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Long-Awaited BMW Motorcycle Is a Dream Ride Come True

Sure, the R1100S sport-tourer can be a pain in the back on long rides, but wait until you get it into the hills.

October 29, 1998|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DEATH VALLEY — If motorcycles had feelings, my faithful but slightly ragtag 1982 Yamaha 550 was about to need a support group.

I was about to have a four-day fling with one of the hottest bikes of 1999, the BMW R1100S, a high-tech, high-powered and frankly sensuous bike that was unveiled this summer with much fanfare.

This long-awaited model, which had generated rumors in the motorcycle world for years, is BMW's latest entry into one of the fastest-growing segments of the motorcycle types--the sport-tourer. As the name implies, these machines are meant to be a hybrid of nimble sportsbikes and luxury tourers, which is somewhat like trying to combine the best features of ballet dancers and sumo wrestlers.

But a motorcycle comfortable and stable enough for long-distance riding, and yet sufficiently agile to dance through twisting turns, would be many riders' dream bike.

At first glance, the R1100S is fittingly and pleasingly schizophrenic.

The lower half of the bike features a 98-horsepower, twin-cylinder engine that enables the bike to go from zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds. That kind of power cannot be achieved with an engine that looks subtle, but BMW did not take the opportunity to pile on the flash. There's no overabundance of chrome on this mostly exposed engine.

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The tailpipes, which bend up under the seat (a design feature pioneered by, and perhaps borrowed from, Ducati), are barely visible.

Not surprisingly, given that this is a BMW, the motor when started is more purr than roar.

If the bottom half of the bike is all business, the upper section looks as if it belongs on the Jetsons' landing pad. Above all that machinery floats the slender body of the motorcycle, all curves and flowing lines. You don't so much sit on this bike as mold your body to its ergonomically friendly shape.

Raves from both sides of the Atlantic have greeted the look of the R1100S--credited to a six-person BMW team headed by an American who studied transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. But with a base price of about $15,000 (the deluxe model, with anti-lock braking system, a center stand and heated handlebar grips goes for about $18,000), few motorcyclists are going to acquire this bike on looks alone.

I parked my little Yamaha at BMW's local headquarters in Culver City, and took the R1100S out on a 1,500-mile test ride.

My first day was meant to bring out the bike's attributes, good and bad, as a long-range tourer. I was taking a 500-mile-plus route from L.A. to Davis, just west of Sacramento.

Most dedicated touring bikes, such as the Honda Gold Wing, seat you comfortably in an upright position, sometimes with padded back included. Many Harley models also serve well as comfortable tourers, especially when outfitted with a windshield.

Sportsbikes mostly feature far more streamlined sitting positions, with the body forward and arms stretched out to grasp the handlebars.

On the R1100S, seating comes down decidedly on the side of the sportsbike. It was a surprisingly comfortable position, at least during the first several hours of my voyage up U.S. 101.

As with most sophisticated twins, the bike delivered tons of torque--the raw power that allows it to gain speed quickly. It also has a good bit of the vibration, felt chiefly in the hands, that is also part of a twin's nature.

One of the most amazing features of the ride is how little wind directly hits you, especially considering that the front fairing is not very tall. With clever use of the bodywork and even, reportedly, the shape of the mirrors, the designers channeled the wind around instead of onto the rider.

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But the most noticeable and outstanding characteristic of the ride was its smoothness, which made touring on the bike extremely pleasant. It was like riding a Swiss watch.

Until about Mile 300 that is, when the limits of the forward riding position were reached. Given that my legs were in a partly cramped state (I'm almost 6 feet tall), my knees began to ache. Worse, I started to feel a good deal of discomfort in my upper back at the base of my neck, a condition reported by other R1100S testers on long rides. This was partially relieved when I forced my shoulders to relax. I was overjoyed to reach my friends' house in Davis at the end of a long day and lie on my back on their floor.

To be fair, most touring riders do not attempt as many miles in a day, and as I got used to the characteristics of this bike, I found some ways to relieve stiffness. But the seating position on the R1100S is probably the main compromise that would make this bike less than ideal for ardent tourers.

Luckily, the next day was one on which I could rest. I took my friend Amy for a ride past cornfields in the flat countryside around Davis. Unlike my mid-sized Yamaha, which handles quite differently when riding "two up," the R1100S was so powerful I hardly knew Amy was there, except that I could hear her say an occasional "wow" or "cool."

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