We tested the giant BMW cruiser a few months ago in Germany, but wanted to see what it was like to live with. Matt stole one to find out.
Words by Matt Photos by Maria Hull
BMW owns the adventure bike market. It has a huge presence in the touring market, it’s barged its way into the sportsbike market at its first attempt, and it even has its claws in the small bike market with the G310. BMW likes to win. The figures for cruiser sales around the world are huge, yet BMW has had no invite to this party yet – barring a brief time with the R1200C, a late 1990s boxer-engined cruiser (it was great) that didn’t cut the cloth and was thrown out for being underage.
This must be irritating, as the owner of that world, one Harley-Davidson, is not exactly a reactionary, aggressive, forward-thinking company. It makes what it makes, the Americans love it, and as the world’s media overexposes us all to everything US of A, so Harley IS the cruiser market.
Mimicking Harley, there are many variants, mainly differing via paint, seats, accessories – and price. Our bike has the tank pinstripe (£380), reverse gear (£940) and heated grips (£255). Total price is £19,445. Why do car and motorcycle manufacturers think we are such suckers when it comes to option prices? I suppose ‘real’ customers are in a spending mood at the time. Anyway, that’s around the price of a Fat Bob, with reverse but without a pillion seat.
Get a cup of tea and sit… admiring your new bike, you learn a lot. Yes, the engine is huge, but the bike as a whole is enormous. It takes over your sight. If you believe the full-of-bull YouTubers, the bike epitomises the styling cues of the original R5 (that’s what the BMW PR man told them to say), but I’d hardly call pinstripes and a fishtail exhaust unique to BMW. However, the finish is BMW and simply exemplary. Paint and powdercoating… wheels and spokes… the hardtail/softail that even up close hides the shock… the exposed, nickel-plated shaft drive… the hiding of anything that looks out of place. Whenever I parked somewhere, riders would flock to stare, to observe – and then to opine. The brave admired it, or may not be a cruiser fan but appreciated the quality. The not-so-brave slagged it off for not being a Harley. Sometimes, I’d go over to it and see what they said, or asked; other times, I just observed. The only other bike I’ve had that conquers/attracts/divides opinion like the R18 was the new Brough Superior SS100.
I am a non-cruiser rider assessing a cruiser, so of course it touches down the footpegs too easily, the seat makes your bum go to sleep within 50 miles of uneventful roads, and being bolt upright, any shocks go directly up my spine. The tank struggles to reach 120 miles before the light comes on, despite a claimed 200-mile range and speeds above 70mph (yes, yes, I know) have you toning your core muscles nicely to hold on. And there is nowhere to put anything other than a magnetic tankbag or rucksack – didn’t see those in Sons of Anarchy.
All of that – well, most – pales into insignificance when you first use that engine. I won’t repeat the hyperbole that has been said many times about this entirely new unit. Three rider modes that for once make a difference: rain is smooth and soft; roll is more natural and quick; and rock is pure crazy. Obviously, you pick that first. Engage first gear, clutch out, BBLLAARRPP. Second gear. BBBLLLAARRRPPP. Third… you get the idea – it’s demonically addictive. Instant torque, instant noise like an extra set of injectors have come to life, and instant thrills. But if you’re going anywhere more than having a laugh, roll mode is just as quick but slightly quieter, more refined, and easier to ride. I must be getting old – but then that’s who this is aimed at.
The gearbox must be a real beefcake to put up with that engine, so to have precise, easy changes is a masterpiece of design. Ratios are close together, and I’m sure there is a speed limiter in top before the engine runs out, but at that speed you can’t hold on so it’s irrelevant.
One real disappointment is the reverse, which uses the starter and is on/off jerky – not good for balance – and it only works for about five metres before stopping and flashing some light on the dash in protest. If I’d paid £940, I’d want my money back.
Talking of clocks, as the industry loves to, the one clock is fine, easy to read and really nicely designed. Like the clutch and brake cylinders on the handlebars. Though the heated grips did weird things with me – it took ages to work out how to turn them on, then would turn on when they wanted. Must be me.
Cruising around the country lanes, I could relax a little. Potholes need looking out for as the front forks are great, but the rear has to be so stiffly sprung that it has to pass that shock up your spine. S bends need more attention, too, as the first may be fine (remember I’m not a cruiser rider) but the second bend has me grinding the pegs and running wide. You have to slow down before the bend – once leaned over, it’s too late. “That’s just a cruiser for you,” I hear. Utter rubbish – anyone who says a cruiser can’t handle hasn’t ridden a Ducati Diavel.
It’s the same on main roads. Roundabouts are embarrassing if you have a fast car behind, as you simply can’t go any faster around a bend. But, I guess, all cruisers are like that. Flowing roads are fun, those wide ‘bars giving light steering – in fact, the steering is spot-on for such a raked set of forks – and with such low revs, the experience on the right road is engaging, smile-inducing and fun.
But there’s a lot of cruiser-law the R18 breaks. The brakes are, for a long bike (1730mm – 68in), weighing 350kg (770lb) with low-down weight (so it cannot pivot around the front wheel, it tries to push it, initiating a skid) really strong, yet with a great lever ratio, so give lots of feel. There is ABS, but you also need to use more rear brake to get the best stopping. The power, for once, is equal to the looks and ethos it gives off at lights, for example. And it is simple to ride, slowly, quickly, and ground clearance aside, on most roads.
My largest gripe is a strange one – it’s the weight when manhandling: 350kg is huge and makes pushing the bike anywhere, forward or backward, something to dread. Getting to a bike meet, I’d park out of sight or where I could just ride off. And not once did I push it backward, with or without the reverse, without thinking it was going over. The wide handlebars and the cylinders sticking out conspire with the girth to make pushing a horrid experience and one, I’ll admit, would put me off the BMW.
The stable ride at speed affects the slow riding, the long wheelbase and rake making start-stop and slow town riding a wobbly affair. I’d like to say you get used to it, but I don’t want to spend £20k on something that makes me look like a newbie from Wild Hogs.
The R18 hasn’t sold strongly, which is not the bike but more to do with safety of purchase – a Harley-Davidson is a safer bet than a BMW in this market. But with time, the quality of the bike, the thought gone into the design, and the strength of the brand should help this.
In this writer’s opinion, BMW’s giant boxer is for the brave. This customer doesn’t need an eagle sown on their back – they’re not a sheep and I admire that. But I just don’t get… why. Why the enormous engine when you can’t get around a set of corners without changing your riding style completely? And that sheer weight is just too much. It’s gone too far. Maybe that’s the key – it’s that cruiser with a sociopathic twinkle in its eye. It’s edgy.
BMW has really thrown a corking first punch at Harley in the cruiser market. I like the looks of the R18. I really like the exemplary quality and I love the all-new design, from engine upwards. The 1800cc boxer torque-monster is a hoot, even working at diesel revs. The gearbox is a masterpiece, the brakes suit perfectly and for the dimensions, and the handling is as good as it is going to get if you want those looks, that stance and the attitude. And boy, has it attitude.