A good friend once told me he liked to have his finger hovering over the proverbial eject button in life, even though he never had any intention of using it. The feeling it conveyed to him was, of course, that he could chuck it all at any time and somehow live “free.”
The BMW GS series has always had that element as a major part of its appeal. It’s the thought that you can ride almost anywhere, carrying just those things needed for survival and adventure. Even if you don’t ride “almost anywhere.” As the bike has evolved over the past three decades, each of the five generations has expanded the capabilities over the previous.
Of the three generations I’ve experienced—R1100GS, R1150GS and the oil-head R1200GS—the liquid-cooled 2013 model is the biggest leap of all.
It’s difficult to pick a single area that stands out as the greatest change. Certainly, liquid-cooling the Boxer engine is a huge deal (even if it’s only 35 percent liquid-cooled), but the step to semi-active suspension and the complex (yet easy to use) multiple riding modes rank up there, too.
Our first ride on the new GS was in South Africa, a favorite destination for BMW. This was the fourth time I’d been there with the Germans and it was the third time riding an R1200GS.
South Africa is quite grand, although it doesn’t feel all that different from riding in a remote area of Nevada. But you don’t see many giraffes near Pahrump, do you?
We began in the town of George on the coast of the Indian Ocean, 270 miles east of Cape Town. We headed for the Little Karoo, a semi-arid expanse over the mountains to the north. As fits the character of the bike, we’d hit most types of terrain on the planned ride, from rock-strewn trails (on a special loop aboard an accessorized, knobby-equipped GS) to winding dirt roads to just about every kind of asphalt highway and byway.
While the overall design of the 2013 R1200GS emphasizes its multi-use nature, the multiple riding modes and rider aids do a lot to expand its capabilities. We might as well get right down the electronics rabbit hole, because the systems have a huge influence on the bike’s behavior and its success on all terrain.
We’ve seen power modes, electronically adjustable suspension, selectable ABS and adjustable traction control, but the “global” nature of what’s happening on our fully optioned GS makes it very easy to use.
Five riding modes (switchable on the fly) influence all the electronic rider aids: Dynamic, Road, Rain, Enduro and Enduro Pro. The first four are part of the options package, whereas Enduro Pro must be unlocked with an additional plug-in.
Each mode varies settings for the ride-by-wire “E-gas” throttle response, ABS and ASC (BMW’s traction control) intervention, as well as how the “semi-active” Dynamic ESA varies compression and rebound damping as you ride.
Choose Dynamic, for example, and throttle response gets very quick, ABS is set for the level of grip encountered on the road and ASC allows some on-throttle slip, “even enabling experienced riders to perform light drifts,” says BMW. ESA tightens up front and rear shock damping for maximum control, although the rider can still select Soft, Normal or Hard ranges within the overall Dynamic mode. Setting it to Road takes the edge off the damping and throttle settings, and ASC cuts in sooner.
Enduro, meanwhile, is optimized for riding on dirt with the standard, tarmac-oriented tires. Throttle response is quite gentle and ASC/ABS settings allow some latitude for sliding the rear on brake or throttle. Also, the ABS is in “partial integral” operation (as in street modes), meaning that application of the front brake automatically sends some braking force to the rear. ESA options are limited to Soft (default) or Hard.
Bottom line: Through a few button-pushing operations, you can tune the response of the GS to the prevailing conditions and your riding mood. And, thanks to all the sensors at work, it also is adapting suspension damping to how you’re riding.
It’s a very good system, but it wouldn’t be effective without an excellent collection of hard parts.
Starting with the engine, the character of the new, liquid-cooled 1170cc flat-Twin is very similar to that of the previous version, but amplified. Bore and stroke are unchanged at 101.0 x 73.0mm, but almost everything else is different, from “vertical flow” cylinder heads to the wet clutch to powerplant’s more compact overall dimensions. It’s a classic BMW Boxer, but much snappier and it pulls harder everywhere. If there is any loss, the old engine’s luggability has been diminished. Claimed output is 125 horsepower (up from 110), but we expect about 115 at the rear wheel when we dyno the new bike.
And while the reoriented intake and exhaust ports (top and bottom, respectively, rather than rear and front) have many technical benefits with regard to internal parts layout (see “A Cooler Boxer,”), the rider benefits from not having intake runner and fuel-injectors where his legs may want to reside during foot-down dirt riding.
From the saddle, there is more airbox noise than I recall on the previous GS, but the flat drone of the Boxer remains. It’s not a passionate, energetic sound, even with the new-found performance (bigger valves, higher compression, new cam profiles), but it is the sound of adventure and reassuring if you’ve had any seat time on BMW horizontally opposed Twins. The engine pulls smoothly down to about 2000 rpm in top gear and power begins to taper off at around 7500 rpm, 1500 revs before redline.
The wet slipper clutch (now located at the front of the engine) offers a pleasantly light pull and easy modulation from its four-position-adjustable lever, and the new six-speed gearbox proved to have excellent shift quality.
The free-revving nature of the engine was readily apparent as soon as I fired up the bike, but it was really noticeable when I hit the winding mountain road leaving George. Big, 90-mph sweepers were punctuated by tighter bends and long, uphill straights. Vibration from the counterbalanced engine is still characteristic BMW Twin, with a high-frequency buzz that gets more noticeable as revs climb, but it’s more of a communication that the engine is working than a knock against comfort. At lower revs it thrums along nicely. Overall, though, this is a faster, smoother GS.
It also handles better. Steering geometry is slightly more aggressive with 25.5 degrees rake and 3.9 inches of trail, while wheelbase is unchanged at 59.3 in. The steel frame and bolt-on subframe are stiffer, as are the new Telelever front and left-side-mounted EVO Paralever rear suspension. Overall, it’s a more solid-feeling platform than before, and due to the more compact engine, the swingarm is now about two inches longer. Bigger tires (on wider rims) help improve grip and communication from the contact patches, while their profiles help keep the bike neutral-steering even when trail-braking hard.
Moreover, the new GS is more responsive to steering input and feels more connected to the road. It’s not “big supermoto” in the way that the Ducati Multistrada is, but it is a swift machine on a back road.
The new Brembo Monobloc front calipers and ABS are excellent on road and off. The system has a similar feeling of security and performance to that used on the K1600GT/GTL.
In the dirt, working within Enduro mode’s tuning parameters required very smooth application of throttle or brake. Too much of either resulted in “pumping”—the system cutting in and then releasing repeatedly. But, overall, the feeling of security on loose surfaces was excellent. ABS and ASC can be switched off independently while in motion, allowing advanced riders more control (or less!) in any mode.
I flipped these off in various riding modes to explore the “natural” degree of throttle and brake control on dirt and asphalt, both of which felt very good. The GS slides predictably and smoothly on its stock Metzeler Tourance Next tires.
We also got to ride an accessorized GS fitted with Metzeler Karoo 3 knobbies and the plug that enables Enduro Pro. In this mode, ABS is shut off at the rear wheel (and “partial integral” is disabled) so you can slide the bike, and the overall tuning of all systems is set for the use of chunky tires in dirt. Throttle response in Pro mode was much snappier than in standard Enduro, and there was surprising latitude to get the bike out of shape. At the same time, I found the new GS quite a bit easier to control, particularly when trying to gather it back up from a bigger slide.
At a claimed 525 pounds wet (with ABS but none of the other options), the new GS is bit of a disappointment in that it weighs about the same as the previous model. The water-cooled GS does at least feel lighter. We’ll report the fully optioned weight when we get a testbike on the CW scales.
For me, the highlight of the new, more adjustable ergonomics package is the windscreen that can be cranked up or down (1.6 total turns) with a big knob on the dash. Airflow was much better and smoother in all positions. But we can’t ignore the wider, stiffer handlebar that can be rotated to land the grips an inch higher—a nice touch for the likes of my 6-foot-2 frame and long primate arms. The new seat proved comfortable after a long day. It’s narrower at the front as well as being lower in both of its height settings (33.5 or 34.3 inches; lower and higher options are available), and also can be adjusted for fore and aft tilt. Additionally, the bike itself is narrower at the waist, reducing the reach to the ground. Footpegs are closer together and therefore were lowered without reducing cornering clearance. An interesting note: The passenger seat can be easily located fore or aft in its mounts, which is nice for the second rider but it also functions as a movable bolster for the person at the controls.
And? Is the new GS ready to conquer the world? Is it a proper “eject button” that allows your mind to wander to exotic places, while also allowing you to actually ride to them? Yes. The new 2013 BMW R1200GS is easier to ride and more versatile than ever. You can ride on the road and it makes a good streetbike. But when you come to a dirt road, you can simply ride down it. That freeing experience leads to more dirt roads and maybe a harder trail. It drives you as you drive it, if you’ll excuse the car talk. With skill, the GS will take you places few other liter-plus motorcycles can. The adventure-bike segment has become a crowded space, but the big GS remains a compelling choice.