Test Ride: BMW K1200RS

Words: Larry Tate

Charleston, South Carolina has more pretty girls per square metre than I’ve ever seen in my life. Anywhere. Unbelievable. The cab driver who took us from the airport insisted the female/male population ratio was 11:1. So if you are male and single and employable and are not heading for this city, you should be looking for counselling (CAN’T AFFORD ONE – ED). Also, the town itself is gorgeous.

Oh, why was I there? Doing the best for CMG readers, I weaselled an invitation out of BMW Canada for the North American preview of the new K1200RS. Yes, it was tough, and Editor Harris was reluctant to send anyone on such a hazardous mission — after all, who’d want to leave Canada for South Carolina when there was still frost on the ground? — but I insisted that I’d be glad to help him out.

It was a pretty cool trip, actually, of the “Ride. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.” variety. We were a little heavy on steps one and two, a little light on step three, but what the hay?

South Carolina cuisine can be interesting. Grits for breakfast (it appears to be a gritty mixture of ground-up corn leftovers in mush), hush puppies for lunch (raw dough fried in batter), and chitlins for dinner (you don’t want to know). It would have perfect for editor Harris’ vegetarian proclivities, except for the chitlins, of course, which I won’t mention again, not wanting to think about them either. On the other hand, Tony Fletcher from BMW Canada and I stumbled from the plane to the hotel and within minutes instinctively located the Sticky Fingers BBQ rib bar for lunch (it’s a talent), which was great. And Anson’s for dinner was a terrific seafood place (should be, Charleston is right on the ocean). And you never saw so many great little bars, pubs, and nightclubs as we passed (mostly) on the way back to the hotel.

Oh yeah, the bikes. So now that BMW has introduced us to one of the most vibrant cities I’ve ever seen, we have to saddle up at 7 a.m. and leave for the industrial and suburban wasteland of Spartanburg, across the state. Thanks, guys.

On the other hand, we were 10 journalists surrounded by about as many BMW people with Amex cards at the ready, all eager to know which colour of new K1200RS we wanted. Things could certainly have been worse. It was a little warm, though. At the technical briefing I wished I’d brought higher SPF sunscreen and a pair of shorts instead of my new K1200RS sweatshirt. Sacrifices, sacrifices (BASTARD – ED).

Oh yeah, the bikes. They’re yellow, red, or blue. They are awesomely fast, like in the range of ZX-11, CBR1100XX fast. They are seriously comfortable, and handle better than any BMW I’ve ever ridden (admittedly, I haven’t tried an R1100RS). For $20,700 in Canada ($500 more for the cool yellow paint, which you’ll see in the pix if everything works as it should), the bike is actually a seriously good deal for anyone looking for a bike at that end of the market.

Some techie stuff first. The engine is bigger and badder, a five mm stroke increase taking it up to 1,171 cc. Combined with a new ram air system, bigger air box, and brand-new Motronic electronics, the injected mill puts out prodigious amounts of torque. It starts out already strong as low as 2,500 rpm, and at about 4,500 it feels like the turbo spooled up and off you go. Torque output is nearly linear to redline from there. Stupendous acceleration.

The frame is brand new. The old 1100RS engine was horribly buzzy (I tried one this trip. Worse even than I remembered), so the boffins back in Berlin decided to rubber-mount the lump. And they wanted to use the latest Telelever/Paralever suspension stuff, but obviously couldn’t mount them to the rubber-mounted engine. That meant a brand-new heavy-duty aluminum frame. At 24 kg, it seems pretty porky, but the bike at 285 kilos is actually lighter than, say, a Double X Honda. So, route maps in hand — well, in tank bag, actually — and with dire warnings of small-town cops in our ears (the routemeisters had collected quite an impressive number of citations laying the route out the previous week) off we went to see how it all worked. Once we were sure we had emergency instructions to the lunch stop. First things first.

The first part of the trip was over moderately smooth secondary roads, mostly in pretty farm country along Route 261, with long gentle bends and the occasional chattery patch of pavement, especially through the state and national forests we traversed. The bikes were awesome in this environment. Using the standard seating position (more on that later) I found myself in a perfectly-sized bubble of air, just enough moving around me to keep me cool. Rolling along at 80 to 100 (that’s mi.es vs kilometres; this was the U.S., after all, although my preplanned excuse was that I was still thinking in kilometres…) the ride felt almost Gold Wing plush, yet with excellent damping control in the rougher bits or whenever we hit a series of dips. It’s an incredible improvement on last year’s K1100 model. Mr. Telelever does an excellent job, and with almost no fork dive (Bert, the development tech guy from Berlin, said 90% of normal fork dive is engineered out) there’s no geometry change to speak of when cornering no matter how hard you brake. Also, it’s not so obvious to Mr. Smokey how hard you’re braking when you see him coming…

Tony and I stuck together, since I needed a photo model later, and we successfully negotiated our way to the Magnolia Restaurant in Camden for lunch (highly recommended, by the way, great dessert buffet to provide that ground-hugging weight for the afternoon’s ride). The BMW guys all suddenly vanished amid a swirl of rumours that somebody had crashed. We later found out that Bob Griffith, poor bastard, from Motorcyclist had hit a stationary car (stopped with no brake lights in the fast lane) hard enough to spin the car around and jam the bike’s front wheel back far enough to break the engine cases. Bob’s total injuries? A couple of minor sprains and two skinned elbows. He’s convinced that the ABS allowed him to steer just enough that when he hit he was thrown clear, rather than into the car. Something to think about when you wonder whether ABS belongs on bikes or not…

After lunch, the roads picked up a lot, as we swooped along Route 21 past Lake Wateree (wouldn’t any lake be watery?). This and Route 72, which we encountered a little later in Sumter National Forest, were the most fun on the trip, with lots of left-right stuff through hilly up and down terrain, almost no traffic, and superb pavement conditions. Again, the K-RS worked like a dream; it’s hardly a lightning-quick 600 to turn, but a firm push on the bar drops it quickly into cornering mode, and it holds a lean angle beautifully, tracking exactly where you put it while still imparting a feeling of massive stability. Brakes are good too, with Brembo calipers grabbing big 305 mm floating discs (interestingly, they bolt directly to the wheels, no extra carrier). Can’t say anything about the rear brake, ’cause I don’t think I ever touched it.

The last 80 km or so was freeway, into Spartanburg. The reason we were there was because that’s where BMW’s first North American (car) factory is, and we were to get a tour the next morning. We arrived late (photo stops) and eager for a shower and a beer or several and dinner, only to find that some lovely soul at the factory had left three Z3 sports cars in the lot. So what do you do to relax after a 300 km day? Go for a drive, of course. Cool car, Rob. You would have liked it. Too bad (BASTARD, BASTARD, ETC, ETC – ED).

Dinner was at a large, loud steakhouse called Jean-Paul’s Armadillo Oil Company (I don’t make this stuff up, you know). Jean-Paul has an eye patch, a serious voice, and a serious attitude. It was fun. Poor bastard Mr. Griffith rejoined us, having spent most of the afternoon getting to know the guys in the chase truck and the local emergency ward. At dinner, Rolf-Immo Gabbe, an individual of the first order, reported that he’d decided to check out the top speed of the bike on a straight piece of four-lane and was just about hitting redline in sixth (yep, BMW has built its first six-speed, and it’s a great gearbox. By far the best ever from Germany) when Mr. Smokey went by the other way, apparently took exception to seeing something like 160 mph on his radar gun, did a U-turn and gave chase. Rolf, seeing this in the vibration-free mirrors (thank you, rubber-mounted engine) managed to duck down a side road and hide behind a Ford van (“I was already toast if I’d stopped”, he explained) to avoid capture, but the cop was pissed, and the next guy through the area happened to be poor Mark Merat from San Francisco. At least he got a cool picture of his $259 ticket taped to the side of the bike.

Horrible storms and rain were forecast for the next morning, so of course it was perfectly bright and sunny when we got up. We rode to the plant, which was awesome. All the Z3 sports cars for the world are built here, which says something about the work quality. The plant is unbelievably quiet, even in the robotic welding area you can talk in a normal voice. There’s a 23,000 square foot museum up front that’s open to the public, and it’s worth the trip. There’s a wall maybe 150 feet long that’s a simulated Daytona-style racetrack banking, with a dozen bikes of various vintages hanging off it over your head. Cool stuff.

And for those who know something about cars, there’s a remarkable collection including a couple of the famous art cars, an original 507 sportster and an M27 roadster (drop-dead gorgeous), and on and on. There’s a wild Virtual Tour, one of those sense-surround movie theatres, that’s positively frightening in a couple of spots, especially the part where the camera’s in a body shell, and three huge robots are blasting welds at your face from three sides. VERY exciting.

Got another free shirt there, Mr. Editor. Too bad (SEE PREVIOUS EDITORIAL COMMENT – ED).

Leaving for basically a repeat of the previous day’s run back down to Charleston, I decided to play with the bike’s ergos a bit, and raised the seat. It has two positions, as do the footpeg mounts, and the bars adjust both vertically and horizontally. Also, the windscreen has a higher position, which you can adjust while riding. There was a huge difference, as the two cm upward adjustment gave me much more leg room, albeit at the expense of killing my arms thanks to the extra weight now angled forward. The windshield was better for me (and most others) in the lower position, it seemed a lot noisier with more buffeting when it was up, but that would probably just depend on your height. Try to find another bike you can tailor to your size and preference that way. At the first gas stop I remembered to change back, for which my arms thanked me, but then forgot my ear plugs. Nice move, idiot. And Tony thought I made the extra stop at the lake just to take some pictures…

At lunch, we learned that Rob, one of the BMW guys, had been stopped (again, he’d helped set up the route), but had talked his way free. It wasn’t really his fault (yeah, right, you’re thinking), as Mark Hoyer from Cycle News had gone blitzing past an unmarked white Crown Vic patrol car on an uphill double yellow and realizing his mistake, had hit it off into the distance, passing Rob on the way. Rob happened to be the first bike the cop saw as he gave chase. Fortunately, Rob’s red bike was hard to mistake for Mark’s blue one, so eventually he got cut loose.

We scooted back down 261 through Manchester State Forest to a fuel stop at Manning, where I cleverly forgot how wide the bags are (they are WIDE), and hooked the left one on the rear corner of a Chevette in the parking lot. As it teetered drastically over to the right, I desperately tried to keep it upright, for the first time cursing the weight. As I tried to manoeuvre either forward or back to clear the f***g car, my ‘fellow’ journos from Autoweek and Cycle World watched in interest from 10 feet away. Brotherhood of man and all that. Bastards. Made it, though, if more by luck than management.

After fuelling up, Tony and I looked at the darkening sky (that rain was still in the forecast), thought about the chance of relaxing before dinner instead of rushing straight out on arrival, and hit the interstate for the 87 miles back to the hotel. Nice interstate, something less than an hour later we were unpacking at the Fulton Inn.. It’s the kind of high-speed stuff these bikes are make for, where the K-RS feels like it’s right in its element, beautifully comfortable, smooth, and absolutely unflappable. You gotta love it.

The best sight of the ride was rolling past some goof in an ancient rat Datsun pickup. Somehow he’d contorted himself around so that his left leg was out the driver’s side window, and he was leaning well over toward the passenger side and smoking. I didn’t hang around long enough to see the six-pack, but I’d bet on it. I think he was still steering, but I’m not sure. Unlikely he was complying with the state seatbelt law, anyway. An hour and a half after we arrived, it was flood city. You couldn’t stand up in the rain, and the lightning and thunder reminded me of growing up on the prairies. The weather channel was warning people to stay indoors away from windows! Fortunately, by that time we were happily ensconced in the middle of The Mill, sampling the Pelican Pale Ale they brew upstairs and contemplating what a rough couple of days we’d just been through. Manly macho stuff, every minute of it.

A couple of final notes on the bike. The turn signal housings on the fairing look like they were intended to hold mirrors, but they don’t. Bert told us that management had indeed wanted the mirrors there to keep a marketing/appearance identity with the older K-RS models, and that engineering had fought all through development to change it. Finally, only a few months prior to production, some of the management types rode the bikes and agreed that a view of knees and saddlebags wasn’t all that useful. What’s cool about the housings, though, is that there’s a channel that rams air up and over your hands, providing a protective airflow that’s almost as solid as a fairing extension at speed. Pretty cool. The instrument panel has no fewer than 14 warning lights, plus windows for a digital gear indicator and a clock. Really, guys. The Z3 sports car didn’t have that many indicators.

And speaking of indicators, the bike still has the same goofy turn signal switches. I know that BM people say they’re great, but why using three buttons and two hands to do the job that everyone else manages with one of each is supposed to be ergonomically superior, I will never fathom. And finally, I think I have a new favourite BMW, even considering my aging body and the mildly sporty riding position. An R1100RT is probably more comfortable, and doesn’t have the cutaway in the left bag, and an R-RS is lighter and probably nimbler, but the K-RS is close in all categories, plus it has that awesome engine.

As the man said, you can’t beat cubic inches. Or centimetres, in this case.

Plus, it looks so RIGHT. I’ll take mine in red, please.

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