Deep in my profile on my website you’ll find a short list of the most disappointing bikes I’ve ridden. Naturally it’s a personal thing, and I’ve caught a lot of flak over the years for including various machines on the list that have captured their owners’ hearts but not mine.
High up that list was the original ’94 Funduro BMW. Designed as an entry level machine, the original 650cc single cylinder bike was anaemic, overweight, over-tall and inflexible – it was anything but fun.
I came across that bike working for CSM in 1996, the UK-wide motorcycle training school that dominated bike training in the 90s.
As the new boy, I was last in the pecking order for the instructor bikes, and that meant I got to park up my Yamaha FZ750 and jump on the unloved Funduro for the day.
Now, the FZ could never be described as a light motorcycle, but it carried its weight low and for a long wheelbase 750 it was extremely well balanced at slow speed. The Funduro, though nominally around 25kg lighter, carried it high and even with the trail bike riding position you felt every kilo whilst performing slow manoeuvres or even just levering the thing off the side stand.
The FZ also had one of the best 750 motors ever made – smooth, linear power from tickover to the redline, to the point where the gearbox was almost redundant – it was as happy up near 140mph as it was trickling through stationary traffic on a whiff of throttle.
I’d already owned a bunch of singles including an XBR500 so I knew they could be light, smooth and flexible. By contrast, the BMW suffered the single cylinder shakes which made it unrideable below 3000rpm and the short rev range meant there was only one gear for any road speed so urban traffic demanded constant swaps. Titanic vibration at higher revs limited practical top speed to about 75mph and even if you could live with the vibes, the “full-stop” rev limiter cut in at 100mph and just over 6000rpm in any case.
Throw in a sky-high seat that meant I was constantly searching for high kerbs to get on and off (and I’m not exactly a short-arse at 5’9″), and you could soon see why the BMW was universally reviled and abandoned by the other trainers at the school. I thanked my lucky stars the day one of them left and I was able to grab his GPz500S!
My feelings for the Funduro were confirmed a year or so later when I bought a Honda NX650 Dominator. A couple of years ownship of that bike, as well as the chance to ride bikes like Honda’s 650 Transalp, the 1000cc Suzuki V-Strom, a BMW R100GS and a Honda Africa Twin, all served to confirm just how far off the mark BMW were with that original 650GS.
So then, back to the present; with that history behind me, when offered the chance to ride a nearly new ’08 800cc twin cylinder F650GS, I can’t say I exactly jumped at the opportunity, despite the owner’s enthusiasm for me to try out her machine.
First stop was a bit of research, as BMW’s mid-sized model range has got a bit confusing of late.
The F800 twin cylinder engine first appeared in sport and touring guises three or four years back, and shocked people by being a parallel rather than the trademark boxer twin. Fairly soon after, the engine was transplanted into an F800GS version with spoked wheels and the potential for off-road use.
The F650GS tested here shares the basic 800cc engine, but with retuned with less power and more torque at low revs. Modifications include the exhaust system, no sump guard, a smaller front wheel, alloy wheels rather than spokes, a single disc up front instead of two and a different screen. The suspension is apparently lower spec too.
I logged onto BMW’s website to see what the bike was about. BMW say this:
“The BMW F 650 GS is a real all -rounder, with real power. Compact and lightweight, practical and well-balanced, it is equally at home around town, on gravel trails, or for a weekend away with a passenger on the back.
“The F 650 GS is a bike which can perform in any situation. With a water-cooled 798cc parallel twin-cylinder engine, and an impressive 71hp, this sturdy motorcycle will never let you down. BMW Motorrad also offers a reduced power version (34hp/25kw) which is perfect for beginners, and is our ‘bike of choice’ at our very own BMW Rider Training school.”
The basic machine comes in at a not-unreasonable £6500 on the road, already fitted with an immobiliser, and the low seat option (which this bike was fitted with) and a 34PS power reduction kit so you can ride it on a restricted licence are both free options.
However, you can soon empty the bank balance with the factory-fit options; the height reduction kit comes in at £165, a centre stand is another £115, the on-board computer is £145, ABS is an eye-watering £645 and heated grips a mind-boggling £225.
That’s over £1300 worth of extras already, so you might as well go all the way and specify the tyre pressure control system (whatever that does), the factory alarm and LED indicators (to compliment the LED tail light) for “just” another £500! You’ll get a bit of change out of eight and a half grand.
Actually looking at the bike I was about to ride, the Biarritz Blue (mis-spelled on the BMW UK website incidentally) is the most attractive colour option, and looks far nicer in the sunlight than the publicity photos do credit – hence the owner’s “Dragonfly” moniker for the machine.
Climbing on, I had no problem with putting both feet on the ground. The owner is a little shorter than me and was a little tippy-toe but the machine is perfectly manageable by shorter riders.
Preparing to lever the machine upright off the side stand, I nearly threw it on its opposite side. It’s not particularly light at just on 200kgs fully fueled and ready to go, but unlike the Funduro all those years ago which actually weighed much the same, much of the mass is carried lower down. That gives the illusion, if not the fact, of lighter weight.
The bars are a nice height and reach for me but the angles of the grips was a little straight and flat for my liking – I’d prefer them turned back and down a little more, but I suspect they’ve been designed this way to allow the bike to be ridden standing on the pegs.
Finding the key was a slight problem – I eventually located it behind the tankbag, under the nose of the “tank”. The starter button lives on top of the right hand switch cluster and pressing it down started the motor, and brought the permanently-on dip beam to life.
Off down the road and up through the box, the cable-operated clutch was nice and smooth, very progressive too, and the front brake operating a single front disc also proved very “soft” and progressive and would probably be easy on the dirt. It reminded me very much of my old Dominator, in that a good squeeze WOULD pull the bike up fairly quickly but if you’re used to a sportsbike you might easily think “what brakes?” for a moment when you try to slow. Braking a dual-sport bike needs a little more planning ahead.
The suspension too had a nice controlled feel, quite plush over the bumps. Straight line stability was impressive – I deliberately aimed at the worst road imperfections I could find (not difficult after last winter) and the bike just kept going where it was pointed. I suspect it would be a very forgiving machine on gentle off-road stuff. For the couple of hours I was riding it, the seat was comfortable although the frame presses on the inside of the thighs.
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The gearbox isn’t the slickest in the world, the ratios tend to go home with a clunk rather than a “snick” but it’s perfectly acceptable. There’s a subdued vibration from the twin cylinder motor itself and some roughness which I suspect is the chain (though this bike had just had a brand new one fitted under warranty. Payback from some of that initial cost perhaps – try that with your Honda / Yamaha et al!).
The fuel injection is excellent, with a very smooth pick-up when you shut then open the throttle again; no sudden jerks there, despite what I read in a road test by Kevin Ash.
The all-stainless exhaust has a surprisingly loud bark to it – I could hear it through ear plugs when following on my own bike. As an aside, the new Yamaha XJ6 has a definite ‘snarl’ too, and I’m left wondering how they are getting these new bikes through the noise tests – the XJ6 actually registered 98dB on the noise tester at Castle Combe which is way above the test limit!
The motor is surprisingly flexible for a big twin, with the ability to trickle along barely over tickover and to rev cleanly so it’s not often you’re caught in an inappropriate gear, though the motor does run out of puff as it heads off towards the red line. Nevertheless, peak power of around 70 horses comes up at 7000 which isn’t that far short of the red line, despite the fact the motor has been retuned.
That’s enough to send the speedo the wrong side of 100mph fairly briskly – the quoted top speed is 115mph.
OK, I admit it, I’m a gadget freak. The Beemer comes equipped with an “info” button of the sort that you find in cars. The panel right of the speedo and rev counter displays the now usual twin trips, fuel and temperature that you’d expect but it also shows average MPG, average speed, and “range to empty” which I am informed is deadly accurate. It can also monitor tyre pressure.
The bike has also got a remote adjustable shock with rebound damping, an LED rear light, adjustable levers, hazard lights and a power socket. Alloy wheels allow for the fitting of tubeless tyres, something some spoked wheels can’t handle.
The mirrors are a funky shape but actually too small to see much. The aftermarket taller screen generated a lot of turbulence about my helmet, though the owner says she doesn’t have that problem and that it’s better than the original fly screen. The levers have a skinny and sharp-edged feel to them that seems unique to BMW, but at least they are a sensible reach from the bars, unlike the R1100S I rode some years ago.
The speedo was much too tiny. The gap between 30 and 40 was barely more than the width of the needle which made it very difficult to actually see what speed you were doing.
My one pet hate is the indicator system. I’ve been told by many, many owners “you get used to it”. But should you have to?
The cancel button is horribly angled and positioned ergonomically. You have to move your thumb to an awkward position to reach it and the bit you have to press doesn’t fall naturally under the ball of your thumb either; it’s too close to the grip.
And after I hit the horn for the 3rd or 4th time when trying to indicate left I’ve no doubt in my mind that the single button system common to just about every other make IS superior. (And please don’t write in to tell me I’m wrong – it’s my opinion and I’m just as entitled to it as you are to disagree with me.)
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the handling yet. From the moment I moved away, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the way the bike turned.
At low speed it felt well-balanced but it didn’t seem to be going quite where I wanted it to go. I tried various tricks like dragging the rear brake and counterweighting to get the bike leaning further and going a little quicker but though it never worried me, it just didn’t feel that I could turn it precisely – the very antithesis of my Hornet 600 which can turn on a sixpence with one hand on the bars.
As the speed went up, the steering became more neutral; at least it was right up to the point where I started to try to power harder out of corners.
Immediately, the slightly loose and “floaty” feel to the front was back and the bike threatened to run wide in the turns. The harder and earlier I accelerated, the worse it felt.
Suitably detuned, over the next few miles I messed about running into corners on a closed throttle, even on the brakes, and using various throttle openings mid-corner and on the exit to try to get my head round what was happening.
With steady throttle it turned precisely enough, but with any kind of acceleration mid-corner, it suddenly lost its poise. I’ve ridden quite a few different dual-sports and lightweights over the years, so I’m used to the feel of dual-purpose tyres or a light front end but almost uniquely in my experience, the baby Beemer felt totally composed turning in on a closed throttle or even on the brakes. It never threatened to get unstable but it definitely ran wide and felt ‘loose’ on the throttle.
For comparison purposes, it’s almost totally the opposite to the SP1 Honda I rode a couple of weeks ago which just sat up and went straight on if you braked mid-corner, but felt like it was on rails the harder you put the power on.
Eventually, I found a happy balance of steering and throttle that had the machine cornering smoothly and nimbly but it’s not one a novice would be likely to come up with in a hurry.
After an evening pondering about the slightly odd handling, I suddenly realised that what the BMW reminded me of more than anything, and that was riding my old 400-four kitted out with a pair of loaded panniers with a month’s camping gear stashed in them.
And that in turn got me wondering about the fuel tank positioning.
I have to question the wisdom of storing 16 litres (and thus the best part of 16kg) of fuel in pannier tanks either side of the top of the rear wheel. By contrast a conventional tank isn’t very much higher and is actually much more centrally balanced between the wheels.
If I had to guess, I’d say that the designers had a problem in that the 800cc twin engine is quite tall, and to give decent ground clearance, it has to sit high and thus has to have the cylinder head in the place you’d normally expect the fuel to live. The rest of what would normally be the tank is airbox.
The large gap between the downpipes and the front wheel also seems to imply the motor itself sits a long way back in the chassis and that means there’s visibly no room for the fuel tank behind the engine and over the gearbox, where the FZ750 tank was actually was. What space there is behind the engine appears to be full of pumps and the rear shock.
Add to that the undoubtedly weighty silencer with three stage catalyser that’s carried high on the left, plus the fact that the rider sits just ahead of the back wheel, and the implication is that a fair amount of the bike’s weight is carried quite far to the rear… just like my loaded-up Honda.
Now, before I suggest that’s a final judgment on the machine itself, I’d like to try it on different tyres.
The 650GS sits on a 19″ alloy front and a 17″ rear, with skinny 110/80 and 140/80 tyres, to which Bridgestone Battlewings were fitted.
Although there was loads of tread on the tyres, the front was slightly squared off which may at least partly account for the slightly weird handling; or it may be the Bridgestones themselves. I had a similar unhappy Bridgestone experience with low-speed handling on the first XJ6 I tested late last year, but the same model on Dunlop Roadsmarts was transformed.
So, can I sum the bike up?
It looks robust, particularly with the aftermarket bash plate, brush guards and engine bars that this one had been fitted with, but these aftermarket parts and all the BMW factory-fit extras take the bike firmly out of the entry level market this machine is aimed at and into serious hit on the bank balance territory. A pre-registered ABS-equipped XJ6 Diversion can currently be had for around £5,200 – that’s around £2000 less than a similarly equipped F650GS with no other extras fitted. £2000 buys a lot of kit for a new rider.
Fuel economy is very impressive. This machine was returning an indicated average of 63mpg, but the Japanese competition can manage mid-50s and the difference in price will buy me an awful lot of extra fuel.
The relatively light weight means it’s easy to manoeuvre at a standstill, the riding position gives an excellent view in town and the low rev behaviour and light controls make it easy to ride in stop-start traffic but once moving the slow speed control is vague.
It’s a lovely engine with sensible power output and incredibly flexible and non-threatening power delivery, and combined with straight line stability that is impressive on bumpy roads, the 650GS is totally ideal for the short straights on B roads and for novice riders, but the lack of front-end feel and weird handling on the power mid-corner means it’s not an easy bike to ride on the twisties that join those straights together.
So, would I buy one?
If money and space were no object, I’d not certainly object to finding one in the garage. It’s fun and practical to ride, particularly if you like the idea of a dual-sport bike that is capable of a bit of riding on easy trails, something I’ve missed since my Dominator days.
Just like its bigger GS siblings, there’s also a stack of aftermarket equipment from the bash plate and brush guards mentioned to full pannier kits available to bolt on so you can customise the machine to your heart’s content. In this guise, it’s got just enough performance to make a pretty good tourer.
But asked to recommend an XJ6 or a F650GS to a new rider, I’d probably say go for the Yamaha simply because it’s a lot cheaper and it’s easier to ride.
It’s a quirky machine yet one that I’m positive is going to earn a lot of respect from its owners – it’s certainly gained mine. Perhaps respect and quirks go hand in hand.