InsideBikes 2004 R1200GS Review

InsideBikes 2004 R1200GS Review Editor Alastair Walker went along on a BMW dealer Ride-Out, with Williams BMW in Manchester, to assess how good the new 1200 GS model is in the real world of moorland B roads, crazy Sunday drivers and random dollops of cow dung.

For me, there’s only been one benchmark machine by which any `all-rounder’ motorbike is judged; the R1100-1150GS series.

Ever since I first rode the old five speed 1100cc model back in the mid 1990s, I’ve been a big fan of the giant machine and a jealous onlooker as others with more disposable income than myself have bought them new. Even a used BMW GS machine is hard to find, unless you want something that’s already been to Timbuktu and back.

You see, that’s the thing with this bike – it’s so damn addictive to ride, each and every day. In many ways, it is the ultimate despatchers machine, although it would be a crime to destroy one of the new 1200 GS models by hacking your way around London, delivering various legal and financial documents, which would normally be stolen by identity fraudsters casually employed by Royal Mail.

For the launch test reports are true, the new 1200 GS is a completely different animal from its predecessors and in every way, it is transforming itself into a superb touring/commuting motorbike, whilst retaining the heart of the old `Range Rover on two wheels’ concept. For example, the new bike has the most stunning set of cast alloy wheels I have seen on a BMW in many a long year, but you can choose spoked wheels, metal box type panniers etc for a trip to say North Africa, where repair of a cast wheel – or replacement – might be a problem. This is still a big adventure bike, even if its latest guise makes more suited to a sedate trundle around the Lake District, instead of a mad race to Dakar.

The new features like the digital fuel injection system, the slicker six speed gearbox, mated to a brand new, ultra lightweight transmission, the balancer shaft inside the engine, the new hi-tech electrical system etc. all make this a bike which is easier to live with than ever.

The new 1200 GS looks and feels much lighter, and lower than before. `Normal’sized people now fit this bike and it does more mpg, accelerates crisper, handles and brakes better. Hell, it even looks almost stylish, in a skeletal, bird-like kinda way.The bike is not only lighter on paper, it also feels much less `top heavy’ than the old model – at all speeds. On any kind of Sunday leisure road, is pretty damn close to perfection.

Ask yourself what is the nature of the thing, what does it do?
That was the question ancient Greek and Roman philosophers asked themselves, between groping slaves in bath houses, and it’s still a good point to start from when designing a motorcycle.

BMW wisely listened to many of their gently crumbling 50-something customers and made the new GS 66lbs lighter, which is an astonishing achievement in any designer’s CV. That alone makes the GS easier to paddle around greasy petrol station forecourts ( which is where approximately 17% of all motorcycles fall over, according to a recent survey, which I dreamed up on the loo… ), as well improving the agility of the bike in town traffic. The lower seat is narrower too, especially for the rider and this allowed a 30 inch inside leg shorthouse like myself to get both feet on the deck – something I couldn’t quite do on the old 1100-1150 series. As you age, this stuff matters more and more, as your creaking frame protests at the various rigours of biking.

The massive 20 litre gas tank remains, giving an excellent fuel range and on the Ride-Out from Manchester to Yorkshire and back, it only needed fuel towards the end of the trip, after some 160 miles had been covered. The fuel injection also gives a smoother ride, especially when picking up in a high gear, plus there’s none of the popping and banging which the old 1100 series bikes used to emit on a trailing throttle.

The new frame looks almost Ducati-esque, with its tubular skeleton poking out all over the place. The 1200 GS also feels a more accomplished machine in the corners, more precise, although that’s probably partly due to the lack of weight which the suspension and frame have to cope with. There’s still a commanding view of the road ahead, but the 1200 GS doesn’t feel such a towering, top-heavy machine as it once did, which is all good news. The brakes also have more `feel’ at the lever and you can hustle the bike impressively fast along smooth A roads, easily keeping up with the average sportbike rider. In all, I felt more confident, more trusting towards the bike than its 1150 GS predecessor, even though that was a good handling machine.

I would say that on the faster sections of A roads in Yorkshire, the new 5 way adjustable screen also gave better wind protection, which is again something I value now much more at the age of 46 than I did when I was biking aged 26. The screen is an odd shape, but works well, even at motorway speeds. One last detail; when we parked up at Bolton Abbey for lunch I noticed the bike was a tad easier to get onto its centre-stand, another definite plus point.

For all its new features, the impressive road manners and the undeniable comfort the 1200 GS offers, it still looks a bit ugly I reckon. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m baffled why a company which can make a beautifully aggressive 6 series car, or the M3 Coupe, can also create this spiky triumph of engineering over art. It is better looking than older GS models, but not by much and the colour schemes are still too drab, too dark – too German, to be blunt. Style matters, ask a Ducati or Harley owner…they are in love with the look, the feel, the noise of the thing. That’s another area where the GS still loses out – it sounds a bit flat, even when revved up and somehow it lacks the `music’ that a bike like say a ZX6-R, a Ducati 749 or even a Triumph Speed Triple can emit. For me, all things matter because they help define the experience of a motorcycle, the visceral thrill that all that power and technology tempts me with – the GS should look and sound like the biggest adventure tourer on the planet. Instead, it still has an image which is closer to Lego-land, than Overland To Leningrad…

Just one idea for BMW’s Marketing Dept; try offering UK customers an optional classic 70s `smoke gold’ BMW paint scheme for the new 1200 GS -it might do the business…
But the substance of the bike can’t be criticized much – it performed brilliantly on a long day’s ride and yes, I would still love to own one – smoke gold paint or not. As a long distance runner, the 1200 GS is a tour-de-force, a well thought out concept which has set a new standard for the likes of Honda’s Varadero, the Suzuki V-Strom and Aprilia Caponord to aim for.

The BMW also has the advantage of holding its resale value like virtually no other motorbike in the topsy-turvy UK market…you can always find ten buyers for your clean, reasonable mileage, accessorized GS Beemer. That alone will sway many a biker who is wise enough to know that taking a three grand depreciation hit on a rival model is a non-starter. Those who mockingly refer to BMWs as `tractors are often the same people who are riding around on used bikes which have shed 60% of their new value in two or three years.

So yes, one day I will prise a fat loan from the bank and buy what I consider to be the best, most practical, big fun 1200cc motorcycle on the market. That’s right, I did use the word `fun’ just then and no, it wasn’t ironic. A blat across the Pennines on the 1200 GS left me grinning and totally relaxed under my Arai, and nobody could stay with the bike on the twisty stuff either – the GS is still the boss for me, a future classic, a machine for living your dreams.
Try one tomorrow, you might like it.