2014 BMW R nineT

Road Test Review

It’s hard to imagine, but some riders are only interested in the practical side of a motorcycle—how much it cost, what it can carry and how much fuel it burns. Thank goodness the rest of us are first drawn to motorcycles by emotion—excitement, joy, love, nostalgia—perhaps even a little trepidation, like the go/no-go thrill of an amusement park ride. Every one of the bikes I own stirs something in me, sends a little tingle up my spine just looking at it. That’s the motion in emotion—the way we are moved by a certain kind of motorcycle, both in our soul and down the road.

Cruisers and cruiser customizing generate a lot of excitement these days; so does the potential of adventure bikes and all of the farkles you can bolt on them (if not the actual adventure).

Those two genres offer riders easy, off-the-shelf ways to personalize their bikes, furthering their uniqueness and emotional bond. If your tastes run to minimalist street tracker/scrambler/ café racer-type styling, however—let’s call it “custom roadster” for simplicity—it’s not quite as easy to achieve a custom look without fabricating skills or the hefty budget to pay artists like Roland Sands or Mule Motorcycles to ply their craft.

Custom roadsters often start with a used bike, and the first thing to get hacked off and tossed is the rear seat subframe, replaced with just a light café tail cover, or nothing at all, leaving an abbreviated solo seater. Gas tanks are often restyled or replaced, forks and brakes upgraded, custom wheels are fitted and handlebars raised, lowered or widened to suit the rider’s preference. Minimalism is key—less is more, austere is sexy.

This custom roadster trend is gaining ground, enough that BMW took notice and built one of its own to celebrate its 90th anniversary. It’s called the R nineT, in fact, and so far there’s nothing else on the market like this blend of classic and modern, which has an innovative modular design that allows for easy customization.

At first glance, the nineT appears to just be a heavily stylized R 1200 R. The air-cooled boxer engine is the same 1,170cc opposed flat twin, with DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder and fully sequential EFI with a pair of 50mm throttle bodies. On the Jett Tuning dyno the rorty twin made a healthy 99.5 horsepower at 7,800 rpm, and 72.7 lb-ft of torque at 6,500, the same horses and about 3 lb-ft less torque than our 2011 R 1200 R test bike. The torque drop may be attributable to the nineT’s 2-into-1 exhaust, which is identical except for the pair of freer-flowing mufflers with a rapping bark in place of the R’s muted single silencer. Nevertheless, the nineT makes more than 65 lb-ft from just 3,500 up to 8,000 rpm, so a healthy amount of urge is always on tap, especially since it’s only pushing 485 pounds wet vs. the R’s 510.

As with the R 1200 R, power is fed through a 6-speed transmission and BMW’s Paralever shaft, which has a slightly lower final drive ratio of 2.9:1 on the nineT vs. 2.75:1 on the R for quicker acceleration. The first hint of the custom possibilities for the nineT is on the Paralever, which is shared by several R models.

Instead of deleting the three mounting holes for the vestigial rear fender on the R 1200 GS and GSA adventure tourers, they remain on the nineT’s pumpkin as ready-made spots to bolt on a license plate and light when the rear fender is removed.

But that’s only the beginning. Like the R 1200 R, the nineT’s engine is the central stressed member in the tubular-steel frame, which has separate front, main and rear sections. As delivered, the bike comes with a two-piece dual seat, and the passenger pad can be replaced with an optional café-style tail cover. To further that theme, the entire seat subframe/rear footpeg assembly can be unbolted and replaced with just a small optional support for the mufflers, giving the bike a classic café-racer look. Take the final step in minimalism by removing the passenger seat support, leaving just the rider’s seat. All of this is eased with electrical connectors in the appropriate places, but it’s left to the owner to figure out how to relocate the brake light and turn signals. The best part is that it can all be put back to stock easily.

BMW took further steps to ease customizing the nineT, like separating the CANbus engine management system from the chassis electrical to make replacing the lighting or instrument pod a snap, and there are already several custom accessories available for the bike from outfits like Roland Sands Design.

There’s room in back for a 6-inch-wide wheel in place of the stock 5.5-incher, and instead of Telelever front suspension, the nineT gets a male-slider (upside-down) telescopic fork from the S 1000 RR sportbike for a more traditional look, and to simplify front-end mods.

All of this modularity is pretty cool, but what really makes the nineT special are its beautifully unique components. The custom-shaped handlebar mount, fork trees and front brake mounts, seat gusset and rear spring-preload adjustment knob are forged aluminum, and they and the front fender mounts and tapered handlebar are all glass bead-blasted for a fine texture, then clear anodized. The magnesium valve covers and Paralever are finished in Granite Grey Metallic Matt, the stout fork is anodized in gold, and the Black Storm Metallic 4.8-gallon fuel tank is crafted of aluminum, with its sides left bare and brushed like the intake cover. Up front, a special historical denomination plate on the headstock calls out the nineT’s uniqueness among the BMW lineup.

This is a gorgeous bike that stops people in their tracks, with dozens of finely crafted little touches to catch the eye. It’s a pretty sweet ride, too, especially for a solo rider who just wants to make day rides, play in the canyons or commute in style.

The engine is smooth, docile and easy at low speeds, but can bring the heat on demand; the transmission shifts well and the exhaust makes a sonorous brap brap bark that is unique to this beauteous boxer. Wheelbase, rake and trail are all a little shorter than on the R 1200 R, and the handlebar is wider, so the nineT handles all kinds of curves quickly, smoothly and with little effort. Rear suspension preload is easily adjusted with a remote knob, both brake and clutch levers are adjustable, and there’s an electrical accessory socket under the left side of the fuel tank.

Of course, we’re talking about a custom roadster, not a touring bike, so you will need that strong emotional bond to the nineT’s form to see past its functional shortcomings. The tachometer and cluttered analog speedometer flank a digital display with gear position, clock, dual tripmeters and range, current and average mpg and speed indicators, but it lacks a fuel gauge, and our speedometer read 10 percent high. The seat is thin and quickly becomes uncomfortable, passenger space is very limited and there’s no storage whatsoever (and note that a magnetic tankbag won’t stick on the aluminum tank). While the suspension is nicely compliant over bumps and provides a comfortable ride, the too-soft fork dives heavily under braking, which BMW tried to minimize by giving the front brake lever a lot of annoying initial travel (though once the unlinked brakes engage they’re strong, and the two-channel ABS works very well). Those pretty black wheels with stainless-steel spokes require tubes, and there’s no centerstand, so a fl at can’t be easily dealt with at the roadside.

To someone in love with its looks and sound, all of those issues won’t mean a thing, and in fact dealers can’t get enough R nineTs. Accessory cool stuff for customizing it, like the brushed aluminum tail cover, knee pads and both low and high-mounted Akrapovič titanium single mufflers, as well as the usual touring accessories like heated grips and GPS, are flying off shelves. Several notable customizers have already played around with the
bike to great effect, too—you can find many of them online.

It would be fun to see more production roadsters like the nineT for riders who want to customize this type of new bike rather than a cruiser or ADV bike. Let’s cross our fingers that the R nineT is only the first.