Test rides

2020 BMW F 900 XR – First Ride

Middleweight sport tourer is better (and less expensive) than its bigger sibling

I used to own a Triumph Tiger Explorer XRX, which I thought was pretty spiffy until I spent a few weeks touring Scotland on a Tiger 800 XRT. The smaller Tiger was demonstrably better at doing everything I wanted to do – lighter, more nimble, and more broadly usable. I felt like a fool for having spent so much money on the bigger bike and ultimately the shame led to my selling it.

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I’ve observed similar phenomena with other manufacturers. To my mind, the Ducati Multistrada 950 is more enjoyable than its 1260 sibling, for example. We tend to assume that the bigger, more powerful, more tech-laden (and more expensive) thing is the better thing. But that’s not always the case.

Enter the F 900 XR, BMW’s all-new “mid-size” sport-touring motorcycle built on the same platform as the F 900 R – both bikes sharing the same engine, drivetrain and frame. It is positioned as the “little brother” of the imperfectly cuckoo S 1000 XR, but powered by a hooligan 895cc twin rather than the 1000’s fire-breathing 999cc inline four. Having ridden both XRs back to back I can emotionally understand the “This one goes to 11” appeal of the larger machine, but if it were my money on the line I’d not think twice of opting for the F 900 XR. Lighter, with a lower center of gravity, more flickable and more fun to ride like an idiot on, it is, in my opinion, the easy choice – especially when you take into account that its starting price is more than £4,500 less.

Chris Cope on BMW F 900 XR
For real-world use the F 900 XR is an overall better package than the bigger XR

SOME NUMBERS

Starting Price: £9,825
Monthly Payment*: £209.11
Engine: 895cc DOHC liquid-cooled inline twin
Power: 105 hp at 8,500 rpm
Torque: 92 Nm at 6,500 rpm
Seat Height: 825 mm standard. Optional heights: 775 mm, 795 mm, 840 mm, 845 mm, 870 mm
Tank Capacity: 15.5 liters
Weight: 219 kg

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The engine and price are arguably the F 900 XR’s KSPs, to use marketing jargon, but there’s a lot to like elsewhere. And perhaps some to question, as well. Aesthetically, the bike is similar to its S 1000 XR sibling but in an awkward way. In photos it looks like what you’d get if Kawasaki had been in charge of design. Paint this thing lime green and it would easily fit in the Japanese brand’s line-up. Fortunately, that doesn’t come through as strongly in person. In the metal, the bike is something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to be caught riding: sizable and well put together, with the quality of fit and finish you’d expect from BMW. Plasticky but not cheap. Though, I’ll admit I’m not entirely won over. I don’t hate the look but equally I haven’t been filling up my Instagram feed with pics of it. The F 900 XR is obviously what became of the 9cento concept that we saw in 2018. Feel free to discuss whether the end product is better or worse than the initial idea. I’m somewhat caught in the middle on this one.

Throw a leg over and the first thing you’ll notice is the firmness of the seat; it’s on par with a piece of wood. A nice, fresh slab of pine, perhaps – you know, with just a little bit of give – but a piece of wood nonetheless. As with the bigger XR, the seat more or less locks you in place and sparks questions in my mind about suitability as an all-day multi-day touring machine. More research is necessary, obviously. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit I had been chatting with BMW about doing a long-term feature for Adventure Bike Rider magazine. That’s looking markedly less likely now. In the meantime, BMW says softer seats are available as an option – as are taller and shorter seats. Standard seat height is 825mm but it’s possible to go as low as 775 mm, or as high as 870 mm, with several options between. At 6 feet 1 inch tall, I found the standard seat height tolerable, though I might opt for a taller saddle if I were an owner.

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Overall ergonomics are sound: upright adventure-style riding position with a relaxed knee bend. Hands settle naturally on the handlebar. The grips are cluttered with buttons and switches and dials but none of them are difficult to reach. In theory, you could put in a lot of miles this way. One minor whinge that may or may not annoy anyone else, though: I found the handlebar to be quite narrow. Wearing winter gloves, things just occasionally felt clumsy – with the grip sort of disappearing in my hand. But, hey, I like riding Harleys; their handlebars are as thick as lampposts.

Bring your feet up and slow-speed maneuvers are stress-free thanks to a relatively low center of gravity and easy steering. Open the throttle and you get a rattling that is not as aggressive or bassy as on the naked F 900 R. There’s a decent snarl but one that reminds you that you’re on a bike engineered by people from a country that has laws against mowing the lawn on Sundays (lest you annoy neighbors). It’s OK – not anemic – but won’t have you blipping the throttle in tunnels. It is especially underwhelming at high revs. Fortunately, the bike makes up for its lack of aural pleasure with things that matter.

Chris Cope on 2020 BMW F 900 XR
It looks like a Japanese bike but has very European sensibilities

ENGINE, PERFORMANCE AND HANDLING 

The new F 900 bikes are roughly an extension of the parallel twin platform overhaul that began in 2018 with the F 850 GS. The GS has slightly less capacity than the F 900 XR but it, too, is configured with a 270-degree crank, which means V-twin character. Readers’ opinions will vary, of course, but I love a V-twin, and there’s no arguing that the new engine is more thrilling than the F 800 platform it replaces. I mean, did you ever ride the F 800 GT? On paper it wasn’t an awful idea – I even wanted one for a while – but then I got out on the road with the thing and thought: “Oh, gee. What have I done wrong in my life that I’ve ended up here?”

BMW claims 105 horsepower for the F 900 XR. My butt dyno suggests that’s optimistic but there’s still enough oomph to send the front wheel skyward once you’ve shut off traction control. And keep it out of Rain mode. The F 900 XR comes standard with two riding modes – Rain and Road – with the option to hand over more money for Dynamic and Dynamic Pro. As on the S 1000 XR, Rain neuters throttle response to such an extreme that it feels the bike should be wearing L plates. Anyone wanting a motorcycle that tame should be buying a Suzuki V-Strom 250 instead.

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Fortunately, Road offers full, torquey power delivery, presented more smoothly than on the S 1000 XR (and, interestingly, the F 900 R). Dynamic and Dynamic Pro offer further snap, though I found it difficult to differentiate between the two. There’s still a fair bit of tell-tale ride-by-wire snatchiness that seems to be the curse of almost every bike amid increasingly stringent environmental regulations – especially at in-town speeds – but it’s not awful. Crack the throttle and the 900 accelerates with a good amount of enthusiasm. It’s not the psychotic light-speed propulsion of the S 1000 XR, but still a much-welcomed kick in the pants – more “Oh yes!” than “Oh yikes!”

Odds are, you’re not a good enough rider to really use the full of the S 1000 XR’s claimed 165 hp. You may tell people you are, but you’re lying. I’m not that good. And even if you are a Marquez-level rider, you won’t be riding that way on public roads; not if you want to stay out of jail, at least. The F 900 XR’s ~105 hp is more realistic and still more than many actually need. It’s a bike you can use, a bike you can rev hard, a bike you can love rather than fear. Another way of phrasing that is to say it’s a motorcycle on which you can indulge the part of you that is still a child, still inclined to make “Vroom!” noises and pretend your bike is equipped with lasers. The bigger XR moves like a laser but you can’t ever fully let loose – some part of you has to always exert caution, else you’ll end up as part of the scenery.

Chris Cope on BMW F 900 XR
It’s not as fast as the S 1000 XR but fun is more easily had on the F 900 XR

BMW transmissions aren’t as smooth as I tend to think they should be. Considering the premium price of BMW motorcycles I’ve always felt their transmissions should at least be on par with offerings from Triumph and Honda. They are instead closer to the experience of a Kawasaki or Yamaha – more mechanical. This isn’t to say the F 900 XR’s transmission is bad in any way. It’s perfectly easy to live with and seems to be reliable, but it doesn’t wow a rider.

The bike’s performance does impress, however. Delightfully flickable yet steady thanks to a road-focused chassis and suspension, the BMW is a joy on hilly/mountainous routes. Outside of motorcycles more directly designed for said purpose, such as a Triumph Street Triple, it is one of the easiest bikes to throw around that I’ve ever experienced. Everything feels fluid and natural; you’re never fighting the machine.

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Brakes are a little soft, lacking the aggressive bite found on the larger XR. This is especially true of the rear, which is quite spongy. If I hadn’t been part of the first wave of test riders I would have thought the rear had been worn down by overzealous journos from, say, Italy. But, no, the rear is just soft. Don’t get me wrong; the bike stops well. Just not as brilliantly as I would expect for a sport tourer.

That’s what this is after all: a sport-touring motorcycle. Equipped with 17-inch wheels, the F 900 XR has an adventure aesthetic but is designed to be kept on the road – curvy, nicely tarmacked roads ideally. If you want to tackle anything more aggressive than a gravel driveway, turn your attention to the F 850 GS or the myriad other bikes out there that claim to be good at two things but probably aren’t really. The F 900 XR is road-focused and I like that. I respect BMW for not trying to shoehorn the bike into a category where it doesn’t belong.

Though, it is possible to raise a few question marks regarding the touring ability of this sport tourer. On a long haul, the screen may disappoint. A handy lever on the right makes it one of the most easily adjustable screens in the market but I found it ineffective at either height. A slight lip on the screen means a rider of my height (6 feet 1 inch) can only choose from turbulent air or really turbulent air. Odds are good, however, that the aftermarket will be providing superior alternatives soon. And speaking of long hauls, you’ll probably want to avoid bringing a passenger on anything more than a crosstown jaunt. I suppose a father-daughter trip with your 12-year-old would go OK, but adult-sized pillions will find accommodations wanting.

The BMW F 900 XR’s screen is incredibly easy to use, even on the go, but still manages to disappoint somewhat

BELLS AND WHISTLES

You can’t have a BMW without technowhizzbangery – it’s the German company’s “thing.” Like its big brother the F 900 XR is loaded with stuff. Out of the box, you get the aforementioned Rain and Road riding modes, along with ABS, of course, and Automatic Stability Control (aka traction control) throw down more dough, however, and BMW will be delighted to offer an alphabet soup of options, including DTC, DBC, MSR, ABS Pro and Dynamic ESA (that’s fancy traction control, emergency braking, slipper clutch, corner braking and suspension). Optional cruise control and (not powerful enough) heated grips will further facilitate mile-munching rides.

A 6.5-inch TFT display helps make sense of it all, with the famous BMW wünderwheel helping navigate everything. Riders new to the BMW brand will need to spend time with the owner’s manual to make sense of it; the system is perfectly logical, but only after you conform to BMW logic. As is the case with seemingly every new bike these days, an app allows you to connect your smartphone. The app offers a number of features, some of which are questionable in their usefulness, some of which are downright amusing, but none of which are vital. There will never be a time when you need to know your tire pressure while sitting in a cafe.

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Obviously, I’ve yet to be won over by the phone connectivity craze but I will admit that BMW’s app (the same as is used on the S 1000 XR and F 900 R, amongst others) is fun to play with. As you’re sitting at the cafe after a ride (presumably we will be allowed to do such a thing again some day) you can analyze every little detail of where you’ve been, with data on everything from lean angle to throttle and brake usage. I suppose studying all this could theoretically help you become a better rider, but, as I say: I remain unconvinced.

The more important connectivity is that between rider and bike, and it’s in this area that the F 900 XR performs markedly better than its big brother. The S 1000 XR is a bike you hold on to – laughing maniacally perhaps, but never really finding symbiosis. The “smaller” XR, however, is one of those bikes where you start to forget about the physical separation between bike and rider; over time, the machine becomes an extension of the self. Glances in shop windows may shatter that illusion slightly – you’ll probably never look as cool on this bike as you feel – but most riders won’t care. I can’t imagine there are a great many people out there who think either XR actually looks good. It looks like a BMW; it looks like a bike that delivers a mix of fun and practicality. Which, of course, it does.

The BMW F 900 XR’s TFT screen offers up volumes of information about the bike and your ride

VERDICT

In the United Kingdom, the F 900 XR has a starting price of £9,825, which is decent when put up against assumed rivals like the Triumph Tiger 900 GT and Kawasaki Versys 1000 (though, the latter delivers considerably more power). But, of course, this is BMW we’re talking about; the base price is never really the price you pay. To get your hands on the all-bells-and-whistles version I rode in Almería, Spain, earlier this year you’ll be digging into your wallet for £12,470. That’s a hefty mark-up. Want some luggage to match your touring ambitions? You’ll need to dig even deeper. Want a seat that doesn’t feel like it’s made of wood? That’s even more dinero. All that having been said, however, I still don’t feel the pricing is outrageous.

No, let me rephrase that. The pricing is outrageous; all modern bikes cost too much and I personally predict a calamitous fall in the motorcycling market very soon. Coronavirus is putting a lot of people out of work and we were already under threat of a recession. There are very hard times ahead and that means people are going to be holding back when it comes to spending roughly half the average person’s annual take-home pay on items that are largely seen as luxuries.

But within the context of modern pricing, the F 900 XR stays financially competitive even when bespangled in technowhizzbangery. Compare it against the £12,800 Tiger 900 GT Pro, or £14,699 for the visually similar Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE (although, that bike delivers considerably more power and is better suited to two-up riding). Importantly, with all the features the F 900 XR is still £1,800 less than the starting price of the larger S 1000 XR. Outside of a few quirks that many will be able to adapt to, the F 900 XR is an excellent machine that offers usable power and the ability to do many different things with a single tool (as long as all those things are road-based).

Chris Cope on 2020 BMW F 900 XR
Arguably worth the money

THE THREE QUESTIONS

Does the BMW F 900 XR fit my current lifestyle?
Yes. In practical terms it is better suited to my both everyday life and my travelling ambitions than the bike I own, a Triumph Bonneville T120. Offering a certain amount of weather protection, light handling and decent fuel economy, the bike would be a great commuter. I do wonder how well certain nuts and bolts would survive the winter, though, and it would be a shame to condemn the F 900 XR solely to everyday slogging duty. So, I’d feel compelled to take it on big trips to Scotland and continental Europe. I worry about my backside being able to tolerate the firm seat, but I’m sure I’d toughen up eventually.

Does the BMW F 900 XR put a smile on my face?
Kinda. I mean, certainly I’m not miserable on the thing but if I’m honest, even though the XR is a little more nimble I had more fun on the less expensive F 900 R.

Is the BMW F 900 XR better than my current bike, a Triumph Bonneville T120?
Well, obviously yes and obviously no. In terms of practicality and tech it easily outguns the Bonneville even as standard, and in that case costs almost £1,000 less. In terms of intangibles it again comes in behind its naked sibling (F 900 R) and the Bonnie. I’d worry that it would soon become a bike that gets the dreaded word “just” placed in front of it when telling other people. You know: “What bike do you ride?” “Oh, just a BMW F 900 XR.” A bike that costs this much should not be getting the “just” treatment, but I can’t imagine ever feeling really sexy and cool on the thing. Your opinion, of course, may differ.

Chris Cope on 2020 BMW F900 XR
I really like the F 900 XR, but I like the F 900 R better

RIDER STATS

Rider: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Build: Lanky
Experience: Daily commuting, frequent touring, some off road

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


* Based on £1,500 deposit – 48-month hire purchase agreement at BMW’s offered rate of 9.9 percent APR


Portions of this article originally appeared in Adventure Bike Rider