JP is a master of many tricks. Working as a bike journalist, he's been testing, analysing and writing about on and off-road motorcycles for various UK magazines, both as a staffer and a freelance journalist, since the nineties. Testing everything from Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP bike through sportsbikes, commuter bikes and, of course many, many miles on adventure bikes. JP has also spent much of his life competing at up to International level in trials, enduro, extreme enduro, circuit racing and hillclimbing. He also instructs at the Off Road Skills motorcycle training school, coaching and encouraging people in the ways of riding adventure bikes. Also a fan of vegetables and sea products.
The BMW’s F 800 GS Adventure came into existence midway through 2013 and slotted right into BMW’s line-up. In the last year and half that middle weight ADV crown has become hotly contested. We spent a junk load of time getting our head around the class leaders big brother.
Deliberately I set about this test with zero pre-conceptions. I’ve ridden the F 800 GS a lot and know it well but I climbed on the 800 GSA like a horse being led into the start gate in a blinker hood with no knowledge of it or pre-conceptions.
The reasons for this are simple: I was intent on feeling the differences for myself and arriving at an impression of the bike without having facts or opinions thrust at me.
The obvious place to begin is the look of the thing. No question the F 800 looks the part but in Adventure guise it’s ramped up a notch and adopts the hallmarks you’d want and expect from a bike making claims for globetrotting. Possibly, arguably, this could be BMW’s best-looking bike? It’s subjective, I know. But from the start it struck a chord with me, especially in the fetching red dress.
I’m threatened with death at dawn if I come close to saying anything about ‘controls coming easily to hand’ but it is true to say I got on the F 800 GSA and felt at home. Nothing untoward struck me, nothing felt awkward and nothing stood out as needing adjusting like it can do on so many bikes. This is a ready to go Adventure bike, just as it should be.
One massive caveat to that is to say I’m tall and while the seat height doesn’t bother me, it will literally be a stumbling block for some. Certainly 890mm is as tall as they come, 10mm taller than standard 800GS and 40mm more than the R1200GS for example. Options are available for lowering it 30mm but make no mistake about the height.
The ultimate truth of all that fuel range though is my arse couldn’t sit there that long.
The beauty of this bike, and it’s a trick many manufacturers are developing lately, is to come with all the small mods I’d fit to any bike to make it work for adventure travel: wider and grippier footrests, a bigger tank, a smidgeon of crash protection, hand guards and a bigger screen. The F 800 GSA also has a slightly wider ‘comfort’ seat and some metal work to hang your panniers off. Apart from that the same F 800 GS as ever lurks underneath: same engine, same frame. In short then the GSA is better equipped for distance road riding and off-roading, which is all you need, right.
The slightly ramped-up model we’re testing here is the Adventure Travel Edition which additionally has LED driving lights, an up-specced onboard computer with an ‘Enduro’ mode, heated grips, centre stand, aluminium bash plate and traction control. All for a £10,695 price alongside the base Adventure model’s £9750 (the standard F 800 GS is £8800 by the way). Automatic Stability Control (ASC) is another option fitted but more on that later.
The most immediate visible difference, then, has to be the larger fuel tank and it’s something you cannot fail to notice the moment you hop on (or struggle on if you’re short). The 800 GSA feels bigger, obviously, but it behaves bigger on the road particularly when full of fuel – you can almost feel the fuel sloshing around (indeed there are no baffles in the tank so the sloshing effect isn’t just a ‘feeling’).
It’s a physical fact that you need a bigger tank to travel further but the knock-on effect is the physical presence on the road, in traffic, is something that the best Adventure bikes do so well. You stand out, sit up high and certainly don’t blend in to the surroundings to become unnoticed and vulnerable like you can on so many other types of motorcycle – especially in cities.
The F 800 has needed a fork doctor from the start, particularly off-road where the soft and springy forks were too aggressive for many riders.
Fuel range is the main purpose though and I kept marveling at the 800 GSA’s abilities to clock up the miles. It’s a strong point with the parallel twin engine: plenty of power yet not too much to blow the petrol out the exhaust like a WWII tank. BMW claims over 300 miles (500kms) from the 24litres tank at a constant speed of 90kmh on this bike. I didn’t manage that, obviously, largely because there isn’t a road long and unclogged enough in the UK to try it. But with nearly 250 miles clocked up in one particular stint I was more than impressed. Regularly well over 200 miles are good numbers in my book.
The ultimate truth of all that fuel range though is my arse couldn’t sit there that long. Some of that is down to me, some of it down to the long, old twisty day’s ride I did to get that might mileage but also the seat isn’t the most comfortable, despite it having increased width over the standard F 800 GS. Anything further than about 150 miles on this bike and I found myself getting a bit shifty, taking any opportunity to stand or take the weight off my rear end for a minute.
We didn’t do a massive amount of miles testing a pillion but a quick blast with a shortish pillion proved the width of the fuel tank places the pillion’s legs pretty wide. According to our test bunny that wasn’t too comfortable.
While we’re on the subject of distance riding and comfort, that larger screen earns a mention, partly because it does a decent enough job (although riders who sit with a straighter back than me can be heard complaining it doesn’t go far enough in offering wind protection). You don’t have the weather protection of some of the larger adventure bikes for sure and it certainly doesn’t come anywhere near that of the 1200 GSA on a wet, road ride. It is however a healthy amount more effective than the stock 800 GS and that’s a good thing.
Why it isn’t adjustable is something of a mystery though. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if I’m honest, it sits there just about fine and so long as I’ve got good kit on I’m happy with a touch of wind and rain. But it’s rare these days to find a screen which isn’t adjustable so why not here too?
Before we get all carried away and gush too much there are some negatives with the F 800 GSA. Extra weight, BMW will tell you, needs extra oomph from the suspension so for 2015 the F 800 GS gets improved fork performance and the Adventure Travel model gets an electronically adjustable shock, limited to two modes. Truth is it needed looking at. The F 800 needed a fork doctor from the start and has always behaved badly since its inception in 2008, particularly off-road where the soft and springy forks were too aggressive for many riders.
The 2015 800GS and GSA are better: with more support and more controlled damping in the fork stroke. The extra weight on the GSA is naturally going to have more of an effect on the fork when you brake but things were improved; only just enough mind you, it could easily be argued it should be better.
I have no problem with the notion of buying a bike and having something to work on – in the off-road world it’s common to set bikes up for the rider with some aftermarket specialist treatment, particularly to the suspension. But on a road bike of this magnitude I can’t help wonder if BMW hasn’t still quite done its job properly. I remain baffled why the R&D department don’t get a better hold on this element of the 800’s handling. It’d be hard not to get on the bike and notice it so it must be a deliberate decision to sign the bike off with the forks in this state of tune.
At the back things are different, which is to say it does the job well enough for a standard bike and I have nothing to report really. The Electronically Adjustable Suspension (ESA) is limited by comparison to other BMW models with just an extra ‘Enduro’ mode to adjust the rebound damping to be slower on the Travel edition. Frankly it’s the forks that need attention to make an impact on this bike’s handling.
The chief ‘issue’ I have with the handling though is tendency to push the front tyre. On the road it wasn’t noticeable, in fact its 21inch front wheel feels light and breezy on the road and makes the bike more agile than the weight should dictate. But off-road there’s a very real problem with understeer, a problem that grows exponentially worse the more fuel you have onboard. It’s all a bit unnerving when you arrive at a slippery corner, brake, change down and begin the turn-in process because it wants to fall quickly (likely due to the weight and the height of the bike). At the same time the front tyre doesn’t cope too well with the idea of turning so you end up pushing the into understeer and having to react very quickly. Admittedly this sensation all but vanishes if you ride slowly but you don’t have to ride particularly fast to feel the sensation and have your confidence knocked.
Playing with the preload setting (behind your right knee as you sit on the bike) helps but I never really nailed the problem and couldn’t honestly tell you if standard or enduro modes on the shock made it better or worse – it seemed to be a different story in different conditions.
The other criticism you could throw at BMW is the 800 remains a poor relation alongside the 1200. There’s no question the price is good and once you start bolting on some of the 1200’s technology that price will inevitably be in jeopardy. Electronics on bikes have been around a while now and must be getting cheaper to develop and produce. So for that reason it’s high time BMW ramped-up the rest of its range with the electronics currently fitted to the 1200 model.
We live in hope but in the meantime we still have the relativly basic ABS system here on the F 800, which is perfectly unnoticeable most of the time but interferes and lengthens your stopping distances when you actually need to batten down the hatches, particularly off-road. With forks diving so readily and that decent front brake all-to ready to slam on the anchors, it’s all the more noticeable than, say, on a V-Strom 650 with less feel from the lever and less inclination to dive on the brakes. It’s turn-off-able on the GSA, and with the left handlebar switch switched it’s easy to keep things ‘off’. But it’s about time that clever technology on the 1200 filtered down and we had intelligent ABS doing a good job.
The F 800 GSA’s Automatic Stability Control (ASC) is a similar story though less intrusive. Throttle response is smoother these days by comparison to the early F 800s, which were snatchy. Feel off-road is better and as responsive or as soft as your right hand wants to be. But the rider assist is smooth enough, and nowhere nearly as intrusive as the ABS up front. Presented with off-road hills or any terrain where grip is an issue, the traction is good and the ASC works well, well enough to be unnoticeable if you use that responsive throttle to good effect and feel for the grip. For the most part turning it of is pointless, unlike the ABS in my view. You have to ride like an idiot on the road to notice it and I’m not an idiot (I don’t think). So the only real reason to turn it off is to hang the back out more…
All in I’m sounding pretty negative about the F800GSA but, I suppose, that’s down to a touch of disappointment on my part. I expected a bit more than I got and while I love the way the bike looks and feels most of the time it is a bit flawed by its suspension performance off-road. The nature of BMW’s more aggressive off-road beast is always going to be sharper. Adding more weight was always going affect it – make a tall bike heavier and it will be harder to handle.
The best compliment I can pay the BMW F 800 GSA is that it feels and looks exactly like an adventure bike should. It seems daft to say but not everything can so easily fit together with a bike and work as it should. Some aspect or other can fall by the wayside, not quite hit the mark or disappoint. Sure, there’s a few things to gripe about and I’ve laid heavily on them above, but in essence this bike fits the bill. As it should, BMW aught to know what they’re doing by now.
Where does the F 800 GSA fit into the scheme of things is a decent debate to mull over on those long miles between fuel stops. For me it fits mid-way between the standard 800 and the 1200 GS in BMW’s range, rather than simply a bolt-on to the 800 range. It’s a halfway house if you like, because of the way it behaves, how it rides, feels and looks. Ignore the spec sheet or any BMW brochure and think with the seat of your pants (the most important aspect of any bike test right?) and the F 800 GSA feels like a bigger beast and quite a different character to the standard eight. It has bigger balls, bigger cred on the street and trail. It clearly looks the bomb, albeit a hefty adventure bike bomb.
For me that is what makes it such a good bike: that look and feel thing, indefinable though it is, there’s something about this bike that demands attention. Something of a half-way-house, somewhere between standard F800 and 1200GS is a natural and perfect slot for the F 800 GSA. It’s a big gap after all between the models and this big beauty fills it.
It also ranks alongside the Triumph XCx of course, a direct rival you’d have to say competing for the same market – we haven’t tested that yet but stay tuned…
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