Boxer Rebellion

In the early eighties, I occasionally knocked around on an R90/6 and on one of the first K100s to hit these shores (“What shores?” — “Mine’s a gin & tonic, thank you…”) — compared to my Pantah, it was like riding a fast-spin washing machine that was attached to the world by rubber bands. Slack rubber bands. Thankfully chassis and suspension have improved over the years and BMW, after a short-lived attempt to abandon the Boxer twin layout, still offer a range composed predominantly of the twins plus four-cylinder heavyweights. I’ve ridden several of the current generation of both and am generally of the opinion that there are some truly excellent chassis here, all however desperately in search of decent engines.

 200607301838-BMW-R1200S_cat.jpgIt also still looks distinctive and, to my eye at least, attractive, even if the underseat exhaust outlets are now stacked vertically, giving the rear end of the bike an unfortunately compelling resemblance to a retreating cat.

Pressing the starter brings the traditional BMW lurch-to-the-right of torque reaction from the longitudinal crank, and conjures forth a subdued and rather flat exhaust note — no sign there of the fires within (a claimed 122 crank bhp). The riding position is excellent — slightly more upright and short-of-reach than my ST4s and definitely less radical than a Triumph Sprint ST. There’s a low screen, which later proves surprisingly effective, and an instrument cluster with all the usual basics, with the exception of any sort of fuel gauge.

First major demerit: there is no cowl behind the instruments, giving a clear and unobstructed view into the mess of bolts, wiring and lumpen plastic bits within the fairing. Cheap, very cheap.

Low-speed manoeuvering is a doddle: smooth injection pickup with only little drivetrain shunt apparent, and decent steering lock makes for easy filtering through traffic queues. First impressions are of considerable flexibility, so I drop it straight into top gear, to find that it’ll pull perfectly happily, if slowly, from 2200rpm. Winding it on in the lower gears, a tsunami of torque from 3000rpm sweeps bike and rider along, albeit with a deceptively soft delivery and a fairly insistent buzz of vibration — it misses the instant joie-de-vivre punch of a four-valve Ducati, delivering its power more like the 1000cc DesmoDue engine, if less smoothly. Which is a compliment nontheless. Then came 5000rpm, at which point and as one, my fillings fell out — the vibration from that point upwards is truly ‘orrible, numbing fingers, rattling teeth and causing anyone with mechanical empathy to hover a couple of fingers over the clutch lever. Which is a damn shame, because it’s at 6000rpm that everything happens: the engine, which has so far felt like a somewhat overblown and under-refined normal Boxer engine, takes the potion and comes over all Mr Hyde, lurching and leering at respectable society with that most un-BMW of things, a dramatic powerband. Impressive for an air and oil-cooled flat twin, no matter what the capacity. But the vibration, oh the vibration… Then, come 7500rpm, it’s all over — Hyde is back in his box and the engine smooths out slightly, but there’s little point in chasing the 8500 red line — time to upshift on the usefully light gearbox (clutchless upshifts are easy — once again, very un-BMW) and go through it all again in the next gear.

By the time I’d sorted all of this out, a whole bunch of corners were approaching at an infeasible velocity, starting with the infamous 90-degree right-hander at the start of Surrey’s very own rural racetrack, the Pirbright Esses. Brakes would be good here. They’d be very good if I could find them — there’s a long, long travel on the lever before anything happens, so I’m half a second further down the road than I’d have liked before they kick in, albeit with a nicely linear and progressive engagement. BMW have thankfully ditched their servo system for the R1200S, making for much smoother progress. There’s the usual lack of dive from the Telelever front end, which confuses the senses momentarily but means that the bike requires no further setting up for the corner, at which point it’s time to turn in. I countersteer and the bike starts to turn. Too slowly — I have to give it a second shove to get the plot on its side.

The R1200S’ general chassis demeanour seems slightly on the understeery side of neutral, remembering that this was a machine on settings that were definitely not tailored for me: while the (optional) Ohlins suspension (front and rear) did its usual masterclass job of turning small bumps into a magic carpet ride, I could definitely have done with a couple more clicks of rebound damping front and rear and a little less preload.

Which could be a problem — I applaud BMW for providing the Ohlins shocks, but why, oh why didn’t they go for the versions with remote preload adjusters? As it is, the front shock appears practically inaccessible to those of us without the specially trained weasels that BMW clearly use to make adjustments. Both shocks are adjusted (once you can get to them) by olde-worlde locking collars, which invariably round off the first couple of times you use them and do little thereafter save shred knuckles. From the company that’s recently brought us Electronic Suspension Adjustment, that seems a little harsh.

A couple of corners later, I deliberately overbrake, trying to stand the machine on its nose. At which point the ABS steps in and calls a halt to proceedings, leaving me momentarily with the feeling that I’ve lost brakes altogether. The system is effective, much smoother in action than its earlier iterations and generally unobtrusive, but does cut in a little too early for the, ah, sporting ride. This is where it comes second-best to Ducati’s ABS which, on a dry warm road, will cheerfully allow you to get the machine into a stoppie before deciding that enough is enough. I haven’t ridden an ABS-equipped Triumph and please speak to me not of the Honda VFR’s Combined Braking System/ABS combination.

I’m left a little puzzled over the positioning and intent of the R1200S: Despite its being 15bhp or so down on power, the 1200cc engine in the sibling R1200GS is a far more civilised and useable item, even if only in relative terms. In the R1200S, I really do get the impression that BMW have taken the pursuit of power a step too far beyond the need for rideability and a notch beyond what the Boxer engine is comfortably capable of. It’s a strange world where the all-round tourer in the range offers a more satisfying ride than the sports bike and would, I suspect, be very little distance behind it on the road. It’s that “Chassis in search of an engine” thing again, and I’d welcome the day when BMW get their act together in both simultaneously. They’ve managed it with their cars for years, so why not with the bikes?

After hooning around some of the South-East’s finest twisties (which are very fine indeed), I turn back towards Guildford on the A3, trying to find a relaxed cruising gear that doesn’t actually give me double vision. When I stop to top off the tank I find myself reaching for the diesel nozzle… Back at Vine’s, whose bike this is, I hand back the keys, retrieve my own bike from the midst of their row of demonstrators and head back for the open road. I find myself immediately revelling in the tautness, responsiveness and smooth power of the Ducati, flicking it from side to side just to enjoy the steering response and letting the chassis tell me the maker’s name on the manhole covers (Stanton PLC, if you must know). At this point, the world has become a better place and I’m absolutely no closer to finding a worthy successor to the ST4s.

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