BMW F 850 GS & F 750 GS launch, Cape Town


BMW F850 GS F750 GS Launch Cape Town 2_495 dunes

BMW South Africa hosted the launch of their new-from-the-ground-up F850GS and F750GS in Cape Town. Donovan Fourie attended but admits he has a problem.

Pics: Rob Till and BMW Press

BMW 750/850 GS Alzheimer’s

I’m going to admit something – I don’t remember the F800GS nor the F700GS. They were launched more than ten years ago and I know that they existed, and I even know that I rode them, but if anyone asks me what they were like, I’d say that they were good. I think. 

They weren’t terrible or I would’ve remembered them, nor were they fantastic or, again, I’d have them filed in my memory. I’m going to have to presume that they just quietly got on with their job, like the silent desk clerk at the back of the office block.

During the ten-odd years of their existence, BMW offered a steady flow of mild upgrades and sold thousands of the things, and there are many satisfied customers who did many miles without any hassles, but apart from consistency and reliability, their owners have very little to brag about. The desk clerk just quietly gets on with his job.

Edgar Kleinbergen, the ever-effervescent boss of BMW Motorrad South Africa, pulls some moves during the launch presentation.

Tradition would suggest that BMW has done a lot of growing up in the last ten years, but that wouldn’t be true. If anything, they are yearning for their youth. They are dabbling ever further in the world of superbikes and other sport machines, they have donned the retro get-up with their R Nine T range and have even ventured forth into the world of small and funky with the G310 range. BMW appears to be having a midlife crises.

BMW 750/850 GS engine bits

And so the F850 and 750GS make an exit from the newly rejuvenated BMW Skunk Works and enter the world of mortal man. Like their predecessors, they are parallel-twins but, more importantly, they are now following the trend of the MT-07, the Super Tenere, the Africa Twin, the NC750, the 790 Duke and various other models in that they are parallel-twins that run irregular firing orders. Irregular firing orders is the new black, apparently. This has huge benefits because the parallel-twin is far more compact than a V-twin, but the firing order means that it has a similar character and even a similar sound to a V-twin.

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The 853cc parallel-twin motor with its irregular firing order. When in the motorbike, the pistons aren’t showing like that.

The firing order creates better character but in theory less power. BMW get around this by drilling out the cylinders from 798cc to 853cc, and this increases the power of the 850 from 85hp to 95hp, putting it in the same league as the Honda Africa Twin 1000. 

The 750 keeps up the tradition of using the same capacity as the 850 but with reduced power (77hp) and a different name. Where the previous 700 was muted solely through electronics, the 750 does it through a combination of electronics and engine mods. This is clever because otherwise we suspect that it would’ve been possible to buy the cheaper 750 and merely let Fire It Up rework the ECU to match the 850.

BMW 750/850 GS chassis bits

The chassis of both bikes are completely new also, chucking out the old steel-trellis frames and adopting steel monocoque cradles that make use of the motor as a stressed member and o creates better torsional rigidity. Also the tank has been moved, meaning there is no longer a 15L of highly-flammable liquid under the rider’s ass, but it is now situated in the more traditional position between the rider’s legs. 

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The glorious 21-inch spoked wheel on the 850 combined with high travel suspension.

The castors are longer, as are the wheelbases, offering more stability that will be vital when the going gets rough. More so, the 850 is fitted with spoked wheels with the rear running a 17-inch and the front a very off-roady 21-inch. The wheel travel on the 850 also boasts some serious off-road prowess at 204mm in the front and 219mm in the rear. 

While the 850 is clearly kitted for off-road, the 750 takes a more neutral stance. The wheels are die-cast aluminium with the front running a 19-inch and the rear running a 17-inch, while the suspension travel is also more roady, running a 151/177mm combination.

The BMW 750/850 GS gadgetry

The biggest upgrade on the 750/850 GS is the inclusion of their new BMW TFT dash. Before I go on about the less materialistic stuff, my favourite part is that it maintains a black background that just looks so much cooler. Other bikes offer a black background, but only as a night time option, which is annoying. The rest of the time the dash is a dazzling white. I hate it.

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The cool looking dash

Moving along – the 750/850 GS are littered with bits of electronics, more than just a cool dash. In fact, there is pretty much everything you can expect from a modern, luxury travel bike and it all works well. That’s where I’d be happy to leave it, but the school of professional journalism insists that I should mention all of it. If you’re not interested in reading the list, skip ahead to the next heading where I talk about Cape Town people performing Newton-defying miracles. Otherwise read on.

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BMW still makes use of various switches on the handlebars. While not as neat as some of the competitors, it does make things very easy to use.

Both these new GS’s have, in various option packs, a TFT dash with cellphone connectivity, LED headlights, daytime riding lights, LED indicators, Digital Traction Control, ABS with the option of ABS Pro that works around corners, Gear shift assist Pro, Dynamic Electronic Suspension Adjustment, cruise control, Keyless Ride, easy GPS device attachment and recognition, tyre pressure control, cruise control, various riding modes including the option of Enduro and Enduro Pro and heated grips. 

Still with us? Good.

The BMW 750/850 GS in Cape Town

Cape Town is a beautiful city. Seriously, it is up there with the best Europe has to offer. I know this, because there is lots of time to admire all this beauty while stuck in its endless traffic. It defies physics, because for the population to able to fill those roads like they do, each citizen needs to own three cars and somehow drive all three of them at the same time all the time.

On the first day we rode the 850, and took an hour and a half to do 70 km. That has never happened to me on a motorcycle before. Ever. And it was in the middle of the afternoon, some distance from rush hour. Even in the sprawling metropolises of Europe such slow progress on a motorcycle has never been witnessed. I’ve never been a supporter of public transport, but the odd Underground in Cape Town might be worthwhile.

BMW F850 GS F750 GS Launch Cape Town 2_445 tracking ceuising

What is immediately apparent is that the new 850 feels lighter and more compact than its predecessor. Well, actually I still can’t remember its predecessors, so I have no idea, but I did hear other journalists with more recent experience of the 800 exclaim confidently that it feels lighter and more compact, so we will go with that. It does feel nimble and happy, so I believe them. 

What I can say is that it is very good through traffic. I had an hour and a half of it to confirm this. The seat height is tall but not crippling, the handlebars pass easily over mirrors and the rest of the bike is narrow enough to take the odd small gap. The added suspension and the big front wheel means that it is game for every pavement, every bump and every sandy shortcut, making every commute a sort of adventure.

Then we have the motor, that peach of a motor. Heading from Joburg, at a mile above sea level, to the coast always means a motor feels good, but more so there was a good chunk of that essential character added for good fun. It revs beautifully right up until redline, but BMW has spent most of their time concentrating on the bit that is very important, the bit that people use 99% of the time – the performance in the middle third of the rev range. That is where this bike truly thrives. It sounds good, it pulls nicely and it is smooth but not smooth enough to be boring. The Germans are learning.

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Where they got it wrong is in the gear change. The models we were riding were fitted with both-ways quickshifting that work fantastically when you are riding hard and keeping the revs high. When you are in the sweet middle third, it is clunky and a bit hopeless. This is not new and it has been widely known that quickshifters work best at high revs, but there are many current models that have surpassed this issue and now offer smooth as butter quickshifters at all revs. You would kinda think that BMW would be among them. The gearbox, while changing without the quickshifter by means of the laborious task of shutting the throttle and using the clutch, still feels good though.

BMW 850 GS seemingly out of its depth

At the end of the day, our guides took us to a 4×4 park near Melkbosstrand that was our first taste of off the tar. Actually it was about as far from being tar as you can get without a sail boat. Dunes and thick sand lay ominously before us, as we stood in the parking lot looking like disconsolate sheep. Well, everyone except Thomas Eich who is a rally veteran and eats soft sand for breakfast. He donned his helmet, clicked first gear and hit the sand with the throttle at full. In a cocophany of parallel-twin, irregular firing order and rev-limiter, he disappeared over the first dune and suddenly the rest of us were stuck with the dilemma of embarrassing ourselves by sucking in the sand or embarrassing ourselves by not even trying.

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The correct method of parking an F850 GS in sand.

Obviously, insanity prevailed and we were soon wading out into dunes like a dear crossing a crocodile pond. Right, I said to myself trying to make up some calming logic when actually there is none, I’ve done a ton of Desert Runs and, although the last one was three years ago and this sand looks much thicker than desert sand, it should be all right. The answer is speed. Speed is good. Hit the sand hard. Hopefully not literally. 

And so I took the 850 into the sand with a touch not enough speed, and instead of a flurry of revs, it bogged and sunk into the sand. 

Right, I said once more with more optimism than reality would suggest is sane, I’ll be able to get going again, just remember not to drag the clutch. Get the revs up, drop the clutch and let the bike spin out. You’ve done this before. The revs rose, I dropped the clutch and the bike died. So I tried a bit more clutch dragging and the bike just bogged and died. Surely this motor isn’t this gutless? 

It took a few more panicked attempts before I spotted the traction control light flashing, and immediately felt like an idiot. 

BMW F850 GS F750 GS Launch Cape Town 2_487 dunes soft sand
Once you’ve turned the traction control off, sand riding becomes much easier.

Pretending nothing had happened, and with a bike that is now quite happy to spin in the sand, I resumed my gormless optimism, and it was going well than my honest self thought it would. After some timid foot dapping, the speed rose and so did the confidence. These bikes, as many people claim, are supposed to be heavy, too heavy to do riding like this. And yet here we were. Once you get comfortable going faster and start relaxing, it becomes good fun. The trick is getting over that barrier and going faster than your survival instincts suggest is wise, and the faster you go the easier it becomes.

The motor is easily powerful enough to lift itself out of sand yet not so much that it spins too much and gets out of control. The modified chassis is gratefully stable, meaning less literal sand hitting.

On the ride home we did some straight line cruising, and found that the low screen offers more protection than you’d imagine. The reason they use low screens on off-road adventure bikes is so that it can get full of mud, muck and brains and the rider can still continue without having to clean it. I realise that I’m three foot five, but returned to the city without even a hint of neck ache, although I was a few inches taller at this point because of all the sand in my boots.

The BMW 750 GS shock and horror

I pride myself on being an advocate for speed and power, and so I get deeply annoyed when bikes prove me wrong. The F 750 GS is definitely not as good as the 850. It makes less power and it doesn’t have all the off-road bits. Logic has prevailed. End of story.

So why am I having so much fun on it?

P90295842_F850 GS F750 GS Launch Cape Town

The 750 route was all tar and not so much Cape Town traffic, heading out to Franschhoek and over the famous passes. The bike certainly feels smaller than the 850 because of the smaller front wheel and less suspension travel, and inherently it feels lighter and more nimble.

This is obvious, but what is less so is the power from that motor. BMW say that it has been retuned from the 95hp of the 850 to 77hp, but it doesn’t feel it. At one stage, I climbed back aboard the 850 and it didn’t feel much faster. It definitely is faster, because I did a roll on with a mate who was aboard the 750 and the 850 walked it, but the point is that the 850 didn’t feel much faster.

BMW F850 GS F750 GS Launch Cape Town 2_723 corner kean
The F750 GS is glorious through the bends, even on semi-offroad tyres.

On the one open stretch, I saw a top speed of 208km/h on the 750’s speedo – despite BMW’s claim of a top speed of 190 km/h – but the open bits isn’t where this bike thrives. This ride was solely road based, and while the 750 has off-road capabilities, we suspect it wouldn’t be as happy as the off-road focused 850, but in equal measure on the tar road it feels significantly better than the 850. Despite the semi-offroad tyres, foot pegs began scraping, smiles began widening and life was extremely good.

BMW 850 GS and 750 GS conclusion and price

These models are available in various trims and various specs. Mostly the South African market will be receiving with a nearly full spec, with the possibility of a lower and cheaper spec in the future. For now, the prices start at:

  • BMW F750 GS – R184,750
  • BMW F850 GS – R196,000

The most important thing I take away from riding these bikes is a lack of Alzheimer’s. The TFT dash is classy but simple, they feel light but playful and that new 853cc motor is a gem, offering not just excellent pulling power in both versions, but a feeling that it is enjoying it with you. They are bikes that offer more quality, capability and sophistication than the previous office clerk, plus will also occasionally sneak a whoopie cushion onto a colleague’s chair. 

P90295854_F850 GS F750 GS Launch Cape Town headlight daylight running lights

When people ask what these two models are like, instead of attempting to change the subject I’ll say, “I’m glad you asked me that…”

BMW F 850 GS and F 750 GS spec sheet – click here to view