New‌ ‌Genre,‌ ‌New‌ ‌Model

Story by David Booth// Photos by Kevin Wing
May 13 2020

A crossover that bridges the gap between off-road-capable and hard-on-the-body sport bike.

Methinks BMW likes inventing new vehicle classifications. Maybe they really do think they are inventing something all-new. Perhaps it’s just the hubris of sales success that makes them feel like they’re the market leader among motorcycle manufacturers. Whatever the case – and whether it’s two wheels or four – the company just loves coming up with what they think are catchy new segment … umm … segmentations.

On the car side, BMW’s “ultimate driving machine” division believed that traditional sport utility vehicles didn’t quite capture all that is Bayerische Motoren Werke’s version of the SUV, the appellation simply too pedestrian, I suspect, and not, according to the company’s marketing mavens, capturing the true essence of the Munich company’s engineering. Thus did the X5, which began all this nonsense, become an SAV instead of an SUV, the former the acronym for Sports Activity Vehicle.

Now you might well wonder what difference the words “activity” and “utility” profess in what is, after all, just a two-box station wagon with a few extra centimetres of ground clearance. I would have, for example, presumed that something that was utilitarian would include a number of activities, but maybe that’s just me. I suspect that what really got them off was the inventing of a new model designation. That’s why, not content to just invent the Adventure Touring market – and own it with the R1250GS – BMW had to come up with something they call Adventure Sports.

Introducing Another Genre

Now if you’re BMW, you’ll put out all manner of marketing into how the Sports version of Adventuring is more, well, sporty than the Touring varieties. Officially, you might even describe the subsegment as having “sporty riding dynamics combined with upright, GS-like ergonomics.” But considering that the 1250GS boasts a pretty sporting-in-its-own-right 135 hp, the marketing tag line sounds like a whole lotta bull patooties to me. Indeed, as far as I can see, the major difference between an Adventure Sports and an Adventure Touring bike seems to be a 17-inch front wheel (versus 19 inches), a cut-down fairing/windshield and, were I a cynic, a deliberately less comfortable seat. Otherwise, they look pretty darned similar to me.

That’s not to say they don’t both suit a purpose. As BMW points out, just as Sport Tourers have gone the way of the dodo bird (supplanted by the Adventure Touring motorcycle), so too have pure sporting motorcycles. Hence, Adventure Sports bikes are the same formula applied to the Supersport category; take the same engines, foist them into something that looks like a dirt bike, massage in a dirt bike-like upright seating position and then render the whole ungainly looking mess as sporty as the superbikes they’re designed to replace.

A Worthy Change

Complicated — and perhaps unnecessary — nomenclature aside, Adventure Sports bikes really do serve a purpose. BMW’s S1000XR, for example, is the company’s superbike made amenable to those with aging lumbars and sore wrists. It’s fast, it handles a treat and, most important, won’t send you to the chiropractor after just an hour of riding.
And so that same formula has been applied to BMW’s budget F-series. Take one F850, bore it out by two mils to 895 cc, add some very slick bodywork – impressively similar to the well-received S1000XR – and one has the new F900XR, complete with the same sporty handling and, unfortunately, similarly uncomfortable seat.

It’s a pretty impressive ride. In fact, having never really got along all that well with the S1000XR Adventure Sportster (the hyper engine and the relaxed riding position don’t quite gel for me), I have to say that except for the seat – I will carp on that in earnest a little later – the F900XR is my new favourite BMW.

Nominal Boost

First, there’s the engine, which – thanks to its boost in displacement and its offset crankshaft – is more rewarding, both physically and aurally. A close look at the specs reveals that outright power is not really much increased. In fact, the peak torque is exactly the same. Also worthy of note is that BMW’s North American F900s only output 99 hp
(compared with the BMW F850GS’s 95 hp) rather than the 105 hp European versions boast. The difference is our crappy gas – 96 octane being common on the Continent – and the fact that BMW’s parallel twin, being its budget engine (perhaps too budget-minded) has no detonation sensor. Retarding ignition timing was thus the only solution to cope with low-octane North American fuel.

Nonetheless, the extra 42 cc are well worth it. There’s a healthy dose of grunt down low followed by a semi-potent top end. No, the F900’s engine does not rev as hard as some of the segment’s triples – aka Triumph’s Tiger – but neither is this the plodding parallel twin of old. It goes good, it feels good and it sounds good, mainly because…
Like many current twins, the F900’s crank journals have been rotated by 90 degrees, creating a 270/450-degree firing pattern rather than the traditional 360-firing order. The theory behind such machinations is that this will make a lowly parallel twin feel – and sound – like a more sophisticated V-twin.

Could Easily Get You into Trouble

Unlike so many other bike manufacturers that have tried the same trick, BMW has actually made this offset crankpin thing work. Down low, there’s an authoritative rumble that later translates into a pretty energetic roar – the F900 is the best-sounding stock parallel-twin I’ve tested in a while. However, said offset does cause a little vibration, which BMW counters with twin counter-balancers that quench virtually all the vibes till about 6,500 rpm. By that time, thanks to surprisingly tall gearing, you’ll be well into “arrest me now and arrest me now for stunting” speeds.

Meanwhile, a mechanical “anti-hopping” clutch is standard equipment and BMW throws in an optional, electronically controlled back torque limiter if you’re really ham-handed at shifting. In other words, the powertrain is well done and, other than the questionable Cheap Charlie-ing in the detonation sensor area – which, as I said, costs our 900s some six horsepower – it’s a worthwhile improvement over previous F models, even if there is not a gargantuan leap in power.

Built to a Price

Like the engine – again, its lack of an anti-knock sensor – the F900’s suspension is also built to a price. The 43-mm inverted fork is completely devoid of adjustment and the rear shock is adjustable only for rebound damping and spring preload (although, thankfully, this last has a remote hydraulic adjuster).

No matter. The XR’s 170 mm of travel front and rear is pretty well calibrated, firm enough to keep things on the straight and narrow when speeds get silly (remember, this is a Adventure Sports motorcycle), yet compliant enough that some of the few bumpy California roads we found were well handled. For those looking for the cheapest, again, Adventure Sports BMW they can find, the stock suspension will be more than adequate.

Like many BMWs, the F900XR will offer a Dynamic ESA (electronic suspension adjustment) option. Unlike other, more costly BMWs, said electronically adjusted damping will be available in the rear. The front will continue with manual – actually, there’s no – adjustability.

We didn’t test the F900’s ESA system; BMW hasn’t ramped up production yet and so there were no ESA-equipped F900s available to ride. Therefore, I can offer no concrete evaluation of those bikes. However, I will say this: the stock suspension was adequate enough that should I were riding mostly solo, I might forgo the expense of the ESA system. Were I, however, often riding with a passenger, I might fork over the $910 BMW Canada wants for the Comfort package – which also includes Keyless Ride and a centre stand — mainly because the standard preload adjuster is a bit hard to reach.

Handles Well

Either way, the 900XR will handle a treat. Light weight always being a virtue, the F900 is easy to bend into bends – there are plenty, as you’ve read, in California – the XR tracking precisely, neither falling in or requiring extra effort to keep on an intended line. That’s helped by reasonably sized (at least, by today’s standards) tires – a 120/70R17 on the front and a 180/55R17 on the rear – and the leverage offered by the wide Adventure-style handlebar. If you’re looking for a reason, besides cost, to opt for 900XR instead of its monstrous 1,000 cc sibling, this fleetness of foot is the F900’s best foot forward.

As for comfort, the F900’s success is dependent on your outlook. If you’re comparing it with an adventure-touring bike – say, a R1250GS or even an F850GS – then wind protection is lacking and the seat uncomfortable. Of the two, the latter is more problematic. There’s the standard shield – there is a no-cost short “sport” shield available – and, in its lowest position, it offers a decent balance between coverage and lack of turbulence.

The seat, on the other hand, may be the firmest plank ever offered on a stock motorcycle. Seriously, its sculpted shape isn’t altogether bad, but why BMW thought that foam with the consistency of concrete might be a boon to posterior comfort remains a mystery. One clue is that the naked F900R bike, despite having almost 40 mm less suspension travel only has a 10 mm lower seat height, the difference made up by the XR’s thinner perch. Whatever the case, if you’re looking for the difference between Sports and Touring versions of BMWs Adventure bikes, look no further than their seats.

Sophisticated Brakes

As for features and gadgets, BMW is, as you can tell by the suspension options, really trying to keep the price of the F900s down. That’s not to say there are no high-tech features; simply, they are Spartan. All F900s get LED headlights and Bluetooth connectivity. Anti-lock brakes are also standard issue and quite a sophisticated example of the breed. Not only are the front calipers four-pot affairs, but the hydraulics modulating all the ABS-ing are quite unobtrusive, it being extremely hard to feel the hydraulic pressure cycling even when you know the anti-lock electronics are doing their thing.

There is quite a long list of high-tech options, the most useful of which – at least, the ones I think are useful – are a keyless ignition system ($315), adaptive cornering lights, the aforementioned Dynamic ESA system ($910 in the aforementioned Comfort package) and BMW’s very well-engineered Gear Shift Assistant Pro (part of the Dynamic package, which costs $850).

Other options, less useful for anyone other than the person who needs everything, are ABS Pro (for those wanting to ABS deep into corners), dynamic brake control (to prevent the truly clumsy from accidentally hitting the gas while braking hard) and traction control (unless it’s really slippery, the 895-cc twin won’t be taxing the rear 180-mm section rear tire enough to warrant its inclusion). Ditto for the Riding Modes Pro option ($475), which adds Dynamic and Dynamic Pro modes to the standard Road and Rain. This is a little hubris on BMWs part, charging for what is simply a software upgrade; the hardware and much of the software, save a couple of additional algorithms, are already built into the standard bike. Besides, I preferred Rain mode to Dynamic anyway.

Somewhat cynical options lists and stiff-as-a-plank seating aside, the F900XR is the best bike I have tested from BMW in quite some time. Fast enough for all but the truly power-mad, it handles a treat, has a most excellent riding position and decent suspension. And, for the final coup de grâce, it’s quite affordable, the cost-cutting I may have lamented before actually resulting in its competitive – by BMW Adventure bike standards – MSRP of just $12,800. It’s the BMW I would buy were I determined to ride German. It might even be enough to convince me that Adventure Sports is really a thing.

The 2020 BMW F900R

Take one 2020 F900XR, shorten the suspension, remove all the bodywork and then alter the riding position to quasi-café racer and you have BMW’s latest R, the F900.

Since the R’s engine is the same 895 cc of offset-crank parallel goodness as the F900XR, it fairly sings at high rpm while also generating lots of user-friendly low-end grunt. The engine is also fairly smooth, thanks to twin counter-balancing shafts that pretty much eliminate all vibes up to 6,500 rpm – by which time, in sixth gear, you’re hanging on for dear life against a pretty strong wind blast.

The handling – the R rides on essentially a lowered version of the XR’s frame – is unsurprisingly sprightly. Equally impressive are the brakes, with the four-pot front calipers squeezing substantial 320 mm discs. Plus, like all BMWs’ brakes, they’re controlled by antilock braking electronics, making all that “Whoa!” power compatible with relatively inexperienced riders.

And there will be quite a few F900R riders with minimal – even no – experience. BMW states that, amongst other statistics, 15 per cent of all F800R owners bought this surprisingly large BMW as their first bike. A third of those rank novices were women. Yup, fully five per cent of the people who bought F800Rs were women who had never owned another motorcycle. And I thought they were the sensible sex!

It’s not a certitude that the F900R will keep that novice-friendly appeal. It is more powerful (although, admittedly, just a smidge) and has a decidedly sportier – that should be read as “uncomfortable, aggressive and less novice-friendly” – riding position. On the other hand, the engine, when just poodling along, is a pussycat; there are available safety features galore; and the R’s seat, being deeper than the XR’s, is both more comfortable and lower.

Even the F900’s one weakness – suspension that is either too crude or too stiff, or both – may lend it some big-bike bona fides with the novice set – the tendency to feel every bump and crevasse in the road is the type of thing novices expect from a “real” motorcycle. “If I can’t handle it, it must be a genuine monster” is the kind of self-deprecating admission that allows too many people – everyone from owners of original whaletail Porsches to the people who “lay down” their Harley because the brakes are so crappy – to mistake flaw for attribute. In fact, the R’s major problem is that there’s about 40 mm less travel than the XR and when you’re talking “basic” – neither the R nor the XR offer much in the way of adjustability – more suspension travel is always better.

One more reason I suspect the F900R will continue to be popular with completely novice riders is its modest $10,350 MSRP. That’s smack dab in the middle of the middleweight naked segment – more than enough to remain popular with those new, or almost new, to riding motorcycles.

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