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First Ride: 2008 BMW F800GS

The world becomes a smaller place as BMW’s iconic cross-continental all-road battleship welcomes a new mini member into its family.

Click to read: BMW F800GS owners reviews, BMW F800GS specs and to see the BMW F800GS image gallery.

Embarrassing myself in front of someone fairly important in the motorcycling community is becoming a bit of a trend of mine recently. Last month I had wheelie stage fright while British Supersport racer Paul Young looked on unimpressed, and this month I managed to burry BMW’s new F800GS up to its axels in sand while Dakar rider, chaperone to Charley Boorman and BMW off-road skills school headmaster Simon Pavey looked on. And I wasn’t even meant to be riding the bike on the beach to start with.

The photographer thought it would look all arty to get the bike on the sand. So, being the friendly type, I offered my assistance. Unfortunately at this point I forgot that despite my enthusiasm level being quite high, my off-road ability is close to zero my sand riding level is even lower, especially on a 185kg bike on road tyres. Never mind, always one to give it a shot off I headed…for about ten yards, at which point I sank. Shouts of encouragement/abuse from Pavey failed to get either myself or the BMW moving, mainly because I was laughing so much I couldn’t summon up the strength to lift the bike out of the sand, and by now the local police were starting to take an interest in proceedings. BMW launches certainly aren’t what they used to be, this one was actually shaping up to be really good fun.

There is a definite feeling of a breath of fresh air sweeping through BMW at the moment. This is a manufacturer that is doing its best to try new things, explore new avenues and take a few risks. In the last couple of years BMW has launched two new families of bikes (the G-series 650 singles and F-series 800 parallel twins) as well as a revolutionary 450 motocross bike, a new HP range and it’s now working on an inline four World Superbike racer.  Not every one of these projects has been that successful, the G-series bikes are proving less than popular in showrooms and, personally, I disliked the F800S and ST bikes. But BMW is giving it a shot, and that’s what matters.

But with the new F800GS you can’t see how it could possibly miss the mark. It’s a simple formula. Take BMW’s best selling bike, the R1200GS, make it a bit smaller so it appeals to a broader range of potential owners without sacrificing too much of its all-round touring ability, give it a reasonable price tag and you have a winner on your hands.

Verdict

Which is exactly what BMW has done. The F800GS manages to encapsulate all of the parts that make the R1200GS such a fantastic bike, and simply put them in a smaller, lighter and more manoeuvrable package. Pure genius.

The F800GS uses the same parallel twin engine as the F800S and ST but with a slightly different tune for a more abrupt power delivery that suits the off-road nature of the bike. Fire it up and the little 800 sounds exactly like a Boxer twin. It has that same droning exhaust note and ‘barp’ when you blip the throttle, but without the slight side-to-side sway. For the first few miles of riding I couldn’t get over just how good the F800GS sounded, even with a stock can, stick a louder one on and it would be superb.

And it is certainly a peppy little engine. The throttle response is fairly instant and the bike quite low geared to offer quick and snappy acceleration. From 2,000rpm it rips through the revs to the 8,500 red line with more than a degree of enthusiasm. While the best I saw on the road was just over 110mph it gets there at a decent rate of knots and feels fairly frisky in the first few gears. Should playing the fool be your thing this bike will happily pop the front in the air from about 2,000prm in first and carry it through second gear without too much hassle, very un-BMW like in character, but in feeling still very much a GS, only smaller.

The seating position, handle bars and even the footpegs are set in that lovely GS position that is so comfortable for covering huge miles. Nicely spaced out, but not too wide to cause your body to act like a sail and trap the windblast.

And, tragic as it is, I even found the clocks appealing. A large analogue speedo and rev counter sit next to a clear and precise digital display with a huge gear indicator, fuel gauge and lots of other useful tip-bits. I have no idea why this display caused me so much pleasure, I can only assume I am either getting old or am indeed a very sad individual.

Anyway, my personal issues aside, our first morning on the GS was spent exploring the tarmac roads just outside Durban. Firing along at a fairly reasonable pace I was thoroughly enjoying the baby GS. For sitting back and enjoying the scenery the F800GS, like the R1200GS, is perfect. I’ve always said the R1200GS is the best sports tourer that BMW makes. I know it’s classed as an ‘adventure’ bike but in my opinion it’s a sports tourer, it corners well and is comfortable enough to cover the miles. The only slight problem that can occur with its handling is when you ride the Adventure model with its more knobbly tyres and longer travel suspension. Well this is the feeling the F800GS has as standard.

I don’t really want to criticise the F800GS’ handling that much because this style of bike isn’t designed to be hooned around the countryside on, but it is a little vague at the front end. The 21-inch front wheel is a classic enduro size, rather than the 19-inch that the F650GS and R1200GS come with, and it just doesn’t give the level of confidence that you get with a 19-inch wheel. Through fast corners while the front never actually let go it always felt a bit wishy-washy and the bars tended to gently wobble from side to side. It’s a similar feeling to riding a bike on the road that is fitted with motocross tyres and while I understand that BMW is desperate to keep up the pretence that this is a capable off-road machine, I kind of wish that they would accept the fact that most of its owners are never going to take the bike off-road and stick with more road based wheel sizes, like it has done with the R1200GS. I suppose the ideal would be launching a stock F800GS and a more off-road biased F800GS Adventure for those who do really want to explore the off-road, but that is unlikely to happen. It’s not really that bad, but when ride the F650GS you realise it’s a far better handling road bike simply because it has a 19-inch front wheel.

And it’s the same for the brakes. Again, the problem with an enduro-style tall skinny front wheel and long travel suspension is that braking hard tends to push the front, or at the very least confuse the ABS. I found that on more than one occasion the ABS kicked in on the road when I don’t really think there was any danger of the tyre locking. But having said that, turn the ABS off and it wasn’t too hard to get the front tyre to squeal. I reckon you are always fighting a losing battle trying to make a bike that is good both on and off road, it’s such a hard compromise to hit because what works on road doesn’t usually off-road. You have to hit a kind of happy medium, which often means has limitations for both uses.

So how limited is the GS’ off-road ability? After a brief lunch stop the route back to our hotel involved what I would call a gentle off road route. Consisting mainly of hard-packed dirt roads with loose gravel and occasional rifts caused by rain water it wasn’t particularly challenging but did highlight the off-road ability of the F800GS.

You honestly could take the F800GS anything from greenlining in Wales to crossing the Gobi Desert, it’s a very good off road machine. I admit to not exactly being the most competent when it comes to the muddy stuff, but the GS flattered even my pathetic ability. Swapping mainly from first to second gear the 800 engine was excellent with loads of instant torque on tap to shoot the bike’s nose in the direction of least ruts while its well balanced weight distribution made low speed control a doddle. It was all very impressive and perfect for this kind of off-road riding. Speaking to Simon Pavey he was more than confident the GS could handle far more serious terrain and I have no doubt it could either, just not with me onboard.

I’m slightly conscious that it may sound like I am being overly critical on the new F800GS, especially when it comes to its on-road cornering. The problem is having ridden the F650GS I had a much more enjoyable rode ride on the bike with the smaller front wheel, but overall the F800GS is a far better bike for experienced riders thanks to its pokier engine. I loved riding the F800GS, its combination of lightweight, strong engine and supremely comfortable riding position mean for many I think it would be a far better buy than the 1200, especially for town commuting.

My only worry is if BMW has hit the right target with this bike. Are there really that many people out there who want a competent off-road machine that is also a very good, but slightly compromised, on-road bike? When BMW updated the R1150GS to the R1200GS it moved it far more towards the on-road side of things because it realised its audience seldom took them off-road. Triumph’s Tiger has sold in much larger numbers since it got 17-inch wheels. My question is why change this trend with the 800? If anything, I think, the smaller bike’s potential customers are less likely to venture onto the dirt. I don’t want to take anything away from the F800GS because it is a fantastic bike, I just wonder what it would have been like with a smaller front wheel and the more off-road style as an optional extra. But then I guess that’s 2010’s model.

BMW F800GS Specs

Price: £6,695
Engine: 798cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve parallel-twin
Power: 85bhp@ 7,500rpm
Torque: 61.1lb.ft@ 5,750rpm
Front suspension: 45mm usd, non adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: 300mm discs,  two-piston calipers
Rear brake: 265mm disc,  one-piston caliper
Dry weight: 185kg (claimed)
Seat height: 880/850mm Fuel capacity: 16l
Top speed: 120mph (est)
Colours: Yellow/black, silver/black