Class-Leading Performance

Story by Costa Mouzouris// Photos by Kevin Wing
May 8 2019

The big news here isn’t as much about the bikes as it is about the upgraded engine

Aah … sunny, balmy Palm Springs, California. We’re here for a couple of days to ride the 2019 BMW R1250GS and the R1250RT, in a combined media introduction. The climate here is normally hot, dry and mostly desert-like. However, Mother Nature seems to be in a bit of a fit lately, and the Golden State has recently experienced unseasonal cold in the north, drought and fires through the middle, and heavy rain in the south. Some of that weather has been altering the landscape, quite drastically in a few cases.

A week before we arrived here for the launch, a record rainfall dropped 94 mm of water on Palm Springs within a 24-hour period. Typically the area receives an average of 100 mm of rain a year. Almost a year’s worth of rain in a day washed out and closed many local roads, so organizers had to scramble to change the original ride routes, which produces some unforeseen consequences during our ride, especially when we venture off-road. But we’ll get to that after you first read about the changes made to BMW’s class-leading R1250GS adventure bike, and its highly functional R1250RT long-distance tourer.

An All-New Boxer

Riding the 2019 BMW 1250 in the desertAside from a couple of added tech items, the chassis on both bikes are unchanged. The biggest change is a new engine, and it’s now in all of BMW’s liquid-cooled Boxer twins, and not just the GS and RT. While the previous engine was very good, with lots of power and very good fuel economy, it has nonetheless been improved for 2019. This has been done in part to meet stringent Euro 5 standards, and in part because everyone likes even more power.

The new engine boasts a 1.5 mm larger bore and a 3 mm longer stroke, which now measure 102.5 x 76 mm. This bumps displacement from 1,170 cc to 1,254. Power is now at a claimed 136 hp and 105.5 ft-lb of torque, up from 123 hp and 92 ft-lb. The R nineT models will continue to use the 1,170 cc air-cooled twin.

ShiftCam Technology

However, the biggest gain in torque is in the lower revs, which is a result of BMW’s new ShiftCam technology. ShiftCam varies intake valve duration and lift by shifting the camshaft so that separate lobes operate each valve (there are two intakes per cylinder). One set of cam lobes has low lift and low duration, which enhances torque at low revs, while the other set has normal lift and duration. The low-lift lobes actually open each cylinder’s individual intake valve at a slightly different lift, which is said to enhance intake charge swirl and improve combustion.

The intake valves operate on the normal lobes above 5,000 rpm, while engine load determines cam position below that engine speed. A computer-controlled solenoid actuates pins, shifting the cams within milliseconds. According to BMW, this new system has changed neither the valve adjustment procedure nor the adjustment intervals, which are at 20,000 km. Aside from boosting bottom-end power, other benefits of the ShiftCam include a smoother-running engine, reduced emissions, and between a four and six per cent improvement in fuel economy.

Other internal changes include replacing the roller cam chain of the previous model with a quieter, more robust toothed chain, and the engine now incorporates knock sensors, which allows the use of low-octane fuel without the risk of engine damage, though it still requires premium fuel for best performance.

No Rolling Backwards

Rear Wheel of the 2019 BMW 1250Hill Start Control, which used to be an option, is now standard on the GS and RT, a feature that lets you lock the rear brake to hold the bike still on an incline by squeezing and releasing the brake lever (the brakes are partially integrated). This makes it easier to launch a fully loaded bike up a hill. Optional is Hill Start Control Pro, which engages the hill-holding feature automatically when the bike is stopped on an incline.

A new option on both bikes is dynamic braking control. This rider-assist feature shuts the throttle automatically in an emergency-braking situation should you inadvertently stay on the gas while grabbing a handful of front brake – an error that mostly afflicts inexperienced riders.

The changes have added five kilos to the R1250GS and three kilos to the R1250RT, now claiming 249 and 279 kg wet, respectively. The R1250GS Adventure, which has a larger 30-litre fuel tank (20 for the GS), taller suspension and protective crash bars, among other off-road items, tips the scales at 268 kg wet.

The R1250GS: Adventure Bike King

The first thing you’ll notice when seated on either the R1250GS or GS Adventure is a new, 6.5-inch, high-resolution, colour TFT instrument panel. It’s easy to read and relatively easy to negotiate its various menus, though it doesn’t boast the most intuitive interface. One example of this is that you can’t see the fuel gauge unless you select it, and when you do, you can’t see other trip info such as trip odometer, fuel economy or fuel range – only one item can be displayed at a time at the top of the screen. Parameters that are permanently displayed include engine and road speed, gear position, ride modes and the time, while you can tailor what you want displayed in the lower left corner of the screen; my choice was ambient temperature.

You can also use the multi-controller dial on the left handlebar to scroll through different pages on the screen, which offer vehicle info such as tire pressures, coolant temperature, odometer and battery voltage, among other items. The screen also enables Bluetooth connectivity, so you can connect a smartphone and helmet communication system to the bike, and control various functions via the multi-controller. While this new screen might excite tech-savvy riders, it can be somewhat overwhelming for someone accustomed to standard gauges. Also new is an LED headlight.

A Proven Off-Roader

2019 BMW 1250 in front of Wind GeneratorsDespite being quite porky by pseudo trail bike standards, BMW’s biggest GS model is nonetheless a very accomplished off-roader. We ride the R1250GS and GS Adventure on the first day of the press intro, on a 290 km loop that includes a rather challenging off-road section. As I mentioned earlier, the heavy rain that preceded our arrival forced a change to the original route, and now includes, among other places, Joshua Tree National Park. This new route also has a few surprises for some of the less-experienced riders.

The first thing I do before getting on the bike is lift the passenger seat and plug a dongle into the wiring harness. This dongle, which comes with the bike, allows access to Dynamic Pro and Enduro Pro ride modes, which have more aggressive settings than the non-Pro modes, and also retains selected traction control (TC) and ABS settings after the bike is switched off; otherwise, they default to on. I also raise the adjustable rider’s seat to the higher of two positions (850 or 870 mm) for more legroom.

The R1250GS feels instantly familiar, with its tall, upright riding position and characteristic exhaust drone. What’s immediately noticeable is that the engine is mechanically quieter than the older one, and once you pull away, it’s smoother, too. It has gobs of low-end torque in Dynamic mode (Road and Rain are softer), and with the TC off (ABS can be switched off as well), the bike will lift its front wheel effortlessly in the lower gears.

Let the Fun Begin

The gearbox is ultralight, and my test bike is equipped with an electric shift assist, letting me make clutchless gear changes, albeit with increased effort at the shifter. I resort to normal clutch-engaged gear changes on the road, and use the electric assist when we veer off-road, since ratios can be selected without losing any momentum along critical sections. The fun really begins – well for some riders, at least – when we steer off the pavement and onto a sandy track. The conditions are dry, but long sections of the track are covered in loose sand and gravel, and some sections are rocky.

Lowering the tire pressures would have been very helpful, but I decide to leave them as they are, as do most riders. The higher pressures cause the bike to squirm around more than it would have otherwise on soft, sandy sections, though it is still quite manageable. Now, you’d be silly to try to throw the big GS around like a lightweight dirt bike, given its mass counters your every move. It nonetheless manages off-road excursions quite well, yet takes skill and foresight to handle it well enough to avoid disaster.

Trouble in the Sandbox

After a few kilometres along this improvised sandy trail, we encounter the first victims of the unpredictable conditions: tipped-over GSs. The deep, soft sand proves perhaps a bit too challenging for some of the less-experienced riders on this launch, and several of them lost their fight with gravity. I help a few riders right their machines and continue on.

However, the groups riding behind us have even more difficulty, and the ensuing sand bog damages at least one machine, as an R1250GSA begins leaking oil from a valve cover. A rock poked through its valve cover after a fall, despite the added protection of a crash bar. The saving grace is that the cover can be removed easily for a temporary fix on the trail, as long as you carry some quick-curing epoxy. There are no injuries aside from some bruised egos.

Now, the R1250GS, like the R1200GS that preceded it, has a few inherent weaknesses if you waver off-road, especially if the conditions are challenging. With cylinder heads jutting out the sides of the bike, they are prone to damage, as we saw on that GSA. The other weakness is that since the GS doesn’t have frame tubes running beneath the engine, the crankcase can be damaged if bottomed onto something solid. Even though there is a protective skid plate installed on all the big GS models, it’s mounted directly to the engine; a big enough blow will transfer energy directly to the crankcase through the mounts, and as a friend of mine who owns a late-model R1200GS discovered, it can be very costly. If you plan on taking serious off-road excursions on an R1250GS, invest in an aftermarket skid plate that mounts to the engine guards.

On-Road Manners

On the road, the GS offers good wind protection that’s almost free of buffeting, especially with the windscreen in its highest position. It’s easily adjustable while riding via a knob. Our bikes are equipped with Continental TKC80 knobby tires, which favour off-road riding, though they still return neutral steering on pavement and have enough grip for a sporting pace.

The new R1250GS is very much like the outgoing one, but with more, useable power. If you ride a low-mileage late model, it might not be worth trading up just yet. The starting price is $21,400, up from $20,300, and that’s not a bad markup considering the extra power and added tech; otherwise, the rest of the machine is mostly the same. The R1250GSA starts at $23,800.

The R1250RT: Near Perfection

The weather takes a turn on the second day, and by the time we hit the mountains south of Palm Springs, the temperature drops to 9 C and it begins to rain. While perfection is practically unattainable, for me, the R1250RT is as close to perfect as a touring bike can get. It handles like a sport bike, it’s comfortable enough to easily cover long distances and it has the best fairing in motorcycling in terms of weather protection. And as much as the RT is a solid, sharp-handling motorcycle on everything from divided highways to switchback-riddled mountain roads, it really shines in poor weather.

With the RT’s electric windscreen adjusted to the sweet spot, the wind protection is better than most convertibles I’ve driven. There’s no buffeting or backdraft, and the cockpit becomes uncannily quiet for a motorcycle. The mirrors combine with wind deflectors to protect your hands, and when the grip heat is on, your hands are toasty warm. The seat is also heated. There are five levels of heat for each – level two is ample for the grips, while full heat does it for the seat. My only gripe with the bike is that there’s no dedicated button for the grips or seat (there is on the passenger seat). You have to scroll through a menu in the dash to turn them on and set the level.

Is It a Sport Bike or Touring Bike?

Despite its size, the R1250RT exhibits sportbike-like agility on winding roads when in Dynamic ride mode and with the ESA suspension adjusted to Sport mode. Before the rain hit, we had a chance to experience the RT’s agility on some twisty roads. It steered effortlessly through tight-turning transitions, and charged forcefully into corners unperturbed. If you prefer to tone it down and enjoy the scenery instead, setting the suspension to Comfort and the ride mode to Road turns the RT into the cushy, comfy long-distance tourer for which it has become renowned.

The R1250RT can come equipped with one of two possible OEM tires – either the Metzeler Roadtec Z8 or the Michelin Pilot Road 4. My test bike rolls on the latter. These Michelins provide enough grip, feedback and confidence on wet pavement to let me maintain a pace that would be considered quick on dry pavement.

While the RT’s added weight takes away some of the new engine’s forceful punch experienced on the GS, it nevertheless pulls remarkably hard from low revs. Dropping a couple of gears from sixth at highway speeds is necessary if you want to blast by slower traffic; otherwise, it has enough power to get you by relatively quickly without touching the shifter.

After completing our 325 km loop in a mix of cool, wet weather and desert heat, I still feel fresh enough to take on at least another couple hundred kilometres. And that’s the R1250RT’s raison d’être: It’s designed to cover long distances, and it can do it whether you’re scraping foot pegs along winding roads or droning along long stretches of highway. Pricing starts at $22,050 – up only slightly from the preceding R1200RT’s $21,750.


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