Words and Photos: Shawn Molnar
While suiting up for my first ride on BMW’s R1200RT I could not help but acknowledge its size. With panniers attached and its wide fairing staring back at me, it just looked so… big. Not Gold Wing big, mind you, but big nonetheless. As a bona fide sport bike rider, I wondered how agile this bike would be through city traffic, or ridden on twisty roads. What’s the ‘fun factor’ here? And what is attributable to its global success as the World’s favorite Police and Ambulance “duty bike?” I was soon to find out.
The Daily Commute:
Retracting the kickstand and steadying the bike is a breeze: where did all that weight go? Well, in truth, it was never there. Like an inflated hologram, the bike appears to have locomotive heft behind it, but under its wide, protective cowling lies an impressive tubular steel frame, using the engine and gearbox as stressed members. Without panniers, the R1200RT has a dry weight of only 505 lb (229 kg), 571 lb (259 kg) wet and ready to ride. This frame was once shared by boxer sport bikes within the range, the retired R1200S comes to mind. Now its DNA becomes more clear: this motorcycle has sport bike genes and it does not try to hide them.
Setting off, windshield, fairings and panniers shrink around you until you’re tossing the R1200RT into corners with enthusiasm! The standard Metzeler tires provide excellent grip at steeper lean angles – this tourer wants to play!
From standstill, clutch modulation is light and progressive facilitating a smooth, stall-free ride. The 6 speed transmission snicks through the gears positively and during my 2,000 kilometers with the bike – I never found a false neutral. Gearing is ideal for city riding with 2nd gear covering most of your time in dense traffic – although with a plateau of torque across the rev-band, the engine was happy to turn in higher gears.
Throttle modulation is very progressive and forgiving to bumps or sneezes. Don’t let its 1200 cc displacement fool you – it is very much a docile bike. I would even go so far as to say that beginner riders could likely ride problem free with no surprises – providing their inexperience does not correlate to wanton lack of respect for its power. Note the stark line between inexperience and immaturity. For beginners who would rather start off with less “go” a reduced power kit is available for purchase. Lower seat heights are also available for those with shorter in-seams.
The overall relaxed and friendly nature of this bike makes for a uniquely comfortable ride through Toronto’s worst rush-hour traffic. Its large size adds a measure of visibility and presence to your ride that smaller bikes are simply incapable of. With panniers attached there is much to catch an approaching driver’s eye and ultimately, this perceived safety benefit adds to your relaxed ride.
Speaking of panniers, BMW’s integrated pannier system is convenient and trustworthy, adding huge practicality to the machine. Fully detachable with the twist of your key, both panniers can be carried as suitcases, or locked and left on the bike. A double locking mechanism provides trustworthy reliability – no need to fear for side-pod projectiles leaving your bike. Each side-case can hold 32 liters of volume, and an optional tank bag can hold an additional 49 liters of cargo for a combined capacity of 113 liters. This is Smart car practicality, the R1200RT only 37 liters short of the Smart car’s cargo space! If you really need those last few liters, throw on a backpack and leave the tiny Mercedes in your dust.
Time to dice through traffic? The R1200RT proved highly maneuverable through the sea of cars. An incredibly small full-lock turning radius is invaluable at low speeds, allowing for truly heroic low speed maneuvers. I never ran out of lock during my time with the bike and was amazed at its low speed ease of use. No doubt this comes into focus as a benefit for EMS and Police Services – they do, after all, pull a lot of U-turns.
Visibility is excellent with mirrors placed uniquely under your arms. The geometry works well, offering full view through both slightly convex mirrors with a slight lift of your elbows. The Motorrad engineers did a great job eliminating vibration from the glass, even at low engine rpm or on the highway. Rubber bushings also reduce vibration through the handlebars, a welcome addition to the smooth ride.
Riding position is slightly forward leaning with good body alignment for comfort over long distances, while still offering a commanding stance on the bike during sport riding. Your wrists ride weight-free, and knees are bent at a comfortable angle, but pegs are still placed under-hip such that you can readily transfer weight from peg to peg or stand at will to soak up the big bumps.
Speaking of bumps, Toronto roads are infamous for their rim-bending, tire-blowing, rider-throwing moguls. Herein lies one of the R1200RT’s greatest talents: soaking up the big ones. So severe are some Toronto roads that I literally feel like I’m dirt-biking while riding stiffly sprung sport bikes along the cratered asphalt; not so with BMW’s RT. Front Telelever suspension isolates steering function from dampening and incorporates anti-dive geometry, allowing for composure over bumps, even when banked in a turn. BMW’s rear Paralever suspension is rock solid, free of twist or play.
The front Telelever suspension and shaft-drive rear swing arm are adjustable for spring pre-load, spring rate, and rebound damping rate – all without leaving the seat. BMW’s Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) system is now in its second generation and offers 9 different suspension settings ranging from a ‘single rider sport’ setting to a ‘rider with passenger and luggage in comfort’ setting. On this second generation of the technology, the difference between the softest and firmest settings has been increased. My test bike was not equipped with ESA, but the standard suspension is set to a magical compromise between comfort and dynamism.
Should you check the box for ESA II when ordering your R1200RT? Absolutely. While I was impressed with the standard suspension’s comfortable yet sporty ride, the “dual personality” bred by this technology can offer a more aggressive sport ride and an even more comfortable touring ride; this behavioral change will pay dividends as you enjoy both personalities during your ownership.
BMW’s proprietary switchgear has long been both hated and celebrated. Whichever fraternity you belong to, change has arrived. All BMWs will feature Japanese style switchgear moving forward, and we at BMWBLOG believe this is a good move. While the old ‘left handlebar signal button for left’ and ‘right for right’ worked well, it was mind-bending trying to adjust from German to Japanese machines! Now, finally, universally accepted, our brain’s left hemisphere can simmer down and enjoy the ride – no matter what Continent our motorcycle was built on.
Torquey low-end grunt propels you along in nearly any gear, always at the ready for a quick lane change or romp up an acceleration ramp. While it looks unchanged from the outside, a new silencer has been re-tuned to harmonize with the reworked engine specs. The result? An amplified soundtrack of the distinctive boxer sound – a real joy to listen to as you romp around through town. I’m sure the occasional passerby appreciates it too.
When the Going Gets Twisty:
Push a little deeper, bank over a few more degrees and the R1200RT… just asks for more. This is a touring bike? Not even a sport-touring bike? No matter the nomenclature, the reality is clear: this motorcycle can play on twisty back roads and never break a sweat.
BMW’s compact boxer engine allows for steep lean angles, in fact the foot pegs will scrape before the cylinder head does. On corner entry, the R1200RT is solid and stable under braking. Anti-dive geometry in the Telelever front suspension keeps things consistent when trail braking into the corner and prevents the bike from becoming unsettled over mid-corner bumps. Its weight is felt during spirited riding, but never overwhelms the suspension when pressed.
BMW’s recently updated 1,170cc engine features a wider powerband with increased torque output. 110 hp is on tap at 7,750 rpm with 88 lb-ft of torque available at 6,000 rpm. Redline has been raised from 8,000 rpm to 8,500 rpm on the reworked engine. The improved power output was achieved by adding a second camshaft over each cylinder – one exhaust and intake valve served by each chain-driven camshaft. Enlarged valve apertures allow for freer breathing, the intake valves have been enlarged by 3 mm to 39 mm and the exhaust valves are 2 mm larger in diameter, now measuring 33 mm. Valve lift has also been increased on both intake and exhaust. Two spark plugs are used per cylinder for ignition (the HP2 Sport features one per cylinder) and compression remains at 12.0:1. The engine can be run on fuel qualities as low as 95 octane thanks to advanced anti-knock sensors connected to the ECU, but we advise you treat your boxer to the highest grade available at the pumps for maximum power, longevity and fuel milage.
Rolling on from corner exit rewards you with a surge of thrust from the engine accompanied by the boxer at full song. As revs build the engine changes its tone, offering a more vocal tune. Power remains very strong as you approach redline – in fact it’s easy at first to miss a shift because you’re waiting for the lull in the powerband often found toward redline on lessor engines.
Overall, the thumping boxer is keen to spin up through the gears while the forgiving yet precise suspension setup gives the bike a very friendly personality, happy to carve corners and put a smile on your face.
What you’re about to read may be shocking to some sport bike riders, and is rated VH (very honest).
This bike is a hoot.
If treated like a touring bike and gingerly guided along its path, it will behave like… a touring bike. Relaxed, poised, quiet and composed. But push its buttons and you will be rewarded by a grunting, willing bike that will dive deep into corners and rocket out with torquey boxer twin spirit. By the end of a choice twisty road, I had completely forgotten about the extra wide fairing and double panniers on the tail.
The R1200RT will put a smile on your face if provoked. For that it earns a 6/10 fun factor rating, zero being average – high praise indeed for a pannier laden touring bike.
A Two Hour Tour:
Generally speaking, a machine performs well in a particular discipline when it contains that discipline in its name. As you’ve probably guessed by now, the ‘T’ in R1200RT stands for ‘touring,’ and that is what this bike does best.
Your upright, neutral body alignment allows for hours of continuous seat time before taking any breaks. Rubber bushings reduce vibration through the handlebars and plush seating surfaces keep your bottom happy. The standard suspension is well suited to touring duty, offering ample shock absorption, but as mentioned earlier in the review – BMW’s ESA II will allow greater extremes of comfort or sport while the standard suspension lies somewhere in between.
The recently updated wind fairing and windshield have been reshaped to provide better aero-acoustics at speed. The large windshield is electronically adjustable on-the-fly, allowing you to channel the airflow onto your helmet at just the right angle to reduce buffeting and wind noise. The windshield can be raised 140mm (5.5 inches) at the touch of a button mounted by the left hand grip.
As earlier discussed, this bike will hold 113 liters of cargo when equipped with both side panniers and the optional tank case. Such cavernous storage space should keep back packs out of the equation even on long trips.
On the open road in 6th gear, the boxer twin is spinning happily around 3 to 4 thousand rpm, depending on your cruising speed. 88 full bodied lb-ft of torque push you along at speed, always at the ready for a sudden passing maneuver. Down shifting will, of course, speed your progress to complete a pass, but is hardly necessary at highway speeds – just open the throttle and the torquey boxer will twist out more thrust. It’s easy to understand this motorcycle’s Country of origin – the R1200RT is incredibly stable and comfortable at high speeds; cruising along the Autobahn is no doubt one of this bike’s many talents.
Lighting is excellent when riding at night, two lamps provide low-beam light while an additional lamp (centered in between) provides high-beam. Light is thrown far, far down the roadway adding to this BMW’s active safety measures. The beam is manually adjustable by dial fixed on the left side of the control display.
Heated seats and handgrips are sure to extend your riding season, but even in the sumer, a long ride through the rain can give you a chill. I enjoyed the “almost too hot” heated grips when things got soggy. BMW has a reputation in the industry for being one of the only motorcycle manufacturers who make their heated grips hot enough to be felt through cold, thick, damp gloves. Since your fine motor control is compromised when your hands get cold, these effective heated grips are both a comfort and a safety feature.
Cruise control will help erode the miles while the on-board computer offers up a plethora of important diagnostics. Fuel level, fuel range, trip computer, ambient temperature, coolant temperature, amenity settings, suspension adjustment, tire pressure warning, and an oil warning light are all provided through the system.
The open road is where the R1200RT is most at home. Over the long haul, the many safety and comfort features mentioned above become necessities. After 8 hours of riding in one day, I was limber, energized and relaxed: I can think of no greater endorsement.
And Then There Were Two:
She did, after all, allow you to buy this machine – didn’t she? The occasional ride is the least you can do. How does the R1200RT perform with a pillion?
Extremely well, to say the least. With girlfriend aboard, the R1200RT handled as though no weight was added. Carving corners was as fun as ever, and the great stability inherent to this bike made for a very smooth experience – there was no finicky behavior, constantly adjusting for passenger movements or additional suspension compression. The powerful 1200 twin powered along unabashed, its torquey nature fully compensating for the extra weight.
Of course, when it comes to the passenger seat, her testimony is more important than mine. At a stoplight close to home she lifted her visor and asked, “can we please keep riding? Anywhere, I don’t care!” Hmm. She never said that on the Ninja.
Where’s the Beef? Qualms and Quibbles:
It’s difficult to criticize a market leader.
Perhaps a slipper clutch could add to the R1200RT’s split personality, on the sporting side. Xenon High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamps would also be a welcome addition for night time visibility and stylish high-tech flare. Why not go a step further and make them auto-leveling? Fumbling for the adjustment dial while riding is not an exercise in safety by any means. Otherwise, I can think of no other suggestions, and certainly no complaints.
Our time with BMW’s 2011 R1200RT was a horizon-widening experience. Through advanced engineering, BMW has produced a versatile machine that is good at everything it does.
Size does matter, but it is relative. Unless you’re a knee-dragging track day junkie, you will likely be satisfied by this machine’s sporty side. It is so eager to please – begging for steeper lean angles and a wider throttle when it comes time to unleash. On public road ways, it’s more than enough performance – any more and you should be on the track.
High tech safety features work in the background to keep you on course while you’re pampered in luxuries some car owners dream of – heated seats come to mind.
Its practicality is difficult to ignore. Did we mention it has near ‘Smart car’ cargo capacity with all panniers attached? Maybe I can take this to work everyday.
For all of the above reasons and more, the R1200RT has become the World’s best selling ‘duty bike’ for Police and Ambulance Services around the globe with over 100,000 copies sold in ‘duty’ form. Whether on a Sunday ride or saving lives, BMW’s R1200RT surpasses all expectations.
After riding the R1200RT along sun and rain soaked roadways, through city streets and on open highways, I may have found the ultimate well-rounded ride.
We would like to thank BMW Canada for providing us with the R1200RT test motorcycle for our review. We would also like to thank Graham Allen of BMW Toronto Motorrad for his expert riding during our photo shoot.