BMW GT1600

Story by Uwe Wachtendorf// Photos by Uwe Wachtendorf
July 1 2011

2011 BMW K1600GT & GTL – Press Launch

Like a person who alters their life after surviving a near-death experience, BMW is a changed company. Rather than a cataclysmic event, BMW’s change was spurred by the tentative future of motorcycling and the necessity of attracting younger buyers to their range of motorcycles. The first sign that BMW understood the need for change was the release of the S1000RR, their first-ever, in-line, four-powered superbike. And it would appear that they got it right. The S1000RR became the best selling BMW in the United States last year. In Canada, the top seller was the F650GS, but only because of a supply issue, not a lack of interest. “We sold every S1000RR that we could get our hands on,” commented Rob Dexter of BMW Canada. “Production versus demand was not skewed in our favour last year.”

Following the challenge of putting an ultra-performance motorcycle in their showroom, BMW moved on to designing a pair of über-tourers, the K1600GT and K1600GTL. The new high-end touring bikes are indicative of BMW’s change in direction. The new machines embrace what younger riders value most: edgy performance combined with the latest electronic innovations. While there were many challenges facing K1600 designers, among the more worrisome for BMW was to convince people that they needed to have this particular motorcycle. Pieter de Waal, VP of BMW Motorrad USA, summed up the angst experienced by plunging into the unknown: “We took a deep breath, made the calculations and realized how hideously expensive it would be to build. We also decided that if you really go for something that exceeds, people will buy it.”

And exceed it has. Early signs indicate that the Bavarian bike-builder’s efforts have struck a chord with potential buyers, as the 2011 production run has almost sold out on the strength of pre-orders alone. Although the introduction of the K1600s has caused BMW to drop the K1300GT from their line-up, they’re quick to point out that it shouldn’t be considered a direct replacement of their K1200LT luxury tourer. In an example of “out with the old, in with the new,” the LT was BMW then; the K1600 is what BMW is now. Lumbering and stodgy has been replaced by a more svelte and powerful form of touring.

While absorbing the technology and features that have been built into these two models, it’s easy to lose sight of the main story – the six-cylinder powerplant that propels the bike. Drawing on their automobile heritage and extensive experience with in-line, six-cylinder engines, BMW has built what they say is the lightest and most compact engine of its kind. Weighing 103 kg (including the clutch, gearbox and alternator) and only measuring 56 cm in width, the engine is almost comparable to four-cylinder units. Its compressed mass was achieved by spacing the cylinder sleeves only 5 mm apart and by using a tight valve angle to create a compact, high-compression (12.2:1) combustion chamber.

The most notable qualities of the 1649 cc engine were its smooth operation and powerful thrust. It felt remarkably similar to an electric motor; aside from the sports sedan snarl that emanated from the exhaust at higher revs, the engine was almost completely silent. Then there was the instant torque hit whenever I twisted the throttle. Seventy percent of the engine’s maximum torque of 175 N-m is claimed to be available by 1500 rpm – there’s more torque available right off idle than the peak available from BMW’s superbike. These engine traits, combined with its perfect fuelling and ability to spool up quickly, made the bike deceptively fast; every time I glanced at the K1600’s speedometer, it was a shock. Clearly, riding this barnstormer required a recalibration of my seat-of-the-pants speed sensor.

The only mechanical issue I encountered was with the six-speed gearbox that dropped into neutral a few times and required a deliberate prod to ensure a positive shift. With only 400 km on the odometer, I suspected it was more of a break-in issue; sure enough, when I switched to a higher-mileage bike later in the day, the gearbox was free of any issues. Surprisingly for a clutch mated to such a powerful engine, its action was much lighter than expected, a benefit of the self-energizing mechanism incorporated into the hydraulic system to reduce operating effort. The K1600s are also equipped with a slipper clutch, and I didn’t waste any time finding out that the six-cylinder’s potential for engine braking had to be respected; dropping two gears before a turn was more than enough to momentarily lock the rear wheel and cause a slight slide before the slipper did its job and restored order.

BMW says their new engine sets a benchmark for riding range, claiming that riders can expect to reach over 480 km between fill-ups. Purportedly 10 percent more fuel efficient than the four-cylinder engine in the K1300GT that has been replaced, the ranges of the GT and GTL are further bolstered by their respective 24 and 26.5 litre tanks. Based on the onboard fuel computer, I was averaging 364 km per tank from the GT and 384 km from the GTL, neither of which had fully broken-in engines, and which were being ridden with a heavy throttle hand.

Acting as an intermediary between the rider’s right hand and the engine’s throttle bodies is a ride-by-wire system, which is controlled by a new fully sequential ECU capable of cylinder-selective fuel injection. Since the system also controls ignition timing and injection mapping, it is able to give riders a choice of three riding modes. The most restrictive is Rain, which reduces maximum available torque and moderates the throttle’s response. Road and Dynamic modes both allow maximum torque; however, Dynamic has the more direct throttle response of the two. You can switch between all three on the fly by using a right-side, handlebar-mounted button and then pulling in the clutch lever to engage the new setting. Changing the modes has an appreciable effect on the bike’s performance; I had imagined that Dynamic mode would have been the most entertaining for firing through the tight confines of a mountain road, but it was actually the more moderate Road mode that I preferred. The more abrupt hit of power from Dynamic was a rush on fast sweepers, but Road is smoother when feathering the throttle through more technical turns.

Adding another dimension of rider safety is Dynamic Traction Control (DTC). An option on the GT, but standard equipment for the GTL, it’s the same anti-spin technology that first appeared on the S1000RR. The system’s base settings complement each of the three riding modes by being most intolerant to spin in Rain mode and less intrusive during Dynamic. Although it’s also possible to entirely disable it, I can’t think of why the average rider would ever want to. On a section of road in desperate need of resurfacing and littered with tar snakes and a dusting of gravel, I remained on the throttle through a turn and could feel the DTC engage a couple of times. More subtle than bouncing off a rev-limiter, DTC’s intervention did nothing to upset the chassis or cause any handling issues.

Power is delivered to the rear wheel via a shaft in an updated version of BMW’s single-sided Paralever swingarm. The Paralever was beefed up to handle the additional strength of the K1600’s big engine, and although the bike’s ride characteristics made it obvious that a shaft was in use, the Paralever did a good job of minimizing the effects of shaft-jacking on the chassis.

As I expected from the company that first introduced ABS to production motorcycles, the K1600s come standard with Integral ABS brakes. Not overtly powerful, the brake system worked well and proved its capabilities on the mountain roads that we were riding. Not a fully linked system, these bikes have what BMW calls a part-integral system, which applies pressure on the rear brake when the front brake lever is squeezed, but operating the rear brake has no effect on the front. Most linked systems compensate for a rider’s inability to evenly brake the front and rear; with this system, applying only the front brake slows the rear wheel enough to help settle the chassis and keep everything in line.

Every bike I rode was equipped with BMW’s Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA II) system (it’s standard on the GTL, but an option for the GT). ESA II allows riders to choose between three preset suspension settings (Sport, Normal and Comfort) while on the fly; it works so well, I can’t imagine why anyone would order a BMW without it. Entering a tight set of twisting turns with the ESA II set on Comfort, it wasn’t long before the peg feelers began to scrape tarmac. However, switching to Sport between turns solved the clearance issues (until the pace was increased further). After experimenting with all three settings, I found Comfort best for rough roads at a casual pace, Normal for higher speeds on good roads, and Sport for getting silly.

When considering that both models share the same chassis and engine, it’s surprising just how different they felt on the road. Both use the same lightweight, chill-cast aluminum frame that incorporates a magnesium front section, but the GT’s suspension has firmer rear damping. As expected, minus the top case that comes standard on the GTL, the GT was the more capable handler of the two, even though the GTL also exhibited exemplary road manners. In quick transitions, where the end of one turn led straight into the beginning of the next, it was fairly easy to pick the GT up and throw it over to the opposite side.

Airflow around the wind tunnel–developed bodywork was quiet and free of any turbulence. The electrically adjustable windscreen with its ability to adjust airflow and wind protection on the go by simply pressing a button was an indispensible accoutrement, to my mind. Although the screen automatically lowers when the ignition is shut off (it also locks the GPS system in place), its memory function will return it to your last setting when the bike is restarted. At the convergence between the upper and lower fairings, there are two large spoilers that can be folded out to divert a blast of cooling air toward the rider. Doing so completely changed the aerodynamics of the bike and required a screen adjustment to stop the wind from buffeting my helmet. Even the panniers were designed with airflow in mind; winglets mounted on their sides help to minimize drag and prevent dirt from collecting on the back of the motorcycle.

Just sitting on the GTL revealed that it’s a very different machine from the GT. Most obvious was the difference in its ergonomics; where the GT places the rider in a modest forward cant on a height-adjustable seat that allows fore and aft movement, the GTL riding position is more upright and in tune with what you would expect from a touring rig. Its wider and better-padded seat is much lower to the ground; the handlebar draws in closer to the rider; and even though the footrests are lower and further forward, as a six-foot-one guy, I felt cramped on the bike. The GTL’s seat was also more confining and locked me in one riding position. However, I could see how all of this would make for a comfy riding position for someone shorter than me.

The GTL also has a bigger windscreen. Unfortunately, it isn’t scalloped at the top like the screen on the GT, so it needed to be in a lower position if I wanted to see over it, at which point it buffeted my helmet. A standard-issue top case doubles as a backrest for passengers and makes the GTL a more practical two-up tourer. For added convenience, its hard luggage, along with the waterproof audio and storage compartments, are centrally locked by servomotors (an option for GT) that can be operated either from a remote fob or a button on the right handlebar.

I was immediately won over by the modern and elegant appearance of the instrumentation; in particular, the razor-sharp image provided by the 14.5 cm colour TFT LCD screen that dominated the cockpit. The screen remained legible in all lighting conditions, and its information was manipulated by a four-way multi-controller that first premiered on the 2010 BMW R1200RT. The thumb-wheel, located at the base of the left-hand grip, was very easy to use and made navigating the numerous colour-coded menus a breeze. It’s a brilliant solution that keeps the handlebar free from the clutter of myriad buttons. Riders have the option of displaying onboard computer info, the motorcycle’s settings, ESA II settings, audio system functions, GPS functions and heated grips and seat settings.

The sound system’s performance at highway speeds was lacklustre. Competing with wind and engine noise, a full-face helmet and a set of earplugs, it was difficult to hear whether I was listening to Beethoven or AC/DC. Opening the visor helped, as did raising the windscreen above eye level, but the most effective solution would be to use a helmet equipped with BMW’s Communicator system. The special Bluetooth system provides a full two-way stereo integration of all systems including the inclusion of a second helmet worn by a passenger. Helmets equipped with other Bluetooth systems will also work, albeit with limited functionality. Audio-equipped models receive a row of buttons down the left-side fairing surround, which I wish had been incorporated into the left-side handlebar control instead, as they were a nuisance to use. Aside from regular and satellite radio sources, the audio system can also play music from MP3 and iPod players, USB memory sticks or any other device that uses a 3.5 mm headphone jack.

When lowered, the motorcycle’s windscreen prevents the removal of the Navigator IV GPS made by Garmin. Although the trick GPS is an option on both models, the GTL comes standard with the $550 preparation kit required to install it. The Navigator IV will cost you another $799, but it directly connects to the on-board bus and integrates itself with the bike’s onboard computer, providing features not available on any other GPS. For example, its Fuel Assistant displays the residual fuel range of the bike and will warn you when that distance is below your programmed limit, at which point it will begin to guide you to the nearest gas station. There are also advanced trip-logging functions that allow riders to save and wirelessly share stored rides via Bluetooth to other Navigation IV owners. Many of the GPS’s functions, such as repeating the current navigation announcement, zooming in and out of the map, and toggling between its various screens can be controlled through the bike’s multi-controller.

BMW’s new six-cylinder, powered tourers don’t easily fit into an existing category. Round pegs being driven into square holes, they’re too well equipped to be sport tourers and too sporty to be considered hardcore touring rigs. One thing is certain: these technologically driven, high-performance machines will attract a younger rider – or riders who are younger at heart. If anything, BMW has made a brilliant manoeuvre by conceding the ultra-laidback touring niche that Honda has dominated for decades with their Gold Wing, and instead targeted a new generation of long-distance enthusiasts. BMW expects to sell twice as many GTL models as the GT, and the early demand for both has exceeded all expectations; that’s good news for shareholders and purchasers alike. However, if you’re thinking about buying a K1600, I would recommend test riding both before making any decision. It’s not a question of whether or not to get a K1600, but which model best suits your needs.

The Halo Effect

Proficient at tripping the light fantastic, the new BMW K1600 is a proven dancer in the dark.

(For the sidebar I was hoping to use two of the night ride photos; one of the side of the bike with its headlight shining down the road, and one facing the headlights that show the halos around the projectors.)

Riding under a moonless sky, the road ahead of me was suddenly engulfed in the blackness of a dense wood. As I hurtled into the abyss at breakneck speed, I felt a sensation of impending doom; I was convinced that my headlight was about to be rendered as useless as a flashlight pointing into the vortex of a black hole. Had I been riding a motorcycle with a conventional lighting system I would have been right, but I was riding a K1600GT equipped with the world’s first Adaptive Xenon headlight system, and I was about to be astounded by what I would experience.

Standard equipment on the GTL, the Adaptive Headlight system is only available as part of the optional Safety Package for the GT, which also includes Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) and Tire Pressure Control (TPC). DTC is essential to the Adaptive Headlight system because of its gyro equipment that supplies lean angles to the bike’s computer. Since the Adaptive Headlight compensates for both the machine’s roll and its pitch, it uses the lean-angle information and a servomotor to control a pivoting mirror that keeps the projected beam pointing in the direction you’re travelling toward.

I quickly became accustomed to the novelty of my headlight sweeping back and forth like a searchlight announcing the opening of a new nightclub. The system worked well regardless whether I was using the low or high beam, and the servomotor had no problem tracking the motion of the motorcycle. At times, it actually seemed to anticipate where I wanted to go before I had even begun to steer the bike. The only problem I encountered was when I was pushing hard through a series of quick side-to-side transitions and the beam couldn’t keep pace. Of course, I was riding far more quickly than I normally would in the dark, for no other reason than to try and trip the system up.

If I wasn’t already convinced of the merits of this new (to motorcycles) technology, a potentially dangerous situation pressed the point home. While rounding a right-hand corner with my headlight canted into the turn, I could plainly see that a tree had fallen onto the road and was blocking half of my lane. I had plenty of time to swerve around the obstacle and wonder for a moment if the tree might have been intentionally felled by BMW Motorrad staff to prove a point. It was a silly notion; such a stunt would have been far too dangerous, even if it did influence a group of skeptical journalists.

My night run also gave me a chance to admire the instrumentation’s lighting, which was pleasing to the eyes. Although the sound system’s buttons on the left fairing side panel were illuminated, none of the controls on the handlebar were, and I had to rely on my memory of where everything was located. Looking at the front of the bike, I was presented with a purely demonic visage; two fibre-optic rings surround the high-beam projectors and mimic the crazed stare of a BMW sedan.

LED technology is used extensively for the other lighting functions, and brightly illuminated the taillight, turn signals and the optional fog lights (standard on the GTL). BMW also sells a ground-effect lighting kit to illuminate the underside of the motorcycle whenever the ignition is switched on or off, or the central locking system is activated.

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