Luxury touring motorcycles are an American invention, uniquely suited to this expansive country and its uniquely unthreatening highway system. Travel Interstates from one end of the U.S. to the other, and except for a very small percentage of on- and off-ramps, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an unexpected turn, or one that requires as much as a 15-degree lean angle at the speed limit. Harleys and Indians once exclusively ruled this turf, and The Motor Company has never ceded it; Electra Glides and Road Kings still are among its most popular models. But Honda began a new, more technically sophisticated interpretation of American luxury touring with the Gold Wing that also proved popular, and BMW followed with K-LT and K-GT models that sought to outmatch the Wing in technology and to offer a sportier feel. Now with the introduction of the new K1600GT and K1600GTL, BMW escalates the technical arms race in luxury touring, all while promising to deliver these very well-equipped and sophisticated machines at surprisingly competitive prices.
The optional GPS unit fits into a receptacle on the dash. When the bike is parked, the windscreen lowers over the GPS to prevent theft. The Multi-Controller switch can be seen between the left handgrip and the normal left-hand switch assembly.
The new touring machines, not to be out-specified by Honda, are built around a new, inline six-cylinder engine, one that BMW openly compares to the famous Sixes in its luxury cars. This engine is clearly designed for its touring mission. It combines a relatively small bore (67.5mm, almost the same as on the first K100) with a longish 72mm stroke. A high, 12.2:1 compression ratio helps boost torque and fuel economy, aided by the quick burning possible in such a compact combustion chamber. A very tight bore spacing (only 5mm between cylinder walls) and a lack of accessories on the ends of the crank allow the new engine to be fully 4 inches narrower than Honda’s CBX, all while carrying 60 percent more displacement. Peak output of a claimed 160 hp is reached at a relatively low 7500 rpm, while peak torque is a thrilling 129 foot-pounds at only 5250 rpm. More importantly, with the engine designers working with all the displacement they could possibly need, engine tuning is for power breadth, and the new 1600 can grunt out 70 percent of its peak torque at just above idle rpm—though grunt is probably the wrong word for the buttery power flow than can be expected from an inline-Six. From a rider’s perspective, the engine is likely to just pull smoothly and decisively whenever he demands it, in whatever gear he is in at the moment. The fuel economy numbers from this powerplant are also impressive: According to BMW, the big GT gets 47 mpg on the European city-emissions-cycle test and 50 mpg on the European highway test—which requires realistic-for-the-U.S. 75-mph highway speeds. If achieved, these are better numbers than for the K1300.
Even the packaging of the engine cleverly serves and enhances the luxury-touring role. The cylinders lean forward 55 degrees, allowing very long, torque-enhancing intake runners that stay well forward of the riders knees, permitting these big Sixes to have a naturally narrow hourglass figure in plan view. A three-shaft gearbox with the clutch mounted very high keeps the rear of the powertrain narrow in the foot area, so the footpeg placement can be narrower, as well—something that not just feels good when riding but that also helps shorten the path from seat to ground, making the bike easier for short riders to balance when stopped. An integral dry-sump design is used for the oil system, with the oil tank to hold the 4.8-quart supply cast into the rear of the cases. This saves the space and oil lines that a remote dry sump would require and allows the engine to be placed lower in the frame than a conventional wet sump would permit.
The electronics on the 1600s are almost luxury-car-like. Both models come with anti-lock brakes and electronic throttle control, i.e., ride-by-wire. The hand throttle simply becomes an electrical input to the engine control computer from which the rider can make his request for more power. It is the computer that will determine how far the throttle plates will open (via servomotor) to fill that request. This type of system is much loved by the engineers responsible for fuel injection tuning, emissions output and rideability—no more do they have to worry about what happens when a rider slams the throttle open at very low rpm, dropping intake velocity precipitously to the detriment of smooth running. It also allows them to return some new control back to the rider in the form of user-selectable throttle-response settings: Rain, Road or Dynamic. The first slows throttle response and actually prevents the throttle from opening fully, detuning the engine for operation under low-road-friction conditions; the last gives very sharp and decisive throttle action, corresponding to a “race” setting on the S1000RR. In between is our “normal” expected response. And if that isn’t enough, BMW offers optionally the most sophisticated traction-control system yet introduced on a streetbike, similar to that used on the S1000RR. Almost certainly based on Bosch hardware (BMW’s recent partner in these areas), the system includes sufficient sensors (including gyroscopes, as used on the S1000RR) to calculate the motorcycle’s bank angle. Thus the system can have different traction control algorithms for upright and leaned. And having control of the throttle directly via the drive-by wire system, it can respond to traction loss with more than simple cutting of injection or ignition lead; it can also roll back the actual throttle position.
All turnsignals, the taillight and the brakelight are lit by LEDs. The turnsignals are intensely bright, so much so that only a drunken blind man could miss that a K1600 rider is signaling a turn. BMW’s designers “broke” the bodywork into many pieces to minimize the visual bulk of what is still a big motorcycle.
Bank-angle sensing also allows the most innovative feature of the K1600: an optional curve-following low-beam headlight. The standard low beam on both machines is a high-intensity discharge (HID) projector beam. Because HID headlights by regulation are allowed to be about twice as bright as standard halogen headlights, the all-knowing makers-of-rules have also specified that the lights must also self-level to not dazzle oncoming drivers. BMW has achieved that by aiming the projector beam up and controlling its angle by reflecting it forward upon a pivoting mirror. A servomotor controls the beam angle. With the optional system, the mirror also pivots about an additional axis, shining the light into the curve while the motorcycle is banked over instead of into space as with a conventional motorcycle headlight. This feature has been a long time coming and likely required as much work on regulatory issues as technical challenges.
And then there’s the hidden electrical technology that improves reliability and feel without offering any hint of its presence, not even getting a real mention in the bike’s press release. BMW’s new-generation hand switches are fitted to the 1600s, made by German company Kromberg & Schubert GmbH. Take your average motorcycle hand switch apart and you’ll find internal electrical connections made by short or long lengths of wire screwed to copper stampings and springs, usually a bit of a crammed mess inside. You look at the finicky internals and the wires and screws and you’re just glad your days aren’t filled by assembling the damn things one after another at some factory in Japan or Taiwan. Many motorcycle switches haven’t been fully weather sealed, either, relying on the fact that they’re switching relatively high currents and will tolerate a little water and current bleeding without really screwing anything up. This isn’t acceptable, however, when you start into the digital world BMW has ventured down of CAN buses and remote solid-state relays, where the switch is merely signaling the relay whether to supply current to, say, the high beam or not, and not actually switching the current directly. In the digital world, a little bit of leaking current is a confused signal, and a problem.
But BMW’s new switches are nothing like a conventional motorcycle switch. Kromberg & Schubert developed a process whereby the plastic of the injection-molded inner switch body is filled with a small percentage of copper nano particles. After popping from the mold, the inner switch body is laser-etched to expose copper in appropriate areas, which can be plated to create a three-dimensional circuit board to which sealed and ergonomically delightful switching elements can be robotically placed and wave-soldered. An outer switch body with appropriate levers and plastic buttons fits over the inner body and gives the rider big buttons to engage the actual switches, and the electrical connection between wiring harness and switch assembly is a simple plug-in connector. All of the internal wires are gone, every single one. The switch is improved in every way, yet with the handwork gone, is no more expensive than what came before. This is the magic of continuous technological progress (progress I only happen to know about because Kromberg & Schubert was in discussion to supply the next generation of Buell switches).
For the second time on a BMW, a left-hand Multi-Controller switch is fitted just inboard of the left handgrip. It works with the 5.7-inch LCD panel by the instruments, allowing control of everything from the heated seat and grips to the GTL’s standard radio. According to Senior Editor Blake Conner, who had a chance to play with the display and controller at the press intro, “I was impressed with how intuitive it was; it’s no iDrive disaster,” referring to BMW’s single-control automotive menu-system with a learning curve as steep as Yosemite’s El Capitan, and the best gift to Mercedes salesmen ever. Perhaps BMW has learned that control systems requiring two weeks of intense study and practice are off-putting both to potential new owners on test drives and journalists who rarely have enough seat time to learn their full intricacy.
Similarly riding a wave of technical progress, the optional navigation system relies in part on the rapidly growing and healthy GPS aftermarket. The BMW Navigator IV is a removable Garmin-made unit that mounts in a customized receptacle in the dash. Because it’s not built-in, over the life of the bike, either BMW or the owner may upgrade it with newer technology or even an aftermarket GPS system. The Multi-Controller places the rider in charge of a number of the GPS functions without reaching up to touch the unit, and the customized connection allows the GPS unit to extract information on remaining fuel range from the motorcycle’s ECU so it can show you the reachable gas stations if asked.\
Skinny bores (just 67.5mm) and tight cylinder spacing keep the 1600cc powerplant narrow, as does moving the alternator from the end of the crankshaft to behind the cylinder block. The lay-down cylinders allow the bike to be narrow at the knees.
Chassis-wise, the two machines are fairly standard BMW, with the shaft-drive well controlled by the Paralever swingarm, and the front suspension a Hossack-style design with the wheel carried in an upright supported by two A-arms above tire level. The front suspension offers almost complete anti-dive and should allow a comfortable ride with only 4.5 inches of total travel. Optional is the ESA II electrically adjustable suspension, allowing damping, preload, rear suspension spring rate and suspension profile (Sport, Normal, Comfort) to be set by using the Multi-Controller and the dash panel to pick a combination such as “Solo Sport” for mountain roads or “Passenger with Luggage Comfort” for two-up down the freeway.
The GT and GTL differ mainly in feature content and riding position, with the GT intended more as a Luxury Sport Tourer, and the GTL as the Sporty Luxury Tourer; the differences are subtle but real. The GTL comes with a complete sound system featuring a one-year Sirius satellite radio subscription, Bluetooth interface for cell phone use with BMW’s optional speaker-equipped helmets, and iPod compatibility. In addition, it gets the rear top case as standard equipment along with a broader, lower one-piece seat replacing the two-piece seat of the GT, and a larger windshield. Rear suspension damping is softened, footpegs are moved an inch down and forward, and the handlebars reach back almost two inches for a more upright riding position. Still, BMW emphasizes that the GTL is something new and not a direct replacement for the more Wing-like and discontinued K1200LT. The K1600GT, however, is a direct evolutionary replacement in the company’s eyes for the K1300GT. It all comes down to the marketing department wanting to tell you that the GTL is a sportier, more performance-oriented machine than the K1200LT.
The unanswered question that remains is the price of the two machines. While they certainly will be expensive, especially as the dollar sinks against the Euro, BMW is hinting that the S1000RR sets the new standard of BMW pricing competitiveness: BMWs will no longer have a huge premium compared to competitive Japanese motorcycles. While BMW figures out the final pricing and gets the 1600s fully into production, we just have to wait to see if these sophisticated, electronic-packed machines are as good as they promise to be.