“It’s shit. And as soon as I get home I’m going to buy one.” – That was a fellow journalist’s first impression of the BMW R nineT after riding it recently. It’s a pretty accurate summary; the R nineT is somewhat ill-mannered by modern motorcycle standards but also instantly, inarguably, infatuatingly wonderful.
The R nineT was first introduced to the world back in 2013. Up until a month ago, however, I’d not had a chance to ride one because the popularity of the bike meant press models often weren’t available. Why bother to give journos a bike they might wreck when you’re selling so many you can’t keep up with demand?
Now that I finally have ridden the 1170cc air-cooled boxer-driven Bavarian retro machine, I feel pangs of sadness for all the time in which I was not riding it. Over the years, I’m sure you will have read review after review in which the author was falling over him- or herself to heap praise upon the bike. I tend to take that sort of thing with a big grain of salt, but, mis amigos, I can assure you they were right about this one.
That’s kind of a funny thing to say, though, because the bike is somewhat unruly. In an age of assist and slipper clutches, quickshifters, and such, the R nineT eschews most of that (although, ABS is standard, and these days you can get traction control as an accessory) and it will get unsettled if your riding is sloppy. On paper, it doesn’t come out looking the best. Along with its somewhat unrefined nature and lack of electronics, the bike’s engine produces “only” 110 hp, which is a little low for a BMW. Then you look at the bike’s price tag (£12,200) and you think: “Wait. What??”
But as I’ve learned over the past few years in changing my opinions of Harley-Davidson bikes, you don’t ride paper. Numbers don’t tell the whole story – especially with a bike like this, which is so engaging and so much fun.
The very first thing to love about the R nineT, of course, is its appearance. It definitely has the look of being from another time, but also manages to be modern and relevant. There are styling hints of BMWs from the mid 20th century but this isn’t a slavish adherence to old-school aesthetic. It’s not copying anything, it’s not trying to look like something else. It’s just its own beautiful thing.
Throw a leg over and the lanky guy or gal may initially feel things are a bit on the small side. That’s because they are – sort of. Certainly this isn’t really a bike for carrying passengers. As is the case with almost all bikes, the clever chap or chapette may be able to transform it into a world-crossing grunt, but most riders aren’t going to see it as a long-haul machine.
But sit there for a moment and you’ll start to change your mind about how long you want to be in the saddle. It’s actually comfortable. Really comfortable. Everything is just right: your shoulders are relaxed, your knees bent agreeably. Your body is bent forward just enough that you won’t turn into a sail above 60 mph, but you remain upright enough to handle long slogs filtering through urban gridlock.
Start up the bike and the power of its somewhat agricultural twin rocks the whole show to the right. Blending with the sound of your involuntary gleeful shouting, the exhaust has a raw, visceral note. It won’t upset the neighbors – this is still a BMW – but the growl is enough to make you want to just sit there, grinning at the sound and shake of the engine.
The famous boxer engine can divide opinion somewhat. There was a time, of course, when BMW itself was eager to get rid of it, feeling it lacked the precision for which the company sought to be known. But its fans refused to let go. Thank goodness. I’m inclined to believe they were – and still are – right to hold the engine so dear.
You’ll have to like the feeling of a big twin to like the R nineT. Fans of V-twin bikes in particular will get it. There is a thrumming sense of power that always reminds you of the fact you are sitting on a metal box of explosions. As I say, there is an agricultural sense to this older, air-cooled version of the boxer (the engine you’ll find in, say, a 2018 R 1200 GS is more refined), but remember my old adage: tractors are fucking awesome. I loved it from the very first twist of throttle.
Power delivery is relatively smooth, but if you crack the throttle out of corner you can get the bike to kick slightly to the right from the amount of power being sent to the back wheel. Looking at a stats sheet after my ride I was surprised by the bike’s 110 hp figure – I would have thought there was more. It wasn’t as ultra-springy as, say, a Triumph Speed Triple, but I certainly didn’t feel anything was lacking.
The R nineT’s transmission has an equally agricultural feel, but clicking up and down the gears is easy enough. Clutchless upshifts are possible but require a teency bit more rider skill. My Tiger Explorer has spoiled me, so I got it wrong a few times. To that end, the bike will punish you for banging down the gears too quickly. Downshift without matching revs properly and the back will kick – the shaft drive hitting you with the sort of good ol’ fashioned shaft jacking your dad used to complain about.
This is what I mean by unruly. It’s the sort of behavior you’ll want to learn to control before riding in a downpour, but on dry pavement there is something hilariously fun about it – wringing the thing for all its worth and having it kick and shudder like a not yet fully broken horse.
I’ve spent time with the modern iteration of the boxer engine, in its guise as the powerplant of a R 1200 GS, and enjoyed it but this was infinitely more engaging. I can see why some old BMW guys are so religious about their bikes.
A Joy Through Corners
Perhaps the reason the engine’s… ah… character struck me as good fun, rather than a pain in the ass, is the fact the bike’s chassis and suspension is thoroughly modern. You’re able to use all that wild, snarling power to zip through twisting roads with ease.
The engine’s low weight helps keep the bike feeling light and flickable, once again contrasting the impression you might get from a stats sheet (222 kg wet). The bike flows through corners. Despite the raw feel of the boxer twin, the throttle is smooth and reliable – so, once you acclimate to the idiosyncrasies of the overall package you can rely on it. Everything feels natural, almost physical – as if you are working in concert with a living creature rather than a machine.
The brakes are equally modern, no need to worry about idiosyncrasies here. Four-piston Brembos expertly grip the bike’s two front discs, while a two-piston set-up handles the single rear disc.
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ABS is standard but beyond that, as I say, there are very few bells and whistles. You know that when a manufacturer lists the seat among the standard items (805mm height, by the way) that it’s going to be a pretty no-frills moto.
That’s not to say there isn’t an extensive accessories, catalog however. From the get-go BMW has hoped the R nineT would inspire customization and has put together a laundry list of billeted this and machined that to help you make the bike a little bit more your own. Personally, I don’t see the point of all that. Indeed, if I were in the market for an R nineT, I might look to save £2,000 by opting for the R nineT Pure C – the same bike as the R nineT with slightly less premium bits.
One day, I may very well be in the market for this bike. I have always been a fan of the R nineT because of its aesthetic but actually riding the thing has turned me into a true believer. I now get why BMW guys are rivaled only by Harley guys in their over-the-top dedication to brand: because they have reason to be.
If you’re a person like me you might read descriptions of the R nineT and think: “No, I don’t want a bike like that, because of reasons A, B, and C. This is not for me.”
But if you get on one I’m willing to bet you’ll change your mind. Unrefined in engine performance and beautiful in all other ways the R nineT might turn out to be very much your kind of thing.
The Three Questions
Does the BMW R nineT fit my current lifestyle?
Not really. As a bike with no weather protection, no real luggage space, and minimal passenger accommodation, it’s not exactly ideal for a person with no car. There is a lot of depth in the aftermarket, however, so tweaks could be made. By the time I made them all, however, I’d have spent well in excess of the money needed for an R 1200 RT or R 1200 GS – bikes far more appropriate to my everyday needs.
Does the R nineT put a smile on my face?
Yes. The giggling and hooting I did in my helmet for every second I was on the R nineT is enough to make me daydream about making the compromises necessary to be able to answer yes to the above question about personal relevance. It is such a fun bike to ride, y’all. Such a joyful, wonderful machine. It’s so awesome that I’m actually kind of surprised BMW managed to make it. Based on most other Beemers I’ve ridden I would not have thought the company capable of allowing itself to make a bike this awesome.
Is the R nineT better than my current bike, a 2017 Triumph Tiger Explorer XRx?
Not in terms of engine refinement and utility. In terms of overall build quality, however, the BMW wins, of course. Comparing the Triumph’s turbine-like triple to the R nineT’s trundling boxer is a comical apples and oranges exercise – there is no “better” to be had in the discussion. But I think it’s fair to say the BMW also wins in most of the intangibles. You will look, sound, and feel infinitely cooler on the R nineT. Also, despite the fact it is not that much lighter, the R nineT is easier (and more fun) to hustle through corners.
Rider: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch