What’s Wrong With the BMW R18?
Where’s the personality?by Harry Fisher, on LISTEN 04:37
The BMW R18 is a very good motorcycle, especially for a first effort from the Bavarian manufacturer. But, as good as it is, there is one big problem: it might just be too good!
Will the BMW R18 Ever Set The Heart racing?
It’s always interesting to revisit a motorcycle with which one had a first and only acquaintance at the launch or, for those who are not in the bike journalism game, a brief test ride. Normally, a launch comprises a day’s ride through some spectacular scenery with a good lunch somewhere picturesque. You spend the time thinking about the positives as it’s not really done to start criticising a new bike when someone else has paid for your mini holiday: that only comes later when you have the bike on test for a fuller appraisal.
BMW’s R18cruiser was as distinctive a motorcycle as the Bavarian company has ever produced. The nostalgic touches combined with that enormous engine created a sense of curiosity not often felt with a manufacturer that is largely hidebound by tradition.
Initial impressions were of size disguised by good proportions. Only the petrol tank looked a little on the small size whereas the engine, when sat on the bike and looking down, seemed impossibly huge.
Then there was the comedy lurch to the left as the vast reciprocating mass of two 900cc pistons and associated con rods and crankshaft was fired into life as the starter button was thumbed, ready to catch out the unaware. Idling in neutral, blipping the throttle provoked the same reaction, causing one to think that here was something out of the ordinary.
Easing out of the hotel car park in convoy with fifteen other identical bikes was sure to make an impression and the rest of the day’s ride, under a hot sun through the incomparable South African Western Cape countryside, reinforced it.
The trouble with a launch is that you are not actually living with the bike: you are enjoying a welcome break from the routine of life, at someone else’s expense and it doesn’t matter if you are riding the latest superbike or the humblest scooter: you are being paid to ride! Doesn’t get much better than that!
So, you head home, file your copy, being suitably gushing, and move on to the next bike in line.
Which is why it is interesting to get the chance to spend some real time with a bike a few months later. And, in the case of the R18, that showed up something I hadn’t noticed on the launch.
Yes, the R18 is still a handsome beast: imposing, certainly, but with a graceful line to it. You ride on a wave of surprisingly smooth and effortless torque and you know that you are riding something that has been well conceived and constructed, with little thought to cost. It turns heads wherever you go, not least of which when you scrape around a corner, the foot boards limiting the lean angle.
On the highway, it is smooth and punchy and the suspension appears to have everything in control, even when the surface isn’t so good. On country roads, the handling is surprisingly good for such a long and heavy machine. Set it up on a line through a corner and it will track round with confidence. It’s happier in long sweeping curves, perhaps obviously: this isn’t a bike that wants to change direction quickly.
So far, the news is all good. But there is one flaw that I just can’t get past and its the only flaw that would make me turn my back on the R18 were I in the position to buy one: There is just no character to this bike! It’s like a Harley Davidson with no personality.
Yes, it does everything well, which is what you want and need, but it just does it in a too-efficient way. It’s a difficult thing to put your finger on but a riding a Harley has much more sense of occasion. Even if you move the goal posts wider and take in non-traditional ‘cruisers’ such as Triumph’s Rocket 3 and Ducati’s Diavel, the R18 comes up short on emotion. Maybe that’s an unfair comparison as they are clearly not aimed at the same market but it does show that you can build in character to a collection of metal components.
Am I being harsh? Possibly. The R18 will sell well because it is what a lot of people want from a bike: predictability and reassurance. But it’s hardly the stuff that dreams are made of.
Perhaps time will change my mind. After all, Harley Davidson have been making the same bike for decades so we’ve had time to get used to its idiosyncrasies and translate them into ‘character’. Were the BMW to have the same flaws, we would probably criticise it out of the ball park. If that’s the case, have BMW got it right and I’ve got it completely wrong?