The BMW S1000RR is purring pussycat and raging cheetah in one, a magic-trick melding of otherworldly performance and pleasant rideability that defies logic as much as it defies physics. Although 2017 may represent a fairly minor update for the barnstorming BMW S1000RR, it's still an absolutely extraordinary machine. Bristling with technology and bulging with power, it's somehow a smooth and easy-riding city commuter when it's not unleashing all kinds of hell on the open road. We spent two days in Tasmania with this apex predator of the supersport motorcycle world.
Every time I go to ride a modern superbike on the road, it's like going back to school. No matter how much fun I've been having on today's psychopathic super-naked machines, I'm just not prepared.
It's little things, like how much that committed, race-ready riding position works your legs and core, and how heavy they can feel on your wrists when you're braking downhill. And it's big things, too, like the horizon-warping acceleration, and just how fast you're going when you get to your normal braking zone.
It's been six years since I first rode the BMW S1000RR on the road, and two since I took the second-generation 2015 model out on track at Phillip Island, so I was delighted to take the 2017 version out for a solid fang around the beautiful island of Tasmania, Australian motorcycling heaven. The excursion also involved the S1000R, S1000XR and K1600GT, which we'll speak more of in the coming weeks.
Even better, I shared the trip with a group of other journos, including a lovely old-school hero of mine called John Rooth, whose writing I have long admired. I reckon there wouldn't have been a toilet in any house I lived in over a 10-year stretch starting in the late 90s that wouldn't have had a magazine with a Rooth column lying about somewhere.
Roothy is your skinned-knuckles, 1970s Harley type of guy. He spends his time writing about 4WDs these days, and he hadn't thrown a leg over a modern superbike since sometime in the 90s – perhaps a first-generation 900cc Fireblade from back in the day when 111 horsepower was a staggering total, reserve switches still walked the Earth and electronics meant your analog dash lit up in the dark.
Roothy provided a wonderful Encino Man-type character as BMW's Miles Davis brought us all up to date on the state of the game, gasping audibly as we ran down the specs and highlights of the most technologically advanced superbike you can buy in 2017.
We might as well begin with the power: 199 horses (148 kW) at 13,500 rpm. That's unchanged from last year, despite the fact that German technicians have now brought the S1000RR in line with famously tough Euro IV emissions standards. Torque-wise, it makes 83.3 lb-ft (113 Nm), and it delivers just about that much from 9,500 to 12,000 rpm. These are fabulous and nonsensical numbers that made Roothy's face go a little pale.
Then there's the electronics, which frankly have got to the point where they're so complex and so infinitely customizable that the vast majority of riders will just pick a mode and leave them alone.
The Sport and Race versions of the RR now come with five riding mode options: Rain, Sport, Race, Slick and a totally configurable User mode. These modes control total power output, electronic throttle response through the full ride-by-wire computer, lean angle-sensitive traction control and a complex set of functions from the ABS Pro system.
Slick mode lets you add and reduce intervention from the traction control system by plus or minus seven different settings. It also disables ABS Pro, which checks your speed and lean angle before deciding how much braking you're allowed to have if you mash the lever in a corner – the thinking being that in Slick mode you're on a racetrack and capable of looking after yourself out there.
It's got launch control, where you literally sit there at a standstill, activate the system, hold the throttle wide open til the revs come up to peak torque, and dump the clutch. If you tried that on a humble 100cc scooter, you would be wearing it within a fraction of a second, so doing it on a 200-horsepower superbike requires you to silence the self-preservation instincts screaming through every fiber of your being. Purely for our own amusement we tried to talk Roothy into trying that one, but he wasn't having a bar of it.
And all these things simply put the S1000RR in the ballpark with today's apex superbikes; the Yamaha R1, the Kawasaki ZX-10R, the Suzuki GSX-R1000, the Ducati Panigale 1299, the Aprilia RSV4. This class is now so extreme, so focused, so goddamn fast that you'd wonder what business they have being on the road at all.
That question is answered immediately when you fire up the S1000RR and ride it around town. Its road manners are absolutely exemplary. The inline 4-cylinder engine purrs gently along at low revs, demonstrating some of the most immaculate fueling I've ever experienced on a Euro IV-compliant bike. Sixth gear may be capable of well over 300 km/h (186 mph), but it's also perfectly happy to roll along at 30 km/h (19 mph) without chugging or struggling to pull away. There are modern superbikes I can think of from Ducati and EBR that complain bitterly about rolling along at those speeds in first gear.
Then there's the up/down quickshifter, which lets you leave the clutch lever alone once you're rolling. It upshifts flawlessly at any point on the tacho, provided you've got a little bit of throttle on. Likewise, it downshifts beautifully if the throttle's closed – it's almost imperceptible at low speeds, but when you've got a gumboot up it, the revs are up and you're barreling towards a corner, you can hear it aggressively and perfectly blip the throttle to match revs and keep the rear wheel in line as you bang it down through the gears.
BMW is all-in with the quickshifter, to the point where the gear lever actually feels a bit sloppy if you try to use the clutch. Forget about it; the computer can do it better than you, it feels great as it romps through the cogs, and it's lovely to have a little extra brain space free to think about your lines, your throttle inputs, your braking, or heck, what you're going to have for lunch.
The suspension is terrific on the standard S1000RR – for some reason, BMW seems to be one of the only brands I just jump on and ride without ever having to change a suspension setting. But upgrade to the Sport or Race versions and it becomes transcendent, with the addition of Dynamic Damping Control.
DDC is like having a tiny suspension technician riding along with you, furiously tweaking the settings on the forks and shock in response to the road surface, your lean angles, throttle and brake inputs, and the front-to-rear weight balance of the bike. One hundred times a second it works out what needs changing, and those changes are effected within a tenth of a second.
For example, on a bumpy section of road you'd require a softening of the compression damping. Hit a big dip mid-corner, you'd suddenly want some extra rebound damping so you don't get bounced out of your seat on the exit. Lean the thing waaaaay over in a smooth corner, and you want a firmer setting. Brake hard, and you'll want to control fork dive with some extra compression damping on the forks. Lift the front wheel, and you want to drop the compression damping on the forks to near zero, so it can touch down as gently as possible.
On the track, it's very noticeable, particularly when the front or rear wheel is coming back onto the deck. On the road, it's actually pretty subtle. It just sort of feels like the road itself is smoother. Rough and bumpy patches just feel like less of an issue. Suspension has always been a compromise between grip and comfort, but this kind of constant adjustment means the bike is almost always in control of its weight at both ends.
The brakes – top-spec radial Brembo monoblocs – deliver terrific stopping force and bite, but I'm not a huge fan of the feel at the lever, which can be a bit vague. More than once I found myself getting on them too hard, because I wasn't getting nearly as much feedback through the lever as I was through the sense of deceleration. Fine control took some getting used to, but the ABS system works so well in wet or dry that safety was never the issue.
BMW seems to have been very deliberate to engineer a bit of character into the S1000RR. As you open the throttle, the engine develops a nicely controlled raspiness to its soundtrack through the midrange. And should you make it to the vaunted top third of the tacho with the throttle open, be prepared for an absolutely stunning rush of stomach-churning acceleration as the bike howls a song of freedom.
There's a road in Tasmania – many of you will know which one I'm talking about, but let's keep it to ourselves, shall we – that starts out with some nice, hard, constant radius cornering, then opens out into broad sweepers to really put you into attack mode, then deposits you onto a lovely smooth straight that cuts through a remote valley. It's the kind of place where you can pin the throttle to the stop, quickshift at the redline, launch yourself at the horizon and let this bike show you what it was born to do.
The feeling is one of total precision and control, undermined by a rapidly multiplying number on the dash that you know should terrify you, and a blurring of vision as the scenery hurtles past you. It shouldn't be possible to feel so calm amidst such violence, but the RR handles both docile road speeds and outright top-gear lunacy – and slick, mossy, wet, bumpy roads, for that matter – with the same sense of understated confidence.
In my book that's some kind of magic act. And if some of us are getting a little jaded and accustomed to just how stunning these kinds of machines are, it's all jerked back into context every time we pull to a stop. Because Roothy is losing his mind every time he steps off the thing.
He's in a constant and infectious state of joyous disbelief. First when he feels the top end acceleration; again when he realizes you can mash the brakes in a corner without consequence; again when he discovers just how hard he can goose the throttle in the rain, gassing it out of slippery corners so hard the front wants to lift; again when he realizes he can flick on cruise control on the highway and give the ol' wrists a rest; and again when he notices that the dash gives you a readout of your maximum lean angle to the right and left for each time you ride it.
In fact, as the trip wears on, the miles mount up, the bones start aching and the weather gets worse, while the rest of us are subtly and not-so-subtly fighting for the keys of the K1600GT tourer and the S1000XR, old Roothy keeps going back for the S1000RR – the Sport edition no less, optioned up with lightweight wheels.
It's not the most comfortable bike over the length of a road trip, although it's comfy for a superbike. But it's a technological marvel, a level of refinement, performance, intelligence and precision that was absolutely beyond a rider's wildest dreams 20 years ago. I wish everyone could experience just how manic and sure-footed it can be at once.
I reckon Roothy's thinking to himself he's here for a good time, not for a long time, so bugger it, let's take the one that keeps blowing his mind, not the one that makes life easiest. And I reckon that's a great approach to life.
The S1000RR (standard model) goes for AU$21,990 in Australia. The Sport pack (with Cornering ABS, Dynamic Damping Control, Launch Control, Cruise Control, Heated grips and a few other goodies) is AU$23,990 and the Race model (which adds lightweight forged wheels and a single seat with no passenger pegs) costs AU$25,690.
In the United States, the model range differs, but begins at US$15,695 for a base model and US$18,845 for a Premium Package with DTC, quickshift, Dynamic Damping Control, Forged wheels, cruise control and ABS Pro, among other goodies.