BMW R 18 First Edition road test review
You look at BMW motorcycles today and you will see bikes with stuff like big beaks, asymmetrical lights, carbon fibre wings, snazzy graphics etc. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say, so BMW's motorcycles may or may not look appealing to you. But one thing is for certain - none of them qualifies as elegant. Until you chance upon the BMW R 18. No matter what background you come from - sports bikes, nakeds, adventure bikes - you will agree that the R 18 is simply a piece of art. And it's not just you, but even those coming from the traditional cruiser background that BMW wants to attract with this motorcycle.
Design and chassis
Which is why BMW has gone back to its roots when its designs were indeed elegant and simple. Drawing inspirations from the R 5 of the 1930s, the R 18 has graceful shapes and simple lines that not only help it get the right stance for a cruiser but also gives it the classic styling cues that will attract devotees of the modern-retro genre of motorcycles. The limited 'First Edition' R 18 seen here comes with hand-painted pinstriping on the tank and fenders, the black paint has sparkles in it that gleams in the sunlight and there are the riveted Bavarian roundels on the tank made in optional enamel to complete the 30's look and feel. The modern-day equipment includes powerful LED lamps, discreet cable routing, suspension that isn't electronically controlled but has modern mechanicals, rider aids that ensure safety and simple hybrid instrumentation that packs basic info.
The monolith design is minimal on the eye but like any other cruiser, there are a ton of accessories that can transform the R 18 in many ways. It is hard to imagine this bike in any other colour other than black and chrome. I had a chance to ride the R 1200 C back in the day, but BMW's second attempt at the cruiser segment with the R 18 seems far better thought of. Neither does the R 18 have para-lever or tele-lever suspenders nor does it have the kind of lumpy bodywork that made the 1200 C look like a love child between the GS and a street naked. All of the R 18's curves look graceful. It wears elegant stockings that cover its front forks, while the rear has a cantilever suspension neatly tucked away in a modern subframe and swingarm arrangement that looks old school by forming a triangle with the double-cradle frame's backbone.
The engine is another marvel of engineering and design. The injectors have gone inside the cylinder heads and there are pushrods are on top of the cylinders to achieve that clean retro design. The spark plugs, ignition wires, throttle bodies and the starter motor have been cleverly hidden away from plain sight. The boxer twin attracts attention just as intended and you will feel proud (and scared) of riding it through the crowd. There is plenty of chrome to clean and shine on the cylinder heads, the fishtail pipes and the engine casing. There is also a badge that proudly announces to the world that this mills displaces 1,800cc and is the largest boxer BMW's currently has in production.
The engine comes to life with the characteristic rock of a boxer, pushing to the left and then settling into a lumpy idle. The cylinders are air and oil-cooled, though the oil cooler sits in a vulnerable position at the base of the engine. Though you will hardly ever notice it, the cylinder on the right sits closer to the rider. The longitudinal camshaft uses three main bearings - one between the two 180-degree rod journals to create a wider separation between them that produces a more characteristic sound from the boxer, fit for a cruiser. There is no balancer shaft either so you get the vibrations and the clunks to go with that exhaust note. The vibrations only increase as the revs rise and remind the rider to short shift often and ride the wave of torque.
The engine has a lot of poke - enough to help it will run away from most cruisers and in the hands of a seasoned rider, even keep up with some of the faster motorcycles like the Thruxtons and R Nine Ts. The engine's output isn't in the power cruiser territory but a tested 0-100kmph sprint time of 4.97s should tell you that this cruiser is quick.
Power is fed to the rear wheel via an exposed shaft drive, which BMW assures, will withstand the elements. Too bad you can't watch it spinning while riding the motorcycle. There is no tachometer, but you will know that you aren't revving too high. The engine redlines at 5,500rpm and figures suggest that all of its torque is available between 2,000-4,000rpm and it is evident whether you are riding in the city or cruising on the highway. It will pull from 30kmph in third all the way up to triple digits. It is equally impressive at building speeds in higher gears, meaning that even at highway speeds, you won't have to drop a gear to pull an overtake. The engine can cruise happily between 90-130kmph, whatever makes you feel comfortable, considering the wind blast. Of course, there is a touring windscreen available for it, and though it fits the purpose, I think it kills the aesthetics. If you ask me, the best way to enjoy the R 18 is to plonk in a pair of earplugs to cut the wind noise and cruise at 120kmph with the boxer playing a melodious symphony for you.
There are three riding modes to choose from - Rain for the wet and Roll and Rock for the sunny days. Rain will dial down performance for better grip and keep the traction control on high alert. Roll will keep things smooth and tidy for city use, while Rock will bump up the low-end performance, amplify the throttle response and engine braking and allow a bit of rear-wheel slip under hard acceleration. An engine drag control function limits the sliding of the rear wheel on deceleration when you downshift on a slippery surface and it comes handy quite often on our roads.
This 345kg cruiser is quite charming in the twisties too. The meaty torque spread lets you ride in third all throughout if you like, and if you up the sprits, the gearbox will complement with slick shifts - clutchless shifts too if you like. The only gripe I have with the engine is that it never sounds loud enough to go with the spirited rides - there are a few crackles and pops in the Rock mode, but it is like listening to soft rock on a Saturday night. Nothing wrong with it, just that it mellows the vibe instead of amplifying it. I expected better music from a 1,800. That said, once you have experienced the very R Nine T like hooliganism of the R 18's Rock mode, the Roll just feels lacklustre.
It is evident that BMW could easily get a similar performance from a smaller capacity boxer too, but the 1,802cc or 110ci is more of a spec-sheet requirement than a real-world necessity to lure the traditional cruiser customer base that is smitten by the American brands and their big pistons. But if pure numbers and neck-breaking performance are what you seek, the Rocket 3 could be a far more convincing motorcycle for you, but if you would rather flaunt a piece of art on two wheels, it is the R 18 all the way.
When you look at a 26-lakh-rupee BMW motorcycle, you expect a plethora of tech goodness on it. The most advanced piece of tech on the R 18 however, is the mode selector. The lack of a fancy digital display is passable in favour of this beautiful design, but the lack of a fuel gauge, range indicator and more importantly, cruise control, makes you feel shortchanged. There is keyless ignition, but you have to flip the key to lock the handlebar and there is no lock for the fuel filler. There is no IMU either, and the result is that the Hill Start Assist isn't as smooth in operation as the one on the R 1250 GS for example. Alright, there is one piece of advanced tech that deserves a mention - a reverse gear - which essentially spins the starter motor in reverse to pull you out of a tricky parking spot. It's an optional extra though and our test bike didn't ship with it.
The R 18 has linked brakes, meaning the front lever will activate all three callipers. As mentioned, there is no IMU trickery, unlike most machines of this price point. But the brakes work well even in corners and leave little to no room for complaint. The braking is rear-biased of course, and despite what the heft of the motorcycle would suggest, there isn't a pronounced dive. In fact, the R 18 stops better than some of the lighter and sportier nakeds we have tested in the past. The brake feel is progressive too and easy to come to terms with.
Ride, handling and ergonomics
Speaking of winding roads, the R 18 doesn't turn in as sharply as say, the R Nine T, instead, it gives you the sensation that it rolls from its side to side over its fat tyres like a typical low-riding cruiser. And yet, there is a sense of control and stability that soon turns into a fun ride even if you are setting off sparks often from the hinged footpegs. In fact, the low cornering clearance of the footpegs is the only limiting factor for the R 18 around the bends. The stock handlebar doesn't feel too wide and though you can't move around much in the seat, the riding posture never feels awkward even around the bends. The ground clearance may not look like it, but the R 18 doesn't scrape its belly often on our fabled speed humps.
Whether it was Arnold and the Fat Boy from Terminator that made you a cruiser-head or you simply like cruisers for what they are, the R 18's ergonomics should feel welcoming to riders of most shapes and sizes. Those with a big belly could find the knees-up riding posture a bit discomforting though and you would find a cruiser with forward-set foot controls to be a lot more accommodating. For my height of 5 feet 8, the R 18 fits me well and I took all of ten minutes of riding in traffic to come to grips with its ergonomics. The bike is intimidating to look at, but from the saddle, the slim tank and tiny instrumentation instantly impart a sense of control.
The rear cantilever setup uses a ZF shock and the front employs 49mm conventional Showa forks. Adjusting the rear suspension needs you to remove the seat, which is a small price to pay for the clean aesthetics that it has achieved. That is going to sound like work and can seem cumbersome only if you intend to have a pillion seat, otherwise, if you are going to celebrate singlehood with just the rider seat in place, it is going to be more like a tune-it, shut-it, forget-it operation. The front and rear suspension have 119 and 89mm of travel respectively, which is on par with cruiser expectations. But the low-speed ride is bone-jarring - you are going to feel every undulation on the road, in your back and your shoulders. Ride it hard and it smoothens out most of those undulations. I found the saddle to be comfortable up to 200kms, but anything beyond that is likely to get cumbersome for most. But the R 18 will ensure that those 200kms will be quite enthralling in the way it performs and turns heads.
There are motorcycles that flaunt numbers and then there are motorcycles that promise and deliver a unique experience. It's that latter that makes a long-lasting impression on your mind. The BMW R 18 falls in that category. From the first glance and the first ignition to the last mile of the day, it rewards your senses with experiences that are quite unique. It is a feat that isn't easy to achieve, but the R 18 does it and does it better than most cruisers out there.
Photography Anis Shaikh