Zac vs. Luxury: the BMW C650 GT review

Photos: Zac Kurylyk/Ramona Rodden
Title photo: Ramona Rodden

Back in my university days, I had a buddy who drove a 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. It was not a particularly nice vehicle in any respect, but it did one thing very well: it was a sleeper.

I saw the scenario play out many times. He’d pull up to a light, some kid in a slammed Civic would burp his fart can in the next lane over, and give The Look. The light would turn green, and The Look would be replaced by a flush of embarrassment, as Johnny Honda and his janky four-cylinder were left in the dust by the mom-mobile with its V6.

The BMW C650 GT is kind of like that Cutlass Ciera, except it’s a really nice vehicle, and it isn’t a red-light rocket. But it has the potential to surprise many other motorists.

The BMW C650 GT: a scooter for the discerning step-through rider.
The deets

The BMW C650 GT is the only BMW scooter currently imported into Canada (the C400 is coming later this season), and it’s been on the market for a while (Costa wrote the original review here; the current model was updated in 2015).

It’s a very Euro-inspired design. Scooters are mostly seen as budget transportation in North America, but they’re a respectable part of the continental lifestyle, and BMW has made this a step-through for the scooterist with money and taste. Forget the 49 cc two-stroke that powered millions of scooters for decades. The C650 GT has a four-stroke liquid-cooled 647cc parallel twin, combined with a Continuously Variable Transmission and enclosed chain final drive. It’s built by Kymco, in Taiwan.

That’s the biggest scooter engine currently available on the Canadian market (the Suzuki Burgman is 638 cc), but there’s more. To go with the muscle (allegedly 60 hp, and 46 lbs.-ft. of torque), BMW includes USD forks (non-adjustable), ABS and traction control as standard. If you want to crash this bike, you’ve really got to try. There are dual 270 mm discs up front with twin-pot calipers, and a single 270 mm disc in back. “Usable tank volume” is 15.5 litres, with three litres of that in reserve. That’s good for 225-to-275 km between fill-ups, depending how hard you are on the throttle.

Front and rear wheels are both 15-inchers, and wet weight is 261 kg. And that’s enough detail for now. Let’s get to the ride.

There’s 60 litres of storage under that seat. That’s more than enough for a solo touring rider, and you can add another 40ish litres if you buy the official BMW accessory trunk and pack. A rack is also available as an accessory.
Back road blaster

Most of the mileage I put on the C650 GT was on back roads this month across the north-eastern US and Canada, ranging from busier secondary highways to forgotten byways, with the occasional small town en route. This is where I spend most of my riding time around my home base in New Brunswick, but I’m usually behind the bars of a single-cylinder dual sport, with my bones rattling as the thumper dishes out punishment.

That sort of barbaric, uncivilized approach to back-road meandering was a distant memory when I sat behind the bars of the C650 GT. Take the motor, for instance: instead of having to aggressively bang through the gears, shifting constantly to stay in the sweet spot of the powerband, I could just smoothly roll on and off the throttle, letting the CVT do the work. Ahhhh, the luxury. If only the dashboard wasn’t flashing a warning about freezing cold temperatures …

But even those cold temps weren’t the end of the world, thanks to the Beemer’s accessories (mine had the optional, $790 Highline Package 1 installed). Heated grips with low, high and auto settings? Sure! And a heated seat, with those same three settings? I’ll take it! And an electronically-controlled windshield as standard, which moves the windblast from my chest to my helmet, without buffeting? Don’t mind if I do!

Who says king-and-queen style seats are out of style? Not only is this saddle super-comfy, it’s also heated! Note the independent pillion heat control on the side of the seat, with two levels of heat. The front seat also has an “automatic” heat setting.

Although I could not have completed this early-season ride without the heated grips, the heated seat was a huge bonus, one I’ve never tried before. The seat itself is extremely comfortable, locking you into place at speed and making you feel like you’re piloting the world’s fastest, cushiest bar stool. Add in the heating elements, and you’re toasty while riding at slower speed, and still getting quite a bit of warmth on the highway, even in cold temperatures. Corbin makes an aftermarket saddle for the C650 GT, but given the comfort of the stocker, I think you’d have to be crazy to swap it out.

Dual disc brakes combined with ABS bring the scoot to a halt pretty quickly.

I didn’t have a pillion on this trip, but it’s  worth noting there’s separate heating control for the passenger seat as well (low, high or off). The seats are stepped in the classic king-and-queen configuration that went out of style when the Big Four stopped making low riders in the 1980s. For some, that’s a fashion faux pas. For me, it’s a bonus. It means your pillion’s helmet is much less likely to be banging into the back of yours at stops.

(There’s also a Highline Package 2 option as a $585 alternative, which lowers the seat by 20 mm for those riders who are more vertically-challenged, but does not offer the heat for your backside. I know which I prefer.)

To add to the scooter’s comfort, BMW also included a foot-forward position on the floorboards, letting me stretch my legs out in the more boring sections, allowing the world’s fastest bar stool to morph into a La-Z-Boy. But in the fun stuff, you’re going to want to keep your legs in the sensible mid-mount position, and focus on the ride.

The 60 horsepower means it doesn’t have too little power, nor does it have too much. You can take on a curvy two-lane just fine with 20 hp, and you can do it with 100 hp, but a small bike always leaves you wanting more horsepower and a big bike always leaves you wanting to carry more speed.

The C650 GT’s power is just enough to keep the pace up, but not so much that you start doing stupid things because you’re bored. And when you get to a populated area, there’s less frustration with the busier traffic. Out of town, you can pick up speed smoothly, while enjoying the view. You can even pick off an unsuspecting car or two, and when you hit the twisties, start harassing cruisers.

Now, because I rode the Beemer in early spring, I didn’t meet any other motorcyclists on the back roads, but I can envision a meeting at a gas station in the summer:

BIKER: What you got there, little boy? A SCOOTER?
C650GT RIDER: Yeah, it’s a BMW, with a 650 cc engine
BIKER: HA! I ride a V-TWIN! With an 1800 cc engine, a stereo, and a big flag! Cuz FREEDOM!
C650 GT RIDER: Sure man, whatever—see you on the road.
BIKER: (Blasts off to the sound of Steppenwolf)
C650GT Rider: (Waits about 20 minutes to leave, then catches up to BIKER in the first set of twisties)
BIKER: (To himself-“Where did HE come from?”).

From my own previous experience on a maxi-scooter, I can tell you that the cruiseratti do not appreciate being hunted down by a step-through in the twisties. Not one bit.

Of course, a competent rider can still say Sayonara to a maxi-scooter pretty quickly. While the Beemer has very good handling, turning in quickly due to its 15-inch wheels, it still doesn’t have the snappy acceleration of a proper gearbox. And while its suspension does a good job of smoothing out the beating of a bad road, it doesn’t have the suspension travel to truly rip up a stereotypical Canadian byway, with potholes and frost heaves. Lean the machine over in a corner, hit a bump, and you might start scraping, at least in the left-handers as the centrestand or sidestand might touch down. But on a properly paved road, the 650’s handling is a dream. Just remember to take it easier in the bumpy sections. Don’t worry, you’ll still be faster than the cruisers.

“Oh, the places you’ll go!” Hanging out at the State Capitol in Vermont. My entire touring setup is contained in that underseat trunk.
Highway hauler

I did knock off quite a bit of highway mileage aboard the C650 GT as well, and found it excelled in a role that the motorcycle industry has largely forgotten: the middleweight touring bike.

Once upon a time, touring kits (Vetter, and assorted knock-offs) were fairly common on 750-class UJMs. Honda built the Silver Wing, a scaled-down Gold Wing, for several years, and at one point, Kawasaki even had a touring version of its KZ400. But these days, if you want a factory tourer that comes with OEM luggage, you’ve got to start looking around the 1000 cc level for the most part. The motorcycle industry has decided if someone wants to go touring, they want a lot of engine so they can haul a lot of luggage (and maybe a lot of passenger) down the highway with a lot of speed.

This scooter didn’t have it, but in Europe, the C650 GT is available with lane assistance, warning you of drivers in your blind spot.

But that doesn’t necessarily describe every touring enthusiast, and if you prefer a slightly less bloodthirsty approach to two-wheeled travel, maybe you should look at the C650 GT. Not only is it a fun back-road burner, but it can also knock out the highway miles very easily.

It’s not as buttery-smooth a ride at highway speed, but you can still hold 130 km/h all day with no trouble. And you’ve got 60 litres of underseat storage to haul your luggage (a couple of pieces of accessory luggage are also available, enough to get total capacity to about 100 litres).

There’s no cruise control, which is a big oversight in my opinion, but otherwise, it’s still a pretty comfortable machine for blasting down the freeway. The cruisers you passed in the twisties might catch up to you now, but who cares? Let them ride ahead and get the traffic tickets. You’re settled in behind that big windscreen and all the bodywork, so you can tick off the miles with comfort, maybe stopping every couple of hundred clicks for fuel, espresso, and a croissant. Enjoy the good life, you’ve earned it (hopefully).

Just be careful you don’t forget to watch your speed (a little easier to do with a CVT), and end up blowing by a state police officer well above the limit, like I did. Thankfully, he changed his mind about pulling me over once he saw I was on a scooter. Perhaps he didn’t trust his radar gun when he saw I was on a step-through, or maybe he just didn’t want to be known as the officer who pulled over a scooter? Either way, I’ll take it!

One headlight works on low-beam, the other at high beam.
City slicker

But now the backroad meandering and highway blasting is done, and you’re back home in the city. Take heart! The concrete jungle is really the natural habitat for the C650 GT. This scoot was designed with cramped European urban centres in mind. Remember those 15-inch wheels I mentioned earlier? True, they do hold the scoot back a bit on bad roads, but here in traffic, they rock. The scooter’s low centre of gravity combined with small wheels, a wide bar and fantastic brakes mean you can slice your way through gridlock with ease.

This is where the CVT really shines. The transmission doesn’t make a big difference on the highway, and while it makes for smooth back-road riding, it does hinder performance. But in the city, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the CVT is the business. It’s a lot less work than a standard manual transmission, and still has enough off-the-line snap that you can zip in and out of gridlock openings with ease.

The C650 GT is a big scooter, but it’s still a scooter, which means you can try to take advantage of things like free parking in the GTA (but don’t blame us if it goes wrong). The heavier weight might make it tougher for petite riders to muscle it around in a parking spot, though the optional lower seat might help.

The sidestand also works as a parking brake and engine kill switch. You’ve got to have the sidestand up and hold down a handbrake lever to start the scooter.
The niggles

By now you’re thinking “Zac’s really drunk the Kool-Aid.” But, nope, there are definitely some things BMW could do to improve this scoot, starting with adding the cruise control I mentioned earlier.

Another issue that pops up Every. Single. Time. you stop for fuel is the gas tank fill guard, which doesn’t allow you to fill the tank at full pump power (it splashes gas everywhere). Not a huge deal, just an irritation every 200 km or so while you fill the tank at half-speed.

The styling isn’t bad, although I wonder how scratched-up that plastic bodywork will be after a couple years. However, the colour choices are a bit muted, and I think it detracts from the design; along with the normcore blue, black and white (my favourite) paint, why not offer one of the brilliant red or yellow schemes BMW offers in the rest of the lineup?

Lastly, this scooter really needs a TFT display screen. TFTs are available even on entry-level bikes now, and make interfaces easier and dash displays more attractive. If the C650 GT gets another update in the near future, I expect BMW will include a TFT.

Coming in at a lower price than its closest competitor, the Beemer looks like a good buy if you’re in the market for a top-of-the-line maxi-scooter. Photo: Ramona Rodden
Conclusion

The BMW C650 GT is a surprisingly fun machine to ride, capable of around-town utility and long-distance touring. At a base MSRP of $11,750, however, it’s more expensive than its only competition in Canada, the Suzuki 650 Burgman, which lists for $11,099. The Burgman has a lower seat height (760 mm) and an option for sportier paddle-type transmission shifting, but weighs more (277 kg curb weight, compared to the BMW’s 261 kg) and doesn’t have stability control as standard. Depending on who you ask, it also makes a bit less horsepower.

A step-through with CVT isn’t for everyone, but once you get past the stigma of riding a scooter, you might find this machine offers a blend of comfort and competence that isn’t available in any other mid-level motorcycle. If you want a 650 touring bike, it’s worth checking out this Beemer, especially if you live in the city.


GALLERY

Check out all the pics that go with this story!

8 thoughts on “Zac vs. Luxury: the BMW C650 GT review”

  1. “But these days, if you want a factory tourer that comes with OEM luggage, you’ve got to start looking around the 1000 cc level for the most part. The motorcycle industry has decided if someone wants to go touring, they want a lot of engine so they can haul a lot of luggage (and maybe a lot of passenger) down the highway with a lot of speed.”

    What about the Versys 650 LT?
    – Same size parallel twin
    – 216 kgs vs 261 kgs
    – 58 L vs 60 L factory luggage capacity
    – Kawi vs BMW maintenance costs
    – $10,300 vs $11,100
    – Throw on some Oxford grips for $120 and you’ve got that issue covered.

    Or a V-Strom 650 for $9,600 + lots of luggage choices in the Suzuki accessories catalog.

    If you’re looking for a scooter, then no problem, but if you’re looking for a mid-size tourer, there are choices out there that don’t force you to give up the tire size, ground clearance, handling etc benefits of a real motorcycle.

    1. The Strom is a great tourer but the luggage isn’t always available stock, often as accessory at extra cost. The Versys is a good deal, though it’s usually considered an adventure bike, but really, more of a tourer.

    2. See this is the problem with North American Stigma. They don’t believe scooters can be real motorcycles. It’s 60hp and 650CC. In Europe thieves use these as getaway vehicles because in an urban environment cars and “real” motorcycles cannot catch them. They are too fast and agile. Everywhere else in the world knows these are superior to conventional motorcycles in so many ways. Handling, agility, automatic transmission, even style, although the last one is subjective. This is why scooters are the most popular mode of 2 wheel transport in the world, but in Canada and the States there is that stigma… “It’s not a real motorcycle”. Even the video reviews I’ve seen, the reviewer goes on and on about how embarassed they are to be riding one, yet by the end they can’t stop going on about how much fun it was. Try renting one sometime for a weekend and take it on a highway trip. Then see if you still don’t think it’s a motorcycle. The only place I would say these bikes would not excel is on gravel roads. Hence, I wont be taking mine on the Labrador Highway tour until the finish paving that route!

  2. I agonized for quite a while over whether I should keep upgrading to a bigger bike, but my C650GT has eventually convinced me I am already in the sweet spot. I have learned to love the CVT as well. I took this bike on a 3500km journey to the Gaspe and back to Ontario last summer and loved every minute of it. No issues with the horsepower, there were times I was passing a truck and six cars at one time without breaking a sweat. I no longer care about the stigma that North Americans have about scooters. This thing does exactly what I need and does it better than anything else in the bike store. It’s definitely an attention getter. Try parking one at Tim’s and watch how people walk right by all the other bikes and come right up to yours to check it out. Happens every time. I’m at the point now where this bike has won me over and eliminated all my desires to try something new or different. If it was a woman I’d marry her. She’s a keeper. If the time comes to get a new bike, it will very likely be the same bike, only a newer model.

  3. I had a 400 Yamaha and loved it went from Barrie to To. every day the weather was warm as it was not good on ice. Also did quite a bit of touring. The only thing I did not like is they wanted you to change the belt every 20,000 k that would be 3 times a year for me.
    Would like to get a 650 scooter but having to stop every 200 k for gas is too much, that is why I got rid of my DR 650.
    Some of us old farts just want to ride and not have to be looking for gas .

  4. I owned a 2009 Yamaha T Rex 500 and rode it to Florida in 2013. Great scooter and good styling. The lack of heated grips would be a welcome addition as on the new BMW. Incidentally, the following summer I test rode the BMW maxi scooter at a Toronto dealer and liked the fuel injection although I believe the scooter was in the $14,000 price range. I’m glad that the new BMW is more competitively priced. This whole category of motorcycles (maxi scooters) are not given the respect that our European counterparts allot to them. Great article, cheers!

  5. Welcome to the world of Maxi-Scooters. I ride a Burgman 650 and have it set up for long distance cruising and touring. Did a 5300 km round Lake Superior tour last September (in 13 days) and am off to Alabama this September. It’s finally nice to see a publication recognize that big “scooters”, or as I prefer to call them, “step-thru motorcycles” are great machines and very all-round capable. Perhaps you should consider regularly covering the gas scooter world (electrics are toys!) because there’s lots of us out here.

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