With its new range of G650X machinery, BMW has engaged the dualsport market with a vengeance. The arrival of the X-bikes could be the start of something really special.
In terms of power, pizzazz and sheer technical prowess, BMW scored large this season with two new offerings for the dualsport rider: the elegant X-bikes of the G650X range, Xchallenge and Xcountry. An opportunity for me to sample the two enduros came in May, when I was invited by BMW Canada on a three-day ramble between the Okanagan city of Kelowna and Whistler, BC. Though the majority of seat time with the bikes was, for some puzzling reason, confined to the pavement, I was still able to absorb some understanding of why these machines are unique in the dualsport environment.
The Xchallenge is a machine that has the power to instigate discussions on design and function without even being ridden. Its direct competition in the market might be the XR650L but the Honda lacks the refinement, technology and horsepower of the BMW—so perhaps the new KLR650, which costs less, weighs more and has a fairing. It displays numerous innovative ideas for a dualsport: a frame that makes its engine a stressed member, a fuel tank that rides under the seat and a linkage-less rear suspension that uses an air bladder rear shock—a technology inspired by the heavy equipment industry. The fuel filler on the right-hand side is functional enough, but the cap holds fuel which tends to spill on your hands if you’re not careful popping the lid. However, the headlight is one of the best and the LED signals are bright.
The exhaust is large, stainless and houses a catalytic converter to reduce emissions output, and a fuel-injection system that provides spot-on fuel delivery at all elevations. The push-to-cancel signals and passing light trigger are un-BMW-like but they complement the dashboard’s multi-function button that switches between the usual array of concentration-breaking modes: clock, tachometer and trips.
The Xchallenge has no bar-end weights or rubber footpegs and seems to be marketed as a hardcore machine—though passenger pegs are an option, they are not included as standard. The force driving the bike is a twin cam 652cc single cylinder four-valve four-stroke with a balancer shaft to deal with the vibration usually associated with large displacement singles—some vibration is present but this is inevitable in a large displacement single cylinder and could be reduced through handguard and bar combinations.
The powerplant is well buried beneath bodywork with only the cylinder peeking through; the bike’s designers then placed the voltage regulator and rear brake reservoir on its side, perhaps in attempt to conceal it even further.
On start-up the big single delivers a high initial idle before settling. The clutch action is an easy pull and moderate throw while the smooth-shifting gearbox has a quality feel that even allows untroubled clutchless changes and forgiving gear selections since the engine’s massive 44 ft/lbs. torque pulls it through any chance of stalling.
Revving the beast produces adequate boost, but the tall gearing makes it hard for the power to erupt. Consequently the Xchallenge builds its power with a slow steady delivery with enough steam to pull stand-up wheelies in third, but not enough grunt to carry a drooping front end in a power-wheelie. Top speed is fast though and while there may be a rev limiter, I never hit it. And when it comes time to halt progress, the pizza-sized rotor up front has enough stopping power to lift the back wheel off the ground and enough progression to heavy-brake on dirt surfaces without locking up.
It is quickly evident that this is a tall bike, the saddle is wide and firm, and the bulge style handlebars are high, and of course with no fuel tank between your knees the layout is flat and aggressive. This sense of being high-mounted is particularly emphasized when the tire and shock pressures are at maximum. Then, coming to a stop sometimes requires a slip-off the side of the seat to touch the ground. But, a small, slightly obscured level sits on a frame rail and a handpump under the seat allows adjustment of the bladder shock for various loads and conditions. I found that a lower than recommended pressure creates a more compliant rear suspension and helps lower the seat height slightly. Perhaps the lack of linkage contributes to the firm rear, but the machine found traction in difficult conditions and behaved nicely on the dirt.
The front forks are softer than the rear and deliver a quality ride on and off the pavement, spiking only a little on sharp-edged bumps. Just so long as you keep the bike’s speed in check the Xchallenge follows its line, not even against cantaloupe-sized rogue rocks will it stray. The handling requires mildly exaggerated footpeg and handlebar inputs, but practice delivers stellar, steady and entertaining results and, really, for this class of bike, its stability at speed is great.
Full of character, the Xchallenge is a pleasure to ride even long distances. However, for long-haul duty it will need a few additions such as a luggage rack or bigger fuel tank. But with any purposeful dualsport, some customizing, and compromise, is required.
THE XCOUNTRY IS MORE STREET BIASED THAN THE Xchallenge—BMW places the bike in its “urban” category along with the G650X Moto, the K1200R and the R1200R—but its list of features is no less impressive. The rear shock is conventional, meaning no air bladder, just oil and spring. The front wheel is two inches smaller and the bike comes standard with passenger pegs, bar-end weights and rubber inlays on the pegs. Its performance feels similar to the Xchallenge although gearing is up one on the countershaft, lowering the revs. The smaller front end and lower overall height makes the Xcountry feel almost motard-like, with stable but responsive geometry. It tends to bounce around off-road at anything more than an ultra-moderate pace—the result of soft springs and little dampening in the suspension. However, these same characteristics are well suited to the street. Overall, the Xcountry is a load of fun and easy to use with the same light clutch pull and happy, willing engine. The seating position would be more suited to a smaller pilot though as my six-foot frame felt a little cramped particularly with the stepped seat which prevents rearward movement.
Taken as a pair, it’s a pleasure to see lighter, more simplistic machines returning to the dualsport class where multi-cylinder, horsepower-heavy bikes that can hardly be taken off road have occupied the market’s attention for at least the past five years. This could be the dawning of a really interesting era for dualsport riders.
– John Fuller