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Common Tread

2020 BMW S 1000 XR first ride review

Jun 29, 2020

“A touring-capable sport bike” is how the good folks in Munich describe the new-for-2020 S 1000 XR. 

You’ll get no argument from me there. The S 1000 XR has always been an upright S 1000 RR superbike you can put luggage on, and this year’s bike is lighter, more powerful, and  more sophisticated than ever. After riding it for several days on some of SoCal’s most exciting roads, I can assure you that this latest XR is an exceptionally athletic beast that slots in at the extreme end of the sport-touring category. 

The updates

Since its debut in 2015, the XR has relied on hardware from the S 1000 RR assembly line. The 2020 model follows suit, adopting the engine and many other aspects of the recently revised sport bike, which Spurgeon had the thrill of riding at Barber Motorsports Park last summer.

The 999 cc inline-four is lighter and more compact than before, and for XR duty features taller fourth, fifth and sixth gear ratios for more relaxed cruising. The complexity and cost of the RR’s Shift Cam technology — which boosts the superbike’s power at high rpm — wasn’t deemed necessary here. The RR’s 14,500-rpm redline didn’t seem practical, either.

Stack up the apexes and the XR will knock 'em down. Few bikes can compete with the BMW's sense of stability and precision when carving through a corner. It's a real joy to ride. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Instead, the XR has its own camshafts and an exhaust manifold that focuses power in the midrange for better street performance. Even so, the XR’s peak output of 165 horsepower (up five from last year) isn’t delivered until 11,000 rpm, just 1,000 rpm below the redline. Meanwhile, peak torque of 84 foot-pounds arrives at 9,250 rpm. True, there’s about 60 foot-pounds of grunt available from just 3,000 rpm, but the engine feels soft off idle and there’s no denying that it’s happiest and most responsive when on the boil.

Like the engine, the aluminum twin-spar frame is lighter and narrower, specifically between the rider’s knees. Similar to the setup on the Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX, the tail section has integrated mounts for BMW’s accessory 30-liter panniers. It's a nifty feature, assuming you’re interested in adding luggage. 

The frame supports a new swingarm, and BMW has mounted the shock directly, meaning without linkage. That leaves the standard D-ESA (Dynamic Electronic Suspension Adjustment), with its updated valving and software, in control of suspension action. It does a remarkable job, varying damping in the fork and shock up to 100 times per second to keep the chassis level and planted while accelerating and braking. I’ll talk more about that later, but for now suffice to say D-ESA is an effective feature with impressive functionality.

I'm sad to see the headlights go fully symmetrical, but LEDs are appealing. Speaking of illumination, I'd opt out of the oversize fog lights in favor of something smaller from Denali. Photo by Spenser Robert.

The XR’s headlights and face are fully symmetrical now (I was always fond of the S 1000 RR’s original pirate-eye look) and illuminated via LED. The turn signals are LED, as well, and if you swing around to the back of the bike, you’ll notice there’s no tail-light assembly. Rather, the running and brake lights are integrated into the turn signals, a la many Harley-Davidson models. I’m not sure how the Germans negotiated that with the DOT, but it makes for a tidy yet oddly conspicuous tail section. 

Headlight and tail light aside, the XR’s appearance isn’t too different from before, yet the whole rider triangle was shifted forward nearly an inch and the handlebar is about a half inch lower and more than an inch narrower. BMW says the new riding position improves the front/rear weight balance and front-end feel for the rider, while the narrower bar makes for easier low-speed maneuverability.  

Subtly revised bodywork is said to be more aerodynamic (seven percent less drag) and some six decibels quieter than the previous model if you have the accessory High Windscreen ($274) installed and in the high position. On that note, BMW assumes a high rate of accessory “take up” on its premium bikes (it claims 99.6 percent of bikes are sold fully equipped!), so our loaner was laden with several grand worth of non-standard features, like a bi-directional quickshifter, center stand, carbon trim, fog lights, keyless ignition, and a few dozen other items.

The XR's new 6.5-inch TFT dash offers two display modes. You can toggle over to a vehicle-status overview screen that includes tire pressure, fuel range, battery voltage, etc. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Pricey add-ons aside, there are other standard updates worth mentioning. For example, BMW redesigned the handlebar mount to reduce vibrations (hooray!), the dash is now graced with a 6.5-inch TFT screen featuring two display modes, and an IMU has been added that allows for multi-level wheelie control and rear-wheel lift control, and also informs the new lean-angle sensitive ABS Pro. Adjustable engine braking is also new, as is a hill-hold feature, and all the ride modes have been expanded and refined.

OK, just one more point before we get into the actual review. The XR rolls on the RR’s cast wheels this year, which are a full four pounds lighter than last year’s hoops. We all know less rotating mass is great, but I mostly wanted to bring it up as a way to discuss curb weight. According to the BMW website, last year’s bike had a wet weight of 503 pounds, and this year’s bike is 498. That leaves quite a bit of mass unaccounted for given that the tech presentation said some 22 pounds was slashed off the previous model. It turns out BMW opted to compare the weight of fully accessorized bikes (remember that 99.6 percent rate?) rather than base-model machines as listed on the website. Pretty whacky, huh? Don’t worry, we’ll have more fun with base model versus fully equipped when it comes to discussing price.  

Thanks for bearing with me through all that. Now, let’s talk about how the bike actually works. 

First things first: How are the handlebar vibrations?!

Anyone that’s heard anything about the XR knows that handlebar vibration was a big complaint on previous models. Taller gearing and new rubber bar bushings reduce vibes to tolerable levels up until about 6,000 rpm (that’s 90 mph in sixth), but things get tingly toward the right side of the tachometer. You won’t care, though, because once you spike the revs your pupils will be dilated and your heart racing in response to the engine’s psychotic top-end acceleration. 

A new handlebar mount integrates rubber bushings that help quell tingling sensations at the grips. The XR's inline-four isn't particularly smooth, but vibes are no longer agonizing. Photo by Spenser Robert.

So, all things considered, vibrations are no longer the major issue they once were. Great.

What’s not great, however, is the seat.

It’s thin and too soft and oddly shaped, so you notice pressure points almost immediately. By the time you’ve burned through half of the 5.2-gallon tank (about 100 miles at the 39 mpg I averaged), you’re ready for a break. Additionally, the deep contour of the saddle was a poor fit for all three backsides that tried it. As Zack pointed out, “Your butt is only that shape when you’re reclining.” Who was this seat designed for, anyway? 

There's a nook in the subframe that's big enough to hold my tool kit and flat-repair kit, which usually live in my backpack since bikes don't often have much under-seat space. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Luckily, BMW offers a plethora of saddle options, including High and Low seats that your dealer will swap out free of charge at the time of purchase. There are also accessory seats that are $600 or more to the wrong side of free. The standard saddle is 33 inches off the deck, but the bike is narrow enough that I didn’t have any issues flatfooting with my 32-inch inseam, so I could stand to jump up to the 33.9-inch High seat and hopefully gain some comfort.  

Seat aside, the riding position is very much to my liking. It’s upright and relaxed, there’s no weight on your palms, and you have excellent leverage on the handlebar. It’s the kind of posture you could easily maintain all day. Ya know, once you swap out the seat.

This mini frunk is ideal for ear plugs or an N-95 mask. I kept the key fob it in, but that really belongs in your pocket, unless you want someone to ride off with your $22,000 bike. Photo by Spenser Robert.

For me, at five feet, 10 inches, the two-position windscreen (which is the stock unit — BMW didn’t option that up, maybe because tall screens look goofy in photos) creates a still pocket of air in the high position, but left my helmet jostling about when I flipped the lever to the low position. Zack is several inches taller than me and said the air around his helmet was pretty turbulent with the screen in either position, so anyone north of six feet will want to opt for that High Windscreen I mentioned earlier.

You can outfit the XR with up to 90 liters of hard luggage and offset the load with rear spring preload that adjusts at the touch of a button (or automatically, if you opt for D-ESA Pro like 99.6 percent of buyers), and with a taller windscreen and thicker seat you’d have a pretty fantastic sport-tourer. It’s even got heated grips and cruise control that can be dialed up to 117 mph. That’s my kind of cruising speed.

But let’s be honest. If you want to tour or ride two-up, BMW has much better models in its lineup. The RT, GS, or any of the K bikes are far superior mile eaters. No, you don’t ride the S 1000 XR for the straight stuff. Highways are just what you endure en route to the twisty roads (or race track) where the XR really shines.

The superbike within

Point the BMW’s flat little beak down a twisty road and all becomes right with the world. COVID-19 concerns, politics, and social tensions dissipate like hot exhaust fumes in the crisp morning air as you unleash the engine’s full power and immerse yourself in the XR’s effortless handling and astounding brakes. This is one of those bikes that’s so put together, with hardware and systems that work so harmoniously and seamlessly, that you can’t help but be a better rider. 

The S 1000 XR in its natural habitat – a brilliantly twisty mountainside road. It may live within the sport-touring category, but don't be fooled. The XR is 100 percent sport bike. Photo by Spenser Robert.

A light push on the bar slaps the bike from one side of the tire to the other, and you can adjust your line at any point in a corner — whether you’re on the brakes or on the gas — without the chassis objecting. Thank D-ESA for that. Even though the handlebar is rubber-mounted, it doesn’t inhibit steering precision or front-end feel, which is excellent. There’s no need to use body language to usher the bike toward an apex; the XR is eager to lean without you scooting a cheek over or even pointing a knee. This bike dances between corners like a true sport bike, and when the road straightens out, it turns there into here as immediately as the beastliest bikes on the road. 

There’s power everywhere in the second half of the rev range, but from about 8,500 rpm to the 12,000 rpm redline the XR’s acceleration is maniacal and the engine howls like the superbike it is. Wheelies are common in first gear, and the engine can easily overpower the edge grip of the rear Bridgestone T31, resulting in super-satisfying smears at corner exits. 

It's got 165 horsepower – of course it wheelies! Wheelie control is adjustable, and in the more lenient levels you can float the front wheel MotoGP style for maximum acceleration. Photo by Spenser Robert.

BMW S-bikes have always had epic brakes, and the XR is no exception. Even with a conventional axial master cylinder, initial bite is powerful and stopping power is huge. One finger is enough to bring the rear wheel off the ground. Throw a perfectly calibrated bi-directional quickshifter, loads of cornering clearance, and the safety net of ultra-refined and adjustable TC and ABS into the mix, and you have a hell of a sport bike. 

The XR recipe is primo for the street, but truth be told, you’d need to head to a race track to fully explore the machine’s capabilities. And the only thing that’s keeping this bike from dominating the A group is a stickier set of tires.

The electronic nitty gritty

We know that the XR’s underpinnings are solid, but we shouldn’t discount what the bike’s electronically enabled systems, specifically the D-ESA and ABS, contribute to the package.

Let’s start with D-ESA, since that’s the biggest factor, in my opinion. At this point the system’s function should be familiar — electronics in the fork and shock constantly adjust compression and rebound damping to best suit the bike’s maneuvers. D-ESA is a standard feature and has one damping mode, “Road,” and three selectable rear-spring preload settings (rider, rider with luggage, and rider with passenger). Upgrading to D-ESA Pro unlocks a stiffer “Dynamic” damping schedule and replaces the preload settings with an automatic function that uses a travel sensor to adjust the shock spring for varying loads.

"Imperial speeder-bike scout number 211 reporting in, no Rebel scum present on the western flank." "Core" dash display mode engaged to maximize the sci-fi experience. Photo by Spenser Robert.

I actually prefer the softer “Road” mode (overall the suspension on the XR is quite firm in terms of spring rates and damping, and I suspect that at 185ish pounds in gear I’m lighter than the target rider), but regardless of which setting you use, the electronics effectively manage suspension motion in a way that feels more pronounced than with previous iterations. As an example, even though the 2020 bike has a one-inch-shorter wheelbase and makes more power, it’s less prone to wheelie than older models, presumably due to the greater adjustability of the new D-ESA valving limiting rear-end squat.

With D-ESA, you can carry the brakes deep into a corner and the fork adjusts to control dive, and as you trail off the brakes D-ESA manages rebound in the fork and tightens up compression on the shock as you roll on the gas. It all works to keep the chassis planted and on line, so the bike is stable and predictable in a way that really boosts your confidence. 

Backing up all of that is a multi-level ABS system with myriad settings, including front-wheel control, rear-wheel control, braking-force distribution, rear-wheel lift, and lean-angle sensitivity (which BMW calls ABS Pro). You can opt to use the default ABS settings as assigned to the Rain, Road, and Dynamic ride modes (which also package engine power and response, TC, and wheelie control, among other features), or fully customize all parameters using the Dynamic Pro ride mode. 

Look ma, no tail light! In place of the running and brake- light assembly, the XR has a key slot to release the seat. The tail light and running lights are integrated into the LED turn signals. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Honestly, the variation in traction threshold and pressure regulation of the ABS settings are more evident to me than the engine response/power modes or even the D-ESA settings, which I find impressive. This is a highly refined and adjustable system, with modes that should prove effective for everything from rain riding, when you want maximum stability and safety, to raging at a track day, when you want to brake hard enough to lift the rear wheel or even slide the rear tire into a corner, supermoto style.

Ari puts on his critical hat

To avoid crippling the Common Tread server with too many words, I’ll fire off my complaints as succinctly as possible.

You’ve already heard about the seat, so we’ll leave that be.

The bike’s ride-by-wire throttle has steady resistance from full close, but the engine doesn’t respond until a few degrees of rotation, and then power is very soft off the bottom. This can make starts and slow-speed parking-lot maneuvers a bit tricky until your brain and wrist calibrate. Luckily, that seems to happen within a few hours of riding.

Ultimately, the XR’s power spread isn’t ideal for the street. The top-end rush is undeniably thrilling, but BMW’s high-revving four is not as tractable as competitors’ engines with flatter torque curves. Then again, I’d like to see anything in the class try to keep up with the XR on a fast road, or better yet a race track.

Safety and performance features like traction control, ABS, and D-ESA are all lean-angle-sensitive and adjust their response to account for the the variables of cornering. Photo by Spenser Robert.

As much as I appreciate D-ESA, it’s frustrating that it doesn’t offer any manual controls, as is available on the S 1000 RR. You only get two damping modes, and “Dynamic” is only available at an upcharge. That’s extra frustrating due to the fact that there’s no hardware upgrade with Dynamic — the stuff is already in there, so you’re just paying to have BMW unlock the software.

On the topic of dynamic, it’s an adjective that BMW applies willy nilly. It’s only accurate when used to describe the suspension technology. When it’s used to denote damping or engine modes, it’s simply a label, not an indication of a feature’s adaptability.


With all that out of the way, we can finally discuss price. A base bike — which BMW says appears on order forms about as often as a unicorn appears in the forest — has an MSRP of $17,645. Our bike looks to have the $2,075 Premium Tech Package, $1,175 Select Package, $100 Hand Protection, $175 Center Stand (which actually seems like a good deal), and the $1,700 Carbon Package (which definitely does not seem like a good deal), bringing the total to $22,870. 

The Carbon Package includes the front fender, left/right side panels, and rear hugger for just $1,700. Yeah, you read that right. The M logo is replacing the HP branding on performance parts. Photo by Spenser Robert.

That’s no small sum of money, but it’s pretty much where pricing for the S 1000 XR’s closest competitor, the Ducati Multistrada 1260 S, starts, so it’s hardly out of line. 

The fact is, this bike resides in a strata of motorcycling and is aimed at a demographic where a few grand here or there isn’t a big deal. I’d love to think that I’ll play in that realm some day, but for now I’m grateful I get to play with this press bike at all. 

In the end, you already know if the XR is something you need to have in your garage, likely because you already own an R 1200 GS or some other premium machines. But if you’re still on the fence and need to make a snap decision, here’s my take: If you’re after relaxed cruising as you ooh and ahh at the wildflowers on the mountain slopes with your significant other on the back, get a R 1200 RT or some variety of the K 1600. If, however, you want to attack apexes and hear the sound of a shrieking inline-four echoing off those flowered hillsides, the S 1000 XR is for you. This is, after all, a sport bike. 

2020 BMW S 1000 XR

Price (MSRP) $17,645 (base), $22,852 (as tested) 
Engine 999 cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve, inline-four 
final drive
Six-speed, chain
Claimed horsepower 165.0 @ 11,000 rpm
Claimed torque 84.0 foot-pounds @ 9,250 rpm
Frame Aluminum twin-spar
Front suspension Marzocchi 45 mm fork, electronically adjustable for compression and rebound damping; 5.9 inches of travel
Rear suspension Marzocchi shock, electronically adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 5.9 inches of travel
Front brake Dual Hayes four-piston calipers, 320 mm discs with ABS
Rear brake Hayes two-piston caliper, 265 mm disc with ABS 
Rake, trail 24.9 degrees, 4.5 inches
Wheelbase 59.9 inches
Seat height 33.0 inches
Fuel capacity 5.2 gallons
Tires Bridgestone A31; 120/70R17 front, 190/55R17 rear
Claimed weight 498 pounds
Available Now
Warranty 36 months/36,000 miles
More info