Saturday, March 26, 2011

2008 BMW R1200GS Adventure First Ride

2008 BMW R1200GS Adventure
The 2008 BMW R1200GS and GS Adventure are called "face-lift" models, but the miniscule changes serve to make the most popular BMW machines just that much better.
Motorcycling epiphanies are rare and beautiful things, and when they occur upon two wheels the results can be euphoric. I was fortunate enough to have one of these eye-opening experiences at the press launch for the 2008 BMW R1200GS and R1200GS Adventure. It came about not by twisting the throttle or pounding the dry Arizona terrain any harder, but was a simple case of less is more.

BMW is especially proud of its R1200GS line, and deservedly so considering that it's the Germans' most popular selling machine. Last year the Bavarian marque rolled its 100,000th model off the assembly line earning it recognition as "the most successful BMW motorcycle of all times." That was over eight months ago, and there isn't any indication from the engineers that the company has plans to rest on its laurels. To prove it, the motorcycling media was invited to Fountain Hills, Arizona for two days of desert exploration on the two popular and mildly updated models.

We would need to ride a fresh 2007 model back-to-back or strap them to the MotoUSA dyno to ascertain the difference, but BMW claims a 5% boost in horsepower to a new maximum of 105. For comparison sake, we dynoed the HP2 in 2006, which was also claimed to produce 105 HP, and got 92 at the rear wheel. Basically we didn't feel a noticeable increase in power from memory alone, but the 1170cc air/oil-cooled Boxer Twin still produces its ponies with a load of smooth, usable grunt, and the motor remains an excellent AT platform. A new rev limit of 8000 rpm means the power spread is almost as wide as the cylinders.

Transmission ratios are different this year to aid mid- and upper-rpm performance. We must say, every time we thought we might have felt some extra pep it was higher in the revs. We tested the high rpm limits as we left on Day 1 aboard the standard GS. It took us over 75 miles before our first photo stop which gave plenty of time to assimilate our right wrist action to the power delivery. Headed through Tonto Basin "Where the West still lives" we passed into the Superstition Wilderness for a lunch break on the Dolly Steamboat. The ride continued and our group of standard GS bikes passed the 150-mile trip without an exorbitant amount of dirt exposure. We did stop and play at an OHV area where the knobby-less GS demonstrated a willingness to explore, but a need for more aggressive tires. The Adventure-mounted riders had a much better time on their Metzler Karoo meats, but the extra size and weight were their disadvantage.

2008 BMW R1200GS Adventure
Calling either machine small is tough to make believable, but the GS is considerably less bulky than the massive Adventure.
Day 2 dawned with an even larger bike awaiting my input. The GS Adventure is visually striking compared to the standard GS model. The more masculine appearance comes via an 8.7-gallon fuel tank (5.3 on the GS), spoke wheels vs. cast (all our bikes were equipped with spoked rims which can be purchased as an accessory for GS owners), crash bars and knobby tires. Both bikes get magnesium-colored cylinder heads but the Adventure's fork is black while the GS sticks with the Mag theme on the faux sticks. Not only will you need more physical muscle to manhandle the claimed 564 pounds wet (vs. 504), but a more pronounced pocketbook as well for the standard $16,600 MSRP ($14,600 GS).

Though we spent the majority of the 206-mile day in the dirt, there was little in the way of tight, technical riding. Everything was traversable by a four-wheel-drive auto, but single-track isn't exactly the target for any machine weighing over 600 pounds with fuel. It was these variations of dirt and gravel roads that allowed us to experiment with one of the most notable changes for 2008.

Though the list of actual upgrades for this year is relatively small, the development of supplemental features is a point of pride for the German engineers, especially the ESA (electric suspension adjustment). This feature has been used on previous BMW street models, but 2008 marks the first time it is available for an enduro machine with specific off-road settings. At the touch of a left-thumb button, the rider can choose appropriate preload and damping stages. The theory behind the system is to adjust for both terrain conditions and motorcycle load such as passengers or luggage.

With both street and off-road settings, there are plenty of selections to toggle through. Street spring preload accommodates the load options and allows for three levels of adjustment: Solo rider, Rider with luggage and Rider with passenger. After the proper setting is selected, which must be done with the bike in neutral, the rider can switch between Comfort, Normal and Sport damping levels while on the road.

Arranging to tackle off-road sections is just as easy. There are only two spring preload settings, Medium Reserves and Maximum Reserves, but the damping adjustments are of the same variety being Soft, Normal and Hard. Switching through the options is easy to keep track of with iconic displays on the digital instrument panel. We found the best setting for all-around off-road settings to be Maximum Reserves preload and Normal damping. Even with greater speeds or rougher terrain, the suspension action on the Telelever front and Paralever rear became a tad harsh when set at Hard.

2008 BMW R1200GS Adventure
Add-on features like ABS and ESA are worth the money in our opinion. Both models offer a wide spread of amenities.
As Adventure Touring machines, the word that holds the most importance is "touring." In all reality, "adventure" can be had on- or off-road, but the GS models are touring bikes first and foremost which meant that to fully appreciate what they have to offer required long distances in the saddle. Fortunately, that's exactly what the big Beemers are good at, rider accommodations. Living with a bulbous Boxer between your legs can be daunting at times, but the accoutrements of our loaded versions gave us plenty of things to fiddle with. As you would expect when buying a BMW, the list of options is ridiculously long. In addition to the ESA, some of the more notable add-ons featured at the press launch were ABS, heated grips, tire pressure monitor (which proved its worth when I picked up a nail in the rear) and additional headlights. Visit the BMW website for a complete list of accessories and package options.

Are these bikes incredibly heavy and overwhelming at times? Yes, but that's part of what makes them so good as touring machines. We're not talking about a Honda Civic here, this is the deluxe, old-school Cadillac. The comfort and style necessitate an oversized build. I spent the better part of our two days in AZ trying to race the bikes from point to point on our guided expedition. I suppose that's just the Off-Road Editor in me, but after standing on the pegs, hoisted over the tank, smashing the suspension and overcooking corners I finally realized how ridiculous it all was. Standing bowlegged atop the wide Adventure for 100+ miles put enough unnatural pressure on my knees that I eventually backed off the throttle and sat on the comfy height-adjustable saddle in painful defeat. It was then that I had my moment of clarity.

Allowing the dust of the lead riders to fade in the distance, I found myself virtually alone for miles of travel. Riding the rock-infested jeep road at a leisurely 30-40 mph instead of a frightening and abusive 50-60 mph switched my hard-charging brain into a more serene state of mind. Could the bike go faster over that terrain? Yes. Did I have the desire to make it do so? Absolutely not.
2008 BMW R1200GS Adventure
New styling cues are some of the most noticeable things about the 2008 GS line, but overall we couldn't find anything about the updates to complain about.

It took nearly 300 miles of riding in Arizona before it clicked for me, but all alone on that unimproved gravel road I found the essence of BMW's R1200GS Adventure. During those last 50+ miles from Bloody Basin and through the Aqua Fria National Monument I was more in-tune than ever with the thrumming pair of opposing cylinders. The greens, yellows and browns of the desert were suddenly crisper and the landscape more stunning as my attention focused on the exploration of my Southwestern playground. All the hard work and pain of muscling that beast through the terrain had somehow morphed by simply changing my mindset. It had become a perfect ride.

Any manufacturer can build a canyon-carving sportbike or race-winning motocrosser, but when versatility is the name of the game it's much more difficult to strike the nail on the head. That's exactly what BMW has done with its GS models. There will always be those who want more or less of certain things, but considering what these machines were designed to do, which is practically everything, they are incredibly well-suited. It took this tester several run-ins with the beast over the past couple years to really understand what BMW's GS provides. But the more I get my head around it, the easier it is to see why it's the company's most sought-after cycle.

It's been called the best adventure bike, best open-class streetbike, bike of the year and even best bike in the world. You may buy into those claims depending on individual interpretation, but pretend for a moment that such a bike does exist to fill all those categories, and that you have to name it. What other options do you really have?

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