Why do we ride? There’s likely more answers to that question than you or I have had hot dinners. That’s the question I keep asking myself whilst riding the 2021 BMW R 18 ‘First Edition’. The answer isn’t a philosophical one, nor is it singular. The reason I ride – and why you may too – depends on where, when and how I’m riding.
As I keep asking myself this question, I inevitably arrive at another one: ‘What is the purpose of this motorcycle?’ For a cruiser, the ‘First Edition’ lacks some fundamentals of cruising – namely storage, leg room and cruise control. As an urban commuter however, the 345 kg kerb weight and 2440 mm length are prohibitive around tight urban streets. But to come to this conclusion kind of misses the real point of this motorcycle. The point of the R 18 is to remind us of the heritage that exists at the heart of BMW Motorrad and that sometimes, riding is just about having fun on something that’s not easily categorised. Sometimes, the bike is the reason we ride.
BMW’s 2021 R 18 ‘First Edition’ is an 1800cc heritage cruiser. Powered by an air/oil cooled two-cylinder four-stroke boxer engine, at first glance the bike looks big. Really big. I’m nervous as I pull the R 18 off the side stand and bear all 345 kg on my 5’9” frame. But I’m pleasantly surprised. The bike doesn’t feel heavy at all, owing to the fact that its weight is held incredibly low. A fact that also means the R 18 handles impeccably. But more on that a little later.
As I tentatively pull away on the R 18 for the first time, I don’t like the feel of it at all. It feels slow, uneasy around corners, hard to pull up and lacks power at low RPM. But confidence is earned on the R 18, and thankfully I earn mine within a few miles. I discover the handling improves at speed, and once I find the power from 3000 RPM, speed is easy to come by. Braking is also not something to be come at half-arsed – no feathering the brake here; you need to lean on it.
We rode the bike over 400 km, from country roads to freeways and busy urban streets. So what did we think?
The all new 1800cc air/oil cooled two-cylinder four-stroke boxer engine pushes out an impressive 158 Nm of torque and 90 hp (67 kW) of power. It’s the torque that you notice off the line, with all 158 Nm available from 3000 RPM, and most from just 2000. Peak power is not available until 4750 RPM, and the R 18 redlines at a touch over 5500. This means that it’s not until you’re higher in the rev range that the bike really gets moving.
The bike is equipped with 3 rider modes: Rock, Roll and Rain. Unlike a lot of other bikes, there is a distinct and noticeable difference between all 3 modes on the R 18. Rain is the most intrusive, as you would expect, with throttle response limited, and ABS and traction control turned up. Roll increases throttle response and limits the impact of ABS and traction control, whilst Rock unleashes the beast and turns power up, and safety down.
Around town, I found myself leaning more towards the Roll rider mode. Power comes on aggressively enough, however unlike Rock, the fueling is a little more dialed in. In Rock mode, the engine feels like it’s not getting enough fuel at lower speeds, leading the bike to surge and splutter. It’s not a showstopper, just a frustration. But head out of the city and Rock comes into its own. With power on tap and rider aids scaled back, it’s the best mode to use when you’re pushing the needle.
The R 18 certainly isn’t sluggish but it does take some effort to get the big fella off the line. Power really starts to kick in from 3500 RPM and holds all the way to 5000, when it starts to fall away. Torque also starts to drop at a similar rev range, meaning you’ll want to change up a gear well before you get to the claimed redline of 5700 RPM.
As a cruiser, the BMW R 18 is a comfortable place to sit. The saddle is firm but comfortable, something you really appreciate as you start to log the miles. With a seat height of just 690 mm, even the shortest of riders will comfortably flat-foot the R 18. However, the seat height, coupled with the lack of leg room (owing to the massive cylinders protruding from either side) means taller riders may find themselves a tad cramped. Given my diminutive stature, this was not an issue for yours truly; perhaps the only perk of having legs the size of a ten year old.
Suspension is capable, but nothing to write home about. Up front, the 49 mm telescopic fork provides just 120 mm of travel, whilst the rear is supported by a cantilever shock delivering a miniscule 90mm. Despite the lack of travel, these specs are in line with the BMW’s main rival, the Harley-Davidson Softail, with 130 mm and 86 mm of travel front and rear. Where the R 18 does leave the Softail in its wake is the braking department, with twin 300 mm discs up front and a single 300 mm disc at the rear and each disc supported by a fixed 4-piston caliper. Braking is linked, meaning the front brake also activates the rear. ABS front and rear, and switchable traction control round out the rest of the package.
Overall the R 18 does an incredible job of keeping its weight concealed – like a giant pair of chrome-plated Spanx. The bike corners like a dream, tipping in easily and holding its line through the entire corner. It really is remarkable how well the R 18 handles for a big, heavy boxer twin, although it should come as no surprise – BMW have been perfecting it for decades. The irony here however is that the same engineering that results in the R 18 cornering on rails also means you’ll be scraping footpegs on any corner worth taking. This is such a shame as the bike has so much more untapped potential beyond a straight-line cruiser. Perhaps in time we’ll see BMW develop a new model from this platform – say in line with Indian’s Scout or Triumph’s Bobber – but for now, this represents an opportunity lost.
Some may argue that the R 18 is nothing more than a styling exercise, and you could be forgiven for thinking this. Whilst I think the motorcycle also performs exceptionally well, you can’t argue with the fact that the R 18 is one impeccably designed, engineered and produced motorcycle. Almost every detail has been painstakingly considered: the way the hoop frame seems to gently cradle the enormous boxer engine, the extensive but not excessive use of chrome, the pinstriping on the gorgeously designed tank. It’s jam-packed with well considered and expertly executed details.
But it’s not all beer and skittles. The black plastic switchgear seems rushed, borrowed from the BMW parts bin and poorly juxtaposed against the chrome bar and brake and clutch reservoirs. Some of the wiring loom is exposed or at least not hidden well enough, and those fishtail mufflers are just awful (apologies if you sit on the other side of the fence here).
Despite these shortcomings, we still say the styling of the BMW R 18 ‘First Edition’ is nothing short of a work of art.
- One of the best put together bikes on the market – just stunning to look at
- Handling is unbelievable for the size of the bike
- Overall styling – you just can’t help but feel cool on the R 18
- Some components, like the switchgear, feel rushed
- Rattling through the bars above 80 km/h is annoying
- Those fishtail mufflers – not for us!
Your rationale for buying any motorcycle is almost always personal. This is especially true with the R 18. That’s why the decision as to the purpose of this bike is just as personal as the decision to buy one. For me, I don’t see the R 18 ‘First Edition’ as a highly competent cruiser – a point that the newly released ‘Classic’ largely addresses.
I see the 2021 BMW R 18 ‘First Edition’ as the embodiment of BMW’s heritage, as almost an exercise in doing something just because it’s a cool thing to do. In an industry obsessed by raw power numbers, advanced electronics and precision, sometimes it’s just nice to see a bike that doesn’t quite make sense, but does make one hell of an impression.
2021 BMW R 18 Specs/Features:
- Engine displacement: 1802cc
- Power: 90 hp (67 kW) at 4750 RPM
- Torque: 158 Nm at 3000 RPM
- Engine type: air/oil cooled two-cylinder four-stroke boxer engine
- Clutch: Single-disc dry clutch
- Gearbox: 6-gear shifting claw transmission in separate transmission housing
- Final drive: shaft drive
- Fork: telescopic fork with 120 mm of travel
- Suspension: steel swinging fork with central shock strut, 90 mm of travel
- Front brake: twin disc brake, diameter 300 mm, 4-piston fixed calipers
- Rear brake: single disc brakes, diameter 300 mm, four-piston fixed calipers
- Weight: 345 kg (wet)
- ABS: BMW Motorrad Integral ABS
- Switchable traction control, on and off
- 3 rider modes: Rock, Roll and Rain
- Full LED lighting
- Price as tested: $32,182.28 AUD (ride away, fitted with ‘first edition’ package ($3,330) and reverse gear ($1,500) as options)
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