Ridden: BMW’s new R18 is a modern classic

Credit: Original article published by Classic Cars Journal.

It was on mile 102 that I finally figured it out. This bike, the new BMW R18, reminds me of a Brough Superior.

I received for testing a new R18 from BMW with 2 miles on the odometer about a week before this revelation, but due to weather being less than ideal, I had not had much time to put miles on the bike. However, over the weekend, I was able to spend some time on the R18.

Let me frame this up a bit: In addition to cars, I am a motorcycle collector, having owned scores of vintage and modern BMWs, Ducatis, Moto Guzzis, Nortons, Harleys, BSAs, Triumphs — classic and modern — and a Brough Superior SS80 from the UK. 

This newest bike from BMW — the second cruiser in the company’s history — feels, rides and has the build quality of my Brough.

At the same time, I realized how BMW, a company that has always been known for building some of the finest quality bikes in the world, went so far above and beyond with the R18, bringing build quality to another level. I wondered if perhaps the company shipped the bikes to its Goodwood Rolls-Royce factory for final assembly. This bike is really that good. 

It says Berlin-built on the speedo, as well as both master cylinders, but I’m still thinking there is something extra going on here as far as quality is concerned. This is simply the finest-built cruiser-style motorcycle I have even experienced.

The paint quality with pinstriping is absolutely faultless. Other bits such as the plating and polishing on every bit of chrome and aluminum is faultless. The exposed drive shaft and accompanying U-joints are nickel plated. Even the engine cases have a sparkle to their finish. In a word, the fit and finish on the R18 is perfection, hence my thought that these immense bikes must have been finished in Goodwood.

This brings up another similarity to the Brough Superior: When the Brough motorcycles were new, the company was permitted by Rolls-Royce to call its bikes “the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles.” The fit and finish was that good, with glorious chrome work and build quality that was amazing for the time. The added fact that BMW now owns Rolls-Royce seems to make sense.

So, what is the R18 like to ride? Well, it is a softail-type design, so rear suspension travel is limited and on a rough road you tend to feel the irregularities, sometimes a bit harshly. But that is one of the limitations of a softail and you either like it or hate it. Having had the hardtail Brough as well as three Harley softails, I will say the R18’s ride is no worse than the Harleys’ and much improved over the Brough’s.

The part that really sealed the deal for my comparison was the view over the handlebars. The chrome, swept-back bars mixed with the view of the white pinstriped tank, large front forks and classically shaped headlight looked just like the way the Brough looked in the opening of the film Lawrence of Arabia, where Peter O’Toole depicted Lawrence riding a Brough SS100. 

The R18 has a vintage feel in a modern package that I have not encountered in another bike. 

This bike features everything I enjoy in classic motorcycles and wraps it all up in a modern bike that has elements of BMWs motorcycle heritage, and then combines it with in modern cruiser platform. It’s a perfect combination of aluminum, chrome-plated steel, deep black paint, and I cannot say enough about the exposed nickel-plated driveshaft, which subtly cements the whole concept together. 

People know it is a new bike, but everyone who saw it felt that it was the perfect embodiment of the old and new for styling.

Looking down from the very low saddle, your overwhelming thought is of just how big the engine is. The cylinders are almost as large as a full-face helmet but somehow avoid being in the way of your feet and legs, even if you have a 34-inch inseam.

At 761 pounds, this is a heavy bike, but I did not have any issue pushing it around in parking lots. The minute you move off, the weight disappears and the bike handles better than any other softail I have ridden. It loves sweepers and handles them with ease despite having an overall length of 96 inches. Due to the bike’s low height, it is a bit easy to drag a peg while riding quickly on twisty roads, but then it’s a cruiser and not a sport bike.

The engine is an amazing thing. At 1,802cc, it is the largest boxer twin engine ever built by BMW. It offers three modes: Rain, Roll and Rock. Rain is the least aggressive and Rock the most. What is interesting is that the different modes alter the feel of the bike more that you would guess. 

At idle in Roll, and especially Rock, the bike has a lot of vibration with shaking handlebars just like you would get in a Harley or Indian. In Rain mode, that vibration all but disappears and is more like my BMW R1200GS, which is the epitome of smoothness in a boxer twin.

For much of my first 102 miles, I alternated between Roll and Rock as the bike in those modes is a toque monster, developing 117 pound-feet of the stuff at 3,000 rpm and, more impressively, 100 pounds-feet at just 2 grand. Coupled with driver aids such as integrated braking, where the hand brake activates both front and rear brakes with ABS, a 6-speed transmission with anti-hop slipper dry clutch, standard ASC stability control and MSR, which is engine drag torque control, this makes for a bike that, while large, is easy to become accustomed to.

The torque is highly addictive, and I quickly found myself liking the feel of the bike in Rock mode where you get the highest level of performance. The engine is quiet while cruising but all it takes to wake the bike up a bit is to grab a handful of throttle in any gear and the bike leaps forward and sounds more like a WWII fighter plane that an quiet and sedate BMW. The bike really moves, and the exhaust sounds amazing while at the same time not annoying. 

You will not anger your neighbors while warming the bike up for an early Sunday morning ride, though you might want to leave your neighborhood in Rain mode to make it a bit less loud while underway.

One thing that BMW riders like, but many others do not, is the flywheel effect of the boxer twin. When you first start the bike or rev it from rest, you feel the bike rock to the left due to the mass of the flywheel combined with the crankshaft pushing those huge pistons. 

BMW and Moto Guzzi riders have grown used to this and like it, but other riders sometimes find this a bit disconcerting. The engine in the R18 has this effect more than any other BMW I have ridden, and I love the feeling of power it conveys. On the road, that effect goes away and in no way interferes with the handling of the bike at the limit.

What the R18 likes are roads in nice condition with straights connected by plenty of sweeper turns. It is here that the R18 is truly in its element. The performance of the R18 is tremendous with plenty of torque for passing or just to twist the throttle for the fun of it. This is a motorcycle built for having fun on a Saturday morning while headed to your favorite breakfast spot. 

However, one thing to be aware of in this era of necessary social distancing is that no matter where I went, the R18 drew a crowd. I took it out Friday and stopped for a coffee at a Dunkin Donuts about 30 miles from my house. I went in to get my coffee and when I returned there were 6 Harley riders who had stopped to look at the bike. I answered a lot of questions. 

While we were talking, another 2 riders who were passing by saw the bike and made illegal U turns to come over to where we were. One of them was riding a 2019 Harley Heritage Softail. He asked a lot of technical questions and then asked what it cost. I told him it cost $21,015. He then asked about the extras, surely that 21k number was before I customized it with the pinstripes, exhaust and chrome. I said no this is the way it comes for $21k. He looked at the R18 then at his bike and then back at the R18. 

After a bit he let me know that his bike cost almost $30,000 after he added all the chrome and accessories.  “This thing doesn’t need anything but bags,” he said. Then with a sad look on his face he said, “Harley is screwed.” 

While I like Harley-Davidson motorcycles, I have to agree with him. A bike as good as the BMW R18 could well mean that Harley needs to respond, and quickly.

2021 BMW R18 First Edition

Vehicle type: Cruiser motorcycle

Base price: $17,495 Price as tested: $22,015

Engine: 1.8-liter boxer twin; 91 horsepower at 4,750 rpm; 116 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm Transmission: 6-speed manual

Wheelbase: 68.1 inches Overall length/width: 96.1 inches

Curb weight: 761 pounds

EPA mileage estimates: 42 combined

Assembled in: Berlin, Germany

For more information, visit the BMW motorcycles website.

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