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Common Tread

2021 BMW R 18 first ride review

Sep 18, 2020

This is a conundrum. Here I sit, a lover of motorcycle history and the child of an airhead-BMW household, trying to make sense of the R 18. Do I like it for the pinstripes? Do I like it for the behemoth boxer engine nobody expected? Do I even like it? My emotions are a tangled knot, people.

BMW R 18 beauty
The First Edition gets extra chrome bits and the pinstripe paint. Don’t you dare buy one without pinstripes. Photo by Kevin Wing.

One thing I’ll say right away is that this bike is more striking in person. Not better looking. Some of the proportions still look odd, but the details are sort of captivating. The mirror finish on inky black paint set off by arcs of bright white pinstriping, the bubbles of chrome that look like they were grown in a lab, the exposed driveshaft. The bizarre, quasi-vintage exhaust straight out of a ‘50s sci-fi movie. It’s stately, almost regal. Signs of technology and modernity are still around, from the heat sink poking out the back of the headlight bucket to the parts-bin switchgear. And the oil cooler is obvious, even if it’s necessary. Imagine an old timer tipping his hat back, putting his hands in his pockets and letting out a slow whistle; that was me.

Part of the reason it demands attention is also the sheer size of it. That’s a 68-inch wheelbase and more than 750 pounds of motorcycle, with no bodywork and a dash the size of a tuna can. In his (excellent) breakdown of the R 18’s tech and design, Greaser pointed out that the engine alone weighs 244 pounds. Pretty staggering, really. It feels a little overdone, in a uniquely American way, and BMW is the first to say that’s no accident. This bike is aimed at people who have historically wanted, or might someday want, an American V-twin. More specifically, a Harley-Davidson Softail Slim. That was the bike in BMW’s crosshairs when it set out to make a splash in the cruiser market.

Rock & roll & ride

Perhaps with that in mind, the R 18 delivers some European flavor when the engine fires up. Not so much the sound — there isn’t much of that, frankly — but the twist of a longitudinal crankshaft. The bike lurches to the left as two, 901 cc cylinders start pumping, reminiscent of any big-inch Moto Guzzi twin or a Triumph Rocket 3. Despite BMW’s age-old design of two horizontally opposed cylinders being inherently balanced, there was obviously some thought put into just how much the bike should shake at idle. It feels appropriate, to me; mechanical without being obnoxious.

BMW R 18 right beauty
A faux-rigid frame and the low-'n-slow attitude is pure Americana. Other parts of the design, like the funky pipes, offer more European flair. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Settings are spartan, it’s mostly the three ride modes that adjust throttle map, which in turn adjusts the threshold of traction-control intervention. The modes are named Rock, Roll, and Rain, which at first I thought was Greaser being too casual. Roll is the standard, middle-of-the-road mode, while Rock makes the throttle response sharper and even makes the engine shake more at idle. The modes are quite different from each other, which I appreciate, but frankly I don’t see why the bike needs modes other than to satisfy a culture of adjusters. The R 18 is never going to feel particularly fast, and it doesn’t need taming in the rain.

BMW R 18 dash
If you want a simple dash, welcome home. Photo by Kevin Wing.

On the handling front, the R 18’s biggest asset is not having wide (dumb) tires. The Rocket 3 and Ducati Diavel, for example, handle remarkably well considering they use 240-section rear tires but there’s no question it makes a bike feel odd to turn. The R 18 uses a much more typical 180-section in the back and a 120-section in the front, and that makes for nice, neutral handling. For a bike as long and heavy as a shipping container, anyway. Where the R 18 falls well short of a Rocket or Diavel is cornering clearance. The footpegs touch down in essentially any curve where you’re not stuck behind a car; leaving gas stations, getting on the freeway, you name it. Luckily the brakes are excellent. I didn’t even notice the linking system that adds pressure to the rear calipers when the front lever is pulled.

BMW R 18 cornering left
The R 18 starts off at about 760 pounds, but if you’re diligent in corners you can slowly bring the weight down, starting with the footpegs. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Most of the questions and concerns I got through friends and on social media focused on two things: worry about the riding position being cramped and the heat wafting off those massive cylinders. Valid concerns. The R 18’s seat is about as low as motorcycles get, at 27.2 inches. That’s almost three inches lower than a Honda Grom. The footpegs being set forward of the middle of the seat by about 16 inches helps give the rider’s legs a little more room to stretch, but even so a quick measurement from the hollow of the seat to the pegs is only 24 inches. That’s more than a sport bike and less than the average R 18 rider is going to want, I’d say.

BMW R 18 front brake caliper
Calipers are by Brembo, and feel like it. There’s plenty of power and feel, especially considering the size of the bike. Photo by Kevin Wing.

As for heat, the good news is that it’s not noticeable. It’s just like BMW to make a gaudy, huge engine that sits right next to the rider’s legs and isn’t bothersome. It could be the oil cooling and good engineering. It could also be that I’ve never ridden a bike with 90 horsepower and been overwhelmed by engine heat. That’s not to say I think the R 18 is slow or underpowered for what it is; only that my wow factor for keeping heat away from the rider goes up and down proportionally with dyno numbers.

BMW R 18 exposed driveshaft
The exposed driveshaft is brilliant, and hints at a legitimate slice of BMW history. Photo by Kevin Wing.

There’s plenty of thrust on tap, in fact. If the 91 claimed horsepower seems underwhelming for a 760-pound bike, the 116 foot-pounds of torque will pull a stump or two. It’s satisfying to use in the same way it’s fun to open the throttle on a modern, liquid-cooled Harley. Plenty of shaking and chugging and soon enough you’re going faster than traffic. There’s not a lot of thrill or emotion, it’s more just plentiful, industrial, and pragmatic. This is a pushrod twin, after all, with a huge, single-plate dry clutch at the back. This is the same basic recipe BMW used for decades, which is probably one of the reasons it feels solid and seamless to use.

Taking a step back

On the topic of old recipes, we can’t talk about the R 18 without bringing up the R nineT, because BMW says flat out that one wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the other. The R nineT was billed as BMW building a 90th birthday present to itself, but surely the company hoped it would be more than that and it certainly has been. The success of the R nineT led BMW to realize that people don’t always want the practical solution — it was and is a simple machine in an age of rising technology, which is precisely why it resonates with people.

BMW R 18 posed in alley with rider
My six foot, two-inch frame finally doesn’t look too big on a bike. It only took a 70-inch wheelbase. Legroom is a little tight but not unreasonable. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The R nineT is also quite good as a motorcycle. As charming as the R 18 can feel, it’s almost too polished, literally and figuratively. The nineT’s seemingly obsolete engine delivers meaty torque and twists awkwardly when you rev it, not unlike the R 18’s mill. But it also smells like hot oil when it’s parked and backfires occasionally on deceleration. It’s unrefined in exactly the right way, and the fact that the engine is ugly doesn’t seem to matter. All of the sensors poking out and visible wiring is messy compared to the R 18, yet as a machine it feels right. It resonates as a throwback, both aesthetically and from a tactile standpoint. Plus it handles brilliantly.

BMW R 18 switchgear controls
Switchgear is shared with other BMW models. Note the button to toggle TC. Photo by Kevin Wing.

In terms of fit and finish, the R 18 is a step above the nineT, but from the perspective of riding enjoyment the R 18 doesn’t do anything the nineT doesn’t. If we’re comparing the R 18 to other machines, the one that keeps coming to mind is Honda’s modern CB1100. Obviously, the two bikes are in different classes, but for me they meet at the same intersection of art and performance. They are both motorcycles that offer just as much, if not more, by looking at them on a kickstand as riding them.

BMW R 18 seat
Here’s one reason the legroom won’t seem too tight — the seat, which is easily the worst part of the bike. Thankfully, there are alternate options in the BMW catalog. Photo by Kevin Wing.

And then there’s the Softail Slim. It’s no accident that riding the R 18 made me think of a big-inch Harley cruiser. That’s the whole point. What I struggle with is the reason for each bike to exist. The heritage that Harley-Davidson leans on in marketing and engineering is real. For better or worse, the brand has evolved from big V-twins to a wider array of big V-twins and one of the reasons customers like each new bike is that it’s so similar to the previous one. BMW’s history is more varied, but aside from the oddball R 1200 C tragically immortalized in a James Bond film, the Germans have no cruiser pedigree. 

BMW R 18 action front
Twisty roads aren’t exactly the R 18’s turf, but as long as the scenes are scenic you’ll be happy. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Still, breaking from tradition is sometimes what brings us the products we love. I’ll admit it makes me sad to imagine a world where BMW didn’t try to build the S 1000 RR. This new BMW cruiser is a slice of history, no doubt, and if you want one in your garage this First Edition I rode will cost you about $20,000. Base-model pricing starts at $17,495 but BMW won’t likely bring many of those to showrooms. More likely it’ll be a fully loaded First Edition like the one I rode, replete with heated grips, hill-hold control, electronic reverse gear, and (yes, really) a locking fuel cap, for $21,870. That’s more than a Softail Slim. Then again, you get two front brake rotors and you’re a lot less likely to see one at bike night.

It’s also a few grand more than an R nineT, which is where my money would go. A nineT isn’t as pretty, but I just can’t shake the feeling that the R 18 is a wonderfully executed homage to a history that doesn’t specifically exist. My roundel memories are specific, I know. Alas, the nineT’s snorty exhaust note and clunky transmission is what reminds me of an old BMW.

BMW R 18 and R5 vintage machine
The R5 is what BMW designers used as a springboard to create the R 18's look. BMW photo.

2021 BMW R 18 First Edition
Price (MSRP) $19,870
Engine 1,802 cc, air/oil-cooled, eight-valve, horizontally opposed twin
final drive
Six-speed, shaft
Claimed horsepower 91 @ 4,750 rpm
Claimed torque 116 foot-pounds @ 3,000 rpm
Frame Steel tube double cradle
Front suspension Showa 49 mm fork, adjustable for preload; 4.7 inches of travel
Rear suspension ZF single shock, adjustable for rebound damping; 3.5 inches of travel
Front brake Two Brembo four-piston calipers, 300 mm discs with ABS
Rear brake Brembo four-piston caliper, 300 mm disc with ABS
Rake, trail 32.7 degrees, 5.9 inches
Wheelbase 68.1 inches
Seat height 27.2 inches
Fuel capacity 4.2 gallons
Tires Michelin Commander Touring III; 120/70 R19 front, 180/65 B16 rear
Claimed weight 760 pounds
Available Now
Warranty 36 months / 36,000 miles
More info