• Feb 10th 2009 at 12:00PM
  • 23
Click above for a gallery of the 2009 BMW R 1200 GS

The rapidly expanding adventure-touring motorcycle genre is easiest to understand when you equate it to the booming sport-utility segment of the late '90s. However, unlike the majority of SUVs that hit the roads at the end of the last decade, today's adventure bikes actually posses equal parts sport and utility. The Bavarian motorcycle maker kick-started the category with the seminal R 80 G/S in 1980 and today, it dominates the class. In the interim, the GS line has undergone a series of upgrades, switching from airhead to oilhead engines in 1994 and expanding its range of single and twin-cylinder bikes, including the F 650 GS, F 800 GS and the penultimate R 1200 GS Adventure.

The 2009 R 1200 GS is the culmination of BMW's efforts and the genre as a whole. Since its introduction in 2004, the range-topping GS has been updated to include a revised servo-less ABS braking system, a slight bump in power and the addition of Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA). But the revisions don't tell the whole tale. What's it like to live with the GS for a week? Let's find out...

Photos Copyright ©2009 Jeremy Korzeniewski / Weblogs, Inc.

Nobody would describe the R 1200 GS as a "pretty" machine. It definitely looks interesting, but the GS' form isn't as stylish as BMW's own K-Series line of bikes. Regardless, we'll take purposeful over pretty any day of the week, and our time at the helm proved that the GS is designed this way for good reason, with the notable exception of the dual front head lights, which lend a quizzical look the the Bimmer's face. Whatever your opinion of its styling, the GS shares its genes with both the classic GS bikes of yore and the rest of BMW's current line.

Our GS tester came equipped with a bevy of storage options, including dual factory side cases and a top-mounted trunk. Although they don't do any stylistic favors to the profile of the machine, these three storage units made living with the bike considerably more bearable and generally displaced the need to use the car for daily errands. Each box is weatherproof, comes with a liner and is expandable. We never ran out of space, despite lugging around our camera gear for the duration of its stay, and even over the roughest of roads, the bags never made their presence known, negating the need to remove them.

For the 2008 model year, BMW made plenty of upgrades to the 1170cc air- and oil-cooled boxer mill that resulted in an increase from 100 to 105 horsepower. Torque stayed the same at 85 lb-ft, though the power peak moved a bit further up the tach to coincide with the redline, which was increased from 7,750 to 8,000 RPM. The six-speed transmission's gearing was revised and now features both slightly shorter ratios and a final drive. Riders that are familiar with BMW transmissions will notice an improved shifting feel, but the experience is still a bit notchy, with a firm-sounding metallic clunk accompanying each gear shift. It's far from a Japanese engagement, but we never missed a gear and neutral was reassuringly easy to locate both coming down from second and up from first.

Riding the GS is an enlightening experience, proving that a bike can be all things to all people. We spent a few hours out on the open highway where the GS was perfectly adept at avoiding SUVs and semis, with a perfectly smooth ride when approaching triple-digit speeds. Up front, a GS-specific windshield can be moved up and down, changing the rake and altering the wind flow over the rider's head, assuming said rider is under six-feet tall. A larger windscreen is available as an accessory and may prove beneficial for riders planing long stretches of high-speed tours across the continent.

On more pedestrian city streets, the big BMW seems to morph from a long-distance tourer into something closely resembling a standard. You'll never mistake the big GS as a sport bike, but we found that it had plenty of power to blow past the morning traffic and take a spot at the front of the line. Its ABS-equipped brakes and Automatic Stability Control help keep everything pointed in a straight line around town and proved invaluable when the roads turned twisty. We found plenty of cornering clearance despite the twin cylinders jutting out past the rest of the bike, although riders who aren't used to BMW's classic boxer powertrain may need a few days to become properly acquainted with those wide heads. But overall, most will find it's a non-issue after the first few rides.

Much of GS' success on the roadways can be attributed to its extremely capable and fully adjustable suspension. BMW continues to use its trademark Telelever design up front and the Paralever setup out back, and after refining these bits for years, everything seems to be perfected. There's no unwanted movements from either end, even under the most harrowing on- and off-throttle moments.

As previously mentioned, BMW has equipped the range-topping GS with a new Enduro ESA suspension setup. A switch on the left handlebar allows the pilot to toggle through settings for riding alone, riding with luggage or riding with a passenger. These modes adjust the preload of the rear shock in accordance with how much weight is over the back tire. Keep pressing and you'll find Normal, Comfort and Sport modes that are all designed for the street. Each setting changes the way the bike feels from the saddle, with Comfort mode providing a slightly mushy ride for the superslab and Sport firming things up when road goes every which way but straight.

Additionally, the R 1200 GS features a few new modes to BMW's electronic suspension adjustment designed specifically for off-road conditions. Pressing and holding the ESA button switches things to Enduro mode, which opens up two new settings -- Medium Reserve and Maximum Reserve – with small and large mountain icons to match. Now, choosing between Soft, Normal and Hard will adjust the preload of both the front and rear shocks, raising the ride height a full 20 millimeters in the Hard setting. This is the mode we used for most of our off-road riding where hard landings were a regular occurence. We also switched the ABS off while running around on the dirt, one of the few times when siding the rear is actually desirable.

The off-road capability of the GS is truly amazing, especially considering how well it works on the road. Our first introduction to what would prove to be an eye-opening day was on a ten-mile dirt road that you'd normally take at about 15 mph in a car. We had no problem tripling that speed on the GS. After the first few miles, we found ourselves purposely aiming for dips and ruts just to feel the bike lose contact with the road and touch back down with zero drama. These conditions proved to be a perfect playground to showcase what this bike is really capable of.

Later, we took the GS through some rugged scenery that would be tough to traverse on foot, and the GS rarely placed a tire wrong. The seat, foot pegs and handlebar are perfectly situated to allow the rider to stand up under gnarly conditions, and there's plenty of ground clearance to allow for fallen log (or cactus) crossings. If the big bike is undone by any single type of terrain, it's sand. We figure that a real set of knobbies (like those fitted to the Adventure model) would make a big difference if you'll regularly be riding in sand or soft dirt.

The GS carries a stiff price of just over $15K, which quickly rises after desirable options like the ESA system, ABS and heated grips are added. But if you can swing the sticker, you'll be rewarded with a machine that will tackle off-road conditions with nearly as much aplomb as it does on the street. If you could only have one motorcycle for the rest of your life, you could do much worse than the GS.

Special thanks to Go AZ Motorcycles for providing a test bike.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      looks like a random stroll thru the parts bins
      • 6 Years Ago
      That is likely too heavy for much spirited off-road riding. When I was younger I had a Honda XL650R, which was biased towards the off-road riding, although with the 650 it had ample speed capabilities for the street.

      Now I have an even older Honda - a 1989 NX650 - which is much more in the realm of the reviewed bike - i.e. biased towards street riding, but with significant off-road capabilities. Also not real good in loose sand. That said, both of these are really too heavy for true fun off-road riding. Where the NX650 excels is on dirt roads which is where I do 95% of my riding now - virtually no traffic - and this is the only bike that I have that I ride on a regular basis (five more, but most are collectibles, including the old Honda Mini Trail CT70 that introduced me to riding motorcycles in the 60's.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Ewan McGregor and a freind of his (I forget the name...) went from England to New York, the LONG way on a pair of R-GS bikes a few years back. East-bound, not west-bound.

        It isn't a dirt bike, and it is pretty heavy, so I can imagine it isn't all that nimble, but getting from place to place without a road between them is kind of the point of that bike.
        • 6 Years Ago
        They are sort of like dancing with an elephant, but surprisingly nimble considering the size. They are not dirt bikes but solid transportation on what laughingly passes for roads in much of the world.
      • 6 Years Ago
      What was the as tested price? That bike was probably close to 20 with the luggage and ESA options tacked on.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I'm also strangely attracted .. nevertheless I guess I'd get the KTM Adventure instead ... Apart from KTM being the capable brand it is, as an Austrian I quite often tend to buy Austrian instead of German ...
      • 6 Years Ago
      I dumped mine hard in the dirt (25mph), resulting in it flipping end over end and only bent the rear sub frame and damaging the hard plastic cylinder guard on my 03.

      These bikes are pretty solid. I did have crash bars on it too. Well worth the 250.00 they cost at Touratech. I don't hear people talk about damaging their cylinder heads too often. They usually get ground down a bit if you dump it on the street. It is a fantastic bike.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I loved my F 650 it was smooth and capable, but my friend had the Dakar model which even his 6' 2" frame found to have a little to high of a saddle height. Did you guys find that having the suspension raised to be too tall at all? Great review!
      • 6 Years Ago
      Did Michael Bay design this bike?
      • 6 Years Ago
      Good write-up. One note though. Bimmers are cars, beemers are bikes - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bimmer#Culture
      • 6 Years Ago
      Am I the only person that instantly thought KTM when they saw the orange? :-X
        • 6 Years Ago
        strike that- its orange.. long day...
        • 6 Years Ago
        When you see the orange in person, it is a different shade than the KTM orange. Much different shade. There would be no confusion between the two makes.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Oh, there was that other motor cycle maker that has orange and black... think they're based in Wisconsin or something....
        Think BMW calls this a yellow
        • 6 Years Ago
        Orange is definitely KTM's signature color but there are a handful of other companies that use it to good effect. BMW and Triumph come to mind.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Alex, I have a friend who swears he owes his flat twin's boxer cylinder heads for being able to keep his right leg after a nasty accident that wrote of the bike. The cylinder took the weight of the bike, not his leg.

      Nice review of the GS.
      • 6 Years Ago
      That one photo shows the "special"custom seat with the view of the catus.
      • 6 Years Ago
      That's some nice air for such a heavy bike.
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