BMW Finds its Growl

BMWIt?s taken almost a decade for moto makers to respond to the raging caf? racer trend with brand-new models that pick up where the Honda CB series left off.

So far, it?s been mostly bit players like Royal Enfield and Moto Guzzi that have responded to the siren song of an enduring ?60s style characterized by elongated gas tanks and dropped handlebars. But now BMW is stepping into the fold with its groundbreaking R nineT ? a retro urban hooligan designed with a Harley-Davidson twist.

From tip to tail, it?s customizable.

BMW is best known for its touring bikes, both on and off road, so the R nineT is a radical departure.

To underscore exactly how radical, BMW has partnered with customs? heaviest hitters, from El Solitario in Spain and Blitz Motorcycles in Germany to Long Beach native Roland Sands, who developed the initial concept for the bike. Roland Sands Design is even making a full line of parts for the R nineT, adding to the tail hump ($555), sports exhaust ($957), carbon fiber engine cover ($460) and other add-ons BMW is offering.

From a distance, the R nineT is certainly striking, with its gargantuan 1,170 cc flat twin jutting out from the frame, its two-tone tank and double-barrel exhaust stretching skyward. But up close, the R nineT?s style is a bit fussy.

My first thought after seeing it up close: Thank God it?s customizable because stock it?s busy.

In BMW?s effort to fuse its modern engineering expertise with a classic engine and body style, the performance improves, but the aesthetics suffer. Gone is the simplicity of carburetors and air cooling that made the classic airhead boxer engine so streamlined and fetching. It?s less so cluttered with a radiator that, for some reason, is also home to the front turn signals. The Wizard of Oz that makes the technology modern isn?t hiding.

In development since 2011, the R nineT is the production version of Sands? Concept Ninety BMW shown last year to celebrate its 90 years as a motorcycle maker and, more specifically, its 1973 R90S superbike. The little black dress of motorcycles, the R nineT comes in one color (black storm metallic) that is easily embellished or streamlined.

Built for BMOCs to DIY a bike that starts at $15,000, the idea is that anyone with a socket wrench and screwdriver can build the motorcycle of their dreams. It doesn?t take a custom shop fully stocked with hack saws and TIG welders and guys with sleeves of tattoos. The parts are largely bolt-on.

The modular frame was specifically devised for the R nineT, with a tail section that can be removed in three steps to make it a far-better-looking single seater. It looks best with the classic tail hump. Chop it further to a true solo rider, and it looks like a gecko without its tail.

The rear seat frame is held together with eight screws. The end piece is secured with four bolts. The passenger pegs can be removed with six bolts. Even the headlight, tail lamps and instrument cluster are designed for easy replacement. They plug in to the wiring harness, negating the need for snips and a cutter.

But let?s get to the riding, shall we? One doesn?t need to look down to know she?s riding a boxer engine. That?s apparent from its character, which, at idle, can be felt duking it out, and tugging the bike ever so slightly right and left. That sensation disappears with the slightest twist of the grip, which rolls on easily and rides most comfortably at about 4,000 rpm. The R nineT redlines at 8,500, but vibration begins to transmit through the hand grips at 5 grand.

That isn?t a bad thing. It lends the bike a feeling of aggression that matches its slightly aft riding position and a pair of pipes that emit a growl completely out of character for BMW. Its bikes have long been compared with sewing machines. Stock, the R nineT?s pipes are stacked bugles. Titanium low- and high-slung pipes are more aesthetic, highly-advised accessories.

Like the Germans that build them, BMWs are, ordinarily, tall, but the R nineT?s saddle is a comparative pygmy. Its seat is just 30.9 inches from the ground, and it?s tapered where it counts ? where saddle meets tank, making it even easier to stop flat-footed. Its tank is likewise notched to accommodate knees, though the right knee doesn?t sit quite as flush. An air intake hogs some of the space.

In the two weeks I had with the bike, I spent one evening flogging the R nineT in the canyons. My butt gave out before emptying its 4.75-gallon tank. Like the vintage caf? racers that inspired it, the R nineT is a city bike with enough grunt for packs of riders to indulge in green light skirmishes whisking from caf? to caf?. It?s perfectly nimble in the canyons, but it?s best for bombing around town, not for long haulers. BMW has sharper tools if canyon carving is one?s thing ? the S 1000 RR and K bikes, for example.

But as a new take on an old and surprisingly enduring style of bike, the R nineT is impressive. It?s so impressive, in fact, that the bike is sold out through at least next summer. At least you can order the parts now to customize it.
2014 BMW R nineT
Base price: $15,395*
Powertrain: Fuel-injected, air- and oil-cooled, flat twin boxer, six-speed, shaft drive
Displacement: 1,170 cc
Horsepower: 110 @ 7,550 rpm
Torque: 88 lb.-ft. @ 6,000 rpm
Wheelbase: 58.1 inches
Seat height: 30.9 inches
Curb weight: 489 pounds
Road-test fuel economy: 42 mpg
*Includes $495 destination fee

Source: MCT Information Services