Ask most enthusiasts to name a BMW motorcycle and the answer you’ll likely receive is, “The GS.”  And by GS, they’ll likely mean the big-bruiser, dual-sport, world-conquering Boxer-twin (the latest example of which tips the engine scales with 1300-cc displacement), which can cross continents and ford streams and sand dunes with the same formidable ease with which it navigates urban jungles and highways.  But in the BMW Motorrad line-up, the GS F-models offer a less bulky, more nimble option as well.

BMW has taken the wraps off their latest updated middleweights, the F 800 GS, F 900 GS, and F 900 GS Adventure, which replace the F 750 GS, F 850 GS, and F 850 GS Adventure respectively.  Each bike benefits from a revised and updated engine, significant weight savings, new suspension, and a fully upgraded electronic suite.

Testing The F 900 GS Off-Road

Recently, BMW Motorrad invited BMWBLOG and other media members to Las Vegas, Nevada, to test out the new smaller GS (specifically, the F 900 GS), as well as spend a day of urban play with the new CE 02.  (Talk about a study in contrasts!)  While the new GS bikes are certainly smaller and more to tossable than their big brother, they are far from diminutive.   BMW refers to the trio as fitting into the “upper midsized segment,” and this seems correct for such capable, substantial machines.

“Stick out your candy on the outside of the turn and rock your weight down on the outside peg. Easy as that.”  Ride leader Gina, an instructor at the RawHyde Adventures riding academy in California, gave out this basic advice like she was talking to an MSF Basic RiderCourse student, but I latched onto her words and repeated them like a mantra.  (And for the record, when Gina said “candy,” she was referring to a certain body part that rhymes with “mutt.”)

As a relatively novice off-road rider surrounded by seasoned gravel pros, this simple but specific advice from an experienced instructor was a welcome lifeline. “Stick out your candy” I repeated silently to myself with every sharp turn and rutted washout. My focus was entirely on avoiding “doll’s heads” (slang for child-head sized loose rocks scattered across the trail) and tire-destroying rock shards; as one fellow rider dryly offered, “when you see the pointy rocks sticking up, try not to hit them.” Great advice, though pointy rocks and doll’s heads seemed to make up thirty percent of the trail.

Fortunately, the newly svelte and capable F 900 GS had my back.

2-Cylinder Engine, Up to 105 HP

The mid-sized Adventure segment is perhaps the most exciting and innovative in the motorcycle industry, where all the cool kids want to be, with KTM being the 800-pound gorilla with their capable and appealing 890 Adventure R.  Triumph slots into the #2 position in terms of market share (with the Tiger 900 being the stand-out), with BMW Motorrad trailing close behind.  The new trio of F-bikes aims to close that gap considerably, with the KTM the clear benchmark (though I think it likely we’ll be seeing more head-to-head with the new Ducati DesertX as well).

To power the new bikes, the Motorrad started with the 2-cylinder in-line engine already used in the BMW F 900 R and F 900 XR, tossed it in the engineering shaker, and poured out two subtly different variations on the theme.  Somewhat confusingly, each new variation displaces 895-cc capacity (the engines in both the 800 and 900 have the same part number), so the difference is largely down to tune. The 900-series bikes generate 105 hp at 8,500 rpm (up from the previous 95 hp) and have a maximum torque of 68.6 lb-ft at 6,750 rpm (up from the previously 67.8 lb-ft), while the 800-series model has an output of 87 hp available at 6,750 rpm (up from the previous 77 hp), as well as 67 lb-ft of torque at 6,750 rpm (up from the previous 61 lb-ft).  With four valves per cylinder and twin overhead cams, the liquid-cooled engines have two counterrotating balance shafts to moderate undue vibrations. With a 90-degree offset crankshaft with 270/450-degree firing order, the engine sounds nothing so much like a V-Twin, throaty, raspy, and deep.  A light clutch pull and up-and-down quick-shifter are standard.

Significant Weight Savings

An emphasis with the new bikes is weight savings, and BMW has pared down the F 900 GS by ~30-lbs alone.  Most of that savings comes from a new fuel tank design; the new plastic tank shaves nearly 10-lbs off the outgoing bike’s steel tank, with further weight reduction from the redesigned tail section and new standard Akropovic exhaust (which also accentuates the in-line twin’s native burble).

At the launch, my bike for the day was a F 900 GS with the Off-Road Package, a group of options designed to make the bike significantly more biased towards off-pavement performance.  The package comes with additional shift and ride modes, a more compliant suspension (with gorgeous gold Showa forks in front and a ZF Sachs rear shock, adjustable for preload, compression, and rebound), handlebar risers, better engine protection and enduro hand protectors, and more aggressive off-road tires.  This package targets the KTM 890 Adventure R specifically, and while the specs of the two machines don’t line up perfectly, the differences are really in the margins and will come down to personal preference.  The GS Trophy paint scheme on the new model is especially fetching and I imagine will have a high take-rate, though the Sao Paulo Yellow is also striking.

Designed For The Off-Road

Ergonomics have also been redesigned to accentuate the off-road bias of the new bikes.  The handlebar is 15mm higher than before, with 24mm more extension available on bikes equipped with the Enduro Pro package.  Foot pegs are 20mm lower than before, and have a new more rounded, self-cleaning design.  I’m 5’11” tall, with a normal inseam and arm length, and I found the geometry of the new smaller GS to be squarely in the Goldilocks zone, especially when riding off-road.  All hand and foot controls are easy and natural to use on the fly, and the design of the new foot pegs and slimness of the new tank design made transferring weight and gripping the sides of the bike with my knees natural and comfortable, especially when riding while standing.

A 6.5-inch TFT display is standard, which is bright and legible and controlled by BMW’s ubiquitous multi-controller on the left handlebar.  If you’ve ridden any BMW motorcycle in the past few years, you’ll quickly master how to navigate the menus and sub-menus, which flex depending on which options are configured on a given bike.  And the BMW Motorrad Connected app is fully integrated, as you’d imagine.

My particular GS had four available ride modes available: Road, Dynamic, Enduro, and Enduro Pro (which disables ABS at the rear and retards traction control even further than in Enduro).   (The Rain mode was disabled for some reason, though not of concern around bone-dry Las Vegas).  After playing with each setting, I settled on Dynamic and Enduro as the go-to modes for the day’s ride, with Dynamic mode adjusting everything from throttle response to suspension compliance on the fly, and Enduro mode slowing everything down to a manageable level, while allowing the bike to be significantly more tail (trail?) happy in the dirt and rock.

A High Level Of Customizations

As expected from a member of the GS family, BMW Motorrad came out of the gate with a bevy of available accessories. From a full line-up of aluminum side cases and canvas top bags to various Enduro enhancements and engine protection bars, to different seats to accommodate riders of all sizes, customization is almost expected with the GS.  And the after-market will inevitably add to the possibilities significantly.  An F 900 GS Adventure outfitted with a full complement of bags really does look like a full-sized GS washed in hot water (sans the bulbous cylinder heads, or course).

Carving Up The Canyons

On the road, the F 900 GS is a nimble, playful barnstormer, somewhat surprising for a bike with such an off-road bias.  With the understandable limitation of the off-road tires notwithstanding (a sticker on the dash admonishes to keep it below 100-mph vMax), the bike handles neutrally and predicably.  On the sublime and twisty roads through the Spring Mountains to the northwest of Las Vegas, up to and down from Mt. Charleston, then twisting around Red Rock Canyon, the GS leapt from corner to corner with eagerness, and responded quickly and predictably to quick mid-corner steering adjustments to avoid the ubiquitous mid-apex rock falls.

I expected the front end to wash out more readily than it did, particularly with the compromised tires, and was initially tentative with my lines and velocity, but as confidence grew with the grip and general suspension compliance, speeds picked up accordingly.  The bikes in our group equipped with more road-biased rubber had a distinct advantage, but I think most of that just came down to psychology; the GS I was on handled everything asked of it on the mountain road switchbacks with barely a squeal, and both throttle response and traction control were predictable and largely unobtrusive.

I Wish The Windscreen Was Adjustable

Comfort on longer, flatter runs of pavement was also a surprising strong suit.  A small irritation was the non-adjustable windscreen, which generally directed wind squarely at the middle of my head.  A taller “Dakar”-style windscreen is available as an accessory and is one for which I’d likely opt if I was going to ride the bike mainly on the road.  (The larger windscreen also looks cool.)   But overall, that’s a small nit, and our ~220-mile ride (with 70% on various paved roads) was comfortable and relatively relaxing.  While the new smaller GS is no mileage-eater quite like its big brother bike, it’s also not purely an off-road plaything.  Versatility was clearly high on the design and engineering brief.

Feels Lighter Than It Is

When the pavement runs out, the new F 900 GS really shines.  The new ergonomics, coupled with the weight savings and playful suspension, combine for an amazing level of confidence when trail conditions get messy.  The bike responds immediately to even the slightest weight transfer (“stick out your candy, stick out your candy!”), and the upgraded suspension soaks up shocks that frankly seem like they should bring the machine to its knees (or the dirt, as the case may be).  The bike’s overall diet pays added dividends with agility offroad, and the sophistication of the overall tune makes the bike feel even lighter than it is.  It’s quite a magic trick.

I mentioned I’m not an experienced off-road rider by any stretch, as the bulk of my riding years have been on roads or tracks.  But the F 900 GS was a worthy and patient tutor, smoothing over my initially ham-fisted inputs and tendency to ride more slowly than advised.  As my confidence level grew and my speeds increased, the bike lightened up and responded even more intuitively to throttle inputs and weight transfer, and I found myself riding harder and faster over what the more experienced riders described as “intermediate to advanced-intermediate” terrain.  The GS was unflappable, with Enduro mode allowing just enough playful room to explore my own limits without fear of disaster.  When pavement finally showed back up, my only thought was, hey, can we turn back around and do that again?

Candidate For One-Bike Garage?

My experience demonstrates the beauty of bikes in this category and Adventure bikes in general: That of flexibility.  As an all-rounder, the F 900 GS is playful in the twisties, comfortable on the open road (especially in GS Adventure guise), and confidently planted and nimble in the dirt and rock.  It’s a bike with immense personality, significantly more so than its immediate predecessor.  With the versatility to explore multiple limits, the F 900 GS makes a worthwhile candidate for a one-bike garage.  The “baby” GS has certainly grown up.