If you’re going to hype a motorcycle as much as BMW has been hyping the S 1000 RR, then it had better be good. If you’re going to pitch a motorcycle into the technological cauldron which is the modern superbike sector, where performance is everything, brand loyalty counts for little and the customers are the most unforgiving, then it had better be better than good. If you have no meaningful race heritage, no Rossi or Stoner to prove you can cut it at the very highest level so your bike is out there on its own, with only itself to prove, then your bike had better be spectacular.
Against all the odds, that’s exactly what the new S 1000 RR is: spectacular. It’s unexpected because BMW’s history of releasing new models, especially four-cylinder ones, frankly doesn’t impress. The original ’84 K 100 took a couple of years to settle and have its niggles ironed out and the design was always compromised by the unusual layout, while the 2004 launch of the K 1200 S was a near disaster, with the press being given unfinished bikes to ride, compounded by cam hardening issues that saw the showroom arrival postponed by six months to sort things out. And again, it took two years to get the bike working as well as it should have from the outset.
It took only two corners of Portugal’s fabulous Portimao circuit to realize BMW has done everything it needs to with the S 1000 RR, and then some. The bike has a natural, at-home feel like a Honda CBR1000RR or Suzuki GSX-R1000 that inspires cornering confidence from the outset, and this is despite the immense thrust available from the engine. The claimed output is 190 horsepower, and if anything it feels even more than that when the bike’s voraciously consuming the long Portimao straight, thrusting you back in the seat even as it tops out at 175 mph before the epic Brembos threaten to rip the very tread off the tires.
The optional ABS doesn’t get in the way of track braking, as most others do, it simply adds yet more confidence, especially as the bike’s electronics also detect rear wheel lift and adjust the braking to prevent it. There’s traction control, too, a system which is every bit as good as Ducati’s, allowing you to crack the throttle wide open even at the apex of a turn while leaning hard, and instead of being launched so high they’d need the Hubble telescope to find you, the bike simply drives hard and confidently out of the turn. There’s one climbing left-hander in particular at Portimao where the bike goes light halfway through the turn, and even here the rear just slides gently to one side, tightening the line, then regrips with no lurch from chassis or engine, just a smooth, liquid and utterly expert corner exit that even the best racers would struggle to better.
It’s all adjustable, too, as there are four electronic modes to call on: Rain, Sport, Race and Slick. In Rain the power is reduced to 148 horsepower and the delivery is at its softest. In the dry it’s still reasonably exciting, until you try the faster 190 horsepower modes, that is, and in wet weather will be genuinely useful. Sport mode is the everyday good weather one, and this blends that almighty power kick with a gentler throttle response than the next two modes that was ideal for familiarizing myself with the Portimao circuit, and then returning to at the end of the day when fatigue was setting in. It’ll be perfect for road use.
Race mode gives you a hard-edged, direct feel between twist grip and tire which could intimidate some riders in some circumstances, though still the connection between wrist and rubber is utterly faithful. Finally there’s Slick mode, designed as it suggests to be used with slick tires on the track, and while the directness of the throttle response is full racebike, Slick mode also allows other aspects such as turning off the ABS.
If the engine is breathtaking, the chassis if anything impresses even more. The bike maybe isn’t the fastest in changing direction but it’s not far off, though the non-adjustable steering damper means a fair amount of bar effort is needed when you’re really going for it. But the feedback and tactility are sensational, and along with the accuracy make you feel like you can place the bike anywhere on the track.
Front and rear suspension is by Sachs, a name usually associated with the budget end of sportbike equipment, but the fork and shocks on the BMW are a top-quality kit, every bit as good as Showa with clear, numbered damping settings that save you counting clicks. It works supremely and responds well to adjustments, offering excellent control and feel.
In the S 1000 RR BMW has not only matched the iconic opposition, it’s moved the game on and up. No other four-cylinder superbike offers this array of sophisticated electronic options, yet even without them the German machine is at the very top end of the category in terms of performance. It’ll take side-by-side comparisons to confirm, but this feels to me like the fastest of the lot in a straight line, it’s more missile than motorcycle. And that mighty power is matched to the easiest chassis yet to ride very, very fast.
Hype? BMW was being restrained….
2010 BMW S 1000 RR Specifications:
Base Price: $13,800
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse in-line four, DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 80.0 x 49.7mm
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Wheelbase: 56.4 in.
Rake/Trail: 23.9 degrees/3.8 in.
Seat Height: 32.3 in.
Claimed Wet Weight: 450 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 4.6 gals, warning light on last 1.0 gal.
Average mpg: NA
photography by Jason Critchell
[This 2010 BMW S 1000 RR Road Test was originally published in the March 2010 issue of Rider magazine]