An honest motorcycle review: The 2018 BMW R1200GS (lowered rallye spec)
The R1200GS truly is an excellent do-everything bike. If you have considerable riding experience and can afford the hefty price tag, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The 2018 premium package updates are truly an improvement over previous models.
About this review
The BMW R1200GS is one of the best selling motorcycles of all time. And yet, as I prepared to make a purchase of a 2018 lowered rallye model, I found a surprising dearth of meaningful answers to my questions and concerns. As such, I’ve decided to try and correct that with this hopefully comprehensive review.
If, like me, you prefer to read well thought prose instead of “HEY, JON HERE FROM YOUTUBE, LIKE AND SUBSCRIBE FOR MORE GREAT ADV REVIEWS”, then I hope you’ll enjoy this piece.
Topics covered herein:
- Favorites and fails
- Lowered suspension — is it for you?
- Riding impressions in a variety of conditions (even snow!)
- Frustrations and praise for the new TFT
- Should you actually off road this?
- Can this be the only bike in your shed?
- Road journals of my first 1500 miles
Topics reserved for another day:
- Farkles and mods
- Maintenance and costs
Favorites and Fails
In the spirit of one of my favorite YouTube motorcycle series, here’s a summary of likes and dislikes on the new bike.
Fav — POWER. Jeremy Clarkson levels of POWWWWWEERRRRRR. In an age where nearly every top-of-the-line produces between 150 to 200 HP, the 125 HP figures of the 1200 may not seem like much, but forget that entirely. Throw your worries about figures and numbers out the window. There is more power here than you can ever fully use on the street. The power is down low, so you can actually use it. There is enough power here to keep you entranced and accelerating recklessly for the lifespan of the bike. It has POWER, comparisons be damned.
Fav — Quickshifter. It took me nearly 1,000 miles to really internalize smooth operation of this, and now I love the damn thing to death. When done right, it’s buttery smooth, can be operated leaned over mid-apex, and makes those long days that much more bearable.
Fav — TFT screen. This thing is crisp, vibrant, works great under all conditions (even in direct sunlight), and is utterly delightful to look at. Everything from the transition animations between screens to the way the tach surges perfectly along with the engine, it’s all just amazing. By contrast, standard GS is equipped analog needles as old as time, and just completely fail to convey what the bike is doing with any refinement or excitement. I having spent two years on an F700 with BMW’s horrible needles, I am never going back.
Fav — Adventure. Adventure is a state of mind more than anything else. Shaft drive and build quality means I never have to ask “is the bike ready to go?” It always is. It’s ready for adventure. Ready to go out to tackle some twisties, relax on a back country road, carry me confidently through a rain storm, absorb the bumps when I suddenly hit gravel, or remain dignified in a sudden snow storm. I can trust this machine, it can take me into and out of the adventure. It urges me to go.
Fav — Anakee 3 tires. First time on these tires, and I’m in love. Yes, they really do SINGGGGGGG at high speeds. They also grip asphalt excellently, communicate in the twisties, handle gravel with aplomb, and make me feel confident everywhere. I will almost surely run these for the next many years to come.
Fav — Cruise-control. I find myself using this for just a few minutes at a time while on the highway, mostly to free my throttle hand to tug a zipper. However those moments are SUCH a relief and it’s ease to operate while keeping my eyes on the road. Game changer.
Fav — Looks. It’s pretty. I keep falling in love each time I look at it. To-date I’ve only owned ugly bikes. I still can’t believe this is mine.
Fav — Poise. Despite also being a fail (read more below), the fact that I can trust this thing is pretty much every scenario is damn impressive. As per my “snow” section, I never once had a concern even in that inclement weather!
Fav — Ride modes. These really work. The difference between “enduro” and “dynamic” does in fact feel like two different machines. Power delivery, ABS/traction control, and suspension all shift within seconds. Dynamic is a blast in a good twisty, giving excellent road feel, immediate power, hard brakes, and a tight suspension. Swap the bike into enduro and it’ll become soft and supple, but also slow down a good bit while absorbing any bump you throw at it. It’s really cool to be able to aggressively push corners on my favorite back-country roads in dynamic mode and then push a button and be ready for the upcoming miles of gravel.
Fav — Build quality. I love how they build BMWs, I just really do. I love Torx for everything. I love that most of the Torx heads have little BMW signage etched into them. I love the perfect amout of torque applied to each bolt. I love how effortless it is to work on this bike. It’s just the best build quality of pretty much any vehicle I’ve ever had the chance to wrench on.
Fail —TFT connectivity. The TFT package gets you not only the lovely screen, but a host of advertised bluetooth features. It’s advertised that you can browse and select music on your phone, change volume levels, make a call, perform turn-by-turn navigation… all the good stuff. Except it only works if you do it the BMW way. That way requires a “compatible” helmet headset — and even then it is likely to not work. My preferred mode of riding is with noise-cancelling earplugs leading directly from my phone. What I want is to control my phone via the BMW directly… sadly that appears not to be in the cards, at least for now. You should buy this option, because it’s sooooo pretty, just don’t believe pretty much any of the advertising. BMW, get your shit together here.
Don’t just take my word on this one, check out this big list of complaints on advrider.com.
Fail — Cruise-control power surges. Cruise control (CC) should be all about relaxing. Take a rest on your wrists and let the computer worry about maintaining an even speed. I guess this concept just isn’t very German… The CC on the bike is twitchy as all heck. Going up a hill? Let me slow down a bit, and then rev a bunch to make up for it. Adjusting the CC speed limit up or down by A SINGLE MPH? Ok, no problem, I’m just going to match that speed AS FAST AS I CAN!!! Seriously though, the way engine power surges in response to the CC is pretty disconcerting. The bike has sensor systems up to the wazoo, surely some basic readings of those could cause a slightly more gradual change in speed to avoid the herky-jerky.
Fail — Poise. This sounds silly, but because the damn thing is always so planted, always so safe and comfortable and trustworthy, I never feel in danger. I don’t have a wild beast to conquer. Instead, I am the one who has been tamed. There’s something important about feeling on the verge of control, about holding the reins. At least for me, I get none of that on the big GS.
TL;DR: Buy your suspension based primarily on your height. Don’t overthink it or worry like I did. If you want to do serious off-road work on the GS, get the Rallye (aka “sport”) suspension (and be a tall person). If you’re a normal-height non-crazy-person, you’re probably happiest with the lowered. Over 6'? You’ll probably prefer the standard height. I’m 5'9" and the lowered was the right choice for me.
The choice of suspension for my GS was a constant source of angst for the entire 7 months between putting in my order and receiving the bike. However, from the moment I started riding my GS, I knew I had made the right choice to opt for the lowered suspension. For all those months leading up to that point, I would question this decision on an almost daily basis. I scoured forums and youtube, looking for hints or arguments to justify my decision or convinced me I should plead with BMW to undo this great mistake. So much anxiety, and all for nothing.
Ok, so let’s run the numbers and concerns then.
Travel. The lowered suspension cuts about 1" out of the suspension. Therefore the standard suspension should handle rough roads and off roads situations a bit better, at least on paper. I think there’s probably some truth to that, but in my experience I didn’t notice a difference (I’d previously rented a standard GS for a day of rough roads). How the weight of the GS factors into traction concerns will be a far larger concern for through-speed in such environments than travel. I’ve also found no major lack of travel on the lowered. Set the lowered into “enduro” mode and it’ll handle rough roads very pleasantly. It even did a bumpy water crossing without batting an eye. I’ve yet to want for lack of travel.
Firmness. I was a bit worried that the lowered might be too firm. Bullocks. The dynamic suspension offers a surprisingly dramatic variety of options here. The enduro mode is down right soft, wallowy, and disconnected (I’d never use it on road), but it’s existence assures me that the bike has so much travel available, if and when I need it. The dynamic suspension mode (aka: sporty-type-go-fast) is firm, direct, superbly planted, but never back-breaking. I can’t find any meaningful difference here against the standard height. I think the choice of electronic vs manual suspension will be a far larger factor in your experience than suspension height.
Height. Ah, the thing that matters. I am so very happy coming to a stop on my lowered GS. I can put both feet down. When the bike is loaded up for touring, having that much more boot-traction is great for scooting around a parking lot. I also feel so much more psychologically prepared for any gravel or off road situations knowing that I can easily put down either foot in a rough spot. Even on an off-camber situation, I can put my boot down on the downhill side and feel confident. It’s only an inch or two, but boy, does it really make a difference. This is a no-brainer for me.
The stability and power of the 1200 really shine through on those long highway days. The miles disappear and when I dismount my aches are minimal. Ranked strictly as a touring bike, the big GS undoubtedly belongs in a top 5, if not #1 due to it’s luggage capacity paired with comfort. The stock windshield is the only disappointment here, but there are tons of aftermarket options.
Gobs of power, good road feel, surprisingly quick handling… what’s not to like? Well, even though the weight is handled well, it’s still there. Recall to my “fail” note on poise, and in fact this amazingly well balanced machine is just… too good. I want to be a bit more engaged than just point and vroom. I want a challenge. I want to feel on the brink of death… just a bit.
Snow storm: 9/10
Ok, to be fair I’ve only experienced this twice now. The first time was on my 690, with knobby tires and 80lbs of gear. That was a horrid experience and I tucked tail and ran. It’s hard to articulate what exactly makes the 1200 such a different experience. I think a mix of aeros, weight, the rain mode, protection, and of course heated grips. At any rate, what would otherwise be a bit scary was absolutely delightful. I not only had a blast, I want to go back for more. Read more on my experience in the trip logs further down.
Rain storm: 8/10
The stock screen will put a ton of water into your face. An upgraded screen brings this to 9/10. The rain mode is excellent and turns the bike into a downright boring experience, concerned only with maximizing traction, and that’s exactly what you want in a rain storm. The low center of gravity pulls everything together into a package that is deeply confidence inspiring when the weather gets bad.
Good, not perfect. You’ll feel gusts, but not feel to the extant that you might lose control. Points a knee into the wind and you’ll be a happy camper.
Pretty good! The clutch is light enough that my hand doesn’t cramp. The big boxer engine lugs low and pulls at all gears, so quick stops are easy to recover from. Starts in 2nd are easy if you get caught off guard, and you can stay in 2nd up to 50mph without feeling too unnatural. Good balance means not too much exhaustion from foot down/up at stops. Sight lines are excellent, drivers see me and I see them. Pretty good.
Lane splitting: 6/10
Doable, but not fun. The wide handlebars really induce paranoia. Inadvisable with panniers as they’ll stick out farther than handlebars.
Long riding days: 9/10
On those days of 8 hours of saddle time and hundreds of miles, I’m ecstatic with the GS. Sure, I’m tired, but I’m not exhausted. After coming to camp for the night or pulling up into my hotel, I’ve still got energy to go out for groceries.
Gravel roads: 8/10
For traveling at a relaxed pace (20–40 mph), I vastly prefer the 1200 vs my KTM 690 Enduro. Weird, right? The weight and suspension of the big bike add up to it feeling more planted. Whereas my 690 bounces a bit from rut to rut, the 1200 is a tank that plows through. Give me a miles of gravel and I’ll choose the 1200 every time.
Should you actually off road the 1200?
Probably not for anything serious.
It depends entirely on your skills, strength, and endurance. For most folks, I’d say stay on tarmac or gravel roads. For those with gobs of dirt bike or dual-sport experience and a good physical shape, you can surely manage it.
The challenges I see posed by seriously off roading the might GS:
- Picking it up. This thing is gonna go down. The physics here are pretty simple. Weight+speed = tons of inertia. Even with a 50/50 tire like the TKC80, that inertia needs to be dealt with. A lighter bike places less weight on the tires, thus it recovers more quickly.
- Being alone. I just couldn’t imagine feeling safe or comfortable in a rough stretch of wilderness without a someone to help get out of a bind (due to the weight and size). This is a stark contrast to my KTM 690, where I’ve never worried about such things.
- Tight maneuvers. The 1200 is a wide bike. It’s a heavy bike. It’s got a lot going on. Trying to navigate it through ruts, trees, or other types of close-in wilderness would be trying for all but those few enduro super-stars on the YouTubes. You know the ones. The ripped dudes who race professionally. ADV bike manufacturers pay them to show off each time a new bike gets announced. They make everything look effortless and perfect… In reality, you are going to be cussing and stuck, and hopefully not trapped under the bike.
Can this be the only bike in your shed?
Seriously though, if you have the luxury to afford this bike, and you have the years of experience required, then you’re probably a great candidate to have a 1200 and be a happy monogamous motorcycle person… If you want. Which you probably don’t. Who doesn’t want more bikes?! But sometimes circumstances force us to limit to just one, and this can totally be that one bike.
Looking for a weekend jaunt? The GS is plenty fast and fun. Touring? No problem. Light off roading? Easy-peasy. Bad weather? Shrug it off. If you want to be able to do a bit of everything, and go pretty much anywhere, the 1200 is a great way to do it.
So, here’s what really matters: how long until I get bored and restless with the 1200? How long until I get the itch and think about selling it for the next thing? Well, at least for this camper, I think many many years. Maybe a year or two into the next generation of GS’s (The R1250GS? The R1300GS?), once the bugs have been worked out, maybe then I’ll even think about upgrading.
I look forward to just enjoying the big GS, and vanquishing that nagging feeling of “but what about a different bike?”. Instead, it’s time to ride, and keep riding.
Early trips and experiences
Ok, this ends the official review. Everything below is now about what I’ve done with the bike so far, not what I think about it.
Lost Coast to CA 36
This was my engine break-in route. A jaunt up 101 (which becomes quite fun north of Ukiah), a cut out to Mattole campground (one of my favorite spots to camp in CA), and then a long day of twisty roads on 36, followed the next day by drumming down the I-5 highway towards home. This route covers nearly everything I’d ever ask of the BMW: long highway miles, twisty back-country roads, miles of well-worn gravel, and long saddle days, all while burdened with camping and photography gear.
In my pack: the a7Riii, the very large 100–400mm lens, the lovely 16–35mm lens, my excellent pocketable Sony a5000 (24–75mm equiv), full-sized tripod, tent, sleeping pad and bag, water, snacks, jetboil, cups, spork, and a minimal amount of clothes.
Everything went just about perfect. In-between Garberville and the Mattole campground, the roads come in all shapes and sizes. There’s a particular section just before Honeydew full of very steep twisties that would require slow maneuvers at any time, but also turn to gravel and dirt and dust for a few miles. The BMW barely noticed. It was pretty great.
I arrived at camp with about two hours before sunset. Just enough time to eat an early dinner, setup the tent, and head out for sunset photos. I couldn’t ask for a better day.
The next day consisted of a very slow return to civilization. The roads just north of the Lost Coast (between Petrolia and Ferndale) are my favorite sections of coast I’ve yet seen. Despite most areas being fenced off, it is so wild here. This is likely the closest to what undeveloped California must have been like. I have a hard time describing it, and often a hard time photographing it (due to private land), so I can only suggest that everyone check it out for themselves. Just plan to take way more time than you’d think.
Once I finally made it back to Fortuna, it was time to tackle Hwy 36. This is one of those iconic California motorcycling must-dos, that somehow I’d never done before. It did not disappoint. Over 100 miles of non-stop twisties. What I wasn’t prepared for or aware of is how mountainous this would be. At the west end the road is lovely redwood forest, the kind one is much accustomed to living in the Bay Area. On the east end is a kind of roller coaster (twists both up-and-down in addition to side-to-side) that winds through farmlands and red rocks reminiscent of Utah. In the middle and for the majority of 36: mountains. Lots of ’em.
My only regret is that Hwy 36 is so far from home. It’s hard to imagine revisiting more than once a year as to do this comfortably requires more than a normal weekend excursion.
I couldn’t have asked for a better way to break-in such a lovely machine. I did a somewhat similar route with my last BMW, but going south to camp and riding Big Sur. It was great to keep the tradition alive.
The Sierras in Snow and Rain
This trip followed the very next week after the Lost Coast. My favorite passes in the Sierras had just opened (Ebbett’s, Sonora, and Tioga). The weather looked on the cool side, but definitely comfortable. There was a 30% chance of rain. Away we go! The plan was thus: Saturday take a leisurely ride up to Sonora pass and arrive at Mono Lake just in time for sunset. Try for some astrophotography over the lake. The skies should be clear.
The scenery on the way up to Sonora pass was just perfect. Pleasant mountain weather, not too cold. Lots of breaks for photos.
I made it up to the pass just around 3pm. Of course, once you get close is when the snow becomes evident, so I stopped more and more frequently, eating up more daylight.
Still, the weather wasn’t too cold. As I hopped back on the bike to go over the pass, the storm rolled in. It came in quick and cold. Within minutes it started to snow somewhat heavily. It was only about a mile further to the top of the pass, so on we went. The snow was heavy and sufficiently dry that it didn’t feel too cold. Still, I was very glad that I had put my goretex liners in for warmth at a lower elevation.
I stopped just once to get the above photo at the top of the pass. With the bike in rain mode, and knowing that I’d now gotten through the worst of it, I was having fun!
The snow only lasted for about 20 minutes, as I quickly dropped altitude going down the east side towards Mono Lake. The fun was about to come to an end.
Once I got below 8000', the delightful snow turned to decidedly not at all delightful near-freezing rain. For the rest of the trip on my way to Mono Lake, the temperature didn’t get above 37F. Thank goodness for heated grips and the good weather protection of the BMW. Had I been on my KTM, I would have felt like death.
I stopped in Bridgeport at a gas station. There I met another fellow rider (on a lovely Honda Africa Twin). He was a big guy, with an indomitable spirit. He’d had a pretty nasty fall earlier in the day up at Black Rock Desert, and it had taken out all the electronic displays and heated grips on his bike. It was 6pm now, dark out, cold, and raining cats and dogs. He was determined to push on to Los Angeles (another 5 hours away). He seemed to have his wits about him, but both I and the very kind station attendant had our worries. We both had a bowl of microwaved spicy noodle soup (nothing better in cold weather!), and wished each other a good journey. I hope he made it.
As it was, I rolled into Lee Vining (a lovely little tourist town just above Mono Lake) in the dark, cold and wet but in good spirits. Highway 395 rises and falls with the elevation, so as I approached and the evening cooled the rain turned to snow back and forth with each rolling hill. It would have been magnificently delightful had it not been so bloody cold. By that point though, I was over it. I just wanted a warm bed and to sleep. Still, my breath would be taken away one more time for the day. A truly lovely sight met me as I made the final approach: the snowline was just a hundred feet above the town. The Sierras rise just behind Lee Vining, so it’s a wall of hills and mountains. And they were blanketed in snow. Just lovely.
The ride home the next day was nowhere near so eventful. I left Lee Vining a bit late, and took it slow and lazy. I was again so ecstatically happy to be carrying all my camera equipment. The photos that came from this trip aren’t the best I’ve taken, but the act of photography is meditative, and after the excitement of storms the previous day, it was deeply satisfying to engage in such a calm affair.
So concludes all my early experiences with the magnificent 1200GS.
Stay tuned to my Medium account to find out where it takes me next…