First Ride: 2020 BMW F900R and F900XR

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SANTA BARBARA , CA.—Was there ever a demographic of society that has been as scrutinised, scolded and just plain picked upon as the millennial? Born in the 1980s to mid ’90s, they’ve shaped today’s economy, and they are the broadest target market for makers of anything on wheels. But they’re hard to sell to, and apparently prefer spending their cash on “experiences” rather than material goods.

Well, BMW is trying to woo 20- to 30-somethings onto two wheels with the introduction of a pair of middleweight motorcycles, the F900R and the F900XR. The F900R replaces the former F800R, while the F900XR is a new bike, slipping beneath its larger sibling, the S1000XR, in both price and performance.

The basic, naked F900R starts at $10,350, while the “adventure sport” F900XR starts at $12,800. I’m in Santa Barbara to see just what might make these new Beamer twins appeal to the generation that brought us skinny jeans and lactose-free lattes.

What’s new

Both of these machines are new, and are based around a bored-out version of the F850GS parallel twin. Bore diameter is now 86 mm, up 2 mm on the 850GS, while stroke remains at 77 mm. This bumps displacement to 895 cc from 853. Compression ratio has also been bumped, to 13.1:1 from 12.7, making the F900s dependent on premium fuel.

These changes increase output to 99 hp (up 5 hp), while peak torque remains at 67 lbs.-ft. The torque curve, however, is much broader on the 900, with more of it available before and after the 850’s peak at 6,250 rpm. The 270-degree parallel twin produces a deep, droning exhaust note, though the engine has a mechanical clatter that sounds very much like tapping valves.

The engine is slightly more powerful, but more important, the pulling torque is available across a wider powerband.

The steel frame is also based on the F850GS, but steering geometry has been altered on both F900 models, mostly to quicken steering. Wheels on both machines are 17-inchers, with supersport-sized tires front and rear. Suspension travel varies, with the XR boasting 35 and 30 mm more travel front and rear. Despite this added wheel travel, the XR’s seat is only 10 mm taller than the R’s, at 825 mm. Both bikes are available with a factory-installed lowering kit for an additional $230, which drops the seat to 770 and 775 mm. If you don’t want to spend cash to have both feet flat on the ground, a low seat is available as a no-cost option, dropping seat height by about 25 mm from standard.

Wheel travel notwithstanding, suspension components are similar on both bikes, and there are two suspension options. The basic suspension features a shock adjustable manually for rebound damping, and for preload via a convenient knob below the seat on the right-hand side. Opting for “Dynamic ESA” replaces the manually adjustable shock for one that is electrically adjustable for damping and preload. It also features a form of semi-active damping control, which alters damping automatically depending on the road surface. The 43 mm inverted fork is not adjustable, regardless of which suspension system is selected.

Both bikes come standard with electronic Road and Rain riding modes, where “Rain” adjusts the bikes’ traction and power to cope with more slippery pavement. There is also a “Ride Modes Pro” bundle, which adds two sportier electronic modes: Dynamic and Dynamic Pro (the latter enabled by plugging in a dongle under the seat) include lean-sensing ABS and traction control, and dynamic engine braking. All four modes are standard on the less costly R, but the Ride Modes Pro package is a $475 option on the XR.

On the other hand, heated grips are standard on the XR, but are part of the $500 Comfort package on the R, which also includes a tire pressure monitor. The R and XR models I tested included the Ride Modes Pro electronic interventions, but they were not equipped with Dynamic ESA, which are also tied into the ride modes.

The 6.5-inch high-resolution TFT instrument panel is borrowed from the S1000RR, and it features two display modes. The default display shows speed in large digits in the upper left corner, gear position in the lower left, and a wide bar tachometer between them, among other bits of riding info.

The default display on the TFT gauge is clear and useful, though Costa prefers the sportier look with a round rev dial.

My preferred display, which must be selected every time the bike is switched on, is the Sport display, which has speed up top, a round central tachometer, traction control and brake monitors to either side, and a lean indicator in the middle. Those last three items register how much your rear wheel slides, how hard you hit the brakes, and how far you lean. I had a great time in the twisties challenging myself to record ever-higher numbers. The Sport display on the R also has the capability to record lap times.

Claimed wet weight is 224 kg for the R and 229 for the XR. Fuel tank capacity is a modest 15.5 litres for the XR and 13 for the R. According to European fuel consumption numbers, that would give about 375 and 315 kilometres of range respectively, which is optimistic. Realistically, expect less than that for each.

And we pay him for this? In March?

Riding the F900XR

I began the day on the F900XR. The bike has a relaxed, upright riding position, with a tall, wide handlebar and ample legroom. My “racing red” test bike came standard with a shorty Sport windscreen; the two other colour options — white or gold — come with a taller screen. The screen is adjustable up or down via a lever on the inside. The short screen is effective mostly at changing the sound of the windblast around your helmet rather than providing wind protection.

I did ride another XR that had a taller screen installed, and it’s the one I’d recommend, because it directs most of the windblast off your chest in its higher position, though it does induce some helmet buffeting.

Rolling away, the first thing I noticed is that the gearbox is not the usual slick-shifting unit with which I’m familiar. I’ve ridden a number of BMW parallel twins, and it usually took a tiny nudge at the shifter to select gears on those machines. This bike needed a deliberate, forceful stab at the shifter, and making matters worse, it wouldn’t shift into neutral at a stop. No amount of clutch-cable adjusting made it any better.

Swapping bikes revealed that my tester had a defective gearbox, as the other XR shifted as smoothly as any BMW F model I’ve ridden; a later ride on the R confirmed this. Regardless, I continued to ride the bike originally handed to me, and aside from a firm shifter, it exhibited no other anomalies.

Costa gets comfy on the lankier XR, with a slightly longer reach to the pegs for his 6-foot frame.

The wide handlebar makes steering light but does not induce instability, and the bike negotiates successive tight turning transitions like a sport bike. The engine has substantial torque, but it’s not as strong off the bottom as Yamaha’s 850 cc triple or KTM’s 800 cc parallel twin. It does, however, like to rev and if you stay on the gas it generates proper speed. Throttle response even in the most aggressive Dynamic Pro mode was smooth and easily manageable.

The ride was, surprisingly, firmer than I expected, especially for a bike with extra wheel travel. BMW doesn’t try to pawn this machine off as an off-road bike by any means, especially with its 17-inch front wheel and sticky street rubber, but I figured the added wheel travel would have prompted a softer suspension setup. The long travel does cause the fork to dive considerably if you’re in attack mode going into corners.

The seat is very firm, but it’s flat and supportive. I didn’t feel the need to rest my buns after the 200 km morning ride.

Switching to the unclad R, Costa dials in yet another Californian curve.

Riding the F900R

The F900R looks and feels completely different from its adventure-sport sibling. The riding position is more forward-biased, the handlebar is lower and narrower, the footpegs are higher in relation to the seat, and the seat is narrower. This bike does have a low seat, so it’s the better choice if you are a shorter rider. My legs felt a bit cramped though, so at six feet tall, I’d opt for the taller — and free — extra high seat, which raises seat height to 865 mm and adds some legroom.

There’s no wind protection since there’s no windscreen, but there’s no buffeting, either. Oddly, the R has heavier steering than the XR, most likely attributable to the lower, narrower handlebar. Despite the reduced handlebar leverage, the bike feels a bit twitchier.

The ergonomics are a little more cramped on the R, while the suspension on both machines is generally too firm.

There’s one thing that didn’t sit right with me, and that’s the suspension. It’s downright stiff. This wasn’t an issue on California’s smoother canyon roads, where the stiff ride returned sharp handling and stellar road holding. It’s on the R that I recorded my best Sport 1 instrument data, with maximum lean at 47 degrees, braking force at about 8 metres per second, squared, and rear-wheel slip at more than 50 per cent. These parameters reset every time you start the bike, so it’s like trying to qualify every time you get going.

But we did eventually wander onto some tight, bumpy back roads, and the R bucked my butt off the saddle regularly. Also, the narrow seat caused me to lift a cheek in the air for relief, and not to pass gas. In fairness, I spoke to riders who were on the XR in the afternoon, and they too complained about its seat, so it’s probably just the accumulation of mileage that caused the butt-hurt.

Check your wallet

These bikes ride well, despite their firm rides. I suspect that models equipped with Dynamic ESA would perform differently, and likely better, especially since damping varies as you ride. However, the first appealing thing about these bikes is the price. The F900R is deliberately priced as low as possible to entice new riders, including hard-to-get millennials. It starts at $10,350, which compares favourably to the Honda CB650R ($9,699), Kawasaki Z900 ($10,399), KTM 790 Duke ($11,599), Suzuki GSX-S750A ($9,399), and Yamaha MT-09 ($10,199).

The F900XR is a slightly different beast. This “adventure sport” bike starts at $12,800, and it has fewer competitors. These include the Ducati Multistrada 950 ($16,495), KTM 790 Adventure ($13,599), Yamaha Tracer 900 ($11,999) and if you stretch the boundaries a bit, the Kawasaki Versys 1000LT ($16,699).

High above the coast beside a winding canyon road, the F900XR is right in its element.

As you can see, the pricing of both those machines is aggressive, especially if you consider that BMW is the only manufacturer to include a three-year warranty. The F900R is the better deal by far, with comparable standard features (plus the Ride Modes Pro bundle, but without the heated grips, longer suspension and extra bodywork) yet less costly by more than $2,000.

For taller riders the XR is a better fit. Opting for the electrically-adjustable suspension on either one adds $900 to the price, as well as a couple of other conveniences, like cornering headlights on the R, and keyless operation and a centre stand on the XR. Set up like that, it should come down to which bike you think looks better, and to how tall you are. And to whether you want to spend that extra $2,000.

Costa, come back! You’ll be late for your flight home to Montreal! In March…

Key Specs: 2020 BMW F900R/F900XR

Price: $10,350 / $12,800
Engine: 899 cc parallel twin
Dry weight: 211 / 219 kg
Power: 99 hp @ 8,500rpm
Torque: 67 lb-ft @ 6,500rpm
Rake/Trail: 29.5 degrees / 114mm R; 29.5 degrees / 105 mm XR
Wheelbase: 1,520 mm
Seat height: 815mm R; 825mm XR
Brakes: Front: 320mm discs, four-piston radial calipers Rear: 265mm disc, single-piston caliper; ABS
Front suspension: 43mm inverted fork, non-adjustable
Rear suspension: Single shock; manually adjustable preload and rebound damping R; electrically adjustable XR
Wheels: 17-inch front and rear
Tires: 120/70ZR17 front, 180/55ZR17 rear

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