First ride: BMW's midi GS comes of age

Published: 02 March 2018

There are many reasons why you should buy a BMW R1200GS. For its size, it’s an incredible motorcycle. It wins just about every MCN adventure group test and is so universally loved it’s the best selling big bike in the UK. Year on year this jewel in BMW Motorrad’s crown is the German firm’s best seller. 

Generously proportioned and packed with grunt, the R1200GS is perfect for loading up and heading off for epic trips. It’s born for two-up work and is just the ticket for larger riders.

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But unless you’re going to do all of that, you’re left with a bike that has all the grace of a Gregg’s loyalty card-waving hippo. That’s no good for everyday use and there’s no point saddling yourself with such a beast of a machine. 

Enter the parallel twin-cylinder, chain driven, ‘baby GS’. The out-going F800GS entered the scene in 2008 and was always the more involving, nimble and fun to ride GS, but never skipped on comfort and practicality.

And now a decade later there’s a new one and it’s even better. The new £9400 F850GS doesn’t just have a new look, it’s faster, more fluid in the corners, better equipped and more powerful. It sounds meaner, too.

A thrapping, motocross-infused soundtrack comes thanks to the Beemer’s new crank layout and firing order. Gone is the old zero degree crankshaft journal and 360 degree firing interval, now the parallel twin cylinder motor has a 90 degree offset and bangs every 270/450 degrees. 

BMW have also upped capacity from 798cc to 853cc (thanks to an increased bore and stroke), increased power by 10bhp to 94bhp and added two counterbalance shafts to iron-out the vibes. 

Four years in the making and over a million kilometres in testing, all this engine work results in a power delivery that’s packed with rumbling character and shimmering, smoothness. Low-speed manners are impeccable, the new ride-by-wire throttle is jerk-free, and the new lighter-action ‘anti-hop’ clutch serves to make the F850GS natural and easy to get along with at lower speeds. 

But whip the motor into a frenzy and its fast, free-revving and fun. There’s none of the rocking and pitching you get from its boxer-twinned, shaft-driven 1200cc big brother, just vibe-free, stable acceleration and a velvety parallel twin-cylinder silence off the throttle. 

Power to weight ratio isn’t far short of the big GS’s 125bhp, 224kg, so acceleration and top speed are impressive, especially with its shorter new first-to-third and longer fourth-to-sixth gear ratios. But if you plan to smother your GS with luggage and people, the extra torque of the R1200GS is still the adventure bike to have. 

Whether it’s a wailing V4, a throbbing V-twin or screaming two-stroke, the best bikes always have interesting engines and this parallel twin motor is the making of the F850GS, but the way the BMW rides and handles is just as impressive. It’s cossetting on long journeys and couldn’t be any easier to hop on and go. 

A stiffer new monocoque bridge-design frame, with calmer steering geometry, replaces the old tubular steel item (it’s still steel for strength off-road) and the 15-litre fuel tank has been moved from under the seat to between your thighs to optimise the centre of gravity. The exhaust has also swapped sides to the right, to make it easier for the rider to swing a leg over. 

For a machine with penny farthing-diameter 90/90 x 21 spoked front wheel (and 150/70 x 17 rear) the way it rolls into tarmac corners and nuzzles sweetly into an apex is a joy. Tubeless Bridgestone A41 dual purpose tyres fitted to our test bike offer lots of confidence and grip in the wet and dry (it also comes on similar-genre Michelin Anakee 3s), the BMW is incredibly light on the move and there’s zero feeling of excess flab. It’s nimble at any speed, but reassuringly stable, too. 

All-day riding won’t be a pain, thanks to the F850GS’s comfy saddle, spacious legroom, slender fuel tank, natural bar position, wind cheating bodywork and screen. It’s not overly tall, though, despite its commanding stance, dirt-busting suspension travel and big front wheel. The standard seat is 20mm lower than the F800GS’s (860mm) and you can go lower or higher with accessory seats. 

For those with a taste for off-road you can order your F850GS with Mezteler Karoo 3 knobblies at no extra cost. Whip some air out to let them grip the mud, soften the rear suspension (either manually, or electronically, if you go for the optional semi-active shock – forks are non-adjustable) and the BMW changes character.

It’s just as easy to handle with mud between its tread, as it is on the road. The standing-up riding position is just as natural as it is sitting down and the Beemer’s nimbleness and easy engine character make it easier to manage on trails than the R1200GS, or any of its more powerful rivals. 

You’re not short-changed when it comes to spec now. Standard equipment includes tactile Brembos, two riding modes (Rain and Road), ABS and a basic traction control system. Go the extra for the £10,650 for the Sport model and another three riding modes are unlocked (Dynamic, Enduro and Enduro Pro) along with cornering ABS and traction control, a quickshifter/blipper, heated grips and an LED headlight and indicators. 

Go mad with the options boxes and you can turn your F850GS into an enduro-shaped superbike, with superb semi-active rear suspension, cruise control, a tyre pressure warning system, a multi-function 6.5in colour TFT screen with Bluetooth connectivity, keyless ignition and a bewildering array of official BMW parts and accessories. 

Build quality is superb, paint finishes and chunky plastics are top notch and the kind of attention to detail, from everything to fasteners, to the silky action of the switchgear, is everything you’d expect from a BMW. 

Its natural mid-sized adventure rivals are the identically powered and 21-inch front wheeled Honda Africa Twin and Triumph’s new Tiger 800 XCx (see box-out). But you know what? It’s also a credible rival to one of the most popular sports tourers out there: the £9249 Tracer 900. Sure the Yamaha is cheaper, slightly lighter and more powerful, but the BMW handles a whole heap better, has a comfier riding position and has many more bells and whistles.

Bikes the F850GS has to beat

Honda Africa Twin £11,575, 94bhp, 232kg

Hugely successful rebirth of the Honda classic, it shines off-road, but lacks pizzazz on the tarmac and isn’t as generously equipped as the BMW.   

Triumph Tiger 800 XCx £11,250, 94bhp, 214kg (dry) 

Launched last month with over 200 updates it’s more expensive than the F850GS but comes with a colour dash, adjustable screen, cruise control and more.

MCN VERDICT - Five stars 

Who needs a big capacity adventure bike when the new F850GS is around? Its characterful engine manages to both purr and raw at the same time, handling is faultless, it’s comfortable, practical and a piece of cake to live with. Standard spec is impressive, optional extras more so and it’s less of a handful off-road than its 1200cc brother. The baby GS has finally come of age.

WE LIKE 

  • Burbling new engine
  • Accurate handling
  • Easy to use
  • Less clumsy than a big adventure beast off-road
  • Great level of standard spec for Sport model

WE DON’T LIKE 

  • Certain toys still held back as optional extras 
  • Big GS is still the one for loading up with luggage and pillion 

And what about the F750GS?

With its lower 815mm seat height, calmer 76bhp power output, smaller (but wider 110/80 x 19 front wheel) and more stable chassis, the £7950 F750GS (replacing the F700GS) is aimed squarely at the road rider. And costing £1450 less than the standard 850, it offers big GS thrills without costing the earth. 

Despite the slightly lower-spec cast ali wheels, slimmer, non-adjustable 41mm right way up fork tubes (the 850 has 43mm upside downers) and a smattering of small detail changes, the F750GS enjoys the same engine, chassis, brakes and electronics upgrades. 

The 853cc parallel twin-cylinder motor is the same (who knows why BMW call a 750?), so it has an equally delicious soundtrack and elastic power delivery. Unless you thrash it mercilessly you don’t feel that missing 18bhp or 6ftlb of torque, either.

Sat closer to the ground the F750GS is even easier to get on with, it’s just as comfy and handles with the same level of charming predictability. With its smaller screen the wind protection isn’t as complete, but you can buy the screen from the 850GS and swap it over. 

Like the 850 there’s a more generously equipped (£9200) Sport version and you can go just as mad with bolt-on BMW parts and accessories.

We first discovered what made the new Beemer's tick when it was announced last November at the EICMA motorcycle show.

BMW reveals new F850GS and F750GS

The two stars of 2018 for BMW are the new F750GS and F850GS, which bring styling cues from the old F700 and F800 but little else. BMW say they’ve worked on the bikes to make them more targeted at specific riders and that these bikes both offer different rides. What does this mean to us? It means we’re looking a pair of bikes that have been designed for a purpose, rather than just a cheaper alternative to an R1200-series.

Engine

At the heart of these new bikes is a shared 853cc parallel twin (detuned in the F750GS), that’s gone through more than just a capacity increase. The engine has been completely redesigned with a new crank and 270-degree firing order, so it’s got that v-twin noise and a decent shove to boot. The new engine has two balance shafts to take out the vibes inherent in this design, while there’s a new anti-hopping clutch that gives a light lever pull as well as feel.

Paired with this new engine is a new electronics package that includes a ride by wire throttle and the associated riding modes. As standard the bikes have a Road and Rain mode but optional packages also include Dynamic, Enduro and Enduro Pro (F850GS only). These modes not only alter the feel at the throttle but also the traction control parameters and the feel of the new electronic suspension.

Frame & suspension

With more power comes increased need for control, so both bikes have an all new frame and suspension set up. BMW say that the new steel bridge frame is integrates the new engine better than the old one, so it provides a new level of stiffness and control. The biggest change is the new optional Dynamic ESA. Unlike traditional electronic suspension systems where you select a mode and get on with it, the Dynamic ESA is constantly adapting to your riding and the road surface. It also adjusts based on the riding mode chosen, so selecting Enduro Pro would tune the suspension for off-roading.

The electronics

The little twins also join the bigger bikes in offering the 6.5” TFT dash and associated connectivity, so you can pair your phone to take calls, play music or get directions. They’ve also increased the fancy electronic add-ons, so now you can have emergency call, keyless ride, cruise control, tyre pressure sensors and Gear Shift Pro (a quickshifter and autoblipper). All of these extras come as standalone items, plus as part of BMWs Comfort, Touring and Dynamic packages. The F750GS comes in two models (Standard and Exclusive) while the F850GS is a three model range that includes the Standard, Exclusive and Rallye model (our pick of the bunch).

F850GS facts

  • 853cc parallel twin
  • 93.8bhp @ 8250rpm
  • 860mm seat height
  • 229kg (wet)

BMW F850GS

F750GS facts

  • 853cc parallel twin
  • 76.4bhp @ 7500rpm
  • 815mm seat height
  • 204kg (wet)

BMW F750GS

F750GS vs. F850GS

Although they share the same frame and engine, the 750 and 850 are two very different bikes. The 750 has adventure styling but it’s an entry-level bike meant for the road, while the 850 with its longer travel suspension and 21” front wheel is a proper off-road bike.

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