Reviewers sometimes refer to German cars and motorcycles as clinical and almost too accomplished. It lacks a heart or soul, they would say. Does the retro-modern R 18, with its massive air-cooled boxer engine, bring emotion to the Bavarian stable? Mukhtar Mukuddem mounted this Clydesdale of BMW’s heritage range to find out.
“Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days,” wrote American columnist Doug Larson. Nowhere is this line more apt than with today’s retro bikes. Many riders find motorcycles that pay homage to past models irresistible, hence the popularity of café racers, bobbers and scramblers. If a modern classic can steer, accelerate, brake and corner like a modern machine, while triggering fantasies of a golden era of motorcycling, few rides can be more appealing.
BMW went to a lot of trouble to fuse old and new, even dropping a heap of money on a new air-cooled 1 802 cc “Big Boxer” engine, while honing the visual design to perfection. It truly honours its forebear, the 1936 BMW R 5. Although, compared to the lean and wiry vintage model, the R 18 obviously follows the training regime and diet of a Men’s Health cover model.
You’ve been working out
The protruding heads of the muscular engine immediately grab the attention. They are huge and almost intimidating, and evoke a feeling of awe. The Triumph Rocket 3’s 2 500 cc engine might displace an additional 698 cc, but its three cylinders are tucked into the frame. In contrast, the R 18’s twin cylinders blocks resemble a pair of wings, as if paying tribute to BMW’s aviation heritage. Start the motor, give it a fist full of revs, and the motorcycle leans slightly to the left. Luckily this isn’t really felt on the move.
Looking past the engine, you notice the motorcycle’s fuel tank, finished in classic black paintwork. This being the First Edition, customers are offered the Henry Ford colour palette – you can have any colour as long as it’s black. (The coming batch will have more paint options.)
The rear swing arm, with enclosed axle drive in a rigid-frame design, is a work of art. A surprising feature and definitely a talking point, is the open-running prop-shaft drive, that’s based on the design of its classic role model. Fitted with wire-spoked wheels, the overall look of this machine is classic cruiser.
Mountains of torque
Our test routes included Franschhoek’s Helshoogte pass, the Bainskloof pass near Wellington, and Clarence drive on the R44 to Gordon’s Bay – easily one of the world’s best roads for just about any motorcycle. The low-down torque of the big BMW motor is well suited to the twisties, with nary a gear change needed. I settled on fourth gear for Clarence drive (Route 44), and the engine never laboured.
The throaty roar of the twin exhaust is pitch perfect – not too loud and not too soft, although BMW will happily sell you a louder aftermarket set. European emission laws need to be adhered to, so this is what the bike is kitted with in standard trim.
Weighing in at just under 350 kg, this boxer fights in the heavyweight division. Peak power output is 67 kW (91 hp) at 4 750 rpm, and maximum torque is 158 Nm at 3 000 rpm. A lofty top speed was not a priority for BMW. The spec sheet says it’s 180 km/h, while the 0-100km/h sprint will take 4.8 seconds, in capable hands. Power from low down in any gear is gargantuan, with over 150 Nm available from 2 000 to 4 000 rpm. This bike only needs 1st, 4th and 6th gears!
To test its in-gear acceleration I slowed down to 60 km/h in 6th gear, allowing the revs to drop down to 1 900 rpm. Then I whacked the throttle. The response was instantaneous and I saw 160 km/h on the speedo before backing off. Despite its considerable mass and giant engine, BMW claims consumption of 5.6 litres/100km in ideal circumstances. The fuel tank holds 16 litres.
More soft-tail than hard-tail
At a more sedate 120 or 130 km/h, you can relax and enjoy the plush ride. The suspension soaks up the bumps reasonably well, but don’t expect GS levels of comfort. The springs and dampers do provide a planted feel in the corners, and appear unfussed by surface imperfections. The big bike feels composed while cornering, with a satisfying feel from the front in tight corners.
On some of the twisty bits, the foot-pegs scraped the ground, so clearance can be an issue when leaning into corners. However, most cruiser owners have learned to live with that issue. The R 18’s low seat height (690 mm) caters for short and tall riders, and the seating position gives a balanced feel. You sit ‘in’ the bike, and not on top of it. The standard seat is adequate, although owners can opt for something softer. Other seats are available, including those from US manufacturer Mustang Seat, who offers a variety of hand-made perches.
So, what is it like to ride a cruiser with two 901 cc cylinders, and their shiny domes limiting legroom? It took me a while to adapt, but those head covers were soon forgotten. It will be different on a cross-country journey, where I need to straighten my legs from time to time.
Brakes, gears and gizmos
The brakes, with two 300 mm discs up front and one at the rear, performed well. The bike I rode did have a worrying lack of brake feel at times, requiring a hard pull or press on the chunky levers. It’s possible this was from abuse by other testers in the run-up and during the multiple-day event.
In spite of the bike’s retro image and push-rod engine valves, BMW have thrown the book of modern tech enhancements at it. The R 18 is fitted with engine drag torque control (MSR) that prevents the rear wheel from slipping as a result of abrupt throttling or downshifting on a slippery road. MSR allows the throttle valve to be opened in milliseconds, and works in conjunction with the anti-hopping clutch. The R 18 has a 6-speed transmission and shifts are effortless. It has a meaty, mechanical feel, but there’s no heavy “clunk!” when a gear engages. Pulling the clutch lever requires little effort. The standard trim also includes ASC (Automatic Stability Control), that the rider can deactivate.
Safety and convenience
The riding modes are fun to play with, with a noticeable difference in power delivery. BMW explains the levels as follows: In “Rain” mode, throttle response is gentler and the control characteristics of ASC and MSR allow for slippery road surfaces, thereby ensuring a high level of riding safety. In “Roll” mode, the engine offers optimum throttle response, while ASC and MSR are set to achieve ideal performance on all roads. The “Rock” riding mode allows the rider to tap into the full dynamic potential of the R 18. Here throttle response is spontaneous and direct, while ASC allows a little more slip.
I appreciated reverse assist, which allows the rider to reverse the heavy bike with ease, using the electric starter motor. Hill Start Control (HSC) is useful too. When in neutral, HSC will keep the bike stationary on an incline. It deactivates when you get going, so you won’t be rolling back, only rocking forward all day long. Do note that reverse assist and HSC are optional extras.
Will you be having tassles with that, sir?
Harley-Davidson owners have found that customising a cruiser with branded accessories can easily trim a fat wallet. The Germans too know how to shake this money tree. “More so than virtually any other motorcycle, the new R 18 and R 18 Classic offer a conversion-friendly architecture. This was a focus even in the early design phases of the basic vehicle layout,” BMW says.
As a result, the bike is fitted with an easily removable rear frame and a painted part set that is simple to dismantle. Interface points for the hydraulic lines of the brake, clutch and cable harness allow problem-free installation of higher or lower handlebars. In addition, the cylinder head covers and the engine housing cover are located outside the oil chamber, making them easy to change, the manufacturer says.
Those who want their cruisers to be touring ready from the word go will welcome the forthcoming R 18 Classic. Its standard equipment includes a large removable windshield, saddle bags, a removable passenger seat, two extra LED headlights, and cruise control. It runs a 16-inch front wheel, compared to the First Edition’s 19-incher. The removable saddle bags offer 15.5 litres of luggage volume each. Use the liners, and they hold just 10 litres each.
Does the answer have a question?
The big question is, who will buy this bike? BMW anticipates that some GS riders will want a second bike, and that the R 18, at a thousand rand per kilogram, will be that choice. Neil Berry at BMW Motorrad Cape Town says it seems some R 18 buyers have shifted their allegiance from the Big Cruiser Brand. It’s true that consumers have a thirst for novelty, but this isn’t just a new status symbol – it’s a brilliant bike too.
Time will tell if a R350k cruiser from the Bavarian company will be that natural choice. BMW’s previous cruiser, the R 1200 C, sold a substantial 40 218 units between 1997 and 2004. I know owners who still enjoy theirs and ride them daily, two decades on. A 1250 Cruiser could set the market alight, especially if the R 18 boxer lands heavy punches on the reigning champ.
If you’re asking if the R 18 has as much soul as a Harley-Davidson, you’re asking the wrong question. Because of Milwaukee’s dominance of the class, cruisers are synonymous with the American brand. But the R 18 has a unique character and flavour, and its own 100-year heritage. Yes, there’s that extreme German precision, but the R 18 has a warm heart and doesn’t takes itself seriously. It will have you grinning like a lovesick teen every minute of the ride.
Specifications of the BMW R 18 (2020)
Engine 1 802 cc (110 cui), air-cooled, boxer twin
Transmission 6-speed with slipper clutch, shaft drive
Power 67 kW (91 hp) @ 4 750 rpm
Torque 158 Nm @ 3 000 rpm
Suspension Telescopic fork, 49 mm fork tube (front), and cantilever (rear). Spring travel 120 mm front and 90 mm rear.
Brakes Twin 300 mm discs front, single 300 mm disc rear. Integral ABS
Weight 345 kg (road ready)
Seat height 690 mm for the R 18 and 710 mm for the Classic
Tank 14.5 litres
Consumption 5.6 litres per 100 km (claimed)
Warranty 60 months repairs, no mileage limit, valid worldwide. On-call support within South Africa for the duration of the 5-year warranty.
Service intervals 10 000 km or annually
Price R300 000 for the base model. The First Edition (R350 000) is sold out.