Road Test Review
What have we here? A middleweight version of the venerable R 1200 GS? A lighter, more manageable iteration of the long-way-around traveler?
Well, not quite….
At 521 pounds gassed up and ready to ride, the all-new 2009 BMW F 800 GS is only 20 pounds lighter than the 2008 R 1200 GS we tested last year. But those figures aren’t directly comparable. The F 800 GS you see here was tested with side cases (26 pounds), plus brackets for those cases and an optional centerstand that probably add another 10-15 pounds. But the 1200 had an Electronic Suspension Adjustment package that added weight via a hydraulic pump, associated hoses and such. Suffice it to say, the F 800 GS isn’t much lighter than its R 1200 GS brethren. And, in terms of dimensions, the 800 is actually larger, with a 62.1-inch wheelbase and 34.6-inch seat height versus the more compact 59.3-inch wheelbase and 34.3-inch seat height of the 1200.
Rather, the F 800 GS is a cheaper, less powerful alternative to the R 1200 GS. The 800’s base price is $10,520 vs. $14,600 for the 1200. Four large will subsidize a lot of Gelande/Strasse (off-/onroad) miles. Got a dream to ride the AlCan Highway that’s burning a hole in your bank account? Screw the uncertainty of the stock market; go where value is golden: on two wheels.
Borrowing the liquid-cooled, 798cc, DOHC, fuel-injected, four-valve, parallel-twin engine from its F 800 S model line, for GS spec BMW changed the cylinder angle, replaced the lower engine cases and clutch cover, added a wet clutch and converted it to chain final drive. The six-speed engine’s power curve was also altered to boost torque, and a larger radiator was added. The reconfigured powerplant puts out a claimed 85 horsepower at 7,500 rpm and 62 lb-ft of torque at 5,750 rpm. On the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno, the rear-wheel output was 77 horsepower and 53 lb-ft. Comparable figures on the 2008 R 1200 GS were 96 horsepower and 73 lb-ft of torque.
BMW hosted the U.S. press launch for the F 800 GS near Moab, Utah, world-famous for its slickrock trails and proximity to Arches National Park. BMW clearly wanted to emphasize the Gelande half of the equation: Every bike was shod with non-OEM Continental knobbies, as well as optional ABS, a centerstand, heated grips and a trip computer. Although our test unit was equipped with the standard 34.6-inch seat, a low seat option (33.5 inches) is available.
We had barely gotten a feel for the Wee GS on the pavement when the route turned to dirt through remote areas of eastern Utah. Less than a half mile off the blacktop, the GS’s quick-revving, powerful, responsive engine beckoned, “Get some!” Harmonizing with the motor, the balanced suspension obeyed commands and absorbed insults like a well-trained athlete.
The bike’s new engine, for which BMW recommends premium fuel, is nested within a tubular-steel frame. With about 9 inches of travel at both ends, a single rear shock with rebound damping and remote preload adjustability and a nonadjustable 45mm male-slider fork protect the bike and rider from all those real-world bumps that get glossed over in our round-the-world dreams. And when it comes time to stop and smell the roses, you can rely on those Brembo-made twin four-piston front calipers and single two-piston rear caliper. Spoked wheels with tube-type Bridgestone Battle Wing street tires measure 17 inches in the rear and a true off-road worthy 21 inches up front.
The seating position is straight up, with a wide, adjustable off-road handlebar. With plenty of legroom, the ergonomics are comfortably neutral. The firm, nonslip seat is padded where you need it when transferring weight over the front wheel. But when nature calls, stand-up riding is easy for such a large bike, thanks in part to the under-the-seat 4.2-gallon fuel tank that lowers the center of gravity. Approaching a rise less than a mile into the dirt, I stood up and wheelied. With snappy power and a responsive chassis, why not have some fun? While we’re at it, let’s go ahead and power slide through corners on flat, slippery roads. And then rail on smooth dirt roads at speed and confidently slow the 521-pound bike and stuff it into the next corner. In the dirt (with knobbies) the binders had excellent feel, feedback and stopping power. And when nasty, rock-strewn roads demand slow patience, the GS delivers intuitive steering and throttle control. The GS platform has long been hailed as having exceptional balance between off- and on-road capabilities, and this new F 800 carries on the family tradition with pride and prowess.
All of this hard off-road braking was, of course, with the ABS turned off, which is easy to do with the bike stopped. Hold the ABS button and the system will quickly turn off and display a red light on the dash.
After hours of riding dirt roads through the backcountry of Utah and Colorado, the unavoidable conclusion is that the new F 800 GS is just plain fun and easy to ride. That git-er-done engine, with its spirited exhaust snarl, is like everybody’s favorite, diehard DJ who keeps the party going (more cowbell!).
But all parties eventually end. When the scenic, exploratory dual-sport ride was over, it was time to fly home to Southern California…or not. I mean, we’re here to ride, right? In true Rider fashion, I cranked the knob to 11 and took the long way home. It just seemed like the right last-minute decision to make aboard the F 800 GS. A left turn somewhere in Utah put me on a heading toward the mountains of Colorado-the opposite direction of home (smile).
Along the way I had picked up the optional BMW ($1,100) expandable hard saddlebags which feature a simple, secure mounting system. With BMW’s cavernous tankbag, I had more than enough room to tote gear as far as my dreams would carry me.
Now on the Strasse (street), I was impressed with how capably the GS handled with knobbies. Engine vibration kicks in above midrange engine speeds and escalates considerably to redline. Crank the throttle and the buzziness can be felt in the seat and grips, but ride normally in the midrange and it’s smooth for a twin.
Without adjustment, the suspension that felt so good in the dirt stays balanced and smooth on the street. The spunky power delivery I enjoyed in the dirt was just as good for street use, too. Use it to break the rear end loose in the dirt or launch the bumblebee yellow-and-black machine out of tight paved corners. With intuitive, long-lost-friend steering, the GS goes right where you point it, easily alters its line midcorner and doesn’t even hint at standing up under braking in corners.
On the street, the brakes were somewhat less impressive than in the dirt. The rear is quite effective and strong right up to the point where it feels as if the ABS kicks in a little too early. And the front lacks initial bite-there’s power there but you’ll need at least two fingers on the brake lever to find it.
It was 95 degrees as I headed over blue highways toward Telluride, Colorado. At slower speeds, heat radiating from the engine was noticeable. The GS’s gauge package is complete and compact as it should be, but the displays are small and often hard to read (except for the HUGE gear-position indicator). With normal riding the fuel light came on at about 195 miles, and I could ride to about 225 miles safely. Average fuel consumption on the highway was 57 mpg, but dropped to 53 mpg if I rode harder.
I arrived in beautiful Telluride at dusk, and the ride through the golden aspen trees at the height of autumn was sublime. My GPS showed the shortest route to my destination was straight through the mountains (more smiles). The pavement only lasted a mile or so before it turned into a fast dirt road. In another mile the track became a rocky, first-gear Jeep trail which lasted the next few hours. I trudged along slowly here, as I had learned the GS’s oil filter and cooler down on the lower front portion of the engine are vulnerable to rocks thrown up from the front tire-a full skid pan is needed here. This was just the beginning of my adventure, suitable for a story of its own. Not wanting my journey to end, day turned to night, elevations increased up to 11,000 feet, the mercury dropped below freezing, I almost ran out of gas, great care was exercised to avoid deer and elk, and then I finally motored into Durango, Colorado, at 2 a.m.
There is a hardboiled travel maxim that says it isn’t an adventure until something goes wrong. Well, I’m happy to report that nothing did, but my mettle was tested in a way that sure felt adventuresome. I learned that the F 800 GS is a fantastic bike for exploration. Slow-speed engine torque and a well-sorted chassis get you through nasty off-road conditions; the seat has a slight angle to it that-along with its nonslip seat cover-is comfortable for quite a while; the headlight is excellent; and the trip computer keeps you entertained in the middle of the night. I wish the bike came with hand guards, but thank goodness for BMW’s great heated grips.
When I finally arrived home I had ridden through 40-60-mph winds for hours. I was surprised at how the 800 pulled through this gale with its strong torque delivery. The small fixed windscreen blocks the direct blast to the rider’s chest, but little else.
Upon my return we fit the bike with its stock street tires. Surprisingly the GS seemed very much the same as it had been with knobbies. The ride was a little softer feeling in a straight line and cornering was slightly less neutral, as a bit more bar leverage is needed with the stock street tires. The big difference is how much harder you can push the bike into corners, on the edge, with far more confidence. The other change is that like all bikes of this type, the GS loses the majority of its off-road capability wearing the street rubber.
In 3,000 miles of riding the F 800 GS nothing broke, came loose or rattled off. Heck, the mirrors didn’t even loosen over hundreds of off-road miles. My conclusion is the F 800 GS has written a very important chapter in the adventure bike rulebook. The bike is easily capable of delivering the smooth cross-country travel you’d expect from a BMW, with the added value of good fuel economy and a lower price point than the R 1200 GS. With the high-quality accessory bags the F 800 GS maintains steady composure when fully loaded-even when off-road!
Go on, live the dream. I did.