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Common Tread

2020 BMW F 900 XR first ride review

Mar 06, 2020

When this BMW F 900 XR broke cover last year (along with its fraternal twin, the F 900 R), I’ll admit I assumed it was a facelifted version of the F 850 GS platform with 17-inch wheels and the same, 853 cc engine. Also, to my eye it would obviously be tall and a little out of proportion, while being monstrously fun to wheelie and practically beg for a speeding ticket.

Stepping in to the technical presentation I pulled my journalist hat down sharply toward my brow and aimed to get to the bottom of this bike. I furiously jotted notes and wryly noticed that the F 850 wasn’t mentioned even in passing. You can’t sneak this one by me, BMW, I thought. But, as I went in for the kill, raising my hand to inquire what parts the F 900 engine shares with its slightly smaller sibling, I saw my first curve ball.

“No parts,” I was told. “Maybe a fastener or cover here or there.”

Riding the BMW F 900 XR
That all-LED lighting for the F 900 XR, including an option for “Headlight Pro,” or cornering lights. Gold fork tubes are unique to the red XR colorway. Photo by Kevin Wing.

BMW F 900 XR development and tech

The F 900 platform shares essentially no part numbers with the F 850 GS or previous F 800 models. Still, to a certain extent it follows a comparable recipe. The steel-bridge frame, similar to the F 850 GS, pinches a parallel-twin engine while the fuel tank has been re-repositioned to the more traditional spot between the seat and the handlebar. A basic, non-adjustable, 43 mm fork and single shock suspend both the R and XR, but the XR gets 1.3 inches more travel up front and 1.2 inches more in the rear. The shock has adjustable rebound damping and a handy, remote spring-preload adjustment.

The engine’s bore has been increased two mm, bringing displacement to 895 cc — the maximum allowable displacement for these engine cases. A redesigned cylinder head, forged pistons, and an increased compression ratio mean 99 claimed horsepower at the crank. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s a 10 percent boost from the F 850 GS.

TFT display on the BMW F 900 XR
That’s the same 6.5-inch thin-film-transistor display from all of the GS models, as well as the S 1000 RR — and presumably every other BMW that comes out in the next year or so. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The accoutrements sprinkled over the F 900 XR, however, are all quite familiar from the 850 GS. In the cockpit there’s the same 6.5-inch TFT screen displaying all of the bike’s vitals in bright and colorful animations, albeit with a slightly different design language than the GS. Controlling the dash is the same slew of Bavarian buttons and switches, as well as the obligatory nav wheel that rides just inside the left handgrip. Despite the relatively low base price for this bike (what, you didn’t scroll to the bottom yet?) the components are decidedly first-rate. Radially mounted, four-piston Brembo calipers squeeze 320 mm rotors, for example, via steel-braided lines and an adjustable lever. Nice stuff. The tiny, poker-chip windscreen even rises up with the flick of a lever to deflect (a little) more air at speed.

Brakes on the BMW F 900 XR
Brembo binders, braided lines, and 320 mm rotors. All good things when you need to stop 483 pounds of machine. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Die-hard BMW folk might be gazing incredulously through their monocles at this point, suspicious that I haven’t listed all of the usual luxury features. Where are the heated grips? Where is the cruise control? The high-tech suspenders with Dynamic ESA and remote preload adjustability? It's all still in Berlin, my bourgeois buddy, for the sake of maintaining the price point (seriously, just scroll to the bottom already).

Historically, most BMW models ship ashore here in North America with the fully optioned versions outnumbering base models by a factor of eight or nine to one. With the F 900, BMW is changing that trend and planning to deliver more machines closer to base trim. I know, believe me, my hands are getting chilly just thinking about it.

It was about this time I started to get a whiff of what the F 900 platform is all about. Having a one-track mind for wheelies, my expectation for this XR was that it would be rowdy. The S 1000 XR, after all, had been such a thunderbolt in the industry, somehow less polite and more frenetic than even the brawny, V-twin Ducati Multistrada. Despite having a torque-rich, thumping, nearly 900 cc engine and a moniker that had so brazenly emphasized sport riding, the F 900 XR was shaping up to be a different animal. BMW’s research (in part taken from a decade of sales of the F 800 platform) pointed to young, educated riders who may even be buying this as their first real bike. For that reason, BMW brass are trying to limit surprises to how low the price is, not how fast the front wheel comes up.

BMW F 900 XR
The rider triangle is agreeable and all-day comfortable. The pegs never touch down, even with some spirited riding on twisty roads. Does that mean they could be lower? Photo by Kevin Wing.

The XR concept tested: Riding the BMW F 900 XR

After a day riding BMW’s prescribed routes through lovely mountain roads near Santa Barbara, California, on both the R and XR models, I pointed this taller of the two back toward Los Angeles and a delicious gauntlet of street-bike testing. First, a gallop down U.S. 101 to test the XR’s freeway legs, then a pass through my favorite canyon road in Malibu, with a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway leading to the final dozen miles battling through the west side of L.A. to my home garage. In other words, everything a quasi-ADV slash sport-touring machine ought to be able to handle.

highway cruising on the BMW F 900 XR
Sitting between 4,000 rpm and 5,000 rpm, the F 900 XR will chug along like this all day. From the cockpit you can see even the baby windshield rises up pretty well to push air away from the rider’s torso. Photo by Zack Courts.

Right off the bat I put the XR in top gear and jumped in to the first slog south along 101. Happily, it’s quite scenic for a divided highway, which made learning the F 900 XR’s freeway manners a little less tedious. The new engine is nothing if not smooth, and so holding about 4,500 rpm at 75 mph pushes no annoying vibes through the handlebar or the rubber-padded pegs. Not to point fingers, but that’s more than the first-gen S 1000 XR could say. There’s also plenty of roll-on power from the parallel twin, if you feel the need to surge past a knot of traffic or you’re extremely confident all of the highway patrol cars are somewhere else.

The miles melted away, and by the time I exited I just had a couple of small complaints about the XR on the highway, to do with legroom and aero. At six feet, two inches tall, I found the the tall handlebar to be a perfect width and reach from the seat, but the seat-to-peg ratio is a little tighter than I would like. Despite the XR's extra spring travel over the naked R version, the seat height on the XR is only 0.4 inches taller. That means the saddle is extra scooped, and as a tall drink of water I would be looking for a thicker seat to add legroom.

BMW F 900 XR windscreen
In the upper position, the little windshield does a good job pushing air away from the rider’s torso, but the larger version that comes on the gold bike is better. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Then again, that would make the weensy windscreen even less effective, which is my second little niggle. It works well, but why isn’t it bigger? The good news here is that BMW has a larger one (it actually comes standard on the gold, “exclusive” version of the XR) that I sampled at the launch and would recommend. In any case, overall the XR is a smooth, calm, well designed machine that kills freeway miles better than most.

Peeling off the multi-lane 101 and toward some twistier roads meant using the brakes, clutch, and transmission more frequently. The high-end componentry in the brake system delivered as expected, with the soft bite I was expecting from an “entry-level” motorcycle but plenty of power on tap. Similarly, the hydraulic clutch proved beautifully light and easy to use, just as everyone should expect from a BMW. There isn’t an amazing amount of feel in the clutch lever, but boy that’s really picking nits. Upshifting gently while using the clutch, as many of you do every time, the transmission works fine though doesn’t give much feedback. Skipping up through the gears without using the clutch often shows the true nature of a gearbox’s useability, and to me the F 900 tranny feels a bit notchy and unforgiving. Emphasis on “a bit.” Honestly, I only note it because it feels noticeably higher effort than full-size Beemers.

BMW F 900 XR in white
The new, 895 cc powerplant is built by the same company, Loncin, in China that assembles the F 850 GS mill. Engines are delivered to BMW in Berlin, where the rest of the F 900 models are assembled. The white version of the F 900 XR comes with pale wheels and black fork tubes. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Every other part of the experience on a 55-mph stretch of winding road is predictably delightful. This is where the dash is especially nice, with rich colors that are easy to see in any light and intuitive controls that allow the rider to cycle through pertinent data on the fly. There’s a “sport” mode available in the display that pulls up active lean angle as well as data regarding brake and traction control usage. It doesn’t serve much purpose, but it does casually illustrate the bike’s technology and depth of options. Cornering ABS is an available feature on the F 900 XR, for example, as are cornering lights — both of which are informed by a five-axis sensor. The base machines are spare on all of the usual features, but most of it waits in the wings. Luxury adjacent, if you will.

To reconnect back with the Pacific Ocean that had meandered away from me entering Greater Los Angeles, I cruised down through one of the many canyon roads that winds delicately through the hills of Malibu. Considering the pedigree of the BMW XR name, I expected the F 900 to shine here and I wasn’t disappointed. Just like the first time I careened through Malibu years ago on a Kawasaki Versys 650 and realized that I much preferred it to a sport bike, the upright ergos and wide bar of the XR delivered all over again.

suspension on the BMW F 900 XR
What? No cruise? The F 900’s switchgear is simple enough on base XR models, aside from the menu wheel, which feels fairly fancy. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The compromise of the non-adjustable fork and limited settings in the shock mean on a nasty, bumpy road the XR will feel harsh compared to an ADV bike. But on a reasonably smooth ribbon of tarmac and with no reason to use the center of the tire, this bike is a treat. It’s light to the touch and falls into corners gently. Everything about the handling is linear and predictable, and even though my rear tire showed nary a chicken strip when I was finished, I still never touched a footpeg.

I kicked a little harder than I wanted to on the gear lever a couple of times, but in general the drivetrain matches the chassis step for step here, as well. There are two ride modes standard, Rain and Road, with Dynamic and Dynamic Pro coming if you opt for the Ride Modes Pro option. Dynamic Pro makes the bike feel a little more lively, but whatever the mode, power is accessible almost anywhere between 2,500 rpm and 8,000 rpm and the sound pumping out the pipe is thick with bass. I just wish it were a little louder.

seat on the BMW F 900 XR
The XR’s saddle is a simple piece. It’s not adjustable for height, but other seats are available to raise or lower the practical riding position. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The only surprise carving the canyon was that the bike doesn’t feel much like causing trouble. It doesn’t want to wheelie away from turns, no matter how aggressively I twisted the loud stick, and ABS isn’t switchable so there’ll be no motard shenanigans entering hairpins. I was surprised, but in asking BMW about it the answer I got was clear: This bike isn’t meant for that. It’s supposed to be sophisticated and even-keeled, not a demon that needs taming. Again, see notes regarding price and demographics.

On the topic of yuppies, my ride was now coming to an end, as I fought my way through traffic lights and intersections of Santa Monica. Nearly home. Stop signs and crosswalks don’t often teach me much about a new motorcycle, but in the case of the F 900 XR I came across an interesting note that I hadn’t picked up on during the whole afternoon tracing the California coast: weight. When it’s finally stopped, the 483 pounds that BMW claims make up the XR finally feels about right. On the move all day I was impressed at how agile and light the XR feels in practically every situation, but it’s worth noting that picking it up off the sidestand is more effort than you might expect from a machine the company expects some people might have as their first machine.

BMW F 900 R
Some might argue that the F 900 XR’s Achilles heel is its baby brother, the F 900 R. Photo by Kevin Wing.

BMW F 900 XR: The bottom line

So, BMW fan boys and girls, hold on to your top hats, here comes the price: $11,695. If you’re not impressed, consider for a moment that technically you can pay more for a CRF450 from a Honda dealer. No joke. But fine, more to the point it’s within shouting distance of Yamaha’s Tracer 900 ($10,699), which is the bike BMW put in the crosshairs of this F 900 XR project. I have to say, even though my time on the XR has been brief so far, the comparison seems fair. The Tracer has more power and a rowdier attitude, but the F 900 XR cockpit is nicer and the aerodynamics are better.

As for how it compares to Ducati’s Multistrada 950, it just feels simpler and much less intimidating than even the smaller Multi. How about a Kawasaki Versys 650 or 1000? The F 900 XR falls in the middle, I think — bigger, faster and more sophisticated than the wee Versys, but more utilitarian and approachable than the Versys 1000.

To circle back to the Tracer for a minute, a more realistic comparison is arguably the Tracer 900 GT, which comes kitted with saddlebags, heated grips, and a quickshifter, among other items. By the time you load up an F 900 XR with options it’ll be essentially $15,000, and yes that’s a couple thousand bucks more than the Tracer 900 GT’s $13,000 asking price, but it’s at least in the mix. We can all get as persnickety as we like in a spreadsheet war, but the fact is that the F 900 XR is a noticeable step down in MSRP from the S 1000 platform and is in the conversation with Japanese machines of the same ilk.

BMW F 900 XR gold version
The flashy, gold paint is $350 extra, but with it also comes the taller windshield, which looks more appropriate and works better, too. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The real problem, honestly, is its little brother. The naked, F 900 R uses the same engine, frame, and most of the same parts. It has less suspension travel, less wind protection, and a lower seat, but aside from that most of the deliverables and options are the same. Here’s the rub: The starting price for the R is $8,995. So, if you’re anything like me you’ll be asking where those 2,700 dollars are going. A taller handlebar and a windscreen? An inch of suspension?

Even with my few little complaints about the XR, I have a lot of respect for the concept and the execution; it’s a great bike. But I can’t imagine recommending it over the R which, aside from freeway comfort, delivers essentially all of the same things while leaving the better part of three grand in your pocket.

Luckily, I think we can all agree, I don’t have your bank account information. All I can tell you is that after a couple of days in the saddle, the F 900 XR proved to be a worthy (albeit less extravagant) little brother to the mighty S 1000 XR and a viable do-it-all motorcycle.

The complaints about a stiff transmission and skimpy legroom are pretty thin, in the end. In general it’s a refined, classy example of a modern motorcycle meant to deliver across more than one style of riding. I can whine about how I wish it did better wheelies and stoked the fire of the little devil on my shoulder, but riders who want that have other options. I hope, for the sake of motorcycling, that the proletariat BMW buyer is out there, ready to jump in and experience motorcycling more responsibly than some of us would otherwise choose.

2020 BMW F 900 XR
Engine type Liquid-cooled, parallel twin, four valves per cylinder
Displacement 895 cc
Bore x stroke 86 mm x 77 mm
Compression ratio 13.1:1
Fuel requirement Premium unleaded
Power/torque 99 horsepower @ 8,500 rpm; 68 foot-pounds @ 6,750 rpm
Transmission Six gears, chain final drive
Alternator output 416 watts
Front suspension 43 mm Sachs inverted fork, 6.7 inches of travel
Rear suspension Single Sachs shock, adjustable for preload and rebound damping, 6.8 inches of travel
Front brake Twin 320 mm floating discs, four-piston radially mounted calipers
Rear brake Single 265 mm floating disc, single-piston caliper
Tires front/rear 120/70ZR17; 180/55ZR17
Steering head angle/trail 29.5 degrees/4.1 inches
Wheelbase 60 inches
Seat height 32.4 inches
Tank capacity 4.1 gallons
Weight 482 pounds
Base MSRP $11,695