BMW R 1200 GS “waterhead” review

BMW pretty much invented the genre call “Dual Sport.”  Some choose to go further and call such machines “Adventure Bikes.”  Those of a cynical disposition who see riders kitted out to the max on paved roads near a populated area sometimes sneer of “Starbucks Adventure Riders.” 

Whatever your personal opinion, there can be no question that this type of motorcycle altered the perceptions of many toward BMW motorcycles, and that dual sports have been a slam bang success for the company and its dealers in almost every area of the world.  No surprise that the current line-up comprises 5 to 7 dual sport models, depending on whether or not you want to count the Sertao as separate from the G 650 GS and the “waterhead” R 1200 GS as separate from the air and oil cooled version.

All would be bliss, but in recent years other manufacturers have decided to climb on this bandwagon, albeit an unusual bandwagon with long travel suspension and an appetite for mud and dirt.  It has amused me (and others) no end that the motorcycles aiming to claw away some of BMW’s market share deliver the best sort of ironic compliment to BMW. Most of them look almost exactly like the BMW’s whose sales supremacy they seek to usurp!

A design concept that combines a pterodactyl with a Tyrannosaurus Rex and churns them out like steel origami is an oddity I’m still not used to, and yet you can now purchase bikes of this ilk from a variety of manufacturers. 

To be fair, I think my personal Triumph Speed Triple is a gorgeous motorcycle, and you can read every road test ever published (I think I have) and not find the word “gorgeous” applied to the appearance of a Speed Triple.

Add in the need to meet increasingly stringent noise and pollution regulations, while remaining even with or (better) ahead of the class rivals in terms of power and maintenance intervals and all the other contrasting demands that consumers make and the need for change for BMW was obvious.

It was just a matter of time, and since BMW has been selling R 1200 GS and R 1200 GS Adventure models for the past few years as fast as they could be reasonably manufactured while retaining quality,  BMW had the luxury of developing the next model very carefully. 

The new “waterhead” R 1200 GS model has “partial” water cooling, also referred to as “efficient” water cooling. Not all of the engine is cooled by water. Most of the engine still receives heat relief from air and oil, but the areas that concentrate both heat and small clearances, such as the cylinder head, are now showered with (relatively) cool water.  But that is just the beginning of a tidal wave of changes.

The result is…. Wow.

First, the visual. Because the intakes and exhausts are now arranged vertically, the backsides of the horizontally protruding cylinders are now bare. This gives the engine enormous “big block” presence.  It is the same size as before, but visually it looks enormously powerful.

The riding experience picks up where the visual impression drops off. For me, the engine absolutely dominates the experience. Have you ever driven a mid-1960s 427 Corvette?  There is much to recommend the experience, but an hour or a day or a month later your memories will be dominated by – that engine.

There are reasons for this.  125 hp is 15 more than last year, and much more than models of a few years ago, but it is the torque available from 0 rpm that will threaten to toss you off the back of the bike as if you were an irritant.

I spoke with people who’ve tried the waterhead and a couple told me the new fly-by-wire throttle was “snatchy” or “too aggressive.” I don’t find that to be true, necessarily.  The fact is that the engine really does boast of a huge mountain of torque, and it will begin trying to twist the rear tire tread into a pretzel the moment you begin to turn the throttle. In any gear.

The bike I rode to work on the day of the test ride was my own Triumph Speed Triple, and in some ways it was good preparation. Our Ride West BMW R 1200 GS demo, with no panniers fitted and without the full range of luxury options most will order, reminds me very strongly of a taller and heavier and even more direct Speed Triple.  If you twist the throttle, it is going to accelerate – right now.  Same with initiating a turn, or hitting the brakes.

This is a motorcycle that assumes you know what you want, and it will provide what you ask for with such speed it is a little shocking if you are used to “normal.”  I always feel clumsy for the first 30 minutes on my Speed Triple if I have not ridden it for awhile for the same reason.  On the whole, however, this is exactly what I like – a motorcycle that does what I ask, immediately, and leaves it to me to ask appropriately.

The riding experience also reminds me of a ‘60s to late ‘70s Porsche 911.  For those cars, the designers assumed you knew what you were doing, and that you were concentrating on driving and nothing else.  If you moved the wheel, the car turned.  If you did not want to turn, why did you move the wheel?

The waterhead seat is just a bit tall for me, even in the low position, and the bike is also heavier than ideal, although I could cope with both pretty easily.  I don’t think either will be a serious concern for anyone over 5’10” or so, and for shorter people there are custom seats and other solutions.

Another change is the move to a hydraulic clutch, and you can tell the difference.  It is lighter and smoother than the previous dry clutch but really – the dry clutch works perfectly well and will do so for years and years.  The hydraulic clutch will probably be better for people coming from other bikes so-equipped.

As a side note, it will also be better for the eventual police spec models of BMWs equipped with a hydraulic clutch. A lot of officers are trained to perform low speed maneuvers by keeping the throttle open and modulating speed with the clutch.  You can do that with most police bikes, but this has been a training problem for many officers with the BMW dry clutch.

Our demo is a curious mix of more and less. The standard BMW instrument panel has multiple screens and controls and so much more information than most motorcycles. This is a true asset, the lack of which I noticed as soon as I got back on the Triumph.  And yet the windshield is adjusted with a low tech hand-turned knob. Since the GS is intended to be available for off-road duty this does make sense, as who really needs an electric motor for that?  Our Ride West demo does not have the electronic suspension adjustment (ESA), or many of the other high-tech add-ons I expect most of the models we sell will sport.

How about off-road?  Having a person of my off-road abilities (scant) and passion (less than scant) test this bike off-road would be an insult to the bike and probably injurious to me.  With the rapid-fire throttle and brakes, which can feel a bit intimidating, my guess is that the waterhead will be a serious off-road weapon in the hands of experts. Mere mortals might be better off with the previous model which is, after all, one of the most capable motorcycles in the world.  New buyers will be able to adapt quickly, but it will be disconcerting at first.

You only notice the “quick throttle” at an rpm range above 3,000. I did not have any issues with low speed maneuvers.

I recall a famous article in Motorcycle Consumer News a year ago. They set off to test three sport touring bikes from Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Honda. They took along a BMW R 1200 GS as a gear hauler of sorts.  They published a second article after the test to state that had the BMW been included in the test it would have won, as all of the testers preferred it as a sport tourer to those so-named.   The new model would have absolutely obliterated them, and I have no doubt it will be a magnificent steed for the long haul.

The last idea to contemplate is “What else?”  You do not spend the money to develop this engine technology and all of the other improvements that come with it for only one model.  I expect that an R 1200 GS Adventure waterhead version – with more travel, capacity, and everything else, will be out next year. Beyond that, if you are BMW, surely you are waiting for the right time to spring the R 1200 RT waterhead on the world, and perhaps the R1200 R roadster version as well, and dare we hope for an R 1200 RS sporting steed as well?

I wouldn’t wait for any of them if I wanted a new BMW, as they are pretty stretched for production capacity as it is, and will probably be careful, as in slow, in introducing new models.

For now, the R 1200 GS waterhead is here, and it is surely worth your attention. I have typed up notes on 480 different motorcycles that I’ve ridden, and the waterhead is once of the most astonishing machines I’ve ever experienced. 

It is a stunning achievement


Copyright 2013                                        David Preston


About david

I am a 73 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020) and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
This entry was posted in Equipment, Marketing, Motorcycles. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply