MD Triple-Tested: 2011 BMW F800R

May 9, 2011

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Gabe Ets-Hokin: Age: 41, Height: 5′6”, Favorite Cream Album: Wheels of Fire

It’s pretty late in the year to be testing BMW’s F800R—after all, it’s been on sale in Europe for two years, and we’ve known it’s been coming here since last fall. But it’s such a good, satisfying bike, we thought it was worth a write-up, especially when we see how much interest there is in naked standards in our feedback.

In theory, the F800R sounds about perfect for those looking for a sporting middleweight standard Twin—fairly light, good power, premium suspension and it’s based on BMW’s F800S,  which is a good thing. However, it’s had some tweeks to give it some character of its own.

The motor is tuned for low-end grunt. It’s rated at 87 horsepower (about 80 at the wheel) and makes foot-pound numbers in the ’50s from 3000 rpm all the way to the 8900 rpm redline. It’s also counterbalanced, has a novel semi-dry sump, stacked transmission shafts and a zillion other tricks to make this one of the smoothest, most powerful and technologically advanced parallel Twins on the market. It also sounds cool, if you think the oddball blatting of old BMW Boxers is as cool as I do.

Chassis is as conventional as the engine is avant-garde. Twin-spar aluminum frame, double-sided swingarm, 43mm non-adjustable conventional Showa forks, linkage-equipped preload-and-damping-adjustable shock. There’s even a chain back there. It all weighs in at 450 pounds wet on Motorcycle Consumer News‘ scale (BMW claims 438), with a long 59.8-inch wheelbase. Small by BMW standards, perhaps.

But the brilliance of the F800R is that it feels much smaller and more manageable than its weight would suggest. The 4.2-gallon tank is under the seat, and the steering geometry, handlebar style and weight distribution are all nicely balanced. Everybody who rides one remarks how nice the handling is, with light steering effort and high-speed stability. It’s a pleasure to ride, not a burden, with no bad habits.

So what is it? It’s a bike without a niche. You can commute, tour, do a track day or two if you’re not too nutty, maybe even tackle a fire road. In short, it’s what the classic BMW airhead Twins were—a solidly built, dependable partner in crime that will do most of what you ask of it. Base price is $9990 (and good luck finding a base model, but it’s okay—the add-ons are good stuff that you want, like ABS and heated grips), pricey for a “budget” bike, but you get a unique motorcycle that will please just about anybody who rides one.

Alan Lapp Age: 43, Height: 6′ 2”, Favorite Cream Album: Crème d’ Menthe

I’ll admit right up front that I’ve never been a big fan of BMW bikes. It really boils down to two facts: I’m tall, and I’m usually broke. I hit my shins on the cylinders of the Boxer motor bikes every time I try to back one out of a parking space. Being broke means the newer multi-cylinder bikes have generally been out of reach. The singles seem like an answer to a question I didn’t ask.

When Gabe suggested I spend some quality time getting to know the 2011 F800R, I leaped at the chance to update my opinion. A few years ago, I used an early 800ST for a couple days and really liked it—it was very agreeable, if somewhat plain-vanilla. My impression at the time was that it was a great $9000 bike, except that it actually cost $12,000. Now, the real excitement for me is that this is the first twin-cylinder BMW priced below $10,000 seemingly since the Clinton administration. Perhaps BMW listened to potential clients and built something for them instead of aiming at their existing customer base. Smart move.

The most interesting thing I noticed about riding the BMW is that people like it. Notice I said “people,” not just other motorcyclists, which, in my experience, is very unusual. Furthermore, people make comments specifically about the bike beyond the banal “nice day for a ride” drivel you get from bored gas station clerks. And it is striking in white bodywork with black frame and suspension components, handsome in a purposeful, angular, muscular way that seems fresh and current.

The next thing worthy of comment is the ergonomics: the BMW wins hands down. I felt immediately very comfortable on the bike and it has a truly wonderful seat. The relationship between the seat and bars is really good, although the pegs are a little higher than they need to be, but I say that about most bikes.

Some of the most notable successes on the F800R are the brakes and the easy-to-be-relaxed riding position. The brakes feel good all the way from “I’m going to roll on the throttle just as I feather off the brakes right past the apex of this decreasing radius turn” to “OMG! Why is that idiot abruptly moving into my lane, with his rear bumper aligned perfectly with my front wheel?” More importantly, the throttle response is crisp, clean, and linear. This is why an accomplished rider can use the above-mentioned trail braking technique so pleasingly on this bike. It all works together nicely as a team, mostly.

The close-ratio transmission was the only thing I found a bit out of place on the F800R. Over 40 mph, and hard on the gas, it’s a real joy to row the short throw shifter up and down through the top five gears. In fact, it’s one of the nicest, most silky-smooth gearboxes I’ve ridden with in ages. The problem is that all close-ratio transmissions are a trade-off. In order to space the high gears so enticingly closely, first gear must be so very tall that it causes the bike to feel underpowered and dreary at lower speeds. Redline in first results in an astronomical 60 mph. That means that cruising around town is essentially a one-gear affair. I frequently found myself going 35 mph and trying to downshift from first into first.

The ultra-tall gearing also drags down the acceleration. The F800R has 87 horsepower at the brochure (Eighty on the MCN dyno—ed.), but you’d never know it to ride it. It simply will not power wheelie in first gear. Admittedly, this is asking Alfred the Butler to participate in juvenile hooliganism, but c’mon. If the gearing were shuffled around so first topped out at 50 instead of 60, and each gear had a slightly wider gap between them, it would make more sense.

The suspension is usually where budget-conscious bikes fall down, but the BMW suspension bits are much nicer, having a cartridge fork, adjustable damping on the shock, and a hydraulic preload adjuster. The shock adjuster is easily reached, and you can turn it with your bare hands. Unfortunately, the sole rebound-adjustment knob seems to alter only low-speed damping and both compression and rebound simultaneously. It was impossible to achieve both supple ride and control while leaned over. I settled on mostly cushy, and lived with a little wallowing in the turns.

Alan Lapp is a graphic designer and is Art Director for CityBike Magazine, Northern California’s best known source for motorcycle news, reviews and birdcage lining. Check out his illustration work in Racetech’s Motorcycle Suspension Bible.

Heidi Burbank: Age: 38, Height: 5′ 6”, Favorite Cream Album: The Best of Cream

Previously unable to touch the ground with both feet on any other BMW motorcycle, I was shocked by the F800R’s low seat height—it’s adjustable to 32.5 inches or to 30.5 inches with optional seats. The F800R’s perch was also nicely cushioned, and BMW placed the F800R fuel tank under the seat for a noticeably lower center of gravity.

The naked F800R is sexy and sporty. The tank has a sharp modern aerodynamic shape that your body just fits into with an ultra-low center of gravity. As a daily commuter, I really appreciate the on-board computer. I could instantly, visually check tire pressure, gear position, outside temperature, fuel consumption, and time. The BMS-KP gives the rider an abundance of information at the touch of a finger, including two trip meters and more. From the electronic fuel injection to the lightweight stock exhaust, BMW took no short cuts with the F800R. The asymmetrical H7 headlight is extremely bright and clear, excellent for traveling at night and showing an impressive distance for path of travel. The small windscreen gives sufficient wind deflection, however, I would not give up my full face helmet.

Newbies might want to practice a slow roll-on in first gear with the BMW F800R… it felt kind of  punchy and maybe a little too power-packed for a new rider. Once into higher gears, the BMW F800R throttle roll-on is really smooth.

The only complaint I have with the BMW F800R is the increased vibration in sixth gear—especially at 60 mph or faster—in the handlebars and pegs. The vibration also distorted the vision in the mirrors, and I found myself constantly readjusting my throttle hand to grab more power—frustrating after an hour of riding. A Throttle Rocker or similar device may help eliminate this need to constantly readjust. In lower gears and at lower speeds I only sensed a slight vibration.

The BMW F800R shifts very smoothly and quietly with a small click, and the clutch was soft and easy to use. The F800R is naked and slim in design, making tight squeezes through traffic easy. The body position and seating keeps you upright and high, which allows for better visibility for splitting lanes and viewing upcoming traffic. Body and bar position made riding through curves and tight turns easy, a perfect urban bike.

Commuting was enjoyable. For long-distance riding, the F800R would definitely please the seasoned rider with its excellent suspension, heated hand grips and steering damper—I wish more motorcycle manufacturers would place steering dampers on their bikes as standard equipment. All these components and the well-cushioned saddle make riding the F800R comfortable for long distances. Furthermore, the suspension on the F800R is well suited for carrying a passenger and luggage.

Traveling on rough roads and through tight curves, the steering damper made a huge difference in maintaining control. Plus, the (optional) heated grips were nice to have on cold mornings. Riding in temperatures as low as 39 degrees with winter riding gloves with the grips set to level one was not noticeable, however, at level two (the highest setting) I could feel a little warmth. A level three would have been nice for real cold mornings. When riding in temperatures above 50 degrees you could feel warmth at both levels.

It’s also warm and comfortable on the wallet. Infrequent gas stops are welcome with gas prices closing on five dollars a gallon. Although I expected the BMW to average roughly 55mpg, in my 800 miles of mostly commuting seat time, I averaged in the mid-40s.

More than impressive was the Brembo braking system on the BMW. Brembo 320mm double-disk front brakes and a single disk rear brake are grabbed by four-piston fixed calipers. I felt the ABS system was well worth the extra $900.

Overall, the BMW F800R felt compact, solid, and very reliable. This sporty naked bike has more torque than any bike in its class, is lightweight and will seamlessly rip through the curves. I always felt like I was riding a dirtbike on steroids, which made romping the roads on the BMW very entertaining. The F800R would please any rider, new or seasoned, with its exceptional agility, and near perfect riding position. You won’t be disappointed with the power delivery, economy or handling qualities of the BMW F800R.

Heidi Burbank is an MSF Rider Coach and her first ride was on an 80cc Yamaha dirtbike when she was 12 (back when gas tanks were metal). She likes ice cream and has racked up 45,000 commuting miles on her 2008 YZF-R6. Because she lives in East Oakland, California, she calls the brakes on the BMW “Brem-Bros.”

The manufacturer provided Motorcycle Daily with this motorcycle for purposes of evaluation.

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