,945 with only one package available, the Premium Package, which adds $3,450 to the price. This package includes GPS preparation, chrome exhaust, heated grips, TPM system, saddlebag mounts, DTC, Next-Gen Dynamic ESA, Keyless Ride, Gear ShiftAssist Pro, Ride Modes Pro (adds Enduro, Enduro Pro, Dynamic, and Dynamic Pro modes), Hill Start Control Pro, Dynamic Brake Control, cruise control, LED auxiliary lights, and ABS Pro. The GSA comes with the cross-spoked wheels as the standard offering.

BMW R 1250 GSA Pricing
BMW R 1250 GSA price breakdown. BMW image.

As tested, the price of the R 1250 GSA was $23,595 in Ice Grey with the accessory luggage racks added on. The HP Style package with the passenger kit will bump that price to $24,220. And for most, that’s just a starting point as there are a countless number of ways to accessorize these machines.

The way I see it, KTM is the number one competitor for BMW at this point. The KTM Super Adventure R and Super Adventure S are two very superb machines that offer much of the same technology for a lower price. With an MSRP of $17,999( for either bike), a class-leading 160 horsepower, and service intervals of 18,000 miles, the new KTM lineup has grown increasingly popular among the adventure segment.

That being said, BMW still has a better dealership network and a die-hard following of riders. Also, KTM only offers the electronically adjustable suspension on the “S” version while the “R” still features the manually adjustable long-travel off-road-focused suspension. While I prefer a manually adjustable suspension, there are a lot of people out there who see BMW as the simpler option. Push a button, your suspension adjusts itself, and you ride. Not to mention that their cross-spoked wheel design is far superior to KTM’s “tubeless” spoked wheels.

Some might consider the Ducati Multistrada Enduro as a similar premium competitor to the GS and GSA. However, in all of the adventure events I’ve attended over the past few years I have only seen one person riding a Multistrada Enduro. Until Ducati starts to market this machine as a real-world competitor against the BMW and KTM adventure models, I think it’ll continue to be a machine that sits on the fringe of the segment.

BMW R 1250 GS Off-Road
Sand can be tricky on these big bikes. The best accessory you can invest in would be an off-road training class. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Conclusion

The BMW GS series of bikes arguably founded the modern segment of adventure motorcycles. At their core, the GS and GSA are fantastic machines that have become flagships in BMW’s line. They receive the newest technology and the best features before any other BMW model. They carry a heavy price tag but that doesn’t seem to deter the legions of GS fans from returning again and again to update their older GSes with the newest versions.

For me, the GS and GSA represent the new form of touring machines which have been improving since the first time someone threw a set of saddlebags over a motorcycle. They’re large, comfortable motorcycles with easy-handling characteristics that can bear heavy loads. They can also be outfitted to suit nearly any desire. While the GS and GSA are certainly not dirt bikes, they can handle some pretty crazy off-road scenarios. A lot of folks on our launch found sand washes to be the great equalizer, so keep in mind a little off-road adventure training is still the best accessory you can get for these bikes.

BMW R 1250 GS and R 1250 GSA
Abhi (right) and I once again riding GSes through the desert. Photo by Derek Mayberry.

The new R 1250 GS and GSA have big shoes to fill. While I was initially skeptical of this new engine, I was thoroughly impressed with these new motorcycles when compared to the last-generation models Abhi and I took to Mexico. From blasting down the highway at triple digits to working our way through sandy Jeep trails, this trip reminded me that the GS remains one of the best do-anything machines for those who are unsure of what the horizon holds in store.  

2019 BMW R 1250 GS and R 1250 GSA
Price (MSRP)  $21,770 (GS as tested), $23,595 (GSA as tested)
Engine type  Air/liquid-cooled, four-stroke flat twin, DOHC, BMW's ShiftCam variable engine timing system
Displacement  1,254 cc
Bore x stroke  102.5 mm x 76 mm
Compression  12.5/1
Power (claimed)  136 horsepower @ 7,750 rpm
Torque (claimed)  105 foot-pounds @ 6,250 rpm
Transmission  Six-speed
Front suspension  BMW Telelever, 37 mm, Central Spring Strut
Rear suspension Cast aluminum single-sided swingarm with BMW Paralever; WAS strut, (Dynamic ESA is optional)
Suspension travel front/rear   7.5 inches / 7.9 inches (GS), 8.3 inches / 8.7 inches (GSA)
Front brake  Four-piston, fixed BMW-branded Hayes calipers
Rear brake  Dual-piston Brembo caliper
Tires front/rear  120/70-19 Continental TKC 80; 170/60-17 Continental TKC 80 (as tested)
Rake  25.5 degrees (GS), 26.3 (GSA)
Trail  3.9 inches (GS), 4.1 inches (GSA)
Wheelbase  60 inches (GS), 59.7 inches (GSA)
Seat height  31.5 - 34.3 inches (GS: depending on suspension configuration), 35-35.8 inches (GSA)
Tank capacity  5.3 gallons (GS), 7.9 gallons (GSA)
Wet weight (claimed)   549 pounds (GS), 591 pounds (GSA)