BMW F 850 GS – Road Test

With the F 850 GS chosen as the official bike of BMW’s International GS Trophy, and the local economy at a standstill, could we see riders of the big boxers choose the smaller bike? Is it coming of age as a worthy alternative? Justus Visagie drinks and knows things.

A 1200 GS rider once told me he prefers the 1200 to the 800 because the bigger bike “is more relaxed at 160 km/h”.

You don’t have to ride fast to appreciate the 1200 and new 1250 engines’ abundant torque and relaxed, low-revving character. But it certainly makes pinning the throttle more addictive than cocaine, sugar or social media. It also explains why the big boxer is the preferred choice, not discounting the convenience and reliability of a shaft, compared to a chain. Add some option packs and extras, however, and you’re nudging R300 000 for a R 1250 GS. That’s a lot of money, especially in a recession.

Photojournalist and guide Willem van der Berg on the BMW F 850 GS, near Carnarvon.
Here the 850 GS is fitted with more sensible Continental TKC80 off-road tyres. The standard Michelin tyres are road biased.

Poor 800 got left behind

Although the 800’s engine isn’t weak, BMW’s medium-weight adventure bike needed a performance boost, after a 10-year model lifespan. KTM had released the 1090 (with a heady 92 kW) as its medium-size adventure bike, just to bin it a couple of years later. The lively Tiger 800 has been eating some of the 800’s lunch and Africa Twin made a successful return in 2016.

All-new 850 engine

For the new F 850 GS, BMW designed a new engine with significant improvements. It’s still an inline two-cylinder engine, but it has a new crankshaft design that changes the cylinders’ firing order, giving it a V-twin exhaust note with attitude. In capacity it has grown from 798cc to 853cc. Maximum power has jumped from 63 to 70 kW and max torque is up from 83 to 92 Nm. (The same 853cc engine is found in the F 750 GS, but there it’s tuned to make 57 kW and 83 Nm.)

Digital instruments replace dials

Another big change is to the instruments. At last BMW abandons analogue gauges. Yes, dials and needles might be “authentic”, but who’s got time to read them? When you see your speed in big, clear digits for the first time, you realise just how hard it is to read an analogue speedo on a motorcycle. By the time I’ve figured out whether the needle is hovering above 130 or 140 km/h, I’m already on candid cop camera.)

The digital instrument screen of the BMW F 850 GS
The old analogue dials and LCD were replaced by this screen that displays info clearly in any light.

The new instrument panel resembles a fat smartphone neatly mounted to the handlebar, in portrait mode. The colour on-screen menu makes it infinitely easier to adjust various settings, for example deactivating ABS on the brakes. The possible adjustments depend on how many extras the buyer ordered, such as electronic suspension adjustment (ESA) for the rear damper.

Torque, tyres and brakes

The 800 cc engine is prone to stalling in first gear, especially when riding on technical terrain. But this seems to be a thing of the past, as there’s so much more torque from the new engine at low revs. That it responds instantly when you twist the throttle also helps.

The 850’s cross-spoked wheels (21” front and 17” rear) were fitted with tubeless Continental TKC80 knobbly tires when I rode it. (The bike’s standard tyres are tar-road biased and tubeless Michelin Anakee 3s). Still, grip on tar was good and allowed fast cornering on mountain passes. The quick-shifter (part of the Dynamic package) enables clutch-free operation, so the rider only has to lift the gear lever or step on it to swop cogs.

Capable and stoppable when necessary

The test ride took ran along rough and narrow single tracks, with a few short rocky sections and a few months later completed a tough Karoo tour without a hint of trouble ever. The 850 performed brilliantly and devoured any path it faced. It’s a touch heavier than the 800, but it feels nimble and easy to control. The bike is quick too and feels like a racehorse that’s eager to run. Its maker says the 850 can exceed 200 km/h.

The front brake is made up of two 305 mm discs with two-piston callipers and ABS. At the rear you’ll find a single 265 mm disc with a single-piston calliper and ABS. They are easy to modulate, have good stopping power and the off-road ABS works really well. The clutch is light and the transmission has a precise feel to it. All in all, the 850 is far superior to the old bike on tar and dirt.

A close-up of the bike, at the summit of Rammelkop pass.
At the summit of Rammelkop pass. BMW says the front of the bike looks more masculine than its predecessor’s.

Configuring an 850

To your ‘blank canvas’ F 850 GS you can add various packages, which happen to be considerably cheaper than those for the R 1250 GS. The 850’s available packages are Comfort (R9 500), Touring (R10 600) and Dynamic (R9 000).

Comfort gives you keyless ride, heated grips, tyre pressure monitoring and a centre stand. Touring consists of Dynamic ESA, cruise control and a case holder with luggage grid. Dynamic is made up of Dynamic Traction Control (DCT) and ABS Pro. The latter allows the rider to brake hard while leaning into a corner, without the bike going upright and ploughing ahead.

Playing with the online configurator at, I added all the packages and everything else the website allowed me to (except additional stickers) and it came to R199 250. There was no option to add a slip-on pipe or luggage, though.

Riding a farm road on the BMW F 850 GS, somewhere in the Karoo.
The F 850 GS proved itself a worthy brother in arms on a 6-day tour in tough Karoo conditions.

850 or 1250?

The F 850 GS is 20 kg lighter than the R 1250 GS and therefore easier to handle on gravel, stones and rock. The 1200 LC and 1250 are still superior gran turismos to the 850, but the substantial power increase allows the smaller bike to cruise leisurely at well above 120 km/h.

Chain maintenance is a disadvantage, but BMW will sell you an automatic chain lubrication system for the 850, so that can help. Carrying capacity isn’t much of an issue. The max permissible weight of the 1250 is 465 kg, against 445 kg on the 850.

The 850 never feels underpowered. Still, its 70 kW / 92 Nm is far from the 1250’s 100 kW and monstrous 143 Nm. Looking at the output of the 2011 R 1200 GS – 81 kW and 120 Nm (on – you’ll notice even that ‘old’ bike had 28 Nm over the new 850.

The bike on Rammelkop pass, Karoo scenery in the background
The short standard screen on the F 850 GS is surprisingly effective.

Show me the money

A quick comparison: the R 1250 GS is priced from R193 900. When I added everything the online configurator had to offer, the total was R286 800. That’s a substantial difference.

Is the F 850 GS powerful enough for someone who considers a ‘downgrade’ from the 1200 or 1250? From a personal point of view, yes.

I suppose for most buyers money will be the deciding factor, with the intended purpose of the bike and the owner’s willingness to perform chain maintenance, as additional factors.

Likes  The performance, throttle response and digital instrument screen

Dislikes  Reliability rumours and suspension inferior to that of the KTM 790 Adventure R

Rating  8/10

Also consider  Honda CRF 1100 L Africa Twin, KTM 790 Adventure R, Tiger 900 Rally, BMW R 1250 GS, BMW F 850 GS Adventure

Specifications of the BMW F 850 GS (2019)

Engine  853 cc, liquid-cooled, transverse straight-twin with dry sump
Transmission  6-speed with anti-hopping (wet) clutch
Power  70 kW @ 8 250 rpm
Torque  92 Nm @ 6 250 rpm
Weight  229 kg (wet)
Seat height  860 mm (lower and higher seats available)
Length  2 255 mm
Width  922 mm
Fuel tank  15 litres + 3.5 litres in reserve
Consumption  4.1 litres/100 km (claimed)
Range  390 km (estimate)
Warranty and service intervals  3 years and 10 000 km
Price  from R154 900, according to the online configurator.

The 850 GS with a plaasdam in the background.
The faithful and resilient 850 GS takes a well-deserved break, while its human cargo cools down in the (plaas) pool.