2013 BMW R 1200 GS

First Ride Review

Redesigning a motorcycle that established and continues to define a robust market segment, one that has been a perennial bestseller, inspires fanatical devotion and is the culmination of a design philosophy that has endured for nearly a century, is a major undertaking. After setting new standards among sportbikes (with the S 1000 RR and HP4) and luxury/sport tourers (with the K 1600 GT/GTL), and posting record sales for the past two years in spite of a persistently sluggish global economy, for 2013 BMW has popped the cork on its 90th anniversary with a gift to the world: an all-new R 1200 GS.

To maintain a competitive edge, particularly in the face of new, aggressive foes, evolution is imperative. In recent years the Ducati Multistrada, Triumph Tiger Explorer and Yamaha Super Ténéré have come on strong in the adventure touring class, leaving BMW’s R 1200 GS vulnerable even though it has been updated twice since it debuted in 2004 and enjoys a cult-like following. To stay at the forefront of performance, technology and safety, and meet increasingly stringent emissions and noise regulations, nearly every part of the GS—engine, chassis, electronics, ergonomics and styling—has been redone, with exceptional results.

At the world launch for the new R 1200 GS in South Africa, we rode a fleet of kitted-out test bikes from the cool, green coast facing the Indian Ocean to the sweltering, parched desert near Baviaanskloof (Valley of the Baboons). The route included paved and gravel roads plus a special enduro section, giving us an opportunity to evaluate the GS in its natural habitat, a wide-ranging, diverse area that challenged the capabilities of both bike and rider. From the first effortless release of the clutch—now a wet, multiplate slipper design instead of the previous dry, single-plate setup—and big handful of the new electromotor-actuated throttle, the GS’s big evolutionary leap forward was immediately obvious.

Improved engine performance was a top priority for the new GS. At 1,170cc with a bore and stroke of 101.0 x 73.0mm, displacement and dimensions of the R 1200 boxer twin are unchanged, but nearly every other aspect of the engine has been revised. The most talked-about change since the new model was unveiled is the move from air/oil to air/liquid cooling, essential to reach targets for performance, fuel economy and emissions. Cooling is a big deal among BMW boxer devotees, a group that’s been as divided as red vs. blue states—in this case, Airheads vs. Oilheads—since oil cooling was introduced in 1994. Drawing upon a concept from Formula 1, “precision cooling” routes coolant only to the most thermally stressed parts of the engine—the cylinder heads and between the valves. Air cooling still does the heavy lifting—now 65 percent of total cooling compared to 78 percent previously—so the new dual radiators are compact and the boxer’s iconic cooling fins remain.

In addition to the new cooling arrangement, intake and exhaust flow has been changed from horizontal to vertical, allowing for identical-length intakes for both cylinders, better fuel injector positioning and separate intake and exhaust camshafts. A conventional valve arrangement with 1mm-larger valves replaces the previous radial valve setup, the throttle bodies are larger (52mm, up from 50) and compression has increased from 12.0:1 to 12.5:1. Overall, the engine is much more compact, featuring vertically separated cases with open deck construction, low-friction cylinder liners and a lighter, stiffer crankshaft. The win-win results of these changes, BMW says, are higher power and torque throughout the rev range and better fuel economy. Claimed output is 125 horsepower at 7,700 rpm and 92 lb-ft of torque at 6,500 rpm measured at the crank, sizable gains over the previous model (110 horsepower and 88 lb-ft). The added thrust was apparent in any gear, with smooth, linear power delivery. Vibration has been reduced thanks to a new, hollow counterbalancer shaft that houses the clutch shaft, and the redesigned exhaust system—with the silencer now on the right side—is quieter, neither of which sacrifices the boxer twin’s distinctive character.

Integrating the 6-speed transmission and clutch into the engine housing saved weight and space while also improving weight balance and torsional response. Transmission internals were revised for smoother shifting and gear ratios are slightly different. The new setup, including the smaller-diameter, eight-plate wet slipper clutch, worked like a charm, with crispness at the shift lever and much less effort at the adjustable clutch lever—one finger is all I needed to feather the clutch during tricky off-road riding.

Other design objectives for the new GS included enhanced touring and off-road capabilities, improved suspension compliance across a range of conditions, and increased safety. First introduced on the K 1600, BMW’s E-gas throttle-by-wire system works in conjunction with BMS-X electronic engine management to provide more precise throttle control, smoother engine operation and less twist grip angle. Throttle response on the R 1200 GS has always been spot-on, and this latest version of E-gas nails it, with barely a trace of artificial feel. E-gas opens a door to new-to-the-GS factory options such as cruise control, riding modes and semi-active Dynamic Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA), as well as an updated version of Automatic Stability Control (ASC, BMW-speak for traction control). The test bikes we rode were loaded with all of these options and more, and BMW projects that most buyers will want most if not all of them.

A button on the right grip toggles among the five riding modes—Road, Dynamic, Rain, Enduro and Enduro Pro—which can be changed on the fly. Each mode optimizes throttle response (full power is available in all modes, but how it is delivered varies) as well as ASC, ABS and Dynamic ESA settings for different riding conditions. Road is for riding on dry roads, Dynamic is for sport riding and Rain is for slippery conditions, and there are two off-road modes: Enduro, for mild terrain with street-biased tires, and Enduro Pro, which requires a special chip, for technical terrain with knobbies.

Though complex in design, the integrated electronics are easy to use, work well and can be personalized or overridden. Dynamic ESA can be adjusted, preload can be set (that’s the “semi-active” part, since the rider must specify load), and both ABS and ASC can be turned off. Dynamic ESA, a version of which was introduced on BMW’s HP4 superbike last year, uses electronic valves to automatically adjust front and rear damping in response to changes in wheel travel and speed, ABS activation and other parameters. We hammered the GS on a variety of roads, including several deeply dipped water crossings that fully compressed the suspension, and the ride never felt harsh, the bike never got out of sorts. Suspension should keep the chassis stable and the wheels in contact with the ground, and Dynamic ESA excels at both. Suspension travel is unchanged (7.5/7.9 inches), but ground clearance has increased by 0.3 inch.

Semi-integral ABS is now standard and offers an on-road setting (for Road/Dynamic/Rain modes) and two off-road settings (for Enduro and Enduro Pro, the latter of which severs front-to-rear linking and turns off ABS at the rear wheel), plus ABS can be turned off. New Brembo radial-mount, 4-piston front calipers squeeze 305mm discs as before, while the single, 2-piston caliper squeezes a larger 276mm rear disc. Braking strength and feel have always been good on the R 1200 GS, and the new model is even better. Speed can be scrubbed off incrementally or the bike can be hauled down to a stop abruptly, and although braking power has increased, it’s easy to modulate in loose conditions where finesse is essential.

Chassis refinements are many. The tubular-steel bridge frame is torsionally stiffer, has a more rigid steering head and swingarm pivot, and a bolted-on rather than welded-on subframe. In front the Telelever suspension has new geometry, a more rigid trailing arm and narrower, 37mm fork tubes (down from 41). Also, thanks to the more compact engine, the single-sided EVO Paralever swingarm is longer for better traction and redesigned to protect the rear shock. The swingarm has been moved from the right to the left side of the bike, a major change necessitated not by the logic of German engineering but by two rather simple reasons. First, with the swingarm on the left and the exhaust pipe on the right, riders are less likely to melt the pant leg of their textile suit on the hot exhaust when mounting, dismounting or pushing the bike. And two, the pipe and wheel look better on the right side when the bike is leaned over on the kickstand.

Half-inch wider wheels are shod with wider, lower-profile tires, providing a bigger contact patch and less tire flex. Cast wheels are standard, but bikes at the launch were equipped with optional cross-spoke wheels. All-new Metzeler Tourance EXP radials performed well on- and off-road. For the brief enduro test, we switched to bikes outfitted with the latest in ADV couture—new Metzeler Karoo 3 knobbies, engine guards, off-road pegs and a taller, one-piece Rallye seat, plus the Enduro Pro chip. With claimed weight (525 pounds) just a few pounds above the previous model and the inherent balance and low center of gravity of the boxer twin, the new GS upholds the model’s reputation for agile handling regardless of conditions.

Enduro riding is a big part of the R 1200 GS model’s do-it-all image, but most never leave the pavement and are more commonly used for general-purpose touring and riding on the street. BMW sought to enhance comfort for a wider range of riders by slimming down the center of the bike, with a reshaped tank (fuel capacity is unchanged at 5.3 gallons) and narrower seat that make it easier to grip the tank while seated or standing as well as reach the ground. As before, the rider’s seat is height adjustable, but tilt can now be changed and the passenger seat can be adjusted fore/aft. The handlebar is stiffer and adjustable, and the windscreen has been reshaped and now has a one-hand height adjustment knob. Overall, the entire ergonomics package is well-designed and makes a comfortable, versatile bike more so.

A major update to the GS wouldn’t be complete without new styling, which is now more angular and severe, like the glasses you’d expect to see perched on a German engineer’s nose. Pointed shrouds on both sides hide the new radiators. The standard headlight is more efficient, and optional LED daytime running lights and main headlight are available. There’s new switchgear with single-button turn signals, an optional Multi-Controller on the left grip with preparation for the accessory Navigator IV GPS, and a new instrument panel with standard onboard computer and customizable display. Of course, as with any BMW, numerous accessories are available.

Having ridden thousands of miles on R 1200 GS motorcycles in nearly a dozen countries—solo and two-up, loaded and not—I’ve developed a deep respect for the bike’s well-rounded abilities. No wonder it’s BMW’s top-seller and commands respect the world over. The new, more highly evolved R 1200 GS is better in nearly every way, and in those ways in which it isn’t BMW left well enough alone.