BMW F850GS (2020)

The F850GS is a serious upgrade in the middleweight class and even competes with its larger-than-life stablemates.

f850GS review

After following the GS models from BMW through the years, one has to conclude the 2020 F850GS is stretching its boundaries. The middleweight BMW adventure bikes have tended to play second fiddle to their larger stablemates yet this F850GS vigorously blurs the line between the capabilities of the F and R series ADV machines. 

The big R-GS, and particularly the GSA, are imposing bikes capable of that extra slog through the mud and the perennial, by a wide margin, best sellers in the BMW line. In the shadow, the middleweights seemed softer by comparison but, to be fair, everything looked softer next to the R1250GSA, an uncompromising force if there ever was one.  

Those R-GS bikes, as seen from looking at our 40th anniversary retrospective, have continued to grow in power and size, losing a little weight and yet still growing. Which may have lead to an opportunity for some other option.  Regardless of proportions, the R-GS is the gold standard of the class and level to which every other BMW ADV bike, and every other manufacturer’s ADV machine, aimed to achieve. 

There was a sense that opting for the smaller F-GS, you were making a compromise, albeit a compromise that was going to save you several small stacks of cash. But with the F850GS there is a very real sense that the level of compromise has been diminished, while the savings are still available in comparison to the R1250GS.

In their manner, BMW acknowledged this narrowing of advantages with the running of the most recent GS Trophy when the company substituted the F850GS for the R1250 GS, which had competed in previous iterations of the spec rally competition. While not saying it outright, it was a nod to the idea the 850 could accomplish many of the same tasks as the 1250 and, gasp, perhaps in some challenges, fare better.  

The F850GS we picked up from Island Motorcycle in Victoria was in the traditional Motorrad livery of red, white and blue paint. And it wasn’t till seeing it parked near a R1250GS that the size did not look gargantuan. The seat height of the F850GS is 860mm but seat options can vary the height from 815 to 890mm. 

f850GS review

With the tall seat, the bike closely follows the theme of other GS models as the rider sits behind a steeply sloped tank and “within” the cockpit of the bike. It is this tall front end that makes the bike appear so big combined with the radiator shrouding and far forward front windscreen. The extended 43mm front suspension with ample travel for soaking up obstacles adds to the perception of size. Weighing 229 kilograms fully fuelled and ready to ride the middleweight nudges into heavyweight territory. The tank is 15 litres and ranges well over 350 km regularly showed on the display with typical consumption being a little over 4l/100km. 

The Akrapovic titanium and carbon fibre tipped exhaust that comes as an option amplifies the visceral joy of the bike’s 853cc parallel twin. This exhaust resoundingly declares the bike’s offroad and even enduro aspirations. 

The sound reverberates as a gauge of throttle position and power band. From 4,000 rpm and up it fractionally precedes the surge in power as the GS climbs to its peak horsepower at 8,250 rpm. The power delivery isn’t subtle and comes with slight vibrations as the big parallel twin pounds its pistons at a 12.7:1 compression ratio. The feeling isn’t obtrusive but is amplified by the wide handlebars. 

The factory-spec 95 horsepower generated with such enthusiasm underscores just how far the middleweight has entered into the big GS’s territory. It was only 16 years ago the very competent and revolutionarily light R1200GS produced exactly 100 hp, which was bumped to 105 for 2008, and 110 for 2010. The F850GS has more horsepower than the bike that preceded the 1200 as the 1150 made 10 less at 85 horsepower. 

The further one travels back though the R-GS history the more the power figure decreases until arriving at the progenitor R80G/S, which debuted with 50 horsepower. In comparison the current R1250GS makes 136 hp and carries an 20 additional kilograms. If one was to make a decision between the two bikes solely on a power-to weight ratio, the 850 comes in at 2.4kg/hp while the 1250 tips the scale at 1.8kg/hp. It is simple to see an eventually updated F850GS with over 100 hp as the F900R’s parallel twin currently pushes out 105 hp. So many tempting numbers.

But why the fascination with a horsepower number? Horsepower isn’t everything, but almost without exception, it has defined the progress of the motorcycle, whether it is a GS or a Ducati Panigale. Horsepower is and will be for the foreseeable future the simplest defining number of motorcycle advancement, followed closely by weight savings—which is simply a substitute for more horsepower. In terms of technical advancements such as variable power modes and traction control, these are only a response to increased horsepower and weight loss. They are necessary tools to keep lighter and faster motorcycles connected to the road. The F850GS is no exception.

Standard equipment on the bike includes switchable ABS, two ride modes and stability control. The optional tech upgrade packages include electronically adjustable suspension, dynamic traction control, additional riding modes, a 6.5-inch colour display and keyless riding. The TFT display is a marvel—it displays brightly and without glare even in full sun. 

If the heavy tech is off-putting, it is possible to get an un-optioned bike but that often requires a special order and is a fairly rare request, which suggests F850GS riders are expecting, and willing to pay for, all the bells and whistles that come with the R-GS bikes including the option of a Pro shifter.

The middleweight segment is flourishing, so stepping up the F850GS to near R-level standards is an advantage. KTM, Yamaha, Triumph and Honda (if you include the larger displacement Africa Twin) all have serious off-road oriented ADV competitors in the class but in terms of matching the options on the F850GS, it is a challenge. 

But the middleweight class is more defined by niches —even BMW’s own F750GS provides a less expensive street-oriented option, whether the segment leans toward touring, pavement or off-road, which is where the competition is most fierce. 

The F850GS’s cross-spoke gold rims fitted with tubeless tires point prominently off the pavement as does the 21-inch front wheel and 230mm of front suspension travel. Our demo model had seen almost 10,000 kms of what must have been strenuous testing by a substantial number of riders as reflected by the nicks and bruises but it still felt fresh and perhaps even benefitted from the extra long break-in period. It was obvious where those test riders had been aiming the bike.

 The F850GS is a big capable ADV machine off-road adventure bike. It doesn’t have the shaft drive of the bigger sibling, as shaft drive would have pushed the weight and complexity even closer to that of the R-GS. You don’t want to claim that the F will outperform the R as we have seen what the R1250GS can do with enough muscle applied. If you want to go up, down or the long way around, either bike would do the job.

 It’s the rider’s choice how hard they might want to throw their bike around. If the journey is going to be tougher, rougher but shorter, the nod might go to the F850GS. If the ride is going to be long with scarce fuel and few weigh stations and with a passenger or massive amounts of cargo, the R1250GS would be the ticket. 

The base price of the F850GS ($14,935) is two thirds that of the R1250 GS. Is it still only two-thirds the bike? In performance and capability the answer would be no. BMW needed to up the level of its middleweight because it is in this segment that the company faces the stiffest competition. 

f850GS review

-Canadian Biker, Issue #349