MALAGA, Spain – You know the weather has turned rotten when BMW’s Motorrad’s “Enduro Park” — basically a giant field where instructors from the company’s off-road division teach newbies and never-wasses (like Yours Truly) the wonders of off-road motorcycling — is closed. Normally, said instructors border on the masochistic, delighting in watching we wretched street riders try to navigate yonder hill and dale, much the same, I suppose as the delight that we Canadians get watching visitors from tropical lands trying on skates for the first time.
But, two weeks of constant deluge had turned the park into something best described as primordial slime. So, despite initial promises, I didn’t get to jump the new F850GS or motocross it over whoops. My bad, I suppose, for lacking the requisite talent to plow through slop almost as slippery as Amsoil Synthetic.
But I did get out in the boonies on the F850GS and hooned the 750 version about on Spanish byways. This is what I learned about two outwardly identical bikes — the F750GS and F850GS — and how they differ much more than the sum of their parts:
The engine is a zinger. In the upgrade to 853 cc — via a larger bore and a longer stroke — the F850 gains mucho power. The surprise is that, despite all of BMW’s talk of the new parallel twin’s offset 270-degree crankshaft and the low-end toque it would engender, it’s at high revs the 850 really shines. Don’t get me wrong; it feels noticeably gruntier than the bike it replaces, but it really gets busy when the tach swings past five grand. The way it picks up its tail feathers and scoots to 8,000 rpm is truly captivating. BMW claims 95 horsepower for the F850 and, since it only has to motivate 229 kilograms, it fairly flies along. Row the clutchless Gear Shift Assistant Pro through the gears and the 850’s acceleration is not that far removed from lesser 1,000-cc adventure bikes.
Now, here’s the surprise. The engine of the supposedly lesser 750 is mechanically identical to the 850. Thank BMW automobile divisions — where 320, 328 and 330 monikers are no longer tied to engine displacement — but both 750 and 850 share the same 853-cc engines. Same 84 millimeter bore moving through a similar 77-mm stroke. Same throttle bodies, same compression ratio, even the same cams. The difference between the 750’s advertised 77 horsepower and the 850’s claimed 95 hp is all electronic. In other words, if you could switch ECUs the 750 would instantly produce the same 95 ponies as the F850. C’mon all you hackers, do something useful for a change.
The more substantial difference between the two is intent, the F750 being the road bike and the F850 the full-fledged adventure tourer. Thus the 850GS gets an off-road oriented 21-inch front rim/90/90-21 front tire wheel/tire combination, longer travel suspension — 204-mm for the front inverted fork compared with just 151-mm for the right side up item on the 750 and a similar differentiation in the rear — and more abuse-friendly wire wheels rather then the 750’s cast items.
What a world of difference such details make. Where you wouldn’t take the F750 much deeper in the woods than a cottage fire road, the 850GS — outfitted with its no-cost optional dual-purpose tires— is properly dirt-worthy. Save Spanish sludge, the 850 can handle pretty much anything — sand deep enough for dunes, rocks big enough to bash undercarriages and hills steep enough to flip you over — with unabashed casualness. In this regard, the F850GS, thanks to compliant suspension, anti-lock brakes tailored specifically for slippery surfaces and what passes for light weight (229 kilograms) in the adventure touring segment, makes a more than passable off-roader. Buy it for the rugged styling; keep it because it really is rugged.
There’s an F750/F850GS for everyone. Long before “inclusive” became a buzzword, BMW has been making its motorcycles for people of all statures. So, both the 750 and 850 have three varying height seats (short, medium and tall). BMW even has a supremely tall “Rallye” seat for daddy long legs thinking of Dakaring on an 850GS. And, to top it all off, if either bike is still too tall, there are lowering kits — basically shorter front forks and rear monoshock — to bring the seat even closer to terra firma. Tally it all up and between the two bikes and there’s a range of seat heights from 770 mm to 890 mm. Like, I said there’s an F750/F850 GS for almost everyone.
Damn, this motorcycle is high-tech! First, there’s BMW’s ESA Electronic Adjustable Suspension. Though it differs from the larger R1200GS’s in having only the rear shock adjustable, it comes in quite useful if you travel often with a passenger and frequently adjust the rear preload. The traction control has no less than four settings — Rain, Road, Dynamic and Enduro/Enduro Pro — to control the engine output on any possible surface. Similarly, the super smart ABS is tailored to different surfaces — I grabbed a big handful of front brake in all that slimey Spanish slop and all that happened was that I came to a quick and amazingly controlled stop. There’s also a Gear Shift Assistant Pro that lets you change gears without pulling in the clutch.
Pride of place in the technology wars, however, goes to the “Connectivity” dashboard that replaces BMW’s traditional speedo and indicator combination with a giant — by motorcycle standards — 7.5-inch TFT screen. The default screen is a giant tachometer with a digital speed readout and access to a wide array of trip information all accessible via a quick toggle of the menu button. More importantly, the screen is extremely bright — unlike many other such motorcycle displays, the information you seek won’t get lost in sunlight — and well organized.
The only problem is they’re all optional. Indeed, the new GSs are so good that my only complaint is pricing. The F850GS’s base MSRP of $14,550 is more than reasonable. But factor in all the options detailed above — and a few I didn’t mention, such as LED headlamps and the alarm system— and you’ll have an 850 that costs nearly $18,000.
There’s two ways of looking at this. Skeptics will see Honda’s new Africa Twin CRF1000 for about the same money and wonder why they should settle for 150 less cubes. Others will look at the available gear — even though it costs $810, the Connectivity screen is well worth the dosh — and be happy to trade cubic inches for BMW sophistication. More importantly, I think many will see a 95-hp adventure bike — about the same as BMW’s big Boxer twin GS not so long ago — and find the F850GS, even fully optioned, as a cheaper, lighter alternative to all the gargantuan motorcycles dominating the ADV market. From that perspective, the F850GS is a bargain.
As for the F750GS, it remains — as its F700 predecessor was — an ideal second bike for the relatively new rider trading up from their first motorcycle, say a Honda CBR300, Kawasaki Versys-X 300 or even BMW’s new G310. And, if you know Kevin Mitnick — once the most wanted computer criminal in U.S. history according to the US Department of Justice — maybe a really cool 95-hp second bike after the warranty runs out.