The 2013 BMW 1200 GS represents a major development in the evolution of this very successful motorcycle. Perhaps it is the largest step since 1979-80 when the first GS was introduced to the market. I was glad that EMCWOR offered me a chance to ride this motorcycle. My impressions are that overall what has kept this bike for more the 30 years as the gold standard of this segment of the industry is still there. And from what I’ve read from others who had an opportunity to ride it off road, the 2013 model continues to offer the most balanced experience in terms of on and off pavement capabilities. This is what has kept this bike at the top of the charts in the first place. And more specifically, the 2013 bike offers clear improvements on engine performance and engine response. This bike also offers well designed rider aids based on the highest technology available and latest innovations from the field.
BMW GS bikes have made history and are perhaps responsible for creating the very successful “Adventure” segment on the motorcycle industry. The GS line started in 1980, its success happened at a very fast pace, as if the world was just waiting for such a machine to be developed. BMW promoted it with a vision that continues to be discovered today by many riders: “Sports machine, touring machine, enduro… Welcome to a motorcycle concept with more than one string to its bow.” In the first year it sold more than 6,000 motorcycles. Soon riders started using it for long adventure rides across the world. Then it won the Paris to Dakar race. The Long way Round and Long way Down series where Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman took these bikes on round the world travel helped consolidate the GS at the top position in its segment. It is a bike with history and tradition. The 2013 model is carrying that tradition forward, while writing its own history.
During the latest economic downturn the adventure segment was one of the few areas of the motorcycle industry which maintained or increased its sales. The sustained popularity of the BMW GS and this segment’s growth brought increasing competition to the market, with other manufacturers returning to this segment or developing new bikes or improving their bikes to better compete with the GS. And it seems like the GS’s 1200 cc motor size, where the BMW has been since 2005, has become the chosen displacement for this higher end area of the adventure segment.
Today I count seven motorcycle companies that in my view are more directly competing with BMW in the 1200 cc adventure segment. KTM (new 1190 Adventure and Adventure R), Ducati (1200 Multistrada, including the GT model), Triumph (Explorer), Aprilia (new 1,200 Caponord), Moto Guzzi (Stelvio), Yamaha (Super Ténéré), and Honda (Crosstourer) are bikes with 1200 cc motors (+/-) that have touring capability with some level of sport riding and some level of dirt riding capability included. At least four (including BMW) of these eight major options have great improvements in their 2013 line up from what they offered in 2012. Three of them offer semi-active suspensions: The Ducati Multistrada, the BMW GS, and the Aprilia Caponord. Almost all of them offer riding modes that electronically change different fuel maps and levels of ABS intervention, and traction control. It is a new world out there. And if you are ready to acquire a higher end Adventure motorcycle, 2013 is perhaps the greatest year to be in this market.
Although a share of the BMW market may have been lost as new bikes entered this segment, the BMW 1200 GS has remained the best seller by a great margin. But never before so many options have been available to the market. I can’t imagine the challenges the GS development team must have taken to come up with the revised bike, knowing how critical the moment is.
Changes to the 1,200 cc Motor
Considering the little I know about motors, I thought BMW’s real challenge was to water-cool the motor and maintain it as a boxer motor, as boxer motors are not exactly an easy format for water-cooling, in my layman’s view of the situation. Air cooled motors were the standard of the industry in the not so distant past but as emissions controls and performance standards were gradually raised, motors gradually transitioned to water cooling. Air cooled motors are designed with wider tolerances to cope with a wider range of operating temperatures. Although water cooling a motor increases weight, it allows engineers to work on a narrower band of tolerances, allowing for more efficiency and improved performance.
I have a feeling BMW engineers never considered getting rid of the boxer motor and starting from scratch as a parallel twin or some other format. How could they end more than 30 years of tradition, a motor that is intrinsic with what the GS is, and with the most successful period of BMW motorcycles, right?
In the end, much like Porsche did with their 911 series, BMW engineers found a way to water cool their boxer motors. In the case of BMW, they managed it by water-cooling only critical areas of the motor, keeping it air cooled where air would be a more efficient cooling method. And they managed to keep it in a compact package by integrating the gear box with the motor. In a certain way, it is a new motor, but one which kept its boxer tradition intact. I perceive it as a great solution with touches of innovation.
Changes to Suspension
The second major change on the 2013 bike is regarding suspension. Although I only rode the basic model, riders have an option of buying the 2013 GS with semi-active suspension, not unlike what Ducati offers in its Multistrada or Aprilia offers in their 1200 Caponord. In fact, these three bikes have most of the semi-active hardware developed by the same company, Sachs. The software and the application is individual for each bike. I wish I had tested a BMW 1200 GS with their version of the Sachs semi-active suspension. If it becomes available as a demo bike I will ride it.
I had the seat on the lower position and it gives slightly better reach to the ground than the Multistrada. The seat appears to be narrower, which helps with the reach, but it turns out, despite being narrow, it is impressively comfortable.
The ergonomics are spot on for me. I’m about 5’10″ with 30/31″ inseam, and the seat to pegs and seat to handlebars distances allow me to be upright and very comfortable. This is not a surprise considering BMW has always been great with ergonomics that work for all types of riding on the GS line. Fit and finish are top notch, another characteristic of this German motorcycle. You can tell the design team cares for the big picture of what this bike represents but they do not let go of the detail.
While on the move it took me some getting used to be able to check the speed. I think I remain with a favorable opinion towards analog speed and analog RPM displays. But it is interesting that now that my three motorcycles only show the speed in digital format, how difficult it was to read the speed on BMW’s needle-based gauge. I would have preferred to see information displayed differently on the speedometer, by perhaps eliminating the wider gray band close to the border so that numbers could be larger. And perhaps keep speedometer and tachometer more separate, like the older models. But at least BMW keeps speed and tachometer information via analog displays. I like that. Guess I need to get reacquainted with the functionality of the speed being displayed by the traditional needle format.
This bike was the base model, so I don’t know what other information is available on the cluster related to riding modes and semi-active suspension on the models that come with those options. Despite this version being the base model, it was well equipped. Liked that it had heated grips, cruise control and a handlebar button to turn ABS off. The cruise control is excellent option for touring and the ABS button makes it easy to transition from pavement to off road riding (other bikes, such as my Multistrada and my Triumph Tiger require navigating several menus to turn ABS off).
When I turned the motor on, first thing I noticed was that it sounds a bit crisper than the older motors. I like it better now. Second, I had forgotten how BMW’s have such a light clutch actuation. One thing I noticed was when I engaged first gear the clutch disengagement does not happen until the very last inch from being completely released. I asked the technician about this upon my return to the shop and he explained that is the way it is meant to be. It took some getting used to it, in a couple of times I had adjusted my left hand to its engagement position and all was good.
The motor feels a lot smoother than the previous iteration, it revs more freely as well. I clearly felt the presence of its power increase. But the increase is not felt at the low side of the RPM range. The motor is very smooth starting from low RPM, but it doesn’t give you the perception of high torque at the low side of the RPM band as the previous bike did. It still has plenty of torque, mind you. On the other hand, it appears to rev happier, giving the motor a more sport-like attitude on the higher range of the RPM. In my opinion this is a welcome change, this was something the BMW missed when compared to some of the other bikes in this segment in the past. Again, it has become more balanced now based on the three strings of the original bow: enduro, touring and sport. And that is how this bike, in my opinion, remains at the front of the pack.
Having said that I do not think the BMW is as engaging as the Multistrada is. The caveat here is that we know the Multistrada is more focused on the sport side of the spectrum – less on enduro, for example. On that same day I rode my Tiger 800 XC and could tell the BMW is now clearly ahead of it in the power department. The 2013 GS motor is rated at 125hp, a good increase from the 110hp of the 2012 bike.
One interesting detail I noticed when I stopped the bike and went looking for the side stand, where was it? I had a semi crisis moment, as my foot could not find the tab to lower the side stand. Finally I looked down and noticed the small tab. The second time, when I knew what I was looking for, and where it was, it was easier, of course. I don’t remember if the previous model was different or not. This side stand appears to deploy further ahead on the motorcycle.
As you approach curves more aggressively, this bike feels very planted. Turn in is fast and bike feels very light but composed. Again, the Multistrada is better in this department with its 17in front wheel and more sport oriented design, but the BMW is surprisingly agile, considering its weight and the telelever suspension (bike does not shorten its wheel base upon braking and nose dive as other bikes do, and it doesn’t have much of a nose dive either). And when I took my Tiger 800XC for a spin after riding the BMW, I could tell how sluggish the Tiger is compared to the BMW. Well, the tires on the Tiger have about 6K miles on them, and have started to square off so I can feel a small resistance to lean on beginning of the counter steering, and with its 21 inch wheels it is expected that the Tiger will have a slower turn in than the BMW with its 19 inch front wheel. But the point here is that the BMW is a very nimble bike which makes it fun to ride the curves with it.
Windscreen protection is really good. There are a few elements to it, such as the two pieces of black plastics on each side of the screen (first plane on photo above) and a small fixed wind shield under the main screen, besides the main screen itself. The combination of these three elements offers really good protection and very low buffeting. The large button on the above photo allows you to operate the main screen, offering continuous positioning of the screen. And although the button is on the right side, it is easily operated by the left hand while in motion. Perhaps this is not a good idea and probably the bike’s manual recommends not to do it, but the button’s position felt very easy to operate the screen while in motion, with the left hand, and the button is large enough to make it easy to turn either way.
While in my Multistrada I like the screen in the lowest position, on the BMW I liked it on its higher position, and that’s where I kept it after experimenting it at the lowest and several intermediate positions. By the way, at its lowest position the top of the screen tilts towards the rider, directing more clean air from the top and the bottom of the screen, where a gap opens up. I think the lowest position is going to be the favorite position for riders taller than me, when the option is to eliminate buffeting at the helmet height while keeping some protection to the shoulders. The wind protection is slightly better than what I get in my Multistrada, and a lot better than what I get in the Tiger.
As I mentioned earlier, on that same day I rode my 2013 Multistrada with the Semi-active suspension, the 2013 1200 GS with passive suspension, and my 2012 Tiger 800 XC, also with passive suspension. My conclusion: I’ve been spoiled by the Semi-active suspension. My Ducati feels really connected to the road, the suspension feels even a bit harsh on regular roads when riding at speed, but whenever you enter an area with potholes or any road imperfections, it soaks it in and keeps the bike in its arch, undisturbed, if you are midway through a curve for example. The Ducati always feels planted. The BMW and the Triumph, and especially the Triumph, feel really soft overall, but when you hit road imperfections, you feel it strongly at the handlebars, pegs and seat. It is not a problem with the standard suspension on these bikes. It is just that I’ve gotten used to semi-active suspension in my Multistrada. I would want to test the 2013 BMW GS with its semi-active suspension option. Chances are I will like it. And if it works as well on the BMW as it does in my Multistrada, I would recommend that option.
As a matter of fact, I would buy the BMW with all these options:
- The ASC and the five selectable riding modes – “Rain”, “Road”, “Dynamic”, “Enduro” and “Enduro Pro”.
- The Sachs Semiactive suspension option, called the BMW Motorrad Dynamic ESA.
- And the LED lights (which this base mode also didn’t have). As a matter of fact, when riding my Multistrada with its LED lights, I have the impression cars stay away, do not merge or cross the road from greater distances. I believe the LED lights are making the motorcycle more visible from longer distances.
I rode the 2011 BMW 1200 GS a couple of years ago for the first time. There was something about the boxer motor, how it vibrated on its side to side “boxing” motion. I didn’t like it. If you have read the book called Bodies in Motion, Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling, by Stephen L. Thompson, and I’m sure you know this from your own experience, you know that how a motorcycle vibrates is part of the riding experience. For me, the 2011 BMW boxer motor felt as if the pistons were having a disagreement with the crankshaft. Or the pistons were really fighting with each other, “boxing” with each other. It turns out, most everyone actually enjoys the riding experience of the boxer twins, people like me are the exception. I remember talking about the vibration to other BMW riders after my first test ride on a boxer bike, and they were puzzled by it: “What vibration?”, they asked. It goes to confirm Thompson’s assertion, it is a personal experience. And in regard to the BMW, I know I’m the exception.
Having said that, the 2013 BMW 1200 GS offers a better experience on that respect, in my opinion than the 2011 I had tested. Although still a boxer, so still has that transverse vibration, it is much smoother now. At 70 mph, the motor is turning at about 4,000 rpm, it is very smooth and if we add the improved wind protection, it makes this bike a perfect tourer. I can imagine riding this bike mile after mile, enjoying the scenery, going towards the horizon. I have to say that in that respect, this bike has gotten closer to me. If you are familiar with the GS, and like it, you will still be at home with it, but I would assume you will appreciate the smoother and more powerful motor.
Therefore, in my opinion the 2013 GS has maintained and improved its capabilities for touring (and enduro capabilities based on other reviews) and it expanded a bit towards the sport riding side of things. The sport “string of the bow” has probably been its weakest point up to now. Or perhaps it was not as desired by its customers as the touring and enduro modes were. But now this bike has more of it, and hence it is more balanced.
What we know is that when Ducati entered this market, sport riding was clearly the area where Ducati excelled and it has drawn riders to this side of the equation of the adventure market. Interestingly, KTM, which traditionally has been the off road expert of this bunch, has made a move towards the sport side of the equation as well with its 2013 1190 Adventure (not the Adventure R) and from what I’ve read so far it seems to be a large leap towards the sport side of the gradient, more directly challenging what Ducati and what the Multistrada brought to this segment. On the other hand, Ducati, with its GT version of the Multistrada, improves its touring capacity, an area where it was somewhat lacking.
In the end, the adventure bikes seem to find themselves more and more in the middle of the spectrum, in a quest towards developing a better balance among touring, enduro and sport modes, while maintaining their individual characteristics. And of all of them, I believe the BMW 1200 GS is still the more balanced option. When you ride a BMW, you have a feeling the development team thinks and takes care of every angle of the riding experience.
Would I buy the new GS?
I have to say I’m really happy with my 2013 Ducati Multistrada and my 2012 Triumph Tiger 800 XC. The Multistrada pushes my happy buttons better than any bikes I’ve ever ridden. And when I want to ride on gravel roads, get in the adventure mode, I have the Tiger 800 XC which does a reasonable job at it.
But if I had to have only one bike, or I would think about going on a round the world ride, the GS certainly becomes a strong candidate among what are the other possible bikes for the job. I like the changes to the motor, I like how the bike feels better on the road, with improved sport riding characteristics. I like that it has improved its touring capabilities. And I hear from the many journalists who have tested this bike off road, how the rider aids have made this bike a better enduro machine. On that note, based on my experience with the Ducati Multistrada, I would certainly recommend, if you are interested in the BMW, test a bike with the dynamic, semi-active suspension. It should be good.
Stop at the EMCWOR shop here in town (or at the BMW shop closer to your location) and take it for a ride!
Check my April 2014 review of the 2014 BMW 1200 GS with the Dynamic ESA.