2008 BMW R 1200 RT vs. 2008 Moto Guzzi Norge

Text: Ken Freund • Photography: Jackie Bass, Ken Freund, BMW North America, Moto Guzzi

Each of these machines is powered by a twin-cylinder engine of similar displacement, and a quick perusal of the spec sheets indicates how very similar these sport-tourers are in other respects too. Both machines are built in the shadow of the Alps: Munich to the east and Mandello del Lario to the south. And both were built with the same task in mind - to transport a rider and passenger rapidly and sportingly, yet with long-distance comfort and capabilities assured.

The two bikes stayed in their element during our testing. With high-speed blasts on the open road, interspersed with some serious flogging on steep and twisty mountain roads, including California's beautiful and challenging Rim of the World Highway, they toured a good portion of our west-coast "Alps."

Engine & Transmission

BMW's R 1200 RT uses the latest iteration of its 1,170cc horizontally opposed fuel-injected "boxer" twin, which is air/oil cooled and has its crankshaft situated longitudinally - a long-time practice of the Bavarian manufacturer. Moto Guzzi's Norge is powered by an 1,151cc air-cooled, fuel-injected, 90-degree V-twin that also has a longitudinal crankshaft - in the time-honored fashion favored by the second-oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

Guzzi, boring and stroking its existing 1100 "motore" to 1,151cc for greater horsepower and torque, has incorporated a number of engine improvements. Lighter reciprocating parts and more accurate balancing are said to reduce vibration and improve durability.

BMW has increased the size of its boxer engines during the past decade from 1100 to 1150 to a nominal 1200cc, and recent changes include dual spark plugs per cylinder and increased power.

Moto Guzzi claims maximum horsepower (measured at the flywheel) is 95 at 7,800 rpm and peak torque of 73.8 lb-ft at 5,800 rpm, whereas BMW advertises 110 horses at 7,500 rpm and peak torque of 85 lb-ft at 6,000 rpm. Fuel injection with three-way catalysts and oxygen sensors are used by both brands to keep emission levels well within current standards.

Start the Guzzi, even when it is warm, and the engine revs up to about 2,000 rpm and then slowly settles back to idle speed - a situation that's a bit annoying when you restart and want to ride away. At idle, the Guzzi rocks back and forth more than the RT, which always seems to have good control of the idle rpm, although it also feels a tad rough at idle.

As the revs come up, both engines begin to smooth out and hit their strides above 3,000, with good performance through the midrange. Both redlines are the same at 8,000 rpm, and as you approach that speed you can feel that the torque and horsepower peaks have passed and power is dropping off. Each bike has ample power for passing and hill climbing. However, the four-valve-per-cylinder BMW feels like it breathes easier and it can pull harder at higher revs, while the two-valve-per-cylinder Norge feels huskier at lower revs but seems to run out of steam earlier.

With the price of gasoline at all-time highs, fuel economy is more important than ever. Both bikes were ridden in a spirited fashion. Still, the BMW managed a low of 40.5 mpg, a high of 46.6 and an average of 43.9 mpg. With a big 7.1-gallon fuel capacity, that works out to an amazing 311 miles to empty. Our Guzzi had slightly better mileage, with a low of 40.6, a high of 47.3 and an average of 44.2 mpg. With a 6.0-gallon fuel capacity, that pencils out to a still very respectable 265 miles to empty.

Both bikes are equipped with six-speed gearboxes and hydraulically actuated dry clutches. The RT has a single-plate clutch, and the Norge's is a twin-plate unit. On the RT, the transmission shifts smoothly and quickly, but was sometimes reluctant to go into first gear from neutral when stopped. The Norge's gearbox works fine, with fast, solid shifts, but the clutch was somewhat grabby and a little more difficult to launch from a standstill without chatter.
BMW and Moto Guzzi have fitted their machines with shaft-type final drives. They are essentially maintenance free, and both were quiet and had little driveline lash. During the test, we discovered a problem with a leak on the Guzzi. Motor oil dripped down the back of the engine, its origin hidden by frame and fairings. The dipstick is accessed by removing a clumsy rubber plug, and we also found that it is very difficult to add oil without a long, thin funnel, which makes top-offs a real hassle.

Chassis & Handling

Each bike has a tubular-steel frame and single-sided swingarm. Translated into English, Moto Guzzi's C.A.R.C. design is a "compact reactive shaft drive system." BMW dubs its rear suspension setup Paralever. Both do an admirable job of limiting torque reactions through the swingarm.

BMW uses the company's patented Paralever front suspension; Guzzi fits the Norge with a conventional fork. The Guzzi's suspension feels considerably stiffer than the BMW's, which had the optional electronic suspension adjustment (ESA). The Norge's low-hanging centerstand dragged in corners whenever the bike was leaned over for a tight curve, limiting the cornering ability of an otherwise capable bike. The RT's ESA has comfort, normal and sport settings, and allows for the extra weight of passengers or cargo. On the comfort setting the suspension takes up most of the impacts from rough pavement without feeling overly mushy. We found the normal setting great for all-around riding, while the sport setting is best used when riding fast on smooth but technically demanding roads.

Both bikes are equipped with dual front rotors and standard ABS, which provide a welcome safety factor for those occasional "oh No!" moments we all have occasionally. BMW has done away with the annoying over-power-boosted systems and calls its new system partial-integral ABS. The Norge's ABS can be deactivated by a dash button; BMW's cannot. Stopping either model is easy, with good feel and control.

Tire sizes, 120/70ZR17 front and 180/55ZR17 rear, are identical on both machines and appear to be good choices. Both bikes lean into a corner without a lot of effort and hold a corner nicely. Grip was never an issue, and the bikes felt stable at high speeds.

Ergonomics & Accoutrements

Taller riders are likely to prefer the RT's riding position and height, while shorter riders (and passengers) will find the Norge easier to get on and off. However, the BMW's stock seat has two height positions and a 30.7-inch low-seat option is available at no charge.

Electrically adjustable windscreens are standard on both bikes. The large windscreen on the BMW has much greater range of travel and coverage for both rider and passenger than the smaller and narrower one on the Guzzi. The Norge's screen only has a little more than an inch of adjustment, and its narrow width means there's more turbulence and buffeting.

On the Guzzi, the mirrors are mounted up high and closer to your eyes, so you get a wider field of view. At low speeds or when you lug the engine a bit, they start to blur, and oddly the right mirror vibrates more than the left. The integrated mirrors on the BMW are not perfect either, as they're mounted low under the handgrips, so your hands and the handlebars tend to block some of the view aft.

The RT has two low-beam headlight bulbs and a third is added on high beam. They throw out a wide swath of light on either beam with a good cutoff that makes night riding much easier. The Norge has four projector-beam headlamps, which light in pairs on high- or low-beam. They are very bright, which is great on an empty road, but quite a few drivers we followed indicated their displeasure with them even when on low beam.

Although the dashes on both bikes are easy to read day or night, the LCD readouts on the Guzzi can be hard to see in harsh sunlight. On the RT there's a small storage compartment near the dash, which is handy for stowing sunglasses, etc.

Passenger accommodations are noticeably roomier on the RT than on the Norge. On the Norge, our "test" passenger felt like she was sitting on the rear rim of the seat, and said that the saddlebags were in the way of the footpegs.

Moto Guzzi has three-level heated handgrips as standard equipment, compared to BMW's optional two-level system; so the Norge trumps the RT there. However, the RT offers a slew of options, including heated seats, a CD/radio system, cruise control, tire-pressure monitoring, ESA, alarm, and other features unavailable on the Guzzi.

A rear luggage rack is standard on the RT, and both bikes have top cases available as an accessory. Although their shapes and means of operation are quite different, the standard-equipment hard saddlebags have similar capacity and hold-down straps inside, and each bag can fit an extra-large full-face helmet inside. Moto Guzzi's bags must be locked every time you open or close them, with double latches that are quite fiddly, requiring use of both hands.

BMW has molded the bags in such a way that they don't interfere with the passenger's legs and feet on the footpegs. They don't stick out as much on their mounting brackets and can be opened or closed with one hand. The BMW bags can also be left locked or unlocked, which is convenient when you need to get into them frequently; but they are not perfect. When we descended rapidly from about 7,000 feet to near sea-level, we were surprised to find that we couldn't open the BMW's bags because they are so airtight that higher atmospheric pressure keeps them shut. It took considerable prying and some bent fingernails to finally get them open, followed by an audible "phtttt" as air rushed in around the edges. Although BMW did an admirable job of sealing them, the bags should have a valve to adjust air pressure, or a tiny hole in the bottom.

Summary

Just in case you were wondering, the Norge is named in honor of an endurance trip to Norway (the Italians call it Norge) that Guzzi organized long ago to prove the ruggedness of the company's early motorcycle designs.

Both machines proved to be enjoyable, competent sport-touring rides, each capable of taking their owners on local trips or long-distance adventures in comfort and style. Currently, the price of motorcycles imported into the United States from Germany and Italy is greatly inflated by the weak dollar to strong euro conversion, and this makes these models quite expensive for us stateside. The RT's base retail price starts at more than $ 1,000 above the Norge's, and with the many available options and destination charge the RT's price can break 20 grand.

We found that the BMW R 1200 RT came in first in more areas of the comparison, and it offers many appealing optional features not available on the Moto Guzzi Norge. Both test riders agreed that the RT topped the Norge in overall usability, comfort and performance. But with that said, the Norge is a very nice bike that not only costs less but offers more character and panache than its German counterpart. Confused? Flip a coin.