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BMW R1200S – A Wasp-Waisted Wonder (Review)

Bavarian exotica. Good things come to those who wait. There might hardly be more fitting words to describe the long-anticipated replacement of the R1100S because the all-new BMW R1200S, a bike that’s been no less than eight years in the making, is indeed very, very good.

Since its introduction in 1998, the R1100S has firmly held the title of Sportiest Beemer Ever and is a tough act to follow. It has, after all, been raised to near cult status over the years. Like Ducati’s lamented 916 and Suzuki’s wild Hayabusa, the R1100S is one of those very rare sportbikes that has managed to withstand the test of time. Heck, even when BMW gave every other R-series model an 1150/six-speed upgrade, nobody really complained when the S was untouched. 

These days, though, as the Munich-based manufacturer is hard at work shedding weight and boosting horsepower on basically all its models, many could hardly wait for a new S to show its asymmetric face. Having been a staunch fan of the S since its inception, I was most certainly among the impatient.

The new R1200S you’re looking at here simultaneously shares very little and very much with its predecessor—very little in terms of parts, but very much in terms of spirit. More than ever, the S is BMW’s sportiest two-wheeled offering. It’s perhaps not the fastest nor most powerful, but it is the purest in terms of handling and the most rewarding in terms of sport riding pleasure. Unlike the previous version, a Touring option package won’t be offered with the R1200S. As a matter of fact, the available options now aim at making the S even more track worthy as they consist of more adjustable shocks front and back—the latter from Öhlins—and a wider 6” rear wheel shod with 190-section rubber. You want touring, check out the rest of the lineup and leave this one alone, damn it!

SPEAKING OF TRACK WORTHINESS … IN A DEPARTURE FROM BMW’S standard operating procedure, part of the R1200S’s posh South African world launch was held on the small but fun Killarney Racing Circuit. BMW introductions almost never include track time as the environment essentially guarantees comparisons with much more focused competing products, something the Munich manufacturer would rather stay away from. But in this case, claims of vastly improved handling and the decidedly sporty nature of the new S made track riding almost an obligation. 

yellow bmw r1200s on the trackThere’s a bit of an irony to this track business and the R1200S. On one hand, BMW is pushing the sport side of the riding equation more than it ever has with the new S. BMW Canada will even field a factory two-rider team—including Canadian Biker Track Editor Oliver Jervis—in the 2006 Canadian Thunder series, a first for the company. On the other hand, without taking anything away from it, this fact remains: the R1200S is just not a racer-replica—basic measurements alone will tell you that.

Its weight is a claimed 430 lbs. (190 kg) in running trim, without fuel. This figure is some 29 lbs. (13 kg) less than the previous S. Pure sportbikes currently weigh about 375 lbs. (170 kg) and feature wheelbases much shorter than the R1200S’s 58.5” (1487mm—up 9mm from last year). 

The substantial weight loss came from basically everywhere, but the new engine, the lighter, all-aluminum Paralever rear suspension introduced on the R1200GS and the totally new frame are all key parts of the lower weight figure. 

Those familiar with the old S will be quick to notice the new model no longer uses a C-shaped frame, but instead relies on a new steel trellis frame to hold the rear suspension and sub-frame. The front wheel now rides between much stiffer 41mm tubes, up from 35mm. Mass centralization is considerably more focused than it was on the eight-year-old model. 

Interestingly, BMW’s very powerful but somewhat vague-feeling servo-assisted integral braking system was set aside, in favour of a more traditional triple disc setup. While ABS is still available, it can be deactivated with the push of a button for track use. Clearly, weight reduction and rider feedback came before anything else on this one. 

The net result is a motorcycle with tremendously improved handling. While the new S is quite simply not in the same league as dedicated sportbikes such as the GSX-Rs or ZX-Rs, it can definitely hold its own on a racetrack. Compared to the previous version’s high-effort steering and generally heavy nature, the new S is a delight. Steering is now surprisingly light, even while charging hard through a series of esses, and the bike stays wonderfully planted mid-corner. With a substantially more precise chassis it is now possible to trail-brake much harder and deeper into corners, and with more confidence. While you always felt as though you had to muscle the original S around a racetrack, as if it were fighting back at you for having brought it out of its natural habitat, the new S is a very willing player in the same circumstances.

The fact that the new R1200S is no racer-replica brought a funny twist to the track portion of the test. For once, I felt as though I could push a sportbike to its limits, and maybe even a little beyond. Quite the opposite of what usually happens on the latest and greatest Japanese machinery, which basically seems to have endless capabilities and no other limits than my own fear. 

On the S, it wasn’t long before I started dragging the pegs. The suspension initially felt quite supple so I tried to stiffen things up a little, something I rarely do. Each upshift under full acceleration had the bike twitch longitudinally as the torque reaction coming from the Boxer Twin went through the frame. Braking power, while plenty strong, had a limit that had to be respected if the corners were not to be overshot. Aggressive corner exits would result in the back tire slightly letting go, then grabbing again in a game of traction control. A fellow Canadian journalist who I’d had a very fun time chasing around Killarney told me I was actually leaving black marks leaving some corners. While it was evident I wasn’t riding something as precise and focused as an R6, it was also evident I was having one hell of a good time throwing the R1200S around the South African track. 

More Power for the R1200S Boxer Engine

BMW HAD TO GO TO GREAT LENGTHS TO EXTRACT 24 MORE HP from what was already a pretty healthy version of its venerable Boxer. With a claimed 122 horsepower, the R1200S’s powerplant is the most powerful production Boxer engine ever. Still air/oil-cooled, it is essentially a massaged version of the engine that powers the GS, the RT and the ST. Aside from a sixth speed and a noticeably less vibes thanks to a balance shaft—the S still vibrates more than any other R-Series model, however—what sets aside this particular version of the latest generation Boxer Twin is higher-compression, higher-flow and basically higher-spec heads. It performs impressively.

The new S will easily lift its front wheel in both first and second gear and literally race to and beyond the 8,500 rpm redline. It sounds a lot like the old bike, but with a freer revving growl and an added eagerness to climb in revs every time the throttle is pinned. While any current 600 Supersport will leave it for dead in a straight line, the way the R1200S makes its power is so logical and usable one tends to wonder why you’d ever need more, at least on the street. On the track, those 122 horses are enough to entertain even an experienced rider—maybe not enough to amaze him, but decidedly plenty to get his attention. 

Former R1100S owners, many of whom waited years for this new generation S to arrive, won’t be disappointed. If there is a somewhat negative point about the new motor, I’d have to say it has to do with low-rpm torque. It seems in the search for every single available pony up top, some torque had to be sacrificed down low. Not a dramatic amount, but a noticeable amount nonetheless. It’s not an unusual phenomenon with sportbikes and in this case it takes barely anything away from the riding fun. Especially considering the overall added oomph offered by the new engine. Typical BMW tranny noises and driveline lash round up what could be improved on the S, as far as the engine goes.  

Just by looking at the new R1200S, you get a sense that, somewhere in there, lies the spirit of the 1100, and that was precisely BMW’s styling goal. BMW’s head designer, David Robb, and his team could have given the new S the wildest, the mildest or the weirdest styling if they had chosen to, but the original model had its own aura from day one and it was an absolute must that the new version retain that aura. The asymmetrical headlight in front, the single-sided, shaft-driven Paralever suspension out back, the “floating” rear wheel, the distinctive under seat-mounted exhaust, the half-fairing and, of course, the totally exposed Boxer Twin all are unmistakable S features and they all unmistakably make the new bike an S at first glance. 

While it does look sportier and while it is sportier to ride than the original, the new R1200S is still a street bike before it’s a sportbike, which basically means it’s still extremely well behaved on the road, where it will obviously spend most of its time. The riding position is just about ideal for a motorcycle with a sporty nature but also a concern for comfort. You do carry some weight on your wrists, but it’s very tolerable. The pegs are high without being extremely so and the seat is one of the best you’ll find on any bike capable of seriously lapping a track.

As per BMW tradition, the aerodynamics are excellent, with decent protection from the front fairing and screen and zero buffeting; heated grips are standard. I was surprised how softly set the suspensions were on the Öhlins-equipped bikes we rode in Cape Town. While that doesn’t mean road imperfections went unnoticed, it did make for somewhat of a plush ride for a sports oriented bike. As long as things are kept on the road, handling is essentially unaffected by this plushness as stability remains impeccable at all times. Its behaviour in bends, long and fast or tight and slow, is solid, precise and confidence inspiring.

yellow bmw r1200s on the track knee down riderI liked a lot of things about the original S, from the unique styling to the torquey and super usable engine, from the unrockable stability to the character-rich nature of the Boxer Twin. No matter what I had been on previously, it was a bike I looked forward to riding again every time one was available. Discovering its replacement was at the same time exciting and somewhat frightening, as I was eager to find out what BMW came up with, but didn’t want to lose what I had grown to love so much about the original. 

They nailed it. The new S is everything the old is, only better. Styling, performance or handling, everything is better. It is a class act done very tastefully and one of those very rare motorcycles I like to consider classics from day one

by Bertrand Gahel Canadian Biker #223

Another Opinion of the R1200S

If riding an unfamiliar motorcycle on unfamiliar mountain roads engulfed by pea-soup fog doesn’t peg the anxiety meter, consider that South Africans drive on the left side of the road—just another potential life-threatening variable thrown into my cheery, early morning inaugural ride on BMW’s new R1200S. 

Eventually we made it over the mountains, the fog cleared and I could finally begin to enjoy the 1200S. The bike has a nice balance – aggressive geometry for quicker steering but a slightly longer wheelbase for stability. It’s the best of both worlds as this is the first BMW I’ve ridden that you could actually call “flickable.” 

The diet cops had a field day with the 1200S as virtually every component was looked at, studied and told to hit the gym —and less weight equals more performance and better handling. 

At 6,200 rpm, the power-haus comes on the pipe as if Scotty just engaged the warp drive—a very unBoxer like blast of power. The famed Boxer torque is still present, it’s just a bit higher up the rev range than what we’re used to. 

The R1200S is not a Superbike in street clothes, but it should sway some of the more intelligent customers away from the hyper-sport litre bikes with its balance of sport and comfort.

– Steve Bond

yellow bmw r1200s on the track knee down rider


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