BMWs. We’re all familiar with them, and can all pick up on the perceived bad things about them (anachronistic switchgear, strange and antique engines, clunky transmission, a bit overpriced) as well as the good (very well built, excellent ergonomics, reliable, far better than they appear) without hesitation. We also all recognise where BMW’s core market is. The slightly sporty side of touring, either with the latest incarnation of their pre-war air cooled boxer twin or their slightly more modern four cylinder brick. Shaft drive, hard luggage, heated grips. That’s what we expect from BMW. The occasional diversion like the F800 series is treated as a bit of an oddity. A lot of people don’t even think BMW make them, that all they do is pop a badge on.
So I couldn’t help but wonder, when BMW announced the S1000RR, exactly what we were going to get. The name is sporty enough, for sure, but the factory’s last sports bike, the R1200S, was quite sporty I suppose but still had far too much tourer in the DNA to cut it in the ultra competitive supersports market. That didn’t stop it being a brilliant bike, but it didn’t help sales. Nor did the hardcore HP2 version, which added some power, tweaked the suspension, lost some weight and cost a packet more. And as more information started to drip through I have to admit that I became increasingly cynical about what we were going to get. Certainly the initial suggestions weren’t encouraging, concentrating as they did on the electronics package likely to be on offer. That’s never a good sign.
When I first saw the bike, at its competition launch at Portimao in February ’09 I was impressed. It looked good, it seemed to go well and yes, a bike with a BMW badge was circulating with genuine World Superbike contenders. Which was a bit of a turnup for the books. I got to ride that bike a bit later and it was dynamite. But nothing like the road bike, of course. How could it be? After all, this was a bike that Troy Corser, twice world champion, was asking to have the power turned down a bit because it was too much. This was most certainly not a road bike.
Well believe it or not, it’s taken until recently for me to have a chance to test the roadgoing version. In case you haven’t had a chance to find out about it for yourself, let’s just have a look at some of the pertinent key points about the S1000RR. First of all, it’s a 1000cc four cylinder across the frame engine, with a conventional gearbox driving the wheel through a chain. Up at the top, switchgear is utterly conventional. Physically the bike is pretty small, it’s rather prettier than most BMWs and it only weighs 183kg. Oh, and it delivers the most horsepower in its class, at a dyno verified 193bhp. At the wheel. If you go for the sports option (and believe me, you should) you get a quickshifter, race ABS and traction control as well. I’ll come back to that.
Approaching the S1000RR for the first time you can’t help but be struck by how BMW it looks in some ways, while being massively different in others. It has typical asymmetric headlights, which still look OK, yet it’s streamlined and rather nice looking. The exhaust is stubby and purposeful, the tailpiece is sharp as you like and the whole thing has an air of purpose and aggression. Being a BMW, of course, that aggression is controlled and managed. One of the other things you’ll notice is that the BMW is beautifully screwed together. And beautifully made, actually, with fabulous attention to detail that could almost be Italian. Swing a leg over and the lack of size becomes even more apparent. As does a most un-BMW like riding position. Though it's still quite comfortable, the S1000RR is very much a bum up, head down sportsbike. And yet despite the sporting bent, the view from the cockpit is unmistakably BMW, with neat, high quality switchgear and a brilliantly clear asymmetric dash.
Switchgear. There's no getting away from it - there are a couple of switches which are somewhat unfamiliar, though the abbreviations will be familiar to anyone with a BMW car. On the left handlebar there is a switch marked DTC/ABS. That's Digital Traction Control and Anti-lock Braking System. While ABS is becoming increasingly familiar on bikes, with almost all BMWs available with it as an option, traction control is still a bit of a novelty. We can argue until we're blue in the face about the value of traction control on the road, and there will still be some out there who also feel that ABS is over-rated as well. For the moment, I'll content myself with explaining it. We can argue the practicalities later. Now this is a pretty sophisticated system. The traction control has four modes - rain, normal, race and slick. Slick mode requires that a jumper is put in a block under the seat to enable it. Though it is then selectable with the mode switch on the right bar, it speaks volumes that a deliberate action is required to make it accessible. Rain mode knocks power down by nearly fifty horsepower and softens throttle response. Normal mode gives full power with a fairly friendly power curve. Race mode is far more aggressive, and allows a small amount of rear slip as well as permitting small wheelies. The final, slick mode, is really only meant for use with slicks on the track, and releases the full savagery of the bike, allowing bigger wheelies and more rear wheel sliding. I didn't get to try this. The system uses a complex combination of accelerometers, wheel speed sensors (from the ABS), throttle sensor and probably something to assess the rider's state of mind to make sure that everything stays in line and under control. And to illustrate its effectiveness, I gave it a simple test. On the track, on a left hand hairpin, I made sure we were turned in and had room to mess around and then simply pinned the throttle. The little yellow light came on right away to tell me that it was keepi9ng me out of orbit. But the bike just accelerated in a nice progressive way. As I straightened and got it picked up the acceleration built until it was firing me down the next straight as fast as I could shift up. It's really, really impressive. Better than the setup I tried on a full SBK spec superbike a couple of years ago. The quickshifter, by the way, is the only part of the package the value of which I could question. It's a good implementation, but probably a waste of time on the road. Personally I clutchless shift anyway, so there's not even that much benefit on trackdays. But it does look and sound trick.
Ignoring the electronics for the moment, the S1000RR is a spectacularly nice bike to ride. Once moving it is comfortable, the mirrors work in a way that one would expect from BMW, the throttle response is wonderful and the brakes are superb, with or without ABS. Handling is astonishing. The turn-in is easy and quick, and once established in a turn the bike is commendably neutral, needing just the slightest pressure to keep it in the turn and reacting sweetly to both changes in line and bumps. I didn't have a chance to ride this bike as much as I'd like, but I don't know that I ever would. What I can say for absolute certain is that this is the safest, most capable sportsbike I have ever ridden. And for someone relatively new to sportsbikes, the increase in safety margin would, I suspect, be enormous. Obviously all the electronics in the world won't overcome the laws of physics, but having something to tame that storming motor until the right hand is attuned to it, as well as something to stop an inexperienced rider locking the brakes when something goes wrong, must surely contribute to an improvement in single vehicle accidents.
It may sound as though I'm a convert, and to tell the truth I am. In all my years of testing bikes this is the first that I've ever seriously considered changing my current machine for. It's blisteringly, stupidly fast. It handles like a racebike. It's practical enough that I could imagine using it all day. It has sufficient toys to keep me amused for hours, some of which will go some way toward keeping me out of hospital. You can turn off the nannying bits if you feel especially butch or have run out of medication. And it looks great. The only bad thing is the price. A base price of £11,190 isn't too bad when compared to its peers, but when you add the £1310 for the electronics and another £400 for the paintwork it gets a bit steep.
But if I had the money I'd buy one like a shot. I'm still working on it...