Into the Fray
While the Japanese manufacturers set superbike standards with lightweight, high-horsepower production motorcycles showcasing futuristic technology developed on the racetrack, Italian bike builders created a signature niche with handmade, race-inspired motorcycles that fit like exquisitely tailored suits. But German BMW long scoffed at the crotch rocket tradition, declining to engage in such two-wheeled games. Until now. BMW has finally entered the high-speed fray with the introduction of its new K 1200 S.
Born of a desire to change the 82-year-old company’s public image and to release itself from its utilitarian past, the K 1200 S experienced a prolonged gestation commensurate with its starry-eyed performance goals. The arduous development process showed that the Munich-based manufacturer possessed a stubborn constitution and the resolve to engineer itself out of conundrums ranging from fuel injection problems to camshaft issues.
The K 1200 S’s soul—its 167 hp inline-4—provides the first clue to the bike’s intentions. The engine’s low-end torque provides strong pull, and peaks, with 96 ft lbs, at a relatively high 8,250 rpm. Contrary to BMW’s traditional penchant for subdued engine tuning, the 1157cc powerplant, although smooth at lower rpm, proves deliciously rev–happy above 5,000 rpm. The engine comes to life at high rpm with some vibration that betrays the vast horsepower which makes this not only the most powerful BMW—ever—but also the fastest. Though the bike can exceed 170 mph, BMW demurely claims a top speed of “more than 120 mph.” However, with surprising optimism, the company claims a 0-60 mph time of less than 2.8 seconds. Considering that BMW’s first inline-4 earned it the “flying brick” moniker in the 1980s, these are shockingly quick numbers.
But being competitive in the superbike arena demands more than straight line acceleration and top speed. BMW engineers aimed for the superlative ride and handling dynamics earned when engine weight and position, chassis tuning, and suspension calibration work in harmony. With its inline-4 mounted across the frame and cylinders tilted at a radical 55 degrees forward, the engine not only dramatically lowers the bike’s center of gravity, its position also produces perfect 50-50 weight distribution.Deft balance alone wouldn’t give the K 1200 S an edge over one of the well-evolved benchmarks from its peers, so BMW incorporated radical new suspension systems. The front end features a Hossack-inspired “Duolever” suspension, a nontelescopic design with a shock situated between two parallel links. Because the Duolever’s geometry does not effectively change the wheelbase when the suspension is compressed (braking in a turn) or while front load is decreased (accelerating out of a turn), the result is confidence-inspiring directional stability in spite of aggressive input. The Duolever enables the BMW to belie its considerable 61.8-inch wheelbase and feel surprisingly nimble, while also dramatically reducing brake dive. Despite the bike’s 499-pound dry weight, lean angle is impressively sharp, and handling, pleasantly neutral. Tremendously stable, the K 1200 S carves canyons with ease; spirited handling exercises might eventually become tiring, however, as the laws of physics—and the bike’s heft—invariably catch up, one way or another.
In an effort to bend those physical laws, an optional Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) increases the flexibility of the K 1200 S, tightening the suspension for twisty backroads or softening it for long distance touring. With a total of nine settings available from a single button, ESA allows damping levels to be adjusted without stopping.
BMW’s innovations don’t end with its suspension; servo-assisted antilock brakes provide solid stopping power, though initial lever travel feels a bit wooden and perhaps lacks the feedback of high quality radial brakes. Nonetheless, the brakes—like several other quirky aspects of the K 1200 S—are acquired tastes that demand the rider to adapt to technology, rather than vice versa.Advances such as anti-squat front suspension and servo-assisted brakes may appear to be barriers to a pure riding experience, but don’t let the technology fool you: the BMW K 1200 S’s engineering exists to provide a solid, exceptionally comfortable ride that also happens to be as fast as hell. Although not so featherweight as the GSXR or the ZX10, the K 1200 S offers the power of an uncompromising superbike, but comes packaged with peerless comfort, solidity, and build integrity. Because it trades a bit of absolute performance for luxury and civility, the K 1200 S could be classified as a sport tourer, with emphasis on the former term; call it a gentleman’s crotch rocket, if you will.
By adding power and nimbleness to its carefully cultivated refinement, BMW has extended a foot into the bold new world of speed while keeping one foot in its storied past. In the strictest sense of the term, the K 1200 S may not qualify as a true superbike, but if it sacrificed comfort and unflappability for lower lap times and boy-racer appeal, it wouldn’t distinguish itself from competitors. And it most certainly wouldn’t be a BMW.