BMW got into motorcycles in the 1920s, and they've turned out more than a few legendary bikes since. Today their two-wheeled lineup is more diverse than ever; I've just had a chance to experience the spectrum on their stripped-down screamer and fully-fluffed luxury liner.
Every year following the New York Auto Show, BMW North America throws a day of motorcycling and fine dining for a select group of executives and journalists. What makes them so select? They're the only people on BMW's PR list with motorcycle licenses. At least, that's how I weaseled my invite.
BMW laid out a swath of motorcycles for evaluation; touring bikes, off-roaders, their ravenous S1000RR sport bike, and the brand-new S1000R; a slightly lighter performance vehicle with no body cladding and about thirty less horsepower than the "Double R."
Until fairly recently, the bread and butter of BMW's bike lineup had long been on and off-road touring bikes. With the exception of a few high-powered off-roaders, most of their motorcycles revolved around comfort over long trips. But in 2008, they stomped into the sportbike scene with steel-toed jackboots ready to go to war.
The S1000RR came out of nowhere and wasted no time devouring Japanese sport segment mainstays with insatiable ferocity. Belting 193 horsepower out of a 999cc inline four-cylinder engine, the Double R has a power-to-weight ratio of 2.34 pounds per horsepower with ABS. Everybody in the motorcycle community went nuts over it, and it's still racking up accolades.
Hell, it's got the juice to rage from stop-to-60 MPH in 2.6 seconds, if you can hang on hard enough.
I certainly can't, so I wasn't heartbroken when somebody had already grabbed the only Double R available for our test ride. I swung a leg over the Single R, which felt a little more manageable at 160 hp.
But CycleWorld did a nice job of explaining why the loss of 30 hp hardly takes the heart out of the Single R: "with its increased torque over most of the rpm range, the R has more usable power. And besides, as anyone who regularly rides a modern literbike well knows, actually experiencing a high-rpm 190-hp number, without doing jail time, is considerably risky."
As for the Single R's half-cladded, half-naked style, lead designer Evgeny Zhukov said "all of its form follows function, with a bit of techno in its shape just for the motorcycle's character."
The result is something of a modern take on the classic semi-stripped "cafe racer" style.
For a 999cc bike, it feels much smaller between your legs than you'd think. The controls and fuel tank feel higher than they do on Japanese performance motorcycles. While you sit in a GSX-R and almost lay over the gas tank to grab the handlebars with orangutang arms, the BMW comes to you.
The comfortable layout combined with advanced engine tuning make the S1000R very accessible. It's almost too easy to hoon; sneeze too hard and you're liable to get the front wheel off the ground (ask me how I know).
It's got more explosive acceleration than you'll know what to do with and the ballerina balance of an even smaller machine than it is. The absence of fairing makes for an involved (read: windy) experience, but the bike's so dialed in it's dangerously easy to get cocky on.
I was told that the engine's "full potential" is actually not unlocked on a bike as young as the one I rode. To protect it from being ruined by overzealous idiots early in life, the 999cc BMW bikes are power-limited until they go through their first service. Uncorked or not, the Single R had more than enough juice for the twisties of New Jersey.
Even though the S1000R is much more powerful than the ancient GSX-R 750 I ride regularly, I'd feel a lot safer putting a new rider on the modern Bimmer. It's surprisingly forgiving... once you get the hang of the throttle.
It's also relevant that my bike is a rickety, bent, heap of sketchiness while a new bike, you know, "works."
Frankly, it's hard for me to righteously review the S1000R having never ridden anything else that's really close. The newest thing I'd ridden prior was a 2006 BMW X-Challenge off-roader. And that threw me into the sand when a fried bearing caused a wheel to lock up.
But being of sound mind I can submit with sincerity that the S1000R carves corners up like a Thanksgiving turkey, acceleration is a riot, and braking is strong enough to stop you before you plow into most any animal.
The Wild Hogs crew I was rolling with rallied at some dumpy private hunting lodge that consumes 4,000 acres of New Jersey, where I had to endure filet mignon and skeet shooting with BMW and Alpina executives.
That's an Alpina engineer on a 12 gauge over-under, one of BMW's PR chiefs is taking the photo. Riding jackets turned out to be ssurprisingly appropriate attire.
On the way back home, I got to experience the other side of BMW Motorrad: the K1600 GTL. In short, it's the two-wheeled equivalent of a 7-Series and one of the largest motorcycles I'd ever seen.
The K has 160 horsepower as well, but here it's out of a super-smooth 1600cc inline six-cylinder engine. It also burps out 129 lb-ft of torque, over 70% of which comes on before 1,500 RPM. That's good, because the thing weighs as much as a beluga whale.
If you're still worried about getting it up a hill, BMW's included Hill Start Assist to the long list of the K's driver aids which also features ABS and traction control.
Having never ridden anything remotely like this, climbing onboard felt like mounting a horse. In spite of how hard I tried to act natural I ended up flailing more than a little as onlookers shook their heads and got ready to laugh.
Once seated, I realized the challenge had only begun. There were more controls on this thing that I had in my car. After several hours of riding, I still wasn't clicking through all the menus confidently.
There's so much machine in front of the rider there's basically as little wind as you want there to be. It's got satellite radio. It's got iDrive; which you control by moving a knob on the inner-side of the left hand grip. The windscreen is power adjustable. Seats and handgrips area heated for a supreme level of comfort I'd never known on two wheels.
After putting in so much distance on the naked-and-hungry S1000R, the halcyon mile-munching 1600 did feel like a car. And on a cold, cloudy day I dare say I appreciated it.
I mean, not enough to buy one. My biker buddies would beat me up if I did. But it really was a pleasure to stroll across backroads with no wind chill, smooth tunes on XM radio, and plenty of passing power on tap when I needed it.
You can't tell me sitting in a nice chair feeling just a touch of breeze while the world rolls past you doesn't have some appeal.
Cornering was a little dicy for someone who's used to low-slung sportbikes. The 1600 didn't like taking aggressive turns one bit, and fought hard to stay upright at speed when I tried to drop a knee.
I also got pretty distracted fiddling with all the K1600's gadgets. It has so many toys to play with! It's not hard for me to imagine somebody wrapping themselves around a tree trying to scroll around for Siriusly Sinatra on the XM radio or some nonsense.
Behind the handlebars of this thing is pretty much purist hell. There are more bells and blinking lights here than at Chuck E. Cheese. If you shudder at the thought of a motorcyclized BMW iDrive you should stay far, far away.
But accept the cruiser for what it is, and it rewards you with a surprisingly satisfying travel experience.
Images: Andrew Collins, and the good pictures are obviously from BMW. The author was not the badass doing the wheelies and hauling on an airstrip.