BMW’s two new XRs share little except those two letters of their name. The F900 XR is an evolution of the F800 and F850 GS, while the S1000 XR is a toned-down touring version of the S1000 R sport bike. The XR moniker is BMW’s way of identifying each bike as an “Adventure” bike, which means having longer suspension and a wind-reducing fairing, but that’s about it. Two very different machines for different ways to reach the same place. Both motorcycles are new for 2020. The F900 XR is an all-new model, replacing the old F800 and complimenting the more dirt-capable F850GS, while the S1000 XR is a totally redesigned version of the litre-bike that debuted for 2016.
I rode the F900 XR first. It’s a nice bike. You should buy one – it would be a very sensible choice for you. Parked beside the road, it looks great, and on paper, it looks like a beast with its 99 horsepower and 68 lb-ft. of torque. If you want to tell all your friends that you’ve tamed a wheelie monster, then go right ahead.
In practice, out on the highway, the 900 is far more civilized than it has a right to be. It’s easy to ride, especially with all its electronic Road and Dynamic ride modes and suspension adjustment. It won’t pop the front wheel unless you want it to and even then, you’ll have to work at it a bit. There’s really no vibration from the parallel-twin engine, punched out by a couple of millimetres from the 850 GS block to 895 cc. It’s not even especially loud. You meet the nicest people on a BMW F900 XR.
Trust me, I didn’t expect to write that. I was looking forward to whipping along this snarling savage, much as I did the far-more-enjoyable, moto-inspired F750 GS, but the 900 showed itself to be compliant and amenable. It’s well-powered and will cruise all day into the wind at 120 km/h, or hustle you through traffic to your next client meeting on the other side of town. The F900 XR is a very good, very capable motorcycle that’s utterly devoid of character. You should buy one.
Of course, the naked F900 R (which BMW calls a “roadster”) is considerably less expensive, starting at an MSRP of $10,350 compared to the XR’s $12,800. The R is a much better deal, so maybe you should buy that instead. However, the plastic fairing on the XR is quite effective at reducing wind pressure at speed, and the screen even adjusts with a simple flick of a lever. A larger windscreen is available for even more wind reduction, but not the tinted version – it’s illegal for a manufacturer to sell a tinted windscreen in Canada, though not illegal to purchase one from the aftermarket. The two 900s share non-adjustable 43-mm forks and a single rear shock, but the extra inch-and-a-bit of travel at the front and back help smooth the ride. The bigger issue is that the naked R has a more crouched riding position, leaning more weight toward the front and changing the dynamics of the ride. You’ll probably be more comfortable on the XR, which is not to say you’ll actually be comfortable: the seat is very firm and while it’s okay for an hour, you’ll be wanting to stop after that for at least a stretch.
And then there’s the S1000 XR, which is far more expensive than the 900s at $19,750, but is a completely different motorcycle. This is the bike you want if you’ve been thinking of a big GS but have no aspirations to ride to Tuktoyaktuk or Ulaan Bator. It’s fine on gravel roads and it’s exceptional on pavement. You should give me some money so I can buy one for myself.
The big XR is a far more comfortable version of the S1000 RR sportbike, much as the Suzuki GSX is a toned-down version of the no-compromise Gixxer and the old Yamaha Fazer was a more sensible R1. If, like me, you don’t want to ride all day with the weight of your upper body weighing on your wrists with your neck at full tilt and your ass in the wind, then the XR is the way to go. BMW introduced the S1000 XR five years ago as a 2016 model and although it was welcomed, it was not without fault. The biggest issue was vibration from the high-revving 999 cc four-cylinder, which would numb your hands and your crotch in short order. That’s now been significantly muted with a better balanced engine that has longer gearing, for lower revs at higher speeds. The handlebars are also better isolated for far less tingle.
Those bars are mounted a little differently, too, and have been pushed forward by two centimetres and down by a centimetre, for a slightly more aggressive position. The XR doesn’t force its rider into quite the upright full-sail position of before, but it’s not uncomfortable and let’s not forget, this is a 165 horsepower motorcycle with 84 lb-ft. of torque near the redline. It might be detuned from the 207 hp of the RR, but it will still power through corners and cruise happily to the other coast at whatever legal or illegal speed you care for.
It’s designers are very proud of the new seat, which can be replaced to meet lower or taller heights, from 790 mm to 860 mm. It’s very contoured and at first sitting, you might think it’s some custom jobbie from Corbin or the like, but it’s intended to pull in the rider’s legs so they’re not splayed too far into the wind. This makes the most of an all-around narrower motorcycle and again, it’s for greater comfort while riding. Maybe Boss Hoss should take notice.
The trouble with the new bucket seat, with its pronounced raised sides and firm rear, is that you really can’t move around on it very much. If you’re the kind of rider who likes to shift from side to side, maybe even – gasp – hang off a bit around corners, then BMW wants you to know you’re doing it all wrong. You will be comfortable in the ergonomic position that’s been designed for you. And the truth is, it really is quite comfortable. I could have sat there happily all day. Like any new model or redesign, both the new XRs come with all kinds of electronic trickery for customizing the ride, and they even share the same 6.5-inch TFT display for their gauges. The litre-bike has more readouts than the 900, including lean angles and braking strength, which are fun but pure vanity. However, there are also more Ride Mode options than for the cheaper, stripped-down R versions (the naked S1000 R lists for $15,800, almost $4,000 less than the XR), and you’ll probably enjoy them all. Of course, because this is BMW, there are even more options available to you if you don’t mind Bringing My Wallet. (Ed: Ahhh, BMW – I get it.) My tester F900 XR came with heated grips as standard (a Canadian thing – they’re not standard in the US), but the convenient keyless ride ($315 alone, or part of a $910 package), extra ride modes and selectable ABS ($475), cruise control ($555), and even the red paint with gold-coloured forks ($275) all helped add more than $2,000 to the price.
The S1000 XR was even more generously appointed with options. The adaptive headlight, which shines different beams at different lean angles ($275), the fog lights ($475), the keyless ride and cruise control and quickshifter ($1,425), the luggage rack and centre stand ($585) and again, the tasty red and white paint ($475), helped bumped the price by more than $4,000. The point is, when you’re looking to buy a new BMW – bike or car – remember that you’ll be sorely tempted by all the options, and most of them cost money that adds up very quickly. At those prices, you should take a look at the Yamaha XSR900 ($11,199) if you’re considering the F900 XR, and at the new Suzuki V-Strom 1050XA ($16,099) if you’re thinking about the S1000 XR. These days, there are so many ways to add a little adventure to your life, but don’t forget my advice: buy yourself a nice, safe, deceptively sensible F900 XR and then give me the money for an S1000 XR for myself.