Battle of the Boxer twins

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BMW’s flat-twin boxer engine has to be one of the most versatile motorcycle powerplants in production. The German firm has used it to power everything from tourers to sportsbikes, nakeds to retros, cruisers and sports tourers and – of course – continent bashing adventure machines.

And now, in its latest water-cooled incarnation, the boxer’s popularity shows no sign of waning, continuing to prove its versatility and significance within BMW’s model range. If you are a fan of the engine, you are certainly spoilt for choice. But faced with such a diverse line-up, which boxer-engined BMW should you go for?


We’ve gathered together the complete water-cooled boxer range in one place to see how their unique features alter the character and feel of the motorcycle. Each one has an identical 1170cc motor that makes the same claimed 125bhp with 92flb of torque, with only slight gearing variations, but they all use it in very different ways to suit their individual outlook on life.

Ever since Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman decided to do some globetrotting on BMW’s GS it’s been the class-defining adventure bike. It was actually a happy accident (thanks to KTM getting cold feet over supplying the bikes), but BMW Motorrad in the UK took the risk, and changed the fortunes of the model forever. Now boasting a phenomenal level of engineering and electronics, it’s the default boxer buy. But don’t let that blind you to the charms of the other three bikes here.

In the touring RT you have another class-leader that’s dominated the tourer sales charts for more than a decade. The R and RS haven’t achieved their siblings’ class status, yet. The R is fighting to be accepted as a fun and fruity naked, while the RS is trying to reignite a class that disappeared for most of the last decade.

So should you just take the GS – like so many seem to have done – and get on with it, or do the others’ skills better fit your needs? There’s only one way to find out – seconds away, ding ding, for the great BMW boxer punch-out.

, from £12,185

Why is the GS the best selling BMW boxer? Because it is so good at doing anything asked of it, and because it is very hard to find a reason not to own one.

BMW have evolved the GS into what is now a very comfortable sports-tourer, but which looks a bit like an enduro. Ignore the fact it has a 19in front wheel, the GS will still keep up with any sports tourer on the road thanks to its wide tyres and punchy boxer engine. This is one of those bikes that just feels right to ride, and when you have confidence in the bike, you ride faster and safer. Is it perfect? Very nearly.

With a full tank, the GS’s long suspension, tall bars and seat (which can all be lowered) make it more top heavy than the RS or R, and it is a physically imposing machine, but that doesn’t put riders off. Its only big drawback is its popularity (OK, and the midlife crisis connotations), but there’s a reason seemingly everyone appears to have one.

BMW R1200R
, from £10,350

Is your riding more urban than anything else? There’s a funky boxer that’s up your street.

BMW’s R-model boxers have traditionally slipped under the radar due to their ‘old man’ image – but the water-cooled bike sheds its ancestors’ fuddy-duddy persona and offers riders a modern looking naked, powered by the latest generation of boxer and festooned with rider aids.

The 1200R model is the best of the bunch when it comes to city riding as its flat bars mean it’s easy to muscle through traffic. But the lack of fairing makes straight-line riding tiring (you can get a small screen to alleviate the effort slightly), so it is a bike far better suited to those who commute in town or generally only ride for short blasts. If this sounds like you, the R is more manageable than the RT or GS, yet retains all their electronic assists, practicality and comfort.

, from £11,065

If you want all the practicality of the GS, but don’t want the stigma that comes with it, buy the RS.

BMW may call the RS a sports tourer, it is far better regarded as a superb do-it-all machine that boasts a degree of cool. On the road, the RS is comfortable and relaxed, with a riding position designed to let you cover big miles. Aside from the ineffective screen (down to BMW retaining the bike’s sporty profile), the RS is every bit the tourer the RT or GS are. But with a sportier side.

The RS’s composed forks and matching 17in wheels give it the edge when the pace picks up. The GS will run it close, but ultimately the RS will always win as it carries a more conventionally sporty set-up. It’s a bike that, for 90% of the time, is a match for the GS. But when it’s cold and wet, and you just want to get home, the RS’s lack of proper weather protection might leave you yearning for the protection of the GS or RT.

, from £13,685

Class-leading boxer tourer will shrink a continent with its easy handling and grunt.

The RT is the reason BMW has such a strong reputation in the touring market. If you need to cover huge distances, this boxer behemoth has everything (or can be accessorised to add it) you could possibly need. But this raft of creature comforts comes at a cost – weight and size. At 276kg, it is 44kg heavier than the R and that makes it cumbersome at slow speeds, especially with a pillion. On the open road the weight isn’t an issue, though.

If you are serious about your touring, the RT will allow you to explore the world in total mile munching bliss, and in a way no other boxer can. Its low weight balance makes it very secure in corners if not the fastest turning, but it is the RT’s ability to make miles float away that sets it aside from the rest of the range. It’s the ultimate continent crusher.


If you want the best mix of skills, the GS is the one to have. Touring, sporty riding, city commuting or even serious off-road, it has it all covered to a very high level. The RS is sportier but isn’t quite as practical, the R is more stylish but lacks wind protection, and the RT is a better tourer but heavy to manoeuvre at low speed.

The GS will match all of their strengths for 99% of the time as it is such a brilliant all-rounder. The only real negative is they’re so common. But there’s a reason for that.


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