The fine vólk at BMW Motorrad have a motorcycle for every occasion – just meander into a dealership and look around. Want to drag knees at warp factor 10? They can sell you an S1000RR. Lusting for a retro throwback? Take home an RNineT. Want to head up the shops to get a coffee? Buy a R1250GS. It seems like they make virtually everything. And they’re nearly all gems.
But there’s always been a cruiser-shaped gap in the Motorrad lineup. There was of course the R1200c, but it’s best if we just pretend that never happened. Because now BMW has an honest-to-god cruiser. And the new BMW R18 is unlike anything the Bavarians have ever made before.
It’s an astonishing motorcycle that defies everything sensible that BMW has come to represent. It’s a one-off for the Bavarian brand and a bike so nuanced and so unique it’s unlikely you’ll see anyone make this type of motorcycle again.
Now I know that you’re reading this ride review on Return of the Cafe Racers. And a cafe racer is, by definition, something made as light and lithe as possible. At their best, they’re like Kate Moss on wheels — no fat, trimmed and running on alcohol. But we’re suckers for modern classics, so stick with us here.
There’s no getting around it – the BMW R18 is absolutely monstrous in size. No photo does it justice. Sure, it looks long and heavy in the pictures, but you need to stand next to the thing to realise it’s about the same size as the Bismarck.
It’s 345kg (760lbs) fully fuelled. That ain’t no featherweight. But while it’ll always be butt-clenching to push the thing around a car park, the 1803cc boxer engine means that heft is carried low and I’d rather muscle around an R18 than a top-heavy v-twin of the same BMI.
It’s also got a neat trick up its sleeve – reverse. Flick a lever next to the crankcase, thumb the starter and it’ll push its way backwards with a whine louder than commenters on Facebook.
When it works, that is.
Sometimes mine just didn’t want to play. Others have complained that when it does go into reverse it struggles to shift out of it. So when you dock the R18, make sure you face it uphill. Your back will thank you.
IN THE RIGHT CORNER…
The BMW R18 is an objectively good looking motorcycle. And from some angles, it’s absolutely stunning. But I have to admit the front looks a hell of a lot better than the rear.
From the gas tank forward the Beemer leans heavily into its history and screams mid 30s German industrial design. It’s got swathes of chrome and a perfect mix of curves and hard angles.
But from the seat backwards it goes full Softail. And you should never go full… err, Softail. Thankfully the glorious fishtail mufflers bring the whole concept home, but I would have loved to see twin shocks.
Up close, the fit-and-finish of the BMW R18 is second-to-none. The paint has a subtle level of fleck in it and the chrome is deep and perfectly applied. The powder coating is flawless. There’s no odd panel gaps, poor welding or quick passes over a mill. It’s immaculately put together.
Little touches like the well-planned cable routing, a regulator/rectifier hidden in the headlight and the exposed driveshaft punch the R18 firmly into the world of premium motorcycles. Hell, even the Torx fasteners ooze quality!
There are only a few places where the BMW factory phoned it in. The first is the chrome-covered plastic air inlets. They should have been steel, ideally with a shot-peen-like finish of the engine cases. And the switchgear appears to be lifted directly from the R1250GS. While it’s functional and I’m sure the plastic will outlast the polar ice caps, it would have been great to see BMW use some cast metal here.
Then there’s the key. It’s a little plasticky thing that feels like it’s from AliExpress. It should be heavy steel or alloy, as distinctive and stylised as the rest of the bike – the first to get picked out of a bowl at a swingers party. Instead, you’ve got something that’d be more at home inside a Kinder Surprise.
ROLLING WITH THE PUNCHES
But that means nothing when you actually throw a leg over the BMW R18.
Thumbing the starter has the bike lurch hard to the left as the massive pistons shake themselves into action. If you don’t have a firm hand on the bars I’d envisage it throwing itself onto the ground in a fit. After that, the enormous 110-kilo powerplant rocks side-to-side as it idles with a gentle kartoffel-kartoffel.
Yep – right away it’s apparent you’re astride something very different. Even without moving, the bike’s got more personality than every Honda rolled together.
So a bit about the powerplant. It’s a 110kg monster of a thing. Pushrod, twin-cam, dry clutch and at 1800cc it is, by far, the biggest boxer engine BMW Motorrad has ever made. It puts out around 90 HP which is available higher in the rev range than you’d expect. You do have to work to find it sometimes. But it’s saved by having more torque than a Tiger Tank.
The R18 comes with 3 riding modes – cringingly named ‘Rock’, ‘Roll’ and ‘Rain’. ‘Rock’ is the only one you’ll need. But if it was just about the 1.8-litre donk we could end the review here. But it’s the way it’s integrated into the rest of the bike that’s interesting.
Shift down into first and you’ll find the monstrous BMW handles surprisingly well. It’s shockingly stable at low speeds, even when the fuel-injection gets a little confused off idle. But the geometry is there to help you out. Because it’ll do u-turns well and it’ll kick around the inner-city capably. Just be careful when lane splitting. Stuff that up and you can forget about hitting mirrors – your cylinder heads will be smashing off hubcaps.
Around a set of twisties, the R18 is surprisingly capable, but it has its limitations. Like most cruisers the lean angle is rubbish and it really has to be muscled about. Stuff up a line on the way into a tight corner and you’ll find yourself paying for it on the way out. You’ll also want to be careful with your gear selection.
The R18 needs to be worked more than you’d expect to make the most of its power. And it can be ponderous, stomping your way up and down a gearbox when you should just have it planted in one gear and push on through. I think the bike could have done with one cog less. Six gears aren’t all that necessary.
But riding this bike and complaining about its performance in the twisties is stupid.
Where the R18 excels is open cruising. Land-of-the-free, home-of-the-brave, tobacco-spittin’, Colt-carrying, two-lane-blacktop bombing. Big highways, huge open sweepers and freeways are its bread and bratwurst.
And at this, it is exceptional.
THE SWEET SCIENCE
The BMW R18 ticks along nicely at 2,400RPM doing around 120km/h (75mph) and always feels stable, with no weird ticks or foibles in the handling. There’s a slight thromb through the handlebars which is just enough to give a sense of personality. It lives for long days on the blacktop.
And all that happens with a view. A hotel-in-the-alps, a shack-overlooking-the-ocean, honest-to-god view.
The heads of the boxer twin stick out at the bottom of your vision. The long black tank stretches out in front of you. The only thing that rises above the handlebars is a single clock with Bauhaus-esque typeface reading ‘BERLIN BUILT’.
It’s just so hilariously fun on the freeway. An enormous, hulking boxer twin with an engine bigger than many cars. The engine taps away underneath you and feels like a big-ass air-cooled unit.
But it’s got a few things to dampen the experience. The suspension is too firm. It’ll never be able to take forward controls. The mid sets are a little cramped. The seat is too thin. It doesn’t have cruise control and some will complain that it doesn’t have a fuel gauge. Do you know who does provide those things?
THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION?
Yep. Our mates over at Harley Davidson.
By now though they’re sweating profusely. And doubtless planning more ads with 110% more eagles™, flags™ and freedom™. There’s no doubt many potential buyers will be comparing the R18 to the bigger range of Harleys.
To me, the BMW R18 feels about as fast as a Milwaukee Eight but manages to feel a whole lot tighter and more sorted on the road. Based on performance alone, the R18 would be the winner for me.
But the armchair-level comfort isn’t quite the same. And if you’re one of those people who can’t leave their rides alone HD may pip the BMW. I know ze Germans have plans to expand their aftermarket parts selection but nothing can approach the myriad of ways you can modify a new Hog.
For me? I’d leave the BMW close to stock. The mirrors look great and the indicators are fine – usually the first two things that I’d look at swapping out on a standard bike. I’d tweak the fuelling, soften the suspension and find a way to open up the exhaust. But I’d want it to look stock. And a warning: if you put a pair of shorty slash-cut mufflers on the R18 you won’t hear any compliments coming from my direction.
This bike’s special enough without skulls and tassels hanging off it.
THE KNOCKOUT PUNCH
Sure the R18’s got its faults. If you were to be cruel, you may complain that it’s a surprisingly-slow, slightly-awkward cruiser that weighs as much as a pocket battleship. And It vibrates and shakes itself around more than it should.
And let’s be honest, it will never be a commuter, will never be a weekend scratcher and it has a number of foibles that you’ll need to look past if you want to go on long-distance tours.
But all that nonsense aside, it’s the most bombastically ridiculous, personality-riddled motorcycle that’s been released in the last decade. It’s a rolling styling exercise that turns heads like nothing else on the road. And it never ever failed to make me smile.
The BMW R18 shouldn’t have been made. And that’s what makes it so incredible.