Test Riding the new BMW R18 B and R18 Transcontinental

From Berlin to Die Weite Straße (the Wide-Open Road)

Close your eyes and imagine a classic BMW bike from days gone by, then open your eyes and look at the newly launched R18 B and Transcontinental models.  The marque’s family heritage is immediately apparent. Recently, I was in the foothills of the Rockies outside of Denver for the launch of these two new motorcycles, designed to appeal to the enthusiast cruiser crowd but also to showcase BMW Motorrad’s long history of designing and building interesting, characterful machines.  The two new bikes do not disappoint.

While both bikes are based on BMW’s “standard” R18, the R18 B (for “Bagger”) and Transcontinental are fraternal twins differentiated by subtle, though meaningful, differences.  The Transcontinental is essentially an R18 B outfitted for greater comfort and appointed for traveling with a partner on the back.  Specifically, this amounts to the addition of a substantial top-trunk with integrated passenger backrest, and an extended windscreen on the handlebar-mounted fairing, along with some other subtle additions to aid long-distance cruising with a passenger.

Concept Show Looks

Test Riding the new BMW R18 B and R18 Transcontinental
BMW R18 Concept

The R18 was released in 2020 to much fanfare, as it was BMW’s first foray back into the true cruiser market since the R1200C exited in 2000.  That bike was a retro-futuristic design hamstrung by a relatively tepid engine, while the R18’s styling has a clear lineage dating all the way back to the R5.

As with BMW’s jackrabbit R nineT, the R18 has spawned several iterations. To date, the R18 models include the R18, Classic, and now B and Transcontinental iterations (both available as First Editions).  If the standard R18 is more the natural stablemate to the Harley Fat Boy, Indian Scout, Ducati Diavel 1260, and even Triumph Rocket 3 R, the new R18 variants have different competition in mind.

Baggers (essentially cruisers with hard-shell bags) occupy a unique and versatile place in the motorcycle firmament.  At once useful and stylish, a bagger exudes overt attitude but also unmistakable usefulness.  Intimidating and imposing while rumbling down the street, they’re also practical and comfy when plying greater distances.  The latest R18 models fully exhibit these characteristics. With apologies to Lowell George: Tucson to Tucumcari? No problem. Tehachapi to Tonopah? No sweat. If Easy Rider were remade today, Captain America would likely be riding a bagger.

At once nostalgic yet entirely modern, there’s something wonderfully unexpected about the design of all of versions of R18 bikes.  It’s as if the Motorrad’s skunkworks worked with their Marketing folks to make a nostalgic splash for a BMW show display, then somehow managed to sneak the bike onto the production line.  From the front forks sheathed in cladding to partially hide the slider tubes, to the nickel-plated driveshaft, to vintage pinstriping, the detailing and appointments of the bike just seem entirely improbable to have come from a factory bike.  Smile-inducing to be sure.

German Technology and British Sound

Test Riding the new BMW R18 B and R18 Transcontinental
Plenty of Tech

As expected with BMW machines, both bikes come festooned with all manner of technology.  Most functions are controlled through a bright, responsive 10.25” TFT color display, which is slung beneath four retro gauges (one of which is a cool “Power Reserve” similar to that found on BMW’s sister company Rolls Royce cars).  And how can you not love the “Berlin Built” script on one of the instrument dials and several of the fluid reservoirs?

Dynamic Cruise Control maintains the bike’s speed (even when riding downhill), and the optional Active Cruise Control uses radar sensors to maintain a set distance from vehicles in front (and adjusts speeds during cornering).  This system is similar to that on Ducati’s Multistrada V4 S models (called Adaptive Cruise Control by the Italians).  The list of electronic aids is comprehensive and easily accessed by logical controls on the left handlebar.

Both bikes have LED lighting throughout (the most powerful headlights on any production motorcycle, incidentally), with the option of BMW’s Adaptive Headlights, a system which turns the headlight into a bend to compensate for both lean angle and pitch. ABS is standard, as are a multitude of additional rider aids (Active Stability Control, three riding modes, engine braking control, and the aforementioned cruise control features). Navigation requires a linked mobile phone connection, but there’s a useful carrying compartment for a phone (with USB-C port) built into the tank.

But baggers are all about cool, so I’ll pose this question: What do the rock-and-roll tunes Runnin’ with the Devil (Van Halen), Back in Black (AC/DC), Foxey Lady (Jimi Hendrix), and Crossroads (Cream) have in common?  Answer: They were all played through Marshall amps.  The British manufacturer has partnered with BMW to equip these new R18 models with a new integrated sound system, and it certainly gets the Led out (Jimmy Page reference very much intended).  It’s two optional configurations produce clear, clean sound even at higher speeds, and the Marshall logo script lettering built into the speaker grills provides a nice retro touch.

“Big Boxer” is Big Fun

BMWBLOG laid out the mechanical particulars of these news bikes in late-July when they were officially announced, but to recap: Both of these bikes are built around BMW’s new “Big Boxer” engine, an air/oil cooled 1802cc 2-cylinder boxer engine which is the largest of the type ever used in motorcycle production. The engine’s output is 91-hp (67kW) at a lazy 4750rpm, with maximum torque of 110 lb-ft (150 Nm) on tap between 2000-4000 rpm.  Maximum engine speed is 5750 rpm, and it idles at a lazy 950 rpm.

To make use of that torque, power is transmitted to the 6-speed transmission through a single-plate dry clutch, which for the first time incorporates an anti-hopping mechanism, eliminating always-exciting stamping of the rear wheel during hard downshifting.  There is also an optional reverse gear driven by an electric motor, useful on a bike that can tip the scales at a curb weight of almost 950-lbs (for the Transcontinental).

On startup, the big lump shimmies like a sumo wrestler with a shake-weight, but when it warms a bit, it settles down into a steady burble; a sumo wrestler with a hula-hoop, if you will.  But be wary of the throttle while standing still.  While the engine has an additional main center bearing, designed to help prevent what BMW terms “undesirable longitudinal vibrations” from the crankshaft, there’s no hiding the sheer amount of reciprocating mass oscillating side-to-side.  Revving it above 3000 rpm while parked might result in a low-speed embarrassing whoopsie for the unwary (and no, this did not happen to your humble reviewer).

A Heavyweight Canyon Carver

Test Riding the new BMW R18 B and R18 Transcontinental

At the recent launch, BMW Motorrad put together a route designed to show off the laid-back yet nimble personality of their new R18 versions.  During the morning rush hour, we headed off from the Cherry Creek area of Denver with bright skies and climbing temps.  The timing provided an opportunity to feel how the bikes handled in stop-and-go urban traffic.  As expected, the sheer size and weight of the bikes didn’t make for the nimblest of city companions, but once out on the open road, through Golden and up to Boulder, the bikes came into their own.  The load-leveling rear suspension always felt planted to the often-questionable pavement.

North of Boulder, we made our way through the glorious canyons leading to Estes Park, and the bikes proved to be lively companions.  Steering is direct and precise, and though the heft of the machines generally makes them want to press onward, a bit of braking followed by a judicious use of throttle lightens up the front and helps with turn-in.  While the bikes always feel substantial, they also fall into an easy rhythm; weight transfer is predictable and progressive.  Lean angles are necessarily compromised by the size of the cylinder heads, but in the canyons, I found myself regularly scraping the plastic guards under the chromed floorboards.  Fun stuff.

Test Riding the new BMW R18 B and R18 Transcontinental
Canyons Cruiser

In 6th gear, the engine loafs along at 75-80mph turning an easy 3000rpm, which is clearly its happy range.  Above 4000rpm, the big Boxer sends significant vibrations through the handlebars and floorboards.  While the sensation is manageable, it also encourages not spending too much time in the upper reaches of the tachometer.

Braking, given the electronic aids in play, is progressive and confident, though a tad peculiar at first. Controlled by BMW Motorrad Full Integral ABS, the front and rear brakes are linked together, so that using either the brake lever or pedal activates both (with the bias adjusted dynamically depending on wheel load distribution).  This sensation took a while to warm to, and given our twisty route there were times I wished for an actual independent rear brake.  The system ultimately fades into the background, though, and I grew accustomed to the behavior and feel by the end of our morning’s ride session.

One personal irritation was the position of the shift lever.  Between the floor boards below and the cylinder heads in front, I was never able to find a truly comfortable position for my boot to access the shifter.  According to BMW this is an adjustable setting, so I imagine a bit of garage tuning would alleviate this annoyance, but I did miss several shifts while my left foot searched for the lever.  Aside from this minor ergonomic annoyance, gear changes were silky and precise, with a nicely weighted and predictable clutch pull and feel.

Of the three riding modes (Rain, Roll, and Rock), I left the bikes in the middle Roll mode generally.  The throttle mapping gap between Roll and Rock mode is surprisingly wide, and while Rock mode was useful and enjoyable while racing around bends in the canyons, it was a tad abrupt for city riding.  Rain mode was as somnambulistic as you’d predict, but since the expected precipitation on the ride didn’t appear, I didn’t have an opportunity to really sample it as designed.

At a stopover at the iconic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, several admirers approached and responded enthusiastically to the bike’s design.  Of the available paint finishes, a particular favorite of onlookers was the “Option 719 Galaxy Dust Metallic / Titanium Silver”; think iridescent purple and silver, which shimmers from violet to turquoise blue in the sunlight.  It is easily the most striking factory paint finish on any motorcycle I’ve seen, and justifies the $2400 upcharge for owners looking for something unique.

Both bikes feature comfortable, supportive saddles designed for the long haul and my backside never once complained.  All told, I put about 185 miles on the R18 B and Transcontinental (split evenly between the two bikes) and found them to be more than agreeable riding companions.

Modest Compromises for Maximum Gain

Test Riding the new BMW R18 B and R18 Transcontinental
Agreeable riding companions

A criticism of the earlier R18 bikes was that the seating position was a bit low for shorter riders, and that geometry overall could be uncomfortable for folks shorter than 6’.  The flat foot position on all R18 variations, necessitated by the size of the cylinder heads, also tends to exacerbate the R18’s somewhat compromised rider comfort on the more stretched-out model version.

On these new bikes, BMW has taken heed of that earlier criticism.  The steering head rake has been slightly steepened, and the seat height raised slightly (from 27” on the standard R18 to 28.3”/29.1” on the B and Transcontinental models respectively)These subtle changes make a great deal of difference.  (I’m 6’ tall with an average inseam and arm length, and I found both bike versions to be an excellent fit.)  That said, the windshield height on the Transcontinental hit me right at eye level, so I felt like I was viewing the world through bifocals for much of the time.  The B’s windshield is a tad lower, yet still managed to keep the wind in check and had less obtrusive sight lines.

One other likely unintended byproduct of the new fairing on the Transcontinental is heat abatement.  Underway, the bigger bike’s extended wind-deflectors block out pretty much all air flow, thus allowing less air to pass over the cylinder head cooling fins; all that extra heat swirls around the rider’s legs rather than getting blown away.  There are two smaller adjustable flaps mounted on the lower-sides of the fairing that help, but on our hot riding day, it got a little soupy.  The B version has enough additional airflow that this phenomena isn’t as pronounced.

Admittedly, these new R18s are heavy bikes; as mentioned, the Transcontinental, fully loaded with liquids, tips the scales at 941-lbs; the B weighs in at 877-lbs.  In comparison to the Harley and Indian competition (both of which are in the 900-lb range), the heft of these bikes is within bounds.  But a Honda Goldwing, a reasonable comparison for the Transcontinental model, tips the scales at 787-lbs, so there’s room for some slimming should BMW decide to do a nipping and tucking.

Could these R18 models use a tad more power?  Of course!  (Rhetorical question alert.)  Twenty percent more grunt would place the R18 right in line with Indian’s bagger models, though in fairness the R18’s horsepower and torque specs are a pretty much a mirror-image to that of a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide.  Considering this new boxer is essentially a new design, I imagine there’s more to be had with some tweaking; Roland Sands has already coaxed a rumored 110-hp out of his R18-based drag bike with only some gentle tuning (though he also added a nitrous system, natch).

But really, more power is almost beside the point.  These particular BMW bikes are about style, solidity, and comfort, traits they deliver in abundance.

Make Mine a Bagger

Test Riding the new BMW R18 B and R18 Transcontinental
Style, solidity, and comfort

Both the R18 B and Transcontinental are both well-executed, compelling motorcycles, though time and sales figures will tell whether the R18 B and Transcontinental make a dent with the motorcycle cruising crowd.  Given their overall style, competence, quality, and copious features, I won’t be surprised to see these new BMW models turning up at rallies where Harleys typically reign supreme.  And if I’m asked to join in a ride, please make mine an R18 B.  As one of my fellow launch riders said, “Why would anyone buy a Harley over this?”