It’s been in the works for over five years, and now it’s finally here. This is the BMW R 18, and it’s got Harley-Davidson firmly in its crosshairs.
Photography by Kevin Wing
There’s only one king of American roads. It’s been this way for generations, fueled by domestic manufacturing and a riding market staunchly patriotic.
That king is the cruiser. From sea to shining sea, the cruiser is the most numerous, most prolific motorcycle on the road. And of those many thousands (or even millions) of motorcycles riding everything from the Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee to the Snake up Mulholland Drive, you can bet, if it’s a cruiser, it’s made by Harley-Davidson. Or Indian, to a lesser extent.
This is something BMW is very much aware of, and they want to slice off a sizeable chunk of that lucrative pie for themselves with the brand-new R 18 First Edition.
This is a motorcycle made for the U.S. market, so much so that over half of the world’s R 18s are destined for the American market.
2021 BMW R 18 Review | Winning over America
So, how do you break into the world’s biggest cruiser market? Make it big, make it proud. The R 18 is a visual feast—from the layers of chrome, to the elegant analog tacho and pin striping, to the 1930’s tank design. It’s unlike any BMW I’ve ever seen, and right up with there in terms of finish of some of the best custom builders around. That’s no mean feat to pull off, especially given the standard of custom building these days.
“I would say we did not really go into the cruiser market before,” says BMW Motorrad’s Head of Design and the man largely responsible for the R 18, Edgar Heinrich. “Maybe was a little try with the R 1200 C.
“I think the bike itself was quite successful, but not in the cruiser market. Let’s say it was a nicely done standard naked bike, let’s put it this way. To be very clear, we understood that if we go into a segment where we have not been in by now—big cruisers—we have to play according to the rules which are set there, and those are set by the guys who own the segment, obviously (Harley-Davidson).
“We understood if we want to be successful, the first thing is the motor must be over 100 cubic inches. You must have a certain proportion, that being long and low, and you must get the customizing right. However, it’s key that we do it our way.”
At first glance of the R 18, it’s almost easy to miss the rigid-looking frame wrapped around the gigantic flat-twin motor—the biggest boxer ever to come from BMW.
Air- and oil-cooled and push rods in that good ol’ fashioned German style, the BMW R 18’s motor takes center stage from almost every angle you wish to view it from. Wrapped in chrome from the timing cover to the cylinder heads and the exhausts that end in beautiful fishtail mufflers, there’s an element of ’50s muscle car to the design of the R 18.
At 1802cc, the R 18’s engine is as much a torque monster as a visual talking point. Power is quoted at a respectable 91 horsepower at 4750 rpm, however, torque is where it’s at with the R 18. Its peak of 116 lb-ft at 3000 rpm is matched by the fact that 110 lb-ft is at your beck and call from just 2000 rpm. There’s so much torque you can leave the lights in third gear, use no throttle, and the motor will just pull you along.
BMW has tried to make this as old-school an engine as possible. Even though there’s fuel injection, variable riding modes in the very hipster-like Rain, Roll and Rock (more on those later), twin-cam overhead valve adjustment is still via the old screw and locknut, just like the boxers from the early 1930s to the ’80s.
BMW knows heritage counts a lot in a bike such as the R 18, and it’s partly an excuse to extract some financial advantage from their history that the R 18 even exists in the first place.
Look closely and you’ll see parts from BMW’s heritage grafted onto the R 18. The R5 of 1934 was one of the key machines channeled for the R 18, with the teardrop gas tank, exposed drive shaft, swingarm, fork sleeves and suspension layout all taking design hues from one of the most influential BMW’s ever created.
The gorgeous double-loop steel tube frame is also reminiscent of BMW’s of a bygone era, with that straight line from the steering head to the rear-axle pivot giving a rigid look with the rear suspension tucked under the seat and away from your eyesight.
BMW fitted mid-mounted footpegs, partly for look, partly due to the lack of space due to the gigantic cylinders in front of your shins, and partly due to the fact that you can make this R 18 a bit of a shape-shifter, which the company secretly hopes you do.
Part of what the R nineT taught BMW was people like to customize, and this fact has been designed into the R 18. No doubt there’ll be bobber conversions, drag racers like the Roland Sands build, perhaps even over-size café racer versions of the R 18. The simplistic design lends itself to a tinkerer’s mind, and much of that has to do with the fact that the footpeg position gives more options than if they were mounted up front like traditional cruisers.
“That was why we decided we have to condense our design icons, particularly the boxer engine, which, of course, is a hindrance to feet-forward pegs positions, but we said we’ll do it,” said Heinrich. “There is a big crowd of guys who don’t need feet forward. First it was clear. If we do it, we do it our way. Otherwise, we just leave it.”
The customizing element of the R 18 can’t be overlooked, for BMW has created a mammoth accessory catalog and teamed with companies like Roland Sands Design and Vance and Hines to create everything from cosmetic engine parts, wheels, exhausts, handlebars—there’s more options than ever in a BMW aftersales range to make the bike unique to you, a fact that will only grow over the years as more bikes come from BMW in this segment.
In the Saddle of the BMW R 18 First Edition
If you’re not used to the stance of a cruiser, the BMW will be a bit of a shock. With a seat height of just 27.2 inches, and a wet weight of, wait for it, a claimed 760 pounds, the R 18 gives a feeling unlike any bike bearing its badge before.
But if those numbers are a shock, you should wait until you fire that big twin up. Remember how old boxers would pulsate from side-to-side? This is something BMW has largely tuned out with its modern engine designs, but it’s something they re-manufactured with the R 18. Thumb the starter and the boxer booms into life with a proper, hard thump, enough to knock you off your balance if you’re not careful.
It settles down to an idle of just on 1000 rpm, but once you’re going, the excessive weight offers a counter by making the R 18 supremely stable and surprisingly fluid in corners, once you get over the fact that there’s very little ground clearance at your disposal before you start scraping the hero knobs on the pegs.
The 1802cc boxer, once you’ve jacked the ECU modes up into Rock mode for the most direct throttle response and reduced traction control, punches with the might of a heavyweight boxer (excuse the pun). Its deliverance is not fast but hard—at 2000 rpm, the R 18 will deliver a whopping 110 lb-ft of torque, which is just six lb-ft less than its peak. That means you can be incredibly lazy on the gearbox if you desire, letting the motor lug you from corner to corner. Speaking of the gearbox, it’s probably the best cruiser gearbox I’ve ever experienced. A few weeks ago, when I tested the quickshifter-equipped R 1250 RS, I noted the click into first gear was always a thud on the boxer. Not so on the R 18, which has a lovely, smooth engagement of every gear, not just first, and that’s without a quickshifter fitted.
Sixth gear is certainly an overdrive, with the revs sitting at just over 2000 rpm in sixth gear at 65 mph, with our fuel mileage reading 37 mpg. At these speeds, the ride is nice and smooth, with the Showa-developed fork and ZF non-adjustable shock soaking up the majority of bumps before they reach the rider.
The rear provides 3.5 inches of travel, and given you’re sitting on the low side, if you hit square-edged bumps, you’ll certainly feel it, although you get an extra 1.2 inches at the front coupled with that big 19-inch wheel.
Braking has been developed by Brembo and if you’ve ever ridden a Harley, it should feel familiar. The levers are massive—big chunky units look like they’ve been fashioned from old Katana swords. The braking performance is ample, but nothing to rave about. You need to heave on the lever hard for quick stopping, mainly because you’re dealing with a very large piece of machinery that when coupled with a rider and full gear, in my case, is knocking close to 950 pounds. In this case, it’s good that the braking system operates all three calipers. It’s needed.
I must commend BMW for succeeding in what is a very hard trick to pull off. Cruisers are very particular motorcycles and we’ve seen some of the best manufacturers in the world fail miserably at it. BMW has not. BMW has created not just a motorcycle, but an experience in the R 18. The R 18 is a visual feast and a completely different ride to anything gone before it with the blue and white badge.
This R 18 will be the first in a new line of machines to come from BMW as it makes its biggest push yet into the American market. It remains to be seen whether U.S. riders will take the bait, but from the hot seat, I can promise you, the ride is a special one. CN
2021 BMW R 18 Specifications
||$17,495/$19,870 First Edition Pack
||Boxer twin-cylinder, 8-valves, DOHC
|Bore x stroke:
||107.1 x 100mm
||91 hp at 4750 (claimed)
||116 lb-ft at 3000 pm (claimed)
||Double-loop steel tube frame
||49mm inverted fork
||BMW cantilever, ZF shock
||Dual Brembo 300mm discs, 4-piston caliper, ABS
||Single 300mm disc, 2-piston caliper, ABS
||120/70 R19 in.
||180/65 R16 in.
|Weight (curb, claimed):