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BMW R1200GS Motorcycle Review – Changing the Master

When an unexpected high-country blizzard in California’s Yosemite National Park threatens to ground BMW’s introduction of its 2010 R1200GS, Bertrand Gahel decides there’s only one thing left to do — enjoy the adventure!

The 2010 R1200GS does have a new motor, true, and an HP2 Sport-derived one at that, which means it gets a few additional horses and better torque. But other than that, the bike is pretty much unchanged from last year’s version. Because this kind of evolution isn’t really headline material, models in similar situations usually get very limited, “upgrade type” press. BMW, however, had a much more ambitious marketing plan for its “new” GS. The manufacturer dialed things up a notch by inviting no less than 40 journalists to a fancy mile-high resort in California’s Sierra National Forest California, for an on- and off-road ride that would include a spin through majestic Yosemite National Park. Man, what a ride that turned into.

THE BIGGEST NEWS REGARDING the 2010 R1200GS is a new Boxer Twin borrowed from the expensive and sporty HP2 Sport. Instead of leaving it as is, which would have resulted in a 133-horsepower GS boasting 85 ft/lbs. torque, BMW recalibrated the engine’s output to match the adventure model’s character and mission. It wasn’t just detuned, it was appropriately retuned. The 2010 1200GS is rated at 110 hp at 7,500 rpm and 88 ft/lbs. torque at 6,000 rpm—up from 105 hp at 7,500 rpm and 85 ft/lbs. at 5,750 rpm. It now has double overhead cams and bigger valves with a new 8,500 rpm redline, up 500 rpm. Revised gearing takes advantage of the improvements in power to maximize acceleration, and a new electronically controlled exhaust flap generates a deeper exhaust note.

Also new for 2010 is the availability of automatic stability control, which is basically an anti-spin control, and enduro electronic suspension adjustment, a specially adapted version of BMW’s practical push-button suspension adjustment system. As always, an Adventure version with a massive 33-litre tank is available. It offers an additional 20mm of suspension travel at both ends and weighs-in fully fueled at a significant 564 lbs. (256 kg), 60 lbs. more than the standard GS.

EVERY TIME I GET BACK ON A 1200GS, I’m instantly reminded of how damn good the bike is. If there was ever a motorcycle that unconditionally deserves all the praise it receives, this has to be it.Temperatures weren’t very much above the freezing point when we left our hotel, and while conditions were dry, the fog seemed so dense you felt like you were inside a cloud, which, given the altitude we were at, just might have been the case. Knowing how brilliantly balanced the big GS is, I was surprised to initially find my standard model’s steering somewhat awkward, until I realized the feeling came from the street-legal knobbies BMW had installed on every unit. With good reason too. A large portion of our morning ride brought us pretty deep off-road as we actually manouevered straight over a mountain using only trails. With some sections slippery with mud, others uphill and rocky, the deep-lug tires were more than welcome.Another amazing aspect of the big GS is how well it copes with rugged terrain, where it behaves much, much better than seems logical for a motorcycle with such impeccable manners on the street.

The 1200GS’s capacity to instantly and imperceptibly transform from touring to off-road mode is just plain puzzling. No other motorcycle on the planet, adventure or not, offers that quality. And make no mistake about it, the GS may very well be bulky for an off-roader, but give its dimensions the respect they demand, and it will go anywhere and over anything.

Ironically, and no matter what BMW’s marketing department says, the standard GS is simply a better machine in that environment than the Adventure, which is a monster. So tall it makes six-footers tiptoe at all times and so heavy it makes the standard 1200GS feel skinny, it’s almost, dare I say it, a poseur model. Now, I do personally know some guys who do use the extra ground clearance and go so deep into No Man’s Land that they do use the extra range, but I also call them extraterrestrials, which might give you some sense of how unique they are among Adventure buyers.

WHILE WE FINALLY ENDED UP riding through fair weather in the morning, the skies just opened up as soon as we reached our lunch stop. The rain was so heavy that by mid-afternoon, I was completely drenched. Rain gear can apparently only do so much. But there was another funny thing going on. As the hours went by and as we picked up altitude approaching Yosemite National Park, degrees dropped.
My celsius-calibrated brain didn’t immediately understand why the temperature indicator on the GS instrumentation started flashing at 34F, until it remembered that 32 is the freezing point on the Fahrenheit scale. The GS was actually warning its rider that there was danger of ice if conditions were wet. And wet, they were. Without warning the “atmosphere” essentially became all white with big puffy flakes, and it didn’t take very long at all after that for wet snow to begin building up on the ground. Hey, if the guy in front isn’t falling, I should be fine too, right?

The decision was made to cut the Yosemite visit short and go straight for the hotel, which should have been about an hour away at that point. That is if some trooper, who refused to hear anything we had to say, hadn’t completely blocked the road because some car slipped and hit a truck or something. That situation forced us to go around the mountain, making for an additional three-hour detour. Thanks officer.
The good news was, as we went down in altitude, snow turned to rain again. The bad news was it was still pouring, and we were totally drenched and frozen by that point. The following hours were some of the most miserable I’ve ever experienced on a bike but, I have to admit, also some of the most memorable.

Our group, which was pretty well behaved up to that point, suddenly started to split up. Some guys just no longer ride in those conditions.
Others, of whom I never heard again, opted for a “shortcut” riding trails through another mountain. I just took the long way, along with a half-dozen other journalists and a BMW staffer in the lead. Hours went by slowly and painfully. Thank God—really—for those heated grips … but why in the world isn’t there even an option for a heated seat on these things?

As if this adventure wasn’t hairy enough, it turned out the road was again blocked by troopers about 10 miles from our hotel because of the accumulation of snow at that altitude. At that point, we just parked the bikes at a restaurant, ordered many, many coffees and hot chocolates and waited for the shuttle to pick us up. As hard as it was to believe, we realized we were among the first back. The large majority of the rest— Californians for sure—had apparently spent this whole time in some bar waiting for a three-hour bus ride back to the hotel …

A few important conclusions can be drawn from this saga. The first is that the new engine does improve the already excellent GS. It isn’t a rocket compared to the previous version, and that improvement alone probably isn’t big enough to consider upgrading an ‘09 for a 2010.
But the new bike does feel quite a bit healthier throughout the rev range, and it does sound better too, with a throatier and cleaner Boxer bark to it. The second is that the R1200GS is one hell of a competent motorcycle. As hard as I try, I can’t think of one single other model I would rather have been on for an adventure of this kind.

– Bertrand Gahel


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