First Ride Review – 2020 BMW F900R and BMW F900XR

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First Ride Review – 2020 BMW F900R/F900XR
Story by Nathan May
Photos by Kevin Wing


1,320 feet make up the quarter mile. That storied test of a vehicle’s acceleration prowess. Or, in track and field, a test of how close to vomiting you can get while running at full sprint.

A surprising amount can happen in such a short distance.

To wit, a quarter mile was about how long it took me to feel comfortable on the new BMW F900R. And that is saying something. It usually takes me a little bit to get comfortable on a new bike. (I call it “becoming friends”) So, as I wheeled the new Roadster onto the road for the first time and instantly felt at home, I took notice. That approachability, balanced with middleweight performance, is exactly what BMW was going for.

But let me back up…

When I first saw these bikes at the 2019 Long Beach International Motorcycle Show, I will admit that I basically dismissed them. Though I was intrigued by the F900XR for the simple fact that I LOVE the S1000XR, I assumed (wrongly – more on that in a sec) that these two bikes were just style exercises based off the F850GS power plant (also wrong) and some 17 inch wheels. I have not spent a ton of time on the new middleweight GS, but I do have a fair amount of experience with the old F800GS and I found that platform to be underwhelming.

Nathan on the S1000XR at a Michelin tire launch in Spain.

Fast forward several months. The bikes have landed stateside and BMW has brought us to lovely Santa Barbara, CA to try out both the F900R and F900XR, their newest entrants in the middleweight motorcycle category. But make no mistake, while they share much from an engineering standpoint, these are two very different bikes intended for two very different buyers.

POSITIONING

BMW calls the R a “Dynamic Roadster” and the XR a “Sport Adventurer”. Although aimed at different riders, both bikes are designed to be fun, approachable machines that can be enjoyed for many years. And if that is truly their aim, BMW has achieved that goal handily.

BMW is not playing around: these bikes are specifically designed to grab a piece of a market dominated by Japanese middleweights. And from a pure value proposition, they are bringing the heat: TFT display, LED headlights, Brembo brakes, both bikes are decked out with top shelf components and priced to give the competition some sleepless nights. If you are feeling spicy, there is a whole slew of options available, including some category firsts.

Heated Grips, GPS Prep, Side Case Mounts, Tire Pressure Monitor, Cruise Control.

So yeah, I was wrong…as we start the press briefing, the first thing mentioned is that these bikes are brand new from the ground up. When pressed on the issue, the response was “maybe a couple of pins or fasteners.” While “new” is not always better, you now have my attention.

The 895cc engine is a significant evolution of the F850 plant and now produces 99 hp and a “fuller” torque profile.

The engines are built in China and then shipped to Berlin where the bikes are assembled.

Press briefing out of the way, it is time to ride.

I start the day on the F900R. My bike is dressed in “Style Sport in Hockenheim Silver Metallic/Racing Red” – I just called it the “red one” for obvious reasons. BMW is notorious for their “options” – this bike is essentially stock, but it is equipped with Dynamic Ride Modes which also adds an IMU that enables ABS Pro.

Prep out of the way, we fire up the bikes for the first time. These bikes sound surprisingly good for a Euro 5 compliant spec. The sound is throatier than expected and conveys an intent personality. I am already smiling. If you’re curious, you can hear the sound for yourself on the BMW site, just press the “START ENGINE” button.

With that auspicious start, we are off and I find myself pulling out the Ritz-Carlton and into the misty morning light. It is finally time to find out what these bikes are really like. Our planned route takes us through some 260 miles of twisting mountain roads and beautiful California wine country. After a short transit across town, we turn onto Gibraltar Road and begin our ascent of the coastal range and get our first taste of some proper curves.

This bike is good. At 5’11” I find the riding position is comfortable and confidence inspiring. The 43mm forks, although basic and not adjustable, strike a pretty good balance between compliance and firmness fitting its sporty disposition. After briefly playing with the ride modes, I end up on Dynamic Pro and leave it there for the rest of the ride. It should be noted that increased responsiveness is certainly noticeable when switching between Road and Dynamic. Dynamic Pro predominantly alters allowable rear wheel spin and disables wheelie control (should that be your thing) so there is not as much of a perceptible difference between Dynamic and Dynamic Pro. It is worth noting that Dynamic Pro can be customized to your preference and it is possible to disable rear wheel ABS. Which, after a brief experiment, I quickly switched back on.

The first roads of the day are pretty tight, and our pace is slowed by traffic, so I drop back and concentrate on corner entry, acceleration and braking. (i.e., the basics) The bike tips in easily enough and sticks confidently once your line is set. Accelerating out hard, I am continually impressed by this engine. BMW says a lot of effort went into flattening the torque curve and that work shows. With peak torque hitting at 6,500 RPM, this is definitely an engine that makes you want to twist that wrist. So far, so good.

Braking is unremarkable. Twin, four-piston Brembos up front and a single-piston rear provide plenty of stopping power, but require a little more input than I would prefer to really bite. It is something you quickly adjust to, and one of my few little quibbles with this bike.

The TFT dash is the same as that found in all of their new models. It is simply an excellent display and BMW has done a good job of refining and streamlining the labyrinth of options modern bikes present in their information systems. Once I got comfortable with the nav wheel, I found navigating the UI and making changes on the fly to be a relatively easy affair.

At our second photo stop, Vincent Kung (BMW Product Manager) walked up and asked if I had “checked out the Sport screen?” A couple of downward taps on the mode button brings up a tach-focused display which also features braking force, DTC-activation rate and a lean angle display that includes a record of max lean angle attained. All values reset when the bike is turned off and that helps mitigate my tendency to try to make every corner a new personal lean angle record.

Our route for the first part of the day covers about 120 miles of back country roads. Traffic is pretty much nonexistent once we leave the hills surrounding Santa Barbara. And that space allows us to really push the bikes. If you find yourself up in this area, I can fully recommend Gibraltar Road (insane views of the Santa Barbara coast), Camino Cielo and Tepusquet Road. The latter was particularly fun. Little traffic, tight, well-canted turns and enough visibility to allow you to relax and enjoy the ride.

After lunch we switch bikes.

My F900XR is equipped with Ride Modes Pro, the taller windscreen, and is clad in “Light White.” Though it will not win any beauty contests, the look has certainly grown on me and it is visually cleaner than the previous gen S1000XR.

Climbing aboard the S1000XR always felt a little akin to mounting a horse and I was surprised to discover how approachable this version is. Despite longer suspension travel than the Roadster (1.4” in the front and 1.2” rear) and a thicker seat, BMW has managed only a .4-inch increase in overall seat height. With optional seat heights and lowering, BMW says the seat height can be customized from 30.3″ to 34.3″. Again, this is all a reflection of BMW’s intent to make this a more accessible bike. With this bike, BMW has the Yamaha Tracer 900 squarely in its sights and it is worth noting that the XR seat height is a full 1″ lower than the Yamaha.

ERGONOMICS

Wider handlebars and the more upright and relaxed riding position (based on the GS) certainly provide a comfortable perch. Handlebars are also moved further back, and the foot controls are moved down by 1.7” and forward by 1.7”. These changes result in a less-aggressive knee angle and less weight on your wrists. As I have had multiple knee surgeries, that increased knee angle is certainly appreciated.

Leaving the stunning Presqu’ile Winery, on the fast sweeping curves of CA 166, it became pretty clear that this bike would be good at eating miles. We quickly make our way out of the wine country and back to the Los Padres National Forest and Tepusquet Road for another run. I had not ridden Tepusquet Road before today, and I was eager for another go at this spectacular little road.

Generally, I prefer the more upright riding position of the XR for about anything except a serious track session. However, it was rather illuminating to see the difference between these two bikes in the tight corners of Tepusquet Road. Starting to fatigue and in a bit of a post-lunch food coma, I felt that the XR is less forgiving of errant brake inputs or line selection and I found myself having to back off the pace as we wound our way up through the canyon. Riding these two bikes back to back on the same road, really highlights the difference in their intended purpose. While I have no complaints about the XR’s “sportiness”, I find the Roadster to be less work and generally more fun in these tight, canted corners.

On the way back from the launch event in Santa Barbara, I had a much better chance to get to know the XR’s home turf. BMW was kind enough to loan us an XR for the next few weeks and it proved to be an excellent bike to navigate the route back to the Los Angeles westside. Ripping home on a relatively empty post-commute 101, I did find myself missing cruise control (available as part of the “Select Package”). But the fairings, improved aerodynamics, and the easily adjusted two-position windscreen make burning up miles a rather pleasant affair.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Though the F900XR is not a rip-roaring maniacal beast like its big brother, it is well-executed, and in the end, simply a lot of fun to ride. That said, my time with the XR reminded me of just how much I like the Tracer GT. Once you add the Premium and Select packages (which you will absolutely want to) the price comes in at about $13,620 without luggage, making it about $620 more than the Yamaha with luggage, posing an interesting decision for potential shoppers.

With these two new bikes, BMW has clearly decided to get aggressive with their product strategy and the happy result is a couple of very compelling new motorcycles. When it comes down to it, and for my money, the F900R is the better buy: simply an excellent motorcycle at an extremely reasonable price, and that makes it very hard to ignore. I’ll take mine in “Style Sport in Hockenheim Silver Metallic/Racing Red” err…red.


Check out the 2020 BMW F900R! Check out the 2020 BMW F900XR!

NATHAN’S GEAR

Helmet: Shoei Neotec (replaced by Neotec II)
Jacket: REV’IT! Cayenne Pro – $559
Pants: REV’IT! Cayenne Pro – $399
Gloves: Held Airstream – $135
Boots: Alpinestars SMX-6 V2 – $269

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