Historically, a “scrambler” was a street motorcycle converted for riding in the dirt, which led to a pretty wide variety of bikes lining up for local hare scrambles. Today’s modern interpretations are just as diverse. Ducati’s pairs 50/50 tires with a repurposed Monster 796 motor, Yamaha’s puts a cute tank and higher bars/mid foot control on a their V-twin cruiser, and Triumph will sell you a “scrambler inspiration kit” for your Triumph Street Twin that doesn’t have a knob in sight.
So what's a scrambler anyway? This is what I contemplate shin deep in country muck on BMW’s answer to my question.
In a field of “just having fun,” it’s very serious. Compared to its competitors, this new R nineT Scrambler has the most power, the highest seat, and the highest price. Its heart is plucked from the previous iteration of BMW’s legitimate adventure R 1200 GS, the looks come from the stunning R nineT, and the cost is to match more people’s budget.
But is it a scrambler?
In the looks department, absolutely. It retains the retro visage of the R nineT: squat and old school with a tiny round headlight and lines that evoke BMW’s past toaster tanks, but with a smattering of utility. There’s less bright work, cast wheels, half inch lift in the front, and an inch in the rear, placing the seat height at 32.5 inches, a new seat, and finally, an Akrapovic-designed high-mount exhaust. The exhaust pipes sit at the same spot, but the new muffler pokes out from just under the seat whispering sweet dirty dirt braaps in your ear. And then there are the (optional) Karoo 3 50/50 tires.
Checkmate in the looks department for scrambler legitimacy.
In the engineering department, it packs heat, but has been compromised elsewhere.
The motor is the very same from the R nineT, an 1170cc air-/oil-cooled opposed twin that produces a claimed 110 hp and 85 lb.-ft. of torque. The transmission is the same six speed unit, but the final drive has been lowered on this model for snappier acceleration. The engine has also been revised to meet Euro4 standards with a charcoal canister, new exhaust, and tune, so mpg has taken a hit, dropping from 52 to 45.
However, there’s less component finery as well. The suspension has been changed from USD to conventional 43 mm units; a lower cost monoshock has been swapped in, as have more basic four-piston Brembo brakes. Laced wheels are now an option, with a 19-inch front and 17-inch rear cast five-spoke wheels now standard. A steel tank instead of aluminum is also utilized. The frame is now a cheaper three piece unit instead of a four piece. Oh, and the tach is gone.
The reason for these moves, BMW explains, is to bring the cost down from the $15,095 of the R nineT to $13,000 for the scrambler version.
But the model I would be riding pushes that number upward with cross-spoked wheels ($500), ASC stability control ($400), and heated grips ($250), bringing the price to $14,150.
So BMW has both supplied more and less at the same time: less in terms of spec sheet jewelry, but more in the terms of value and usability off road to fit the nebulous term of “scrambler.”
So do knobbies and a little bit of a suspension lift a scrambler make? It worked in 1980 for the BMW R80GS, and it works today as its modern successors blur the line between dirt capability and street comfort. But for a final verdict, the spoils of New Jersey would be the judge, crisscrossing between streets, gravel, light double track, and pockmarked sections in between.
Immediately, asphalt would illuminate the changes over its sibling.
The engine strums with the same attitude of the R nineT, with only a slight gurgle when you let off the throttle. The sound is more industrial than soaring braapness. But it is an opposed twin after all, a motor more known for its durability and consistency than its soundtrack.
Power is still there too, punting you with midrange strength, and moving all 485 (claimed) pounds of motorcycle with aplomb. That’s where the similarities between the original R nineT end though.
The first major change to the Scrambler’s attitude comes from the tires. The Metzeler Karoo 3’s provide quite a bit of grip on the road, but do wobble in that characteristic knobby way, squirming into and out of corners.
Then you notice the suspension— a serious downgrade. It crashes over bumps, juddering the entire bike, and the rear features very little damping as well. With these changes, the Scrambler relinquishes much of the refinement that makes the R nineT so special.
Ratcheting down on the brakes showcases significant nosedive up front, throwing weight forward as you brake toward the apex. Thankfully, the switch to four piston, traditional mounted Brembos hasn’t sacrificed too much stopping power.
Steering is heavier as well. The Scrambler's rake has been relaxed by two degrees (from 26.5 to 28.5) for stability off road, but the bike provides less confidence and requires more muscle in quick transitions, while the knobbies and taller front wheel also increased steering effort.
End result, it never feels light on the road, taking considerable work and fortitude to bomb tight sections of pavement. But it does have plenty of shove from the motor.
Then it was time to dive off the paved route onto gravel to test the Scrambler’s dirt chops.
The first thing you need to do if you’re “scrambling” on this model is turn off the ABS and traction control if fitted. So before you fire up that selfie stick, turn the bike on but don’t start it. Hold the ABS button for three seconds until the light goes from flashing to solidly on. Then, fire up the bike; hold that same button for three seconds until the ASC light goes from blinking to on. Once completed, you can now scramble. If you don’t, you will nearly stall out going up your first slippery hill at traction control tries to figure out what to do.
But the good news is you can take it off-road. The bad news is that it’s not easy. It just doesn't have the suspension travel to make less-experienced dirt riders like myself comfortable, and its considerable weight is felt at all times.
Standing on it is an awkward task. It does have more dirt friendly enduro pegs which makes your footwork more comfortable, but once you stand up the low bars mean you’re hunched over, placing a fair amount of weight on the front end and making weight management difficult. The tank is also quite wide, making squeezing it for stability in technical sections challenging.
The entire package slams through obstacles like a tank, though, clanking and clamoring up, over, and through. You are Trgodor the Scramblinator, and in that it’s awesome. Facing puddles, ruts, stumps, if you can’t go round them, you go through them, causing great metal murmurs, but no damage.
So you can beat the snot out of it, and it will take it, but that doesn’t make it anything special compared to any other road bike with knobbies put on it.
And with that, we scrambled out of the dirt parts with only one bike falling victim to physics, and onto a night's rest before Brooklyn.
Brooklyn is this bike’s natural habitat, but getting there was a chore as we sliced through Manhattan, and trudged through traffic. We breathing in the skunked odors of Gotham as we traversed the Brooklyn Bridge, where the R nineT Scrambler feels right at home, being both substantial in footprint and more powerful for traffic squirts than its competitors. The suspension was still a letdown when slamming over rough pavement, but it at least feels like you’re hammering off road.
Our only goal for this day was to head to Jane Motorcycles, and there I thought about the reason for the Scrambler’s existence.
A more perfect setting couldn’t have been picked. It’s a pastiche of motorcycle culture, where motorcycles are more interior decor than objects to be ridden. Here you can buy gloves that will cost you more than a pair of race gauntlets, with as much protection as grandma’s knit scarves.
I have friends who have been tossed out of this place. Turns out the owner didn’t like criticisms of his “custom” XS650, but the Walt Siegel bikes found here are exquisite. The coffee is wonderful too.
It’s the ideal place for the ideal R NineT Scrambler customer, someone who goes from Pinterest, to BikeEXIF, to writing a check in under a week for both the bike the clothes to match their new lifestyle.
They’ll love the R nineT Scrambler at $13,000, as it offers them the air of adventure for less.
For me, the R nineT Scrambler doesn’t go far enough toward its mission. It is neither excellent for off-roading, nor as special to ride on the street as the regular R nineT.
Playing armchair product planner, I would have retained the 15k price point of its sibling and pilfered the GS parts bins for suspension and brakes. Then they would have the best-equipped scrambler in the industry.
But instead, they have a bike that is split in the middle between its form and its function. If you can shred a dirt bike, you can shred on this (although you’ll wonder why you’re doing it on something so expensive). But if you’re new to dirt, there are options that will inspire more confidence, be easier to pick up, and not have a heady repair bill when you splinter it into a billion pieces.
Is it a “scrambler”? Is anything in this class? Not really. I know only two people who use their bikes up to the scrambler label (splitting time on dirt and street), and they both ride modern ADV bikes from open highways to single tracks that would make a dirt bike pause.
Scrambler, in modern usage, is more marketing veneer than functional category. You can take any of the new scrambler breed off road, but that doesn’t mean they’re particularly good there. I took my Triumph Bonneville to a Road America track day once; does that make it a sportbike? No, that makes me a guy looking for a good time, which you can do on any scrambler, or any bike, period.
The new R nineT Pure is the way to go if you don’t want to stretch to the original R nineT, and don’t want the cafe-esque R nineT Racer. The Pure, launched at Intermot while we were on this trip, it has no off-road intentions, but the same awesome motor, and similar design, with the same suspension and brakes, just slightly lowered and with a front 17-inch cast front wheel instead of 19.
But it will cost even less than the Scrambler, something near $11,500 if the pricing model of the R nineT’s stay consistent. And at that price point, it’s a supremely awesome value in the retro modern fold, component changes and all.
Throw some knobbies on that and you’d have nearly the same bike as the Scrambler with a significant chunk of change left over for activities. I suggest buying a beat to hell enduro. That’s a real scrambler.