2009 BMW F 800 GS

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: BMW North America, Jonathan Beck

The moral of the age-old tale is: Sometimes you have to taste a lot of porridge before you find the bowl that's "just right."

Though I admire its go-anywhere capability, I've always found BMW's R 1200 GS Adventure rather intimidating where the pavement ends. Its considerable size, power and mass combine to make it a handful on single-tracks; while on gravel, getting it to change direction at speed stretches my confidence limit.

On the other hand, the fire-road friendlier F 650 GS single wasn't really up to high-speed highway distances. So, I wondered whether the new F 800 GS twin could satisfy Goldilocks, or would it turn out to be an unfortunate compromise?

In the summer of 2006, I spent a week riding the F 800 ST, the sport-touring version of the 800cc twin cylinder range, and I remember thinking, "if they put this engine in a GS, it'll be a winner…"

The Inevitable Motorcycle

BMW pretty much invented the adventure dualsport motorcycle with the 1980 marriage of its 800cc boxer twin and the lightweight R65 chassis. So ever since the appearance of the F 800 S and ST in 2006, there hasn't been much doubt that BMW would build a Gelaende Strasse around the Rotax-designed, 800cc parallel twin. But it took until February 2008 before the F 800 GS was finally launched at a world press bash in South Africa. Even then, North Americans had to wait until the fall before the official US launch in Moab, Utah in October, with the new bike arriving as a 2009 model.

The importance of the launch was reflected by the presence of BMW-Motorrad USA VP Pieter de Waal, who is surprisingly candid about BMW's plans for its GS range, easily the most important sector of its business, with impressive sales numbers. Anticipated 2008 sales tallies are 36,000 units worldwide (R 1200 GS & Adventure), with BMWs making up more than 50 percent of all dualsport bikes sold. The objective of the F 800 GS, says de Waal, is to cement BMW's dominance in this sector.

Design goals for the new bike were a twin-cylinder engine in the 650-800cc range, which reflects the growing importance of that sector, (exemplified by the Kawasaki Versys, Suzuki V-Strom and SV650), and it had to be easy to ride, light and agile, too. "A state of the art Afrika Twin," said de Waal, referencing Honda's now extinct 1990s' 750cc dualsport.

What BMW actually produced were two bikes: the F 800 GS and the unhelpfully named F 650 GS (using the same 800cc engine). The F 650 GS would compete with the Versys and V-Strom in the "soft" off-road sector (replacing the old single-cylinder F 650 GS), while the F 800 GS would slot into what BMW Market Intelligence Manager Anthony Arbolino calls a "gaping hole" in the market for a more powerful dualsport bike with off-road emphasis.

The F 800 GS uses the same 85hp liquid-cooled, 360-degree parallel twin, DOHC four valve, four-stroke engine as the F 800 ST, but with new lower engine cases to reduce the cylinders' forward lean. A third connecting rod at 180 degrees to the other two attaches to a pivoted balance weight, neutralizing the primary vibrations inevitable with a 360-degree twin. New cams give improved torque.

The engine goes into a tubular steel frame carrying a 45mm Marzocchi USD fork at the front with 9 inches of travel rolling on a 21-inch front wheel. At the rear, a direct-acting Sachs suspension unit gives the 17-inch rear wheel 8.5 inches of travel via an aluminum swingarm. Wheels are conventional wire-spoke, using tires with inner tubes. Brakes are dual 11.8-inch front discs, each with dual floating calipers, while the rear uses a single 10.4-inch disc and single caliper.

Interesting features include the BMW can-bus electrical system for tidier wiring and easier diagnostics; a wet multiplate clutch for off-road; clutch-slipping durability; a 400-watt alternator with dashboard power outlet; and also optional trip computer, heated grips, anti-theft system and ABS.

Down in the Dirt

At 392 pounds dry, the F 800 GS should feel pretty light, but I also note the 455lbs of wet weight when I climb aboard the next morning. So, though much lighter than the 504-lb R 1200 GS and 564-lb Adventure, it's still no lightweight - around the same as an "airhead" GS from the 1980s, in fact. I've chosen the optional lower seat (a no-charge dealer fitment) giving a stated 33.5 inches, 1.1 inch lower than standard, which fits me perfectly.

The F 800 GS is aimed more at off-road riding, so our bikes are fitted with Continental TKC80 knobbies, and the rubber covers have been removed from the footpegs for better boot grip. We'll cover around 130 miles of off-road, with short bursts of tarmac: canyon riding in the morning, with an afternoon of alpine touring in the Lasal Mountains. All the bikes we're riding are fitted with the optional trip computer (which includes the gear position indicator), heated grips, and optional ABS. The ABS default setting is "on," so it's important to remember to turn it off before heading off-road. Unfortunately, the bike needs to be stationary for that…

I'm immediately impressed by the stability and balance of the 800 on rutted canyon single-tracks, and it's much more controllable than I'm used to (my regular off-pavement ride is a 1991 R 80 GS Paris-Dakar). Steering is quick and light, and the overall impression is "nimble." The engine is quite happy to plod along at little more than idle speed, yet responds instantly when the throttle is opened. This is an endearing trait, and it boosts confidence over loose rock and slippery slopes. I'm also impressed with the amount of suspension travel, though there is a slight harshness to the ride, and I would have preferred softer springs or a better quality fork. So, although the suspension is more direct than my Öhlins-equipped PD, and the steering therefore more precise, the ride isn't nearly as plush.

On our first tarmac excursion, I wind the GS up through the gears, and like the ST, the GS has power and speed aplenty. The willing engine revs easily and smoothly, to a point: above 6,000rpm a typical parallel twin buzz comes up through the pegs - the insulating rubber covers are missing, of course - but there's little vibration through the bars.

We head across the Lasal foothills on a broad, dusty dirt road where the GS really feels properly composed, and I'm surprised at how much confidence I have. But I've forgotten to turn the ABS off at the last stop, and as I round a bend, there's a T-junction right ahead. I hit the rear brake expecting to slide gracefully to a stop, but the ABS prevents the rear wheel from locking and I roll straight ahead into a soft earth berm. Hmmm… BMW expects that 95 percent of F 800 GS buyers in North America will opt for ABS (it's part of their standard option package), but I'd want to find a way of turning it off "on the fly," or changing the default setting.

Into the Hills

After lunch, we speed through fast tarmac twisties between towering hills of red rock and scrub, then blast over more miles of graded gravel before heading into the Lasals. We're climbing on a narrow dirt road a recent shower made slick. There are also technical sections where the dirt has washed away, exposing crumbling rock and a layer of sharp stones. Standing on the GS footpegs is quite comfortable with an easy reach to the bars, and the bike feels very stable ridden this way, in spite of being thrown around by the loose surface.

We climb and keep climbing, heading for the 10,000-ft Geyser Pass, and I'm grateful for the optional heated grips. Snow lines the narrow trail as we reach the summit under a shimmering canopy of golden aspens. The descent is more orderly on a winding hard-packed dirt trail, but as soon as we hit gravel, the GS bucks and slides around under me. The fine pea gravel is like riding on marbles, and I tread very gingerly until we meet tarmac in Castle Valley.

It's been a great romp, and the GS has proved itself capable of some challenging off-road conditions - though not without some problems. One bike suffered a loose brake caliper, another developed some steering head slack and a broken fender stay, and one journo caught a rock in the plastic-cased heat exchanger, punching a hole in it and causing an oil leak. These were minor issues, though, considering the punishment - and accessory guards are now available for the vulnerable heat exchanger.
Has BMW achieved its goal of creating a viable dualsport bike intended to spend at least half its time off tarmac? And is the marketplace ready for something badder-than-the-big-boxer bike?

All dualsport bikes make compromises of one kind or another, which places them somewhere on the crud-to-cruiser continuum. With the F 800 GS, the signals are mixed. The 21-inch front wheel and wire spokes say off-road, but the big disc brakes, USD fork and high-output liquid-cooled engine say street. I'm also suspicious of shiny plastic bodywork on motorcycles that will inevitably end up dumped in the dirt. OK for Ewan and Charley, but costly for the rest of us.

Mixed signals or not, this is an outstanding all-round motorcycle, and by filling a gap in the middle of the GS range it also fends off competition in this hot market sector. It's not as sophisticated as the "big" GS, but it's nowhere near as bulky. It reminds me of the best dualsport bike Ducati never built: the 900SS-powered Cagiva E900 Elefant from the mid-1990s.

Though perfectly capable of long dirt-road detours, the F 800 GS - just like all the GSs over the last 30 years - also makes an excellent street bike. The upright seating position instills cornering confidence, and the supple dual-sport suspension works better in that place we all inhabit, the "real world." I'm looking forward to riding some maintenance-challenged mountain roads where I'm sure I'll see off some sportbikes. And with accessory luggage from the BMW catalog, it should make a splendid touring bike, too!

To sum up: BMW hits their target spot-on. The F 800 GS is "just right!"