Guns N’ Roses fans had been waiting for the band’s follow-up to The Spaghetti Incident? for a long time. 15 years, $13 Million, numerous lineup changes and countless trips to rehab later, Chinese Democracy was released to heavily mixed reviews. Even 12 years on, critics and fans alike are still divided on one of the most anticipated releases of the decade. Is it a matter of the album not meeting the unreasonably high expectations, or was it just not good? I couldn’t help but contemplate this as I rode the 2021 BMW R 18 – a bike that enthusiasts have been salivating over since the retro-inspired R 18 Concept was unveiled at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este event in May 2019. In both cases there were redeeming qualities, but disappointment prevailed.
It’s no secret that the R 18 was built with the Harley-Davidson Softail Slim in its crosshairs. There has been speculation abound, with media spouting hyperbole about the upcoming “Harley Killer”. Anticipation grew to a fever pitch this summer and media have been clamoring to get their hands on it. Having my opportunity to ride it last week, I’ve been overwhelmed with messages asking how good it is. Well, put simply, it’s like getting home and dropping the needle on your new record while imagining something even more epic than Appetite for Destruction or Use Your Illusion I and II, but getting Chinese Democracy instead.
Production models don’t always end up looking like the concepts that inspired them, but the R 18 does. Recreations built to pay homage to the past often overlook the most important aspects of the original, but the R 18 doesn’t. From the laced spoke wheels and Boxer engine to the pinstriped bodywork, exposed driveshaft and narrow, contoured chrome exhaust, it truly is an honest modern recreation of the 1936 R 5. Head of BMW Motorrad Design Edgar Heinrich did his job dutifully. Just as the R nineT brought forth a whole new lineup, the R18 may too spawn a whole new family of motorcycles.
Pricing theoretically starts at $20,895 for the base model, but the initial launch consists only of “First Edition” models that command an extra $2,850. The package adds the white pinstripes to the pear-shaped tank and rear fender, chrome levers and the “First Edition” badge on the side covers and seat. Yes, $2,850. MSRP with optional equipment came out to $23,945 before destination and taxes.
BMW’s last kick at the cruiser market was the R1200C from 1997 to 2000, although many consider it more of a naked. It had personality and capability, but many felt it lacked aesthetic appeal so it went away. The R 18 on the other hand looks as good in person as it does in pictures. Its proportions are on point and you’ll enjoy looking at it from every angle. Swinging a leg over it, the first impression was that the seat offered very little cushioning. The second thing I noticed was that it feels every ounce of its 345 kg (760 lb) weight. Not surprisingly, that horizontally opposed 1,802 cc two-cylinder engine carries with it a fair bit of weight and girth. So much, in fact, that the riding position plays second fiddle. Given the substantial size and placement of the heads, forward controls aren’t offered because installing them just isn’t an option. The 690 mm (27.1-inch) seat height and floorboard placement meant that my legs were tucked up underneath me. An optional higher seat for rider and passenger with footrests can be added for $340.
Leaning the bike off the side stand using the wide beach bars, they carry very little of the bike’s weight. Maneuvering the wide, light bars at slow speeds is a challenge. The R 18 features Keyless Ride, so with the fob in my pocket, I pushed the power button, then starter, as I pulled in the chrome clutch lever. Its action smooth and light, but substantial and reassuring. The 91 hp powerplant was eagerly brought to life and settled into a pleasing, distinctive rumble. Then came the somehow overlooked task of engaging first gear. The tiny nub of a gear lever happens to be located under the cylinder head, flush with the rounded crankcase, making it difficult to get at if you happen to be wearing boots with any kind of heft or heel. This requires you to use your heel to shift which takes some getting used to, particularly with the gentle touch required to engage neutral. These floorboards are a $200 option that I would avoid. From pictures, it appears the stock pegs feature a longer gear lever which would be easier to access.
Rolling back the throttle, torque is unsurprisingly robust and acceleration brisk. The engine is deliciously smooth and pulls for days in every gear. Unfortunately, the response from the dual front disc brakes with four-piston fixed calipers and a single in the rear – less so. The brake lever is soft and rather vague. The partially integrated system means activating the front also engages the rear, while only calling upon the rear does just that. Either way, it left much to be desired and meant that the largest Boxer engine ever made for a motorcycle by BMW couldn’t be enjoyed with confidence. If that doesn’t deter you from going deep into a corner at speed, having your arms stretched out wide on the bars or scraping the floorboards will.
The R 18 features three riding modes: Rain, Roll and, Rock. Try as I might to detect the differences among their riding characteristics in all six gears, at a variety of speeds in various riding situations, they felt virtually indistinguishable from eachother. Suspension is firm. The 49 mm front telescopic forks provide 120 mm of travel, while the cantilever strut in the rear provides damping and adjustable spring preload with 90 mm of travel. The rigidity of the suspension and the firmness of the seat take their toll on rough roads.
Another interesting characteristic emerged during my time with the R 18 resulting from the firmness of the seat and suspension combined with the frequency of the engine’s vibration. And I’m not the only one. Shortly after I returned my press unit, Mark picked another one up in very CMG fashion, which I hope he recounts for you one day. (Hint: it involves one key fob and two motorcycles). Upon arriving home, I received a text from him saying, “So – does the R 18 make your nuts go numb? Good thing I’ve had my kids.” My response, “It sure does!” So, depending on your prerogative, that could either be a benefit or a drawback, but it’s a reality all the same.
Heated grips, a lockable gas cap and an anti-theft system come as standard equipment, as do automatic stability control and LED lighting front and rear. A wide variety of BMW Motorrad accessories are available from well-known names in the aftermarket such as Roland Sands Design, Mustang Seat, and Vance & Hines. Hill start is an extra $135, and cruise control for $465. A reverse gear can also be added for $1,320.
I don’t know how much fuel I used from the 16L tank as the R 18 doesn’t have a gas gauge. The $4,600 KTM Duke 200 we’re reviewing this week does, but this BMW does not. Scrolling through the information provided on the digital readout below the analog speedometer, I could tell you the time, engine rpm, instant fuel mileage, or the day, month and year, but not how much fuel I had, nor the distance to empty. A significant and curious oversight.
My expectations were unquestionably lofty for this motorcycle, but it still didn’t deliver the goods. I’ve ridden the Softail Slim and it’s a better riding motorcycle in every way. As was the case with Chinese Democracy, the R 18 was a letdown. Regardless of taking years to develop and remaining true to its roots, the First Edition doesn’t live up to the hype. Perhaps the brief to BMW designers didn’t consider their competition to be much of a threat. After all, they’ve built what many perceive all Harley-Davidsons to be – something that looks good, sounds great and goes like a bat out of hell in a straight line. Fortunately for Harley-Davidson, they’ve learned over the last 117 years of building motorcycles that there’s a bit more to it than that. The R 18 is a spectacularly beautiful motorcycle that would be right at home in any art gallery. With a few small updates, it could be just as enjoyable out on the open road.