Costa and ‘Arris take BMW’s F800GS out for a spin in the dirt to see just how good the new GS’s off-road credentials really are. Shits and giggles abound.
We couldn’t have been luckier with the scheduling of our BMW F800GS test bike. As it was part of CMG’s test bike fleet in September, it coincided with two GS-friendly events: the Calabogie Boogie Trail Ride and the GS Challenge (see attached article). Although both of those events would test the F800’s off-road worthiness, we began our test ride where most GSs’ lives begin: on the street.
Even if F800GS owners never deviate from pavement they won’t be disappointed, as it proved to be a very refined street bike. Although its somewhat tall 880 mm (34.6 in.) seat height might put off a few riders (a lower 850 mm/33.4 in. seat is a no-cost option), it provides ample legroom for tall riders, though you’ve got more of a bend in your knees than you would on a dual-sport bike. This combines with an easy reach to the tapered handlebar for a relaxed, streetbike-like upright riding position.
The seat was firm and provided ample support for several hours of riding comfort. Lifting it (via a key) revealed a storage space large enough to easily contain a tool kit I put together that included everything needed to service the bike on the road (and I needed it, but more on that later). The only thing that wouldn’t fit in the storage compartment, the tire irons, fit neatly atop the fuel tank (which is mounted mid-ship on the GS).
Steering was light, yet the bike didn’t display any instability due to the leverage offered by its wide handlebar. Stock Bridgestone Battle Wing 502 tires worked well on the street, providing a smooth ride and neutral steering.
Because the bike is tall, however, it didn’t transition quickly through tight esses the way the lower, firmer F800R did, though its plusher suspension provided an almost dreamy ride quality.
The non-adjustable fork was a bit too soft for a sporting pace, and its long travel dove considerably under hard braking. The single rear shock is adjustable hydraulically for preload (via an easily accessible knob), while its variable rebound damping allowed an adequate adjustment range for the varying terrain we covered during our test.
HEART AND SOUL
When BMW collaborated with Rotax to produce the F800’s engine, they produced one of the nicest mid-displacement engines in motorcycling. The 798 cc liquid-cooled parallel twin is compact, smooth and powerful, and it produces an invitingly raspy growl to boot.
The engine delivered its power instantly and it gained revs in a linear, yet forceful manner. Allowed to spin in the upper rev range — say 6,000–8,000 rpm — it provided a surprising amount of forward momentum. Although we didn’t have luggage on our test bike, it’s not a stretch to assume the F800GS could easily handle a heavy load, passenger included.
Despite the engine’s healthy 85-horsepower output, it is remarkably fuel-efficient. We averaged a very respectable 4.9L/100 km (58 mpg) in a combination of street and off-road riding. This provided a cruising range of about 320 km.
Before we headed for the dirt we took some precautionary measures to ensure we got the most out of the machine — and didn’t damage it unnecessarily. This included removing the mirrors and accessory centrestand ($170), and swapping the stock rubber for more dirt-friendly Continental TKC 80 DOT-approved dual-sport tires. We also taped up the frame near the footpegs to prevent scuffing, and I installed plastic handguards just before participating in the GS Challenge.
Time constraints (and maybe a bit of laziness) prevented us from installing a proper skidplate, so we crossed our fingers that the stock plastic item would prevent a ride-ending disaster, and fortunately, we didn’t experience any. Even if you plan on sticking to dirt roads and avoiding trails, we’d highly recommend installing an aluminum skidplate that protects the exhaust pipes, as well as the oil filter and oil-interchanger, all of which are rather vulnerable at the front of the engine.
The F800GS seemingly has a forward weight bias, and it had the unfortunate tendency to plough the front end if you tried to dive into corners in the dirt. There is a remedy for this, and it comes via the engine’s broad powerband. Just slow down before entering a turn, wick up the throttle as you pitch it in and use the rear wheel to steer around bends with poise. The bike responded very nicely to this riding style — and it was quite a lot of fun, too — especially when the trails opened up into dirt roads.
On dirt the Continental tires worked very well on everything but loose sand and mud, where steering and feedback were vague, though this was partially due to the bike’s un-dirtbike-like 207 kg (456 lb) wet weight. The tires provided a remarkably smooth street ride, though they slowed steering noticeably, requiring higher effort at the handlebar to initiate a turn.
You could argue that there’s a bit too much power for the dirt, however, and there was some abruptness off idle that made getting through tighter trails a challenge, though you can still soldier through. It would be nice to see a two-way mapping switch — one for pavement and gravel, where the engine’s power characteristics excelled, and one for dirty, gnarly twisty trails where power was a bit overwhelming.
Our machine was equipped with optional ABS ($850) and although this proved indispensable on the street, it could have been hazardous off-road if you forgot to switch it off — which I did ….
Part of the GS Challenge included a morning of special tests, one of which incorporated a steep, rocky descent with a mid-hill 90-degree right-hand turn. I got the signal to start my approach, turned the ignition switch on, hit the starter and went, only to discover that hitting the brakes on the loose rock did almost nothing.
All I felt was the cycling of the ABS with almost no effect on my forward momentum. I managed to avoid disqualification by stopping before going off course, at which point I turned the ignition off and on again, this time while holding down the ABS button, which deactivates the ABS.
A more foolproof method of letting the rider know if the ABS is activated/deactivated would be handy (a small red warning light glows in the dash when ABS is deactivated, but nothing reminds you that it’s actually on) — maybe incorporating it into a mapping switch option.
Perhaps the F800GS’s best attribute was the way it handled on winding gravel roads. Here, the machine’s stability combined with its plush suspension and light steering to glide effortlessly around corners.
Returning from the GS Challenge, I took mostly logging roads, and blasting down them at speed was exhilarating. As visibility to approaching corners was good, I rode along at 120-140 km/h in top gear, using only engine braking and a quick downshift to set up for approaching turns, and nailed the throttle through them in graceful, easily controlled drifts.
Of course, riding this way has its risks (we do not condone this manner of hooliganism, but sometimes we just can’t help ourselves). I experienced one of them entering a high-speed right-hand sweeper, when the rear end swung way out, causing the fork to lock on its stopper. I counter-steered as best I could, to which the bike responded by swinging its tail hard the other way.
Realizing I’d blown the rear tire, I managed to negotiate the turn and come to a stop by the side of the road. I laid the bike on its side and replaced the inner tube (and my shorts) and was back on my way 20 minutes later.
It’s only after I got home and unpacked the damaged tube that I found the culprit: a rusty nail, which shot through the tire and tube like a projectile due to the high speeds and wildly spinning rear tire.
A WORTHY GS
Being able to ride the bike in this manner alone would almost make it worth its $12,495 base price. But the F800GS has much more to offer than that.
As we mentioned in our KTM 690 Adventure project story, the F800GS is a more refined street package. It might not have the off-road prowess of the KTM, but for the average rider it’s a lighter, better-balanced package than the R1200GS — or most other larger, heavier twin- and triple-cylinder adventure tourers for that matter.
The GS can handle most of what you’ll find riding ATV trails — maybe even some single-track stuff if ridden accordingly — just make sure you don’t mistake it for a trail bike: this it is not. If you take your off-road riding seriously you should consider a single-cylinder dual-sport. This is, after all, a street bike, with a street-bike chassis and engine.
But if you’re a moderate off-roader who seeks more of the “adventure” in adventure-touring, and your next season’s riding plans include exploring the countless kilometres of unpaved roads that crisscross this country, the F800GS will do it comfortably, competently, and if you enjoy two-wheel drifting, somewhat entertainingly.
BMW F800GS – second opinion by ‘Arris
My left leg is straight and pointing forward. As the F800GS veers left I wind up the throttle and the rear starts to lose its hold on the gravel road below. Out she slides and I keep winding up the throttle to keep the bike sideways and arc perfectly around a corner that would be considered fast even on paved roads.
“Vas ist das?” Das ist ’Arris trying to do gravel corners meine GS frauline. She’s opening up to me and I’m full-on horny. I may not be the world’s most adept off-roader, but right here, right now for me at least, I am.
This is the first time I’ve ridden one of BMW’s F800 parallel twins and it’s quickly become a love affair. It delivers its power strong and quick with a growl out of the pipe that becomes a full-on howl when you giv’er.
It might be too much power for dirt use, but on gravel (the bike’s happy place) the motor feels like it’s got a steering connection to the rear wheel, able to accurately direct the chassis with a subtle roll of the wrist at the rider’s command.
However, despite high spec suspension, strong brakes and a powerful motor, it all gets to be too much when what you really need is less weight to get you through the gnarly stuff. If you do decide to ignore this reality and start pushing it in the rough then you’ll start to inflict damage on the bike and then yourself.
Basically I’d place it on the soft end of the dual-sport spectrum, close to a KLR650. Yes, a KLR can get a little more into the gnarly, but it’s also going to get damaged pretty quickly too if you decide to push it (although bits would be cheaper to replace).
But that’s no bad thing and I think realistically that’s probably just where BMW want the smaller GS to be; perfect for that big international tour and more than capable of tackling some of the rougher roads that you may come across. Or even just a fun day out sliding around the local gravel and fire roads.
|Bike||2009 BMW F800GS|
|Engine type||Four-stroke dohc parallel twin, liquid-cooled|
|Power (crank – claimed)||85 @ 7,500 rpm|
|Torque (claimed)||61 @ 5,750|
|Tank Capacity||16 litres|
|Carburetion||EFI with 46 mm throttle bodies|
|Final drive||Six speed, chain drive|
|Brakes, front||Two 300 mm discs with dual-piston calipers|
|Brakes, rear||264 mm disc with single-piston caliper|
|Seat height||880 mm (34.6″)(850 mm/33.5″ optional)|
|Wheelbase||1,578 mm (62.1″)|
|Dry weight (claimed)||207 kg (456 lb)|
|Colours||Yellow/black; matte black|