BMW says its new C650 Sport and GT maxi-scooters represent its "urban mobility" range - but that seriously undersells the ability these things showed on the open road at the launch party. Sure, they're a great way to get passengers and luggage through city traffic, but with revised suspension and a focus on sporty handling, the C650 is more than capable of bagging sportsbike scalps in the twisties. Loz Blain went hunting at BMW's Sydney launch party.
I'm sitting on the side of the road astride a brand new C650 Grand Touring scooter, chatting with BMW Australia's Motorrad marketing manager Miles Davis and motoring-writer Craig Duff as we wait for the rest of the journos to catch up, when the red rag is waved.
It comes in the form of a Repsol Fireblade. I don't know what it is about that paint job, it seems to attract MotoGP riders, morons and very little in between. This guy doesn't look much like a MotoGP rider as he rides past us into a set of forest twisties, revving his engine and trying vainly to wheelie the thing.
Miles and I instantly respond to the smell of prey, eyes wide and thumbs on starters. We're off before Duffy can stub his cigarette out, and a full-throttle chase is on. I wish I could tell you an epic hunt-down ensued, but the truth is we came steaming up behind that poor fool on our roaring scooters within about three corners, and passed him and his mate so fast that they decided to pull over and have a good hard think about themselves.
I'm sorry they weren't worthy adversaries, because the new Beemer maxi-scooters are well and truly up for it, and I was hungry for scalps. There's a perception in Australia and the United States that scooters are effeminate, wimpy machines best suited to secretaries and eccentrics, but that's certainly not the case in Europe. And BMW has made sure these things are very capable of hard, fast riding as well as keeping things practical around town. On these kinds of tight roads where a superbike can't stretch its legs, I reckon we could have put the fear of God into a decent rider too, and that kind of thing can correct perceptions in a hurry.
The 2016 C650 comes in two models, Sport and GT. Both are built around the same 647cc parallel twin engine as the previous model, although it's been retuned and fitted with a new, lighter exhaust. Manufactured by Kymco in Taiwan, it punches out 60 horsepower and 63 Nm of torque, and it's good for a top speed around 180 km/h (112 mph) – some 5 km/h faster than the previous model thanks to a revised, more responsive and more flexible CVT.
The Sport is the lighter of the two, but still not light at 249 kg (549 lbs) fully fueled. The GT comes in at a chunky 261 kg (575 lbs) – but for both bikes the mass is kept low and central. You feel the weight when you're pushing them around, but on the move they flick deftly from side to side and the spec sheet is quickly forgotten.
Each bike comes with standard ABS (a high quality, smooth and refined system I could find no issues with) and new for 2016, there's also standard traction control (ASC) on both C650s as well. ASC isn't a subtle system; it flat-out chops the throttle to zero when the rear slips, making the bike feel like it's coughing and cutting out if you try to accelerate hard on gravel. Neither system can be switched off, but intrepid owners who find either one too intrusive can possibly find a way around this in the fuse box somewhere.
In terms of practicalities, both bikes are well catered for. A fresh center-stand design makes it 30 percent lighter to lift than the old bike if you want to park it vertically. The windscreens are adjustable (manually in the Sport's case, electronically on the GT) and there's options for heated seats, heated grips, tire pressure monitors and things like daytime driving lights, which look pretty nifty if nothing else.
Storage is impressive (some 60 liters on the GT) as well as a few nice pop-open panels in the dash, one of which locks with the steering when you park it. I'm not sure why they've chosen to leave one unlocked. The Sport gets less storage in the name of saving bulk and weight, but it's got a nifty trick up its sleeve. When you're parked, you can unlock an extra "Flexcase" storage compartment in the back that drops down to sit on the rear wheel. It's big enough to fit a helmet, with another in the bin at the front. You can't start the bike without clipping it back up, but it's still a handy feature ... mind you, the GT will haul two lids and more all day long. Both bikes can be upgraded with 30-liter lockable topboxes.
On the road, the Sport and GT behave in a remarkably similar fashion despite 20-odd kilos separating them. Both take off smartly at the lights on a fully open throttle, the motor rising quickly to around 5,000 rpm where the torque kicks in and acceleration will see off most cars. The maxis are perfectly comfortable at freeway speeds, but overtaking on a twisty road above about 80 km/h takes a bit of planning. The power's there but it takes a beat or two for the transmission to come to the party.
The 2016 models have had their suspension re-tuned to behave more like motorcycles in the corners, and it shows. I was able to ride both the Sport and the GT to about 85 percent of the pace I would on any other bike in the twisties before the suspension started feeling ever so slightly loungey and wallowy. Up until that point, it's perfectly composed over bumps and delivers a smooth, confident and controlled ride. On 15-inch wheels, it deals with crappy road surfaces and potholes just fine.
Ground clearance was initially an issue, with hero knobs on either side of the center-stand touching down too early for my tastes, but once Craig from the BMW team cranked up the preload on the rear shock to account for my weight, it simply stopped being an issue. Pushing through to 100 percent of my normal cornering pace, they never touched down again unless I deliberately went looking for sparks.
If you're going to lose ground to sportsbikes in the twisties, it won't be in the corners, where these maxis are surprisingly competent. It'll be on corner entry, where the C650's three 270 mm brake discs (two at the front, one at the back, each fitted with twin piston calipers) just don't have the power and feel to haul the bike up like a superbike. It's all hands on deck and four fingers on each lever when you need to get the best out of the brakes. They're the biggest and best brakes in the maxi class, but the handling brilliance of the rest of the bike almost demands an even bigger set of stoppers.
You'll also lose a step on corner exits, where the transmission lags a touch before bringing full power in. To compensate, I found myself opening the throttle early; it's actually quite good fun trying to judge the right spot in the corner to whack the throttle open.
But here's the thing. In making these complaints I'm comparing the C650 to the best motorcycles on the road: purpose-built, corner carving fun machines that might let you squeeze your wallet under the seat if you've got a shoehorn and a tub of butter. Of course the C650 has niggles at ten tenths – it's a bloody scooter, one that uses 4.5 liters to 100 km (1.2 gal to 62 miles) and gives you more than 300 km (186 mi) to a tank, one that you could take your missus around the continent on with a few dozen beers under the seat. The fact that it takes a decent spanking in the twisties is a very pleasant surprise.
BMW has designed these bikes, particularly the GT, to be visually reminiscent of the R1200RT touring bike, and I think there's a comparison there to be made. Riders stepping down from a megatourer will find the C650 a step up in practicality for a step down in top speed that's unlikely to bother anyone this side of an autobahn. Rider and passenger comfort are about the same – possibly even better thanks to generously sized footboards for both on the GT.
Starting at AU$14,150 for the Sport and AU$14,990 for the GT in Australia ($10,095 and $10,595 in the US), they are clearly a premium product. But not massively more expensive than the Yamaha TMAX 530 or Suzuki Burgman 650, neither of which has a German badge on it or standard traction control.
The journos on the launch ride were split roughly evenly on the question of Sport vs GT, which is a good sign. For me, I'd take the GT, because it takes more luggage and gives your passenger a plusher ride, and I didn't feel like it was significantly wider in traffic or any slower in the fun stuff.
Either way, you're getting a scooter that can be chugged around town clutchlessly with a coffee in your left hand, or flung into hairpins like a proper motorcycle. Hunting down Repsol Fireblades is entirely up to you, and heartily recommended.
More information: BMW Motorrad