BMW F800GS (2008) Review

If your intent is to go somewhere on the map where no roads lead, but you’re not one of the select few who can master a 1200GS in off-road conditions, then BMW’s new F800GS might be the adventure vehicle you’re looking for.

About three years ago, when news of the first F800s was released, a friend asked if I thought a GS version could possibly be in the works. I answered I didn’t know. Although the compromise offered by an at-the-time-theoretical F800GS sure sounded interesting, I wondered just how much room the market had for a middleweight GS. I mean, BMW already offered not one, but two lighter versions of its excellent R1200GS: the F650GS and its Dakar variant. While those 650s were getting old, they worked well and offered a cheaper and much lighter alternative to the 1200. Did we really need something in between? The official announcement of the 2008 F800GS last fall not only answered that question, but also made it clear something was changing in that class. Essentially invented by BMW in 1980 with the original R80GS, the big, strange and marginal adventure motorcycle has lately become something of a trend. These days, it seems one manufacturer after the other wants in, making the adventure-touring segment one of the fastest growing in motorcycling.

bmw motorrad canada f800gs africaWhile BMW has dealt with that rapidly increasing competition with regular upgrades to the one model similar products are trying to emulate, the R1200GS, the introduction of the F800GS for 2008 can be seen as a curveball thrown to the rest of the industry: it essentially moves the target.
Just as the F800S and F800ST did in 2006 when they were released, the new F800GS is creating its own niche. Well, almost, since middleweight adventure models already exist. They are, however, either absent in North America as is the case with Honda’s Transalp 700, or discontinued like Yamaha’s Super Ténéré. By comparison, the F800GS seems like a sure thing for BMW. Priced just above the previous generation F650GS but well under the R1200GS, it has the potential to appeal to potential buyers of both the larger and smaller GSs.
BMW presents its F800GS as a “best of both worlds” proposition: small displacement agility with big displacement power. The truth does lie somewhere around those lines as the new model is surprisingly agile on or off road, and powerful enough to go anywhere.

South Africa is one of the most remarkable places on earth and one heck of a great place to ride a motorcycle. As it’s far from being a fully developed country, away from urban centres many roads remain unpaved. Combining often surreal landscape—imagine Grand Canyon-like scenery, but all green—with the 30C-plus temperatures in February was enough to convince BMW to make Durban, South Africa, the venue for the F800GS’s world launch.

ONE OF THE FIRST IMPRESSIONS YOU GET SITTING ON THE F800GS IS that it really can’t be compared with many bikes. It’s high, slim and light. Physically, Suzuki’s V-Strom 650 is probably one of the closest. The GS’s very long-travel suspension (230mm in front and 215mm at the back) obviously makes for a high seat, this even though BMW’s efforts to keep seat-height in check are evident. A rear subframe built to allow the seat to be as low as possible and rather thin padding on the seat itself are a couple of good examples.

Even though, at 5’11”, I still tiptoed a little bit at stops, the 800GS surprised me with a highly friendly nature in severe off-road riding. In those conditions, the F800GS represents a serious contrast to what a rider experiences on a larger bike such as a R1200GS.

On dirt or gravel roads, especially tight and twisty ones, the new 800 is miles ahead of the 1200 in terms of accessibility for the average rider, and not too far from what you’d expect from a single-cylinder 650. One of the bikes best assets in that regard is its very low 178 kg dry-weight. Combined with a seat that’s not unreasonably high, light, precise steering, and a balanced, dual-purpose-like riding position, that low weight makes the 800 an amazingly capable off-roader.

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Then there are the little things that make a big difference—such as well calibrated brakes that don’t lock prematurely off-road, an ABS system that can be turned off, and engine output that’s damn near perfect for off-road riding, with plenty of horsepower to slide around if needed and plenty of torque to keep the revs low and just power out of bends.

While street-biased tires are obviously a limiting factor off road, they didn’t prevent the 800GS from surprising me once more by performing very well in very rough conditions. Somewhere along our itinerary, BMW had planned an optional, experts-only “Black Route.” We were warned about its very high level of difficulty and asked to please not engage in the route if we felt our riding calibre wasn’t high enough. Getting into the very challenging off-road section to rescue a crashed or abandoned bike with a chase vehicle was apparently impossible. Hmm. Problem was, while I like adventure riding, I certainly wouldn’t say I qualify as an expert off-road rider. So I almost did the responsible thing, which was to not go. But when colleagues threatened me with years and years of nagging if I “chickened-out” of this one, I sort of had no choice.

PATIENTLY I STAYED BEHIND AND CAREFULLY WATCHED THE “OFF-road experts” do their thing in front. Soon enough, some 
got stuck in deep trenches trying to go up a steep hill, and had to back all the way down in disgrace to make their way around the obstacle. I just stayed out of the trenches, gassed it and made it up easy. Then, things got really ugly. Bikes were dropped in the middle of even steeper hills, requiring a lot of help to get back on track and meanwhile blocking everyone else. With the sun high in the sky and dressed in full riding gear, it wasn’t long before some started to get exhausted. What was supposed to be a half-hour detour ended up taking almost four hours. Funny thing is I didn’t put a single scratch on my bike and even enjoyed the whole thing immensely, especially the way back down. Count on years and years of nagging, dear colleagues …

 

In truth all the credit goes to the F800GS which basically proved capable of going anywhere a single-cylinder 650 would have.
Although I wouldn’t have had to engage in that kind of terrain with a big R1200GS, I started thinking about the 1200’s tour-worthy level of comfort on the long way back to the hotel, and began missing it. On paved roads, the F800GS is what you call a compromise. It’s well above what the old 650GS had to offer in terms of power and comfort, but it’s also significantly inferior to the mighty 1200GS.One of the trade-offs of the relatively low seat—which can’t be adjusted in height—is that the seat-to-pegs ratio is reduced, somewhat cramping legs. You don’t notice this on short to medium length outings, but you do on full-day rides. The same kind of commentary can be made about the seat which is fine most of the time, but not particularly comfortable after several hours on the road. Only a moderate amount of vibration coming through the grips reach the rider, and wind protection is very good.

Given the bike’s good performance off-road, suspension is surprisingly firm on the street. It isn’t harsh by any means, but one would expect a bike with so much travel to float over bumps, which the 800GS doesn’t do. On the other hand, that firmness allows it to keep from diving too much under braking and greatly benefits on-road handling. Moreover, it’s stable, light and precise enough to let you play at will on a tight and twisty road, especially with 85 horses and a very respectable amount of torque at your disposal.

Producing exactly the same power as the F800S and ST’s parallel Twin, the F800GS’s engine is peppy and plenty strong for all circumstances. Horsepower-hungry riders might find the 85 horses somewhat tame, and Boxer fans will find the powerplant a bit characterless. But the F800GS really isn’t aimed at either of those groups and for the average rider, the 798cc Twin’s performance can be qualified as plenty satisfactory.
At dinner that night, I almost made one of our BMW hosts choke on his meal after he asked me what I thought of their new bike. Not that my comment wasn’t positive. On the contrary, thinking out loud, reflecting on the day that had just passed, I said I was tempted to call the new F800GS a better adventure bike than the R1200GS, at least for most riders. “Nonsense!” was my host’s immediate reply. The R1200GS is a waaaay better bike. There’s no argument there. But as far as “adventure riding” in the purest sense of the expression is concerned, for the average rider, the F800GS is more capable.

bmw motorrad canada f800gs africa

It obviously isn’t as comfortable, polished or desirable as the 1200, but if the intent is to go somewhere on the map where no roads lead, which to me seems like a pretty good definition of “adventure,” then the average rider—the select few who can master a 1200GS off-road aren’t included in that group—will have a much easier and thus more pleasant time on the 800. For anyone not contemplating taking their adventure off the road and with the budget to choose the 1200, then the big GS is obviously a better motorcycle. But for those without the money or experience, the 800 is one hell of a capable mount.

For about half a day during the South African press launch of its new F800GS, BMW allowed journalists to sample yet another member of the F800 family, the new F650GS. But, it’s a 650, not an 800 … Actually, it is an 800. BMW simply thought there was too much equity in the old single-cylinder F650GS’s name to change it. So they kept it … on an 800. Get it?
The 798cc F650GS can be seen as a more pedestrian, more accessible and more affordable version of the F800GS. It is built around the same chassis, but uses a conventional fork, has only a single brake disc in front and offers considerably less suspension travel. Not to mention 14 horsepower and 11 ft/lbs. torque less than the 800. It’s also eight kg lighter at 170 kg dry weight.
Surprisingly capable off-road even though that’s not its first goal, the new F650GS is a very accessible ride on the road. It’s probably one of the lowest non-cruiser motorcycles today and one of the only “full-size” models on the market aimed at entry level riders and women: BMW offers not just a lower seat, but also a factory approved lowering option.
While demanding riders won’t get very excited by the torquey-yet-kinda-tame parallel Twin, the targeted clientele will discover in the F650GS a bike accessible enough to learn on, and plenty powerful enough to keep riding long after the purchase. Speaking of purchase, here’s the kicker: asking price for the new F650GS, available as an ‘08 model as of March, is $8,990. That’s more than two grand less that the old single-cylinder F650GS which sold for $11,000!

– Bertrand Gahel, Canadian Biker, Issue#241

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