First Ride Review – 2021 BMW R18

In Cruiser, Germany by AbhiLeave a Comment

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In 2005, the President of BMW Motorrad (Dr. Herbert Diess) killed off the R1200C (the company’s first attempt at a cruiser) after 8 years of production and 40,000 examples. His reasoning was that the 1,200cc boxer engine wasn’t big enough to compete: “since the trend in the cruiser segment has now been pointing far beyond 1,400 cc for quite some time, a Cruiser in its former, classic style with a smaller engine would no longer fit into our concept for the future. But this does not mean that we are turning away from the cruising philosophy with BMW motorcycles once and for all. On the contrary, it would be quite conceivable for us to re-interpret this theme quite differently some time or another.”

15 years later, we’ve got BMW’s new interpretation…and they went big. Will it be enough?


What I like:
  • The motor: 110+ lb-ft of torque from 2k-4k rpm.
  • Styling.
  • Potential for customization and future models.
What I don’t like:
  • The motor: it’s too damn big.
  • Not enough cornering clearance.
  • It’s a BMW cruiser…but are BMW fans or cruiser fans going to like it? Who’s it for?

First Ride Review – 2021 BMW R18
Photos by Kevin Wing. Feature photo by Nathan May.


History Lesson

Seeing as this model is all-new, this section’s going to be short: the R18 draws from two previous BMWs in two very different ways. From a styling standpoint, the obvious inspiration is the gorgeous 1936 R5:

Photo from BMW

Photo from BMW

From a functionality standpoint, I think the closest thing to a predecessor is the R1200C, a quirky first attempt at a cruiser that gave up some cubic centimeters to the competition but offered superior handling and braking as well as clever features like a passenger seat that flipped up to become a backrest for the rider at three different angles. Little trivia for you – the R1200C, not the GS or RT, was the first BMW boxer to get the 1200 motor. With that said, the current Head of Design at BMW Motorrad (Edgar Heinrich) argues that this wasn’t an entry into the cruiser market, it was just a “nicely done standard/naked bike.” We’ll come back to Edgar’s thoughts.

A R1200C at the BMW Museum. Photo by PJT56 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, used with permission.

As made clear by the opening quote from Dr. Diess, BMW was willing to get back into cruisers with a bigger motor – but they’ve gone bigger in other ways, too.

Styling

I know that not everyone will agree with this, but I think the R18 looks cool (and if you don’t already know this by now, I’m not a cruiser guy). I like the overall shape, I really like how chunky it is, and I absolutely love some of the details like the pinstriped tank and the exposed driveshaft – something BMW hasn’t done since the 50s.

I think the only styling miss is the oil cooler. I really don’t know where else they could have put it, but it doesn’t look great where it is.

BMW has clearly learned something from the success of the R9T platform, as there’s plenty of customization options. The wiring harness and mounting points for the hydraulic lines have all been specifically designed so that you can easily remove the rear frame or change the handlebar height. In addition, the valve covers and belt cover were built so that they don’t see any oil, so it’s easy to swap them out for whatever style you want. They’ve tried to highlight this over the last several months as part of the hype cycle by giving early production versions to customizers to go nuts on – you may have seen the Revival Birdcage, Custom Works ZON Departed, Blechmann R18, or Roland Sands Design Dragster?

The Revival Birdcage at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering. Photo by Nathan May.

For the initial year of production, BMW is offering a “First Edition” package which dramatically changes the style thanks to Light White double pinstriping on the Black Storm Metallic paint, a seat emblem, and a whole lot of chrome: “First Edition” logo on the side cover, brake calipers, hand/foot levers, bar ends, brake/clutch master cylinders, intake pipe covers, engine front cover, and the cylinder head covers.

Personally, I think there’s too much chrome – I’d love to just get the pinstripes and call it a day.

A beautiful tank – but it’s not a good sign that the emissions sticker is already coming off on a basically brand new bike.

First Edition buyers also get a welcome box which includes a Heritage book, First Edition cap, leather belt with First Edition buckle, and three old-school BMW emblems with copper letter (two for the tank and one spare) plus a screwdriver and matching screws to install them yourself.

Here’s a slider that will let you compare the base model and the First Edition, plus a bit of white space that I can’t seem to get rid of. Sorry!

In The Present

I don’t think the R18 has a high bar to clear in terms of dynamic performance to be competitive as a cruiser, and I’d say it mostly holds up. The big thing (figuratively and literally) is the engine, a 1,802cc (110 ci) hunk of metal that makes me want to type out MOTORcycle instead of motorcycle to describe this BMW. The opposed twin produces 91 horsepower at 4,750 rpm and 116 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. Happy coincidence – on the guided route that BMW had me do alongside my buddy Charles Fleming, I stumbled upon another BMW 1800 which happens to make 90 horsepower…but it was from the 1960s!

Well, it made 90 horsepower when it was new.

So peak torque is at 3,000 rpm, and you’ll start feeling vibrations almost immediately after that. The shaking reaches full-body levels at about 4,200 rpm and then starts tapering off again until you eventually hit the softest redline cutoff I’ve ever experienced at 5,750 rpm. The ride by wire system ignores excessive throttle at redline and holds a steady throttle, preventing any sort of banging off the limiter. This is the biggest boxer BMW Motorrad has ever built, and it’s paired with a 6-speed transmission as well as an optional reverse gear that runs off the battery – you just have to flip the lever in the top right of this photo and then push the starter button to get it moving backwards. It’s very easy to use.

The Reverse Assist is part of the $1,450 Premium Package, which also includes Hill Start Control and an adaptive headlight which adds LED lighting on the inside of curves when you’re leaned over more than 7 degrees and going more than 7 miles per hour.

The in-curve lighting is optimized for a lean angle of 25 degrees.

The remaining option packages are the Select Package for $225 (anti-theft alarm system, lockable fuel cap, and heated grips) as well as the aforementioned First Edition package for $2,150. However, if you start playing with BMW’s online configurator, you’ll quickly find out that BMW USA won’t let you get the First Edition package or the Select package separately – you have to bundle them together so you’re really looking at all these features for a total of $2,375. You’re also not allowed to just get the Premium Package by itself. It’s a little bit confusing, but what’s clear is that BMW North America is expecting early R18 customers will be getting all three packages. That gets you to a total of $22,015 after the $695 destination & handling charge but before any of the many cosmetic accessories you may want to dress your bike up with. If you just stick with the base model, you’re looking at $18,190 after destination & handling.

Basically, your options are either First Edition + Select, all 3, or none at all. Still with me?

While I’m droning on about numbers, let me hit you with a few more:
That shapely gas tank carries 4.23 gallons of fuel. Officially, the reserve is 1 gallon though I’ve seen the light flicker on with as much as 1.2 gallons to go. I’m normally on the aggressive side when I’m on two wheels, but the R18 brings out the relaxed side of me and I’ve been averaging 39 miles per gallon in the process. This yields a theoretical range of 165 miles.

You’ll get a 19″ front wheel and a 16″ rear paired with 300mm four-piston calipers – 2 in the front, 1 in the back. My test unit was shod with Bridgestone Battlecruise H50 tires but I saw Michelin Commanders on other loaners, so your mileage tire may vary.

The calipers are BMW-branded-but-built-by-Brembo (how’s that for alliteration?)

Swing your leg over the seat and you’ll notice how long, low, and heavy the R18 is. Seat height is 27.2″ – the lowest in BMW’s lineup even with the scooters, though this isn’t what one would call beginner-friendly as the road-ready weight is a hefty 761 pounds. You’ll have no problem triggering traffic light sensors!

The passenger seat is a $250 option.

Even if you’re in neutral, you’ll have to hold the clutch in to fire this gigantic motor up, which is a good call because there’s a fairly violent kick when it first starts. I think the names of the ride modes are tacky (Rock/Roll/Rain), but I appreciate that BMW even changes up the idle behavior of the engine depending on the mode. Put it in “rock” and that’s literally what it does when you’re stopped – the handlebars just want to dance.

Also tacky? You see “Berlin Built” on the speedo, the clutch master cylinder, and the brake master cylinder. Once is fine, thanks.

The clutch is impressively light (almost to the point that it feels artificial) but the motor is sublime. I love the way it feels – the trademark side-by-side rock when you blip the throttle at idle, the excellent fueling, and the absolute wall of torque: there’s over 110 lb-ft of torque between 2,000-4,000 rpm. I typically shifted up around 3,000 rpm to minimize vibrations, but there’s still plenty of thrust as you get higher in the revs and this engine doesn’t seem to care what gear you’re in.

It’s a truly impressive piece of engineering that’s visually imposing, and it’s very on-brand for a BMW cruiser. Let’s go back to Edgar Heinrich, who didn’t think the R1200C counted as a cruiser. Paraphrased: ‘That’s the lesson that we learned: if we go into a segment [big cruisers] that we haven’t played in before, we have to play by the rules set by the benchmark [Harley-Davidson]. We had to have a capacity of over 100 cubic inches. We had to have a certain long/low proportion. We had to get the customizing right. And most importantly, we had to do it our way, with a boxer engine. We decided that if we were going to enter this market, we had to do it our own way, otherwise we’d just leave it.’ Based on those guidelines, I’d say BMW did a hell of a job.

I’m the least muscular thing in this photo.

My main gripe is that the cylinders stick out too far. I’ll lane split with anything, but this bike makes me more nervous about it than any other two wheeler I’ve ever ridden, including full dressers and adventure bikes with giant metal panniers on the back. It’s staggering how much wider the jugs are than your legs.

I guarantee you one of these is coming back to the dealership within a few weeks of purchase when someone bangs a cylinder against a gas station pump or something similar.

When you’re not in confined spaces, things are great. I’d like a bit less play in the front brake lever but otherwise all the controls feel good. It’s very easy to get in and out of neutral and the light clutch makes it a breeze to accelerate away from everyone at a stoplight, letting them bask in the exhaust sound. Here’s a quick startup/acceleration video so you can hear for yourself – note how the bike leans to the left each time I blip the throttle at a stop:

I’m not going to say this is one of those bikes where the weight disappears while you’re moving – you’ll never forget that this weighs more than 750 pounds, especially with maneuvers at first-gear speeds. But that of course means it’s very stable in a straight line, especially with the 68.1″ wheelbase (3.9″ longer than the Softail Slim). Take your hands off the bars and the R18 will act like it didn’t notice.

It also doesn’t seem to notice a passenger, as the extra weight is no problem for the R18’s torque. Unfortunately, your passenger will be well aware of his/her surroundings. Vy joined me for a short jaunt and she was uncomfortable in less than 10 minutes because the passenger seat is too narrow and it’s much stiffer than the rider’s seat – I was shocked when I tried it for myself. She also reports that the ride was pleasant enough on the freeway when the pavement was nice, but the bike sends too much force from suspension impacts through the seat and she could feel her brain rattling in her skull from the vibration. She could tell a difference in vibes between the ROCK and ROLL modes, and when I intentionally held the revs at around 4,200 rpm (where I think the bike vibrates the most), she jokingly called it “indecent” and made a passing reference to the myth about Victorian-era doctors. So maybe that’s actually a plus. Overall, Vy found it to be one of the least comfortable motorcycles she’s been a passenger on in the last few years.

When I was first handed the keys, a BMW representative cautioned me: “just remember, the pegs touch down early and often.” He wasn’t kidding. With a little patience and body positioning, you can avoid the scrapes. But isn’t the point of a bike like this to be a little lazy and not worry about that kind of thing, anyway? I’ll just say that there isn’t enough cornering clearance and move on, as I was expecting that based on my time with the Softail Slim.

Photo by Nathan May.

The most common question I got was about the mid controls. Well, I happen to strongly prefer mid-controls over forward controls, so I find the R18 to be quite comfortable for about 40 minutes at a time before my butt wants a break from the seat. In addition, these aren’t strictly mids – they’re a bit of a hybrid and I think they might be forward enough for some, if not most riders. But there are definitely going to be some cruiser fans who won’t give this a chance just because of the footpeg position.

Who’s It For?

BMW was not shy in their presentation about what they’re trying to do here. They claim that cruisers are still about 48% of the US motorcycle market, and 95% of that space is owned by Harley-Davidson. In the global cruiser market, the “Custom Cruiser” segment takes up 65% (think Indian Scout, Triumph Bonneville Bobber, even the Kawasaki Vulcan because that does well internationally). But there’s one specific bike that BMW is gunning for – the Harley-Davidson Softail Slim. I don’t have a ton of cruiser experience myself, however I do have about 1,000 miles on a 2018 Softail Slim from this story in Arizona with Motorcyclist plus the ride back home to Los Angeles.

I can guarantee that the R18 would not have fit inside that door frame! Photo by Julia LaPalme.

Based on my experience, I’d say that the BMW offers much better fit and finish, technology, and brakes. But it also weighs 91 pounds more (761 vs. 670) and costs $1,006 more when including ABS and freight on both bikes. I don’t think the price difference is too big of a deal at this level, but the weight is significant. I remember the Harley feeling a bit more nimble, and it’s easy to see why. During their technical presentation to media, BMW shared some interesting insights from their market research. Their belief is that approximately 60% of the cruiser market is loyal to Harley-Davidson and won’t buy anything else. Another 20% will only buy American (H-D + Indian). The remaining 20% is open to brands from other countries. So BMW is targeting the “open-minded Cruiser rider”, nothing that “there are H-D riders who want to see a BMW additionally in their garage.” BMW also says that they expect 75% of R18 sales to come as conquest from other brands, while 25% will come from BMW riders who were already on machines like the R nineT, K1600, or R1250GS.

Simply put, I am not one of these people – I’m not going to buy a R18 or a Softail Slim with my own money. But I wanted feedback from people who might, so I spoke with a few friends who are BMW devotees. Their general consensus was that the mid-controls weren’t a problem, but most of them aren’t cruiser fans so they just assumed it’d be slow and wouldn’t maintain the typical level of performance they’ve come to expect from their favorite brand. That’s not fair but it’s not entirely inaccurate. It’s also biased because I don’t spend a lot of time with cruisers so my usual group of riding friends typically don’t, either.

The friends who were more open-minded about cruisers thought the R18 was cool, but had some reservations about the seating position. Tom McComas owes his passion for motorcycles and his career to a R60 (as highlighted in this beautiful Petrolicious video), and he was a potential R18 buyer. “I think it’s super cool, and I’m stoked BMW made it. I was considering it, but I was concerned about the foot position. Now that I’ve sat on it, I’ve confirmed it’s not for me. But the engine is awesome!” Then he reminded all of us that the above-mentioned career is Hollywood stuntman:

What about H-D traditionalists? I posted up in front of Bartel’s Harley-Davidson for a bit and talked to some employees and customers to see what they thought. Every single person was positive about the styling, with specific love given to the tank, dual discs, and copious use of metal instead of plastic. A few bonus points were awarded for the tubeless tires with spoked wheels. All of the staff instantly identified it as a competitor to the Softail Slim, and one ~35 year-old customer (who was considering trading in a V-Rod on a FXDR) walked by and just said, “bitchin’!” I asked him to give me more thoughts and he was stunned to find out it was a new bike – at first glance he thought it was something from the ’70s. He’d later tell me that the R18 was beautiful, and he’d gladly take it to a bike show.

I was particularly interested in the thoughts of a specific H-D sales associate who happened to own a BMW K75S. He thought everything looked amazing…except for the motor, which was just too physically big for his taste. His experience was that “everyone’s getting out of chrome, the trend in the last two years is blacking everything out”. The two main concerns from the Harley employees and customers I spoke with were the lack of forward controls (but it wasn’t as much of a dealbreaker as I thought it would be) and the width of the engine (which was much more serious to them than I thought it would be). Goes to show what I know…

Colton Bartels in front of the family dealership.

Lastly, I thought of a colleague who I felt had to be the ideal R18 customer because of his passion for both BMWs and cruisers. He’s gone through multiple H-D’s and in the last few years he’s owned about 30 BMWs. As you could imagine, he had a deposit on the R18 and a local dealership had already brought him one to ride on Sunday morning – before any US journalist was able to pick up a test unit from BMW!

“I totally appreciate the cruiser market – I’ve had over 100 Harley-Davidsons and 3 ARCHs. I’m also a huge fan of BMW, I love their engineering. But the R18 is too big and too long. When I saw the original concept last year I thought it was very cool, I loved the exposed driveshaft.”

Note the exhaust, the lever mounts, the tail, and the 21″/18″ wheels.

But he wasn’t blown away by the way the production bike looked, and he felt that it “grew”. On the road, he felt that it constantly scraped in corners and it didn’t have the performance he was looking for.

How close to the prototype do you think it ended up?

“There are very few bikes that I pass on, but I don’t want to get the R18. I do like looking at Roland’s R18 Dragster, but I think the production bike is a miss. I’d buy an Indian before I bought the BMW.”

The RSD Dragster. Photo from BMW.

I’m a bit bigger than him so I don’t mind the size as much, but I definitely agree about the lack of cornering clearance and general performance. BMW might counter with, “Soul is all that matters,” but the R nineT did a damn good job capturing soul while still being an absolute blast to ride.

I realize that these are all individual data points and that BMW presumably spent many thousands of dollars in market research to figure out what would sell for them in the Custom Cruiser market. Everything was methodically planned out, like the specific decision to design a motor with 110 cubic inches of displacement: H-D announced in 2017 that the Softail was getting a 107, and BMW suspected that they’d shove the 114 in it for 2021 so they wanted to make sure they were in the ballpark. The Germans are definitely looking ahead.

Looking To The Future

If you’re looking at this bike and thinking, “BMW invested a lot of money just to create one model”, you’re on to something. BMW has acknowledged that this is the start of a family (just like with the R nineT), and while they wouldn’t share any details, they mentioned that there are spy photos out on the interwebs of a bagger based on the platform. Also telling was a slide in their presentation, which mentioned a “BMW K34 PURE”. I’m think it’s fair to assume that K34 is the chassis code for the R18, and BMW fans already know that Pure is one of the models for the R nineT. Maybe we’ll see a R18 Racer? Kidding. We can expect cruise control and more colors, though.

This is actually part of the reason why the R18 weighs so much compared to the Softail Slim – BMW specifically designed the frame to be able to support more weight as they plan on loading it up with a fairing, bags, and all the stuff that people like me want to put in said bags as they travel the country. I’m assuming we’ll eventually see a bagger and a full dresser based on this platform, assuming the sales do as well as BMW expects. It sounds like the expectations are high, as one representative mentioned that they’re thinking US sales numbers will be close to what the GS does – over 50% of all R18s built will be coming to the United States.

That’s all well and good, but based on my own experience and the people I’ve spoken with, I’m struggling to believe that there are lots of buyers for a bike like this from BMW – and I say this as someone who thinks that it’s at least as engaging as the competition. Maybe I’m suffering from selection bias – I’m not in the target market, which is why I think it’s smaller than BMW does?

Conclusion

The R18 will probably make BMW fans think of two bikes in the company’s history – the R5 that it borrowed styling from, and the R1200C which it is attempting to succeed. It makes me think of a different BMW instead: the K1200R. The K1200R was the first BMW that I thought was cool. I was 17 when it came out so I couldn’t afford it, but I ended up buying one years later (and I still have it). I love that bike, but I know it didn’t sell well in the US because supernaked fans didn’t seriously consider BMW (or they couldn’t afford it) and BMW fans didn’t get it. I’m oversimplifying, but I get the same feeling from the R18. I think it holds its own dynamically in a segment I admittedly don’t care much about and there’s going to be a small group of people who really love what this boat of a German offers. But I also think that it might be a little too weird to really steal some buyers from Harley-Davidson.

I think this platform makes a lot more sense with bags and possibly a fairing, so I look forward to seeing what BMW has planned next on the R18 chassis. Until then, if you’re in the market then you should try a R18 out. Maybe you’ll also like it and can hopefully prove me wrong about how many BMW can sell…


PHOTO BY NATHAN MAY

Helmet: Shoei GT-Air II with Sena SRL2 – $1,000
Jacket: REAX Ludlow in Loden – $199
Gloves: Alpinestars Oscar Robinson in Brown – $89.95
Boots: Sidi Fast Rain – $175

Your Questions

Before I picked up this bike, I asked you guys and gals what you wanted to know about it. Here are some questions that I did not specifically address in the above review:

AZgman asked: “My question for you would be; would you buy the R18 over a similar Harley or Indian? I can’t see this thing being a sales success, but then I don’t really like cruisers.
I’d buy this over the Softail Slim. But I’d probably go with a Chief over the R18, and I’d definitely go with a Scout over the BMW (but that’s probably too small to be considered “similar” per your question). I like boxer motors a lot, but not enough to put up with how much room the cylinders take up on this bike.

Comet asked/said: “I’m 6’2 and have five BMW’s in my garage. It’s safe to say I love BMW bikes, however I can’t see any way I’d fit on this bike. There’s no way around those cylinders. Based on BMW’s prior history with cruisers, I’m skeptical.”
I’m 6’2″/190 and I actually thought the most limiting part of the comfort was the seat. I’ve never clicked with true forward controls, and I didn’t miss the lack of them here. Hopefully the pictures above give you an idea of how I fit for you to use as a baseline.

mking amusingly asked: “Please let us know what is in the welcome box, and if you are truly delighted or merely charmed.”
I shared the contents above – can I vote somewhere in between? I’m charmed by the book, indifferent about the hat and belt, and truly delighted by the old-school emblems/screws/screwdriver.

L.W. Mason asked: “I can totally see some cruiser people not liking the lateral pulsivity of the massive Boxer lump too, but then again, BMW probably counter-weighted that aspect out of it?
If anything, they embraced it. There might even be a little too much, which I dig and Vy as my passenger does not. The fact that the ride mode affects lateral pulsvity at idle is a great touch, too.

Jack Risley asked: “Is it silly or cool, or maybe a bit of both?
Definitely both, but heavier on the cool. The only silly parts to me are the width of the motor and the exhausts, though the latter is just a styling thing (they look like they’re out of the 50s, and not in a good way) and BMW is offering an optional factory exhaust through Vance & Hines which should look a lot better.

Cyclemikey asked “What I want to know is why do they think anyone is going to fall for this again? To be fair, this is well-styled for a cruiser, which the last one was, unfortunately, not. But that boxer motor looks ridiculous in there. I’m no Harley fanboi, or even a v-twin booster, but that is just…wrong. And the exhaust seems to have suffered a giant backfire.

Regarding the first part of the question – BMW feels that Indian has proven there’s space for challengers and cruiser customers are becoming more open-minded to non-Harley options. As their US Product Manager put it, “the only way to find out [if they can take on Harley] is to try.”

Bob Hill asked: “I have no real desire to have one of these, but I like the look. Except – the oil cooler looks like an afterthought, as if it grew there like a wart. Couldn’t they integrate it somehow? And it’s too bad they couldn’t find a way to shrink or hide the mufflers. They dominate. But what I want to know is, does it put a smile on your face to ride it? Does it make you feel powerful, (relatively) agile, and in control?
Does it:
Put a smile on my face? Not really.
Feel powerful? Only in the specific sensation you get when you have plenty of torque. It never feels fast, but it feels like you could tow a truck with it.
Feel relatively agile? No.
Feel in control? Absolutely. It’s incredibly planted (which is also why it doesn’t feel relatively agile).


Remember that this is just a “First Ride” review – I’ll have the R18 for at least a couple more weeks, so if there’s something I didn’t answer to your satisfaction…let me know!

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