2008 BMW R1200GS and R1200GS Adventure | Road Test Review

photography by the author and Kevin Wing

A good motorcycle is like a good suit of clothes — it should fit properly and be comfortable. I have to say that this GS fits me just about perfectly, with looks that are quite acceptable at a formal occasion, and it doesn’t mind getting out and playing on the dirt roads.

I rode the first of these BMW “dual-purpose” models, the R80G/S, down to the bottom of Copper Canyon in Mexico way back in November of 1980, and I considered it to be one heckuva good motorcycle. “What a brilliant notion!” I thought; “here’s a bike that can cover hundreds of miles of pavement in comfort, and then do hundreds of miles of dirt roads.”

All I can say 28 years later is that this 2008 R1200GS, roughly the fifth major iteration of this model, is even better. Don’t get me wrong; it is not perfect. BMW offers lots of other models. If I want to go seriously fast, I’ll take an HP2 Sport or a K-bike, and if I really want to get dirty, there is the G650 Xchallenge, with 50 horses and 350 pounds. With a full gas tank, 5.3 gallons, and no bags, this GS weighs in at 541 pounds.

But let me get back to this new(ish) GS. This is the fifth year of the 1200 version, and the backroom boys in Munich seem to be listening to the consumer. Riders had been complaining that the GS was getting a trifle porky as it grew from an 800 to an 1150, so when the engineers developed the 1200 five years ago they put the bike on a strict diet, and it lost some 66 pounds. Last year they deleted that silly servo-assist power braking system, which nobody seemed to like…at least nobody who I ever talked to.

The GS fits my 6-foot, 3-inch frame.
The GS fits me well, does not make my 6-foot, 3-inch frame look overly large and goes fast enough to keep most riders happy.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the bike, let me tell you about its intro. Eighteen moto-journos flew into Phoenix in early spring, set for two days of riding and three nights of too much food and drink. The trick to keeping the moto-mag guys happy on an intro has little to do with viognier wine and baked halibut, but is to provide good roads to ride. Boring roads will lay a negative over any motorcycle, and BMW had lined up some of the best dirt-road riding I have been on in years.

We were split into two groups, and mine would ride the GS Adventure the first day, and then move on to the standard GS. And what a first-day ride it was, 27 miles of bad road running over an area called Four Peaks. This is all in the Tonto National Forest. In years past amethysts had been mined up here, and whoever bulldozed Forest Road 143 into existence had a delightful sense of humor. Our GS Adventures had much-needed knobby tires, as the forest service, which is responsible for maintaining this gloriously gnarly stretch through the rocks and cactus had decided it needed grading, which resulted in much soft, loose earth in the tight uphill corners. Sensibly we stopped at the beginning of the dirt and turned off the ABS and the ASC (Automatic Stability Control–a traction control system). The ride was a minor challenge, and major fun, just what the Adventures are built for.

The GS has good, legible instrumentation.
The GS has good, legible instrumentation, and the computer has lots of info and is very readable even on a sunshiney day.

Speaking of the ASC, the system essentially cuts the engine when the rear wheel starts spinning faster than the front. On my way home I did have fun roosting the GS on a dirt road with the ASC in operation, causing the engine to cut out, but it is probably not the sort of gadgetry that a rider with my limited skills would use on dry pavement. Of course, I could over-accelerate on a rainy road and have it save me from a fall, and since it is hooked into the ABS, I would be happy to have it. Note: if anyone wants to impress bystanders with big wheelies, turn off the ABS/ASC beforehand, or the ASC will cut in as the front wheel lifts and slows down.

Next day I was on the GS–with the wire wheel option. The new standard GS is essentially a street bike, with minor pretensions at being good on dirt roads (it is), and the clever fellows at BMW/NA figured that our route might be a little too enthusiastic for the standard mag wheels, the flex of the spokes being an advantage. We followed an old road up into the Bradshaw Mountains and the old mining town of Crown King. For years I have seen the place on a map, but either never had the right motorcycle, or the time, to get there. It is a rocky road, and I managed to kick one pointy rock up with the front wheel that punctured a little hole in the crossover pipe. Nothing major, but one of our guides did swap bikes with me at lunchtime; the skid plate should be made a bit larger to protect the header pipes.

Tucked into the fender is the oil cooler, out of danger from rocks.
Tucked into that duckbill fender is the oil cooler—which gets a good breeze and is out of danger from rocks.

After our noontime meal we headed east down and across the valley of the Agua Fria River and eponymously named national monument, through a delightful place called Bloody Basin with about 50 miles of dirt road in front of us, cut by innumerable little washes, most of which were already dry. The suspension got a real workout as those washes, maybe just a foot wide, could sneak up on the unobservant. Climbing over the New River Mountains we were provided with stunning vistas at every sharp curve–best to stop when admiring the scenery. And back to our digs to get cleaned up for our final dinner.

Most of the group was flying out next morning, but I had asked for a ride-away, leaving the next morning for the trip home. I was on the interstate for 50 miles, and the GS was quite happy rolling along with traffic at 85-plus mph, that little windscreen doing a pretty good job of keeping the wind at bay. I angled off in a northwesterly manner to get to Parker, and then crossed the Colorado River into California. CA 62 is an unexciting two-laner across the Mojave Desert and I was headed to Joshua Tree National Park, three-quarters of a million acres of spectacular desert scenery. I thought of going in via the old Gold Crown Road, but the day was getting on and I needed some photos. Instead I entered the park via Twentynine Palms and did a shorter loop, over Bighorn Pass on a well-graded dirt road. The GS was in its element.

I bedded down in the little town of Joshua Tree, which is not much more than a mile-long wide spot in Highway 62, and come dawn was contemplating a map laid out in front of my cup of coffee. I would stay on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains–which turned out to be a very breezy choice, with a quartering wind beating me for 180 miles all the way to Tejon Pass…where the wind abruptly stopped. The GS took the blustery morning quite well, even with the big boxes on the back. Speaking of which, each of those expandable saddlebags weighs 13 pounds…empty.

The GS rates  a 9-plus in my book—great on the highway.
As a dual-purpose touring bike, the GS rates a 9-plus in my book—great on the highway

From Tejon I continued westerly along the San Emigdio Mountains, past Pine Mountain, soon looking down on the San Andreas faultline, eventually coming out at the southeast entrance to Carrizo Plain National Monument. This is a glorious spectacle in the spring when the poppies and lupine are in bloom. After a nice dawdle across the flower-covered plain I was a mere 50 miles from the house. And I can’t remember having had a more entertaining ride, with a little bit of freeway, a lot of byway, and a hundred miles or so of dirt road. The GS did it all in a commendable manner.

The GS continues to be one of BMW’s best sellers, and to keep the interest of the market piqued, big changes are made every few years, subtle changes in between, and there have been some minor mods on this ’08 model. In order to enhance the “masculine sign language,” as the factory’s rather charming spiel puts it, the look has been altered a bit, with a slightly bobbed upper front fender, stainless steel deflectors at the front of the gas tank, and the slide tubes on the front suspension and cylinder heads are now magnesium colored.

I think the appearance of the GS is great–it has always had a very “butch” look, nothing sleek and graceful about it, just purposeful. Translated anthropomorphically, it would be the kind of guy I’d want beside me in a barroom brawl or a foxhole.

The 2008 BMW R1200GS on the Dyno
The 2008 BMW R1200GS on the Dyno

The engineers have fiddled with valve sizes and camshafts and such, giving the bike a little more muscle, a claimed 5 percent increase over last year–not as much as an HP2, of course, but the official 105 crankshaft horses @ 7,500 rpm (96 at the rear wheel) is something to write home about. The engine is very smooth, the power very linear, and the GS can do very well in any accelerative competition, painlessly lifting the front wheel. The compression ratio is 12.0:1, which means that high-test gas is advised, but the consumption is a respectable 37.7 mpg and there’s a knock sensor so that lower grades can be used. The fuel injection has been leaned out to meet environmental specs, and on a cold day, in the 40s, the bike would start easily but take half a minute to warm up enough to allow me to give it throttle.

Ergonomically, the rider can now rotate the handlebar 90 degrees in order to enhance stand-up riding. Since I am generally a sit-down kind of rider, I left the bar in the low position. It is a nice, wide bar–the tips being 35 inches apart, and very good for anyone wanting to poke around in first gear. The GS footpegs are a bit on the small side, while the Adventure model has bigger ones, much better to stand on; I think the Adventure pegs should be on both bikes.

The six-speed gearbox itself has been mildly redesigned, with different gear ratios to enhance use both on pavement and on dirt. And shifting is said to be more precise. Boxer trannies have always seemed a tad clunky to me, but that is part of the “character” of the machine.

This has the tubular-steel trellis frame, with Telelever front end, Paralever rear, which works extremely well. For 2008 the GS (not the Adventure) front end has had a minor tweaking, the steering head angle (rake) being decreased from 27.1 to 25.7 degrees, with concomitant trail reduction from 4.3 to 4.0 inches, and a fifth of an inch shorter wheelbase–now 59.3 inches. All the better for those brisk, twisty paved roads.

2008 BMW R1200GS
2008 BMW R1200GS

Riders with short inseams will have to acquire the expertise for getting a leg over the saddle, at 33.5 inches, but that is just practice. The centerstand deserves a mention of its own, since I found it the most accurately pivoted in the industry …even with a full load in the bags, that stand is easy to use.

The real excitement in the chassis is the Electronic Suspension Adjustment, now dubbed the Enduro ESA–I can’t tell you how much I like that bit of sophisticated gimcrackery. There is something immensely pleasurable to be riding along, when the road changes, becomes twisty, dippy, fun! And the COMF you have set the suspension on could be improved–touch the button, you’re in NORM, touch again and you are in SPORT. In years past you would have to stop, take out a tool or two, and change things…or more probably not do it at all. Not anymore! You can adjust the damping on the fly, though the three preload options (rider, rider and baggage, two riders) have to be done while in neutral with the engine running. That’s OK, because you should set that before you start off.

On the GS models BMW has added an off-road mode to the suspension, with Medium (50 percent) or Maximum (100 percent) spring adjustment, with the latter offering an extra inch (20mm) of ground clearance. Damping reads SOFT, NORM, HARD, and then an image of low mountains indicate Medium, high mountains, Maximum. Some arrangement in those many options should please any rider. All done through the miracles of micromotors and electrohydraulics, and one can feel the preload push the bike up, or let it down. Suspension travel is respectable, with 7.5 inches at the front, 7.9 inches at the rear.

I would say that were I going to seriously abuse such a machine, like ride it from here to Tierra del Fuego, I would probably opt for the conventional shocks…less to go wrong. But since I do most of my riding around North America, the Enduro ESA is certainly on my list of must-have options.

All this comes at a price. The basic R1200GS has a retail sticker of $14,600, which seems quite reasonable. As I said earlier, the spoked wheels on the GS are optional…at $495. My bike had the Safety Package, including tire-pressure monitors which read out on the dash, and ABS/ASC, adding another $1,650. Add the Equipment Package 2, which has that wonderful Enduro ESA shock, heated grips, hand protectors, and a bunch of other stuff, and that is another $1,495. Plus the $1,000 saddlebags and $300 tankbag… we’re looking at 20 large by the time we figure taxes, destination charges and all. And the list of accessories goes on and on, from GPS units to carbon-fiber mudguards.

Great bike. I like it a lot, wouldn’t mind having one in the stable. Maybe I should ride it down to the 7-Eleven and buy a lottery ticket.


The Adventure is the macho version of the GS.
The Adventure is the macho version of the GS, sporting knobby tires and protective “crash” bars.

BMW R1200GS Adventure
The GS Adventure goes for $16,600–what do you get for an extra two grand? A more macho look, that is for sure; the GSA just oozes Rambo.

The Adventure has a bigger gas tank, 8.7 gallons, good for traipsing across the Sahara as it gives you a range of well over 300 miles. Also a slightly bigger windscreen. And bigger footpegs, all the better to stand up on; the shift lever and foot brake are easily adjustable. Wire wheels and knobby tires are standard.

It is more tumble-proof, too, with crash bars–sorry, “protectors”–that protect the gas tank and the cylinders. Head guards also protect the cylinder heads. The hand guards are stock items as well.

The powertrain is the same as on the standard GS, but there are a couple of minor chassis differences. The rake and trail are the same as on last year’s model, with a wheelbase of 59.5 inches, but the shocks have an extra 20mm of travel, almost an inch. Standard seat height is 35.2 inches, which means that even long-legged types might use the left footpeg as a stirrup to mount the bike. The front suspension has 8.3 inches of travel, the rear, 8.7.

Beyond that, there are an immense amount of options and accessories. The pannier bags and top trunk are squared-off aluminum containers, providing a nice rough ‘n’ ready look. ABS/ACS, Enduro ESA, all that adds to the price. As one Beemerphile said to me, you get what you pay for, and you get a distinctly tough image when you cruise up to your Moondollar coffee place for a latte when on your Adventure. Just don’t forget that every pound you add in fuel and accessories comes off your load capacity–which is the same as the standard GS.



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