Road test: BMW R NineT
BMW's R nineT is a refreshing bit of reminiscence from a brand in transition. It resonates with BMW designs of decades past, with a retro-cool roadster design and a big fat 1200cc boxer engine, even as the company establishes itself as a force in the razor sharp end of the superbike and super-naked field. It's the kind of bike people want to pose for photos with; it oozes class and quality from every pore – and it's on 12-month waiting lists in many countries as a result. It rides well, but it makes some sacrifices at the altar of beauty.
BMW's R nineT was designed around a couple of key philosophies – firstly, reductionism: a simple bike reduced to its essence. Secondly, it was conceived as a kind of "blank canvas" for owners to customize to the same kind of level you'd generally see with a Harley.
On the first axis, it's a success. Engine, drivetrain, minimalist seat, single headlight, simple dash, and none of the myriad electronic switches you now expect on a BMW switchblock. There's ABS brakes, but no traction control, electronic suspension, switchable engine maps or even heated handgrips.
On the second, well, the whole back half of the bike can be switched around between a few different options straight out of the catalog. The pillion pegs can be removed with just a few bolts, there's a cowl option to give a cafe racer look, and it doesn't take much longer to pull the whole back seat off altogether for a snub-nosed streetfighter look. The bike's frame itself isn't the most attractive thing in the whole world – rather an important bit if you're going to go full custom – but as we showed recently, these four Japanese custom builders were able to get a range of different looks out of it.
The big Boxer engine dominates the riding experience. It's enormous – I could hardly get it through my front gate – and its note is warm, rich and booming, even through the standard exhaust. It leaps away from lights and makes a lot of torque in the low end and midrange before tapering off a little at the top end to a peak of 110 hp (82 kW). Better still, that big Boxer flywheel gives it a torque reaction like an old V8. Rev it up at a standstill and it'll throw the bike sideways. It feels alive.
The gearbox, on the other hand, feels a bit dead. It doesn't give you much feedback through the boot, and you often find yourself relying on the gear position indicator on the dash to figure out if you've finished a shift ... even from neutral to first. Mind you, you get used to it fairly quickly, and the NineT doesn't give you false neutrals or miss changes – it's purely a feedback thing.
Brakes and suspension are run-of-the-mill roadster fare. The brakes give adequate feel and bite without being exciting, and the suspension stays under control until the pace comes up on a bumpy road and it starts to get overwhelmed. The forks are non-adjustable versions of the S1000RR's racebike forks, and the shock allows basic preload and rebound adjustment – the preload with a fantastic hand adjusting screw, and the rebound with the use of a hex key.
And here's where we start hitting a few head-scratching design choices. The tool kit with the hex key in it lives under the seat. You need a torx driver to get the seat off. Who the heck keeps a torx driver handy? My rebound damping went unadjusted. If you wanted to ride the nineT hard, you'd throw a few dollars at getting the suspension revalved, but I suspect most owners will find the stock gear very satisfactory.
The seat is there for its looks and isn't super comfortable on longer stints. I'm a big guy, and I even felt it creaking a bit, as if it might not hold me up forever. This is one area I'd point my customizing urges at. Another is the spoked wheels, which look great but require tubed tires, meaning that if you get a puncture on some lonely mountain road, you can't fix it. Tubeless conversion kits are available aftermarket, but I've got no idea how well they work and if you need talent to install them.
It's not a distance tourer, or a backroads thrasher, or even a cruiser. It's a retro roadster with old-school meets new-school beauty, solid handling and rockstar presence you can't put a price on. It's a lovely bike and its sales success is well deserved. And for some reason it makes me really want to throw a leg over the Concept Roadster, a future-sporty streetfighter concept based on the same platform.
For my money, I'd like to see an R nineT done up with chunky scrambler tires, I think it'd look sensational.