All-rounders: Winner stays on
Nine manufacturers have spent 18 years trying to topple BMW’s GS. Steve Rose ponders why.
BMW’s 1994 R1100GS was a weird looking thing with a beak (that pushed air to an oil cooler under the headlight). The new GS had Telelever wishbone front suspension, fuel injection, shaft drive, tubeless radials on spoked wheels, optional ABS and brilliant luggage. Everyone who rode one loved it. A big trail bike that didn’t flounder on soft suspension, didn’t squirm round corners and was as comfy two-up, touring Europe as it was confident attacking B-road hairpins.
Hinckley’s original Tiger had actually arrived a year before the R1100GS and was tall, heavy – like an Africa twin on steroids. The Tiger got a revamp in 1999 and by 2002 everyone was at it. Honda, Aprilia, Suzuki and Triumph again, with a revamped, more road-focused 955cc Tiger. All good bikes but only the Tiger came close on sales charts.
BMW has always been different. When others made parallel twins, BMW did Boxers, when others put four cylinders across the frame, BMW laid them down in a line.
BMW was first to adopt fuel injection, first to fit ABS, first to make alternative suspension acceptable and first to understand that a heavyweight trail bike had to be more than just a super-sized smaller one.
Every single GS rival has been better than the BMW on paper. More power, less weight (until now), stiffer chassis, more adjustable suspension. But they’ve all failed because they’ve all assumed that better is, er, better. Honda or Triumph would never build a bike like this because on paper it’s just plain wrong. But by the law of averages, when you build your bikes to be different, as BMW has always done, at some point you’ll hit the spot. It’s easy to forget that apart from the equally brilliant RT models none of the modern BMW twins sell in any kind of numbers.
But the GS and RT work for two reasons. Firstly, they are the best handling touring bikes you can buy because the Telelever front suspension gives comfort and control. But secondly and most importantly, they have soul. Nothing else on earth feels like a BMW Boxer. And in the same way that pie and mash might not be the poshest meal, in the same way that a valve-driven Marshall guitar amp might not be as technically advanced as the latest digital humdingers, in the same way that the barmaid in your local boozer might not be as surgically perfect as those Hollywood pin-ups, the things we want most aren’t always the ones with the highest spec.
It doesn’t matter how high tech the opposition gets because the GS tickles our biking funny bones and BMW knows, that once you’re hooked all it needs to do is keep improving the existing formula and when trade in time comes, you’ll be back to your welcoming BMW dealer to swap for the latest model. The R1150GS was significantly better than the 1100. The 1200 was lighter and more powerful than the 1150 and the much-rumoured water-cooled R1200 replacement will still be a GS at heart.
The Honda, Ducati and Triumph are all better bikes. I know this because the numbers don‘t lie. But, right now, the GS is the one that I want.
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