Maybe if you looked quickly you’d think that the 2013 BMW R1200GS only received a minor facelift. After all, it still has that trademark duckbill nose, a Telelever front end, cylinders jutting out the sides and a visible tubular-steel rear subframe.
In reality, there’s nothing that isn’t new on BMW’s latest full-sized adventure tourer. And there is almost nothing about this new bike that isn’t better than the old one, as I discovered at its recent press launch, held in George, South Africa.
But first, here’s a brief look at the early days of the machine that defined the adventure-touring category.
THE FABLED GS
In 1979, German enduro racer Herbert Schek and French journalist Jean-Claude “Fenouil” Morellet though it might be a good idea to enter what was then a year-old desert rally from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal on a BMW motorcycle.
Schek had already been competing in the International Six Days Trial with a specially built off-road Boxer, so he threw a larger fuel tank onto an ISDT bike and entered it in the rally with Fenouil at the controls. The engine blew up and the Fenouil didn’t finish.
Following the pair’s lead, however, BMW thought entering a rally would be a great marketing ploy to promote a certain, upcoming model, and in 1980 the company put together a factory effort and entered the Paris-Dakar rally on specially built 800 cc machines.
Hubert Auriol finished fifth on the GS800 rally racer. Later that year BMW introduced the R80 G/S to international media at the bike’s press launch in southern France. BMW’s GS was born and the firm went on to win the Dakar rally four times.
Over the years the bike gained popularity, and it grew in displacement from 798 cc to 980, then to 1,085, then to 1,130, and finally to the current 1,170 cc. A Telelever front end eventually replaced the telescopic fork, it got a Paralever swingarm, and it went from straight air-cooling and two valves per cylinder to the current air and liquid cooling and four-valve heads.
Now into its fifth generation, the R1200GS is an entirely new design, along with a few firsts for a Boxer engine, including an incorporated gearbox (previous designs had the gearbox bolted onto the back of the engine), cylinders cast into the vertically split crankcase and (gasp) liquid-cooling.
Actually, the new engine is only 35 percent liquid-cooled and 65 percent air-cooled in what BMW calls ‘precision cooling’. Coolant flows only through the highest heat-stressed areas in the cylinders and heads, while large cooling fins dissipate the majority of the heat generated in the cylinders. Twin radiators are mounted on either side of the bike, just below the steering head.
Another big change is the new, vertical configuration of the intake and exhaust ports. This improves airflow as the intake tracts have a straight shot into the cylinders, but it also improves legroom, as the throttle bodies have migrated from ahead of your shins to above the engine.
The new engine produces 15 hp more, now at a maximum of 125, and peak torque is up to 92.2 lb-ft from 88.
The integrated gearbox has brought with it several improvements. First, the engine assembly is much more compact. The new engine assembly almost looks smaller than what the old engine looks like without the transmission. This allowed engineers to lengthen the swingarm by 53 mm without altering the wheelbase, which improves traction and rear suspension compliance.
The clutch is now a multi-plate wet type and includes slipper and mechanical assist functions (the latter means it has greater clamping power when you’re on the gas). It has also been moved from the rear of the engine (between the engine and transmission) to the front, meaning you no longer have to remove the transmission to service the clutch, just the front engine cover. The driveshaft has also gone from the right to the left side of the bike, and the exhaust followed suit by doing the opposite.
The alternator has gone from a belt-driven unit above the engine to behind the engine, and it is driven directly off the crankshaft. This has, however, made it more difficult to access.
Five ride modes — Rain, Road, Dynamic, Enduro and Enduro Pro — are available on bikes equipped with the optional Dynamic ESA (electronically adjustable suspension) and they adjust engine characteristics, ABS, traction control levels and suspension settings to match the riding conditions. They can also be custom tailored; if you prefer a firmer suspension setting in Enduro mode, you can change it while riding through a handlebar-mounted switch. Ride modes can also be changed on the fly.
Enduro Pro mode can only be selected after a plug, which is provided with the bike, is inserted into a socket under the seat. It sets the parameters at their most aggressive off-road settings, and it also remembers settings — like if the ABS or traction control were turned off — if the ignition is turned off and on again. In the other four settings, the bike resorts to its default settings any time the ignition is turned on.
Standard suspension has non-adjustable fork and shock adjustable for rebound damping and preload. The ESA is semi-active, which means it measures certain parameters and adjusts itself accordingly within the parameters set when selecting one of the five ride modes.
A new frame is now a one-piece unit from which the engine hangs, whereas the former bike had a forward and rear portion with the engine mounted in the middle. The frame is still comprised of tubular steel, and a bolt-on tubular steel subframe supports the seat and tail section. Steering geometry is almost identical, with some very minute changes in the rake and trail measurements.
Wheels and tires are wider front and rear, with a 120-series tire up front and a 170-series tire in the rear replacing the 110/150-series rubber of the previous bike. Standard wheels are cast aluminum; our test bikes were equipped with optional spoke wheels, something you can add to the new GS for a measly $450, and something I’d recommend if you intend on riding off road.
All of these changes have added just $950 to the R1200GS base price, which is now $18,850.
The rider’s seat is height adjustable in two positions (850 and 870 mm), but it can also be adjusted for tilt depending on how you set the two under-seat mounts. I set it to the tallest position by flipping both mounts to their higher positions (flipping only the rear adjusts the tilt). BMW thoughtfully provide a seat holder in the rear rack so you don’t have to set the rear seat on the ground while making the adjustment.
Fire up the new GS and the characteristic Boxer drone greets you, but with a raspier tone, and slightly higher in pitch than the outgoing model. The engine also spins up much quicker when blipping the throttle, a result of the smaller-diameter clutch, but also because of a new, lighter crank. This also reduces the tendency of the bike to lurch to the right when blipping the throttle at a stop to almost nil.
Once rolling, the new GS has that unmistakable GS feel. If you’ve ridden one, you’ll understand: It’s solid, planted, refined and smooth. But it also feels quite different. Despite the new bike’s heavier claimed curb weight of 238 kg (9 kilos more than before) it actually feels much lighter, whether moving or at a stop. This is due to the lower centre of gravity, but also because the bike has a narrower midsection.
One of the first things I notice when accelerating up to speed is the pronounced intake howl. With the airbox now located directly above the engine and ahead of the mid-mounted fuel tank, its twin intakes are mounted higher than before and to either side of the steering head. Aside from the increased intake honk, this will also prevent them from swallowing water in deep crossings.
Oh, and the 15 additional ponies and added torque? They’ve transformed the GS into a fire breather. It pulls hard right to redline, with strong bottom-end grunt getting progressively livelier as the revs pick up.
Clutch action is light and the gearbox is among the lightest I’ve ever sampled. Really, it is. It’s almost too light, and with heavy off-road boots on it’s sometimes difficult to feel the detent when shifting up or down.
One of the GS’s most convenient features is the ESA and its ride modes. I sampled them all, even the Rain mode despite the hot, dry weather, and they are all effective. Ride modes can be called up by the right-hand mode button while riding, and confirmed by shutting the throttle and pulling the clutch.
None of the modes limit maximum power, but throttle response is greatly altered. It is softened in Rain and Enduro modes, normal in Road mode, and more aggressive in Dynamic and Enduro Pro modes.
Likewise, suspension settings vary from ultra-plush in Enduro mode to almost racetrack firm in Dynamic mode. Traction control intervention also varies in the various modes, as does ABS effectiveness.
Only in Enduro Pro does the rear brake work independently from the front, and it can be locked up if only the rear brake pedal is applied, even if the ABS is switched on. The front brake lever still links to the rear brake in this mode, though the rear brake pedal has priority and can override the ABS at the rear wheel.
I sample Enduro mode on a variety of dirt roads during our trek in South Africa, and the ABS is a vast improvement over the old system. With the old system, it was preferable to shut the ABS off when wandering off road, otherwise loose conditions would trip it and stretch braking to sphincter-puckering distances.
This is no longer the case. The new ABS works flawlessly, slowing the bike effectively without fear of lock up, and if you still don’t feel confident in its stopping efficiency, you can turn it off. Ditto for the traction control. Surprisingly, the stock Metzeler Tourance Next tires grip with remarkable tenacity on dirt roads, despite their lack of knobbies.
I swap my test bike for one equipped with more aggressive Metzeler Karoo 3 tires for a rougher off-road circuit. The bike also has a one-piece off-road saddle, and the bike is adjusted to Enduro Pro mode (under-seat plug is installed), which has firmer suspension and more aggressive throttle settings than Enduro mode.
It’s ideal if you want to blast high-speed through rough sections, but at the moderate pace I settle upon, I would have preferred Enduro mode. Throttle response is just a tad too abrupt in E-Pro mode, though the suspension feels quite compliant, providing better control over the rough terrain than the softer Enduro setting.
One advantage of the ride modes is that you do have a certain measure of custom tailoring as you can set the ESA within each mode to a firmer or softer setting. Enduro mode with the firmer suspension setting would have probably suited me fine in this scenario.
Regardless, I swallow up a steep, rocky climb without even thinking about it. Although it’s no dirt bike, the R1200GS can still manage rough conditions with relative ease, as long as you don’t try bouncing off berms or landing doubles.
The only hiccup in the bike’s handling is a possible tendency to shake its head while standing on the footpegs over rough terrain. On a couple of occasions while standing, hitting a succession of sharp bumps causes the fork to shake just a bit. It isn’t alarming; it’s just that I don’t remember the old bike having any tendency to do this. A couple of the U.S. journos also noted this.
Back on the road and on the standard bike, I set the mode to Dynamic for a stretch of twisties. It’s surprising how wide the range of adjustability the suspension has, and in this mode it’s firm enough to make the bike hop off larger bumps. However, it does settle the machine for a modestly quick pace through the winding mountain roads north of George, and it rails through sweepers waver-free. It also feels quicker in tight turning transitions than the old bike, no doubt a benefit of the lower centre of gravity.
All of the test bikes are equipped with BMW’s optional and exclusive LED headlights, but alas, a late-day sunset meant we didn’t get to see how effective they may be.
The 2013 R1200GS will be in dealers sometime this spring. Heated grips and ABS are standard and there are a few options that can be added individually, like cruise control ($400) a tire pressure monitor ($225) and the aforementioned spoke wheels among other items.
There are also four options packages available. The Comfort package includes the tire pressure monitor, luggage brackets and hand guards for $625. The Touring package adds to that Dynamic ESA, GPS hardware (no GPS), an onboard computer and chromed exhaust for $1,600. The Active package includes Enduro ASC (traction control) and cruise control for $800, and the Dynamic package includes ASC, ESA, GPS hardware, computer and the LED headlight for $2,300. A low seat (820-840 mm) is a no-cost option.
There’s no doubt the BMW R1200GS has set the standard in adventure touring. It is the benchmark by which all other adventure bikes are measured, and the bar has just been raised (it may be raised further with the planned release of the Adventure version in the fall). Sure, some bikes might excel in certain aspects of the genre; KTMs have better off-road capability, for example. But few machines are as well balanced, and none have the pedigree.
But, hardcore adventurers might scorn BMW for making it more difficult to service some components. While the clutch is now a breeze to access, the alternator is not so easy to work on. Nor is the transmission, which is now hidden somewhere inside the engine cases – ditto if the cylinders or pistons need servicing.
Probably much like the SUV craze that hit North America, very few adventure bike owners will waver onto dirt. But that doesn’t matter because it’s the dream of the adventure that sells these bikes. Most of the time the R1200GS will provide the unmatched road manners for which it has become renowned, but if you’re one of the few who actually acts on that adventure dream, the new R1200GS will deliver in a heartbeat.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
|Bike||2013 BMW R1200GS|
|Engine type||horizontally opposed twin, liquid cooled|
|Power (crank)*||125 hp|
|Tank Capacity||20 litres|
|Carburetion||EFI with 52 mm throttle bodies|
|Final drive||shaft drive|
|Tires, front||Metzeler Tourance Next, 120/70 R19|
|Tires, rear||Metzeler Tourance Next, 170/60 R17|
|Brakes, front||two 305 mm discs with radial, four-piston calipers, linked, ABS|
|Brakes, rear||276 mm disc with two-piston calliper, linked, ABS|
|Seat height||850/870 mm (33.5/34.25 in)|
|Wheelbase||1,507 mm (59.3 in)|
|Wet weight*||238 kg (525 lb)|
|Colours||white, red, blue, grey|
|Warranty||three years, unlimited mileage|
It’s a dream job. Motorcycle journalists have the chance to go on new bike launches regularly, and they usually take place at exotic locales; this is amongst the more interesting aspect of the job. However, it also brings with it some risks, and this launch saw the results of those risks play out in the worst possible way.
Respected and renowned British moto journalist Kevin Ash paid the ultimate price in South Africa when he lost his life following a crash. Details of the incident have not been released, but it is thought that reduced visibility due to dusty conditions may have been a factor.
He leaves behind a wife and three daughters. He will be sorely missed by the whole motorcycle and moto journalist community, but especially by his family, to whom he was devoted most of all. You can read more about Kevin here.