Here at Goodwood Road & Racing we are big fans of adventure bikes, so we’ve been itching to ride the new BMW F 850 GS. Over the last few years we have done thousands of miles on Honda’s brilliant Africa Twin and one of us used to own a dependable old BMW F800 GS. We had high-hopes for the all-new F 850 GS…
First Ride: BMW F 850 GS Sport
Changes over the old F 800 GS are extensive, and the biggest is the engine. While still a parallel twin, it is an all-new design. It has increased slightly in size and has a new offset crank with a different firing order, designed to mimic the smooth characteristics of a V-twin, just like the engine in the Africa Twin.
The old F 800 GS had a different crank angle and firing order which was supposed to replicate the feeling of the boxer-twin layout of its bigger brother the R 1200 GS. But in reality, it lacked punch, had noticeable vibrations when cruising down the motorway and it didn’t reward the rider. Thankfully, with the new engine, you’ll find a much smoother, free-revving engine with more power than before. 95hp to be exact, which also means it can be restricted for A2 licence holders.
Our F 850 GS was the Sport model, so it came with several features over the standard bike, including five riding modes, an LED headlight and LED indicators, heated grips and Gearshift Assist Pro, or in non-BMW speak, a quick-shifter that works up and down gearbox, negating the use of the clutch for gear changes. At £10,755 OTR, we think it represents excellent value next to other rivals.
It was also equipped with a few optional extras, including the Premium Package (which adds the semi-active Dynamic Electronic Suspension Adjustment), a luggage grid and cruise control. Further options included a centre stand and a brilliant TFT screen which allows you to connect your smartphone to the bike via Bluetooth.
We collected our bike from BMW HQ one cold dark evening. Upon firing the bike up the first thing you notice is the amazing TFT screen; it’s so clear and easy to operate, with all the key information presented beautifully and simply. And, if you’re into your tech, there’s an app available to download to your phone which talks to the bike via Bluetooth, displaying things like how much fuel is in the bike and how many miles you’ve done, and you can even opt for it to record the routes you’ve ridden. But most useful of all it allows you to have satnav on the bike. The phone has all the maps in the app, the bike doesn’t actually display a map, just an arrow and directions for you to follow at junctions and roundabouts. It’s simple but clear and effective.
There are a few other winners, too. The headlight has a really bright, wide beam pattern, that shines far down the road, giving you the confidence to push on in the dark. As for the heated grips, they’re usually superb on BMWs and here was no exception. We often found ourselves having to turn them down, rather than wanting for more heat.
In usual BMW fashion, all the buttons and switchgear are logically laid out, suspension adjustment is just a click away and switching through rider modes is a doddle. The riding position was also excellent, with lots of legroom, a supportive saddle and a natural feeling positioning to the bars. It was no surprise then it proved comfortable on long motorway journeys, with no aches or pains to report. Some have criticised the standard screen for being too low, but we found it OK; as a 6ft rider it didn’t offer much wind protection for the rider’s head, but nor did it create much buffeting at motorway speeds.
Niggles? The only one we had was that the side-stand leg seemed a little long and left the bike sitting a little too close to upright than we were comfortable with, especially on a windy day!
The optional electronic suspension is superb. In the Road setting it was plush and extremely comfortable over our broken British B-roads. The Dynamic setting certainly focussed things and was a hoot down smoother, more technical roads, allowing you to be more aggressive with the bike.
The suspension settings are linked to the rider modes, and on the standard bike there are two modes, Road and Rain. But this Sport model added Dynamic, Enduro and Enduro Pro to the toy box. We most commonly found ourselves using the Dynamic riding mode which gives full engine power and snappier throttle response. That being said, Rain mode proved incredibly useful when the combination of rain and leaves made things more buttock clenching, reducing engine power and softening the throttle response, thus making it harder to spin the rear wheel.
One thing we were very keen to sample was the quick shifter. We worried it might be a little jerky, but with some practice, and with higher RPMs, every up-change could be quick and smooth, even from first to second, and the rev-match downshifts perfect all the way down the box. For slower riding around town, though, the smoothest way to go from first to second was using the clutch.
And the engine sound? Simply, it’s incredible how much better this new engine sounds compared to its predecessor, still retaining the characterful little pops on the overrun but really rewarding you in the upper end of the rev-range, unlike the old bike. It felt a lot quicker than the old bike too, and spritelier than the Africa Twin. This is likely because BMW has given the F 850 GS shorter gearing for the first three gears, enabling it to accelerate quicker. Conversely the upper three gears have been lengthened, helping fuel consumption along to a very satisfying 50mpg.
The R 1250 GS is the still the undisputed daddy of the adventure bike world, which we are yet to ride, but experience with the older R 1200 GS tells us it excels at long distance touring with pillion and luggage. However it’s big, tall and heavy so can be a rather daunting prospect to ride. It’s wide too, with that boxer-engine, and not so well suited to filtering through town centres and flicking down country lanes.
Gladly, the next step down in the GS range, the F 850 GS, is better than ever. With its narrower body and less weight the performance difference between the two bikes has never been slimmer. This is why we love middle-weight adventure bikes. They make for excellent distance coverers, make light work of traffic, being narrow enough to filter through tight gaps, and make you grin from ear to ear tearing down your favourite bumpy back road. But most of all they are easy to live with, and none more so than the F 850 GS.
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