BMW K1200S

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BMW K 1200 S

Test Riding The High Performance Inline 4

By Ed Barron

Recently we were privileged to attend the BMW K 1200 S US Press Launch (or was that a 260 mile press lunch?) in Sausalito, CA. The bike had its initial rollout last year but quality control problems with parts, suppliers and drivability issues caused BMW to stop production, rework the cylinder heads and remap the fuel injection and ignition timing. The revised bike arrived at dealers this spring and BMW wanted to reacquaint the US bike press with the bike.

BMW has been a relatively minor player in the US market, so a brief (and incomplete) history is in order. In spite of racing success both in the US and worldwide – Reg Pridmore won the inaugural US Superbike championship on an R 90 S in 1976, and Hubert Auriol and Gaston Rahier each won the rugged Paris-Dakar Rally twice on twin cylinder GS machines in the 1980's, a feat that was repeated a decade later by Richard Sainct riding the F 650 single - BMW had a reputation in the mainstream US bike scene as building reliable but stodgy bikes for long-distance touring. BMW was known for opposed twin-cylinder "R" series (boxer) engines, but in 1983/84 added the 4 cylinder 1000 cc "K" series to its lineup. It featured an inline (rather than the Japanese standard transverse mounted) engine flopped on its side for a low center of gravity and ease of maintenance/repair.

These bikes were initially not as well received as BMW had hoped, and BMW came close to ceasing motorcycle production in the late 1980s. The bike credited with saving BMW's motorcycle division is the R 100 GS. It came out in 1988 and created the "Adventure Touring" segment that BMW still dominates with its R 1100/1150/1200 GS models. In 1993 BMW took the next step forward by introducing the new 1100 cc fuel-injected boxer engine and upgrading and enlarging the K series to 1100 cc. From 1993 to the present, BMW has steadily increased its US sales by introducing new models based on existing engine families and upgrading those engines. They also introduced the F 650 single and defied the odds that say street singles don't sell in the US. In 1997, BMW introduced the K 1200 RS, the first bike from Munich (or Berlin, actually, because that is where the BMW motorcycle plant is located) that exceeded the "voluntary" 100 hp limit the German manufacturers and importers had agreed to a decade before to head off a government-mandated horsepower limit.

That same engine was used in a luxury tourer that successfully took on the Honda Gold Wing after all other competitors had ceased contesting that market segment. And in the past year, BMW introduced the lighter and more powerful new 1200 cc boxer-engined bikes, starting with the R 1200 GS and recently followed by the R 1200 RT and R 1200 ST (and to be followed by further members of the same family).

These bikes were received well by the BMW faithful, brought about some "conquest" sales, but did not make the impact BMW was hoping for. The bikes up to this point were derivative in nature – improved, refined, faster and lighter, but predictable. It was time for something new and completely different. The venerable "K" series was due for a redesign - the basic engine design had been around since 1983, had gone from a 1,000 cc 2-valve engine producing 90 hp to a 1,200 cc 4-valve unit producing 130 hp, and had reached the limits of modification and development. Everybody expected something new. Nobody expected the K 1200 S.

Which brings us back to the press introduction. Arrival day was May 18, with an informal get-together that afternoon and a technical presentation that evening, followed by dinner. The next day was devoted to riding a loop north up the Pacific Coast Highway, then east toward Geyserville and down to Calistoga and through the wine country to Napa and back to Sausalito (see sidebar for route detail). This was followed by another dinner, and departure the next morning.

In the K 1200 S, BMW presented a totally new motorcycle combining the expected with the unexpected. The expected are features such as ABS brakes, catalytic converter for low emissions, digital motor electronics engine management, and good ergonomics for riding comfort. Also expected to some extent are technical innovations such as the new Duolever front suspension. Totally unexpected was a combination of high horsepower and low weight that puts the bike into the sportbike category – perhaps not an all-out racebike with lights, but definitely in the category of bikes like the Suzuki Hayabusa, Honda CBR 1100 XX Super Blackbird and Kawasaki ZX 12 R Ninja, which were identified as the bike's main competitors.

highlights of the K 1200 S were given as follows:

  • A combination of low weight (under 500 lbs dry, without the optional ABS), high horsepower (167), a low center of gravity, and high lean angles. This is made possible by mass centralization and the narrow new transverse-mounted inline 4-cylinder engine, which is canted forward at a 55 o angle. Engine width at the crankcase is no wider than a 600 cc engine, which lets it be mounted low in the frame and still allows high lean angles. Engine management is by BMS-K Digital Motor Electronics with anti-knock control and fully sequential cylinder specific fuel injection. The system features variable pressure technology which delivers the exact amount of fuel the engine needs, and the engine consumes all the fuel delivered to the injection rail, unlike conventional systems which are under constant pressure and excess fuel is returned to the tank.
  • The bike combines a cassette-type gearbox with shaft drive.
  • The new Duolever front suspension, a Hossack-derived system that completely separates braking and suspension functions. Its constant anti-dive allows maximum braking without compromising the suspension and gives high ride comfort.
  • The Evo-Paralever rear suspension combines shaft-drive with the elimination of the suspension jacking effect normally seen with shaft drive. This is the new Paralever initially introduced in the R 1200 GS which eliminates the need for spline lubrication.
  • Excellent ergonomics. The seat is narrow in front, allowing shorter riders to reach the ground, yet wide enough in back to provide comfort. It allows freedom of movement and, combined with well-placed footpegs, a comfortable knee angle.
  • Optional Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) that allows for quick alteration of spring and damping rates to accommodate different loads. With the ignition on and the bike stopped, the load configuration can be set for solo, solo with luggage, or two-up with luggage and the system automatically determines the appropriate spring setting. Additionally, 3 riding modes – comfort, normal, or sport - can be selected while underway and the ESA adjusts the damping rates accordingly.
  • Single-wire CAN-bus electrics, as introduced on the R 1200 GS.
  • Optional, partly-integrated ABS, in which the foot pedal operates the rear brake only and the hand lever activates both front and rear brakes. The standard (non-ABS) brakes are not integrated.
  • Light-weight wheels unique to the K 1200 S.
  • Electronic immobilizer anti-theft system.
  • 3-way catalytic converter exhaust.
  • Wet weight of bike without options of 546 lbs (with all fluids and fuel tank 90% full). ABS adds approximately 9 lbs. Fuel capacity is 5 gallons.
  • Numerous other options including adjustable Sport Panniers (saddlebags) that adjust from 17 to 25 liters, heated grips, anti-theft alarm, 2 tank bags (one standard and one shorter to make room for the also optional Navigator GPS), center stand, and valve cover protection. A low seat is a no-charge option at time of purchase in lieu of the standard seat. Two-tone paint is also optional.
  • Initial plans for this press intro to also provide a short familiarization ride on the sister model K 1200 R "naked bike" had to be scrapped because no bikes were yet available in the US. Some basic information about the bike and its differences from the K 1200 S were provided.

    The K 1200 R is meant to shake up (in Europe) the very popular "naked bike" category and is intended to compete with the likes of the Triumph Speed Triple, Aprilia Tuono, Ducati Monster SR4, Benelli TnT and MV Agusta Brutale. It should do so handily because at 163 hp (4 hp less than the S due to a smaller airbox) it is the most powerful naked bike available. Coupled with a dry weight of 465 lb (wet weight 522 lbs) and a lower (numerically higher) final drive it should pack plenty of punch. Interestingly, in spite of being trimmed for agile handling rather than high speed it has a longer wheelbase and larger steering angle than the K 1200 S. It also has more upright ergonomics and wider handlebars. Once it becomes available it should provide an interesting ride.


    Our Test Ride Route

    Heading down to Laguna Seca this summer. Check this out!

    The route is a 260 mile loop starting and ending in Sausalito. It basically goes north on the Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1). This stretch of Highway 1 is one of the two best stretches of the highway (the other being the Big Sur country south of Monterey). The ride follows Highway 1 north to just past Stewart's Point to Sea Ranch Lodge, which was the lunch stop. From there it briefly continues north to Annapolis road, which goes off to the right, and which is followed until it ends at Skaggs Springs Road (approximately 13 miles). The ride continues left on Skaggs Springs Road until it ends at a stop sign (approx. 27 miles). Turn right, follow the road (Dry Creek) for about 6 miles to Canyon road, where you turn left toward US 101/CA 128. Follow Highway 128 to Calistoga. In Calistoga turn left onto CA 29 and 1 mile later turn right onto Silverado Trail to Napa. In Napa, turn right on Trancas Street toward CA 29. Go south on CA 29 to CA 121. Go west on CA 121to Sears Point. Turn right on CA 37 to US 101 and follow it back to Sausalito.

    So much for the technical stuff. Thursday morning dawned mostly clear (it had rained the day before) and we breathed a sigh of relief about not having to test those 167 horses on wet roads. It turns out we needn't have worried because the power delivery is smooth and predictable and the bike is very stable. But let's start at the beginning. 7:45 am - riders meeting and bike assignment. A quick familiarization with the bike reveals a comfortable workplace. The back of the tank is narrow, as is the front of the seat. This allows for good knee contact without the legs being splayed out while riding and allows inseam-challenged riders an easy reach to the ground when stopped. The seat widens toward the back and proves to be comfortable with good support. Handlebars are forward and down, Foot pegs are down and slightly back, which makes for a sporty but comfortable riding position. The instrument cluster consists of analog tach and speedometer and a flat-screen display for fuel gauge, clock, odometer and trip odometers. On ESA- equipped bikes the ESA setting is also displayed. Switchgear is standard BMW with the push forward with the left thumb to activate the left turn signal, push forward with the right thumb to activate the right turn signal, push up with the right thumb to cancel the turn signal, push up with the left thumb to operate the horn. I find it very intuitive – just like countersteering you push left to go left and push right to go right, and canceling the turn signal and honking the horn certainly is no more difficult than trying to figure out if the upper button on the left cancels the turn signal and the lower honks the horn or vice versa – but the mainstream US bike press has been complaining about the arrangement for years.

    Our ride takes us from Sausalito up the Pacific Coast Highway. There are 15 journalists from 15 magazines divided into 3 groups with a ride leader and rear bike for each group. We're asked to stay close together initially until we get out of the urban/suburban traffic. Later we'll split up and get separated from our group when we stop for pictures, but for now we follow our ride leader like ducklings behind a mother duck. It also allows us to become familiar with our bikes. The K 1200 S has a long wheelbase (61.8", or about 6"more than a GXR 1000 or ZX 10 R) and one would expect straight-line stability, and the bike delivers that, but the surprising thing is the maneuverability, the ease of changing direction. The Pacific Coast Highway is fairly tight and twisty here just north of San Francisco and the bike tracks beautifully. The highway also isn't exactly smooth, but the Duolever works extremely well and soaks up the bumps with good feedback as to what the front end is doing. I'm riding a non-ESA bike and the suspension seems to be dialed in just fine – comfortable but not too soft, controlled but not harsh in the bumpy stuff. The throttle is somewhat abrupt and direct – something that seems to be the case in many fuel-injected bikes – but the bike displays none of the stumbling and surging that was reported when the bike was first introduced. Apparently the fix – a change of camshaft and combustion chamber shape and a remap of the electronic injection and ignition timing – worked. The more I rode the bike the less trouble I had with the abrupt throttle. At a more moderate pace I found it was easier to run the bike one gear higher than I normally would and let the low-end torque do the work. This avoided the sudden on-off throttle transitions that went with opening and closing the throttle. The power band of the engine is only slightly wider than San Francisco Bay, so in most normal riding situations it doesn't much matter what gear you're in anyway. The engine will pull with authority from 1500 rpm in 6 th gear, and in most riding situations you don't exceed 4,000 rpm, which translates to about 70 mph in 6 th gear. But if you do get on it hard, you'd better hang on! The bike pulls and pulls, and then, at about 9,500 rpm, it catapults you up to the power peak at 10,250 rpm and on to the 11,000 rpm redline. That would be interesting to try in top gear somewhere where there's a long enough (and wide enough) road devoid of the enforcers of law and order (although in the short run they would likely not be able to keep up). The longer wheelbase than the race-replica sportbike means you're less likely to find yourself doing an inadvertent wheelie. That's not to say you can't wheelie if you want to, but rather that the power is very predictable and controllable.

    Mid-morning a squall line caught up with us (or we to it), which gave me an opportunity to evaluate the fairing. It does an excellent job of keeping rain off the torso (and the head and helmet if you tuck in), but the arms are exposed to the rain. There's very little turbulence behind the fairing and windshield.

    At the lunch stop I changed bikes to an ESA-equipped one. After having headed north on the Pacific Coast Highway all morning, it was now time to head east into the hills. I'd dallied a bit after lunch and was now riding by myself and could set my own pace. The first part of the after-lunch ride was rough, tight, twisty local roads, perfect for evaluating the ESA. The system definitely works! The "Comfort" setting really reduces the impact of the rough road and makes for a more pleasant ride. The tradeoff is that it's less than ideal for hard charging – but that's the whole point here. There's no such thing as "one suspension setting fits everything", and the ESA allows a quick change of suspension setting based on road conditions and current intent. Want to go fast with maximum control and little concern for comfort? Dial it up to "sport" and gas it! The bike stays planted, goes where you point it, and doesn't wallow in corners. For a good compromise the "Normal" setting works well. It's similar to the suspension set-up of the non-ESA bike; not as plush as the "Comfort," not as firm as the "Sport" but a good compromise between the two. I would have no problem living with the standard non-ESA suspension, but someone who changes loads frequently or likes the extra on-the-fly adjustability might find this $750 option money well spent.

    After the tight twisties, the road opens up into wider sweeping curves and the paving improves, an ideal combination for this bike. It's great to lean into the corners and just HAUL! And haul it does, no muss, no fuss. A glance at the speedometer brings me back to reality – this kind of speed, sustained for longer periods on public roads, will sooner or later lead to a significant decrease in average speed brought on by the lengthy stop where the cop not only checks your license and registration but calls back to headquarters to see if there's any other reason to haul you in. Luckily today isn't one of those days, there's almost no traffic and no cops, so I take my chances and haul.

    It's just as well that I did, because all too soon I'm in wine country, the roads are still straighter, and traffic picks up. Still a nice ride, but the main fun now is acceleration orgies to use the available gaps in traffic to get past the really slow cars and the entourage they've developed. And around 5 pm I find myself back in Sausalito.

    Time to reflect about the bike and cover a few things I've not yet mentioned. The power-assisted ABS brakes work well. Unlike earlier versions of this system where actuation was similar to an on/off switch, now the front brake lever allows good brake modulation and progressive application. Maximum braking still stops you right now . Also, the residual braking (when the ignition is off and the power assist is not available) is now much better than previously, i.e., a reasonable amount of stopping force can be generated. All of the bikes were equipped with the $995 optional ABS, so I wasn't able to evaluate the standard, non-ABS brakes.

    The transmission is adequate but not great. Shifts to first and second are clunky, the rest are better but hardly buttery-smooth. On the plus side, I never missed a shift. I'd say it's a typical BMW transmission, and it will likely get smoother with use.

    I wasn't able to measure fuel consumption exactly, since the bikes were refueled while we were at lunch. But based on the facts that my after-lunch distance was about 180 miles, the tank has a 5 gallon capacity, and that I and some others had to add some fuel to make it back to Sausalito, I'd guess at a 30 to 35 mpg figure. Not great, but certainly not worse than other bikes with similar performance parameters.

    This brings us to comfort and ergonomics. We did a 260 mile loop (I added about 20 miles by retracing some parts) with about ½ hr morning and afternoon breaks and a 1 hour lunch stop. That boils down to about 7 hours of saddle time, and I arrived in the evening still comfortable, feeling no pain, and ready to continue to ride. If I had to pick a single outstanding feature that separates this bike from the competition, it would be the all-day comfort.

    In summation, I think BMW has put together a truly outstanding bike. Performance and handling that's not just impressive but also controllable coupled with all-day comfort. Whether it's a "true" sportbike may be subject to interpretation, and it may not be the best bike for track days (then again, it might - you never know until you try), but it has catapulted BMW to the head of the class when it comes to high-performance street bikes, and it raises the bar for other manufacturers.

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