It wasn’t like we had to choose another dual-sport BMW when our R1200GS went away this spring. There are, after all, a bunch of great bikes in the BMW lineup from which to pick. An S1000RR might have been fun, and the K1600GT would have certainly made a great cruiser. But we were so enamored of the R1200GS’s breadth of capabilities that we wanted to see if the impressive GS experience carried through on the smaller, less expensive F800 version. The Lava Orange 2011 F800GS you see here rolled up to our garage door early this summer, in plenty of time to still take advantage of the Midwest’s abbreviated riding season.
Like other F800 models, the GS uses a 798-cc inline-twin engine, made by the Austrian firm Rotax. Unlike the iconic air-cooled boxer BMW uses in its R-series bikes, the Rotax engine is liquid-cooled, with a fairly wide radiator sitting just below the steering head. Output is rated at 85 hp at 7500 rpm with 62 lb-ft of torque at 5750 rpm. Like everything else from BMW today, the engine uses fuel injection and four-valve-per-cylinder technology. The gearbox is a six-speed manual, built into the crankcase for weight and space savings, and it uses a wet clutch setup. Unlike the R1200GS we had previously, power gets to the rear wheel via chain drive; the R-bike uses a shaft drive.
What makes this F800 a GS is the taller off-road-ready suspension paired with trail-ready wire spoke wheels, measuring 21 inches in front and 17 inches in back. Ours arrived with street tires (Pirelli Scorpion Trail) that are capable of hitting the occasional gravel road or hard-packed trail, though knobby tires are required for serious off-roading. Given our local conditions, the street tires are perfect.
Naturally, the bodywork is styled for a range of duties, with large plastic fenders to fend off mud and dust, a small windscreen, and grab handles for the passenger. The seat is set just about an inch higher than our previous GS at 34.6 inches, easily manageable by our staff whose inseams range from about 31 to 34 inches. Adding to its off-road demeanor are a bunch of BMW accessories, including GPS, foglights and aluminum panniers. Missing (and literally missed already) are the hand guards.
Riding the F800GS is a considerably different experience from riding its bigger sibling. There’s only a 40-pound weight advantage with the 800 (465 pounds with a full tank), but it feels like a much leaner bike, in part because the R1200’s wide boxer engine isn’t sitting out below you. The narrow enduro-style seat is less comfortable for longer rides, though its unstepped design allows a solo rider to adjust his position more completely, sliding back further once in a while.
Aurally, the Rotax engine is like a junior-high band performance — you recognize the tune, but it sounds different every time you hear it played. Under certain loads and speeds it seems to imitate the distinct rhythm of the R1200’s boxer twin, while other conditions cause it to belt out low, raspy notes that resemble the bark of a Porsche flat-six with a freed-up exhaust. Most of the time, however, it sounds like pissed off lawn equipment, and not in a good way.
Power delivery is linear and predictable, making it a great starter bike. It feels similar to most performance car engines as it moves through the revs, but it seems unrefined and uncomfortable at higher rpm. The six gears are spaced well enough for road use, but the fairly high torque peak and lack of real low gearing might make it a bit less tractable in sand and on hills.
In around-town riding, the F800GS feels stable yet nimble, and it has proven an easy bike for newcomers to hop on and acclimate to. In slow-moving traffic, however, the radiator’s full effect can be felt, as hot air pours out on the rider’s lower right leg. This is one bike where riding pants might actually keep you cooler.
On the highway, as most of our commutes have so far involved, the lack of a steering damper detracts from its sense of stability, especially with cross winds. The low windscreen also offers little protection and produces a fair bit of buffeting. The gearbox has worked generally well on this particular bike, though other F800s we’ve ridden in the past have proven a bit more balky. The only quirk we’ve experienced with it so far is it’s magnet-like desire to slip itself into neutral as we downshift through the gears to stop; it has occasionally slipped right past second, leaving us surprised when we slip the clutch to creep ahead in stop-and-go traffic.
As with the R1200GS, we plan to ride the F800 as far into the Chicago autumn as possible. We’ve already lined up a new Triumph Tiger 800XC, a bike that has clearly gone to school on BMW’s GS lineup, to see how the two 800s compare. And before our time with it is up, we plan to take it to the BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg, SC, for a little bit of off-road riding instruction at the school.
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