REVIEW: 2015 BMW R nineT – old-new classic custom

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So, you want a cafe racer. You want a bobber. You want to channel your inner hipster and replicate exactly what every hipster in the world is doing, with a HD video of a wooden-walled garage, unnecessary sparks flying from a grinding wheel.

In which case, BMW Motorrad has your hipster wanna-be biker dreams covered with the 2015 R nineT. Or, you could look beyond the intended market for this bike, grab that very last of the air-cooled boxer twins, and put it into an updated frame with modern rolling gear and – oh, wait – BMW already did that with the R1200R, with semi-active suspension, no less.

So, why does this throwback to BMW’s ’70s styling exist, apart from Motorrad’s marketing department trying to fill every possible market niche, and in the process grab a few dollars more? Well, for a start, motorcycles, in general, have become very sophisticated pieces of machinery.

From the use of ABS on motorcycles, some bikes, including many of those in BMW Motorrad’s range, use a variety of technical and electronic aids to improve the riding experience, especially in terms of safety. Some riders say this distracts from the essence of riding a motorcycle, in that the rider is the one in charge of every aspect of the bike’s behaviour.

The R nineT has none of these, save ABS. So, does this make this less of a motorcycle? Does it detract from what a modern motorcycle is supposed to be? Or is this just a clever marketing ploy that caters to the image of what a motorcycle is supposed to be?

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As its most basic, a motorcycle is just an engine, frame, two wheels, suspension, a fuel tank and a seat. Sure, fairings and bodywork add to the looks, and protection from the wind, but at its essence, motorcycles are about the connection between the machine, the rider and the road.

The R nineT definitely fits the mould in this regard. While the R nineT looks somewhat hefty in the brochures with that massive painted and bare-finish aluminium fuel tank, the bike itself is physically small.

Getting on the retro-styled R nineT will be easy for any rider, its 785 mm seat height seeing to that. The two-piece seat is broad at the back for the rider, and cut narrow in front, making it easy to get both feet down. The rear seat piece is designed to be easily removable, for customisation purposes.

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Seated on the R nineT, the round-bar handlebars fall to hand easily, and the sweep and layback put the hands and wrists in a natural riding position. BMW has obviously put some thought into the ergonomics of this naked bike, as the switchgear and controls fall under the rider’s fingers, comfortably.

Starting the R nineT uses a key – no Keyless Ride here, unlike the R1200R we tested recently. Starting is quick, with the 1,200 cc air/oil-cooled fuel-injected boxer rumbling into life with no fuss. With 110 hp at 7,550 rpm, and 119 Nm at 6,000 rpm on tap, the R nineT is no slouch in the power stakes, because numbers like these were in the realm of full-on superbikes not that long ago.

Riding off on the R nineT immediately re-acquainted the author with something he thought he’d left behind with the 1984 800 G/S he rode some time back – the engine torque reaction to the throttle being whacked open. Torque reaction is when the engine rotates in its mountings in response to building crankshaft and flywheel speed.

Most noticeable when the bike is stationary, engine torque reaction – which is a fun thing to watch in big V-eight muscle cars – is not much fun in a motorcycle that only weighs 222 kg wet. Compared to the R1200R, which uses pretty much the same engine, the R nineT shows a lot more torque reaction than its naked sportster sibling.

It is obvious that BMW Motorrad engineers ‘designed’ the torque reaction back into the R nineT, something that was tamed in BMW’s boxers, starting with the GS-series bikes from 15 years ago. Why did BMW Motorrad do such a thing? The only answer we have is “character.”

This certainly does make the R nineT entertaining to ride, without the experience being in any way inherently dangerous. A rider will soon get used to it, and anticipate the engine movement in response to throttle opening. While riding, keeping the big boxer on song and in the right gear to match road speed minimises or eliminates the response.

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Letting the engine lug in too high a gear will make the torque reaction much more noticeable, so adjust your riding style to suit. The huge amount of torque from the engine makes lazy gear shifting that much easier though, with the engine being quite tractable even at low speeds in top gear.

Taking our usual test loop through the canyons and up the mountain, the R nineT displayed surprisingly good road manners, taking the tight corners of Ulu Yam quite well, except for one thing. There is no slipper clutch or traction control in the R nineT’s bag of tricks.

In fact, there is nothing at all, except ABS. This meant that aggressive downshifts while charging into corners would cause the rear wheel to lock and step out. We have to admit, riding more than a few modern super- and sports-bikes have made us a little blase about things like keeping the rear wheel under control, letting the bike’s electronics take care of business.

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For the R nineT, care has to be taken to match road speed to gearing, especially at the speeds the boxer engine is capable of putting out. This was like an instant refresher lesson in riding big sportsbikes from about 20 years ago, when the most sophisticated thing you got on a sportsbike was mirrors that folded back.

This does not mean the R nineT is in any way a handful to ride. It isn’t. The boxer engine was supremely tractable, and very smooth, developing power in a very controlled manner. The ride-by-wire throttle let the rider choose, instantly and without hesitation, what he or she needed the bike to do.

Acceleration was, like its R1200R sibling, almost like a jet turbine, the speed building through the gears in a constant fashion, and with no sputters, stumbles or hesitation. And smooth, did we already say smooth? If anything, BMW Motorrad could give lessons on how to program an EFI’s fuel mapping to certain other manufacturers.

Cruising along on the highways, at just above legal speeds, was what the R nineT did well. The seat provided support in all the right places, and vibration through the bars and pegs was not intrusive, although noticeable. Again, we’re putting this down to BMW Motorrad wanting to give the bike some “character.”

Attacking the corners on the R nineT was a lot of fun, especially for riders who know what they’re doing. Handling was stable whether in fast sweepers or tight hairpins, the bike responding to inputs at the handlebars predictably.

The suspension is well-thought out, and this is a blessing, because the front forks are up-side down 46 mm units with 120 mm of travel, and no adjustment. At medium to high speeds, the damping and rebound was almost spot-on, but at low speeds, lots of movement could be felt, especially on bumpy roads.

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At the back, BMW’s Paralever design does the job, and does it well. With a single shock adjustable for preload and rebound, this was necessary to bring rear-wheel hop and chatter under control during downshifts. The rear will step out quickly, but once the rider is used to the reaction, and can anticipate it by controlling the throttle, all is well.

One of the things we didn’t like about the R nineT was the frame. Not because it didn’t perform, it was nicely stiff and kept the bike tracking straight and true, but the fact that the steel-tube trellis frame affair seemed a bit of a let-down, considering how much money Motorrad wants for the R nineT.

Now, we appreciate the fact that the raison d’être of the R nineT is as a customiser’s bike. The owner is meant to purchase the bike, and stamp his or her personality on it. To that end, the rear sub-frame, a welded together collection of steel tubes, comes off with the removal of eight bolts, and the tail-light assembly with four.

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This is to allow easy modification of the rear sub-frame area, for the installation of single-seats, up-swept exhausts and the like. The single-sided swingarm obviously facilitates this. But, for what is considered to be a premium brand, it makes the R nineT look cobbled together as it comes in standard form.

Things may be different overseas, where the buy-in price for a bike like the R nineT isn’t prohibitive, and allows for a customiser to chop and change things to their heart’s content. In Malaysia, where the on-the-road price of the R nineT easily runs into six figures, well, this would require second, third and fourth thoughts.

Being a naked retro-styled motorcycle, the R nineT is obviously not going to win any speed records, but suffice it to say, high-speed cruising is not out of the question, with a figure of “over 200 km/h” quoted on Motorrad’s website. Although Motorrad doesn’t include a windscreen in its range of accessories for the R nineT, a simple after-market fairing or shield will make cockpit accommodations more liveable.

Speaking of the cockpit, minimalism is the order of the day for the R nineT in terms of instruments. All you get is a pair of large dials – tachometer and speedometer with a little LCD screen in the middle, providing the basic information on the bike and systems. The instruments were clear and legible, and small tell-tale lights provide the necessary warnings.

Being pretty much an urban bike, the R nineT did prove capable of some serious highway mile-munching, with a single-day trip over a 330 km mix of highways and good inter-town roads being dealt with zero fuss. The saddle was firm, and as earlier stated, nicely shaped to allow for long hours of riding.

Long-distance cruising is indeed a BMW Motorrad trademark, and almost all its bikes are capable of this, the R nineT being no exception. The addition of a pair of saddlebags would make the R nineT a good daily rider, weekend light tourer, and even for cross-border trips.

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The very handsome aluminium fuel tank, painted black with brushed aluminium sides, holds 18-litres, with three in reserve. Fuel consumption was about 4.8 litres/100 km, good enough for about 370-ish km of range. This was in no way an objective fuel consumption test, so your mileage will certainly vary.

BMW Motorrad sells the R nineT for RM99,888, including GST and registration, excluding insurance. Only one colour is available, Black Storm metallic.

Designed to appeal to a very specific type of rider, the BMW Motorrad R nineT is a retro-styled bike that comes with the bare minimum of what would be expected on a premium class litre-plus bike. With only ABS available as standard, the R nineT misses all the riding aids, making this very much a motorcycle from about a decade ago, from an engineering point of view.

This is not a bad thing, as there is a group of riders out there who very much appreciate a motorcycle like this, and certainly its engine characteristics and low seat height make it appealing to a segment of riders. It is somewhat newbie friendly, and an easy-to-ride bike.

Putting the R nineT into daily use for commuting poses no problems, as would using it for weekend rides, either long-distance or sporty. For a new rider stepping up to the litre-class, the R nineT gives off a laid-back, suave vibe. Customisers would definitely appreciate the semi-blank canvas presented by the R nineT.

For the author? The choice is easy, the BMW Motorrad R1200R, with ride modes and dynamic damping, goes for RM1,000 less.

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Mohan K Ramanujam

Coming with diverse and extensive experience in heavy engineering, Mohan enjoys making anything with wheels go fast, especially motorcycles. His weapon of choice is the Desmoquattro engine, and he has a penchant for anything with a dash of Italian design. Strangely enough, he insists he's a slow rider.

 

Comments

  • Abang Loong: Can. but at 20% interest, compounded. Mau?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2
  • Nice report! But: Those who never drove a BMW boxer, don’t know what “engine torque reaction” is… ;)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3
  • keluangman on Apr 22, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Nice write up Mohan! There’s always something different when a truly seasoned rider reviewed a bike in comparison to the newbies yuppy rider, whereby all they cared for is how pretty the bike looked and how fast it goes, and missing out all the minute details of the bike.

    Btw, I’d just loved the retro look(and feel, based on your revie) of RnineT compared to the uber modern R1200R. Give me the RnineT anyday!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
 

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