Coming out of the long right-hand turn nine at Palm Beach International Raceway, BMW’s new S1000RR did something unexpected. Despite having the throttle pinned wide-open, the bike didn’t want to accelerate. It wasn’t until the lean angle came within 45 degrees from vertical that a blast of horsepower from the Bavarian bullet lifted the front wheel about a foot off the asphalt and hurled the bike down the 0.6-mile straightaway. As the speedo ticked past 165 mph, self-preservation took over and we jumped on the brakes as turn one rapidly approached. As amazing as this was, it was only the first flying lap of what would end up being a full day of riding the most impressive motorcycle we’ve ever tested.
There’s an endless list of good qualities about this bike, so we’ll get the bad out of the way right now: The footpegs are too low, the styling is a bit goofy, and the front brakes could be stronger. Other than those few complaints, BMW’s first honest-to-God superbike is a home run.
Not content with making quirky air-cooled boxers with tele-lever front-ends and shaft-drive, BMW realized that as its rider base was aging (currently 47 years old and increasing at a rate of 0.7 years of age every calendar year,) it might need to take an entirely new direction to attract younger buyers. Oddly enough, in order to be different, they went totally conventional: a transverse-mounted, one-liter inline-four with a traditional suspension and chain-drive, all wrapped in an aluminum alloy superbike frame. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s been the modus operandi for the Japanese manufacturers for decades. (Before any of the touring or adventure-riding crowd starts sweating, BMW definitely won’t be abandoning its core market; an all-new DOHC R1200GS will arrive in the next couple months.)
Since “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is no guarantee for success, BMW knew the challenges would be threefold: 1) make a bike with superior performance to the Japanese, 2) make it as technologically advanced — if not more so — than the European exotics, and 3) price it within 10 percent of its cheapest competitor. These were big goals for a relatively small company, but achieving them will be paramount to the S1000RR’s success.
Performance had to be top priority if this new superbike would have any credibility. The heart of the RR is its unbelievably powerful engine. A 999-cc inline-four, it produces a class-leading 193 hp at a stratospheric 13,000 rpm. As any racer can tell you, making horsepower isn’t the biggest issue, but making it reliably — something with which BMW is almost synonymous — certainly is. Revving a 1000 cc motor to a 14,000-rpm redline is a feat typically reserved for factory-built superbikes that need to be rebuilt frequently.
What keeps the RR engine from scattering its internals is an assortment of technological advances inspired by BMW’s F1 racecar efforts. It’s exceptionally oversquare with a bore and stroke of 80 mm x 50 mm, respectively, and the shorter stroke keeps piston speeds down as RPM increases. All 16 valves are made from superlight titanium. Tiny, lightweight cam followers enabled the engineers to run aggressive cam profiles and help prevent valve float at high RPM. An intermediate gear just above the crankshaft allows the cam gears and timing chain to be significantly smaller and lighter than on a typical engine. To optimize torque — a rare commodity on most high-revving engines — BMW uses both variable-length intake manifolds and multiple butterfly-type valves in the exhaust system. Two fuel injectors per cylinder operate on a variable fuel pressure system to ensure optimal fueling at all engine speeds. These innovations, plus tolerances so exact that BMW claims each component is three times more expensive than normal because of the manufacturing precision, means that the one-liter mill will be just as strong as it is powerful.
The suspension is RR-specific and made by German company Sachs. The front forks are conventional USD (upside-down) and the rear shock uses a typical rocker arm-type linkage. Both ends are fully adjustable with one very trick feature — compression and rebound damping can be adjusted by using the end of the ignition key. The suspension was set up for a lighter rider, and we noticed slight head-shake in the esses during side-to-side transitions. Some quick fiddling with the factory supplied toolkit — sadly, a rather nice feature that other OEMs did away with long ago in the name of weight savings — gave us the spring-rate and damping we needed.
The chassis geometry is more on par with the current 600s than the 1000s, so the RR steers very quickly with a much more aggressive turn-in than we expected. Once we got used to the size, we realized the RR needed to be ridden like a middleweight rather than a point-and-shoot literbike. Unfortunately, our severely worn-out toe sliders tell us that the footpegs sit just a bit too low for any serious track use.
The front brakes were a small disappointment with Brembo’s fantastic four-piston, four-pad, radial calipers mated to an underwhelming Nissin radial master cylinder. We’re sure the choice was a cost-saving measure, but if BMW intends to offer a superbike capable of a claimed 186 mph, we’d like a slightly better package for bringing it to a stop.
The optional BMW Shift Assistant ($450) is fantastic and gives the rider the ability to make full-power clutchless upshifts. Quick-shifters are typically an aftermarket item, so it’s nice to see a manufacturer making them available from the factory. A ramp-style slipper clutch — standard equipment on the RR — rounds out the transmission package and enabled sixth-to-second-gear downshifts with no rear tire chatter and only a slight propensity towards stepping out at turn-in.
All these features, plus a 404-pound claimed dry weight, make the BMW a formidable rival for any superbike on the market. But after BMW’s engineers accomplished their performance goal, they set their sights on making the RR the most technologically advanced motorcycle on the market.
To accomplish this, the S1000RR features an optional Race ABS and Dynamic Traction Control (ABS/DTC) system. A $1480 upgrade, and the true star of the show, it is worth every penny and is part of the reason the BMW features a highly sophisticated drive-by-wire throttle system. Two separate throttle position sensors are used — one to measure the rider’s intended amount of throttle, and the other to measure the actual amount that the ECU deems safe.
Four different modes — rain, sport, race, and slick — give the rider varying levels of horsepower, throttle response, and available lean angle. As we said earlier, full power isn’t available if the lean angle of the motorcycle gets below a pre-set amount. Our first on-track session with the RR was in rain mode, which limits engine output to 150 hp, dramatically softens throttle response, and engages DTC at just 38 degrees of lean angle. With output significantly lower than peak, BMW was able to give the rain mode the smoothest power curve we’ve ever felt. Granted, it felt as if the RR was holding back, but predictable power delivery is key in situations with less-than-ideal traction.
Later in the day, we cycled through the other three settings — Sport, Race, and Slick — which offer increasing amounts of lean-angle while decreasing the interference of the drive-by-wire throttle. Sport mode delivers the full 193 hp, up to 45 degrees of lean angle, and a sharper throttle response. Race mode takes it even further to 48 degrees. In slick mode — the most aggressive of all four settings — the ratio of rider input to throttle output is 1:1 and the race ABS is in its lightest setting. A full 53 degrees of lean-angle is possible before the DTC begins to override your right hand.
We were skeptical about the racing applications of ABS, mostly since no form of it is currently used in any roadracing series. Expecting the same “crunchy” feeling in the brake lever that we get when ABS engages in a BMW car, we were amazed to find that we couldn’t tell it was even there. And that’s the whole point of BMW’s rider aids — a rider could spend all day on the RR and never know these systems are active. Should they notice the systems and not like them, at least everything can be fully deactivated.
So the RR’s performance exceeds the 1000 cc inlines from the Japanese, and the technology is more advanced than any current Italian offerings. That leaves price as the only remaining challenge, and BMW has succeeded there as well. At a starting price of $13,800 — which includes the slipper clutch — the RR is a mere $401 more than its biggest rival, the Honda CBR1000RR. Game, set, and match.
The RR is a very skinny motorcycle, especially for an inline. As a result, the ergonomics are a little cramped. The seat is thinly padded and the handlebars are low — standard fare for a superbike. We figured since BMW already makes plenty of touring bikes, we’ll cut them some slack in the comfort department.
As beautifully as the RR performs, finding similar beauty in its appearance requires an active imagination. On the one hand, BMW’s assertion that the mismatched ventilation on the side fairings is there to facilitate better heat diffusion on the left side of the engine makes sense from an engineering perspective. On the other hand, the asymmetrical headlights — which BMW claims is part of its “signature look,” beginning with the R1100GS — are still odd. The combination of round and trapezoidal lenses is supposed to remind us of a single light/number-plate nose fairing that you’d see on an endurance racer. Comparisons in the Kilometer office range from “crazy-eyed” to “lazy-eyed,” we’ll let buyers make their own decisions.
BMW set out to not only create its greatest sportbike ever, but the best sportbike period. BMW Motorrad Vice President Pieter de Waal says that the S100RR is “the most important product that BMW motorcycles has built in its 84-year history.” To make sure riders realize it’s not their father’s BMW, the RR is the first inline-powered Beemer not to carry the “K” designation. By then end of 2010, BMW expects RR sales to eclipse those of the iconic GS. When we asked de Waal where he expected to find those buyers, he said they’re anticipating most will be converts from the current 1000-cc four-cylinder bike market (the Japanese) rather than from exotic motorcycle enthusiasts (Ducati, MV, et al). We think that’s a slightly myopic view given that the RR is serious competition for any sportbike. The S1000RR is, quite simply, the best motorcycle we’ve ever ridden. If BMW doesn’t completely sell out of them before you get a chance — they’ve already pre-sold over 600 of the roughly 2,500 allocated to the US — we highly recommend checking one out.