First ride: 2019 BMW R1250GS and R1250RT big boxer twins

PALM SPRINGS, CA.—Mother Nature can be a bitch. She’s been experiencing some well-justified mood swings lately, and has battered California particularly hard with all kinds of weather. Over the last few months, the state has experienced unseasonal cold in the north, drought and fires through the middle, and heavy rain in the south. Some of that weather has altered the landscape, quite drastically in some cases.

I’m in Palm Springs to ride BMW’s refreshed R1250GS and R1250RT, spending a day on each bike. Palm Springs normally enjoys a hot, dry, desert climate, but a record rainfall on Valentine’s Day dropped 94 mm of water on the town. The area usually receives an average of 100 mm of rain a year.

With many local roads washed out and closed, organizers had to scramble to change the original ride routes, which produced some unforeseen consequences on the off-road portion reserved for the R1250GS. But first, let me tell you about the changes on BMW’s class-leading adventure bike, and its highly functional long-distance tourer.

What’s new?

The engine changes described here apply to all the liquid-cooled R models, and not just the R1250GS and the R1250RT.

The biggest change is a new engine, since aside from a couple of added tech items, the chassis on both bikes are as they were before. And that’s a very good thing because the GS, despite being quite porky by pseudo trail bike standards, is nonetheless a very accomplished off-roader in the right hands.

The RT features the best weather protection of any bike I’ve ridden, is designed to cover long distances in comfort, and it handles like a sport bike when coaxed to do so. So no real need to change what’s good, eh?

The new engine is 84 cc larger than before, which helps create an 11 hp boost in power.

Now, the old engine was good too, but it has nonetheless been made even better, in part to meet stringent Euro 5 standards, and in part because everyone likes more power. The new engine boasts a 1.5-mm larger bore and a 3-mm longer stroke, now measuring 102.5 x 76 mm. This bumps displacement from 1,170 cc to 1,254. Power is up, now at a claimed 134 horsepower and 105.5 lb.-ft. of torque, up from 123 hp and 92 lb.-ft.

The biggest power gain is in the lower revs, though, which is a result of BMW’s new ShiftCam technology. ShiftCam varies intake valve timing (two intake valves per cylinder) and lift by shifting the cam so that separate lobes operate each valve. One set of cam lobes has low lift and low duration, which enhances torque at low revs, while the other set of lobes has normal lift and duration. The low-lift lobes actually open each cylinder’s individual intake valve at a slightly different lift, which apparently enhances intake charge swirl and improves combustion.

The intake valves operate on the normal lobes above 5,000 rpm, while engine load determines cam position below that engine speed. A computer-controlled solenoid actuates the cams within milliseconds. BMW says this new system does not change the valve adjustment intervals, which are at 20,000 km. Aside from boosting bottom-end power, other benefits include a smoother-running engine, reduced emissions, and between a 4 and 6 per cent improvement in fuel economy.

A quieter-toothed cam chain replaces the roller chain of the previous model, and the engine now incorporates knock sensors, which allow the use of low-octane fuel without the risk of engine damage. It still requires premium fuel for best performance.

Hill Start Control is now standard on both GS and RT, a feature that allows you to lock the rear brake to hold the bike still on an incline by squeezing and releasing the brake lever (the brakes are partially integrated). This makes it easier to launch a fully-loaded bike up a hill. HSC Pro is optional, which senses when the bike is on an incline and engages the hill holding feature automatically.

The R1250GS, and its blinged-out sibling, the GS Adventure, now have a 6.5-inch, high-resolution, colour TFT instrument panel as standard, as well as an LED headlight. It’s easy to read the new instrument screen, and relatively easy to negotiate its various menus, though it doesn’t boast the most intuitive interface. One example of this is that you cannot see the fuel gauge unless you select it, and when you do, you can’t see other trip info, like trip odometer, fuel economy, or fuel range — only one item can be displayed at a time at the top of the screen. Parameters that are permanently displayed include engine and road speed, gear position, ride modes, and time, while you can tailor what you want displayed in the lower left corner of the screen; my choice was ambient temperature.

You can also use the multi-controller dial on the left handlebar to scroll through different pages on the screen, which offer vehicle info like tire pressures, coolant temperature, odometer, and battery voltage. The screen also enables Bluetooth connectivity, allowing you to connect a smart phone and helmet communication system to the bike, and to control various functions via the multi-controller. While this new screen might excite tech-savvy riders, it can be overwhelming for someone accustomed to standard gauges.

The instrument cluster is more traditional on the RT here than on the GS. That plastic area above the centre is a cover for the optional GPS Navigation unit.

A new option on both bikes is dynamic braking control. This rider assist shuts the throttle automatically in an emergency braking situation even if a rider inadvertently stays on the gas while grabbing a handful of front brake, which is mostly an error afflicting newbies.

The changes have added 5 kilos to the R1250GS and 3 kilos to the R1250RT, now claiming 249 and 279 kg wet respectively. The porky R1250GS Adventure, which has a larger 30-litre fuel tank (20 for the GS), taller suspension and protective crash bars, among other off-roady items, tips the scales at 268 kg wet.

Costa settles back in the saddle of the big GS. The seat’s raised a bit to accommodate his lanky inseam.
Riding the GS

I rode the R1250GS and GS Adventure on the first day, on a 290-km loop that included a challenging off-road section along an improvised route forced by the earlier heavy rain. The first thing I did was lift the passenger seat to plug the provided dongle into the wiring harness; this allows access to Dynamic Pro and Enduro Pro ride modes, which have more aggressive settings than the non-Pro modes, and also retains selected TC and ABS settings after the bike is switched off. I also took the opportunity to raise the rider’s seat to the higher of two positions (850 or 870 mm) for more legroom.

The R1250GS felt familiar, with its tall, upright riding position and characteristic drone. What’s immediately noticeable is that the engine is mechanically quieter than the older one, and once you pull away, it is smoother too. It has gobs of low-end torque in Dynamic mode (Road and Rain are softer), and with Traction Control off (ABS can be switched off too), it will lift the front wheel effortlessly in the lower three gears.

The gearbox is ultra light, and my bike was equipped with an electric shift assist; this allows clutch-less gear changes, albeit with increased effort at the shifter. I resorted to normal clutch-engaged gear changes on the road, and used the electric assist off road, since you can select ratios without losing any momentum along critical sections.

Others crashed or at least tipped over in the sandy quagmire, but not our Costa – though this looks like a ride in the park, literally.

The fun began when I steered off the pavement. The conditions were dry, but long sections of the track were covered in loose sand and gravel, and some sections were rocky. Lowering the tire pressures would have been very helpful, but I decided to leave them as is, as do most riders, which caused the bike to squirm around more than it would have otherwise. It was nonetheless manageable, and regardless of tire pressure you’d be silly to try to throw the GS around like a dirt bike; its mass counters your every move, and while it manages off-road excursions quite well, it takes skill and foresight to handle it well enough to avoid disaster.

Some thought the bike too tall and too heavy for the challenging terrain that BMW selected, but they were quickly proven wrong by five-foot-one Jocelin Snow, who must side-saddle the bike at a standstill to get a foot on the ground. She railed through the rough terrain effortlessly — she’s a skilled rider who was part of the women’s team in the latest GS Trophy.

A few kilometres into the dirt, I encountered the first victims of the unpredictable conditions: tipped-over GSs. I helped a few riders right their machines, and continued on. However, the riders behind me had more difficulty, and the ensuing sand bog damaged at least one machine when a GS began leaking oil from a valve cover.

Now, the R1250GS, like the R1200GS that preceded it, has a few inherent weaknesses if you waver off road, especially if the conditions are challenging. With cylinder heads jutting out the sides of the bike, they are vulnerable, as we saw on that R1250GSA. A rock had poked through its valve cover after a fall, despite the added protection of a crash bar. The saving grace is that the cover can be removed easily for a temporary fix in the trail, as long as you carry some quick-curing epoxy.

The other weakness is that since the GS does not have frame tubes running beneath the engine, the crankcase can be damaged if bottomed onto something solid. Even though there is a protective skid plate installed on all big GS models, it is mounted directly to the engine; a big enough blow will transfer energy directly to the crankcase through the mounts. A friend who owns a late model R1200GS discovered this can be very costly. If you plan on taking serious off-road excursions on an R1250GS, invest in an aftermarket skid plate that mounts to the engine guards.

Wind protection is surprisingly effective from the small adjustable screen on the GS.

On the road, the GS offers very good wind protection that’s almost free of buffeting, especially with the windscreen in its highest position. It’s easily adjusted while riding via a knob. My bike was equipped with Continental TKC80 tires, which favour off-road riding, though they still return neutral steering on pavement and have enough grip for a sporting pace.

The new R1250GS is very much like the outgoing bike, but with more useable power. If you’re riding a low-mileage late model, it’s not worth trading up. The starting price is $21,400, up from $20,300, and that’s not a bad mark up considering the extra power and added tech, but otherwise the rest of the machine is mostly the same. The R1250GSA starts at $23,800.

The big GS is BMW’s best-selling model, representing 27 per cent of the company’s sales. It also represents 26 per cent of all large displacement adventure bikes sold in North America. BMW pretty much created the category in 1980 with the R80 G/S. The GS has since become the king of adventure tourers, and these latest improvements assure it will likely remain there for a while to come.

Back on the California blacktop, Costa hunkers down against the cold on the heated seat of the big RT.
Riding the R1250RT

Perfection is unattainable, but for me the R1250RT is as close to ideal as a touring bike can get. It handles like a sport bike, it’s comfortable enough to easily handle long distances, and it has the best fairing for weather protection. I know I’m repeating myself, but I’ll reiterate for those who have never ridden one.

The weather took a turn on the second day, and by the time I hit the mountains south of Palm Springs the temperature dropped to 9 degrees C and it began to rain. As much as the RT is a solid, sharp-handling motorcycle on everything from divided highways to switchback-riddled mountain roads, it really shines in poor weather.

The electric windscreen adjusts up or down to offer exemplary wind protection, while Costa’s hands are shielded by the side mirrors and warmed by the heated grips.

With the electric windscreen adjusted to the sweet spot, the wind protection is better than most convertibles I’ve driven. There’s no buffeting or back draft, and the cockpit becomes uncannily quiet for a motorcycle. The mirrors combine with wind deflectors to protect your hands, and when the grip heat is on, your hands are toasty warm. The seat is also heated. There are five levels of heat for each; level two is ample for the grips, full heat for the seat. My only gripe with the bike is that there’s no dedicated button for the heated grips or seat (there is on the passenger seat), but rather you must scroll through a menu in the dash to turn them on and set the level.

There are two OEM tires that can be equipped on the R1250RT, the Metzeler Roadtec Z8 or the Michelin Pilot Road 4 radials; my tester rolled on the latter. They provided enough grip, feedback and confidence on wet pavement to maintain a pace that would be considered quick on dry pavement.

While the RT’s added weight took away some of the GS’s forceful punch with the new engine, it pulls remarkably hard from low revs. Dropping a couple of gears from sixth at highway speeds is necessary if you want to blast by slower traffic, otherwise it has enough power to get you by relatively quickly without touching the shifter.

After completing our 325-km loop in a mix of cool, wet weather and desert heat, I still felt fresh enough to take on at least another couple of hundred kilometres. And that’s the R1250RT’s raison d’être: It’s designed to cover long distances, and it can do it whether you’re scraping footpegs along winding roads or droning along long stretches of highway. Pricing starts at $22,050, which is up only slightly from $21,750.

4 thoughts on “First ride: 2019 BMW R1250GS and R1250RT big boxer twins”

  1. Base pricing on the R1250RT may be in the 22K range, but good luck finding one that hasn’t been optioned up to the $30k range. And some of the options are for things that should be standard on the base model at that price, IMO. Like cruise control. I still want one, though…

    1. Hard to believe the prices have crept up beyond 30k, even for the GS. The $10,900 I paid for my 15 Strom 1000 with a 5 year warranty(which I will likely never need), was a complete no brainer.

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