Test rides

2020 BMW F 900 R – First Ride

BMW gets serious about its middleweight naked, delivering a surprisingly fun, capable and affordable all-rounder

The BMW F 800 R (2009-2019) was, by BMW’s own admission, an exceedingly boring bike. With a front end strangely reminiscent of Bill the Cat and a design language that screamed “affordable” from 200 yards away, it was an ugly one, too. This was the bike of choice for that guy who shows up in every comments section to sing the praises of his 30-year-old Roadcrafter (“Never washed it!”) and insist that, actually, the Suzuki Burgman is very sporty (though, all due respect to Michael Beattie).

“Some customers really liked that bike,” BMW Product Manager Dorit Mangold told me. “But, yes, there were more customers who did not like it.”

The look of the old BMW F 800 R appeared to have an interesting inspiration

So, as part of the platform overhaul that began with the F 850 GS in 2018, the R has been radically changed: more displacement, more power, more torque, more tech, more character, and better looks. Now known as the F 900 R, it is delightfully unlike its predecessor in almost every way. Old dudes who always ride equipped with zip ties and a Leatherman will be disappointed, but for everyone else this is a bike you should be considering.

Some Numbers

Starting Price: £8,660
Monthly Payment: £179.80*
Engine: 895cc liquid-cooled inline twin
Power: 105 hp at 8,500 rpm
Torque: 92 Nm at 6,500 rpm
Seat Height: 815 mm (Higher and lower versions available at extra cost)
Tank Capacity: 13 liters
Weight: 211 kg

First Impressions

The F 900 R was first revealed to minimal fanfare at EICMA back in November, somewhat overshadowed by the introduction of the F 900 XR, an excellent motorcycle (so much so that I would choose it over the upgraded S 1000 XR) with which the R shares a lot in common: same engine, same frame, and a lot of the same component parts. But the R is not simply an XR sans fairing. It performs differently both in terms of engine characteristics and how it tackles twisty roads.

Powered by an 895cc parallel twin, the F 900 R claims roughly 100 horsepower at 8,500 rpm (99 hp is claimed on the company’s US website, whereas 105 hp is claimed on the UK site), and 92 Newton-meters of torque at 6,500 rpm. That puts it more or less in line with bikes like the Triumph Street Triple R, Kawasaki Z900 and Yamaha MT-09, the latter of which BMW singles out as competition. Out of the aforementioned bikes the BMW actually claims the fewest ponies, but makes up for it in competitive pricing and technowhizzbangery.

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I seem to have reached that stage in life where the addition of electronic tidbits on motorcycles often induces eye rolling rather than enthusiasm. So when I first learned of the F 900 R there was no trouser movement at the mention of its 6.5-inch TFT screen, (optional) adaptive headlight, app connectivity, or multitudinous riding modes. But recently BMW brought me down to Almeria, in southern Spain, to test ride the F 900 R (along with the F 900 XR and S 1000 XR) and my attitude started to change. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Like a lot of naked bikes the BMW F 900 R makes me look uncomfortable. I assure you I wasn’t

First though, as I say, the R looks much better than it did a year ago, with its polygonal headlight and muscular front end. The overall look flows better and although there is still a whiff of “reasonably priced plastic” in its aesthetic it manages to be a motorcycle you might want to be seen on.

Throw a leg over and one of the first things you notice is the stiffness of the seat. I once rode from London to Prague and back on a Harley-Davidson Street Bob without discomfort, so I would not describe myself as persnickety. But, man. This bike’s seat is challenging. I’d assume that you could get used to this, perhaps adding a few more donuts to your diet to help develop additional padding, but it did stand out to me as a problem issue on an otherwise good bike.

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Ergonomically, the F 900 R is right on the edge of comfortable for a 6-foot-1 rider like me. Dorit Mangold told me that many of the customers who liked the old F 800 R were short of leg, and the company kept them very much in mind when designing the bike’s replacement. Out of the box, the bike should be agreeable to people ranging from 5 feet 3 inches tall to 6 feet tall. If you’ve got the money, honey, BMW’s got seat heights lower and taller than the standard 815 millimeters. But, as I say: I was OK. Knee bend isn’t excessive, nor is the gentle forward lean to the bars.

The bike I rode in Almeria was, of course, the all-bells-and-whistles version, which means it had keyless start. This is a feature I would never intentionally pay for. Batteries fail. Pair this reality with the fact that steering lock is also electronic on BMW’s keyless system and you have the potential for a very frustrating afternoon. Just ask the guys at Adventure Bike Rider, who once had a R 1250 GS get stuck in a delivery van – unable to move until the battery could be charged enough to release the steering lock.

There’s something about the F 900 R that looks just a tiny bit evil. I like that

Engine, Performance and Handling

However you get the F 900 R started, it sounds lovely once running. There is a nice bark on start-up that settles into a gentle snarl at idle. Give it some beans, especially on the go, and you get a growl that sounds like an American muscle car from about a mile away. That’s a backhanded compliment, I know, but it is infinitely better than the “coffee can full of pennies” rattle emitted by the F 800 R. Folks travelling behind you will hear a deep-bass rumble as you accelerate away.

The engine’s sound – and character – comes in part because of its 270-degree firing order, which allows the parallel twin to mimic the better points of a V-twin. I like it when manufacturers do this, though I do wonder why they don’t just use actual V-twins. Perhaps Common Tread will commission Lemmy to write an article explaining why. Whatever the case, because this is a BMW there is still a sense of precision in everything. As with all BMWs, you are reminded always that you are sitting on an engineered machine that somebody spent a lot of time in college learning how to design.

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A regular criticism that people have of “professional” ride reviews like the one you’re reading now is that moto-journalists are always being flown to exotic locations – such as southern Spain – to ride in perfect conditions, thereby resulting in an inaccurate assessment. There’s some truth in that; on a sunny and warm day, far from life’s worries, literally every motorcycle is amazing. You’ll be happy to know, then, that the weather on this particular occasion was miserable. It was colder and wetter than the Welsh weather I had left behind.

“You are very lucky,” our fixer, Maria, told me. “It only rains two days a year in Almeria and you are here on those two days.”

With the exception of its too-hard seat, the F 900 R is all-day comfortable

All of which leads to my being able to tell you with great confidence that the F 900 R’s rain mode is pointless. As standard, the bike comes with two riding modes – Rain and Road – and you can pay more to get Dynamic and Dynamic Pro. You will never want to use Rain. BMW should rename it “Sadness.” Choose this mode only if your life is full of too much joy, or if you’re lending the bike to a friend and you want him or her to give up motorcycling. Road mode is much better, though a bit choppy. Blame Euro 5 regulations, I guess, but holding steady speed through corners was trickier than it needed to be.

To that end, although I didn’t get an opportunity to ride the bike in an urban situation, I suspect owners will experience a certain amount of pulsing when attempting to hold steady speed at ~30 mph. Ever since Euro 4 was introduced a few years ago a lot of bikes – in particular those with ride by wire – have struggled to deliver steady throttle.

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Dynamic mode is choppier, but good for pulling dank 12 o’ clock wheelies. Chris Moss of 44 Teeth was lofting the F 900 R’s front wheel with such enthusiasm that afterward one of BMW’s team came running over to him and literally held him by the ear as she told him off. Ostensibly Dynamic Pro mode is different than Dynamic mode but such is the subtlety in difference that I can’t tell you which is which.

In anything other than Rain mode the bike accelerates with giggle-inducing brio. With its V-twin mimicking quality, the engine thrums in a way that I find very pleasing. Your personal tastes may differ. Push the bike toward 100 mph and you’ll feel some buzzing in your feet and the seat of your pants, but it’s not annoying. The bike is downright civil at normal people speeds and, über-stiff seat aside, I was able to buy into BMW’s argument that some riders will want to use the F 900 R for light touring. For this reason, cruise control is an option. As are heated grips, which are not powerful enough in my opinion. And for which the button is annoyingly placed on the right grip; better than putting the cruise control button there, I suppose.

The F 900 R’s exhaust offers a surprisingly pleasing bassy growl

Thanks in part to optional Dynamic ESA electronic suspension the F 900 R offers a sense of solidity and steadiness on the road that belies its “affordable” place in the market. It feels like a bike that costs so much more. I’m a big fan of the chassis. My fellow moto-journalists felt it demanded slightly more effort for turn-in than necessary through corners but I found the thing reassuring. Once you’ve committed the bike doesn’t dance around trying to change your mind. Somewhere deep in the F 900 R’s soul the stalwart nature of the old 800 is there, and I’m happy with that in this case.

And certainly it makes sense in context. BMW has sexed this bike up quite a bit, but it still sees the F 900 R as something for riders experiencing their first “big” bike or for those wanting to ease themselves back into riding after some time away. Perhaps it is for them that Rain mode exists. The bike is a lot of fun for experienced riders, too, but you have to take it in stride that certain aspects are there to inspire confidence rather than facilitate hooliganism.

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Brakes, meanwhile, are soft. The rear especially. Despite the Brembo calipers gripping dual front discs and a single rear, you’ll want to make use of the engine and some forward planning when applying the whoa. I mean, it’s not as if you’re trundling around on a 1970s Triumph (“Stopping? That’s for pansies!”), but because I’ve ridden plenty of other BMWs I know the company is capable of offering a more robust set-up than this. Perhaps different brake pads would help?

Overall, though, the bike is a hell of a lot of fun – far more enjoyable than its predecessor. It’s the sort of thing you could be happy riding in a lot of different situations for a number of years. Commuting, lazy afternoons on country lanes, zipping through twisting routes, even spending a few days on the road. It’ll do all of that without complaint; certain accessories may be desired if you favor one use over the others. I would genuinely consider spending my own money on one, even though it would mean having to buy a new socket set (BMW uses torx head bolts because reasons).

The bike lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that would have you running up to friends shouting: “I JUST BOUGHT AN F 900 R!!” But there’s a desirability to it nonetheless. It is not a purchase you would regret.

The fit and finish of the F 900 R is generally very good, though you do have to put up with a lot of plastic

Bells and Whistles

One of the first things I’d do upon purchasing an F 900 R is sit down with a nice cup of hot cocoa and spend a few hours going through the owner’s manual, particularly the section aimed at helping me navigate the bike’s dizzying options menu. The infamous BMW wünderwheel is now standard on the F 900 R, with all of the clicking and spinning and pushing that entails. It contributes to a very cluttered left grip, especially if you opt for cruise control. Good luck finding the indicator button when you need it.

Still, those bells and whistles are fun, and the multiple screens offered via the TFT dash can provide some interesting information. For example, the bike’s Sport screen tracks your steepest lean angle, resetting each time you restart the bike. This became a fun game for Bike Social’s John Milbank and me, each of us trying to best the other. My best lean was 47 degrees; John managed 44. Mike Armitage of Bike topped us both with 49.

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The potential for disaster in providing such information is obvious; get some guys competing against one another and eventually one will tip the bike into a lowside. But it also provided some valuable food for thought. I learned that I lean far further on my left side than my right. Initially I assumed this meant I am more comfortable on my left, but upon paying attention to my riding I realized the opposite was true. I am far more comfortable hanging off the right side of the bike, which means the bike itself stays more upright (and, as such, has more traction). My lean was steeper on the left because I was tipping the bike over more, unwilling to really put my body into the turn. So, technowhizzbangery has provided me with information that may help me improve my riding.

Probably you could learn some equally useful stuff by poring through all the data you’ll get if you connect your phone to the bike via BMW’s app. Certainly the minutiae of data offered is interesting. Milbank served as guinea pig for the feature (the rest of us too lazy to set it up on our phones) and was able to go through his ride in real time as we sat at the bar. We could see his speed through every corner, even spot the times he had deployed ABS (I didn’t understand his explanation, but apparently activating ABS right before a corner helps you look better in photos). I don’t know if we need this, but it is fascinating and it speaks to the fact the F 900 R is no longer an old-man bike.

The F 900 R is definitely better looking than its predecessor

In Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Brexitania the F 900 R starts at £8,660. That puts it safely below the £8,899 Kawasaki Z900 and the £8,900 Triumph Street Triple R, as well as the £8,745 Yamaha MT-09. Of course, to get the super spiffy version you see me riding in the photos you’d be looking at a price tag of £11,000. But considering all you get, I’d argue the F 900 R is still a good buy. The F 800 R is dead, long live the F 900 R.

The Three Questions

Does the BMW F 900 R fit my current lifestyle?
Yes. This would be an excellent choice for me. Well suited to easy commuting, perfectly happy to get a hustle on when I’m feeling spirited, and equally capable of being bedecked in Kriega bags for a road trip, the F 900 R is ideal for pretty much everything I want to do on a motorcycle. (Or, at least, everything I want to do on a motorcycle that I’ve paid for; I’m happy to take someone else’s bike off road).

Does the BMW F 900 R put a smile on my face?
Yes. As I say, its styling means it still lacks a little something in in its LOOK AT ME factor, but it is still a very fun motorcycle to ride and to listen to.

Is the BMW F 900 R better than my current bike, a Triumph Bonneville T120?
Yes, easily. With the possible exception of an ability to encourage old men to strike up conversations with me, the F 900 R does all the things my Triumph can do, but with more power, tubeless tires, a chain that can be adjusted without you having to remove both exhausts, more technowhizzbangery, and a lower price tag – even with all the bells and whistles.

Rider Stats

Rider: Chris Cope
Height: 18.25 hands
Weight: 12 stone

Helmet: Shoei Neotec II
Jacket: Hideout Touring
Pants: Hideout Hybrid
Gloves: Dainese Universe Gore-Tex
Boots: Dainese Tempest
Backpack: Kriega R20


* 48-month hire purchase with £1,500 deposit, at BMW’s current advertised rate of 9.9-percent APR

Portions of this article were originally published on Common Tread