Author: Julian Challis

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure review

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

If there is one motorcycle that could be described as truly genre defining, then it would be the BMW GS Adventure. While virtually every other manufacturer may now offer alternative interpretations, the mighty GS remains the blueprint for how an adventure motorcycle should be put together. From the aggressive styling and the massively powerful engine to the ability to carry impossible amounts of luggage and travel enormous distance both on and off-road, the BMW has defined adventure motorcycling for almost twenty years.

So, the pressure on the designers back in Bavaria to maintain this enviable position is similarly enormous. While it’s ridiculous to suggest that that the German brand could lose its dominance overnight, there is nonetheless a heavy burden of expectation every time the next generation of the GSA is revealed. Can BMW keep improving what is clearly an extremely competent and effective machine and maintain its position at the top?

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

Step forward the bigger GS

The launch of the 2019 GS Adventure came hot on the heels of the standard GS, and with good reason. Sales of the two bikes are almost identical, so to maintain the two options for the hundreds of thousands of loyal and prospective buyers across the world is important. Just a month or so after BMW had entertained Europe’s motorcycling press in sunny Portugal (and the UK press in somewhat cooler and wetter South Wales), we were invited to sample the delights of the new GSA in the altogether more agreeable setting of Almeria in the south of Spain. Blue skies, empty roads and a cool glass of Sangria at the end of the day – it sounded perfect.

The first thing to notice about the Adventure is just how much size and presence the big GS has. Even after you’ve adjusted yourself to the standard GS as being your benchmark, the Adventure is that and more. From the massive 30-litre tank, the beautifully crafted crash bars that wrap themselves around the flanks of the bike to the iconic beak thrusting forward, this machine has some serious attitude. Think Ray Winstone screaming ‘Who’s the Daddy?’ while swinging a cue ball in a sock…

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

Choose your weapon

There are two different contenders to test, and like the previous GS launch deep in the Welsh Valleys, there’s an obvious favourite. In the red corner we have the Adventure TE, finished in silver and grey with red accent colours and black wheels – pretty much the entry level machine although it did have options of the aluminium tank, an alarm and the ‘call an engineer’ button on the right-hand bar. In the blue corner, it’s the utterly gorgeous Rallye TE variant, dripping with racing cool from the massive GS logo and the white, red and blue livery to the white handguards, white frame, gold wheels, and of course, the all-important HP moniker in the side cowl. Adding in the same alarm and Batphone-style emergency call trickery, there still only a trifling £300 between the two bikes. Which one would you pick?

But of course, the more observant BMW aficionados out there will point out that aside from slight variations in colour options, graphics and the odd bit of plastic trim, all of which make a difference, cosmetically the bikes are unchanged since last year. And that’s mostly true although the addition of the LED headlights and the TFT dashboard (more about that later) are significant inclusions that would have set you back the thick end of a grand as aftermarket options on the 2018 model. But the lack of changes to the BMW’s bodywork are intentional, as what has really changed for 2019, and what is the main focus of the new bike, is the engine.

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

New engine tech

BMW has been using the same four-valve technology in its bikes for over a quarter of a decade. Yes, there may have been gradual development of the boxer engine over the years, from the introduction of water cooling and fuel injection to the inclusion of polar-bear-friendly catalytic converters, but essentially the core of the motor has remained unchanged. But, for 2019, the engineers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, ditched the old engine and come bang up-to-date with their Shift Cam system.

Now It would be easy to describe the new tech as simply variable valve timing, but to do so would be a disservice to the amount of work that has gone into the motor. The new system varies not only the timing of the inlet valves but also the length of the stroke; in addition, the two valves open asynchronously (not in coordination with each other) to create a swirl of fuel within the chamber and hence optimise combustion. If this all sounds too complicated, then it’s worth checking out BMW’s handy video on YouTube.

But the real beauty of the new system is just how smoothly the technology manages the transition between the two states. When the bike is under low load, the valves are only opening by a paltry 2mm, conserving the unleaded but still offering great performance. Go past the 5,000 rev mark, or indeed just crack open the throttle, and the hounds of hell are unleashed as those valves are now opening a massive 11mm to deliver the full fuel load to those two massive cylinders.

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

Big punch

Ok, so how does this technology actually feel on the new GSA – can the Adventure’s imposing dimensions cope with this upgrade in the motor? Grabbing the Rallye model as the obvious bike of choice, I head out of the confines of the golf resort onto a small stretch of motorway and straight away it’s a chance to open the taps and spin up the motor. And it’s a truly life-affirming and grin-inducing experience as the BMW surges forward deliciously.

With not only the Shift Cam system but also a capacity increase of some 84cc from 1170 to 1254, the new motor delivers an impressive 9% more power than the 1200 (now up to 136 bhp) and perhaps more importantly, nearly 15% more torque. The switch between the two cams is completely unnoticeable and, to be honest, with such a stunning ride, you quickly stop trying to notice. Fast corners can be devoured effortlessly, and long straights turn into licence-threatening drag strips. Don’t get me wrong, it still feels like a boxer engine, just a really, really quick one.

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

Cockpit and controls

Onto the smaller roads away from the motorway, the slower speeds give an opportunity to assess the Adventure’s cockpit and controls and as with the previous GS, it’s a nice place to be. Central to the fairing is the enormous and superbly clear 6.5” TFT dashboard, now fitted as standard, displaying a smooth arc rev counter over the central speed display. Around the periphery, there’s a selection of other info, from ride mode and gear selected, to ambient temperature, trip meter and time.

If you do want to vary any of this, there’s a menu switch and an easy to use thumb wheel on the left-hand bar that allows you to scroll through options from connectivity to suspension set up. On the same left bar there’s also an analogue cruise control for easy switching in and out on long rides, and with a range of around 400 miles in that tank, you can have some very, very long rides!

The screen is substantially bigger than the stock GS and can be adjusted by turning the knob on the right-hand side. The larger size means that it is not as solid as you might wish, and there is a bit of a shake going on – not a major issue but still there, especially when it’s on the highest setting. There’s a frame between the screen and the TFT unit where the SatNav mounts, and this can be linked into the display and controlled via the thumbwheel. Overall, this is one of the best dashboards we’ve tested.

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

Unchanged chassis

In terms of the chassis, the 1250 is unchanged from the 1200, with a steel trellis wrapping around the motor and a separate subframe picked out in black stretching out towards the rear of the machine. The crash bars snake around the barrels, up to the radiator cowls and terminate just in front of the familiar roundel on the side of the tank. At the rear, the sturdy frames are in place to hold the inevitable hard luggage that will accompany a good proportion of the bikes sold.

The suspension is the same combination of telelever at the front and paralever at the rear, which delivers a rock-solid and dependable ride no matter what you do to get it out of shape. As we were riding the TE versions of the bike, we had the added advantage of the Dynamic ESA suspension to keep things adjusted automatically on the fly according to load, riding style and just about everything else. Once set, this is very much a ‘switch on and let the computer do its thing’ option.

With ESA suspension controlling the springers, the BMW’s also got ASC, Automatic Stability Control, which manages and optimises the traction and, a real bonus for such a physically big bike, there’s a clever Hill Start Control function as standard. Stop on anything more than a 5% gradient and the software hits the anchors until you pull away, without you bothering to touch the brakes yourself. It might sound a tad Big Brother, but it works well.

BMW R 1250 GS review

Fine-tune the performance

As an additional option on the day, and available as an aftermarket add on, there is a plug in that goes under the seat that accesses the Pro riding modes, with Dynamic Traction Control,  ABS Pro, Hill Start Pro, and a configurable Dynamic Pro riding mode that allows you to fine-tune every aspect of the bike’s performance through the TFT screen and the thumbwheel. With limited time on the bike, we didn’t even scratch the surface of what you can do with this level of tech, but if you buy the GS Adventure, there are endless days of joyful fiddling to look forward to.

For both this bike and the stock GS, BMW has changed brake supplier, electing to go with American company Hayes, better known for its mountain bike brakes, for the BMW branded radially mounted front calipers. The change might be more understandable if they’d totally outsourced the brakes to Hayes, but the rear brakes remain Brembo and the curves of the Italian units look mismatched to the blocky American-made calipers up front. Both work faultlessly with plenty of feel at the lever and pedal whether on or off-road, but the mix of suppliers and design seems anathema to the expected Germanic logic.

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

Good road manners

Back to the riding and the run towards the lunch stop was littered with slow hairpins and short point and squirt straights. The GSA responds with confidence-inspiring feedback from the suspension and with the massive torque of the engine, the bike will pull from low revs in whatever gear you chose.  The ABS keeps heavy braking under control, and the neutral riding position and low centre of gravity means that even if you do go in too hot, the bike will smooth things out and get the job done without drama. Although an adventure bike, the use of the 19” front and 17” rear helps here and keeps the balance towards road manners rather than sacrificing stability for off-road heroics.

We stopped for a break from the midday sun at the sweeping Circuito de Almeria, where a procession of leather-clad heroes were carving their way round the sweeping curves and flat-out straights of the race track. Looking round the pit garages, it was an interesting comparison between the sleek and slippery race bikes and the brutalist architecture of the GSA. Next to an S1000RR, the divergence in the form and function of the two BMWs is stark, yet both of them are both at the top of their game – that’s a pretty impressive achievement.

BMW R 1250 GS review

Hitting the trails

As the bikes were running road rubber for the morning, the same pit garages were pressed into use by our hosts to swap over the tyres to some far more suitable set of Pirelli Scorpion Rally for our foray into the soft and sandy trails traversing the centre of the wide Almerian valley. With the motor clicked into enduro riding mode, the rear ABS switched off and the rear brake pedal swapped to the raised position, the GS and I are quickly in our happy place and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company.

The dynamic suspension smooths out the rough stuff as best it can and allows the Adventure to cover the landscape effortlessly. On the trail, the motor is running the lower cams most of the time to deliver caramel smooth power but give it a handful and the bike will light up the rear wheel instantly and rocket you forward in a shower of Spanish gravel.

BMW R 1250 GS review

Faultless balance

You can definitely feel that the front is a tad less stable than if there were a 21-inch wheel there, but it’s really just a case of making an adjustment in the trickier stuff to keep things planted. The dimensions between the seat, pegs and bars make the transition from seated to standing very easy and, once stood up, the balance of the bike is faultless.

Newbies to the BMW adventure range often head for the smaller bikes, but the stability of the bigger machines is arguably far better. Either way, the wide pegs grip well, and the traditionally wide GS bars make piloting the BMW off-road a complete hoot – something this big really shouldn’t be this fun! You can trickle through the nadgery sections with almost trials-like precision and once the trails open up, set the throttle to warp speed and let the Adventure do what it does best.

BMW R 1250 GS review

The new boss – the BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

Heading back to the hotel through a series of trails and then onto the sun-baked roads, the GSA continued to show just how good at both environments it really is, and just why this bike has sold in such prodigious volumes and inspires almost religious loyalty. From weekend bimbles to genuine trans-global adventures, the Adventure will do just about everything you want it to and do it well. If you are a fast rider, it will reward with rock-solid handling, massive power and impeccable road holding. If you are happy to cruise and enjoy the ride at a more modest pace, then the comfortable riding position and smooth power delivery of the GSA will cosset you all day with a smile on your face. And if you want to take it off-road, the new 1250 takes things to the next level.

So, is the 2019 GS Adventure worthy to continue the brand’s hard-fought dynasty? Hell yes.