Skip to content
HOME » MOTORCYCLE GRAB BAG » R18 – Getting Down to the Nuts and Bolts of It

R18 – Getting Down to the Nuts and Bolts of It

The final R18 reveal was to be a big event for BMW, possibly the most significant of 2020, but like many events it was postponed. The press launch was pushed back, with BMW hoping the world’s health status would improve sufficiently to allow moto-journalists from around the globe saddle time on the new heavyweight cruiser. But it wasn’t to be and the resulting event became extremely social distanced with 65 motorcycle magazine writers from North America on a Zoom call that alternated between the US and Germany as simultaneous introductions took place. 

all the pieces of an r18 engine spread out

Considering how many sneak peeks of this bike, one-off custom versions, and press releases had already been made, the latest “introduction” was like starting a race after the horses have already rounded the first corner. If you have been reading and watching the motorcycle world, odds are high you are familiar with the big air-cooled cruiser. Not since Triumph’s original Rocket III of 2004 has a bike been seen so often yet so distantly on the horizon prior to its arrival. The virtual launch in September did offer the opportunity for hard numbers and answers to many questions.

Before getting to the numbers, the biggest question around the R18 didn’t involve power, weight or torque specs—rather, it was “why?” Why was BMW entering the cruiser market? (And is BMW entering or “re-entering” the cruiser market? More on that later.) It is no secret big displacement cruisers are experiencing challenges. In recent issues we have lamented the loss of the heavyweights that once dominated the roads of North America. Demographics, consumer preferences, and the economy have collided to beleaguer the cruiser segment, which has drastically shrunk and lacks any clear signs of an upturn. Arguably, cruisers will return to the prominence that once held sway over the motorcycle market, but that won’t happen anytime soon. In theory, tastes will change again as other niche segments lose their appeal but for now the cruiser class is condensed to mainly a premium market.

BMW saw opportunity where many other companies saw reason to exit the category. The concentration of premium brands left room for options. Research showed (non-Harley) cruiser riders tend to put design, ergonomics, and ride-ability before brand and price. But the non-Harley cruiser rider is only a small piece of the pie.

So where is the intended market for this big new cruiser? North America will receive 50 per cent of production, which seems conservative as much of the world has forsaken cruisers and especially those in the 1800cc-plus range. While there are avid enthusiasts around the globe, North America is by far the prominent market. However, the premium cruiser market is segregated and loyalties run bone deep. BMW realizes that between 70 and 80 per cent of the custom cruiser market is firmly entrenched with other brands, so perhaps the remaining 20 to 30 per cent can be lured by the R18’s features, style, and price point (starting at $20,895 MSRP). 

Then there are the BMW brand loyalists. In North American market, a sizeable number of buyers will likely be existing BMW owners—those with collections of all things BMW. As this is the only cruiser available from the company some just might go for it whether or not they have been cruiser riders in the past. How the R18 will fit their riding style is a question but their brand loyalty is not. 

Like Indian Motorcycles, BMW had an eye firmly on Harley-Davidson when the R18 was penned. The company freely admits taking a long hard look specifically at the Softail Slim and deciding it could create a bike of equal or greater potential. The Softail Slim was a good choice for comparison: classic styling, unadorned and a great foundation for more. BMW’s marketing department has raised the spectre of “Harley Fatigue” as an impetus for some Harley riders to consider other brands. A move to something different but still with “heritage.”

Harley Fatigue is an interesting concept. Fatigue with an individual Harley model perhaps but Harley’s lineup is huge and it doesn’t quite compute to suggest an across-the-board lack of enthusiasm on the part of formerly committed owners for Milwaukee’s entire range. This would be like a consumer demanding a well-engineered, well-built, performance-driven premium sedan but the BMW 3 series has been around for 40 years so … yawn. Doesn’t seem feasible. Fatigue, then, would have to be about fatigue of the lifestyle, which is almost as significant as the brand itself. If anything, there might be some “cruiser” fatigue existing in the market. But even that is hard to fathom given the size of the segment. 

While Harley-Davidson realizes there have been changes in demands and markets and is actively branching away from wall-to-wall cruiser offerings, the company still owns the premium large displacement segment—at least what hasn’t been nibbled away by Indian Motorcycles. With the R18, BMW aims specifically at that premium segment gambling there is a demand for something the same but in some way completely different. In doing so, BMW presents a strategy to offer something for everyone from scooter to sportbike to ADV to cruiser. It’s a bold play.

designs sketches of bmw r18

But it is also a risky play in the very traditional cruiser segment. Case in point is the Moto Guzzi California and Audace, extremely competent cruisers from a traditionally non-cruiser brand. The big Moto Guzzi cruiser is stylish, technically proficient and well performing but that hasn’t resulted in booming sales. Moto Guzzi took a stand somewhere between modern and retro with their cruiser and it now offers a premium choice at a less than premium price.

BMW has a reputation for bringing the perfect tool to the job. This is how the R1250GS became its most successful model. That the bike works so well and looks good was a happy coincidence because function trumped style in its design. The same can be said for the company’s supersport S1000RR. Everything for a purpose. During the Zoom presentation BMW management often mentioned the “emotional” aspect of the new bike. Emotion being in this case a near synonym for the “form” of the bike, the style, the aura, the “cruiserness” of the R18. It was in this context that the word compromise worked its way into the conversation. There is one compromise in the R18 and it was admittedly unavoidable—the choice of motor configuration. This was not a compromise of engineering, displacement, horsepower or torque but rather the layout of the boxer engine. As much as you would expect a V-Twin in a Harley or an inline four in a Yamaha sportbike, you have the expectation of a boxer engine in a BMW cruiser, and in this case a very large displacement boxer, which only emphasized the challenge. 

BMW knew the boxer was the only logical choice for the bike and displacement would have to be 1800cc minimum to put the bike in the same realm as competing products. The broad flat torque curve peaking at 116 foot-pounds and with 91 horsepower on tap confirms a very substantial mill. Victory Motorcycle would boast at every new model launch how its tall V-Twin was like a “jewel in a setting,” a focal point of every bike. To the boxer in the R18 falls the same responsibility. 

However, the boxer does not allow for a traditional North American seating position as the protruding cylinders firmly dictate footpeg location and puts the rider’s legs at a near 90-degree angle. The pegs can’t go forward, logically backward, or up and down. It is a single riding position with a few variations in seat height and bar reach but certainly not the riding position that has literally defined cruisers for nearly the last 50 years. BMW says the riding position is contrary to established norms but very comfortable and rider focused. We look forward to testing that theory in a non-virtual way.

During the Zoom call there was no freely-made mention of BMW’s previous foray into the cruiser catgeory—1997’s R1200C—which technically makes the R18 a “re-entry” into the segment. The R1200C was referenced briefly in response to a question, and one BMW spokesperson suggested the bike was targeted to the street standard rather than the cruiser segment. For those of us who remember the R1200C, it was most certainly a cruiser, albeit a non-traditional one. It was a uniquely European take on the cruiser theme with the “C” implying cruiser. BMW has much higher hopes for the R18 and perhaps that is why they dimmed the lights on the R1200C stage. 

The all-new heritage approach to the cruiser is as safe a bet as any. The clean, recognizable styling of the R18 leaves no ambiguities as to what the bike is and makes its purpose obvious. BMW says the R18 was developed collaboratively between Motorrad US and Munich head offices. Input was sought from US retailers and influencers including Roland Sands and Jay Leno in an attempt to get the “American” intangibles integrated into the R18’s design and purpose. While there are hidden modern touches such as partially integrated ABS and slipper clutch, the traction control feature was built with an off switch for the North American pastime of barroom burnouts.

The R18 is a substantial machine and questions were raised about its weight. BMW responded by saying the bike is a foundation for future family members in the R18 line. Which can only mean more weight to be carried on the platform: think fairings, hardbags and topcases. Among the many accessories on offer, there are windshields, luggage and additional passenger comfort options to outfit a touring machine and it is logical to expect a factory touring bagger in the not too distant future. BMW would not “confirm or deny” future family members but the engine’s power and the frame’s substantial girth seem over-engineered for its current purpose. At 761pounds it is 91 pounds heavier than the Softail Slim. BMW may have remembered the R1200C/CL experience after all and prepared the R18 for whatever will come next. Harley-Davidson has multiple dedicated platforms for its various “families” but the single beefy R18 chassis suggests a modular and multi-purpose intent.

The R18 in its current short-range form is intended to make an impression wherever other bikers gather. BMW admits to this purpose and direction with the solo seat and available apehangers only adding to the presence of the enormous boxer engine and fishtail pipes—a total immersion in the genre. The arrival of the R18 is remarkable given where the industry is now. What will be interesting is where BMW takes the R18 platform next and the reception the bike receives when it gets there. It is ironic that within one year BMW and Harley-Davidson have taken tentative steps into the other’s traditional territory. BMW has put in the effort to succeed outside its traditional realm and now we wait to see what Harley will do outside its comfort zone.

Keep independent motorcycle journalism alive! If you found this article interesting or useful, please consider sharing.