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Common Tread

2020 BMW F 900 R first ride review

Jan 30, 2020

The BMW F 800 R (2009-2019) was, by BMW’s own admission, a boring bike. Odd-looking, too, with a front end strangely reminiscent of Bill the Cat and a design language that screamed “affordable.”

Of course some people liked it, just as there's always that one guy who shows up in the comments section to sing the praises of his 30-year-old Roadcrafter (“Never washed it!”) and insist that, actually, the Suzuki Burgman is very sporty.

“Some customers really liked that bike,” BMW Product Manager Dorit Mangold told me. “But, yes, there were more customers who did not like it.”

So, as part of the platform overhaul that began with the F 850 GS in 2018, the R has been radically changed: more displacement, more power, more torque, more tech, more character, and better looks. Now known as the F 900 R, it is delightfully unlike its predecessor in almost every way.

BMW F 900 R
2020 BMW F 900 R. This version is shown with the optional 451 Style Sport package, which adds $250 to the price and includes the silver and red paint combination, black wheels, gold-colored fork tubes and a passenger seat cover. BMW photo.

Introduced at EICMA back in November, the F 900 R was somewhat overshadowed by the F 900 XR, an excellent motorcycle (so much so that I would choose it over the upgraded S 1000 XR) with which the R shares a lot in common: same engine, same frame, and a lot of the same components. But the R is not simply an XR sans fairing. It performs differently both in terms of engine characteristics and how it tackles twisty roads.

Powered by an 895 cc parallel twin, the Euro version of the F 900 R I rode claims 105 horsepower but BMW North America says the U.S. version is rated at 99 horsepower at 8,500 rpm and 67 foot-pounds of torque at 6,500 rpm. That puts it more or less in line with bikes like the Triumph Street Triple R, Kawasaki Z900 and Yamaha MT-09, the latter of which BMW singles out as competition. Of the aforementioned bikes, the BMW actually claims the fewest ponies, but makes up for it in competitive pricing and technowhizzbangery.

I seem to have reached that stage in life where the addition of electronic tidbits on motorcycles often induces eye rolling rather than enthusiasm. So the mention of its 6.5-inch TFT screen, (optional) adaptive headlight, app connectivity, or multitudinous riding modes didn't initially get a rise out of me. But I must say that the R looks much better than it did a year ago, with its polygonal headlight and muscular front end. The overall look flows better and although there is still a whiff of “reasonably priced plastic” in its aesthetic, it manages to be a motorcycle I might want to be seen on.

BMW F 900 R seat
Nicely shaped, but firm. Quite firm. BMW photo.

Throw a leg over and one of the first things you notice is the stiffness of the seat. I once rode from London to Prague and back on a Harley-Davidson Street Bob without discomfort, so I would not describe myself as persnickety. But, man. This bike’s seat is challenging. I’d assume that you could get used to this, perhaps adding a few more donuts to your diet to help develop additional padding, but it did stand out to me as a problem issue on an otherwise good bike.

BMW F 900 R ergonomics
The ergonomics are comfortable. The test rider is six feet, one inch tall. BMW offers multiple seat options to change the seat height. BMW photo.

Ergonomically, the F 900 R is right on the edge of comfortable for a six-foot, one-inch rider like me. Knee bend isn’t excessive, nor the gentle forward lean to the handlebar. Mangold told me that many of the customers who liked the old F 800 R were short of leg, and the company kept them very much in mind when designing the bike’s replacement. The stock seat height is 32 inches, but if you’ve got the money, honey, BMW’s got seat heights lower and taller. The options range from 30 inches to 34 inches.

Riding the BMW F 900 R

A regular criticism of professional ride reviews like this one is that moto-journalists are always being flown to exotic locations — in this case, Almería in southern Spain — to ride in perfect conditions, thereby resulting in an inaccurate assessment. There’s some truth in that; on a sunny and warm day, far from life’s worries, literally every motorcycle is amazing. You’ll be happy to know, then, that the weather on this particular occasion was miserable. It was colder and wetter than Britain, where I had traveled from.

“You are very lucky,” our fixer, María, told me. “It only rains two days a year in Almería and you are here on those two days.”

The test bike I rode was, of course, the all-bells-and-whistles version, which means it had keyless start. This is a feature I would never intentionally pay for. Batteries fail. Pair this reality with the fact that steering lock is also electronic on BMW’s keyless system and you have the potential for a very frustrating afternoon.

However you get the F 900 R started, though, it sounds lovely once running. There is a nice bark on start-up that settles into a gentle snarl at idle. Give it some beans, especially on the go, and you get a growl that sounds like an American muscle car from about a mile away. That’s a backhanded compliment, I know, but it is infinitely better than the “coffee can full of pennies” rattle emitted by the F 800 R. Folks traveling behind you will hear a deep-bass rumble as you accelerate away. The engine’s sound and character come in part from its 270-degree firing order, which allows the parallel twin to mimic the better points of a V-twin.

One result of the wet weather is that I am able to tell you with great confidence that the F 900 R’s rain mode is pointless. As standard, the bike comes with two riding modes — Rain and Road — and you can pay more to get Dynamic and Dynamic Pro. You will never want to use Rain. BMW should rename it “Sadness.” Choose this mode only if your life is full of too much joy, or if you’re lending the bike to a friend and you want him to give up motorcycling.

Road mode is much better, though a bit choppy. Blame Euro 5 regulations, I guess, but holding steady speed through corners was trickier than I felt it needed to be. I didn’t get an opportunity to ride the bike in an urban situation, but I suspect owners will experience a certain amount of pulsing when attempting to hold steady speed at around 30 mph. Ever since Euro 4 was introduced a few years ago, a lot of bikes — in particular, those with ride by wire — have struggled to deliver steady throttle.

BMW F 900 R
2020 BMW F 900 R. BMW photo.

Dynamic mode is choppier, but good for pulling dank 12 o’clock wheelies. Chris Moss of 44 Teeth was lofting the F 900 R’s front wheel with such enthusiasm that afterward one of BMW’s team came running over to him and literally held him by the ear as she told him off. Ostensibly Dynamic Pro mode is different from Dynamic mode, but such is the subtlety in difference that I can’t tell you which is which.

In anything other than Rain mode, the bike accelerates with giggle-inducing brio. With its V-twin mimicking quality, the engine thrums in a way that I find very pleasing. Your personal tastes may differ. Push the bike toward 100 mph and you’ll feel some buzzing in your feet and the seat of your pants, but it’s not annoying. The bike is downright civil at normal people speeds and, über-stiff seat aside, I was able to buy into BMW’s argument that some riders will want to use the F 900 R for light touring. For this reason, cruise control is an option. As are heated grips, which are not powerful enough, in my opinion. And for which the button is annoyingly placed on the right grip.

BMW F 900 R
The optional electronic suspension on the F 900 R model tested in Spain gave the bike a feeling of stability in the curves. BMW photo.

The test bike was also fitted with the optional Dynamic ESA electronic suspension, which offers a sense of solidity and steadiness on the road that belies the F 900 R's “affordable” place in the market. It feels like a bike that costs so much more. I’m a big fan of the chassis. Through corners, my fellow moto-journalists felt it demanded slightly more effort for turn-in than necessary but I found the thing reassuring. Once you’ve committed to a corner, the bike doesn’t dance around trying to change your mind. Somewhere deep in the F 900 R’s soul, the stalwart nature of the old 800 is there, and I’m happy with that, in this case.

And certainly it makes sense in context. BMW has sexed this bike up quite a bit, but it still sees the F 900 R as something for riders experiencing their first “big” bike or for those wanting to ease themselves back into riding after some time away. (Perhaps it is for them that Rain mode exists.) The bike is also a lot of fun for experienced riders, but you have to take it in stride that certain aspects are there to inspire confidence rather than facilitate hooliganism.

Brakes, meanwhile, are soft. The rear especially. Despite the Brembo calipers gripping dual front discs and a single rear, you’ll want to make use of the engine and some forward planning when applying the whoa. I mean, it’s not as if you’re trundling around on a 1970s Triumph (“Stopping? That’s for pansies!”), but because I’ve ridden plenty of other BMWs, I know the company is capable of offering a more robust setup than this. Perhaps different brake pads would help?

left switchgear on the BMW F 900 R
All that tech means that your left hand can get quite busy. BMW photo.

One of the first things I’d do upon purchasing an F 900 R is sit down with a nice cup of hot cocoa and spend a few hours going through the owner’s manual, particularly the section aimed at helping me navigate the bike’s dizzying options menu. The infamous BMW wünderwheel is now standard on the F 900 R, with all of the clicking and spinning and pushing that entails. It contributes to a very cluttered left grip, especially if you opt for cruise control. Good luck finding the indicator button when you need it.

Still, those bells and whistles are fun, and the multiple screens offered via the TFT dash can provide some interesting information. For example, the bike’s Sport screen tracks your steepest lean angle, resetting each time you restart the bike. This became a fun game for Bike Social’s John Milbank and me, each of us trying to best the other.

BMW F 900 R TFT dash
The TFT dash on the F 900 R. BMW photo.

The potential for disaster is obvious. Get two guys competing against one another and eventually one will tip the bike into a lowside. But it also provided some valuable food for thought. I learned that I lean farther on my left side than my right. Initially I assumed this meant I am more comfortable on my left, but upon paying attention to my riding I realized the opposite was true. I am far more comfortable hanging off the right side of the bike, which means the bike itself stays more upright (and, as such, has more traction). My lean was steeper on the left because I was tipping the bike over more, unwilling to really put my body into the turn. So, technowhizzbangery has provided me with information that may help me improve my riding.

Probably you could learn some equally useful stuff by poring through all the data you’ll get if you connect your phone to the bike via BMW’s app. Certainly the minutiae of data offered is interesting. John Milbank served as guinea pig for the feature (the rest of us too lazy to set it up on our phones) and was able to go through his ride in real time as we sat at the bar. We could see his speed through every corner, even spot the times he had deployed ABS (I didn’t understand his explanation, but apparently activating ABS right before a corner helps you look better in photos). I don’t know if we need this, but it is fascinating and it speaks to the fact the F 900 R is no longer an old-man bike.

BMW F 900 R
Depending on how hard you hit the options list, the BMW F 900 R can come in at a price below some of its Japanese competition. BMW photo.

The F 900 R, subjectively and competitively

Overall, the BMW F 900 R is a hell of a lot of fun and far more enjoyable than its predecessor. It’s the sort of thing you could be happy riding in a lot of different situations for a number of years. Commuting, lazy afternoons on country lanes, zipping through twisting routes, even spending a few days on the road. It’ll do all of that without complaint; certain accessories may be desired if you favor one use over the others. I would genuinely consider spending my own money on one, even though it would mean having to buy a new socket set (BMW uses torx-head bolts because reasons).

2020 BMW F 900 R pricing
Base price (MSRP) $8,995
Destination and handling charge $495
Select package
  • GPS prep
  • Heated grips
  • Tire pressure monitor
  • Cruise control
  • Saddlebag mounts
Premium package
Requires Select package and adds:
  • DTC Dynamic Traction Control
  • Dynamic engine brake control
  • Keyless Ride
  • Gear Shift Assist Pro
  • Ride Modes Pro
  • ABS Pro
Premium Tech package
Requires Select package
Includes features from Premium package and adds:
  • Adaptive headlight
  • Dynamic ESA
  • Anti-theft system

The bike lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that would have you running up to friends shouting, “I just bought an F 900 R!” But there’s a desirability to it, nonetheless. It is not a purchase you would regret.

In the United States, the F 900 R starts at $8,995. Keeping in mind that ABS is standard on the F 900 R, it is priced well below an equivalent Triumph Street Triple R or Kawasaki Z900, and costs $5 less than a Yamaha MT-09.

BMW pricing can get complicated, however. Options are grouped into packages. The chart at the right shows how the price goes up as you add packages. Throw in the spiffy electronics and the other features that were on the version I rode and the cost goes up to $11,845. Add another $250 on top of that if you want the Hockenheim Silver/Racing Red color combo seen here, which also adds gold-color fork tubes and black wheels as part of the 451 Style Sport package. It's still a good buy, with all the tech you get, but no longer in the MT-09 class.

Either way, the F 800 R is dead. Long live the F 900 R.

2020 BMW F 900 R
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; 67 foot-pounds @ 6,500 rpm
Transmission six gears, chain final drive
Alternator output 416 watts
Front suspension 43 mm inverted fork, 5.3 inches of travel
Rear suspension Single shock, adjustable for preload and rebound damping, 5.5 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/4.5 inches
Wheelbase 59.7 inches
Seat height 32 inches (options range from 30.3 inches to 34 inches)
Tank capacity 3.4 gallons
Wet weight (full of fuel) 465 pounds