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Egos go for off road cred

 
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BMW R1200GS
Tough: the R1200GS might not do 170mph, but it crosses deserts

Kevin Ash traces the success of last year's best-selling bike, on display at the London Motorcycle show

See more shots of the BMW R1200GS



For most motorcycle manufacturers, 2006 was an unremarkable year at best: sales overall were flat, margins tight and savage discounting rife. Harley-Davidson shone as a rare success story with sales increases of 10 per cent, but the best-selling motorcycle was neither American nor Japanese. Instead, for the first time, BMW has just announced that the UK's top-selling bike was its own R1200GS. OK, you have to include the GS Adventure variant for the German giant's trail bike to beat the traditionally best-selling Honda FireBlade's 2,067 units with 2,277, but the Adventure is essentially the same bike lightly modified to enhance its off-road ability.

The reason for the big German twin's phenomenal success in the Japanese sports bike-obsessed British market is usually put down to Long Way Round, the televised trip from London to New York two years ago - via Europe and Asia - by Ewan McGregor and friend Charlie Boorman. The pair made the arduous journey on two R1150GS Adventures, giving the bikes massive credibility as well as coverage for their very real off-road ability.

In fact the programme was more like a valve opening on market pressures already building. With riders getting older and, in some cases, wiser, along with the proliferation of speed cameras, more and more had been considering alternatives to their head-down, bum-up, licence-threatening superbikes anyway, especially as other types were becoming plenty fast enough for normal roads. But it's not just that the GS offers all-round ability and performance - plenty of bikes do that. It does so in a way that allows fragile male egos to choose it with no loss of face: my bike might not do 170mph, but hey, it can cross a few deserts.

Well, that's not the sole reason it's done so well. As Long Way Round showed, and our own dirty excursions confirm, it really can cope with rough terrain, rather than merely looking as if it can. This takes out the negative element of posing for its own sake and brings new potential as a beast of leisure compared with sports machines. All other big trail bikes bar KTM's Adventure 990 are such in name only. The GS also happens to make a fine touring bike, a purpose most riders use it for. The suspension is great for poor-quality back-roads in remote regions - or most British roads - while the GS has a good fuel range at 200 miles and the Adventure an incredible one, with its 7.3-gallon tank and 50mpg capability. Comfort is excellent, and a factor that should not be overlooked (although most other manufacturers do) is dealer service - BMW offers the best. Reliability is average despite the usual assumptions that come with the badge, and quality worse, but owners' experiences at dealerships are generally so good they easily compensate.

The GS is still one of the more improbable motorcycles of the past three decades. The bike arrived in 1980 as the R80G/S, the suffix standing for Gelände/Strasse, or country/street, when there was no such thing as a big-capacity trail bike - Yamaha's XT500 single was the biggest - and as for it being a boxer twin, this was plain mad. But it caught on at once, becoming motorcycling's Range Rover, and has evolved into a brand in its own right.

The current R1200GS appeared in March 2004 and was significant as the first of the modern BMW boxer twins to benefit from a new weight-saving regime, losing 66lb over its R1150GS predecessor. With its extra power and greatly improved handling, suddenly its performance was being noticed by all types of riders. The Adventure arrived in March 2006 and, despite its massive seat height ruling out even average-size riders, sold more than 800 that year.

It's been a good year for BMW overall, too. In 2006, for the first time in its history it sold more than 100,000 bikes in a year. And nearly a third of these were R1200GS and GS Adventures.

  • See the GS and GS Adventure on the BMW stand at the London Motorcycle Show, today and tomorrow at ExCeL, as well as its main rival, the KTM Adventure 990. The BMW R1200GS costs £9,095 and the GS Adventure £9,895.

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