The machine that I was charging knee-deep into corners on had all the hallmarks of a serious, modern sport bike: a rigid, cast aluminum perimeter frame, 160 horsepower, adjustable traction control, supersport-spec 17-inch radials, 320 mm front brake discs, cruise control, and a sound system with Sirius satellite receiver… hang on, what were those last two items?
The spec sheet of the BMW K1600GTL alone could have fooled me, but the real deception came via the bike’s remarkable handling.
It used to be that a full-on luxury liner replete with heated grips and seat, electrically adjustable screen, sound system, and bags was expected to spend most of its time wearing out the centre of its tires along wide and flat divided highways.
Yet here was BMW’s newest luxury liner managing itself like a true sport bike, just north of Atlanta, Georgia, in the twisty nether regions of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Memo to Honda; Gold Wing revamp due now.
SEPARATED AT BIRTH
A hint at the GTL’s remarkable handling came earlier in the day, when I was riding its sportier K1600GT brother. It handled precisely, carving corners at speed with lighter and more neutral steering than the K1300GT while exhibiting the unwavering stability typical of machines designed and built in a country with speed-limit-free autobahns.
Tightening up a line in decreasing-radius corners was effortless, which was a real revelation on a heavyweight touring bike with a Duolever front end, while the bike’s low centre of gravity made haste of tight turning transitions, lifting up from and back down into a lean with only a modest tug at the handlebars.
Granted, it won’t flick about like a 600 cc sport bike, but the K1600GT managed itself quite competently considering it’s built primarily with comfortable, cross-country travel in mind — or at least that’s what you’d think.
It was no surprise that the heavier GTL shared most of the GT’s handling traits, for beneath the bodywork the two machines are essentially the same. Both share the same frame that uses rather aggressive steering geometry for a touring bike (28-degree rake, 106 mm trail and a 1,618 mm wheelbase).
It’s upon sitting on the bikes that you feel the biggest differences between them. The GTL has a more relaxed, upright riding position, achieved by a handlebar that is 25 mm higher and 50 mm more rearward.
Its lower 750 mm seat cradles your backside and makes you feel you’re sitting much deeper into the bike. It’s not La-Z-Boy luxurious like the Gold Wing’s perch, but it is all-day comfortable.
It’s also non-adjustable, though a 780 mm seat option is available, and measuring six-feet tall it’s the one I’d choose. Footpegs are also lower, though the bike still has a tighter relationship between the seat and footpegs than the GT and places a sharper angle at the knees.
In contrast the sportier GT places its rider higher (with an adjustable seat height of 810-830 mm) and in a very slight forward cant. It, too, has an optional seat, though this time it’s a lower perch, placing the seat height between 780-800 mm.
The GT’s taller seat also makes it easier to look over the top of the windscreen, which has a V-shaped upper edge. The larger screen on the GTL punches a bigger hole into the wind, which provides more wind protection, but it actually induces a bit more helmet buffeting and is optically distorted near the top, which prompted me to keep it in its lowest position.
Wind protection on both bikes was very good, with the lower body encased in a nearly still cocoon of air, with some very mild turbulence creeping around the sides of the windscreen and at the shoulders and helmet.
IS SIX THE NEW FOUR?
Of course, the K1600 models’ most distinguishing feature is the engine. At 556 mm wide, BMW’s new 1,649cc six is comparable in width to many contemporary inline fours.
This is achieved not only through newer materials that allow tighter tolerances, but also by cylinders spaced just 5 mm apart. The engine uses a long stroke, which contributes to an impressive peak torque of 129 lb-ft, 70 percent of which is available from just 1,500 rpm.
A dry-sump design incorporates a 4.5-litre oil reservoir into the rear of the crankcase (so a remotely located oil tank isn’t needed) allowing low placement of the engine in the frame. This, combined with cylinders that are canted forward 55 degrees, results in a very low centre of gravity.
The fuel injection system uses a single 52 mm throttle body with long intake runners (another torque-enhancing feature) with throttle control via cable-less ride-by-wire.
The engine pulled smoothly from as low as 1,500 rpm in the higher gears, and got progressively more forceful as the tachometer needle swept towards its 8,500 rpm redline. Unless you’re in a real hurry to get by someone, downshifting while passing is redundant.
Despite having two more cylinders and displacing an additional 410 cc over the K1300GT, fuel consumption is actually 15 percent better at a steady 90 km/h on the GT, BMW claiming an astounding 4.5L/100km (62 mpg) at that speed. Both the GT and GTL have 26.5-litre fuel tanks, so cruising range should prove very tour-worthy.
Now, there are two things about the K1600 engine that set it apart from anything else on the market today. One is the luscious sound it produces, especially in the upper revs, where it emits an intoxicating hum (BMW engineers have even worked a throatier sound into the GT exhaust).
The other is uncanny smoothness. Riding along at 110 km/h and pulling the clutch to allow the engine to drop to idle made almost no difference in the level of vibration on the bike. I think the Zero electric bike is the only other two-wheeler I’ve ridden that’s smoother.
One thing a bit bothersome about the engine was its overly sensitive throttle. This wasn’t so much an issue when rolling as it was when taking off from a stop. For some reason the throttles on the test bikes were adjusted with no free play, so the slightest nudge caused their engines to spin up.
CONTROLLING THE DYNAMICS
Riding modes are adjustable on DTC (dynamic traction control) equipped models. Dynamic, Road and Rain modes are selected through a button mounted on the right-hand switch pod.
Dynamic mode offers aggressive engine mapping and minimal traction control intervention, Road mode has milder engine mapping for smoother throttle response, and more effective traction control, and Rain mode offers the softest throttle response and the highest level of control.
Along winding back roads Dynamic mode provided the most invigorating acceleration, though throttle response proved a bit too sensitive when trying to maintain a steady speed on the open highway.
The fix for this was easy; simply select Road mode for smoother throttle modulation by hitting the mode button, pulling in the clutch and then releasing the throttle to confirm the selection. Or, alternately you could set the cruise control and sit back to enjoy the tunes in your iPod through the sound system’s multiple connectivity.
Blitzing back roads might not be your thing, and you might actually want a K1600 touring bike for touring. Don’t fret, because either of these machines, especially the lavishly equipped K1600GTL, will easily oblige.
With ESA II suspension (standard on the GTL, optional on the GT), you can readily switch from sport-bike firm to luxury-liner plush with the push of a handlebar-mounted button, or more accurately, a button and a multi-controller.
With ESA II you can adjust the rear shock preload and spring rate for carrying varying loads. The rear shock uses an elastomer element BMW calls Cellasto (great name for a superhero) in conjunction with a conventional spring to alter the spring rate.
Front and rear damping is also adjustable, with Sport, Normal and Comfort denoting the different levels. The difference between Sport and Comfort is huge, but for the most part I left the suspension in Comfort mode, enjoying a cushy and compliant, yet very well-controlled ride.
As soon as we turned onto a twisty stretch, Sport mode was chosen — on the fly — and within seconds the ride firmed up, the suspension feeling taut, yet without uncomfortable harshness.
BMW has done a very good job of making the interface between rider and electronics very intuitive. Selecting different suspension modes is easy enough to be done between corners if you forget to do so when turning onto a twisty road (which I did), and the same switches that control the suspension serve many other functions.
I got accustomed to scrolling through the various menus displayed on the TFT screen within a couple of hours of riding the bike; you need days to get used to some bikes’ electronic features.
NIGHT VISION GOGGLES
An innovative new feature available on both machines is the adaptive headlight, which aims the headlight beam into a turn. Our hosts arranged a night ride so that we could sample this new technology.
With the adaptive headlight feature, a centrally located xenon projector headlight aims upwards towards a movable mirror, which then reflects the beam into a turn using lean-angle sensors, a computer and a servo-motor.
Zig-zagging into the dark the headlight beam could easily be seen swinging side to side, albeit with a fraction of a second’s delay.
It’s definitely an improvement over non-adaptive lighting, and illuminates — at least partially — the entry of curves. It’s standard on the GTL and part of the GT’s Safety Package option ($1,100) that includes DTC and a tire pressure indicator.
However, I must say that the biggest improvement to the K1600 lighting comes from the ultra-bright xenon headlamp. Switching to high beam lights the twin, outboard halogens and aims the central xenon beam higher up the road — the total available illumination is quite impressive.
THE FRILLY BITS
Frilly features are important for a touring bike, and there’s an abundance of them as standard equipment on the K1600GTL.
The sound system is Bluetooth capable, has a Sirius satellite receiver with one year’s subscription included with a new bike purchase, as well as iPod connectivity and compatibility with BMW’s communication system.
The Dashboard is designed to incorporate BMW’s Navi IV Garmin GPS, and it can be removed and transferred to other vehicles. Also standard is DTC, ESA II, adaptive lighting, central locking and a security system among other things. And that’s a lot of stuff for $29,225, which is $775 less than the 2010 Gold Wing, but that difference disappears if you include the $799 for the Navi system, which is standard on the Wing.
The K1600GT lists for $24,100 and shares standard features with the GTL like heated grips and seat, semi-integral ABS, xenon headlight, cruise control and onboard computer. Dressing it up to the same level as the GTL (adaptive lighting, DTC, ESA II, etc) bumps the price to $28,025, but you don’t get the top case and comfier ergos.
With the K1600GT and GTL, BMW has definitely redefined a class of motorcycle usually associated with mature, highway-bound riders tugging trailers stuffed with coolers and camping gear.
I guess BMW figures that just because you plan a long-distance trip to a faraway destination, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick to side roads and indulge in an occasional adrenaline rush along the way.
|Engine type||Four-stroke dohc inline six, liquid cooled|
|Power(crank)*||160 hp @ 7,750 rpm|
|Torque*||129 lb-ft @ 5,250 rpm|
|Tank Capacity||26.5 litres|
|Carburetion||EFI with single 52 mm throttle body|
|Final drive||Six speed, shaft drive|
|Brakes, front||Two 320 mm discs with four-piston calipers|
|Brakes, rear||320 mm disc with dual-piston caliper|
|Seat height||810-830 mm (31.9-32.7″) GT; 750 mm (29.5″) GTL|
|Wheelbase||1,618 mm (63.7″)|
|Wet weight*||319 kg (703 lb) GT; 348 kg (767 lb) GTL|
|Colours||Light Grey, Vermillion Red (GT); Royal Blue, Mineral Silver (GTL)|