Photos by Kevin Wing
Calling the 2018 BMW K1600B a bagger is misleading. Baggers are an American phenomenon, starting sometime in the early 1990s when owners of gargantuan, American-made V-twin touring bikes stripped off top cases, cut windscreens and dropped suspensions to produce customised, compromised, floorboard-scraping land barges.
The late ’90s saw the first factory bagger, the Harley Road Glide, and other American bike makers (namely Victory) followed with their own versions of these pared-down V-twin tourers (Indian also makes them now). In 2013 Honda threw a wrench into the works by producing the F6B, a Japanese bagger based on the six-cylinder Gold Wing. But calling a Gold Wing a bagger is like calling a Multistrada an enduro. Oh wait … they do.
Well, we now have a German-made bagger, and the K1600B is the supersport of baggers. We were invited to ride it in Asheville, North Carolina, in what turned out to be a unique press launch.
The K1600B’s undercarriage and chassis geometry are shared with the K1600GTL, but the B has a redesigned rear frame that sits 71 mm lower. This subsequently drops the passenger seat height by an equal amount, while the rider’s perch is at 780 mm, which is 30 mm lower than GT and 30 mm higher than the GTL. Though seat height is not adjustable, a no-cost low seat option drops seat height to the GTL’s 750 mm.
The K1600B’s 1,649 cc inline six produces 160 horsepower and 129 lb.-ft. of torque, making it the most powerful bagger you can bag. It also uses the GTL’s 700-watt alternator, as opposed to the GT’s 580-watt unit. The engine drives the rear wheel through a six-speed gearbox via shaft drive.
From the rider’s seat you’ll find the same instrument cluster as on BMW’s two original K1600 models, which includes analogue gauges for the speedometer and tachometer, and a central TFT colour screen for selecting ride modes (Rain, Road or Dynamic), setting seat and grip heat levels and suspension settings, and for displaying trip info. Your hands, however, grasp a new tubular handlebar, which kind of resembles a drag bar, but with a U-shaped tube attaching it to the top clamp. If you find its styling odd (I do) you can request a forged aluminum handlebar at no extra cost.
Its fairing closely resembles the one on the GTL, which is slightly different from the sportier GT, but it features a much lower windscreen. At the rear are new, more streamlined side cases, which unlike the GT and GTL are not easily removable but are bolted on, though they have the same capacity, at 37 litres each. Also new are the oil-drum sized mufflers.
My test bike was equipped with forward-mounted floorboards (a $240 option), beneath which are cleverly concealed engine crash bars. It also has LED fog lights, which are part of the $1,750 Equipment Package that also includes keyless operation with central locking, electric shift assist (up- and downshift), and an anti-theft alarm. It also has an optional electric reverse (a la Gold Wing), which is part of the $2,500 Touring Package that also includes an audio system.
By press launch standards, this one was monumental. It was a two-day affair that took us through the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains and three states, for a total of about 700 km. That’s long. Sometimes, at other launch events, we’re barely in the seat for 160 km. In a display of unadulterated opulence we stayed at the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estates in Asheville, on which you’ll find the colossal Biltmore House, constructed by George Vanderbilt at the turn of the 20th Century, when he was only 26 years old. I was still coming down from previous acid trips at that age. And, of course, the pièce de résistance: the launch was held purposely around the August 21st solar eclipse, and we were in the zone of totality.
Rolling away, I was pleasantly reminded of just how smooth the K1600 platform is: simply put, the bike is electric smooth and almost completely devoid of vibration. It floats over pavement, though the incredibly smooth roads in the two Carolinas and Tennessee are partially responsible for the polished ride.
We began the first day with an hour-long interstate stint toward the mountains, giving the K1600B a chance to stretch its legs. With the cruise set to 130 km/h, I also stretched my legs onto the optional floorboards, taking a very un-BMW-like leg-forward stance, which actually felt quite comfy, especially since I’d cut airflow to my body by raising the electrically adjustable windscreen. And don’t ask me how I know this, but the bike is governed to top out at 210 km/h.
Comfort is exceptional, which is no surprise being that the Bagger is derived from a long-distance tourer. BMW had installed the optional low seat on all of the test bikes, but most riders above about five-foot-ten, like me, requested the standard seat on the second day. While the low seat provides an effortless reach to the ground, the perch is too cramped for taller riders, though the optional footboards do provide some relief.
Leaving the highway we began the more intense part of the testing, along tight, twisty, yet board-smooth roads toward our lunch stop, where we enjoyed a two-hour lunch, highlighted by the moon’s blotting out of the sun.
I’d witnessed a partial eclipse before, but we got the full Monty here, and spectacular doesn’t even begin to explain the experience. Crickets began chirping, fooled by the midday darkening of the sky. Automatic porch lights turned on. The temperature dropped. Then, as the last beads of sunlight disappeared behind the moon, the sun’s corona appeared. Aside from witnessing the corona for about a minute and a half in near night-like darkness, the dramatic golden light that followed when the sun popped out the other side was equally as enthralling — like a perfect sunset without the long shadows.
Now, on the way to lunch we’d noticed the scores of eclipse watchers in their cars streaming slowly into the mountains and parking along the roads and at lookouts. While this posed almost no problem heading into the mountains, once the sun was done eclipsing we knew we’d experience “carmageddon” on our way back, as everyone drove out of the mountains at the same time.
Sure enough, when we got to the interstate on the return trip, cars were crawling along at walking pace for as far as you could see. Our lead riders, being from California, decided we could split lanes to save some time. The problem is that lane splitting isn’t legal in North Carolina, so drivers aren’t accustomed to having motorcycles squeeze by. Despite filtering through the creeping traffic at a very safe pace in second gear, some drivers were enraged and responded by swerving — sometimes violently — into our path. Admittedly, we were in the wrong, but this didn’t justify people using their vehicles as weapons to try to knock us off our bikes.
After a few miles of this, and coming up on a trio of infuriated drivers who had teamed up to prevent me from moving ahead, I gave up splitting lanes and held back, rejoining my group of five other riders later on. Fortunately, our lead rider had also determined that splitting lanes was too risky among these conservative drivers, and we all filed into the traffic and baked in the 35-degree heat.
Seemingly the damage was done, though: as we crawled along, a pickup truck got deep into our lane as it went by, and the passenger flung a full bottle of Gatorade, hitting a rider just ahead of me. The gesture wasn’t one of thirst-quenching goodwill, but one of anger. When the targeted rider confronted the people in the pickup truck, the driver responded by raising his handgun.
Fortunately most of BMW’s hired guns (he-he) are former cops, and they disarmed the situation, which could have easily escalated into an evening news headline. The lead rider who cooled down the hot heads eventually tracked down a state trooper and reported the driver for brandishing a handgun, which, it turns out, is less unlawful than splitting lanes in NC. Soon after this incident, we turned off the interstate and rode peacefully under the cover of the Blue Ridge Parkway into Asheville.
Day two was much smoother, and we rode mostly along serpentine roads. Despite its land-barge proportions, the K1600 is the best-handling touring bike platform out there. Although it weighs in at a claimed 336 kg wet (14 kg lighter than the GTL), it has a remarkably rigid chassis and rolls on supersport-sized 17-inch tires (120/70 front; 190/55 rear). When the ESA suspension is set to the firmer Road mode (Cruise mode is softer) the bike rails through high-speed corners completely unperturbed. Ample cornering clearance is available, allowing for a very spirited pace, though this isn’t a point-and-shoot sport bike, something I was reminded of by the smell of hot brakes after one particularly enthusiastic run through a set of twisties.
Starting at $26,100, the K1600B costs $2,100 more than the F6B and $500 less than the 2018 Harley Road Glide. More importantly, it costs almost $6,000 less than the GTL, making it a smarter choice for a solo rider looking for touring bike comfort, since the GTL is better equipped for two-up riding. It has a long list of standard features, including ABS Pro, traction control, BMW’s ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment), a xenon headlight, cruise control, heated handgrips, heated seat (rider and passenger), and an accessory power socket.
Despite its moniker I don’t consider the BMW K1600B to be a bagger, a name that suggests laid-back V-twin cruising. This bike is smooth, it’s fast, and it handles. Think of this bagger as more of a large-scale sport bike, wrapped in a streamlined silhouette.