Road Test Review
Growing up I owned a series of Honda “thumpers”-single-cylinder four-stroke bikes-starting with an XL250 basket-case I sort-of reassembled that ran for about two weeks, to a brand-new XL600 that was my only transportation for two years. It was just powerful enough for highway use, yet-thanks mostly to that single cylinder-light enough to tackle moderate offroad riding, and I loved kickstarting it. There’s something about the simplicity of an engine with one cylinder, one piston, one bang every other revolution that tickles my fancy. Of course the vibration a one-lunger creates usually tickles your feet, hands and arse, too, but it’s all part of the thumper experience.
Today my 1998 Kawasaki KLR650 mostly takes up garage space, but is happy to thump away anytime I need a dual-sport and there isn’t one in the Rider test bike fleet. I’d ride it more often, but the 36-inch seat height and my 29-inch inseam are only on speaking terms when a dirt road mediates, and even then the vibration from its fairly old design can be pretty tiring on longer rides.
That old XL600 had a pretty tall seat as well. So does the latest Honda XR650L and the 2008 Kawasaki KLR650. Heck, even the low seat option for the Suzuki DR650SE is 33 inches. In fact, a rider who wants a bike with a highway-sized engine that is also ready for a little adventure touring-rather than just cruising or sport riding-better have a pretty long inseam, or plenty of experience (probably from riding dirt bikes) dealing with a seat that is tall when he or she is not.
That is until BMW resurrected its 650 GS single. Now part of the BMW G series of single-cylinder bikes, the 2009 BMW G 650 GS pays homage to its popular F 650 GS single-cylinder predecessor with reasonable highway ability and a big seat, but also ample ground clearance, good suspension travel, spoked wheels, dual-sport tires and chain final drive, even a bash plate. The 2009 G 650G S also has the lowest seat height of any of the adventure touring-type bikes at 30.7 inches, and a $175 optional Low Suspension kit drops it to just 29.5 inches (but also shortens travel front and rear). With my weight on even the standard-height saddle I can put both feel flat on the ground at stops, and its 442-pound wet weight is easily managed at low speeds and in the dirt.
OK, I’ve got your attention, but you’re looking at the BMW roundel on the tank and are scared to read the price. Open your eyes, it’s not so bad-$7,670. A bit more than the competition, true, but for the extra dough you get standard anti-lock brakes, heated grips, a remote rear spring preload adjuster and a luggage rack. Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS? About $320 more, 1.6 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. Kawasaki KLR650? About $2,100 less, 4.3 inches taller and about the same weight-but no available ABS or remote spring adjuster. I could go on. The G 650 GS is basically unique-a low-cost, low-seat, entry-level BMW that is capable of being ridden around the world.
A global view, in fact, is why BMW was able to offer such a machine at this price (though it’s only available in the USA, Latin America and Greece-not Europe). Unlike its Austrian Rotax ancestor, the dry-sump engine is made in mainland China by Loncin, which also builds the wet sump G 650 Xcountry single as of 2009. Lest you worry about such a world approach to what is obviously BMW-supervised, mostly Rotax-designed engine construction, I advise you to closely examine many of the critical components of your Japanese- or American-made vehicle for Made in China stamps. Heck, I’d even wager this engine will prove more reliable and cheaper to maintain.
Power certainly isn’t an issue, for a single anyway. BMW claims it makes 53 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 44 lb-ft of torque at 5,250 at the crank (redline is 7,500), and we saw about 43 horsepower and 38 lb-ft at the rear wheel on the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno. We haven’t dynoed another single in ages, but know that’s a solid improvement in power and torque over most other dual-sport singles. Most of the credit goes to the liquid-cooling, higher compression and fuel injection, as beyond this and the dry sump (the oil tank and filler are in the gas tank’s usual location), the DOHC, four-valve, five-speed engine and transmission layout are pretty standard. Like the KLR there’s a counterbalancer to help quell vibration, and the G 650 GS manages less at most engine speeds and is really pretty smooth for a single. We also averaged more than 50 mpg for a range of better than 200 miles from the 4.0-gallon tank, though surprisingly, BMW says it requires premium fuel.
The fuel filler in the side of the tail section (which is kind of a pain with soft luggage mounted on the seat), electrical accessory outlet and swingarm-mounted rear fender are interesting BMW-isms you won’t find on other such bikes. BMW has left many of its traditional but expensive conventions off the G650GS, though, such as shaft final drive, a Telelever fork and Paralever swingarm. Most of this bike’s customers won’t miss such things, and others will do as BMW hopes and upgrade to a more fully featured BMW in the near future. One tradition I don’t miss at all on the G 650 GS is BMW’s three-button turn signal system, quietly left behind in favor of a good ol’ push-to-cancel switch by the left grip. Can I get a Hallelujah?! For all the complaining we did about the silly three buttons when first introduced, this simple but sensible change deserves some praise now, even if the switch is a little sticky and was added to lower cost.
Two-hundred-pounders like me will find the G-GS feels smallish when they swing a leg over, as the rider’s section of the standard seat is short fore-and-aft and I have to scoot back onto the hump in the middle to get enough legroom. I’d actually like to try the tall seat option. The handlebar is wide and grips are in a natural dual-sport position that offers plenty of leverage, and the small windscreen actually keeps a bit of wind off you at highway speed. Acceleration is hardly arm-straightening, but the engine makes ample torque for a solo rider to have plenty of fun with and overtake at speed with ease. My wife Genie and I regularly load up the KLR with aluminum cases, camping gear for a weekend and ourselves and hit the trail without wanting for more power (or weight), and it makes less than the GS.
Like most singles the G 650 GS feels a bit wrung out at freeway speed, and when you get there if at first you don’t try to upshift into a nonexistent sixth gear you’re probably holding up traffic. Stability is good and handling in the corners quick and effortless, though larger riders may wish for heavier-rate suspension springs, especially when carrying a load. The single brake discs haul it down from speed just fine and have good feel, and the standard ABS system on this bike is a few pounds lighter than its predecessor and has analog rather than on/off digital control to prevent pulsing at the pedal or lever. Now there’s just a mild clicking feel without any lock-and-release at the wheels, and it can be turned off for offroad riding.
In addition to plenty of miles on twisting canyon roads and about three hours nonstop on the freeway on the G 650 GS, I made a brief foray on some dirt fire roads with tire pressures dropped to 19 psi front and rear. Although a 19-inch front and 17-inch rear tire is not the best combination for offroad riding, if you slow down and treat the bike more like a jeep than a dirt bike it does just fine, and its longish suspension travel, good ground clearance and dirt-worthy fit and finish will even handle a bit of playful trail riding. Smaller riders will find offroad riding on the G 650 GS far easier than larger riders, but in either case the key is taking it slowly and letting a little air out of the tires, if not substituting DOT knobbies for the (good) compromise Metzeler Tourances.
Lots of accessories are available; I liked the locking Variable sidecases, which add 22 pounds and expand enough to hold a backpack or duffle (not a full-face helmet, though) and can be shrunk down to briefcase size to minimize the bike’s width. Our test bike also had the $150 optional centerstand, which it pops onto easily-kind of a must-have on an adventure bike with tube-type tires. The standard heated grips have two heat levels and work well, and there’s some storage in a small locking compartment in the luggage rack. Mirrors get a little fuzzy at highway speed but are still usable, and are clear at lower velocities. The clutch lever adjusts to three positions, and did I mention the push-to-cancel turn signal switch? Hallelujah!
BMW is often criticized for clinging too steadfastly to tradition, but to its credit has been loosening its grip in recent years, and there’s no better evidence than the G 650 GS. Not to be confused with the new $8,255 F 650 GS twin (which has the F800 engine, but that’s another story), BMW has lowered the seat height, looked to the Orient for cost savings and made a bunch of cool stuff standard on a bike priced under $8,000. If that’s not a positive departure I don’t know what is.