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BMW Unveils New R 18 and it’s… OK, I Guess

BMW's latest attempt to capture cruiser riders' hearts is better than previous attempts but still feels a little try-hard

The elephant in the room, of course, is the elephantine 1802cc powerplant that juts out of the new BMW R 18’s frame. That is a big metal box of explosions.

There are larger capacity production engines to be found on motorcycles, of course. The Harley-Davidson FXDR is equipped with an 1868cc engine; the stock V-twin on Indian’s Chieftain Dark Horse is now 1901cc; the Triumph Rocket III famously promises a whopping 2458 cc – more capacity than a brand new Ford Ranger XL pickup truck (it has a 2.3-liter engine). But thanks to the engine configuration of BMW’s new machine the R18 stands out. Literally. Its boxer twin results in the bike being a full meter wide. Good luck filtering through traffic.

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BMW unveiled the R 18 last Friday via a live online presentation. Not quite the surrounded-by-hipsters-in-Austin reveal it had planned but strange times call for innovation and BMW is still eager to get this bike into dealerships by late summer – American dealerships in particular. BMW, Europe’s best-selling motorcycle brand, has long sought a bigger piece of the American pie and this behemoth cruiser is very much aimed at “traditional” US riders. The German company’s had varied success in such attempts. The R 1200 C of roughly 20 years ago is largely considered to have been a flop. The K 1600 B released in 2017 earned more kudos with reviewers, but still left a lot of people (including me) a little confused – it wasn’t really a bagger.

I suspect I’d still prefer an R NineT but the new R 18 is definitely BMW’s best effort at offering Americans what they like. There are serious questions to be asked about the timing of the bike’s release, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

The R 18 draws heavily from the R 5 – a game-changing model released in 1936 that had a pretty short run because… ah… you know… Germany was kind of busy invading its neighbors at the time. The bike was a beautiful machine irregardless and to my eye BMW’s done a good job of capturing its visual spirit. I really like the deceptively simple lines, the exposed drive shaft (Don’t wear any loose articles of clothing!), the big fishtail exhaust, and the fact the enormous powerplant is on full display. 

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No one’s had an opportunity to ride the thing yet, of course, but I would hope the experience wouldn’t be too refined. If you’re going to have a big stupid engine sticking out of both sides, seriously hindering your cornering ability, you want it to feel big and stupid. I’d expect a fair bit of shake at stop lights, punch-in-the-face torque, maybe even a little agricultural driveline lash, and all kinds of antisocial snarling. It’s hard to guess whether we’ll get that, though, based on BMW’s media release, which is about as Germans-trying-to-be-cool-but-failing as it gets. The release describes the boxer engine as “the epicentre of riding pleasure, combined with ‘good vibrations'” and promises “full, resonant sound.”

Yeah. I don’t know.

The 1936 R 5 and the 2020 R 18

Meanwhile, BMW also tells us that the massive air-cooled twin’s peak power output is 91 hp at 4750 rpm. That’s on par with Harley’s 114 Milwaukee Eight powerplant (1868 cc), which produces 92 hp at 5020 rpm. Big cruiser engines don’t tend to impress when it comes to horsepower figures. They are instead all about torque. BMW promises 158 Nm of punch, with the bulk of that sitting on a flat curve between 2000 and 4000 rpm. Peak torque hits at 3000 rpm.

In addition to engine configuration, BMW differentiates itself from the rest of the cruiser world (somewhat) in the presence of tech. Traction control, drag torque control and three riding modes come standard. Though, I hope you’re sitting down because I’m about to tell you the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard: BMW has named its three riding modes Rain, Rock and Roll. See what they did there? It’s a cruiser aimed at the American market so they put the phrase “Rock n Roll” into their riding modes. Because it’s clever, see? And totally cool. Ha ha ha ha ha. We are laughing and having such good times.

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Meanwhile, if you feel the R 18’s £18,995 starting price is a little low, you can also spend money on hill start control, a reverse gear and numerous accessories that also lean hard into the Americana theme – eg, US-made Vance and Hines pipes, US-made Mustang seats, and US-based Roland Sands farklery. BMW says the bike has been given a “conversion-friendly design” to encourage customization but I find it hard to believe people are going to buy such an expensive bike with the intention of chopping it up.

And in all of these things you can start to see the problems, right? The R 18 is a good-looking machine but certain aspects are painfully try-hard and poorly timed. As Lance Oliver pointed out recently BMW is laser focusing on the wrong market at the wrong time. The US cruiser market is currently in a state of contraction, with sales having dropped 17 percent in 2019. That’s a trend that’s likely to continue for a number of reasons – chief among them the fact that cruiser manufacturers were almost exclusively focused on Baby Boomers until the Great Recession, and as a result of said economic event no one else has the money for such a traditionally expensive motorcycle.

2020 BMW R 18
BMW is offering ape hanger bars and Vance and Hines pipes among its accessory items

True, in the European market Harley-Davidson and Indian – which deal almost exclusively in cruisers – have seen sales increase in recent years, but this has been based primarily on the success of “smaller” platforms like the Sportster and Scout. And although neither manufacturer has shied away from its American heritage they also haven’t made a big deal of it in the EMEA. The USA “brand” isn’t quite as strong these days. So, BMW making an enormous cruiser that does a strange amount of American flag waving probably isn’t going to garner huge sales here.

Meanwhile, there’s no way BMW or any other manufacturer could have planned for coronavirus. As I write this, most people are focused simply on the very difficult task of getting things under control. It will be weeks, perhaps months before that happens but one day we will all be free to go back to work. Except, many of us will find there’s no work to go back to. Some companies have already collapsed; those that haven’t will find themselves crippled with debt and eager to shed as many employees as they can. Governments will struggle to extend support. The world is facing a very long and difficult economic period. That’s what I’m predicting, anyway*. And if I’m right it will mean there won’t be many people out there champing at the bit to spend £19,000 on a heavy, impractical product that for most is a luxury.

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Especially not those at whom the product is aimed. As Lance pointed out in his assessment of the R 18, the traditional cruiser rider tends to be stuck in his or her ways. That’s changing and the younger cruiser riders I meet in Europe (who are, as I say, generally riding Sportsters, Scouts and the odd Street Bob) are progressive and open to new interpretations of the genre, but old-school Boomers probably aren’t going to swoon for a bike for which forward pegs are impossible. BMW claims its ergonomics enable “a relaxed and active riding position for optimum vehicle control,” but I’m not sure the old guard will listen.

Basically, I feel the R 18 is a bike that’s coming out 15 years too late and even then it would have struggled. That’s a bit of a shame because, as I say, I like the aesthetics of the thing. It really is pretty. But I’ll admit that if I were looking to throw down big money on a big cruiser I would instead be spending £1,000 less to get an Indian Chief Dark Horse (which also has ride modes – and cruise control – as standard), or £3,175 less to buy a Harley-Davidson Low Rider S (which doesn’t have ride modes or any other tech beyond ABS but looks badass and almost certainly handles better than the R 18).

What’s your take? Has BMW missed the mark? Or is the world soon to be filled with the sound of rocker covers scraping the road?

2020 BMW R 18
The BMW R 18 looks good but I’m not certain it would be comfortable to ride

* As with every time I express a negative viewpoint, I hope to be proven wrong in this prediction.