Mid-size adventure-bikes make a lot of sense; they are eminently practical and versatile. I’ll tell you a little story to illustrate what I mean. I was having a drink outside a popular biker’s roadside cafe, when a guy pulled in on a BMW GS650. He was wearing full racing-type leathers and a Rossi-replica helmet. The gear was unusual, I thought, for the type of bike he was riding. I got talking to him and he told me that he also had a Yamaha R1. Ah, then the riding-gear made sense! He was on the last leg of a ride that would see him clock up about 400km, almost half of that on rough dirt. He told me about one section of road and said, “You wouldn’t want to take a road-bike through there!” We then got talking about his bike. He said he’d done quite a bit of touring on it, including annual trips to Phillip Island. He said he took the BMW because it was more comfortable and better suited to touring than the R1. While this type of bike might not be as popular in Australia as it should be, many people have caught on to the idea that bikes designed to tackle long distances on rough roads are ideally suited to Aussie conditions. Thus the popularity of BMW’s big R-series GS bikes. Many don’t ever leave the black-top, but provide comfortable day-to-day travel and long distance touring duties for their astute owners. If adventure-bikes do go off the beaten black-top track though, the smaller versions can be more practical. If you’ve seen “Long Way Round” you might remember a scene where Ewan and Charlie were struggling with their big bikes (BMW R1150GS) up a badly rutted steep track and the bikes were constantly falling over. Cameraman Claudio, however, was riding a small el-cheapo thing he’d bought when his BMW broke (and which, from memory, was really a road-bike), and having much less difficulty. That was a very graphic demonstration of the problem with big bikes in off-road conditions – they are just too big, tall and heavy to handle! Smaller bikes are much easier to manage and more suited to rough going. So if BMW is king of the big adventure-bikes (and it kind of is), then you’d expect that the mid size Beemers would probably be king of that category. I’m sure that guy I met on the GS650 would give them the mid-size crown. So I thought it would be good to take a look at the mid-size BMW adventure-bikes. And we have three models to choose from. The names BMW have given to its mid-range adventure bikes are confusing. It all started when they gave the new 800cc twin the same name it previously had in single-cylinder 650cc guise; they called it F650GS. Yes, it was an 800, but they called it 650 because, well, it had always been called that and they didn’t want loyal buyers thinking this was a totally new model (which it basically was!). They wanted to trade on the success the old one had built up. And if that wasn’t confusing enough, they continued the old (single-cylinder 650cc) version, now calling it G650GS. Then they added another version which was a bit more heavy-duty, with better protection from off-road nasties and a bit more power from the same 800cc engine. They called that the F800GS. Are you confused yet? You should be! I still have to look at the specifications to remember which one is which. By the way, on the subject of names, if you’re wondering what the “GS” means, apparently it stands for “Gelande Strasse”, German for “Trail and Street”. Makes sense doesn’t it – and describes the bike very accurately. So it’s just the engine-size part of the name that is wrong! I’ll give you some specs on the three models, just so you know what the differences are. The G650GS (the single-cylinder one) puts out 37kW. It weighs 175kg. The F650GS (which is an 800cc twin, remember), puts out 52kW and weighs just 171kg. The more purposeful F800GS pumps out 63kW (from the same motor – try to keep up!), and weighs a bit more, at 185kg. Of these, I think the F650GS is the best pick for day-to-day duties that will involve mostly on-road stuff. The single-cylinder one is a bit, well, “yesterday’s hero” now, and a bit lacking in power; a bit too basic for what we’d want today. On the other hand, the F800GS, while having more power (which would be welcome!), is perhaps a bit too dirt-road focused for what we’d want from a mostly-on-road mount. So it was the F650GS that got my pick as the one to ride. I got the chance to do that when the local BMW dealer played host to the test-fleet and put on a ride day.
IN THE DRIVEWAY
In the test of the K1300S I said that I reckon there must be two entirely different design teams at BMW. One team designs bikes that are stylish, functional, and hold fast to BMW traditions of comfort and good ergonomics, and another one holds the mantra of “Symmetry is bad!” These are the guys who came up with the lop-sided headlights and who did the S1000R fairing with its slits on one side and gaping hole on the other side. I reckon it’s these guys who designed the F650GS. There are those lop-sided headlights I mentioned, which gives the bike a punched-in-the-face look. Then there’s the funny beak-like protrusion that looks like it might be a mudguard except that there’s another mudguard just over the wheel. These adventure bikes might try to be suited to both dirt roads and bitumen, but fitting both a dirt-bike mudguard (which is kind of what it looks like) and a road-bike one just makes it look silly! Probably none of these dual-purpose bikes would win a beauty contest, but the BMW might win an ugly one! Then there are other peculiarities, like the fuel-tank under the seat. That helps keep the weight down low, so is actually a good idea, even if it seems weird at first. Okay, so I don’t like the looks, but I have to say that it would grow on you if you owned one. And if you don’t look at it with too critical an eye it can look okay. It’s certainly individual in its appearance, and for those of us who like that there’s some appeal in that individuality. Oh, and I do like the wheels, they look great! But what’s it like when you climb on board? Well, “climbing” on board is the operative term, because even though it’s the more road-orientated of the 800cc models, it’s still fairly high. And when you get up there and settle in, well that’s not such a great place to be! The guys who designed these must reckon that if the bikes are tough they’ve got to have tough seats. This one is. The seat is hard and has a scalloped shape that holds you in one position. To put this in context, Road Rider magazine did a comparison between this bike and the Triumph Tiger 800 and said that the Tiger was “way in front” in the area of comfort, describing its seat as being “just wonderful”. In my report on the Tiger I described the seat as being “a bit firm” and mentioned other riders commenting on the “hard seat” as well. So if that was “just wonderful” compared to the BMW, well, it’s no wonder I’ve heard of owners getting the seat re-done! (Check the entry in my Blog for December 2010. A lady who bought one of these described the seat as being “like a plank” and had hers re-built. She said it transformed the comfort of the bike). The bars are high and wide, of course. They are well-positioned for riding standing up but still okay for riding when seated. It’s a good compromise and better, for example, than the Yamaha Tenere 660. Remember what I said about mid-size bikes being light and easy to handle? Well, the F650GS is exactly that; it feels light and gives you the impression it would be easy to control both on and off road. The instruments are a bit unusual too, being stacked one above the other. To the right of these (obscured in the photo) is a large digital display which has plenty of useful information including clock and gear position. Also available, so I’m told, is ambient temperature, fuel economy and tyre-pressures. And probably more if you had time to keep pressing buttons to see what comes up. All that makes sense, but some of the controls are just stupid! Yes, if you owned one I suppose you’d get used to them, but that doesn’t excuse them for being stupid to begin with! Take the start-button for example. Every bike made (well, almost!) has the start-button located on the rear of the right switch-block. Not the BMW. When I came to start it I prodded with my thumb, but the button wasn’t there. I looked but still couldn’t see it. I was just about to call the BMW man over when I spotted a tiny red button pointing vertically from the top of the switch-block. Is that it? Yes, it was. (You can see it in the photo below). But topping the list for stupidity is the switches for the blinkers. There are three of them. Yes, three! There is a button on the right switch-block to turn right and a button on the left switch-block to turn left. Harleys have that, and when you get used to it, it's quite logical. But with this bike you need a third button to turn them off. This is mounted on the right-switch-block, about where you’d expect the start-button to be. Now this is bad enough on right turns, having to use one button to turn them on and a different button to turn them off, but for left turns you turn the blinkers on with your left hand and then have to use the right hand to turn them off. Now tell me that’s not stupid! Oh, and just to catch you out even further, on the left switch-block, in exactly the same position as the blinker-off switch on the right, is the horn. So, after mastering the two-button procedure on right turns, you perform the same action on left turns and the blinkers stay on and the horn blows! Stupid! In the test of the BMW F880R I commented on the brake master-cylinder reservoir which is mounted on a piece of rubber hose and pokes up like some weird phallic symbol. Well, it’s here on the F650GS too. It wobbles around as you ride along and looks like it's about to fall off. Not so stupid though is the shield fitted around the front forks below the instruments to stop mud and gunk from spraying up onto the under-sides of the everything above. Very sensible!
OUT ON THE ROAD
Okay, so having finally found the start button, when it fires up the engine is very quiet. There’s a bit of a raspy note when it revs, but when you drop it back to idle you think it’s stopped. It goes well enough, but it isn’t a fast bike. I thought it felt a bit more like its name-sake 650cc engine-size than an 800cc. (In our “2nd Opinion” section below David says it performed similar to his V-Strom 650). At lower revs especially I thought it felt a bit lethargic, but improved as the revs rose a bit. It pulls smoothly – if not especially quickly – from under 3,000rpm. I agree with Rod (see the “2nd Opinion” section below) that it sometimes feels a bit lumpy. The bike feels very high-geared. It is high-geared, but it feels even higher than it is because of the characteristics of the engine. It needs a few revs on board to really get it going, so you find yourself using the lower gears a lot. When you take off it feels like you’re taking off in 2nd. It’s geared at about 11kph per 1,000rpm in 1st gear, which is a bit higher than most mid-size bikes and that gearing bogs it down a bit until the revs rise. I had it to just over 100kph in 2nd – still well short of the red-line – on one brisk take-off. Top gear runs at just under 30kph per 1,000rpm, which again is fairly high, and results in top being used more as an over-drive for high-speed cruising. Speaking of cruising, that high gearing does give it a very relaxed feel at cruising speed. At 120kph it felt relaxed and happy. Even the wind at that speed wasn’t too bad. I didn’t get the chance to run it at these highway type speeds for long though. While there wasn’t a lot of highway involved, the test-route was a good one to try the bike out over a wide variety of road conditions. It’s a familiar route and the same as used for the BMW K1300. It begins with a bit of urban traffic, proceeds up a narrow winding and at times bumpy back-road mountain pass, opens up through some interesting back-roads through the bush, then joins a main highway back to town. So there were plenty of curves to test the handling out; and it handles very well. It’s different, of course, being the type of bike it is; for example, you don’t so much counter-steer as just lean it over. Want to go left? Just lean to the left. Go right? Lean right. When I tried to counter-steer it seemed to respond better to pushing down on the bars as you lean, rather than just pushing forwards on them. You also feel the gyroscopic effect of the larger front wheel, which results in some resistance to initial turn-in, but it’s okay. And it’s very stable, of course. You might expect it to ride well, and it does. The suspension soaks up the lumps and bumps in the road very well. It’s just a shame that the comfortable ride is spoilt by the hard seat! And that kind of sums it up, really. Good, but spoilt by …! Mind you, if you could get used to the idiosyncrasies (like the stupid system of switches for the blinkers), chuck the seat in the direction of a good seat designer / upholsterer, and perhaps change the sprockets to lower the gearing, it could be turned into the bike it should be. And that’d be pretty good!
Like all these mid-size adventure-tourers, the bike is good in principle. It’s a very practical design concept, especially for our iffy road conditions. It’s spoilt a bit by some idiosyncrasies, like weird looks and the stupid layout of some controls. And it could do with lower gearing, and perhaps a bit more power. (Although with lower gearing it probably wouldn’t need it). And it definitely needs a more comfortable seat! In all other respects, if those things could be sorted out, it'd make a very good mid-size adventure-tourer.
Engine: 2-cylinder, 798cc. Power: 52kW at 7,000rpm. Torque: 75Nm at 4,500rpm.
Suspension: Front: Fork, non-adjustable. Rear: Mono-shock, adjustable pre-load and rebound.
Fuel capacity: 16 litres.
Seat height: 820mm.
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 110 X 19”, Rear: 140 X 17”
Brakes: Front: Single 300mm disc. Rear: Single 265mm disc. Optional ABS.
Price: $13,950 (+ORC).
Just after I did the test-ride I got an email from one of our readers who had just taken one for a test-ride himself. His comments make for a worthwhile addition to my observations here. And for another 2nd opinion, a riding mate test-rode the same bike on the same day, so I sought his opinions too. David is already in the mid-size adventure-bike scene, having a Suzuki V-Strom, and considering up-sizing to a Yamaha TDM900. Recently he dropped into a bike shop near to where he lives and took a BMW F650GS for a ride. Here’s what he had to say about it. “The demo model he had available for test riding happened to be the low seat and low suspension model. Just perfect for me as I am only 165cms tall. I had a good ride on it for an hour or so and in summary it ticks most of the boxes. Apart from the comfortable riding position, I did like the low revs – at 110kph it was only nudging 4000rpm – very quiet indeed, whereas the V-Strom is hitting 5500 at the same speed. Other good points are the analogue speedo & tacho (can’t stand these instruments in digital). Of course there is the digital display showing gear position (very handy), not to mention tyre pressures, outside temp, clock, fuel economy and gauge and a few more. Also comes with ABS and hand-warmers. On the ride the performance was very similar to the V Strom. Naturally the price tag difference is around $6,000! As you stated, I didn’t like the rubber mounted master brake cylinder which seemed to bob around like a cork in the ocean. Also, the mirrors were more like you would find on a kids pushbike – oh so small! Anyway, they were the only downsides as it has plenty of pluses. Also the dry weight of 171kg makes it easy to move. Rod rode the bike the same day as I did, and over the same course. He has had a lot of experience riding bikes of various sizes, including a V-Strom 650 on a bike tour around Europe and a Royal Enfield in India. It had been a while since he’d ridden those smaller bikes though (his own bike being an FJR1300), and at first he found it very light, almost flighty, in the steering. But that improved with familiarity on the ride. He said that the bike was, "Enjoyable to ride, quite comfortable and handled reasonably well. The quick turn in rattled me a bit at first but once used to it I found I could push it into corners quite quickly and liked the way the bike handled. There was plenty of power for my style of riding but one disappointment was the motor. To me it sounded rough, but that may have been due to the fact it had low K's and possibly needed tuning. Overall it was a nice bike to ride but I think I would prefer a VStrom." Thanks guys, it's always good to have more than just my ramblings on these things!
For 2013 BMW have given the bike a a quick make-over to freshen it up a bit for the new year. Nothing major, just a some minor up-grades. Oh, and they changed the name; it's now called the F700GS. Why "700"? Who knows! No, of course it's not a 700, it's still an 800. It was confusing enough calling it a "650", although they were thinking about linking it to the old favourite model. But "700"? Anyway, the first thing you'd notice - if you looked hard enough - is that the bodywork is a little different. Nothing major, just a couple of tweaks to the fairing / upper-bodywork, and the badge placed further forward, that sort of thing. Of more significance are the mechanical changes. Again, nothing major, but some small tweaks. Firstly they've got the engine producing slightly more power - up to 55kW and 77Nm, but both produced at higher revs. So I'd reckon you'd be pushing to notice it. Another change, which is probably worthwhile, is slightly lower gearing; achieved by adding one extra tooth to the rear sprocket. (BMW must've read my criticisms of the gearing. Do you think? No?). Maybe they read my comments on initial turn-in too (you never know, they might read my reports!), because they've shortened the wheelbase slightly, to make it more responsive. Another change that will be welcomed by prospective buyers is a reduction in price. It will now cost you just $12,890 - plus on-roads, of course. That's quite a good saving!
Finally BMW seem to have realised the sillyness of calling an 800cc bike a "700", so they've renamed it the BMW F800GS. That makes much more sense. There are some tweaks to the style and other things, but is essentially the same as the one tested here - or a development of it anyway.
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