Test rides

2020 BMW S 1000 XR – First Ride

BMW's updated adventure-styled sport tourer claims to be better than ever but is it worth the money?

When the BMW S 1000 XR was first released back in 2015 it provided a perfect example of the flaws inherent in press launches and the bike reviews that come out of them. Because BMW took journalists on a screaming, twisting short route through Spanish mountains, no one got a chance to experience the bike at everyday, droning motorway speed. Which meant no one spotted that the handlebars buzzed to high hell at that pace. Owners got to discover that on their own. So, when BMW invited me out to Almería, Spain, earlier this year to test ride the new S 1000 XR (along with the F 900 R and F 900 XR) guess what they didn’t do.

SHOW SOME LOVE
No, Really. Show It

The handlebar buzzing of the previous-generation model should not be understated. It was a serious problem. When Adventure Bike Rider took the bike on a long-term ride across Europe the ‘bar buzzed so terribly that one of the bike’s handguards fell off on a French motorway. Imagine being the guy who had bought such a bike; you’d be furious at BMW for failing to live up to its quality reputation*, and at motojournalists for failing to spot the problem; you’d feel tricked; you’d feel hoodwinked; you’d feel bamboozled.

So, I approached the new S 1000 XR – first announced at EICMA last year – with just one question on my mind: had the buzzing been fixed? And the answer is: I don’t know.

BMW allotted just three hours of seat time on the S 1000 XR, taking me on a twisting short route through Spanish mountains – though not at a screaming pace this time because it was pissing rain. How much can you learn about a bike in three hours? Under the right conditions, I suppose you could learn a reasonable amount. It’s more than most dealerships offer, after all. And theoretically I’m a professional; I should know what to look for. I’ll share with you everything I learned but I think it’s only fair to suggest you take it with a grain of salt.

Chris Cope on 2020 BMW S 1000 XR
It was raining heavily during our photos stops, so no knee-down photos for you

SOME NUMBERS

Starting price: £14,285
Monthly payment: £409.47**
Engine: 999cc liquid-cooled inline four
Power: 164 hp at 11,000 rpm
Torque: 114 Nm at 9,250 rpm
Seat height: 840 mm
Fuel capacity: 20 liters
Weight: 226 kg
Assembled in: Germany (No. 13 on the Democracy Index)

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The new S 1000 XR looks pretty much like the bike of old. The headlight is a little different, it feels more put together, but nothing major. Opinions will vary on whether that’s a good thing. I’ll admit the aesthetic doesn’t set my heart on fire. I can’t quite put my finger on what I dislike, but deep in my soul I find myself thinking: “You want me to pay £14,285 for this?”

That’s not to say it is necessarily ugly or poorly put together. Although plasticky, the BMW quality you’d expect is there in every feature. The overall aesthetic feeling is one of simplicity and durability. I mean, it’s not simple – the thing is dripping with tech – but it looks that way. It looks manageable, unintimidating. Maybe that’s my issue with it: it has tech and performance that will wow you but it looks like a £9,000 bike. A very good £9,000 bike, but a £9,000 bike nonetheless.

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Throw a leg over the 840mm-high seat (a lowered version is available, bringing your butt down to 790 mm) and one of the first things you’ll notice is just how firm that seat is. It’s a plank; I cannot remember ever riding a bike with a firmer seat. And it’s a plank that holds your derriere very much in place. You can’t really move around. Questions abound as to how much touring you would actually want to do on this sport tourer. Beyond this, however, the ergonomics are very comfortable for a 6-foot-1 rider such as myself. Seating is upright and everything feels like it’s in the right place. As with the F 900 XR the handlebar felt a bit narrow in my hands, but not so much it would negatively affect my purchasing decision.

Fire up the 999cc inline four engine and you are treated to the delightful, aggressive bark that only a four can produce. It sounds murderous. Expect to be revving like a loon at every opportunity. Lit up before you, the bike’s 6.5-inch TFT screen offers a dizzying amount of information, and infinitely more to be found within the labyrinthine menus. The ubiquitous BMW wünderwheel sits on the left grip to help you navigate it all; riders unfamiliar with BMWs will probably want three hours just to figure everything out.

Like the F 900 XR, the S 1000 XR has one of the easiest-to-use screens in the biz. It is more effective than the F’s screen but still not amazing if you are 6 feet 1 inch tall. I found it was best to leave the screen at its lowest setting, to allow unfettered wind to hit my helmet. Raising the screen to its highest setting creates too much turbulence and should really only be deployed if you enjoy wind noise.

The new S 1000 XR looks more or less like the old S 1000 XR

ENGINE, PERFORMANCE AND HANDLING

While the 2020 S 1000 XR fizzles a little in first impressions, it makes up ground in riding experience. The bike is playful, powerful and joyously fun to ride hard. The reason motojournalists didn’t spot handlebar buzzing in the 2015 model is because they were too busy enjoying the flood of power and torque the bike delivers when snicking through the gears. Thankfully, none of that hilarity has been lost in the new version. In fact, I wonder how much has changed at all. I rode the previous generation bike at Monteblanco back in 2018 and loved it, but without doing a side-by-side comparison I can’t tell you how or if the two generations are different in performance (especially because I only rode the previous generation on a track).

Related to that, I’m neither able to confirm nor deny BMW’s claims that its changes to the chassis, engine and drivetrain have resulted in the new S 1000 XR being lighter, more responsive and more engaging. It’s hilariously fun to ride, but so was the old bike.

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Problems come, however, when you attempt to ride the bike like a normal person. The S 1000 XR does not like that. Throttling is less than great at urban speeds, with the bike surging so badly at a steady 30 mph that I thought the traction control was malfunctioning. Make your way gingerly around a wet, oil-soaked hairpin corner and the bike seems agitated.

Riding through the hills above Almería I found myself thinking about my pet greyhound, Jerry. An erstwhile racing dog, he still loves to run. If you hold him by the collar and mentally rev him up by shouting encouragement (“Come on, Jerry! Let’s go! Come on buddy!“) and patting his hind legs he goes out of his mind with need to RUN – growling, snarling, pulling to be free. Let him loose and he explodes toward the horizon. In urban/everyday situations, the S 1000 XR feels like I’ve revved Jerry up but am now trying to get him to heel. I could almost sense the bike cursing at me, spitting epithets of disgust at my too-cautious sense of mortality. The bike’s magnificent tech keeps everything under control but you feel like the engine hates you for not letting it go nuts.

Chris Cope on 2020 BMW S 1000 XR
The S 1000 XR wants to go

The S 1000 XR wants to run. It wants to scare the living shit out of you. It is a rocket strapped to a rocket made of rockets. Farewell, clean license. Get the thing howling through corners and your inner psychopath will bubble to the surface. Though, unless you are a particularly skilled rider – I mean more skilled than the overwhelming majority of road riders out there – you’ll never really be able to let loose on this bike. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize it has more power than you know what to do with.

If you don’t want to listen to your honest self (and really, who does when it comes to motorcycles?), you’ll have the electronics, and the S 1000 XR’s brakes are excellent – possibly the best set-up I’ve encountered outside of track-focused superbikes. The S 1000 XR is just a teency, teency, teency bit top heavy for my twin-engine-loving self but there’s no denying it moves with ease through corners, dancing from side to side and holding lines well.

THE COMPETITION
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On a track it would be a hoot, and indeed such a use is encouraged by BMW, who described the bike at its press launch as being designed for “wannabe racers.” BMW has definitely nailed the “sport” side of sport touring. On the touring side of things… well, let’s go back to the question of handlebar buzzing. I spent a short time on the motorway getting from the hotel to the countryside – about 20 minutes – and I will state that I didn’t spot any excessive buzzing then. I feel that amount of time isn’t enough to offer an honest verdict, though.

Meanwhile, I have a very strange affliction when it comes to inline fours where the high-frequency vibration affects my ulnar nerve – which runs from your pinky to your neck via the underarm. After a certain amount of time on an inline four my right arm will begin to ache terribly. On some bikes it happens in as little as 45 minutes. In the best cases it takes a full two and a half hours of riding, but it always happens, on every four I ride, regardless of make. In the case of the S 1000 XR I was feeling pretty uncomfortable at about the 80-minute mark. I guess that’s an argument for the stiff seat; had I been riding on my own, rather than in a pack of journos, my numb rear end would have had me stopping before my arm got sore.

The S 1000 XR’s seat is very, very firm

BELLS AND WHISTLES

If you are one of those dudes who waxes poetic about carbs and air cooling you need to walk away now. This is not the bike for you, my friend, because the S 1000 XR is all about the techno and the whizzbangery. It has All The Things.

Well, almost all the things. When the new S 1000 XR was announced some observers lamented the fact it does not come equipped with BMW’s ShiftCam variable valve technology. BMW says it chose not to add this feature because ShiftCam doesn’t kick in until quite high in the rev range where, BMW’s research shows, the vast majority of S 1000 XR owners never really go. In a rare moment of brutal honesty from a manufacturer, a BMW engineer at the press launch said that putting ShiftCam on the S 1000 XR would be “more of a ShiftScam, because you’re selling the customer something he or she doesn’t need.”

The S 1000 XR’s TFT screen tells you all you need to know

Feel free to debate whether you do need electronic suspension adjustment, cornering ABS, cornering traction control, drag torque control, wheelie control, hill start control, a TFT screen with Bluetooth connectivity, or four ride modes. Whether you want all that or not you get it standard. If you want even more bling you can pay extra for cornering headlights, keyless start, clutchless shifting, improved electronic suspension, heated grips, cruise control, BMW’s E-call emergency system, luggage, and so on.

The standard four riding modes are Rain, Road, Dynamic and Dynamic Pro but you’ll only ever want to choose between three of those. Rain mode should be avoided at all costs. Throttle response is so sluggish that I thought perhaps BMW had equipped this bike with an NC750X-style parking brake that had failed to disengage. As I said of the same riding mode on the F 900 R, you should only ever use Rain if you are lending the bike to a friend and you want them to give up motorcycling.

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The other modes are perfectly acceptable, with their noticeable differences coming in terms of how snappy the throttle is. I preferred Road overall because it was smoothest. I suspect throttle response is this model’s buzzing ‘bars; once it gets into enough owners’ hands they’ll complain and BMW will find itself issuing throttle remaps to correct a bike that is generally too choppy.

As with the new F bikes, the S 1000 XR’s TFT screen is fun to play with, offering a load of information. You can connect it to an app, which is something that some people somewhere must want because it’s present on just about every new bike I encounter these days.

Chris Cope on 2020 BMW S 1000 XR
One thing I absolutely loved about the S 1000 XR was the sound of its engine

VERDICT

The new S 1000 XR starts at £14,285. That’s £14,285 for the standard bike. £14,285. Fourteen-thousand two-hundred eighty-five pounds sterling! It has more power than you could ever use in a road-legal scenario, it has the same general fit and finish as a bike that costs almost £5,000 less (albeit with admittedly superior components), and its ability to comfortably perform both functions of the sport-touring genre is debatable. Don’t get me wrong, the S 1000 XR is a very good motorcycle, but I’m not entirely sure who it’s good for.

I mean, I get the idea of wanting the shiniest thing because it’s the shiniest thing, but the S 1000 XR is not the shiniest thing BMW makes. If you want the stuff that the S 1000 XR is actually good at, you’d be better off with the more attractive, more focused S 1000 RR (which does have ShiftCam). If you want the stuff that the S 1000 XR seems like it should be good at, you’re better off with the more playful, more manageable, more affordable F 900 XR. So the S 1000 XR is a great bike that gets overshadowed by better bikes. If it didn’t cost £14,285 that would be OK. But it does; it costs £14,285. And if you’re willing to spend that kind of money, you can do better.

£14,285

THE THREE QUESTIONS

Does the BMW S 1000 XR fit my current lifestyle?
Uhm. It doesn’t not fit my lifestyle. I could commute with it. I could zip through Brecon Beacons National Park on it. And with a different seat I could ride to Scotland on it, stopping every hour or so to shake out the pain in my right arm. But I’m not sure I’d ever feel it was a perfect fit, that I’d ever think: “Yeah, this bike is me! I’m an S 1000 XR guy.” The bike fits me, but I’m not sure I fit it.

Does the BMW S 1000 XR put a smile on my face?
Yes. For all my question marks, the S 1000 XR still delivers a whole row of exclamation marks when it comes to delivering thrill in the right conditions. It really is a fun bike to ride.

Is the BMW S 1000 XR better than my current bike, a Triumph Bonneville T120?
Obviously. It’s more powerful, more functional, more tech-laden, and maybe even more reliable. It goes, turns and stops better than any Bonneville ever could. Yet I’d still prefer to be seen on the Bonnie. If you’re a “character” person this bike may not stir the soul – it’s much more about performance and tech.

Chris Cope on 2020 BMW S 1000 XR
A fully loaded F 900 XR still costs less than a standard S 1000 XR. I like the bigger bike but I’d spend my actual money on the ‘smaller’ one

RIDER STATS:

Rider: Chris Cope
Experience: Riding since 1994; riding regularly since 2013
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Build: Lanky

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

Chris Cope on 2020 BMW S 1000 XR
Look how small the tail light is. Why do manufacturers think motorcyclists don’t want to be seen?

* In fairness to BMW, the company issued a fix – in the form of handlebar weights – pretty soon after the problem was uncovered by owners and long-term testers. From what I’ve heard, that did actually resolve things.

** Based on £1,500 deposit on 36-month Hire Purchase loan at BMW’s advertised rate of 9.9 percent