The BMW R 18 is not a new motorcycle, but it’s new to me. This is BMW’s take on the classic American cruiser, aimed at those riders who would be in the market for something from Harley-Davidson or Indian. I am decidedly not that rider. In fact, just two weeks ago, I had never ridden any cruiser, let alone one with an 1,802cc engine. I wrote off cruisers with that kind of displacement as ludicrous and scoffed at their bad handling.
I still think those criticisms are valid, but I am no longer as ardent about them because the 2021 BMW R 18 rides much lighter than it has any right to, and its engine is not the fire-breathing monster I had imagined. Even though BMW has released cruisers in the past, this is a mild departure from Motorrad’s comfort zone, but I am both happy and surprised to report that the R 18 is a good bike.
No, that’s not the cruiser struggling against the weight of its left cylinder in that image. It’s just on its kickstand, but I would forgive you for thinking the latter was true. I can’t overstate what it’s like to throw your leg over the saddle of the R 18 and settle in, only to see the Big Boxer’s twin cylinders jut out further than your knees.
I joked with the BMW rep that the horizontally-opposed cylinders would save my legs in the event of a crash. No sliders needed here, at least not to keep your lower body from getting road rash. Just look at these massive cylinders:
Of course, it would be a damn shame to mar their polished surfaces, so I tried my best to keep the rubber side down. That was tricky to do at first, because, I’d just ridden my first cruiser earlier that day — an Indian Chief Dark Horse. With either cruiser, I never quite became comfortable with the forward placement of the foot pegs. BMW referred to the controls as mid-mounted, funny enough.
It’s true that the R 18’s foot pegs were not as forward as those on the Indian, but they are neither placed like those of a standard bike nor those of a sports bike, which is what I’m comfortable with.
The first few times I came to a complete stop on either cruiser, I was paddling my feet in midair, struggling to apply the rear brake and to downshift. That split second where my brain had to adjust to the controls was a little sketchy.
Thankfully, the saddle of the R 18 was very low at just over 27 inches. Its low height helped me adjust to the ergonomics and helped with hoisting the bike’s mass at slow speeds. The R 18 weighs a whopping 345 kg though, so low saddle or not, it’s a lot of bike to throw around. Despite what BMW’s reps told me, the R 18 did not shed any of its weight at parking lot speeds.
Once I got on the open road, however, all of those reservations, all of my concerns about mass, weight and ergonomics receded. The bike hinted at what’s to come early on. As soon I rolled on the throttle, the Big Boxer jolted to the right just enough to tell me it was awake — you could wake it less gently if you wanted, but then you’d have to be careful because the engine likes to kick right.
I still knew I was straddling every last one of the R 18’s seven-hundred pounds when taking off, but as I gained speed, the R 18 began to feel unladen. I didn’t realise how much weight it shed until I took the first turn along my route.
The R 18 wanted to lean!
I didn’t believe it at first, but the bike felt very comfortable as I dipped the bars. So much, that I worried I would scrape its ridiculous exhaust pipes. Sure, I was positive the pegs would scrape before the pipes, but given their position beneath the cylinders and my lean angle as I turned, I had to remember to not dip too far.
That was easier said than done because rolling on the throttle as I leaned inspired a lot of confidence, even for someone like me who was new to cruisers. As I rode the twisty Texas backroads with the BMW demo fleet, it dawned on me that the R 18 could lean lower, could go faster than I or the other riders were willing to go. The bike sliced into turns gracefully and made me more comfortable than I could have imagined. It tracked confidently and predictably, and sounded incredible. Those big, dumb pipes I mentioned make lovely music.
I was surprised with the R 18’s handling at speed. Ditto the acceleration and the stopping power. If you’ve ever ridden among a group of riders you may be familiar with how the group will contract and expand naturally.
Along certain parts of our route, I was able to open the bike up and cycle through most of its gears. I never went WOT because even with the mass of the bike, the engine has enough power to be a hazard on public roads. That Big Boxer makes 91 horsepower and 53 kg-ft of torque, but its power is delivered in a friendly way and the bike shifts very smoothly.
I only shifted into sixth gear once, to see what it felt like. I was going around 97 km an hour and will say that sixth gear felt unnecessary. The R 18 was barely bothered by that rate of speed even in fifth gear. Kicking into sixth is like putting this thing into overdrive. It’s supremely comfortable.
I didn’t stay in high gear very long. The ride was a just brief circuit around the vicinity of Texas Motor Speedway, and BMW mapped out a demo route that would show off the bike’s handling more than its power.
At one point on our ride there was a car accident ahead (no motorcyclists involved), and traffic came to a stop. We queued up and sat staggered as first responders made their way to help the drivers. Having to slow the bike suddenly showed off how well the bike stopped. BMW has traditionally outfitted its bikes with good brakes, and the brakes on the R 18 are easily up to the task of stopping the bike. There was minimal pitch in the front end as the bike slowed, and the brakes never felt jerky or sudden.
That traffic stop forced us to turn our bikes around and that’s when I remembered how big the R 18 is. In the middle of that three point turn, as I wrestled the heavy machine, I was made painfully aware of its size and weight. I managed to waddle my way out of there, but not without significant effort.
Overall, the R 18 offers a compelling package. I suppose it ought to at its price point. The R 18 First Edition I rode starts at $US19,870 ($25,485). For that much money I would prefer two analogue gauges versus the single one, but I can understand why the bike costs what it does. Taking a step back and comparing it to some of its competitors reveals the hefty price premium BMW has tacked on.
Still, BMW seems confident it can sell this cruiser to American riders. The market for these bikes has enjoyed a rise in popularity and BMW is keen on tapping into it. The big GS is already a favourite among adventure-touring riders, and the R Nine T is a great entry into the retro naked (standard) segment. Now, it’s onto the cruiser segment for BMW Motorrad.
Even though you’re paying a lot for BMW’s cruiser, you are also getting a lot of bike. Some would say you are getting too much bike, but I encourage you to keep an open mind. It’s not the bike for me, but the R 18 surprised me. It could surprise you, too.