Renowned for its high- performance cars, BMW has long had trouble shaking the image that it’s a builder of slightly quirky but sensible motorcycles for wealthy, bearded men.
That’s not to say BMW didn’t make efforts to combat this image as it watched Japan’s motorcycle makers grow to dominate the industry. In the 1970s it even began offering its bikes in colors other than black.
When that didn’t do the trick, BMW sought to move away from its iconic twin-cylinder boxer motor — first produced in 1923 — with the release of the K100 series in the early 1980s. These bikes sported BMW’s first liquid-cooled four-cylinder motors. But their unusual design — the engine lay sideways in a tubular steel frame — and unexceptional performance did little to boost the motorcycle division’s sporting image.
It wasn’t until the dawn of this century that the motor heads in Munich got really serious about building bikes that could take on the fastest Japanese machines. They mined the firm’s rich vein of automotive racing technology and developed the 2005 K1200S, a hyper-sport tourer with a top speed exceeding 280 km/h.
Motorcyclists looking for similar performance but more comfort and touring capability weren’t kept waiting long. The next year BMW released the K1200GT, which incorporates the same powertrain and technological innovations as the K1200S in a more touring-oriented package.
The K1200GT features a liquid-cooled inline-four double overhead cam 1157cc motor that is extremely compact and powerful thanks to its Formula 1-derived technology. It blasts out 152 hp at 9,500 rpm and torque builds to a tarmac- tearing 13.25 kg-m at 7,750 rpm.
The motor is mounted transversely, like most Japanese inline fours, in a lightweight aluminum composite chassis, and its cylinder head is tilted forward at a radical 55-degrees to keep the bike’s center of gravity low and optimize handling.
Power is delivered to the rear wheel via a racing-inspired six-speed cassette transmission connected to BMW’s latest Paralever system — a swing arm that houses the drive shaft and keeps the rear suspension from lifting under acceleration (a phenomenon that’s traditionally been the bane of shaft-driven motorcycles).
The front end features BMW’s new Duolever suspension, essentially a double-wishbone setup that separates suspension and braking forces, allowing suspension and steering to work unhindered even while braking hard.
My test mule was the fully loaded Premium Line version of the K1200GT. At a bit over ¥2.7 million, it isn’t cheap, but it’s faster than a ¥15-million BMW M5 sedan and has almost as many bells and whistles. Included are ABS brakes, heated grips, a multifunction onboard computer, cruise control, heated seats, an HID headlight and ESA, BMW’s unique electronic suspension adjustment system. The ESA allows the rider to choose among three preload suspension settings: solo, solo with luggage, and passenger with luggage. Three damping settings — comfort, normal and sport — can be selected on the fly.
The onboard computer, which operates via a single button on the handlebar, displays distance before refueling, average speed, average fuel consumption, oil-level warning and outside temperature, including a warning for black ice. The handlebar and rider’s seat are adjustable, as is the electric windshield, which can move 10 cm at the press of a button.
With its generous weather protection, adjustable ergonomics and cavernous panniers, the K1200GT seems like the perfect two-up touring machine. But a trip to a Yamanashi hot spring with my better half gamely serving as test-pillion revealed the Gran Turismo’s deceptive nature. Ridden gently, as you must with 150 hp and a passenger perched on the back, the GT is not a happy steed.
Efforts to keep acceleration mild by short shifting through third are rewarded with bone-jarring, cog- swapping clunks and a significant amount of driveline lash, play in the drive shaft that causes a jerking sensation. And when riding slowly in traffic, you soon notice that the foot pegs are positioned more on the side of sport than comfort, being higher and further back than those on BMW’s sofa-like R1200RT sport-tourer.
The seat is also a mixed bag. The dual- setting heating element does a superb job of keeping the cold at bay. But the split design creates a large gap between the rider’s seat and the passenger’s portion, which thwarts efforts to scoot back and get more legroom. By the end of the day I was knackered.
It wasn’t until I rode out alone the next day to Izu Peninsula, Kanto’s motorcycle nirvana, that I realized that the K1200GT has a masochistic streak. It’ll vigorously protest efforts to ride it gently, but crack the whip hard and it rewards you with stupendous performance.
Shifted at higher rpms, the gearbox becomes butter-smooth and driveline lash disappears. You also need to make sure you’ve got a firm grip on the bars when you twist your wrist; it takes just 3.1 seconds to go from naught to 100 km/h and acceleration becomes ferocious once the tachometer needle sweeps past 7,000 rpm. Thankfully the bike’s powerful, partially integrated anchors — the front brake lever engages the front and rear brakes but the brake pedal only activates the rear brake to allow trail braking — are capable of cashing any check the engine writes.
When the road gets twisty and you’re ready to engage in high-speed hijinks, the rear-set placement of the foot pegs begins to make perfect sense — it optimizes control in corners, enhances steering precision and ensures metal doesn’t meet asphalt even at wild lean angles. Aiding and abetting is the ESA suspension system. Switch it to sport mode at the press of a button and the 280-kg bike feels like it’s cornering on rails.
If you’re looking for a cozy two-up tourer, there are better bikes out there. But if you want one that combines hyper- sport performance with continent- crossing capability, this hooligan in gentlemen’s clothing is sure to please.
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