What better way to celebrate 90 years of producing motorcycles than to release a special commemorative model to mark the occasion: and that’s just what BMW did. But what would they call it? R90 would’ve been good, but they’d already used that, for a model produced back in the 1970s. I can just imagine the scene as the marketing men sat around discussing what to call it: then one bright young teen-speak bloke jumps up and says, “Let’s call it the R NineT! NineT … ninety. Get it?” I don’t know if that’s exactly how it happened, but maybe. In any case that was the name they gave it. BMW began by making engines for other motorcycle manufacturers, then shortly after, decided to make their own. The first bike they made was released in 1923. Known as the R32, it established the basic mechanical layout of horizontally-opposed twin-cylinder engine and shaft-drive transmission that the marque still uses today. There are other configurations now, of course, but up until 1994 all BMW motorcycles used this layout. The R32 had an engine of just under 500cc, produced a bit over 6kW, and had a top speed of 95kph. The new bike shows what technological advances have been made over that 90 year period, but it also pays homage to models gone by. So it’s very much a modern motorcycle, but it’s a bit retro and nostalgic as well.
IN THE DRIVEWAY
I’ve joked before that there must be two design teams at BMW; one that comes up with those quirky features like lop-sided headlights, and fairings that differ from one side to the other, and so on. Then there’s the team that comes up with great looking bikes, like the K1300S, and now this one. Yes, this comes from the “make-‘em-look-good” team! (And it'd look even better if there wasn't all that other stuff behind it here!). It has its own character, of course, and it has a very traditional look about it, but I think it looks great; from the front anyway. Those big gold-coloured forks set off against the black tank and engine, and the silver triple clamps, look fabulous! It’s a very purposeful looking bike: a character that is accentuated by the big air-intake thingy on the right side of the bike. At the rear it suddenly becomes very minimalist: there’s almost a café-racer look about it. With no bodywork, and the exposed tubular frame, it looks like stuff has been taken off it. And the section that pokes out holding the tail-light just looks like an after-thought. I’m not so keen on all that. To me, the back half doesn’t really match the front half. Although with those twin stacked pipes, the left side of the bike looks better. But I just walk around to the front and it all looks great again! One advantage of this minimalist rear section is that at least some of the service items – like the brake master-cylinder – are very easy to get at. Sitting on the bike it feels quite small and light. Even when leaning at an angle it’s still easy to lift off the side-stand. That horizontally-opposed engine makes for a low centre-of-gravity, which in turn makes the bike feel light and easily manageable. You sit quite up-right, with just a gentle lean forward to the bars: it feels a very natural riding-position. The bars are very wide – unnecessarily so I think. I’ve got long arms but I still would’ve felt more natural if the bars were an inch or so shorter on each side. The bar was also a little closer than I would prefer. Fitting in with the retro theme, the instruments are very traditional looking, with two analogue dials; one for tacho and one for speed. In between is a (not traditional!) digital display giving other information. It’s a perfect blend of the traditional and the modern. In the display is a big prominent number telling you what gear you’re in (or an “N” for no gear), a clock, odo and fuel read-out. Pressing buttons underneath the panel give access to trip meters. Start it up and there are some vibes from the big boxer twin, but nothing at all harsh. The vibes are always there, right through the rev range, but never unpleasant; they’re just enough to give it character. Blip the throttle and, typically of the longitudinal layout, it rocks the bike to the side. This trait was mostly only noticeable at standstill though. It’s there, in a very subtle way if you take particular notice, out on the road, but not to any great extent: it feels almost like a very slight wobble, but isn’t. In the test of the R1200R I said that it was, “More a hint that it wants to wobble rather than actually wobbling”, and it’s the same with this; except that it isn’t as pronounced as I recall it being on that bike. Despite the engine being basically the same unit as fitted to the R1200R and R1200GS, there are detail differences between them all, which is evidenced by slight (but only slight) variations in specifications. In terms of feel, this bike feels much more like the R1200GS than the R1200R. While in both of those tests I said that the engine would pull away from under 2,000rpm, with the naked I said that it didn’t really feel happy until it was above 4,000rpm, while the all-roader I said was happy once it got above 3,000rpm. The R NineT feels even more tractable: still pulling away from under 2,000rpm in the lower gears, but once above 2,000rpm it’s happy to pull away in any gear, including its relatively high-geared top. It’s very smooth too; just with those ever-present slight vibes that just give it character but don’t make it at all unpleasant. And it stays like that all the way to … well, up at least to around 6,000rpm, which was all I bothered taking it to. The exhaust sounds great! It emits a throaty rumble, then crackles and pops on the over-run. Nice! There’s good power in those big twin cylinders! Acceleration is smooth and strong. Twist the throttle and it surges forward: and you better keep an eye on that speedo, because the needle soon starts swinging into illegal territory. But it’s a torquey motor too. I tried it up a very steep hill that leads to a farm property. The road (which is just ahead of where the photo on the left was taken) is very narrow (really only one-lane) and there’s a couple of sharp right-angle bends at the bottom, so I was in 1st gear at low revs, but when pointed at the steepest bit (which is straight) it pulled away easily and strongly. Very impressive! The gearing is quite high; around town you’re mostly in 2nd or 3rd. Top gear runs at 30kph per 1,000rpm; which puts the tacho just over 3,000rpm at 100kph, and right on 4,000rpm at 120kph. For a naked roadster that is higher than it needs to be, I reckon. I said the same thing of the R1200R, but unlike that, the R NineT’s engine characteristics do allow it to operate quite happily with this high-ish gearing. The high gearing allows it to cruise effortlessly, of course, and somehow even the wind doesn’t seem as much a problem as it normally would be on a naked. I don’t know why that is, because there’s nothing much in front of you to divert the wind. I found the gear-change to be a bit jerky sometimes. Get it right – don’t totally close the throttle on up-changes, and try to match the revs on down-changes – and it’s very smooth. But if I didn’t quite get that right, the change wasn’t as smooth. The clutch is a dry-plate, by the way. The ride is very firm. I didn’t take it over any really rough roads, but even bumps on the highway were bouncing me off the seat. And, unlike some bikes, the ride didn’t smooth out at higher speeds. No doubt some of this could be adjusted out, but it would never be plush. That thin seat does nothing to enhance the ride either, of course. When I mentioned this to the sales manager on my return, he said, “It’s a roadster; the suspension is going to be firm”. Then added, “But it points and steers well!” And it does. Gentle counter-steering is all you need, and the bike goes exactly where you want it to. My only criticism was that, to me, it felt just a little over-tyred at the rear: although the tyre is a common 180-section, so not what you’d call over-tyred at all. But it just gave me that feeling. Although that was probably just me and the speed I was riding it at. When I did corner a bit faster it felt better. The wide bars give good control, of course, and it always felt totally stable. The brakes are excellent. They give a soft initial bite, but if you squeeze harder they pull the bike up very strongly. So there it is, BMW’s latest roadster, which has been produced as a celebratory model to the company’s 90 years of making motorcycles. In that role it works pretty well – there’s a lot of tradition in its minimalist retro looks, but there’s enough new-age technology to allow it to sit beside the latest models in the showroom. And it ain’t a bad thing to ride either! SNAPSHOT This is the bike that BMW produced to celebrate 90 years of making motorcycles. It does that pretty well, with a retro, almost café-racer style and loads of character. It might look a bit overly minimalist at the rear, but the front half looks great! The engine goes well and even sounds good! For me, the ride would be a deal-breaker, but if you’re okay with a firm ride, then this could be a great bike to be on, and to be seen on.
Engine: 2-cylinder, 1170cc. Power: 81kW at 7,500rpm. Torque: 119Nm at 6,000rpm.
Suspension: Front: Up-side-down 46mm diameter fork. 120mm travel. Rear: BMW Paralever, 135mm travel.
Fuel capacity: 18 litres.
Weight: 222kg (ready to ride).
Seat height: 785mm.
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 120 X 17, Rear: 180 X 17.
Brakes: Front: Twin 320mm discs. 4-pot calipers, Rear: Single 265mm disc, 2-pot caliper.
Price: $20,950 (+ORC).
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