The Original Gets Betterby Harry Fisher, on LISTEN 08:19
The 1250cc version of BMW’s venerable boxer-twin is not new, but the two adventure machines to which it has been fitted - the R1250GS and R1250 GS Adventure - have had a mid-life makeover, with small but important improvements affecting the overall package. It remains one of the most convincing adventure bikes, a fact borne out by global sales figures. It still loses out to KTM on power and the Austrian brand scores on its hardcore adventure image, but few bikes are as well-rounded as the BMW GS. Ignore it at your peril.
The BMW R1250 GS is the best-selling adventure bike on the planet. It has earned this accolade over 40 years of constant development and improvement to the point where very little of the original R80GS remains, other than its off-road capability. Technology, complexity, size and weight have all crept up inexorably, although never at the expense of ability.
The boxer engine was given a new lease of life a few years ago, first with the adoption of liquid-cooling of the cylinder heads and top of the cylinder and latterly with an increase in cylinder capacity and the adoption of ‘Shift-Cam’ variable intake valve timing technology. Both have allowed the layout to survive the ravages of the increasingly stringent Euro emission standards, while pushing power outputs to ever higher levels, albeit still well below those claimed for the rival KTM 1290 models.
Talking of power, the 1254cc boxer motor pushes out 136hp at 7,750rpm and 105.5lb/ft of torque at 6,250rpm. However, thanks to the shift cam technology, 103.3lb/ft of torque is also available at 4,750rpm.
Power Isn’t Everything
Power, as we all should know, isn’t everything. This is certainly true in an off-road environment. It’s the way the power is delivered that is the key. As you can see, the BMW 1254cc engine has a superbly linear torque curve, with power exactly where you need it at all times, whether on tar or on dirt. It’s a large part of what makes the GS so easy to ride off-road.
When it comes to electronics, the BMW loses nothing to its rivals. One could argue that these bikes have got so big that they need all the help they can get to stay upright. Another argument would be that such advances are inevitable and we should embrace them, especially if they flatter the rider and enable him or her to exploit the extent of the bike’s talents.
If you opt for the base GS, you get three riding modes - Eco, Road and Rain - in which Dynamic Traction Control is present. The optional Pro Riding kit gives you Dynamic, Dynamic Pro, Enduro and Enduro Pro modes for those with the skill to take these things seriously off-road. ABS Pro is standard across the range, with the hand brake lever operating both front and rear brakes and with Hill Start Control and Dynamic Brake Control integral.
Front and rear suspension retains the Telelever and Paralever system respectively. Dynamic Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) is a form of continuous semi-active damping control.
Is this revolution or evolution?
In truth, most of the upgrades on the 2021 models are evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary but isn’t that the case with many long-lived models? The most obvious visual change is the larger full-colour TFT (thin-film transistor) dash. There are heated seats for rider and pillion, heated grips, cruise control (not adaptive as on the KTM 1290 Super Adventure S), Bluetooth connectivity and optional navigation.
As before, there are two GS models - the standard GS and the GS Adventure. If the GS is big, then the GS Adventure is gargantuan, with its 7.9 gallon petrol tank and imposing height and bulk; no trouble for the author but a deal-breaker for many (it still amazes me that Harley Davidson has stolen a march on BMW and KTM with the self-lowering suspension on the new Pan America). However, on the move, the size is not an issue, although it is in the back of the rider’s mind that, were the bike to fall over, there is no way it is being picked up without assistance, especially with a full tank.
One could argue that the bigger tankage on offer is all but irrelevant despite the impressive range it allows but that is missing the point. The GS Adventure is a touring bike par excellence with the added benefit of off-road ability. I have completed some pretty challenging adventure expeditions with a GSA but at all times, I had the feeling that the bike was doing what it was doing in spite of me, not because of me! By comparison, the recent launch of the new KTM 890 Adventure models saw me in control more of the time, with the electronics barely chiming in at all. OK, smaller bike and more manageable but you get my point? At one point, I turned everything off on the GSA, rode about 50 yards and stopped to turn them all on again; it was that scary!
Out for a Ride
The day’s ride was the standard mixture of tar and dirt or, to be more accurate, tar, gloopy and slimy mud and fast dirt. The mud was particularly terrifying, being a snotty layer over a solid base. One really had to delve deep into one’s own trunk of courage to believe the bike would sort itself out; at no point did the wheels seem to be gripping and one felt a complete passenger. But the bike sorted itself out incredibly well. I’m not saying it was pleasant nor that I suddenly found a new supply of skill but I came through it alive and that’s saying something.
Once the trail dried out, it was possible to hold speeds of 80mph easily and it was here that the bike showed its true trump card. The suspension is unbelievably smooth and well controlled. The magic carpet ride it gave over dirt roads was uncanny. I sat down rather than adopting the standing riding position and I might as well have been on the smoothest tar road. But at no point did it feel willowy or under-damped. It got to the point where I would stop looking out for potholes as the bike simply floated over them. Honestly, I have never experienced suspension like it. The WP units on a KTM give just as much control but are so much firmer; next to the BMW, harsh even.
The standard GS is much more of the same, although with its reduced weight and bullk, feels more accessible. In reality it loses nothing to the Adventure, apart from fuel range. The Adventure does come as standard with full crash bar protection.
BMW vs. KTM
It is unlikely that the BMW vs. KTM adventure bike argument will never be resolved in favour of one or the other brand. Both brands have their adherents and it is unlikely that a fan of one brand will ever be swayed to the other.
Having said that, the BMW outshines the KTM in terms of quality feeling. It feels all of a piece; hewn from a block of granite, or, more appropriately, aluminium. Some might see it as the safe - boring? - option but, given 40 years of development, there is no arguing with the capabilities of the R1250GS. There is a common perception that has the KTM as the expert, hard-core choice, a perception that is helped by KTM’s competition success in off-road racing. That that involves much smaller bikes than their adventure offerings seems to have nothing to do with it.
BMW gained huge publicity for the GS range when Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman chose the bikes to travel the world. KTM get theirs from competition success. It’s swings and roundabouts. The simple truth is that, no matter which brand you choose, you are getting far more capability than the average rider can access. The BMW, however, just tips the scales because of the inherent quality.