Harry Fisher: A typical motorcycling week, five bikes in seven days
Story: Harry Fisher
Sometimes it is easy to forget what a privileged position we journalists inhabit, especially when one forgets to look at what we do from the outside; a constant stream of bikes to ride and test and use on a daily basis and not a penny paid for any of them.
I’m not about to sit and tell you how awful and difficult our job is and how you really shouldn’t envy us: ‘It’s not as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be’ or ‘we’re taking one for the team’, etc. No, it’s a bloody brilliant job with plenty of perks, and it allows us to have an educated view of the broad spectrum of motorcycling that isn’t available to many.
This week, for example, started off on a Husqvarna Svartpilen 701, progressed to a BMW F750GS via our trusty Suzuki SV650, moved briefly to a KTM 690 Enduro R and will finish in a few days on a BMW R1250GS.
Now, it would be easy to treat all this as a huge jolly but, being as professional as I can be, I find it fascinating. The motorcycle industry is full of doom and gloom at present, with plummeting sales and a bleak outlook. Yet I find myself rejoicing that such a diverse variety of bikes – and, moreover, a diversity of approaches to similar goals – exists despite that diagnosis and that the motorcycling industry is in rude health and will weather the storm.
I’d like to examine these six bikes a little closer, in light of their being in my possession in such close succession, mainly because they are all so different. Then again; are they?
The Husqvarna Svartpilen was interesting because, despite sharing exactly the same chassis and engine as the Vitpilen, it felt completely different; it had its own personality, which was far more aggressive and ‘nervous’ than it’s suave, cafe racer-inspired brother. Effectively more practical than the Vitpilen, due to its more upright rider ergonomics, it wasn’t necessarily any better, which isn’t a criticism; when a bike is as good as the Vitpilen, to match it is enough.
The single-cylinder motor comes straight from the Husqvarna 701 Enduro models as well as the KTM 690 Enduro and SM models, so it is well tried and tested and familiar but, again, feels so different in this application.
The whole bike is a bit of a quandary; ultra-modern styling and yet powered by an engine whose layout is rapidly going out of fashion. That’s not to say that it doesn’t deliver – 70-odd horsepower and similar Newton meters with twin balancer shafts keeping things smooth is very respectable – but it can’t be ignored that KTM is virtually alone in persisting with the large-capacity single, while simultaneously showing the way forward with the new, parallel-twin 790 range.
If the Svartpilen is a cocky bruiser with a pint of lager in its hand but wearing a tuxedo, then our long-term Suzuki SV650 is just a really friendly and genuine bike with no downside while at the same time possessing an ability far beyond its meagre price tag or specification.
In this world of super exotic motorcycles, it is all too easy to overlook the small guy, but you do so at your peril. I would wager that an SV650 owner will get just as many smiles per mile as the owner of something costing many times as much. Not only that, but it is going to reveal hidden depths throughout its life and be utterly reliable as it does so, with minimal running costs.
If I had to be picky, I would say that it is not absolutely perfect, although those imperfections could easily be remedied. I would change the handlebars for a slightly wider pair – maybe ones that don’t resemble a bent pipe cleaner in diameter – and I would change the silencer; the standard item has a slightly unpleasant sound characteristic that is only really noticeable at highway speeds but is a little intrusive all the same. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate something louder, but just with a sweeter tone.
The ride was brief, however, as the next bike was on the horizon; the BMW F750GS.
It would be safe to say that the previous models, the F700 and the F800 were two of my least favourite motorcycles ever. I covered quite a few kilometres on the 800, and I’m sure I rode the 700, but it made such a poor impression on me that I can’t remember a single thing about it. As for the F800, well, I wish I didn’t remember it! It’s not that it was bad; I just didn’t click with it.
We go on a lot about how the engine is the heart and soul of a motorcycle and the problem with the F800 was…the engine! It was no doubt a very competent adventure bike, but it was let down, in my view, by an uninspiring, characterless power unit.
So I approached the F750GS – the lower-tuned version of the same engine found in the new F850GS – with a sense not of dread, but something approaching complete disinterest; I was fully prepared to be significantly underwhelmed.
A couple of days later, the key had to be prised from my hands.
What an incredible transformation. Here now is a motorcycle chock full of character with a charming engine and comfort that, for me, is second to absolutely none.
I’m not sure which is more impressive; the engine or the comfort, so let’s deal with both. It is hard to believe this is the same configuration engine as the outgoing F800/700 models. Parallel-twin it may be, but it sounds and performs more like a v-twin. The old motor had a 360-degree firing order with no crank-pin offset while the new engine has 270-degree firing order with a 90-degree crank-pin offset. What all that mumbo-jumbo means is a complete transformation. Actually, you can’t transform what wasn’t there in the first place; call this a character discovery!
It’s no fire-breather; 77bhp and 82Nm aren’t going to set the world alight, but they are very healthy horses and, er, Newtons! The 850 gets 90 horses and 85Nm through different camshafts, intake and ECU, meaning that some power could be added to the 750 by playing around with the ECU, something that BMW will no doubt frown upon.
But my advice would be to leave it well enough alone; 77bhp might not be a lot today, but it is actually still plenty for what most of us need.
As for comfort, well, I can’t remember sitting on a more comfortable seat. Some might find it a bit on the soft side, but I loved it. The riding position is perfect, although the lack of a screen is a drawback that can no doubt be remedied with the parts catalogue. Talking of which, the 750/850 range has 60% more optional equipment than the 700/800 range, which must prove something. However, both here and in the U.S., we will, in all likelihood, get full-house models with the most essential options already fitted. If you want a base model, you’ll have to order it.
We use the word ‘plush’ when referring to suspension far too easily; often it usually means something softer than the previous hard-sprung motorcycle we were riding and is used to express our relief at getting off it! Sometimes it is a euphemism for a soft and wallow-y suspension set up. But there is no denying that the suspension on the F750GS is very definitely ‘plush’, especially when coupled with the wonderful seat. Rarely have I enjoyed a ride around Johannesburg’s terrible roads as much. Of course, it helped that I had jumped off the Husky 701, which can definitely be described as ‘for the enthusiast’ in terms of suspension compliance.
But what impressed me as the miles sped by was how BMW has managed to turn an ugly duckling into a swan. There might be a bit of push-back in calling this model a ‘GS”, especially as it is the more road-oriented of the two models available, but it is what it is and who are we to argue? Whatever the outcome of that discussion, it can’t be denied that BMW has made great strides with this bike.
It’s not perfect. The view ahead of the rider, over the TFT dash, looks a little chaotic. It’s an amalgamation of lots of plastic bits that look unfinished as if they forgot to fit the screen. Also, the quick shifter and auto blipper gear-change are of the worst I have come across. It is very stiff and not at all subtle in its operation. At low speeds it can be very jerky on up changes which make things interesting if you are leant over when changing from first to second – as when pulling away from a junction – and it only really smooths out when accelerating quite hard, but even then, it still lacks the knife-through-butter microswitch feel of nearly every other quick shifter I have tried, including that on BMW’s own S1000RR superbike. Similarly, down-changes are disastrous; you almost have to stomp on the gear-lever at times to get it to down-change, which feels completely abusive and leaves you wondering if there is actually an auto-blipper system fitted.
BMW being BMW, there is no doubt a very good reason for this. The only reason I can possibly think of is that BMW didn’t want to make it too sensitive so that when wearing bulky and clumsy enduro boots, it would need a positive movement by the rider to change and not be in danger of making unwanted ‘changes at the wrong moment. Maybe I’m wrong. Obviously, every other adventure bike manufacturer thinks differently, so perhaps they’re wrong also!
From the sublime to the ridiculous would describe the next change as I jumped onto the KTM 690 Enduro R, a full-on enduro bike with merely a nod to road-legality. Sharing the same engine with the Husqvarna 701, yet again it feels completely different; perhaps it’s just the installation in a different class of bike, or it could be the revised cylinder head that has smoothed out power delivery.
Whatever the case, it is a stonking beast of a motor (74bhp) in a very light and accomplished chassis that does tend to warn you that you’d better know what you are doing if you’re to get the best out of it in an off-road situation. In other words, it’s not for the inexperienced.
If I’m honest and being perfectly subjective, it’s not for me on-road either. It’s too uncompromising; hard seat, sit-up-and-beg riding position, minimal instrumentation and zero wind protection, even if the performance is addictive. Given the nature of adventure riding in South Africa, with long kilometres of tar to traverse to get to the interesting trails, this would be just too painful. Yes, when you get there, it would be spectacular, but whereas a big adventure bike can be great in both situations, if a little compromised off-road, the KTM is severely compromised for long-distance road work.
Just because it didn’t resonate with me doesn’t mean to say it’s no good. I’m a particular type of rider (read; old and needing my creature comforts) and the 690 is no good for me. On the other hand, Dylan Smith, our intrepid go-to rider when we want things to look spectacular for the show, declared that the 690 would be his adventure bike of choice. It comes back round to the skill level, you see.
Which brings us neatly to the last bike and again I jumped off an Austrian bike onto a German, and the contrast cannot have been more marked.
The BMW R1250GS has been, by now, well-documented in the press and it seems strange that we have had to wait this long for a demo model, even though Mat attended the world launch and Donovan the local launch last year.
Wait we did, however, and I am happy to say that the wait was worth it. For the second time in a row, I am going to be very sad to hand over the keys to a BMW. It is that good.
There’s a full disclaimer here; I am a fan of the GS. No hiding it and no apologies. It has a lot to do with the fact that I have done a lot of miles on them and had some pretty amazing rides, all of which have stuck in my memory as pivotal moments in my riding life. But that doesn’t hide the fact that they are very good adventure bikes in the first place. Are they better than the rival KTMs? That’s a matter of opinion and endless debate without conclusion. So, yes, I’m a GS fan but, in this job, there has to be a balance of 80% objectivity and 20% subjectivity when testing any bike and it will be thus over the next few paragraphs.
As you will have guessed, we have to start with the engine, because, well, this is the big-ticket item. If we think about this carefully, we could conclude that this is the last roll of the boxer-engined dice for BMW. In order to make more power, they have to increase capacity. They can’t raise the rev limit because the crank won’t stand the strain and they can’t fit a centre bearing to the crank as that would make the offset between the two crankpins, and therefore the cylinder barrels too great (have a look at an overhead view of a GS and you will see that the barrels are already offset; any more and it would be ridiculous!). The only other way of increasing power output would be forced induction of some description, but that is getting a bit complex for a rugged off-road machine.
In this guise, the 1250 motor has been fitted with BMW’s shift cam technology. This, in layman’s terms, is variable valve timing, giving the flattest torque curve possible. It doesn’t seem to matter what gear you are in, open the throttle, and there is power on tap. Moreover, it is smooth power, without any jerkiness or lumpiness or transmission snatch.
The boxer engine was improved immeasurably by the introduction of liquid cooling. Now it has taken another leap forward, and there is no reason to believe that the boxer engine can’t see BMW through the next 10 years. To all those people saying that the design is too old now, well, why should it matter for the boxer, but not for the in-line four or parallel twin, both of which have distinguished pedigrees and neither of which are going anywhere soon? No engine seems to polarise enthusiasts more than the BMW boxer which I find a bit strange, especially when it is this good.
The rest of the bike is typical BMW; obsessively perfectionist and beautifully built; it really does have that machined-from-a-solid-billet feel to it, and that is reassuring, especially when you have spent the thick end of R280,000 on one.
One could say that the GS is in danger of becoming the Range Rover of adventure bikes, in that many are bought, but not many will ever see any dirt. Does that matter? Personally, I love the styling of adventure bikes, and I would have no qualms about never getting the wheels dirty. There is a very good argument for saying these bikes have got just too big for mere mortals to manage on anything other than a straight dirt road (and even on those, they can be quite terrifying) and it would be hard to argue against that sentiment.
Having said that, the electronics are as impressive as ever and do allow for ham-fisted-ness and lack of talent but, as with any such systems, the more you challenge them, the better they get.
So, a big price tag, yes, but a lot of bike, also.
That concludes my motorcycling week and one that gave me great pleasure whilst also being very instructive. There are many paths to the same destination, and we should rejoice that this is the case; wouldn’t it be boring if we had a limited choice of motorcycles, one that restricted our taste for self-expression?