BMW R1200RT - an owner's view

Why did I buy a BMW and, having chosen the Bavarian mile-muncher, why the R1200RT instead of the ubiquitous GS model?
R1200RT and R1200GS

I have been a fan of the boxer twin engine since the early eighties, when I used to commute between Norwich and Swansea every week on an ageing R80/7. I think you either love these engines or hate them. I fall into the former category. For me, the flat twin has an indefinable charm that I suppose some would call character, but I can fully understand why riders brought up on a diet of silky-smooth multi-cylinder sports bikes don't see the appeal.

Before I go into any details of R1200RT ownership, how did I come to find myself in this position anyway? Following the write-off of the aforementioned R80/7 by a kamikaze Cortina driver, I entered a self-enforced sabbatical from two-wheels to save my parents any further concern. I then did the marriage/kids thing, and before I knew it 30 years had passed without owning a bike, with the exception of a couple of years commuting on a BMW C1 (yes, the weird thing with the roof). As all motorcyclists will know, once the bug has bitten, it never really lets go, and I still felt that there was unfinished business on two wheels. I knew the casualty departments had a regular supply of born again bikers trying to regain their youth, and didn't particularly wish to swell their ranks. The roads have changed dramatically in the last few decades, so I decided to spend a year on a 125cc to get my road craft and awareness back, and to see if I still felt capable of riding on today's busy roads. One year later this was replaced with a Valencia Orange BMW F800GT, which I thought would be my last bike. However, my wife started coming out on the back and liked it so much that we decided that we would eventually like to get something more suitable for two-up touring. Out of the blue one Sunday, we popped into Lind Motorrad in Norwich where Becky spotted a 2014 R1200RT. A quick test ride on a demonstrator, and the seeds of change had been well and truly sown..

Although my initial impressions of the RT had been very favourable on the test ride, the thought of parting with such a sizeable chunk of cash without checking out the alternatives didn't sit too well with me. After all, the best-selling bike over 125cc in the UK had an almost identical engine - the R1200GS. Because the bike is my everyday transport and has to be able to handle slow moving commutes as well as cross-country tours I had already discounted several other models - Yamaha FJ1300 and Triumph Trophy (both great tourers but too cumbersome in town), Aprillia Caponord (no dealer within 50 miles). The GS however did seem like it may be a more suitable all-rounder.

Several things swung my decision in favour of the RT. Although I would be riding it I have always considered it to be 'our' bike, so my wife had to be happy with it as well. I knew she preferred the look of the RT, and the heated seat (not available on the GS) had sent her into raptures. These would have not had too much bearing on the decision if the bike did not meet the criteria of being good both in town and on the open road. I have a dodgy hip, and had found it a bit of a job to get on and off of the GS (for the same reason the GS Adventure was right out). The RT however posed no such problems, even with the standard seat in the raised position. Also, the chances of me ever wanting to go much further off-road than a gravel car park were pretty remote, so I didn't need a Charlie Borman lookalike machine.

The real revelation came when I rode the RT in town. Despite looking like an ocean liner it is remarkably easy to ride at slow speed, and is way more nimble than a bike this size has any right to be. Even two-up in slow moving traffic I felt totally at home on the RT, more so than on the F800GT. I was looking for a multi-purpose bike, and I honestly feel that I have found one. I would not say the RT excels at anything, but is just VERY good at almost everything!

So what's it like to own an RT?

Let's get one thing straight right from the start…. if you are looking for a cheap form of transport, then look somewhere else; though I think this applies to almost all motorcycles nowadays, and particularly larger capacity machines. A set of tyres fitted and a simple service (oil, filters etc.) just cost me more than I paid for a brand new Yamaha RD250, admittedly more than 40 years ago. I have had my RT for just over 6 months now and it has just sailed through its first m.o.t. with no advisories. A relatively short ownership admittedly, but long enough for me to come to the conclusion that this is the best all-round motorcycle I have ever owned.

Equally at home cruising down the motorway, carving through the twisties, crawling through the town, or simply enjoying a gentle ride through the countryside, solo or with a passenger, the RT feels totally sure-footed and inspires massive confidence, even in a very average rider such as myself. Sitting behind the cavernous fairing of BMW's tourer is a very nice place to be. As well as providing superb weather protection the fairing gives the RT a great presence on the road that even the most myopic car driver would find hard to ignore, although I'm sure that the white version enhances the effect even more (especially if paired with a white helmet).

Aboard the R1200RT
Fuel consumption

The fuel consumption readout below is linked to the 'Fuelly' website, where I am anal enough to record all mileage and fill-ups. Anyone who can be bothered to click and compare my fuel consumption with that of other RT owners will notice that my consumption is quite a bit worse than the average owner. This is not because I ride like Valentino Rossi (who else can?), but because of the type of journeys I do. Throughout the winter months the majority of my riding is short trips of 5 miles or less, often in rush hour traffic in an urban area. Very many of these journeys are my 2 mile commute to work, lucky if I get into 3rd gear, at temperatures around freezing - needless to say some days the engine does not reach normal operating temperature. Under these conditions the fuel consumption can plummet into the low 30's mpg. Throw in a couple of decent journeys of 30-40 miles at 60-70mph and this figure soon rises above 50mpg - an indication of this bike's true purpose.

Features or Gimmicks?

I have the LE version of the R1200RT, plus a couple of other options, but how much of the RT's design is genuinely useful, and how much have the engineers added just because they can?

Heated Grips

Not unusual on bikes nowadays, either as a factory-fitted option or after market accessories. BMW were one of the first manufacturers to offer heated grips on many of their models, and their latest version offers 5 heat levels, controllable from the thumbwheel on the left handlebar. The highest setting is for quickly warming them up, after which they can be dropped to a lower setting to maintain a comfortable temperature.

I hate riding in thick gloves, but have always found that heated grips keep your palms warm but your fingers, and particularly your thumbs, still get very cold in winter if you don't wear them. On the RT however, I have found that the excellent wind protection afforded by the bodywork, allows me to wear summer gloves all year round.

BMW RT Thumbwheel
Heated Grip Display

Verdict: Numb hands are really not conducive to good control of your machine. I really wouldn't want to go back to riding without heated grips in winter now.

Heated Seats

Confront most riders with the option of a heated seat and I can almost guarantee that you will be met with the retort "What for? I've never had a cold *rse riding a bike!". Your passenger however has nothing to think about on a long winter journey than how cold they are. One thing I have noticed in dealerships is how much wives'/girlfriends' interest in a bike picks up when the heated seat button is pointed out.

On the RT the rider's heated seat is controlled from the menu/thumbwheel, while the passenger has their own button on the side of the seat itself (so they don't even have to beg you turn it on). My wife loves it; I can guarantee that as soon as the temperature drops below 7 or 8 degrees I will see the graphic of the rear seat light up orange on the display.

Heated Seat Display
Heated Seat Switch

I did try the rider's seat one frosty day but found it most disconcerting. Riding along in freezing temperatures with a warm crotch - my brain could only compute this to be a trouser-based accident.

Verdict: For me, the heated rider's seat is just an unnecessary gimmick. The passenger's seat is an entirely different matter - it just could be the feature that gets you permission to trade up!

Dynamic ESA

Dynamic Electronic Suspension Adjustment, to give it its full name, is BMW's semi-active suspension system. I understand that it is constantly monitoring what it happening, and adjusts the preload and damping accordingly. I don't know how it does this, and to be honest I don't care. All I do know is that the RT always feels predictable and well planted.

RT suspension settings
RT Suspension setting

For me, the major advantage is being able to change the suspension for one-up / two-up riding and set it to soft normal or hard without having to resort to adjusters, c-spanners etc. A simple press on the menu button and a flick of the thumbwheel does it all. This is a massive boon if, like me, you are frequently changing between riding solo and with a passenger. You can even change between soft, normal and hard while riding.

Verdict: Absolutely love it! Maybe if I only ever rode one up I would not be so bothered, but for switching between loads it is a Godsend.

Gear Shift Assist Pro

Imagine a quick shifter, as fitted to high-end sports bikes, that works on downshifts as well as upshifts. This is not an automatic gearbox, so you still choose when to change gear and have to use the clutch lever to pull away from a standstill. What the gear shift assist pro gives you is the ability to change gear way quicker that you could do normally. Combine this with the high torque of the 1200cc boxer engine and you get turbine-like, seamless acceleration from a standstill, smoother and faster than is humanly possible using the clutch. The smoothness of the upchanges is also nicer for your passenger under brisk acceleration.

I must admit that this option would not have been on my list if I was buying from new, but the RT came with it already fitted. Having ridden for so long with a clutch I must admit that, at first, I found it very difficult to operate the gear lever without pulling in the lever on the left handlebar. This is particularly true on down changes, where every ounce of my mechanical empathy is screaming at me not to stomp on the gear lever. Unfortunately this can create jerky changes and driveline shock because the system really does not take kindly to half-hearted attempts at gear changing. Basically, the system abides by the "sh*t or get off the pot" principle…. if you want to change gear, then change gear, don't just tickle the lever.

Downshifts are best performed when decelerating with a closed throttle, and are accompanied by an automatic blip of the revs. I must admit that I still tend to use the clutch for downshifts except when doing a bit of spirited riding on a twisty road, and I never use it when going from 2nd to 1st.

Verdict: Nice to have, giving particularly smooth upchanges under brisk acceleration, but wouldn't really bother me if I didn't have it.
Update: since writing the verdict I find myself using this feature more and more…. I think I probably would miss this now.

Riding Modes

With both engines and suspensions on modern machines being controlled electronically, the option to change setups for optimum performance has not been lost on engineers. Depending on your model, and the options chosen, you have a choice of setups controlled by a 'Mode' button on the right switch cluster.

I just have the basic system on my RT, which gives a choice of 'Road' and 'Rain' modes. 95% of the time I leave it in road mode and forget about it. However, in grim riding conditions (particularly when there is a risk of ice, flicking over to rain mode is worthwhile as it softens the suspension, softens the power delivery, and adjusts the ABS and Traction Control to suit the conditions.

Heated Seat Switch

Verdict: Like most electronic doodads these days, it's one of those things you don't take much notice of, and probably wouldn't really miss. In poor weather it could however be the difference between getting home and a trip to the local A&E.

Cruise Control

Cruise control? On a motorcycle? You've got to be joking, right?

No, actually it's deadly serious. And what a boon it is in these days of speed cameras, automatic vehicle recognition and the like. With the 1200cc flat twin lazily plodding along in top it is all too easy for the speed to creep up to licence threatening levels without you realising. Set the cruise control to your preferred speed and let the electronics take control. This is unbelievably disconcerting at first, and if you have ever had a throttle stick open on a bike you will get an immediate sense of deja-vu.

Heated Seat Switch

Once you get past the fear that if you have handed control over to the electronics they will never give it back, using the cruise control actually becomes quite a pleasurable experience on long, boring, stretches of dual carriageway. The cruise on/off slider appears to be a simple mechanical method of preventing the 'SET/RES' button from operating. Simply get to the speed you want and briefly push the 'SET/RES' button forward. The bike will then maintain that speed. You can also adjust the cruising speed by using this button. Hold it forward to accelerate or back to decelerate, or tap in either direction to increase/decrease set speed by approximately 2kph per tap.

To overtake a slower moving vehicle you can open the throttle to accelerate past - when you release the throttle the bike will return back to the previous cruising speed. If you use the clutch or brake, or twist the throttle past its closed position the cruise control is immediately deactivated - a quick tap forward on the button reactivates the cruise control at the speed previously stored.

Verdict: As you may have gathered, I'm rather taken with this feature. I couldn't see much use for cruise control on a bike but once activated you can just sit back and enjoy the ride (and it gives me a chance to wiggle the arthritic old fingers).

Hill Start Assist

A common phrase I often hear from riders without this feature on their bikes is "I don't need that; I know how to do a hill start!". So do I. I also know how to do long division, but that doesn't stop me using a calculator.

When we bought the RT it was always planned that we would be touring 2-up with luggage. My hip is not as good as it could be, and anything that assists me in preventing the bike from rolling forward or backward while I take both hands from the bars and fumble for change / documentation is a worthwhile addition in my book.

Upon stopping, a quick pull on the front brake lever engages the hill start assist. This locks the rear brake to prevent the bike from rolling forward or backward. Although the system automatically releases the rear brake if you pull away, I find that this can give a less-than-smooth take off unless you are pulling away pretty briskly (maybe operator error). I prefer to just give a quick pull on the front brake lever to release the system, and then pull away as normal.

NOTE: The system is not a handbrake. The moment you turn off the engine (by key or kill switch) the rear brake will release.

Verdict: REALLY useful feature on a bike of this size, particularly if your legs aren't as great as they used to be!

Tyre Pressure Monitors

In my humble opinion, now that this technology is available it should be fitted to ALL motorcycles, or at least all touring motorcycles.

Sensors in the wheels constantly monitor the pressure in the front and rear tyres, and send this information to the central computer. It is your choice to have this constantly displayed on the dash or not. Either way, if the pressure in either tyre drops below a specified level a warning light appears.

Obviously this won't protect you from a catastrophic tyre or valve failure, but will hopefully give you enough warning of a slower loss of pressure to pull over and investigate the cause of the problem before the worst happens.

Verdict: Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Should be standard equipment on all tourers.

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