First Ride: 2021 BMW R18 Review

The devil is in the detail of the new BMW Motorrad R18...
23rd October 2020
Laura Thomson



In recent years, BMW has excelled at adventure. From the earliest R80G/S, to the limited edition HP2 Enduro and now the market-topping R1250GS, the German manufacturer has all but dominated the competition. And within the past decade, it hasn’t done badly on other fronts either, with the S1000RR revered among sportsbike riders, and the RnineT a wonderfully customisable proposition.  

But ever since Motorrad dropped its last cruiser – the questionable looking R1200C – from its line up back in 2004, there has been a noticeable lack of a laid back, easy-going roadster – something to rival the Harley and Indians of the two-wheeled world. 

So imagine our surprise when BMW teased its R18 mid-last year. Could it be – the revered boxer engine in a cruiser frame? Not only that, but at 1,800cc, it was the biggest boxer ever and air-cooled too – an emissions nightmare on paper. 

But the marque persevered, and earlier this year presented the finished product. Little had changed from the initial radical design, including the exposed driveshaft – a truly unique feature.

We like

  • Plentiful torque, delivered smoothly and progressively
  • Wonderful steering
  • Incredibly authentic classic look

We don't like

  • Pegs scrape easily
  • Quiet exhaust
  • Relatively pricey



The R18 First Edition is perhaps the most genuinely retro ‘modern classic’ that I’ve ever seen, with countless elements derived from historical models – in particularly the R5 - and very little in the way of plastic trim. 

The wide bars – wonderfully conducive to countersteering – lead back and beside the teardrop tank, which is in turn complete with pinstripes and the iconic roundel. Underneath sits the heaving boxer – instantly recognisable as a BMW from the huge cylinders stuck out either side. And it is from these cylinders that sweep the gorgeous megaphone exhausts, which culminate in a crimped slash on either side of the rear wheel. ‘Berlin built’ badges adorn the clock, brake fluid reservoirs and other elements, adding that extra touch of craftsmanship.

Perhaps the bike’s piece de resistance, however, is the exposed driveshaft – a unique and mesmerising feature that displays the depth of design and engineering ingenuity that has gone into the R18. Pull up alongside one in slow moving traffic, and watch as it dances back and forth, visibly converting the mechanical power into the rear-wheel-drive. 

Everything about this bike screams look at me, and while it is wonderfully complete in its own right, it will provide the perfect base for customisation. The only element I can think of to fault would be the rubber clad foot pegs, which, should this make its way into my garage, would soon be replaced with a nice billeted aluminium pair.  

Performance and Handling


Before climbing aboard the R18, you should rid your mind of all preconceptions, for within minutes it had more than dispelled mine.

Press go and the bike roars into life, shuddering ferociously. Revving it, even with the clutch engaged, results in a powerful bar tug to the left caused by the stroke – a startling surprise initially. And while it may look to all intents and purposes like a cruiser, the R18 certainly doesn’t ride like any I’ve met before. There’s no lumpy, agricultural torque here, instead the 1,800cc, air-cooled boxer delivers it like an upturned pot of velvety cream. It idles at around 900rpm, and as soon as you drop into first and creep above that, the torque is instantaneous, providing a smooth and progressive delivery up to a peak of 158Nm at 3,000rpm. However, more than 150Nm of this is available from as low as 2,000rpm, and up to 4,000rpm – an impressive breadth that is both tangible and useful. In cruisers such as this, horsepower very much takes a backseat, and in the case of the R18, while it’s a respectable 92PS at 4,750rpm, it wains noticeable higher up. Our test bike was fitted with a reverse gear (a £930 option), which while slightly faffy to engage, proved useful when it came to manoeuvring the 345kg behemoth. 

Through the smooth gearbox and long ratioed gears I rode (clutchlessly shifting), with our test route comprising everything from narrow country roads to motorways. It’s hard to put into words just how much torque there is on tap, with the R18 cruising at motorway speeds at around 2,700rpm with still plenty more at your fingertips. Third was the sweet spot for much of the B-roads, with the breadth of torque allowing it to pull marvellously.

The three modes of Rock, Roll and Rain offer distinct riding experiences, adjusting the throttle response accordingly. Rock is furious, with an acceleration that flings you back in the sculpted (albeit slightly firm) single seat and threatens to rip your arms from their sockets. Roll, meanwhile, is slightly more refrained but so smooth, perfect for crawling through town or for a more relaxed jaunt. Rain mode is so flat and underwhelming that it’s barely worth your time.

At motorway speeds, it cruises at around 60-70 mpg, dropping to 30-40mpg in traffic and wallowing in the low teens under heavy acceleration. The exhaust seems a tad quiet, but that could soon be fixed post-purchase. 

Despite its laid-back rake and long, low chassis, the R18 rides more like a modern classic, turning into corners precisely and dancing nimbly. Unfortunately, the footpegs drag upon a slight lean, meaning you can’t throw it into bends quite as you would a taller machine. The double loop steel-tube frame hides the ‘softail’ cantilever rear, which offers 90mm of travel, while R5-esque sleeves encase the 120mm travel forks. This firm ZF suspension set-up takes no prisoners, and it is at high speeds where it makes the most sense.

In terms of stopping power, the twin-disc set-up at the front and single at the rear feature BMW’s own four-pot callipers. When you squeeze the front it automatically applies a little at the rear, bringing you to a gentle, level stop. Stomp on the rear however, and the rear wheel will lock up, the ABS making a feeble attempt at intervening. Hill start control (a £100 option) serves its purpose, but could be a lot smoother when it comes to pulling away.



Judging a book by its cover is so last year, but I have to admit that before actually seeing the R18 I was nervous about the stretch across the long tank to the bars. But I needn’t have been, for in reality, the R18 is far less intimidating, with the standard single seat angled forward, and the wide bars raked backwards in such a way that they meet your arms comfortably aside the midpoint of the tank. My elbows were amply bent, allowing for comfortable countersteeing, and access to the handlebar mounted switches. The adjustable clutch and brake levers are wide and offer a nice response, however I would imagine that the right hand cylinder would intrude the rear brake pedal if you have large feet. 

I found the seat itself to be quite hard, however other riders on launch remarked at its comfort, while the seated triangle was easy and relaxed. 

BMW will no doubt be offering aftermarket pillion and luggage accessories, which will change the dynamics of the bike. Thankfully, the adjustable preload on the rear suspension should mitigate much of the effect this has on the handling. 

Technology and Features


While the R18 is dripping in innovation, when it comes to technology, there is very little visible – but that’s all part of its retro charm. The dash comprises a simple analogue odometer (going all the way to a rather optimistic 200mph), with a subtle digital screen inset, hosting the mode selection and other info such as rev counter, clock, trips and MPG.  

All of these features are selectable via two rocker switches on the left bar – within easy thumb reach without compromising your grip. To switch modes, you need to scroll and select, before declutching to activate it. The only minor irritation is that the other switch only scrolls one way through the settings, meaning that if you over-eagerly scroll past your desired selection, then you have to go around all over again. 

Disengageable Automatic Stability Control (ASC) and engine drag torque control (MSR) feature as standard on the R18, providing an added safety net for riders whose exuberance outweighs their experience. 



The R18 is unlike anything BMW Motorrad has built in recent memory, combining its brilliant boxer layout and the RNineT’s custom style with a genuine heritage authenticity. And it’s not just for show either, with the torquey engine response, quality ride and comfortable ergonomics making for an engaging all-round experience.

Admittedly, while the electronics themselves are comprehensive, it’s a little short on equipment, with no cruise control or accurate fuel/range indicator. And with prices starting at a huge £18,995 – significantly more than its closest rivals, the £15,695 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim and the £17,999 Indian Chief Dark Horse – this is the kind of kit you would expect. With the aforementioned extras, plus headlight pro (£390) and heated grips (£255), our test bike cost a not inconsiderate sum of £20,670, which puts it more on its price level with Triumph’s £20,200 Rocket 3 GT.


Engine: 1,802cc two-cylinder

Power: 92PS (67PS) @ 6,000rpm

Torque: 158Nm (117lb ft) @ 3,000rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel-drive

Kerb weight: 345kg     

Price: £18,995 (£20,670 as tested)