Last Friday, I participated in the local 2012 BMW Demo Day. I signed up for the R1200GS — also known affectionately as the “adventure couch”. This is BMW’s top of the line dual-sport touring bike. The R1200GSA model is honestly the true adventure couch, though the differences between the GS and GSA are minor: functionally I believe it’s a somewhat different suspension setup and optionally different gearing. Otherwise it’s the same frame and drive-train.
The bare bones R1200GS MSRP is $17,900, while the GSA clocks in at a cool $20,600. Out the door, you’ll probably add another $4,000+ on the ABS and other gizmos, plus tax/freight/etc. My main questions for myself in riding this bike were:
- Is this bike worth $24,000?
- Is this bike worth three or four KLRs?
- Do I need this bike for “serious adventure”, or is it a luxury?
They sound somewhat redundant, but they’re really three separate questions. I’ll answer them at the end. I am reviewing this bike entirely in the context of comparing it to a KLR (arguably at the opposite end of the spectrum). After all, this is about “motorcycle adventure for everyone”, not just the wealthy.
Friday was an absolutely gorgeous day: sunny and clear, with temperatures in the low twenties. I skipped out of the office a little early, and enjoyed the ride down to the dealer. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a man at a grill on the lawn in front of the building who offered me a sausage or beef on a bun. It was a great start to the day.
Shortly thereafter, we were shown to our bikes, and I found my GS — a blue one similar to the one in the photo. I threw my leg over and immediately settled into the saddle. It was a comfortable enough seat, firm enough yet not hard. I wouldn’t say it was perfect though, and after an hour or so riding I could feel it a little. I did appreciate the shape of the second seat behind forming a mini back-rest. It’s somewhat more comfortable than my stock KLR seat, but not outrageously so. While sitting in the parking lot, I also noticed something surprising: despite the fact that this is a 1200 compared to my 650, the GS felt approximately the same in terms of “heaviness”, i.e. how easy it is physically manage such a big bike. I was expecting it to be much more unwieldy, but it certainly was not. This ease of handling carried through to the riding: it was very comfortable and easy to control even at walking speed in parking lots. My first impressions were very good.
After a few minutes to familiarize ourselves with the controls, we rolled out of the lot. We were travelling as a big group in formation, which was clearly a new experience for many of the riders in the group. That, combined with the inevitable helmet fires that come with riding a completely different motorcycle than you’re used to, made for an interesting first few kilometers! Soon enough, however, we settled in to our ride and everyone seemed to be doing fine, a few perpetually-blinking signal lights notwithstanding…
We rode out towards the mountains, enjoying the relatively quiet secondary highways. As we left the city, I gained a thorough appreciation for the exquisitely smooth and snappy acceleration and transmission on the GS. The clutch was crisp and steady, with a predictable and comfortable friction point on first gear. Every shift was solid and clean, it almost felt like just pushing a button rather than mechanically shifting in a transmission. Acceleration through the gears was effortless and fun, with good solid power throughout the entire range of RPMs, from very low to nearly redline. Sixth gear cruises at a nice low RPM at highway speeds, and provides a rather scary top-end on the bike. I won’t publicly admit my top speed on the GS, except to say I broke my own personal land speed record. The truly scary part is that I didn’t really intend to go as fast as I did, and it did not feel to be nearly as fast as it actually was. This matches my experience with high-end four-wheelers as well.
The suspension performed admirably as well. The road we took passes through a few ranches, and so includes some Texas gates. On the first gate, I hit the drive-over steel panels, so it was perfectly smooth. On the second one, however, I deliberately missed the panels and rode over the bars directly. I almost didn’t feel a difference, as the suspension soaked it up with very little transmitted bumping. I experienced the same thing on the potholes and bumps in the road generally: whatever was thrown at it, the suspension soaked it up beautifully. The GSA will have a slightly different (firmer?) suspension than the GS, but I have no reason to doubt its quality. Riding the GS on a bumpy road is smooth and very comfortable.
There are some things that the suspension can’t fix, however. I noticed a rather persistent buzzing/vibration at several RPM points. The mirrors would fuzz out, and my hands would get a little numb after a while. Sometimes it was possible to avoid the vibration bands by choosing a different gear and a different RPM, however at highway cruising speed it was unfortunately difficult to avoid.
I also noticed a fair susceptibility to wind on the highway. Crosswinds were troublesome — somewhat moreso than on my KLR, which has a convenient “self-righting” feature that I can’t fully explain. Headwinds were quite buffety. The GS easily has the power to make the extra drag meaningless on travelling speed, but I felt quite a bit of head pressure from the wind, and just-off headwinds put a lot of pressure on my chest (or more accurately, a 30 km/h crosswind at 110 km/h on the highway). The GSA has a slightly larger windshield, but I doubt it would be enough to fully remedy all of these issues. This may not be a full-fairing bike, but this kind of thing would definitely impact riding comfort for extended cross-country highway touring.
Altogether I spent about two hours driving the machine in the beautiful Alberta foothills, and overall I enjoyed every minute of it.
The good news
This is a BMW, in every sense of the word. The transmission is smooth and flawless, the acceleration (both low-end and high-end) is solid, the handling is joyful, and the suspension is delightful. The fit and finish is flawless, with gorgeous lines. This bike does not feel like a 1200cc machine, it is far more nimble and manageable than any other thousand-class bike I’ve been on. I did not get a chance to try the bike off-road any more than some gravel/dirt roads, but my initial impression is that it would be no less manageable than a KLR, for whatever that’s worth.
The bad news
There are a few minor drawbacks to the R1200GS. First, the seat was acceptable but not exquisite. When I’m paying more than 20 big ones for a bike, I expect that seat to be exquisite. Second, there was a fairly noticeable vibration at highway speeds that was difficult to eliminate. I suspect if it could have been easily eliminated with the addition of some bar-end weights, then BMW would have done that. That’s the kind of thing that a company like BMW does when they build bikes, and that’s why they go for $20,000+. Third, the wind was an issue on the highway. Is that fair? Well, I noticed it and it detracted from my ride. Anyway, altogether I’d say that highway cruising is not necessarily the R1200GS’s strongest point. It was easily manageable but it wasn’t a joy. Sure, I hear you say: buy a Goldwing (or a K1600!) if you want that. Fair enough.
I began with three questions. I’ll answer them from my own point of view.
Is this bike worth $24,000?
Yes, with a qualification. It is only worth it if spending that money does not significantly hinder your ability to actually do what you want to do with it! If you have this much cash floating around, and if you can buy this bike and still actually afford to go on your adventures without feeling broke all the time, then it’s worth it. I don’t have the money today, or for the foreseeable future. If you do have the money, and if spending it would not be an issue, then I can confidently say: buy this bike.
Is this bike worth three or four KLRs?
No. But I can only ride one bike at a time, right? However, it is easily not “four times better” than a KLR. It is much smoother, much more powerful, and feels tighter. But it doesn’t feel four times better. And hey, for this price I could buy a small fleet of KLRs and have friends to bring along on my trips!
Do I need this bike for “serious adventure”, or is it a luxury?
No — it is a luxury. The R1200GS is an excellent bike. However, it does not suddenly open up this giant range of adventuring that I simply could not accomplish on a KLR. Yes, the R1200GS will do it in style. Yes, it is more comfortable cruising at high-speed. But it is not flawless. I had initially thought that the GS would be overwhelmingly superior at highway speed cruising, and that it would make the KLR seem downright painful on tarmac. It doesn’t. I still get vibration. I still get wind pressure and crosswind issues. The seat is better, but not perfect. However, it does have a hell of a lot more power than the KLR on the highway. But the KLR is perfectly acceptable at 110 km/h.
I like the R1200GS a lot. It is worth the money, but only if you have it! It is not worth it to sacrifice to get the GS, whether that’s in terms of waiting a couple of years to save up for it, or to buy it and then be too broke to be able to afford to go on adventures with it! The R1200GS does not allow any kind of adventure that I could not get on KLR, though it does make those same adventures more plush and luxurious.
There are many more things I could discuss. What about maintenance and reliability? Yes, these things are interesting, especially for adventure bikes. However, in either case they are both manageable with different approaches. The GS is presumably rock-solid and reliable top-notch technology, with world-wide service available (for a price). The KLR is very basic, almost primitive. However, parts are easily found, and any halfway competent mechanic (including the owner) can manage virtually any sort of repair. This is just an example, but I think it generalizes to just about anything I can think of: they are two very different bikes, but they can both be used effectively to find adventure!
The used market for the GS seems to be extremely tight. However, if you can find a good one that’s in your price range, that might be a way to get yourself onto the Adventure Couch without breaking the bank. Good luck!