Remember the pre-COVID days, when journalists would fly off to exotic locales, ride new bikes, than blather on about them in wordy feature stories, haphazardly mashed together to meet a deadline? Yeah, that’s not happening anymore.
But, the OEMs are still building and introducing new motorcycles, and they want the world to know about them. This fall, one of the biggest new releases, at least for cruiser fans, is the BMW R18. The German manufacturer wanted to brag up its latest creation, so instead of inviting us all to southern California to ride it, we all got an invite to a Zoom call. Not quite as fun as riding Angeles Crest, but at least I didn’t have to schlep through two or three airports and wake up in the middle of the night to fly across the continent!
What’s the R18 all about, then?
Why the R18, and why now?
BMW sees this cruiser as a way to celebrate its history, and a way to bull its way back into the cruiser market by offering an upscale custom-type motorcycle. Ever since the first spy shots appeared, people have been asking why BMW would enter the cruiser segment, something that many motorcyclists view as a dying scene. Even though the numbers back up that theory, BMW still knows there’s a lot of money floating around the high-end cruiser market, and it’s building the R18 to carve out some space there.
Why now, then?
“Harley-Davidson owns this segment … but recently, that’s been changing,” said Vinnie Kung, product manager for BMW Motorrad USA. It’s true that Harley-Davidson, once the King Kong of the cruiser world, has been losing some share of the cruiser market lately, particularly to Indian. BMW figures it could muscle into the market, too.
The background story for the R18’s development was interesting, and frankly, sounded very similar to a Harley-Davidson meeting I sat in once, for motorcycles very similar to the R18. Like those Harley-Davidson machines, BMW started the R18’s development by surveying riders, finding out what they wanted in a cruiser. With all that in mind, BMW figured out what kind of client it wanted to build a bike for, and what kind of bike that rider wanted. The target? A middle-aged white-collar worker with a creative job, interested in things like Red Wing boots, Carhartt clothing, Bell motorcycle helmets, diners, the Born Free custom motorcycle show, that sort of thing. This hypothetical buyer isn’t a newb, he’s got 15ish years of riding experience,. He probably only puts in about 3,000 miles a year, with no real interest in long-haul touring. He’s got an iPhone and Macbook, and likes social media.
Again, some of the details are slightly different, but this all sounds very much like a page from the H-D playbook. The similarities got even closer when BMW said that, for design inspiration, it … (wait for it) … reached back into its heritage.
I’m not being snarky here, at all. I think many motorcycle companies do this, and I think almost all of them should do this, especially if they’ve got a history of building exciting bikes and are currently cranking out snoozers, mostly. However, the one company that’s practically built its business model around this, is Harley-Davidson. At least, Harley was first, and it’s worked very nicely for them until now. So, BMW’s making a smart play here, I think, especially by referencing the old R5 model. After all, it’s working for everyone else.
Back to basics
If you remember back to the BC era (Before COVID), you might remember the marketeers played up the similarities to the BMW R5, which ran from 1936 to 1937 (see more about that bike here). Funny story, that—one of BMW’s bigwigs on the call said the bike’s stylistic inspiration came when an employee was walking through a storage area for the company’s vintage machines, and saw the R5’s gorgeous lines.
However, the real key to this bike’s appeal, I think, is the old-school attention to detail, and to quality materials.
If you saw the R18 prototype on display at a motorcycle show last winter, you also probably noticed it always grabbed a lot of attention. If you walked up, you found out why: the paint is lustrous, all the trim is solid metal, there’s plenty of expensive-looking machining. This bike screams quality in-person; BMW didn’t just sketch up something that looks similar to an older bike, and then make it out of plastic. This bike looks the part. Even better, it has a big air-cooled engine, when everyone else is moving towards liquid cooling. It really does look like something an Art Deco designer might have dreamed up in the 1930s, with a few modern touches like LED lights and riding modes, ABS and other electro-trickery built into the machine.
If that isn’t enough, BMW is also releasing a huge accessory line for the bike, with big-name companies like Roland Sands Design, Vance & Hines and Mustang making bolt-on parts. And of course, you can buy matching T-shirts and riding gear from BMW, too.
Time for some details on that motor. First, the bike makes 91 horsepower at 4,750 rpm. That’s certainly enough to earn you some roadside time with Johnny Law, and it’s more than most of the low-end cruiser competition. Start looking at bigger, badder liquid-cooled V-twins, though, and those 91 horses might not compare so favourably. But don’t worry—BMW says the engine makes 116 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. Put it this way: If times get tough and you lose your job, you can always make your R18 payments by renting it out as a stump-puller. That torque, combined with the horsepower, should mean you won’t get embarrassed by the air/oil-cooled 1802cc engine in traffic. It’s the largest boxer that BMW’s ever made, and it’s visually arresting in person.
One other point: That massive flat twin means the R18 won’t have the classic feet-forward cruiser riding position. No floorboards.
That’s always been kind of a problem for BMW when it wanted to build a cruiser, depending on your perspective. The R1200C definitely had more of a standard riding position than a raked-out hog. Look back into history; in the chopper-mad ’70s, the old-school custom builders bombing around Germany and the Netherlands on their hacked-up cabbage crates definitely had a more tidy riding position than something out of SoCal.
However, if you aren’t married to the feet-forward position (and even if you are), you’ll find the R18’s middish-mounted controls should actually provide better handling, and maybe even prove more comfortable.
Another note: Although BMW is bragging up this bike’s handling, it’s worth noting it weighs 761 pounds at the curb. Turns out, all those metal components come with a price. That’s 91 pounds more than the Softail Slim, the Harley-Davidson model BMW says it’s aiming at with the R18.
BMW’s Kung said he sees this added weight as a feature, though. Wait, what? But he stood by it, saying it was from sturdy construction, and that means BMW can build other projects around this platform. Reading between the lines, and judging from spy shots, he’s probably talking about a full-on touring bike or heavyweight bagger based on the R18. And, it’s worth noting BMW has dual front discs on the R18, instead of the single-disc brakes on some competitors. The R18 also comes with safety features like traction control, linked braking with ABS, and the three ride modes mentioned earlier. All that tech adds up, too, and it’s not available on a lot of the competition.
Wrapping it up
Sounds like a lot of bike, literally and figuratively, then. It is, and it’s worth a lot of money. The MSRP for the BMW R18 starts at $17,495 in the US and $20,895 in Canada ($22,095 after fees). That’s expensive, but in case you haven’t noticed, everything’s going up in price, even cruisers with classic styling. Is it worth it? To the right customer, probably. If you’re wondering if that’s you, then your best bet is to start pestering your local dealer for a test ride, if you can actual get one during this pandemic.