Over a year after its concept debut, the 2021 BMW R 18 has made its way to production. Much has been written about its design inspiration—the iconic 1936 BMW R 5—so we aren’t going to retrace that route. We had plenty of technical information in our First Look, so a rehash is unnecessary. Instead, we’re going to ride the R 18, now that it’s here. Let the Fast Facts commence!
Fittingly, the first R 18s available will be the 2021 BMW R 18 First Edition model. Functionally, the First Edition we tested is the same as the standard R 18. For us, the most significant difference is the white pinstriping on the Black Storm Metallic fuel tank and rear fender. We can’t imagine an R 18 without it, as it hearkens right back to the R 5. There is also quite a bit of added chrome, including the valve covers, front engine cover, cylinder intake covers, hand and foot controls, master cylinders, mirrors, bar ends, and brake calipers. This initial R 18 also gets First Edition side-panel badging, and the owner is presented with an extensive Welcome Box, which includes a BMW Motorrad book, belt buckle, baseball cap, and historical tank emblems for the tank with fasteners and an assembly tool—all very upscale.
Settling into the seat for the first time, your eyes will be immediately drawn to the Big Boxer’s huge cylinders. Although the flat-twin powerplant looks large as you gaze at the unmounted R 18, once you hop on, nothing prepares you for the shock of the size of the two 901cc cylinders. They are not shy, and you immediately realize that there’s a fundamental reason the R 18 has mid-controls.
Ergonomically, the 2021 BMW R 18 is more of a retro-standard than a traditional cruiser. With the footpegs below you rather than far forward, you sit upright on the 27.2-inch high seat. Flatfooting will be the norm for all but the shortest riders. The handlebar bend is wide and swept back, so the ergonomics aren’t quite sporting. It’s a natural position for riding, though not necessarily one for profiling down the road to your favorite gathering place.
Starting up the Big Boxer may be the most visceral experience in motorcycling. I’ve always loved the excitement provoked when a big-inch Harley-Davidson motor starts up. The entire motorcycle shakes, and the adrenaline flows into the bloodstream—it’s an impetus to get going. The 2021 BMW R 18 does that one better, as you get more than the shake of the 107mm wide pistons flowing back-and-forth through the 100mm stroke. You also get the side-to-side rocking that comes with the boxer configuration, and it is quite pronounced. The first time, it will likely catch you off-guard, so be aware when you hit the start button. Also, no key is needed, as you carry a fob. Just tap the power button, let it power up, and then push down on the start switch to commence the proceedings.
It didn’t take long to get my first “Cool bike” experience. By the second stoplight, a Millennial in a truck with a kid pulled up next to me. He said the magic words, and his car-seated son in the back waved. This experience was repeated numerous times with commenters of various demographics. Everyone likes the R 18 instantly. The fact that the twin fishtail mufflers produce a pleasing rumble certainly aids the R 18’s cause.
The Big Boxer motor isn’t just for show—it goes. The air-/oil-cooled pushrod twin uses twin cams and four-valve heads to produce 116 ft-lbs of torque at just 3000 rpm. Expect people who don’t like cruisers to mock the peak of 91 horsepower at 4750 rpm, without understanding the function of the powerplant. It’s all about that pull. After a brief softness to the power right off idle to keep launches smooth, the push is monumental. All that torque melts away the 761-pound curb weight of the R 18, as does the low center-of-gravity afforded by the boxer configuration. Although the Big Boxer willing revs to the limiter, if you hit it, you have made a mistake because you haven’t already upshifted.
While there are three modes, there’s only one you need if it’s not raining. Sure, the rain mode makes sense on wet pavement. It tamps down the throttle response, cranks up the traction control, and modulates the engine compression braking. In the dry, that leaves you with a choice between Rock and Roll modes—yes, the names are trying too hard. Anyway, the Rock mode is the one you want. It has the strongest throttle response and least-intrusive traction control. Unlike some sportbikes, where the most aggressive mode is undesirable anywhere other than a racing circuit, the R 18’s Rock mode is fully smooth and never abrupt. The Roll mode is just slower, with no discernable advantage unless you like gratuitous traction control on the dry stuff. For those about to Rock, we salute you.
If you like a lot of shaking at a stop, the Big Boxer is ready to satisfy you. The handlebar does quite a dance when in neutral at a stop, with the modes altering the amount of shake. Unsurprisingly, you get the most movement in the Rock mode and the least in the Rain mode. If you blip the throttle while stopped, you will be quickly reminded that you’re riding a boxer, as it will forcefully lunge to the left. Once underway, all of these peculiarities disappear, and the R 18 is a smooth and predictable ride.
Riding the 2021 BMW R 18 around town is a distinct pleasure. While not exactly lithe, it belies its weight and 68-inch wheelbase. With the neutral riding position and the wide handlebar providing leverage, the R 18 is shockingly easy to ride. It goes where you want it to go, without demanding any undue effort. The motor and the chassis are accommodating to the rider, rather than the other way around. The only issue I had was making sure the jugs didn’t hit a car when I filtered to the front of the line at a stoplight. Although I haven’t made contact yet, it is constantly on my mind. I am thankful that BMW didn’t go with a long-stroke design.
The seat is comfortable, though you will want to stop now and then. I like a seat that allows me to empty the motorcycle’s fuel tank without stopping while cruising around town, with side trips on the freeways and canyons. The stock R 18 saddle isn’t quite up to the task. Fortunately, BMW offers accessory seats from the likes of Mustang, and there will be more to come from the aftermarket. The passenger perch is predictably limited in size.
You will want to be careful when maneuvering in parking lots. I nearly had a catastrophic moment when I pulled onto an uneven dirt parking lot for a view from Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills. As I was working slowly through the bumpiness and the drop off the pavement, I instinctively gave the throttle a bit of a blip to move forward. The unexpected torque effect of the boxer let itself be known, and it nearly tossed me to the ground. It wasn’t until it happened to me a second time that I realized it was a motor issue, rather than a chassis problem. The optional reverse gear is electronically driven by the starter, so the boxer effect is taken away—backing up is slow and easy.
The Showa fork and ZF Sachs shock work well in concert. BMW didn’t tune the suspension for pure plush. You always have a feel for the road, and imperfections are not banished from the experience. However, BMW engineers didn’t skimp on the travel—4.7 inches in the front and 3.5 inches out back—so you don’t have an abrupt ride. The sharp edges are smoothed out without obscuring the interaction between the pavement and the motorcycle. The only suspension adjustment is the spring-preload on the shock, and no more is needed. The R 18 delivers a ride that keeps it real.
Being a BMW, the 2021 R 18 is not allergic to twisties. It’s no surprise that the R 18 handles well—that’s just the nature of the BMW brand. The suspension does its job in the canyons, so you don’t have to grit your teeth if the roads aren’t perfect—as they often aren’t in California. The R 18 is undoubtedly stable, yet mid-corner corrections are not impossible if you put in a bit of effort. The Bridgestone Battlecruise H50 tires are flawless, right up to the generous cornering clearance limits, and that’s where you have to be careful.
The feelers on the pegs touch down abruptly during spirited riding. I was never able to land them smoothly, and I tried. In one instance, the feeler hit the pavement so violently that it unexpectedly knocked my foot off the peg, and I wasn’t riding that aggressively. If I were a buyer of the 2021 BMW R 18, the first thing I’d look into would be different footrests. BMW does offer optional floorboards, and I’d be keen to try them. If you enjoy a bit of lean angle, the peg feelers are a sore thumb on a wonderful motorcycle.
The BMW R 18 is fully stable on roads with bighearted speed limits. Whether it’s an open road or urban freeway, the long wheelbase and stretched 32.7 degrees of rake make for a sure ride. You sit low enough that you don’t feel like you’re going to get blown off the bike, and there’s more than enough power to do as you please. Once you hit triple digits, though, you feel like you’ve had enough. The engine vibration and wind blast are insistent that you back off the throttle a bit.
Braking is wholly intuitive, with the assists being completely transparent. The R 18 has full-time ABS. In the dry, you aren’t likely to notice it ever engaging. When you pull the hand brake lever, all three calipers initiate deceleration, with the ABS system balancing the input. Again, this happens fully transparently. The foot brake is rear-only, and not especially powerful on its own. The braking is so perfectly executed that you won’t spend much time thinking about it—it behaves exactly as you expect it to.
A nod to the R 5, the 2021 BMW R 18 is a straightforward ride. It was probably tempting to some engineers in Berlin to give the R 18 every sort of electronic aid and option available is the company’s deep inventory. Instead, those who wanted to keep it simple prevailed, and the basic nature enhances the concept of the R 18 as a retro motorcycle rather than a cruiser. The aids it does offer to the rider are unobtrusive, and welcome.
The analog-style speedo/dash is not complex, and includes a gear-selection digital indicator. A rocker thumb switch on the left handlebar allows you to choose the supplemental info that suits you. Annoying, it only scrolls in one direction, even though the switch clicks both ways. If you want to know the rev count, it is one of the display options, though it’s not easily read at a glance once underway. One of the choices is your speed, just in case you prefer a digital readout of your velocity in addition to the sweeping needle. Like the rev counter, however, it’s not that easy to see while riding. I just set it on the fuel gauge readout and left it there.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with the 2021 BMW R 18, but I like what I got. With a big torquey powerplant, relatively compact ergonomics, and an upright seating position, the R 18 is far easier to ride than any 1802cc, 761-pound motorcycle has a right to be. It’s an uncomplicated ride that any motorcyclist will appreciate instantly. Everything works as expected, and this is simply a terrific motorcycle that calls you to the garage for yet another outing.
This week, Senior Editor Nic de Sena rides the all new Ducati Monster. Big changes have been made by Ducati–has the company ruined the considerable heritage of the iconic Monster–or are the changes worth it? In the second part of the show, we chat with Nick Ienatsch, Founder and Head Instructor at the Yamaha Champions Riding School. He says: “We aim to change your riding life by introducing you to Champions Habits: The techniques, approaches, skills, and the mindsets of the best riders in the world. These Champions Habits are the foundation of safety and consistency to whatever speed you ride, in any venue on any bike. Street riders, this is just as much for you as track riders. The best way to make safe riders is to make good riders.“ We hope you enjoy this episode!