Several years ago, while attending a press launch for an unspecified brand motorcycle, I don’t even remember what brand motorcycle it was, I had a verbal run in with another moto-journalist. We were on hand to test ride a sport-oriented machine, and my colleague was spouting off about how his personal BMW R 1200 GS could handle just as well as the bikes we were testing. He went on to boast of its cargo-carrying ability, comfort, long suspension travel, and exceptional cornering clearance. He sounded like a typical, brainwashed BMW fanatic. I’ve seen them before. There must be something hypnotic about the BMW Roundel logo that turns people’s minds to mush, I thought, because there’s no way a tall bike seemingly converted from enduro riding to mild street use could be competition for a sporting bike. But he was insistent! “My GS can outcorner this bike any day!” he professed. I retorted with a hearty, “Yeah, right, sure,” and went on my way, thinking this joker drank a little too much of the BMW Kool-Aid, if you know what I mean.
That was the last I heard about it from him, but just the beginning of noticing more and more of the giant GSs running around, ridden by properly outfitted, true motorcycle touring enthusiasts. Then Associate Editor Jon Langston came back from a BMW GS1200 press launch back in summer of 2008, raving about how the GS was his new favorite bike and how the electronic, on-the-fly suspension adjustment was the coolest feature on any motorcycle ever built. I never thought Jon was the type to be easily duped, so maybe there was something to the GS I was missing. This year, the GS’s 30th year of production, BMW decided to lay some refinements on the iconic adventure tourer and invited us to beautiful Yosemite Park for a press launch that will never be forgotten by those in attendance. My curiosity about the GS mystique got the better of me, and I imposed editor’s dibs on the press launch invite. The date was April 27, and I was bound for the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Little did I know April 28 would be the adventure of a lifetime.
At the first evening’s technical presentation I was joined by about 40 journalists from all walks of motorcycle life: street riders, dirt riders, web writers, you name it. It was possibly the largest gathering of the motorpress I’d ever seen. BMW was determined to make this a big event. It must have brought a big load of Kool-Aid, I thought. BMW reps introduced us to the 2010 BMW R 1200 GS. In the presentation, it was hailed as the motorcycle BMW Motorrad had been built on, an important motorcycle, an icon, etc. The GS is part of a lifestyle people will aspire to, and BMW claims to define this segment. The marketing for the GS was described as “experiential,” something you need to try in order to understand. The GS was billed as having the most bandwidth of any motorcycle you can ride, and you’re never on the wrong bike with a GS. Sitting there in the hotel conference room, I still had not experienced my “a-ha” moment; I couldn’t say “I get it now” quite yet. I guess my punch was watered down.
On to the nuts and bolts of the presentation: the 2010 R 1200 GS was not meant to break new ground, there was no complete redesign from the last version, but a plethora of refinements were executed. More has stayed the same than has changed, like the Boxer engine’s guts and displacement of 1170cc. But BMW took that same engine size and coaxed an extra five percent of output by changing the cylinder head and cam arrangement to bring it up to 110 hp at 7750 rpm and maximum torque to 88 ft-lbs. at 6000 rpm. Max engine rpm was bumped up to 8500 from 8000 with significantly better acceleration, torque, and pulling power. (I especially like the sweet spot from 4000 rpm on up.) Two chain-driven overhead camshafts per cylinder and valves in radial arrangement are the key and make for a compact combustion chamber. Valve diameters were increased from 36 to 39mm (1.42″-1.54″) on the intake side and 31 to 33mm (1.22″-1.30″) on the exhaust. Valve lift is up by 10.54mm (0.415″) on the intake and 9.26mm (0.365″) on the exhaust to 10.8mm (0.425″) on each side. The two cast-aluminum pistons have been redesigned to match the change in combustion chamber layout. At a glance, you can tell the difference between the 2009 and ’10 GS by the two-bolt valve cover on the latter (the 2009 had four bolts). Another quick cue is the black finish on the throttle bodies as opposed to the old silver version. Throttle bodies are upped this year as well to 50mm (1.97″) from the former 47mm (1.85″).
That sweet spot at 4000 rpm I mentioned is accompanied by a gnarly exhaust bark caused by the electronically controlled exhaust flap. Lots of manufacturers are utilizing similar systems, but the GS’s muscular sound wave is so much fun to unleash. The exhaust flap is controlled by an electric motor as well as opening and closing cables. The single rear silencer looks the same as before but features a completely new interior structure. Thanks to efficient knock control, the GS runs on premium fuel with an octane rating of 95-98. But on long tours where the rider might only find inferior grade fuel, the engine may also run on 91 regular. A specific calibration is available free of charge straight from the factory.
The six-speed transmission sends power back through the usual maintenance-free shaft drive. Something I noticed while riding the GS at low speeds in demanding terrain was the ability to quickly change gears, sometimes without the use of clutch disengagement. While I’m not condoning this type of gear shifting, and I’m not sure if BMW designed it to work as such, it was really convenient to click a gear while crawling through a rut while still maintaining a firm grip on the bars.
The optional electronic suspension adjustment (ESA) is highly recommended. It electronically adjusts the spring base and damping for every condition you may encounter, and virtually any load level, simply by pressing a button on the left switchpod. The lean angle of the GS can only be described as forever, and the Bridgestone Battlewing adventure-sport tires are confidence-inspiring and grip well while chasing backroad curves. BMW’s defeat-able ABS is another handy feature, although I feel the ABS kicks in a little too soon. I wouldn’t want to become reliant upon it.
The ergonomics of the GS 1200 are sit-up-straight and comfortable. The front seat height is easily adjustable, and the handlebar risers are asymmetrical, allowing the rider to flip them 180 degrees (after a little wrenching) to move the bar fore and aft. We were fortunate enough to have a loaner GS 1200 at the office after the whole Yosemite adventure ride. It quickly became a staff favorite and rarely sat still for more than a few hours. Creature comforts like an info-packed LCD gauge with info scroll button conveniently placed on the left switchgear make the GS a joy. And one feature BMW reps were especially proud of this year are the larger, easier-to-manipulate windshield adjustment knobs. Woo-hoo! (But, really, they are easy to grip).
If all this talk is making me sound like a convert, you’re right. Getting back to the Yosemite press ride, the next day’s ride started out normal enough, except for the fact that we were setting out in four waves of riders with lead and follow guides and a convoy of support equipment. The logistics were complex, and the morning was chilly. Little did I know I’d see everything from paved and gravel roads to muddy trails, in conditions ranging from sun to rain, from snow to sleet. Yes, there was snow in the hills, and we were riding right into it. In just a few hours the on-dash thermometer on my GS went from 54 degrees F to 34, and I got to experience firsthand the GS’s ice condition warning feature. It works like a charm.
Difficult circumstances bring people together and act as a bonding agent. And the conditions that day produced an event that live forever in our memories. But that’s not what has endeared the BMW R 1200 GS to me. The bike’s vast repertoire of abilities has. RB
By Steve Lita, photos by Jonathan Beck, Bob Feather, and Kevin Wing