Fast times with BMW’s R1200 GS Adventure

by Costa Mouzouris. Photos by Jon Beck and Kevin Wing

There are probably very few motorcyclists who wouldn’t acknowledge that the BMW R1200GS is the greatest adventure bike ever built. It’s the machine that started the whole adventure bike phenomenon in the early 1980s, when a couple of rally competitors decided to convert an R75/5 for off-road use and entered it in the Paris-Dakar rally. That bike inspired BMW to build the GS800 rally racer, which in turn inspired the first GS street bike.

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The sight of such a monstrous dirt bike in the dunes of Africa, as well as a handful of Dakar wins, sparked the imaginations of adventurous and wannabe adventurous riders around the world, and the GS has since become BMW’s biggest selling bike, and the world’s biggest selling adventure bike – by a considerable margin.

The R1200GS Adventure, a dressed-up variation of the GS, first appeared in 2002, and for 2014 gets its third generational makeover. I had the opportunity to ride it at its recent introduction, held in the spectacular red rock canyons surrounding Sedona, Arizona.

WHAT’S NEW

The Adventure gets the new liquid(ish) cooled  1200 motor.
The Adventure gets the new liquid(ish) cooled 1200 motor.

The R1200GS got a complete overhaul last year, receiving an all-new frame and the latest boxer engine, which features liquid-cooled heads and an integrated gearbox.

Although the engine is actually only 35 percent liquid-cooled (the remaining heat being dissipated by air passing over finned cylinders) it is easily identifiable by the vertical configuration of the intake and exhaust ports.

The new motor also offers more shin room for the rider (specially handy off road when paddling through the soft stuff).
The new motor also offers more shin room for the rider (specially handy off road when paddling through the soft stuff).

These not only improve airflow into the cylinders, but perhaps more importantly, also improves legroom, as the throttle bodies are no longer located ahead of your shins. Another useful change is that the air intakes are now way up high, to either side of the steering head (as opposed to down by the cylinders in the old 1200) giving greater ability in water crossings.

The outgoing Adventure was still being built around BMW’s previous-generation platform using the air-cooled 1200 engine, but the new engine offers a 15 horsepower boost (power is now rated at 125 hp, and peak torque is up to 92 lb.-ft. from 88).

It's tall.
It’s tall.

But BMW didn’t just graft the new R1200GS engine onto the Adventure. The engine has been slightly altered with a torque-enhancing, heavier flywheel (0.9 kg heavier), and it gets a vibration damper at the transmission output shaft to soften the shock on the drivetrain due to the Adventure’s steeper swingarm angle (there’s more suspension travel).

Steering geometry is almost identical to the GS, with some very small changes in the rake and trail due to the taller suspension. Oh yeah, there’s 20 mm more wheel travel front and rear, now at 210 and 220 mm respectively. This has combined with a taller seat to raise the seat height by 40 mm to 890/910 mm (it’s adjustable in two positions) compared to the GS.

You can of course buy more farkels for your Adventure as well.
You can of course buy more farkels for your Adventure as well.

Some other obvious changes include a taller, adjustable windscreen, tubeless spoke wheels, a 30-litre aluminum gas tank (up from 20 litres on the GS), and the addition of protective crash bars. Heated grips and switchable ABS are standard, as are selectable ride modes and ASC, the latter two offered only as options on the GS. The alternator is a bit more powerful than the GS alternator, pumping out 540 watts, an increase of 30 watts.

All of these additions boost the price to $21,600, an increase of $2,400 over the GS. Dynamic ESA is available as part of the $2,100 Touring Package, which also includes a more elaborate on-board computer, a pre-wired GPS mount, cruise control, fog lamps and saddlebag mounts. Knobby dual-sport tires are a no-cost option.

THE RIDE

The big Adventure is still very adept on the pavement.
The big Adventure is still very adept on the pavement.

The first hint that our test ride promised to be worthy of the adventure bikes we were riding was that said bikes were equipped with Continental TKC80 dual-sport knobbies. The weather forecast called for clear skies and temperatures in the low 80s Fahrenheit, and the planned 320 km route was run half on pavement (and twisty pavement at that) and half on dirt.

All of the test bikes were fitted with accessory side and top cases, though we were given the opportunity to remove them, which I did before leaving. I also set the seat to its taller position for added legroom, and pivoted the aluminum handlebar in its risers a bit for a more comfortable reach while standing, which I expected to do later in the day. The bikes were also equipped with the Touring Package, with Dynamic ESA, which makes suspension adjustment a matter of hitting a button.

There are plenty of mode options.
There are plenty of  options.

The boxer engine has a characteristic exhaust drone, but one difference between the GS and Adventure engines is that the latter doesn’t spool up as quickly when blipping the throttle due to the heavier crankshaft (and to some extent, the heavier alternator windings).

There are three street modes (Rain, Road and Dynamic) and two off-road modes (Enduro and Enduro Pro). Each mode has preset ABS and ASC settings designed to match the riding conditions. Modes can be selected on the fly through the mode button on the right-hand switch assembly, though if you are moving you must shut the throttle and pull the clutch to confirm your selection.

Enduro mode allows for the ABS to be turned off
Enduro mode allows for the ABS to be turned off

All ride modes are readily available except Enduro Pro, which only becomes available after the provided coding plug is inserted into its terminal under the seat. Enduro Pro is designed to be used with knobby tires, and it deactivates the ABS at the rear wheel while allowing for enough wheel spin to slide the bike around turns. ABS and traction control can also be turned off individually, and with the coding plug installed the settings are retained if the ignition is turned off, otherwise they come back on by default every time the switch is turned on again.

Since we began the ride on pavement, I started with the ride mode set to Road and the suspension set to normal and for a light load. The more recent R1200GS models, say 2010 or later, have a very distinct feel. They are physically large machines, they are tall, and yet once you get rolling, they feel remarkably light for their size. This is even truer since BMW introduced the liquid-cooled engine. It contributes to a lower centre of gravity, which makes the bike more nimble without removing any of its dead-steady stability.

Costa decided not to keep the boxes on his ride. Clever chap.
Costa decided not to keep the boxes on his ride. Clever chap.

When I’d tested the 2013 GS in South Africa last year, I’d reported a slight headshake while standing on the pegs, and some other journalists present at the same launch claimed they experienced a full-on tankslapper. For 2014, the R1200GS and Adventure models include a factory installed steering damper (the GS got it beginning last autumn). It’s invisible at low speeds, and there was absolutely no headshake to report whether standing up or sitting on the bike.

The Adventure is taller than the GS, so it’s a longer way over the top when riding in switchbacks, but the Adventure handles with near sport-bike agility on winding roads, especially when the ride mode is switched to Dynamic and the ESA is set to Hard.

Even with the TKC 80s installed, a quick enough pace could be maintained to make a sport bike rider sweat trying to keep up, and although they roll smoothly on pavement, they suffer from slow steering compared to more street-oriented tires. They’re a fair trade-off if you plan on taking off-pavement excursions regularly but are known to wear out quickly too.

Thanks to the new steering damper there were no signs of steering wobble.
Thanks to the new steering damper there were no signs of steering wobble.

Handling only got better after we hit the dirt. The Adventure, equipped with the proper tires, is one of the best dirt fire-road bikes there is. With the bike in Enduro Pro mode and the suspension set to soft, I could spin up the rear tire to steer the bike on the gas. You want to tighten up a turn on a dirt road? Just pour on some throttle!

The bike really flows fluidly on winding dirt roads on momentum and with confidence-inspiring feedback. I think the Adventure’s heavier crankshaft makes a difference here, and the bike is probably easier to manage in these conditions than the standard GS.

Even when the going got tougher, with rocks and ruts thrown into the mix for excitement, the Adventure just soldiered on, soaking up the bigger bumps quite competently, with a solid, planted feel.

There's a certain speed where the big GS hits it comfort zone off road (60+ km/h)
There’s a certain speed where the big GS hits it comfort zone off road (60+ km/h)

Of course, it’s no enduro bike, despite two such modes, and you’ve got to maintain a modest pace or you can easily find yourself over your head (or head-over-heels). But the Adventure can manage a brisk pace off-road with ease. Like previous GSs, it tackles rougher stuff better with some speed. The Adventure has a sweet spot at around 60 km/h where it rides almost effortlessly; below that speed you find yourself fighting the bike and bouncing around, too much faster and it’s just too big to manage.

The Adventure comes with tubeless tire wire wheels, which are less prone to damage in the rough, while maintaining a cast wheel’s easy servicing in case of a flat.

I experienced this firsthand after a rock punctured my rear tire on the way back to the hotel. One of BMW’s hired guns offered to trade his F800GS with me so I could continue on the return ride but I had none of it. The tire was repaired with a rubber plug and I was back on my way in minutes. The bike’s tire pressure monitor was also quite handy, warning me as I rode that there was a problem with my rear tire before I felt it.

Clever lacing of the rims means that you can have tubeless tires still.
Clever lacing of the rims means that you can have tubeless tires still.

I kept the ABS and ASC on throughout the ride, and when in the proper riding mode for the conditions, I never found the need to turn either of them off.

CONCLUSION

For me, the real BMW GS is the Adventure model. Ok, it’s more expensive than the standard GS, and it’s taller too, which will be a hindrance if you’re a shorter rider but, man, what a machine! Although most GS riders are probably pretend adventurers, the Adventure is completely capable of handling extended off-road excursions. You still have to ride accordingly and remember that the Adventure wasn’t designed for rides like the Corduroy Enduro, but it can handle its fair share of rough terrain, comfortably.

For Costa, this is the real 1200GS.
For Costa, this is the real 1200GS.

The new engine and chassis have improved the bike, making it feel more rigid, more nimble and much lighter, despite losing only 3 kilos compared to the old Adventure. And the more compact engine has added some ground clearance to boot.

The optional ESA is a fabulous accessory and I highly recommend you get it, though it’s unfortunate it is not available as a stand-alone option, which would have reduced the cost. Not only is the suspension compliance among the best I’ve experienced, the ESA instantly transforms the bike for the road conditions — as you ride — and it offers a wider range of adjustability than the standard suspension setup.

If I were planning a cross-country trip routed mostly on dirt roads, which would be much more interesting and adventurous than following the easier, paved routes (hmm, perhaps it’s a good choice for a road trip to the Fundy Adventure Rally …), there’s only one bike I’d consider taking. Do I need to tell you which one?


GALLERY

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SPECIFICATIONS

Bike  R1200GS Adventure
MSRP  $21,600
Displacement  1,170 cc
Engine type  Air/liquid-cooled four stroke flat twin engine, double overhead camshaft, one balance shaft
Power (crank)*  92 kW (125 hp) at 7,750 rpm
Torque*  125 Nm at 6,500 rpm
Tank Capacity  30 l
Carburetion  Electronic intake pipe injection
Final drive  Shaft
Tires, front  120/70 R 19
Tires, rear  170/60 R 17
Brakes, front  Dual disc brake, floating brake discs, diameter 305 mm, 4-piston radial calipers
Brakes, rear  Single disc brake, diameter 276 mm, double-piston floating caliper
Seat height  890 / 910 mm
Wheelbase  1,510 mm
Wet weight*  260 kg
Colours  Olive matt, Racing Blue metallic matt and Alpine White 3
Warranty  36 months, unlimited
* claimed

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