PHOTOS BY JEFF AND SCOTT WILSON
We’ve been riding the 2017 BMW Scrambler since May as a long-term vehicle, and we’ve already published our initial thoughts on it here and our early thoughts on it here. Now, it’s Jeff’s turn to give his opinion and he’s not as enamoured as he thought he’d be. – Ed.
It had been two years since I last rode BMW’s retro-cool R nineT “roadster” and I must confess, I fell hard for that bike, enjoying our brief summer fling together. It was a beautiful machine, but far from delicate. It was comfortable, yet capable, even on twisty roads, and its engine had enough oomph to reaffirm that it’s not just a bike to be seen on, but one to be ridden.
During the many months (and bikes) that have graced my garage since, the nineT’s glory grew past desire in my mind to become a vehicular deity. When asked (and even when not asked), I’d boldly declare, “the R nineT is the bike I’d have if I could have only one more bike for the rest of my life.” Yeah, it’s that good.
Alas, the Beemer remains pricey — even the rare pre-owned ones — meaning those splendid rides I’d dreamed of taking on my own R nineT, across Niagara’s wine country, beneath the warmth of a glowing sunset, still remain nothing more than a fantasy.
The day had finally come to park BMW’s retro machine in my own garage for more than just a week. Riding through rain in Toronto traffic mattered not, as I only had to feign interest in Editor Richardson’s ramblings through lunch before he’d relinquish the key to CMG’s long-term R nineT Scrambler. (Feign interest? Give me back that key … – Ed.) Sure, I was expected to pass the bike on to one of my editorial teammates at some point, but that was the distant future, and there was plenty of loving … er, riding to do until then.
There were a few problems though. First, I’m really not a fan of the recent motorcycling trend to ‘scramble’ all the bikes. It just seems like too much of a compromise. You’re not really going to take this thing off-road when there are so many better choices, and much like those foolish high-performance SUVs in the four-wheeled world, it’s a compromise in sporty scenarios too.
Finished in a cool matte grey paint with a tan-coloured seat, our nineT looks fantastic, especially with its optional wire wheels. But the standard R nineT just looks better to my eye. I prefer the contrasting black-and-silver tank, and the beefier inverted 46 mm front forks make for a more serious machine than the 43 mm telescopic ones here (wearing a set of gaiters, no less).
It was a bit absurd to imagine the R nineT could live up to the grandeur I had bestowed upon it in my cloudy recollection, and truthfully, it kind of didn’t.
It’s still a spectacular-looking machine, no doubt, and if anything, the high-mount scrambler exhaust shows off the complex spoked hub afforded by the single-side swing arm better than the other nineT models. Its mechanical parts, too, blend German engineering and real character better than any other modern BMW I’ve ridden.
And yet, riding it is less passion-filled than I recalled. Twisting the key and thumbing the starter button produces the wild lateral shake characteristic of that pair of horizontally-opposed pistons fighting to escape one another. It’s got plenty of poke when you twist the throttle — and the fuelling is measured out just as smooth as can be. The transmission, too, is a mechanical masterpiece, with each shift requiring a deliberate action rewarded with a solid, precise gear selection. If you get a false-neutral with this gearbox, it’s because you’re missing a left foot; there are no other excuse.
It’s a heavy bike for its size, but the centre of gravity feels low, making the R nineT a formidable handler. Even with those relatively spindly Scrambler forks, the BMW is solid, stable and happily takes on lean angles that would make most cruisers send out more sparks than a bench grinder.
There are little details too, like the absence of a fuel gauge that Mark pointed out last month, and that’s bad enough. But when was the last time you rode a contemporary motorcycle costing more than $15-grand that didn’t even have a tachometer (yet has heated grips)? And even though the 1,170 cc engine has a gruff note, it’s very muted, despite pipes supplied by Akropovic. In case you’re wondering (as I was), the ends are sealed shut, so there’s not even an easy baffle-ectomy to help let the Boxer engine sing.
The biggest reason the R nineT has lost some of its lustre in my eyes really doesn’t even have anything to do with the bike itself, but rather, something else I’ve ridden since that first experience.
There’s another company that offers a big, retro-styled machine, that also has its engine – a V-twin — mounted all sideways-like. The Moto Guzzi Griso has been around longer than the R nineT, though because of an overly sparse dealership network in Canada, few are familiar with it. Like the BMW, the Guzzi is every bit as happy to carve up the curvy roads as it is to pose for photos at the local bohemian java joint.
With legs splayed wide around the enormous tank, riding the Griso is like riding a bull. It’s alive, angry and uncouth compared to the otherwise sophisticated and proper R nineT. The clutch requires significant hand strength and the power delivery down the shaft drive is occasionally unpredictable, requiring a rider to truly be on his or her game when getting on the throttle coming out of corners. There’s no traction control, slipper clutch or ABS here, either to save your bacon.
The Griso grows chest hair on its rider within the first few kilometers, and a full beard within a half hour. If testosterone were sold through Italian motorcycle dealerships, this would be a double-shot. The Guzzi seen here in the photo belongs to my brother (and CMG contributor), Scott, and has had a few styling updates, and a very significant exhaust upgrade, to make it both look — and sound — better than the R nineT. It also means the BMW’s slight performance edge on paper, is blown away on the road by the Italian bike’s cacophony.
Sure you could throw more money at the BMW to make it more individualized too, but the cost of this Griso with its accessories is still below the base price of an R nineT.
In riding both bikes together to one of Toronto’s growing Moto Social events (a monthly convergence of riders and machines of all types at a different coffee shop), there was at least one other identical R nineT Scrambler (and a few new R nineT Racers as well), but no other Griso like Scott’s. So in terms of exclusivity, the Guzzi invites more discussion, if that sort of thing matters to you.
Moto Guzzi has ceased production on the Griso after 2017, which is a shame since it is a truly viable (if less refined) alternative to the R nineT, leaving the new Triumph Thruxton and Honda CB1100 as its only real competitors (neither of which have the unique-feeling sideways-mounted cylinders, nor shaft drive).
Not unlike many torrid affairs, with time comes familiarity and the inevitable decline of some of the initial fireworks. BMW’s R nineT – regardless of which iteration – is still one of my absolute favourite two-wheeled machines, but it’s no longer held in a class of one. It is possible to have a stunning motorcycle, oozing with character and highly capable, without having the BMW roundel affixed to its tank. Who knew?