The clues are obvious–chain drive, inverted fork, 21-inch front rim, tall seat. With all of that cloaked in bodywork that says, “Let’s explore,” it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that BMW’s new F800GS is one of the most dirt- oriented motorcycles in its Enduro line. Could it be the missing midsized adventure traveler sought by many, but built by… no one? To find out, we attended BMW’s international media launch in South Africa, where the back roads of KwaZulu-Natal province proved an excellent place to showcase the 800. And with Holmes-like diligence, began an examination of the upstart GS over a wide range of riding conditions.
Borrowing the F800S motor to power the new bike might seem elementary, but the streety S mill needed some serious tweaking for adventure duty. In GS form, the cylinders of the 798cc parallel twin stand nearly at attention, canted forward only 8.3 degrees (from the previous 30) to make room for long-travel front suspension. The water pump, oil filter and oil cooler have all been moved, and the clutch cover was modified to provide more foot room. The GS cams are ground for controllable power output and increased torque, while the 360-degree firing scheme that mimics the classic boxer exhaust note remains the same. The motor’s torque curve is nearly flat, peaking at a claimed 61 lb-ft at 5,750 rpm, while horsepower climbs steadily to a claimed 85 at 7,500 rpm. A larger radiator helps with slow-speed cooling. The new motor is a stressed member in a tubular steel space frame that narrows at both head and tail, contributing to the bike’s 42 degrees of steering lock and slim waist. Tight U-turns and slow speed agility result from the steering lock, and access to the ground for shorter riders from the svelte midsection. I had no trouble turning around on tight roads or picking a line at near-trials-riding speeds, in spite of the bike’s 62.1-inch wheelbase, and with a 31-inch inseam was comfortable on the taller of the two seat options (34.6 and 33.5 inches).
Lurking in the shadows atop the radiator shrouds, dual snorkels feed the airbox, while twin 46mm throttle valves precisely meter fuel, equating to smooth power delivery from idle to the 8,500-rpm redline. In the dirt, the 800 handles technical first-gear climbs without hesitation or stumbling; twist the throttle on the street and there’s instant response. With a 12.0:1 compression ratio, the motor prefers premium fuel, but can be dealer modified to run on regular with a loss of two horsepower. Unlike the R1200GS there’s no knock sensor, so running low-test fuel without the change is risky. A two-into-one exhaust system cleans up combustion products to Euro level 3 standards using a catalytic converter and a secondary air system, and terminating in a slip-on canister that snarls like a cornered leopard with each blip of the throttle. Unfortunately for national forest users, the can doesn’t have a USDA-approved spark arrestor stamp.
In another development, the F800S model’s belt drive has gone missing–GS power flows through a close-ratio six-speed tranny to the rear wheel via a rough-and-ready chain drive. Shifting is flawless, even with dual-sport boots, and neutral is easy to find. Dual-piston calipers clamp the twin 300mm front discs, while a single-pot caliper grabs the 265mm rear rotor. Stopping power is good, but the front brake lever pull is on the stiff side. Still, modulating the binders was easy on a slippery dirt downhill. The test bikes had an optional ABS package that caused the rear brake pedal to flutter as the weight shifted forward under hard braking. It’s an odd feeling, but better than a skid in my book.
Like the dirt-serious HP-2, the 800 sports a front fork instead of the Telelever from the 1200. Here it’s a non-adjustable 45mm unit. Rearward, a single, unlinked shock with path-dependent damping lets the rear wheel travel nearly 8.5 inches on the die-cast aluminum swingarm. Preload and rebound are both adjustable. The fork was too stiff for my 150 pounds on the dirt and I didn’t whack anything hard enough to eat all 9 inches of travel, but the GS was rock steady on paved sweepers and twisties, with easy transitions and light handling. Just for fun, I splashed through several South African potholes, never upsetting the bike. The shock was also stiff, but a few turns of the remote preload adjuster cured that. Standard-type aluminum rims (tubes required) carry Bridgestone Battle Wings, a 90/90-21 up front and a 150/70-17 at the rear. The Wings worked fine on the tarmac, but were marginal in the dirt.
When it’s time to re-fuel, the puzzle is where to put the gas, since the battery and airbox are where the tank should be. The 800 carries its gasoline beneath the seat to reduce the center of gravity, and fueling takes place at the right rear like the F650GS. BMW claims great gas mileage for the 800–62 mpg at 56 mph, and 45 mpg at 75 mph–for a potential range of 260 miles with the 4.2-gallon tank.
A compact instrument cluster holds vehicle and engine speed gauges, indicator lights and a display for the odometer, tripmeter and other standard information. An onboard computer option adds more data, including a gear display, outside temperature and fuel range. Controls bolt to a tubular aluminum handlebar that helps quell the few vibrations that escape the balancer-equipped twin, and the seat-bar-peg relationship was just right for my 68-inch height. Standing on the pegs felt natural, though taller riders may need bar risers. The semi-firm seat was comfortable for most of the day, and a short ride on the pillion gave promise of passenger comfort as well. Wind protection is limited to a small screen that’s mightier than it looks. I got plenty of noise at head level, but little windblast, and my dual-sport helmet didn’t catch the breeze at high speeds. Rising an inch or two off the seat made things much quieter.
The F800GS started immediately in the sultry African weather and didn’t falter when ridden off without a warm-up. Exiting the lodge complex, we set out through cane fields and villages, dodging goats, cows and dogs. The GS pulls strongly up through the gears, and shoots past slow traffic with ease, though it might take a downshift or two depending on conditions. Cruising in sixth is painless and roll-on acceleration is brisk, though not lightning fast. Three days on an R1200GS prior to the intro told me the 800 doesn’t share its deep well of grunt, nor its mass. At a claimed 455 pounds fully fueled, the middleweight feels much lighter and more nimble than its big bro.
After a lakeside lunch stop where signs read “Beware of Crocodiles,” I opted for the ominous sounding black route, a more difficult section of off-road terrain. The first long climb was easy on a steep, smooth surface. Following that was a more technical section, where I maneuvered the GS up a rocky slope in first gear with very little clutch work. This bike is truly agile! A nasty, rutted hill was my undoing. Attempts to get started on a slippery hill ended with the rear wheel in a rut. The rear Battle Wing couldn’t get a grip, even with just 20 psi, and once in the rut I needed some muscle from fellow riders to get out. On smoother dirt roads the GS was pure joy to slide through corner after corner. Dialing in tire spin was as easy as turning up the volume on a radio and the long wheelbase kept things under control. We finished the day slicing and dicing through traffic, happy to be riding a slim machine on KwaZulu-Natal’s narrow roads.
Serious explorers will want more armor for the 800’s soft parts. The oil filter, oil cooler and lower exhaust pipes aren’t protected by the small skid pan. But never fear, BMW has a catalog of tested-in-place accessories and the engine block is drilled, tapped and waiting for the larger skid pan and tubular engine guard. Other goodies include Vario luggage, GPS, a tankbag and lightweight Akrapovic silencer that meets Euro noise standards.
The dust has settled, the sweat has dried, and after close inspection the evidence indicates that BMW has indeed filled the midrange adventure traveler breach with a machine ready to go the distance on nearly any surface. The proof? Mile-eating comfort, road-going horsepower and back-of-beyond bravado unite in a tidy middleweight package that exists nowhere else. As someone who’s been hankering for a bike like this, it’s hard to believe that BMW made it this good on the first try. Case closed.
Epilogue: BMW originally planned to release the F800GS in March of 2008, but says it has delayed importing it until the fall of 2008 as a 2009 model due to production competition from the worldwide demand for its F650GS model, which is due in the States this summer.