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Common Tread

BMW R 1250 GS versus Harley-Davidson Pan America: Trans-Atlantic ADV showdown

Jun 11, 2021

It’s always exciting when a new adventure-touring motorcycle makes its debut on the world stage. But, not long after the confetti has fallen and the first-ride reviews have been written, everyone inevitably wants to know how it compares to the BMW GS. So it goes with Harley-Davidson’s first ADV, the Pan America 1250.

Spurgeon came back from the first-ride event for the new Pan America fairly glowing — impressed with the technology, balance, and comfort. Since Harley was nice enough to loan us a spankin’ new Pan America 1250 Special to test head-to-head with BMW’s latest R 1250 GS for an episode of CTXP, we here in the West Coast RevZilla office figured a breakdown of what we learned for the good readers of Common Tread was in order.

Editor's note: Both BMW and Harley-Davidson will have demo rides available at the Get On! Adventure Festival, which could be your best chance to compare these two motorcycles for yourself. Passes are on sale at www.revzilla.com/adv-fest.

The contenders

BMW’s flagship GS model stepped into this ring as a pretty obvious favorite. The Germans haven’t just been making adventure-touring bikes longer than anybody, the folks at BMW essentially invented the idea. Once upon a time, the G/S was a spindly and tall prototype with mixed up street and off-road DNA that people struggled to understand. With decades of success in its wake, this R 1250 version has nearly all of the technology and luxuries available in motorcycling. Heated everything, dynamic/electronic everything, and adjustable everything.

2020 BMW R 1250 GS parked in a grassy lot
BMW’s GS rarely makes it onto lists of "most beautiful bikes" but it has a unique and purposeful look. Plus, imitation and flattery and all that. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Still, some things are the same. The boxer twin remains, now a 1,254 cc mill with a variable-valve system, water cooling, a wet, multi-plate clutch, and LED lighting. There’s still a driveshaft, too. The last unique piece is BMW’s Telelever front suspension, bracing the fork with an A-arm which, among other things, eliminates dive under braking and puts a single shock in place of typical fork springs and damping circuits.

Despite being new to the game, Harley-Davidson’s new Pan America 1250 goes toe to toe with the R 1250 GS when it comes to specs. There are heated grips, cruise control, electronically adjustable and dynamic suspension, tubeless wire-spoke wheels, a big TFT display, variable valve timing, two seat heights, and an adjustable windshield. Just to name a few. But, what’s most significant about the Pan America isn’t all of the whiz-bangs and do-dads that it can boast on a spec sheet, it’s the intent behind the machine. Anti-lock brakes and cruise control aren’t new to Harley. Being able to ride down a dirt road without feeling like a rudderless container ship, that’s where the magic lies.

Harley-Davidson's 2021 Pan America adventure bike parked in an industrial lot
Maybe you don’t think the Pan America looks good. We appreciate that it isn’t trying to look like any other ADV. Note the cornering-light bar just below the windshield, and the extremely sturdy bars protecting the radiator. Photo by Spenser Robert.

To get to the bottom of it all we equipped each bike with a set of Michelin Anakee Wild tires and then explored dirt roads, commuted through Los Angeles traffic, galloped along miles of highway, and smashed through shrubs on overgrown single-track trails. Through all of the measurements, questions e-mailed back and forth with the companies, calculating fuel mileage, and generally arguing about how the bikes stacked up, here’s what we learned.

Which engine is better?

Harley’s new, 1,252 cc Revolution Max engine feels like a big deal, even if it’s not Milwaukee’s first 60-degree, fully liquid-cooled powerplant that revs to about 10,000 rpm. It’s largely par for the course in modern motorcycling — compact, relatively light, with 150 horses and 90 foot-pounds of torque said to be on tap. The best tricks are in the RevMax’s valvetrain, which can advance or retard the cam timing on both intake and exhaust sides, plus it never needs valve clearance checks due to hydraulic lifters.

BMW R 1250 GS being ridden on a dirt trail
Some people say it’s crazy to take a $20,000 bike into a ravine or anywhere else it can get scratched. We say ADV bikes look better with some adventure patina. RevZilla photo.

That’s something BMW’s 1,254 cc flat twin can’t say. R 1250 GS owners will be scheduled to check their variable valves every 12,000 miles. And the German valves aren’t even as variable, using technology that shifts the cam along its axis as the engine gains rpm to apply a different set of lobes to the top of the valves and therefore more beneficial timing for higher revs. And then it was named, appropriately, Shift-Cam.

In practice, the characteristics of the engines might just be the opposite of what you’re expecting. Harley’s new engine is stout and offers good grunt, but it can’t match the GS’s 105 claimed foot-pounds of torque. BMW’s 1250 mill is ultra tractable at low rpm, less likely to stall at low speed than the previous R 1200, spins up quicker than anything aside from a KTM twin, and offers a bidirectional quickshifter. As an experiment we did a roll-on test at 60 mph, both bikes in top gear and spinning almost exactly 3,500 rpm: The 1250 GS walked away like the Pan America was towing a trailer.

Harley Pan America riding on a dirt road
The PanAm’s riding position for riders above six feet tall is pretty agreeable, though the legroom gets cramped if the seat isn’t in the high position (shown here). RevZilla photo.

For accuracy, and maybe because holding a bike wide open is fun, we then reran the test in fourth gear to exercise the top of the rev range with both engines. It was a dead heat. That's despite the R 1250 GS claiming 136 horsepower, 15 down on the PanAm’s Milwaukee mill. This new Harley powerplant is capable and smooth and by all accounts very good, we just can’t help but be impressed with the GS engine. BMW has never really beat its chest over maximum output of the boxer twin, and yet it consistently holds its own against bikes that claim more power.

The biggest surprise is the general feel and sound of each bike. This is Milwaukee’s department, literally, as Harley has whole teams dedicated to acoustics. Somehow the BMW is better. It’s got a sharper snarl from the pipe and a more direct feel in the power delivery. Harley’s engine is a great piece of engineering, but it almost feels too subdued and controlled, considering its roots and the people responsible.

Which chassis is better?

Harley-Davidson chose conventional architecture for the Pan America, and the result is a pretty conventional feel from the bike. The PanAm carves calmly through corners, feeling like a sport-tourer that has been around for generations. It’s pretty good off the beaten path, too, with an impressive steering sweep and as much predictability as you can hope for in a “dirt” bike that weighs 586 pounds. Even if the overall feel of the suspension isn’t as supple or deluxe as the BMW, the PanAm is at least on par with the other machines in the category.

The GS’s oddball front end has some perks, like not diving forward under braking, which in turn offers more of the suspension travel to the front wheel for bumps. It could be the decades of evolution that has done it, or maybe the control offered by the Telelever front end, but nothing handles quite like a big GS. The bike is light to the touch and much more agile than a 565-pound machine has any right to be. That’s not to say it’s perfect. The Telelever also robs a little bit of feel on the edge of the tire if you’re really putting the sport in sport-touring, we’ve found. Overall, though, it’s a special piece of engineering that is extremely satisfying to use.

BMW R 1250 GS TFT display detail
There’s a factory option for the Garmin GPS on the GS (about $900), which is good if not familiar. Many companies have learned that a TFT dash means that redline can be adjusted when the engine is cold, as seen here. Photo by Spenser Robert.

One interesting battle within this war are the two different approaches to electronic suspension. BMW’s tried-and-true Dynamic ESA first allows the rider to choose between two damping maps (Road for a plush ride, Dynamic for a sportier feel) and then three spring-preload settings. Minimum pulls as much preload out as possible, Maximum goes the opposite direction, and Auto reads the sag of the bike and self-levels. It’s relatively simple, and it works well. Minimum preload and Road damping? You’re riding an ‘80s Cadillac. Bump it up to Max preload with Dynamic damping and just like that the seat rises almost an inch and the suspenders feel pretty uncompromising.

The Motor Company included electronically controlled damping (linked to ride modes) but also took a different tack with spring preload, because somewhere in a dark room in Wisconsin there was another sneak attack on the ADV world brewing: Adaptive Ride Height. Harley wanted the PanAm to be able to squat every time it came to a stop, therefore reducing the undignified peg-leg hop that some of us resort to when faced with a tall seat height. However, it didn’t want (understandably) to use electric motors to adjust spring preload, as BMW and other brands do, because they wouldn’t be able to move quickly enough and the service life would be insanely short.

Harley-Davidson Pan America TFT display detail
The Pan America’s TFT is bright and clear (don’t mind the screen-door effect from the camera), but why in blue heck is the peripheral information displayed in that size? Photo by Spenser Robert.

Instead, as the Pan America’s suspension moves, oil is pumped into reservoirs above the springs in the fork and shock, increasing preload to achieve a 30 percent sag figure. Then, as the bike comes to a stop (or after it stops, depending on which suspension setting is selected), valves open and release the oil out of the reservoirs and the springs resort to minimum preload. And the bike squats. All of this is to say, if your buddy with a PanAm keeps talking about their suspension “pumping up” like a pair of Reeboks from the ‘90s, they’re not crazy. That’s what it’s doing.

It’s nifty technology, and it stands alone in the world of motorcycling, above the mighty GS in some ways. There are a couple of downsides to Harley’s system, though, one being that it’s not always clear where the suspension stands. If you’ve just left a stop and have been riding for X amount of time, how much preload has the bike added? As far as we can tell it depends on how many bumps you’ve hit, how heavy you are, and so on. The other big drawback is that it’s harder to set in an instant. If you’re trundling down a trail with ARH engaged and come to a stop as you see a gnarly river crossing or rock garden, the suspension will release and there’s no way to pump it up aside from bouncing on the bike for an undetermined amount of time. Luckily, it can be locked out, so that it never drops, and a few settings in between.

Which one has the better features?

On the topic of the GS suspension that reacts to changing conditions 100 times every second, or the PanAm’s Adaptive Ride Height, we can’t compare these two bikes without talking about the amenities that each one brings to the ride. Modern motorcycling is a constant battle of available features, but at the upper end of the price scale most bikes have most of the stuff. What’s actually important is how it all works.

BMW R 1250 GS left-side switches on the handlebar
The GS’s switchgear is excellent. A tidy button layout means it’s easier to learn, and the click-wheel can be toggled between the dash or the optional GPS. Photo by Spenser Robert.

The GS’s adjustable windshield is better, for example — twist it one way to go up, the other way to go down, and stop whenever it feels right. Harley is relatively new to the idea of a manually adjustable windshield that the market will demand to use while riding (not that you’re supposed to), and it shows. It’s not as easy to use and, depending on where it’s set, the hand guard on the left handlebar hits the windshield at full steering lock.

Little stuff like that is this test in a microcosm. Both bikes have cruise control but BMW’s system is tidy and quick to use, whereas Harley chose to use more buttons than it needed to, and when you press the rocker switch to change speed there’s no tactile feel. Suppose you strap cargo across the rear rack and passenger seat, and then part way through your trip you want to adjust the rider’s seat from high to low or vice versa. On the GS, turn the key in the seat release counter clockwise to pop the front saddle off, or clockwise for the pillion. Over on the Pan America, take off the luggage, then remove the passenger seat, which releases the rider’s seat, then make your adjustment.

BMW R 1250 GS rear suspension and fenders
At some point over the years, BMW discovered that covering the rear shock with a fender and a protective flap (seen here) will keep the shock cleaner and healthier. Harley-Davidson hasn’t learned this yet, but it probably will. Photo by Spenser Robert.

It’s not all bad news for the Harley in the features department, however. The cornering lights mounted above the headlight are a helpful addition, and then there’s the quick-flip rear brake pedal so that PanAm riders can raise or lower the contact point without tools. Our GS test bike, despite being the full-zoot model dripping with all of BMW’s many option packages, had a simple little stamped-steel lever that looks cheap in comparison.

Also, both machines have huge, full-color TFT displays in the cockpit and Harley executed some of the user experience better. Navigation is easy, and there’s an ever-present guide that sits off to the side politely explaining how to get where you want to go. On the other hand, BMW’s menus use lots of diagrams or numbers with lines that point to other items, and the only way to know how to use it is if you’ve done it before. Care to reset Trip 1 on the R 1250 GS? That’ll be four layers deep in the menu and no fewer than seven button presses to reset the trip and get back to the main screen. Seven.

Harley-Davidson Pan America handlebar buttons
Holy buttons, Batman! And we can’t even see the top of the PanAm’s left cluster, which is a hornet’s nest of its own. There’s a lot of redundancy and use of real estate that could be improved. Photos by Spenser Robert.

The only place where Harley really missed the mark with dash design is the main screen that’s showing when riding, and that’s unfortunate because that’s probably the most important part. There are lots of ways to configure the screen to see the data you’re interested in, but a lot of the peripheral data is shown in a ridiculously small font, and oddly surrounded by white space which it should be using. BMW’s dash looks premium, minimizes glare, and shows everything in large, bold, clean colors. 

Which one is better off-road?

For the most part we’ve been talking about these bikes like sport-touring rigs, and that’s because for the most part that’s what they’ll do. However, for the small percentage of masochists out there who want to know which one is better on single-track, we did that research as well. This is where it feels like BMW has the biggest advantage from decades of experience in trying to make a mammoth dual-sport motorcycle that actually works. Harley-Davidson built a big ADV in the same way Yamaha or KTM might have 10 years ago, albeit without any notable experience building dirt bikes. And the PanAm is nearly as good as a first-gen 1190 Adventure, maybe even better than a new Super Ténéré.

BMW R 1250 GS jumping along a dirt trail
The GS is 20 pounds lighter than the Pan America, despite using fairly complicated and heavy solutions for the drivetrain and front suspension. All reared up on its hind legs you can see that front shock behind the fork. RevZilla photo.

Even though total suspension travel is almost identical, the 1250 GS feels like it has at least an inch more. It’s plush in a way that the Harley can’t match, which is especially noticeable on washboard or sharp bumps — the GS handles the little stuff much better. When we pushed the bikes a little harder over little jumps and through deep ravines, the heft started to show. It’s a lot of mass getting slung around and eventually there’s a limit to how hard you can drive them into the earth. Both machines will smash along a rutted trail and carry the front wheel over nasty lumps in the road, the BMW just felt lighter on its feet and easier on our ankles and wrists.

Harley-Davidson wheelying over a rut on a dirt road
One of the last places you’d normally expect to see a Harley-Davidson would be miles from anywhere, wheelying up a rutted road. Times change. RevZilla photo.

The German electronics are great, too. Enduro Pro mode shuts off rear ABS, or you can kill ABS altogether if you want (on the fly, even), and traction control is easily adjustable, as well. Harley gets a tip of the cap here, though, because the PanAm’s off-road gizmos basically go stride for stride with the GS. Our only real complaint was that the modes aren’t as intuitive to use and you have to stop, like a sucker, to switch to Off-Road Plus. Most impressive of all, Harley’s off-road traction control is excellent. It lets the rear spin up and leaves a lot of control in the rider’s hands, but trims power delivery if the slides get truly dangerous. That’s something some other brands still haven’t figured out.

And the winner is...

It probably won’t come as a huge surprise that everyone involved with this test would take an R 1250 GS home instead of a Pan America. But, what caught us off guard is that it wasn’t for the reasons we were expecting. The bones of the PanAm seem strong. It's a true contender, with little slices of refinement that don’t quite stack up — significant in the overall use of the machine, but realistically pretty easy to remedy in version 1.2.

There are a lot of numbers on the spec sheets for these two bikes that are suspiciously close; suspension travel and engine size, for example. Price is another one that suggests Harley was taking aim squarely at the king of the class. Both bikes start around $18,000, but once you’ve dolled them up to touring rigs capable of clobbering a dirt road, you’ll have to part with about $22,000 to roll either of these into your garage. The thing is, even though the Pan America isn’t quite as good as the GS, the price feels fair. It feels like the going rate, more than a boosted price tag due to some reputation that doesn’t apply. (LiveWire, we’re looking at you.)

And that all brings us to the final point: BMW is on notice. Five or 10 years ago, a big GS was better than most of the competition in a way that seemed unassailable. We either notched it up to Bavarian black magic or a decades-long head start, and figured it would take the other companies a while to catch up. Well it’s been a while, and it’s happening. If BMW’s next iteration of the GS offers the same step forward as the R 1200 to the R 1250, there are going to be some other bikes extremely close to pushing it off the top of the mountain. Harley-Davidson’s Pan America included.

BMW R 1250 GS Harley-Davidson Pan America Special
Price (as tested) $21,900 $22,350
Engine 1,254 cc, liquid-cooled, four-valve, horizontally opposed twin 1,252 cc, liquid-cooled, four-valve, V-twin
Transmission,
final drive
Six-speed, shaft Six-speed, chain
Claimed horsepower 136 @ 7,750 rpm 150 @ 9,000 rpm
Claimed torque 105 foot-pounds @ 6,250 rpm 94 foot-pounds @ 6,750 rpm
Frame Steel-tube trellis Steel trellis, aluminum midsection
Front suspension 37 mm fork, Telelever arm with Sachs shock, adjustable for spring preload, electronically adjustable and dynamic compression and rebound damping; 7.5 inches of travel Showa 47 mm fork, adjustable/automatic spring preload, electronically adjustable and dynamic compression and rebound damping; 7.48 inches of travel
Rear suspension Sachs shock, electronically adjustable for spring preload, electronically adjustable and dynamic compression and rebound damping; 7.9 inches of travel Showa shock, adjustable/automatic spring preload, electronically adjustable and dynamic compression and rebound damping; 7.48 inches of travel
Front brake Hayes four-piston calipers, 305 mm discs with ABS Brembo four-piston calipers, 320 mm discs with ABS
Rear brake Brembo two-piston caliper, 276 mm disc with ABS Brembo single-piston caliper, 280 mm disc with ABS
Rake, trail 25.7 degrees, 4.0 inches 25 degrees, 6.2 inches
Wheelbase 59.6 inches 62.2 inches
Measured seat heights (unladen) 33.75 or 34.5 inches (minimum preload) 34.125 or 32.75 inches
Fuel capacity 5.2 gallons 5.6 gallons
Tires (as tested) Michelin Anakee Wild; 120/70 R19 front, 170/60 R17 rear Michelin Anakee Wild; 120/70 R19 front, 170/60 R17 rear
Measured weight 565 pounds 586 pounds
Available Now Now
Warranty 36 months or 36,000 miles 24 months
More info bmwmotorcycles.com harley-davidson.com