Some motorcycle manufacturers have a difficult time accepting that Harley-Davidson’s 55-60% share of the cruiser motorcycle market in the U.S. is as much a result of cultural preference as it is affection for traditionally styled bikes. Americans love their cruisers and baggers, but these days mostly want them Made in the USA. Despite an exceptionally good run, the Japanese have pretty much thrown in the towel — with a couple exceptions there hasn’t been a new Japanese cruiser or bagger in a decade. As long as they’re selling lots of ADV, sport and sport-touring bikes, Germany and Italy haven’t paid much attention to our cruiser market, either. But every so often someone on the continent decides that they need a bigger chunk of the American motorcycle market, and out pops a Euro cruiser that either misses the styling dartboard completely or has an unacceptable engine layout. Or both.
BMW’s first attempt was with the R1200C, unveiled to gasps for the 1998 model year. Limited to the existing boxer engine and techy running gear like the Telelever front end and single-sided Monolever swingarm, the result was a nice enough motorcycle in terms of handling and features. But the opposed twin was too small and underpowered to compete in the seismic V-twin market, the ergonomics were weird, and the styling too, er, unconventional. Auf wiedersehn — its last model year was 2004.
This time might be different.
In creating the new R 18, to its credit once again BMW did not build a Harley clone, going so far as to boldly stamp the bike with the words, “Berlin Built.” The R 18 still uses a boxer engine instead of a V-twin, and this go-round BMW is fully committed to its iconic powerplant, taking care to highlight the advantages of a mid-mount footpeg position (active, upright seating, etc.) necessitated by the engine’s flat opposed cylinders versus feet forward. And BMW recognized that this time the engine needed to be big — really BIG. So the pair of 4.2-inch slugs and 100mm stroke in the Big Boxer give it a displacement of 1,802cc, or 110ci, which compares well with Harley’s 108s and Indian’s 111s.
To make it look right, BMW’s styling team stepped back into the company’s motorcycling history, taking cues from the 1930’s R5. “We took a deep look at our own museum, and we condensed these icons from the past, and found five super-important things that you will find all of on this bike,” said Edgar Heinrich, BMW’s head of motorcycle design. In fact it’s easy to see the R5 reflected in the R 18’s double-loop frame and swingarm that give it a modern hardtail cruiser look, as well as the teardrop 4.2-gallon fuel tank, exposed final drive shaft, metal fork shrouds, fishtail dual exhaust and pinstriped black paint on the R 18 First Edition. All of this is pleasingly mashed together with contemporary cruiser licks like bobbed fenders, a semi-slammed rear end and fat tube-type wheels and tires to create the first cruiser in BMW’s Heritage family. We’re told it’s not the last.
At 788 pounds fully fueled sitting on a long 68.1-inch wheelbase, the R 18 looks and feels overbuilt, like there’s a roomful of bagger and dresser bodywork tucked away somewhere just waiting to be hung on the sturdy platform. As befits a premium cruiser, BMW styled the R 18 mostly in metal — the engine and gearbox only account for 244 pounds, so we’re talking a whopping 520-pound rolling chassis minus the Big Boxer and a few options. Some parts like the wheels and levers are aluminum, but you’ll find very little plastic, and the tank, fenders, side covers, headlight, instrument and fork covers are all steel.
A little weight is attributable to the extra features on this First Edition (included in optional packages), such as the swath of chrome, heated grips, an alarm system, Reverse Assist (flip a lever, hit the starter button, backward you go) and Adaptive Headlight that illuminates the inside of corners. Electronic wizardry was kept to a minimum, though—riders overwhelmingly told BMW that this bike should not be a rolling computer. It still has Integral ABS of course, in which the front lever actuates both the strong front and rear ABS brakes, and the pedal just the rear. Switchable ASC or traction control, Motor Slip Reduction (MSR), a slipper clutch and Hill Start Control (eases starting out on inclines) are all onboard, and the R 18 has three playful ride modes, Rock, Roll and Rain. In addition to turning the volume up or down on the throttle response, changing modes alters the amount of ASC intervention, and even tweaks the idle. In Roll and Rain, it’s pretty tame, but in Rock at a stop, those howitzer-sized pistons waggle the handlebar and shimmy shimmy ko ko bop shake the bike side-to-side like a vibrating bed. Yet unlike a lot of fuel-injected bikes in the equivalent “sport” mode, throttle response is smooth and linear in Rock without abruptness, and comparatively boring in the other modes.
The R 18 wants to Rock right from startup, too. Quite often those big cylinders light off with a Womp!, and the engine rocks the bike strongly side-to-side — enough that it can yank the grips from your hands if you’re not ready for it. Eventually it settles into a nice loping idle, but when you twist the throttle in neutral or at lower speeds you can also feel the torque reaction of the longitudinal crankshaft rotate the bike slightly on its axis, like BMW boxers of yore. On the Jett Tuning dyno the Big Boxer set a new record for boxer torque at the rear wheel, with 109.2 lb-ft at 2,900 rpm, and 80.3 horsepower at 4,500 rpm. At speed the R 18 feels a lot like most big twins, with loads of torque right from idle that drops off quickly past 4,000 rpm. Redline is way up at 5,750 rpm, but you’ll spend far more time in the rev basement on this bike, short-shifting and enjoying the somewhat muted bark from its two fishtails. Especially since the seat and grips vibrate rather badly at anything above 3,000-3,200 rpm….
Perched with arms outstretched to the wide bar and feet comfortably on the mid-mount footpegs, the R 18’s seating position helps you fight the wind at speed, and at just 27.2 inches high the seat is an easy reach to the ground. Since there’s so little cornering clearance, footpegs drag early in corners, and the crankshaft torque reaction doesn’t really have a chance to detract from the bike’s handling. Which is about as good as you’d expect from such a big bike—slow and stable in corners and on the highway, heavy and ponderous at a walking pace or parking (thank goodness for that Reverse Assist), though tight U-turns can be mastered with some practice. That wide handlebar really helps maneuver the bike, though one grip can end up quite a reach at full lock. Of greater note is the suspension, which only offers spring preload adjustment in the rear and just 4.7/3.5 inches of travel front/rear. That’s not unusually short for a cruiser, and the punishing ride that results is no surprise either. It is eyebrow raising, though, that with all of BMW’s advanced suspension experience it didn’t give its first real cruiser some rear suspension comfortably on par with say, a 2014 Indian Chief. To make matters worse the stock seat is merely a seat-shaped rock — fortunately for anyone who actually wants to ride this bike accessory comfort seats are available.
BMW has given the R 18 adjustable brake and clutch levers, and a powerful twin LED headlight and LED brake/taillights integrated into the turn signals. The single instrument incorporates an analog speedometer and useful digital display with tachometer, trip computer and more, and there’s a handy electrical accessory socket behind the left cylinder. Pages upon pages of accessories hail the R 18’s arrival — there’s even a Bobber conversion and premium Roland Sands machined parts ready to go, as well as an Apehanger conversion with 21-inch front wheel. Knock yourself out, have fun storming the castle….
Obviously I’m of two minds regarding the R 18. On the one hand, I’m disappointed that the bike isn’t nicer to ride. Harsh rear suspension, minimal cornering clearance and heavy vibration can’t be cured with an accessory seat or chrome dingle balls. On the other, I think it’s a great-looking, badass, real-steel cruiser that rides its own path and makes no apologies for it. It also hides a lot of modern tech in a classic platform. “One of the hardest things to do is to develop a modern bike with a classic look, with no exposed wires, no sensors, no black box visible. It’s one of the biggest achievements for the designers,” said Heinrich. No doubt with the possible exception of the mufflers’ size (and keep in mind that the camera puts on 10 pounds), they nailed it.
2021 BMW R 18 First Edition Specs:
Base Price: $17,495
Price as Tested: $22,120 (Special Edition finish, Premium & Select Packages, Passenger Kit)
Warranty: 3 yrs., 36,000 miles
Type: Air/oil-cooled opposed flat twin
Bore x Stroke: 107.1 x 100.0mm
Compression Ratio: 9.6:1
Valve Train: OHV, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 6,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: BMS-O EFI w/ 48mm throttle body
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 4.2-qt cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, hydraulically actuated single-plate dry slipper clutch
Final Drive: Shaft, 3.091:1
Ignition: BMS-O Electronic
Charging Output: 600 watts max
Battery: 12V 26AH
Frame: Tubular-steel double cradle w/ tubular-steel double-sided swingarm
Wheelbase: 68.1 in.
Rake/Trail: 32.7 degrees/5.9 in.
Seat Height: 27.2 in.
Suspension, Front: 49mm telescopic fork w/ 4.7-in. travel
Rear: Single cantilever shock, adj. for spring preload w/ 3.5-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 300mm discs w/ 4-piston opposed calipers
Rear: Single 300mm disc w/ 4-piston opposed caliper
Wheels, Front: Spoked, tube-type, 3.50 x 19 in.
Rear: Spoked, tube-type, 5.0 x 16 in.
Tires, Front: 120/70-BH19
Wet Weight: 788 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity: 447 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 1,235 lbs.
Horsepower: 80.3 Horsepower at 4,500 rpm
Torque: 109.2 lb-ft. of torque at 2,900 rpm
Fuel Capacity: 4.2 gals., last 1.0-gal. warning light on
MPG: 91 PON Min (low/avg/high) 30.3/34.2/38.2
Estimated Range: 144 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 2,100