BMW’s short-lived but much loved G650 X-challenge is a bike just as capable travelling the world as it is welcoming in first time off-roader down their local trail. We checked out a fine example to see just why the BMW G-series classic has achieved such cult status in the adventure travel world.
I’m baffled, frankly baffled. Why don’t manufacturers make more bikes like this? What went wrong with the world and why did it decide it not longer needed single cylinder big trail bikes?
Ask this question to people who know and you get the same answer, “I don’t know.” Sure, there are older used models out there lurking about and some manufacturers currently make bikes with a single cylinder motor lurking in their but a proper traily bike as God intended? You need to go back to roughly about the time BMW stopped making the G650 X-challenge.
I must admit I feel like we’ve entered into a forgotten world with this test, a world that used to be strong and a time when most bike manufacturers were producing decent trail bikes. It’s easy to get all rose-tinted about these things but XRs, KLRs, XTs and DRs of old were all legends which bummed along coping with road and trail in a vague dirt bike chassis but still being enough of a road bike to clock up road miles economically and reliably. (Note: DR 650’s and KLR’s aren’t sold new in the europe. For those of you who still have access to these machines, appreciate them!) They were powerful enough to be useful on the road and nimble enough off it. If proof were needed of their usefulness, back in the day the above list made up much of the Dakar entry. For many adventure riders these bullet-proof bikes still do make up most the entry list.
In that list sat the BMW G650 X-challenge, part of three bikes in the BMW G-series line-up produced between 2006-2009. The range included the X-challenge dual-sport enduro trail bike, X-country which was more of a soft option and X-moto supermoto model. The smaller sibling X-country proved an incredibly useful bike for novice off-road riders because it was small and light enough to not be daunting yet, solid and close enough to what many would consider a ‘normal’ road bike to not scare the crap out of people. The X-challenge ‘s place was to be that good looking one that could do more off-road, take you better places and have a bit more edge to it. It features the by then basically BMW single-cylinder engine originally designed and built by Rotax. BMW took on the tooling for it and really still knock out the same thing in the G650GS and Sertao bikes today.
The exceptions to the “where have all the singles gone?” question is the Yamaha XT660Z Tenere, and BMW’s current G-series pairing, the G650GS and G650 Sertao. The XTZ is a thumper of the original order but dressed firmly in adventure clothes – and to good effect. The G650 and Sertao BMWs are in some ways the same super-reliable bike as the X-challenge but with quite a different feel to them despite having more or less the same engine and frame. That said they do have the same G-series outlook in life – cheap, cheerful, reliable and to a degree ok off-road. KTM’s 690 Enduro R is another option, if something a tad more sporty grabs your goat.
Which, you could argue, is what BMW did with the X-challenge – make a bit more of a goat of a bike, something a little more off-the-wall, a dash wilder and with a touch more attitude. In some ways an oddball in the BMW line-up and quite typical of the German manufacturer in that they make a good bike and ditched it too soon.
It looks great, very much a trail bike and from most angles a classy machine: simple lines, dirt bike looks all purpose and no nonsense.
There’s no point looking at this bike as a massive road going mile-eater because it isn’t as comfortable as a 1200 GS, doesn’t have the range, isn’t geared for it, doesn’t have the tyres…hold on. I’ll stop myself. As I write the above words I know full-well plenty of people use the G650X as a bike for travelling long distances. Round world trips and Dakar races all sit proudly in the X-challenge’s CV so it certainly is possible.
The 9.5litre standard tank sits under the rider, which was still quite an unusual feature at the time the bike was launched. Tank range is good because it’s a super-economical engine, not great but for travelling long distances many people opt for an aftermarket one. There’s very little need to be honest unless you are going to be eating up miles in remote parts of the world where fuel stations are scarce. The aftermarket tank we’ve ridden in the past was quite bulky, raking forward past the radiators and changing the look and feel of the bike quite a bit.
The handling of the X-challenge is slightly at odds with most other bikes on earth too, with quite weird feel to how the rear suspension works under load. The forks sit at quite a raked-out angle and slows the steering down and the way the front wheel lifts, or rather how it doesn’t want to lift, is unusual. It’s inclined to sit down at the rear, squatting down in the shock stroke rather than lifting its front wheel at the same time. To try and think about that in another way; it uses a lot of its shock movement to do a wheelie. Rather than declaring that as a bad thing it’d be better to say it’s just different. The downside is it makes popping the front wheel up over something more of an effort. That’s not to say wheelies are hard, or even important most the time (though they’re cool right?), but if you do need to pop the front wheel up over a rock, through a puddle or wherever you have to pull up on the bars rather than simply relying on the throttle and your legs.
The bike we tested here has an aftermarket Ohlins shock fitted and it’s all the better for it. It’s an ex-Dakar shock bought secondhand by the owner and it was a very good purchase. A conventional shock is a common retro fit with owners who ditch the standard air-shock, which by most accounts was never a good idea. Simply the air shock didn’t work too well off-road – too fast up and down in the stroke even if you maxed out the amount of air inside the bladder. It’s not as mechanically reliable as a conventional shock absorber either so long distance travellers prefer a common coiled spring shock.
In broad terms though this is quite a well-balanced bike which carries it’s weight evenly – so doesn’t sit too top-heavy, doesn’t fall into corners and basically holds a steady course wherever you’re riding.
We did some photography for this test on a pretty fast, rocky and rutted trail – fourth and fifth gear stuff mainly. It’s an environment where the extra weight and size of the G650X series chassis makes for happy riding. The standing riding position is comfortable to me, very much one I’d happily do all day long which is not the case with all 650 singles. Your feet are pushed wide around the frame but it’s comfy because the bars sit in a nice place, nice fat footpegs are comfy under your boot and it makes for a good place to simply stand and ride. It sounds a bit simple-minded to write that but a fundamental part of feeling good on a bike revolves around feeling comfortable standing on it and the X-challenge has that aspect nailed.
This standard X-challenge has a 21-inch front 18-inch rear rim fitted instead of the 17-inch fitted as OEM. It’s a great modification because it looks and feels right plus, chances are, if you’re buying one of these you’re ratio of on to off-road is high so you need a good range of tyres to chose from. These days the market is much bigger for 18-inch dual-purpose road legal dirt tyres is way stronger than it was when the Challenge was a current model as well so it’s not all about finding road legal enduro tyres.
It’s what makes this bike such a great travel machine because it is so happy and stable. Truly a trail bike.
The other major point to make about this G650X, particularly after waffling on about it’s handling from more of an off-road point of view so much, is basically it isn’t quite as off-road-biased as it looks. Or rather it doesn’t quite work as well off-road as you might think it’s going to. It looks great, very much a trail bike and from most angles a classy machine: simple lines, dirt bike looks all purpose and no nonsense. So, if you’re won over by those looks like I was, you get aboard and expect it to behave that way. But it doesn’t.
The X-challenge is not as nimble turning on the trail for a start largely due to a woeful steering lock. It’s a shame because it spoils the party a bit. Tight trails and steering through technical going are made harder because it’s not as agile as it could be with more lock.
The weight of the bike is deceptive too. The claimed 156kg wet weight is enough, certainly more than the dirt bike it aspires to look like. Again, this is all down to the perception that it looks and feels so much like a dirt bike but when you try and ride it like an enduro bike it comes up a little short. Not much, and it is a very capable off-road bike, but the chassis is limited to an extent if you try for too much.
That’s not a criticism as such because that’s not what it’s actually setting out a stall to be. The flip-side of more weight and raked-out steering means more stability particularly on normal road riding. It’s what makes this bike such a great travel machine because it is so happy and stable. Truly a trail bike.
Having a fuel tank under the seat helps with that stability but you also need to know it helps make this a tall bike. I’m six foot one and can easily sit with both heels not quite on the ground. That’s not the way I sit normally, all legs dangling and two feet swiping at the ground, but if you’re natural stopped riding position isn’t just one foot on a peg, one on the floor then it sure will be if you spend any time on an X-challenge.
The brakes are good but were getting a bit used on this machine, naturally enough. They were getting on for ten years old and possibly in need of a fresh dose of oil and some new seals inside the master cylinder to liven the feel at the lever up again.
Other than that there’s not a lot else to say about the BMW G650 X-challenge. As surely as eggs is eggs there is a place for 650 singles in the world of adventure biking. From the point of view of someone just dipping their toe into adventure travel, looking for a bike just a touch friendlier when venturing further from the beaten path, or more importantly taking their first steps off-road it is hard to find a better basic bike than the 650 single.
The X-challenge is a little tall for newcomers, possibly, but you can overcome that with experience in your riding technique or delving a little deeper and lowering things internally. That aside the basic bike is a great tool for the job: soft and forgiving if you want it to be but also very capable both on and off-road. It’s biggest asset I think is how controllable it is. You want that in a bike like this because it shouldn’t offer any surprises. It’s also mechanically simple, reliable as old shoes and fundamentally fits the trail bike mold as well as any bike could.
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