BMW’s first real cruiser has heavyweight looks, but delivers a soulful experience that feels like flying, which could be perfect for Singaporean riders feeling grounded
Photos: Lionel Kong, Derryn Wong
If the no-travel blues have got to you, then you can try flying of a different sort. The colossal BMW R18 is the German brand’s first proper stab at a modern cruiser-style motorcycle, and riding one makes you feel like you’re the captain of your own plane from the Golden Age of Aviation.
BMW has made a sort-of cruiser before, with the R 1200 C from 1997 (you might remember Michelle Yeoh and Pierce Brosnan riding one in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies) though that was really a semi-modern machine in both styling and intent.
The R 18 is very different, and draws very obviously from BMW’s long and storied two-wheeled history. Remember that BMW is one of the few long-time motorcycle makers with a direct line to its past, it’s made bikes for longer than it has cars, or since 1923. The ‘industry standard’ for heritage, Harley-Davidson, made its first bike in 1909, in comparison. And if you’re wondering why BMW hasn’t made a cruiser like this before, the cataclysmic period between 1939-1945 is why.
But enough time has passed that riding an old-timey-looking BMW is not a cause for outrage, especially not in Singapore (idle thought: would a Japanese bicycle?), and not least because of the way the R 18 looks.
BMW Motorrad’s styling department hit the nail on the head here, with the R 18 looking like an escapee from the BMW Museum: The dual-loop frame, tubular steel swingarm, hardtail-look, shrouded forks, single headlight, and exposed driveshaft – all these directly reference bikes of the past, such as the 1936 R5.
What reminds you that you’re looking at a bike from the 2020s are the LED headlight and indicators, plus the small digital readout on the instruments.
This is not a small machine by any standards, at 2.4-metres long, 0.96-metres wide, with a 345kg wet weight. But the styling balances elegance with the brute presence of all that metal, there’s a definite feel of 1930s Streamline Moderne to it. As with the R NineT, BMW also envisions the R 18 as a starting point for customisation, though managing that here in Singapore might be more trouble than it’s worth.
Streamline aesthetics match big road presence, thanks to the long, flowing lines and hardtail style rear end, plus the understated black paintwork. It doesn’t rely on bling to draw eyes: Most of the chrome is on the lower sections of the bike, and it’s not overdone like some full-dress cruisers, plus the build quality is impeccable. As the badges on the bike proudly proclaim it’s ‘Berlin Built’, so there’s none of the so-so finishing on engine cases we’ve seen on BMW’s China-made engines.
Speaking of engines, the centre of the whole thing is of course that very big boxer engine, which is the largest capacity motorcycle engine BMW’s ever made. It might look old school with its real pushrods, chrome covers and fins, and long, flowing exhausts, but it’s a totally new development, an oil-and-air cooled 1,802cc monster.
There’s no mistaking the size of this in any way, even if you were blindfolded. Lifting the bike off the sidestand everyday could probably replace owning dumbells. At least you don’t have to fiddle around for a key thanks to a remote key fob. Starting the massive twin delivers a popping bark, and a huge shudder through the bike as the cylinders shrug off inertia. Boxer engine devotees will find it familiar, but it’s significant enough to surprise a rider the first time round, and the size of the engine means quite a bit of reactive torque if you blip the throttle in neutral.
At standstill, the mass of the bike plus the feisty engine, seem to imply a vehicle that needs a bit of grabbing by the scruff, but in classic BMW boxer style, once you move off it all becomes easy riding.
A linear clutch and heavy flywheel means it’s not easy to stall the big boxer, plus the magic sauce of the boxer experience is the low centre of gravity, which means easy manuvering at all speeds.
While you wouldn’t buy a near metre-wide cruiser to lane split, riding around town isn’t at all painful in the R18. The bike’s rock-solid at low speeds, there’s no uncomfortable heat, and it’s easy to find neutral with the smooth-shifting gearbox, you’ll just need to pay to get into carparks because of the bike’s width.
The seating position is low but spacious. With mid-mounted controls and a slight forward lean it’s actually a little sporty. The only quibble here is that the handlebars are shoulder-wide, which is standard cruiser territory, but could do with more reach as I felt myself running out of arm-length in U-turns, which were otherwise simple. The knock-on effect is that we ended up sitting more forward in the saddle, and the result was uncomfortable pressure over longer rides. Larger riders than us (1.73-metres tall) may not have this problem, but smaller ones probably will.
But as usual on motorcycles, ergonomic quibbles can usually be overcome with minor modifications, and you will want to because the R 18’s riding experience is something worth a little inconvenience, since it brings a sense of occasion with it.
The big boxer is very charismatic, even if it isn’t that loud. Once astride the R 18, there’s no mistaking what you have between your legs. From the loping, shaking idle, it climbs up to a deep burble, then a resonating hum which permeates the entire chassis. The latter, especially, give the feeling of being on a big prop plane that’s spooling its engines up.
The aeronautical feeling is enhanced by the handling. There’s a tiny delay before your steering input translates to yaw just you’re banking on airplane, and the big black and silver cylinders sticking out into the airstream are almost like wings.
You won’t be dragging knees on this thing, obviously, and while the pegs will grind once you get into spirited cornering, it’s agile for a cruiser. To spice things up, there are three riding modes: Rain, Roll, and Rock. Roll is perfect for just what you think it is, gentle power delivery great for urban riding or relaxed highway jaunts. BMW says the engine provides ‘at least 150Nm’ of torque from 2,000 to 4,000rpm, so you can ride the R 18 lazily as you wish. As a low-slung cruiser with not much suspension travel, the bike rides quite well. Bigger bumps will bob you in the seat, but the R 18 isn’t certainly not a boneshaker.
And it’s not just a laidback Sunday cruiser either. Shift into Rock and the engine becomes responsive, delivering its huge slug of nearly 160Nm of torque straight up. While the big mill only revs up to 5,750rpm, with aggressive throttle input and short shifting you can surf the tidal wave of torque and get the big Bertha going rather quickly. At the same time the dual caliper front brake setup gives lots of stopping power.
There’s traction control (anti-slip), engine braking torque control, and ABS, though none of the fancier new systems. It certainly doesn’t need anti-wheelie, but cornering ABS would have been a nice addition at this price.
The R 18 is a breath of (re)freshed air in the cruiser segment, dominated mostly by big American and Japanese V-twins we’ve all grown so used to, with more left-of-the-centre competitors including the Triumph Rocket III or perhaps even ‘techno-cruisers’ like the Ducati Diavel.
What the R 18 does is take the regular cruiser experience and BMW-ify it, adding an interesting new spin on styling, great handling. It’s a soulful machine, and riding one gives a distinct feeling of flying. A big cruiser like this ain’t cheap of course, but try taking a private pilot’s license now.
Given it’s likely that motorcycles will be the last refuge of the internal combustion engine, it could be one of the best ways for you to experience the soul of the combustion-engined machine.
|Engine||1,802cc, horizontally-opposed twin|
|Power||91hp at 4750rpm|
|Torque||158Nm at 3000rpm|
|Top Speed||4.8 seconds|
|Seat Height||860mm (835mm, 815mm optional)|
|Agent||Performance Motors Limited|
|Price||S$60,800* machine only|
*No insurance, road tax, COE, etc.