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From 20 feet away, it looks strikingly familiar, almost as if the news of its supposed complete remake were nothing more than a politician's promise to never raise taxes.
There's the same funny beaked front, the cylinders are still oddly splayed out where they look vulnerable to every tree stump and boulder along the trail and the gas tank once again looks big enough to fuel an ocean liner. In other words, it still stands out, mainly because it looks so ungainly.
BMW says it's all-new, but the 2013 BMW R1200 GS is still a motorcycle so funky that only a mother or an adventuresome motorcycle rider could love.
It's after you get up close and personal that you notice that the big GS is, indeed, much changed. Oh, it's still all off-road geek chic -- were it a car, it would be a Land Rover Defender, the four-wheeled off-roader so gawky it has become trendy -- but as you study the details, it becomes obvious that the GS has been hitting the gym.
Those wire wheels, for instance, are both wider and lighter, the Brembo brakes even more serious and, what's this? Are those radiators hiding behind the still-angular bodywork? Indeed, they are. After more than nine decades of air-cooled simplicity, BMW's flat twin has finally succumbed to modernity and is now liquid-cooled.
The reason BMW's flat-twin managed to remain so resolutely simple is its markedly protruding cylinders have always stuck out in the open air stream, allowing the hot cylinders to be easily cooled compared with, say, an in-line four whose cooling fins are blocked by the front wheel, frame rails and other wind-blocking impediments.
The supposed practicality of this jet-stream air-cooling has been BMW's trademark and, indeed, the flat twin's very raison d'etre. So why the radical -- particularly for the typical BMW aficionado who, as I have alluded to, is a tad geeky -- change to radiators and water jackets?
The reason, as those same aficionados will have noticed by now, is that the GS's engine really is all-new. Oh, it still displaces 1,170-cc and has the same bore and stroke, but pretty much everything else is new.
Where the previous engine (and every BMW boxer twin since 1923, for that matter) had the inlet tract behind the engine (where, yes, it did bang shins), the 2013 model feeds its inlet valves from above. BMW is trying to keep up with the Ducatis and KTMs of the world in the horsepower sweepstakes and the easiest way to do that is to provide a direct shot from air box to inlet valve (rather than the rather convoluted, twisty route for the outgoing model).
This quest for power brought along all manner of complications, however, not the least of which is that because the inlet valves are now atop the engine, the exhausts are below. That means, if you're not bored with this seemingly over-technical explanation yet, that one of each cylinder's exhaust valves is in the rear of the cylinder where it is, now, for the first time in 90 years, out of the cooling air stream that was, as I previously explained, the raison d'etre for the entire flat twin in the first place. Hence, BMW added liquid-cooling and why the GS's water jackets actually only cool the cylinder head. The cylinders, relatively unchanged, still get enough cooling from the air. The result has been worth the effort (though perhaps not worth this long explanation, some of you are thinking). Horsepower is up -- from 110 to 125 -- as is torque, increasing marginally from 89 pound-feet to 92.
More noticeable than that 13 per cent gain in horsepower -- indeed, the biggest advantage of the new bike over the old -- is the radical change in personality. Where the previous oilhead boxer twin was always a stoic, if reluctant motor (it always seemed to me a stationary generator engine pressed into mobile service; excellent at steady throttle but not so eager to accelerate), the new one is willing and eager. Indeed, it is so eager to accelerate that it threatens power wheelies every time the throttle is twisted WFO in the first two gears. It's equally eager to rev to a stratospheric -- for a BMW flat twin, at least -- 9,000 rpm and, for the first time in 90 years, the boxer engine can genuinely be described as truly sporty.
Other changes abound. The engine and transmission share, for the first time, a crankcase (and, therefore, the same oil). This has necessitated a "wet" clutch -- a multi-plate setup rather than the "dry" automotive single-plate variety -- that feels more motorcycle-like. Home mechanics will further rejoice; the previous dry clutch was located -- again, automotive-like -- between the engine and transmission, requiring a complete teardown to replace, the new item is located at the front of the engine, where it is easily removed for emergency repair.
Those looking for other technical highlights may focus on the BMW's high-tech electronic wizardry. Besides the now commonplace anti-lock braking system, there's a multi-mode -- including one specially accessed "enduro" mode -- traction control system. The suspension is likewise electronically controlled; the ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment) allows damping changes on the fly, just like many high-tech automobiles. It all means that the GS is eminently configurable, all from the seat of the bike with nothing more than the flip of a switch.
Despite all the changes, however, the core of the GS remains the same. It is still the amazingly versatile, incredibly comfortable, go-anywhere pack mule that a GS has been since the model was introduced in 1980. Handling remains light yet amazingly assured and the seating positions invites long hours in the saddle.
The incredible array of accessories -- both from BMW and the aftermarket -- means this R1200 can be customized for every taste and use. Even its one weakness -- the $18,850 GS remains an incredibly tall bike that, despite the availability of a lowering kit, is only suitable for taller-than-average bikers -- is seemingly identical to its predecessor.
Indeed, the new GS pulls off that magical feat of pleasing its loyalists by maintaining its steadfast versatility while attracting an entirely new audience with its new-found performance. I suspect that the most popular model in BMW's portfolio is about to become even more so.
-- Postmedia News