by Victor and Tammy Wanchena
We were sweeping south through a small valley. Tall trees lined the road and as we crested a small hill, there before us rose the Alps. Craggy peaks with snow-capped tops were strung out before us. This was a unique and wonderful opportunity. A trip for my wife and I to visit a friend in Munich was dovetailed nicely with a road test of the BMW R1200RT on its home turf, the Alps. There’s an old adage that says to truly understand a motorcycle it must be ridden where it’s built. The Bavarian Alps, courtesy of BMW, were about to help me understand their sport touring tradition.
The concept of the modern sport-touring bike was created by BMW over thirty years ago and has been subtly refined ever since. The original R100RT was the embodiment of refined travel by motorcycle. Our R1200RT is the fourth generation of the venerable RT line and was introduced in 2005, representing a re-design from the ground up. Very little was carried over from its predecessors; mainly the design concepts of a world-class sport-tourer. That recipe includes a large boxer motor, full coverage fairing suitable for touring, ample storage, and sharp handling characteristics.
The previous generation of RTs had been well received and enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest sport touring motorcycles available. Ignoring the advice to not fix what isn’t broken, BMW applied the theory of sportbike construction to the RT. Make it lighter and make it more powerful. Putting the bike on a crash diet yielded a claimed weight loss of 44 pounds. That brings the RT down to a svelte, claimed dry weight of only 502 pounds. The other side of the equation was to ask the engineers for more power. They happily obliged, adding 15 horsepower over the previous RT. These two changes make this RT a truly all-new motorcycle.
The motor for the RT is the 1170cc flat twin “boxer” motor, BMW’s trademark power plant. Originally seen in the R1200GS, BMW increased the rated horsepower of the motor to 110, and the torque to 85 ft-lbs. This was done mainly with hotter cams, a larger airbox, and by bumping the compression ratio up to a hefty 12.0 to 1. These changes were not a substantive redesign of the GS motor, rather the engineers simply retuned it for the RT. It uses a new engine management system, which can independently monitor and adjust each cylinder. The result is a very smooth running motor, with none of the surging felt on older boxers. Our tester worked like a charm, the computer compensating for the wide range in temperatures and altitude. BMW recommends you use premium fuel in the RT. For those concerned about the high compression ratio and the poor quality fuel that can be found in some remote locales, fear not. The engine management system includes a knock sensor that can compensate for low octane fuel.
Other details on the motor include a balance shaft and four valves per cylinder. The gear driven balance shaft helps remove any vibration from the motor. We can attest to this, as the RT was the smoothest large twin we have ridden. The cams are run via a chain connected to the balance shaft, and lay below the cylinders, mid-way to the head. BMW favors this mid-cam design, as it helps reduce the overall width of the motor. They also continue to favor an air/oil cooling system, with the 4 plus quarts of oil doing double duty as engine coolant/lubricant.
The RT boasts a new six-speed gearbox. The gears are now a helical cut; a fancy way to say they are quiet and the transmission is smooth. The clutch is a hydraulically run, single plate dry clutch. Simple and effective, the dry clutch is not unlike what’s found in many cars. The final drive is a shaft running through an updated version of BMW’s patented Para-lever rear suspension.
BMW has been reputed to have design issues with their final drive. This is largely an overstatement of anecdotal stories about failures and the unfortunate consequence of an over-reporting of the problem. A quick troll through internet discussion boards finds many posts about inevitable final drive failures. At the risk of being a BMW apologist, these are more evidence of our demands as consumers than a faulty design. We have come a very long way from the era of constant tinkering to keep our motorcycles running.
The engine is hung, as a stressed member, from a cast aluminum frame. The sub-frames for the front and rear are built from tubular steel. This is standard setup for BMW, and does the job nicely by providing a stiff, compact frame.
The ride of the RT is supple and responsive. BMW continues to use the patented Tele-lever front suspension coupled with Para-lever rear. The suspension was very nice, soaking up all but the sharpest bumps. The bike stays planted in the corners, and really inspires confidence in the rider; even when loaded up. Our bike was equipped with the optional Electronic Suspension Adjustment. This allows you to electronically tailor the spring preload and damping on the suspension. It also has some presets to allow you to quickly change between settings. To be honest, we never fooled with the suspension much, other than to put it on the two-up touring preset.
The braking system is BMW’s newest form of the partially integrated ABS. Gone is the power assist which gave awesome braking power, but poor control. The new system applies both the front and the rear brake when you squeeze the front brake lever. The rear brake pedal only activates the rear brake. The brakes have much better feel than the old power assisted brakes, but still offer the safety of an ABS system.
The integral fairing is well designed and provides ample weather protection. The angular shape and position of the fairing panels give the RT a very futuristic look. Our first impression was to wonder if it was all style, little function. But once on the road, we were quickly fans of the RT’s weather protection. The fairing is wide enough to protect your legs and feet from rain and wind. The mirrors are integrated into the fairing and act as hand guards by channeling the wind around them. The electrically adjustable windscreen was the cherry on the sundae. It allows the rider to tailor how much air is moving over them. We really appreciated this when moving from slow city traffic into the cool temps of high elevation.
Storage on the RT was fantastic. At 39 liters, the color matched side cases can swallow a small duffle bag and are standard equipment for the RT. You can remove the side cases and carry them like a suitcase, but removal is more cumbersome than simply removing the contents. Several aftermarket sources now offer bag liners sized and shaped to fit the bags exactly. The side cases sealed tight and kept their contents dry, despite constant rain and snow for portions of our ride in the Alps. For those needing more storage, an optional 49-liter top case is available. Strangely, it’s available only in silver and none of the motorcycle paint colors, but does come with a keyed the same as the ignition and side cases. We found the space ample for a pair of tourists spending 5 days on the road.
The final piece of luggage available is the tank bag designed specially for the RT by BMW. I can’t say enough good things about it. Having struggled with poorly shaped or ill-fitting tank bags for years, I was in love with this bag. BMW has hit a home run with this one. The secret is a molded plastic base, that clips into metal rails attached to the bike. It locks onto these rails with a positive click of the latch. Removal is just as easy, using a single button to unlatch it. It expands large enough to fit a full-face helmet, and has a large map window on the top. The interior features a waterproof, drawstring liner. This simple, effective design was like the Holy Grail of tank bags to us.
The touring equipment is rounded out by features that that are becoming harder to live without. The electronic cruise control worked flawlessly and helps alleviate a tired right hand. Not much use in mountains, the cruise was heaven sent on the long drone up the Autobahn when returning to Munich. The optional heated seats and handgrips were great for pouring heat back into our body when the temperature dropped. On high, the seats got so warm we felt like a couple of burgers slowly sizzling on the grill. We opted to run them on the low power setting when needed.
An optional radio was also installed. A far cry from the cheesy Sparkomatic stereo jammed into the fairing of old touring bikes, the RT’s radio is fully integrated into the fairing panel and has handlebar mounted controls. It includes a CD player as well for those remote areas where the only stations favor polka music. The only downside of this option is the lofty price of $1,490. Ouch!
The gauges are a large speedo and tach that flank the warning lights and the driving computer. The gauges were very easy to read, though the warning lights got a little dim in bright sunlight. The optional driving computer provides a wide array of information. Fuel level, odometer, trip meters, gear indicator, air temperature and the list goes on. I really liked the range-to-empty feature, especially on a bike I wasn’t really familiar with. It gave us peace of mind when planning fuel stops; even with the 7-gallon tank. A feature not installed on our bike was the tire pressure monitor. It might be a luxury, but not fretting about a puncture catching you off guard is one less worry when traveling
Our test bike also features the BMW Navigator. It is a GPS built by Garmin for BMW, and is available on most new BMW models. We normally tour using paper maps, but we were instantly won over by the Navigator’s ability to route us in and out of towns. Trying to find our way through the confusing web of unmarked roads in Europe could have meant many wrong turns much cursing. Instead we simply input our destination via a touch screen and let the Navigator do the routing. It has many features, too many to list here. But one of our favorites was being able to take a detour off the planned route and the GPS would reroute on the fly. This allowed us to concentrate on the ride, not a map. For touring riders in a foreign land, this was like having a local guide with us.
Our only gripe is the new wiring for the accessory sockets. They are now run through a high tech relay system that will cut power to any item on the bike if the brain senses high current draw. Nice because it eliminates fuses, but for the accessory sockets that equaled 5 amps or less than the juice needed to run an electric vest. The popularity of these for riders makes it seem only logical to have the sockets powerful enough to handle this de rigueur accessory.
As we began to pick our way into the high alpine roads of Austria, the RT really came its element. The taut but supple suspension, the powerful motor, and the comfort of a touring bike were at home. Adapting from the Autobahn, to miles of sweeping corners, to intricate mountain switchbacks, the RT simply ate them up. The RT always tracked where it was pointed. The weight savings and the horsepower boost transformed the RT from a competent sport-tourer into an exciting sport/touring machine.
Sitting in a neutral position, the rider picks their line and goes. As we picked our way up a particularly nasty set of switchbacks, it became apparent to us why the BMW likes a tall first gear. It was the perfect gear for pulling the bike up and around tight alpine roads. Power was always ample, even when sprinting onto the Autobahn. We found it to be the perfect vehicle for soaking in the beauty of the Alps.
The thorough integration of all the bike’s systems really lets both rider and passenger enjoy the ride. The blend of luxury and safety features with performance equals a world-class, sport-touring motorcycle. We felt equally at home riding fast through sweeping mountain corners, or dodging distracted Italian drivers. Thank you again to BMW for the generous loan of the RT and the chance to experience the Alps in style.