PHOTOGRAPHY BY JON BECK, KEVIN WING AND COSTA MOUZOURIS
NEW JERSEY–Scrambler mania is in full force. Yes, bikes that five decades ago were used for enduro and hare scrambles competition (mostly because true off-road bikes didn’t exist back then) have made a resurgence. But with adventure bikes, dual-sports and dirt bikes readily available for off-road excursions, today’s neo-scramblers have morphed into fashion statements.
These new scramblerized motorcycles (street bikes kitted with high handlebars, high pipes and knobby tires) are nonetheless hitting a chord with older riders who still remember the original high-piped, semi-knobbied modified street bikes of the ’60s, as well as with newer, hipper riders who weren’t yet conceived when BSAs, cast-iron Harleys, pre-rebirth Triumphs, and Honda 305s were the go-to desert racers.
THE MECHANICAL BITS
The latest bike to join the genre is the BMW R nineT Scrambler, which we rode during its North American launch in New Jersey. This German scrambler is the second bike in BMW’s “Heritage” collection, which includes the R nineT introduced two years ago. The R nineT and the Scrambler are the last BMWs to utilise the air-cooled, 110-hp, 1,170 cc boxer twin, though the Scrambler’s engine breathes through high-mounted twin mufflers.
Although the Scrambler looks very similar to the R nineT roadster, aside from the engine and headlight, the two bikes have little else in common. The Scrambler has a different frame with less aggressive steering geometry. Rake and trail is set at 28.5 degrees and 110 mm versus 25.5 degrees and 102 mm for the roadster, while wheelbase is 50 mm longer at 1,527 mm (60.1 in.).
It has longer suspension travel front and rear (125/140 mm vs. 120/120) with a conventional fork instead of the Roadster’s inverted fork, and its front wheel measures 19 inches instead of the Roadster’s sportier 17 inches.
The good news if you’re a potential Heritage bike buyer is that the Scrambler undercuts the Roadster by $2,250, at $14,250. Aside from the conventional fork, other cost-cutting measures include use of a steel fuel tank instead of aluminum (the latter is a $1,175 option), cast wheels (cross spokes are $520 more), and a simpler instrument cluster that includes just a speedometer.
Curiously, the Scrambler has available traction control ($420), which isn’t an option on the Roadster. If you want heated grips you’ll have to dish out an extra $275. It comes standard with street rubber, though more appropriately-styled Metzeler Karoo 3 dual-sport tires are a no-cost option, as is a taller seat.
To get an idea of just how popular this new scrambler trend is you only have to look at how many OEM versions are currently available. There’s the Triumph Scrambler, the Ducati Scrambler, the Yamaha SCR950, the Moto Guzzi V7 Stornello, and now the R nineT Scrambler, with probably more on the way.
Just like its Roadster brother, the Scrambler’s styling is understated and classic. Its exposed engine and mechanical nakedness hark to the time when these bikes were authentic. There’s very little plastic on the bike, and subtle styling touches like fork gaiters and perforated muffler shields accentuate its retro appeal. A keen eye will notice that the muffler tips look strikingly similar to the outlets of Supertrapp mufflers, a common exhaust system choice among dirt trackers.
BMW’s minimalist approach with the R nineT Scrambler, like its Roadster brother, is deliberate: the bike is designed to be readily customisable by its owner, with an easily removable subframe, and a wiring harness that separates control functions from engine functions to facilitate the addition of accessories, or swapping out lights and such. BMW has a small array of accessories for both bikes, but it’s the aftermarket that will likely provide a plethora of bolt-ons for those wintertime projects.
The riding position is typical of the genre. It’s mostly upright with an easy reach to a wide handlebar, though the footpegs are more naked-bike high than scrambler-like relaxed. I’d opt for the 1.2 cm-taller seat for the added legroom.
The standard seat is more of a short-hop perch than a cross-country saddle; it is flat, thinly padded and firm. It nonetheless proves tolerable for a couple of hours, especially if you’re primarily riding on winding roads like the surprisingly serpentine asphalt of New Jersey and Pennsylvania that we’re on, where you’re not planted in one position for very long.
Just like the earlier R nineT, the Scrambler has a rich, growling exhaust note that is surprisingly forceful for a stock machine. Clutch effort is light, and a very gentle flick of the shifter nudges the gearbox into first gear, with each successive gear change equally light.
The Scrambler immediately distinguishes itself from the R nineT Roadster at the first few revolutions of its wheels. The bike has unusually heavy steering at low speeds, and it tends to resist leaning initially, before falling into a lean as you pitch it into a turn. This will cause you to counter your counter-steering. I suspect it’s the Metzeler Karoo 3 dual-sport tires, which have an unusually flat rear profile, that induce this unusual handling trait.
The handling proves so awkward at speeds below about 50 km/h that we’ve lined up a post-launch ride on a press bike with street tires to see if, in fact, it is the knobby tires that induce this vague steering feedback and awkward response. I suspect the tires because I’ve felt these exact steering characteristics after replacing street tires with knobbier dual-sport rubber on other street bikes. We’ll have an update after we ride the bike with street tires.
STARTING TO GRIPE
At higher speeds, steering is more neutral, and the bike is exceptionally stable. My biggest gripe with this machine, however, is with the suspension, which feels soft when you bounce on it, but proves exceptionally harsh over sharp bumps. It’s firm enough to provide very good control at a quick pace on smooth pavement, but bounces you off the seat and jolts your hands on the bars over frost heaves and potholes. I understand that the Scrambler is a minimalist machine designed to be easily customised by its owner, but the suspension shouldn’t be one of the things at the top of the list of items to be replaced.
This is especially unnerving if wannabe scramblerists decide to take the bike off-roading. Probably like the scramblers of the era, it’s just not designed to handle anything more than smooth, hard-packed dirt roads; anything else and you must either slow down considerably or pick your lines carefully to avoid dips, ruts, rocks, or anything else off-roady. This isn’t the case with the BMW alone; all modern scramblers I’ve ridden are primarily road bikes, and they handle like road bikes on dirt. There’s a reason the Japanese invented the dirt bike some 40-odd years ago – probably because scramblers didn’t work that well off-road.
If the unpaved road is hard-packed and smooth, however, the Scrambler rails along, and with the traction control off, you can swing the rear end out at will. The engine has that typical boxer powerband we’ve become accustomed to: it’s wide, flat, and it pulls with gratifying force even high into the rev range, which means shifting is optional if you so desire.
A short romp through The Bronx and Brooklyn during rush hour reveals that an urban setting is the Scrambler’s true playground. In a sprawling city teaming with busy traffic, it easily squeezes its way through the worst congestion, its wide handlebar and low centre of gravity making tight turns and quick evasive manoeuvres a breeze.
BMW claims that 9 per cent of R nineT Roadster buyers are first-time motorcyclists, though with an income of about $150,000 to $175,000 U.S., they have money to spare. The new Scrambler should broaden the appeal of BMW’s retro bikes, especially since it’s priced considerably lower than the Roadster.
You shouldn’t have aspirations of strapping on a knapsack and hitting the trails, though, because as I mentioned earlier, this bike — the entire scrambler phenomenon — is a fashion statement. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s fun to ride, fun to look at, and when it’s stored away during those winter months, it’ll be fun to work on. And those are the Scrambler’s most redeeming features.