Strange days, these are. A global pandemic rages on, natural and manmade disasters plague several regions, and yes, BMW is producing a big-bore cruiser. No, hell hasn’t frozen over (yet), but times sure are a-changin’.
Most moto-enthusiasts associate the house of Munich with utilitarian design. From the G 310 R all the way up to the R 1250 GS and K 1600, form follows function, but both report to logic. When the Bavarian brand showcased the R 18 concept, countless cruiser fans praised the design, but once the Bavarian brand announced the production model, many questioned the strategy of moving into a dwindling segment.
After all these years, Harley-Davidson still dominates today’s cruiser market, but dauntless BMW sees a growth opportunity in the shrinking share of the industry. Encouraged by the R nineT’s success among the ranks of Bonneville Speed Twin and Ducati Scrambler, the company taps in the R 18 to go toe to toe with everything between the Fat Boy and the Softail Slim. We’ll expand on BMW’s rationale in time, but we’d be remiss to leave the Bavarian bobber waiting any longer.
If you thought the R 18 looked good in pictures, rest assured—it’s no apparition. In-person, the retro-styled cruiser is even more arresting. From afar, the 1,802cc (110 cubic-inch) boxer engine makes the biggest impression. The sheer mass of the unit immediately draws the eye with a visual presence that eclipses the largest v-twins in the segment. Up close, one can really appreciate flat twin’s sculpted valve covers, finned exhaust flanges, and vents at the fore.
The R 18 only continued to reveal its beauty at close range. The sculpted ridgelines along the top of the gas tank accentuated the elegant teardrop shape. The subtle glitter in the black paint shimmered in the Southern California sunshine. Chrome-plated pushrod covers, diamond-shaped indicators, and low-profile round mirrors also drove home the bobber aesthetic.
To be competitive with its American rivals, BMW felt the R 18 needed to match in engine size and proportions, but it also needed to reflect the brand’s historic design cues. Taking inspiration from the legendary BMW R 5, the design team adopted the iconic tank shape, black paint and white pinstriping, cradle frame, and open driveshaft. While the R 5 lineage is evident, the designers distilled elements from the rest of the brand’s historic range for the finer details. Almost like designing an Art Deco building with the knowledge that Streamline Moderne and Mid Century Modern were to follow.
The most remarkable quality of the R 18’s styling is the refinement and level of detail that BMW achieved. If any company can top Harley-Davidson's premium fit and finish, it’s the Munich-based brand, and the big Beemer pulls it off with aplomb. One could argue that the only fly in the R 18’s ointment is the massive fishtail exhaust system. Though the oversized pipes are undoubted victims of homologation, no one can dock BMW for its build quality. Like the exhaust, the black fork covers look proper vintage and it’s these parts that make you want to touch every surface of the R 18. That tactile tactic lures people in and that experience is the other half of the equation.
With the R 18, BMW managed to capture the visceral nature of motorcycling. From the rumble of the engine to the sound of the exhaust, the team attained an analog feeling while still providing the safety and convenience of the latest technology. The 1.8-liter engine sends vibrations through the bars, pegs, and seat during high acceleration, but users always have traction control to save them from sliding out. With the clutch pulled in, the motor clicks and ticks like a pocket watch but the rider controls its output with three different ride modes.
Of course, cruiser ergonomics are unique to the segment, but BMW’s biggest boxer obstructs the traditional forward-set floorboards. Some may scoff at the R 18’s mid-mounted pegs but they offered great control over the colossal cruiser without sacrificing comfort. Not once did my shins become intimate with the outboard cylinders and I never felt cramped or sore. At five foot ten with a 32-inch inseam, my knees were at a 90-degree angle with my arches resting on the pegs. If I wanted to take a more commanding position, I simply shifted to the balls of my feet and scooted up on the seat.
The R 18’s behemoth boxer dictates the proportions of the rest of the bike and the cockpit is super spacious as a result. Even with pull-back risers and an aggressive sweep on the handlebars, there’s plenty of room to shift and shimmy in the saddle. That saddle is also one of the most aesthetically-pleasing and comfortable stock seats on the market. If the pebble leather and sculpted appearance don’t get you, the plush cushioning and dished-out shape will. It’s a commonly overlooked component, but R 18 seat proves BMW can still deliver function while focusing on form.
Though the R 18 is light on the eyes, it’s mighty heavy off the kickstand. At 761 pounds all fueled up, the bulky bobber rivals entry-level baggers without the convenience of storage. To achieve a premium fit and finish, BMW opted for steel and aluminum parts in lieu of chromed plastic, and the additional poundage is the collateral damage of that choice. However, once the R 18 got rolling, it carried its weight with grace. A gentle input on the bars effortlessly tipped the bike into turns, but that’s where the next problem reared its head: ground clearance.
Like innumerable cruisers, the R 18’s ceiling is the floor, and the footpegs got acquainted with the tarmac early and often. The beefy bobber was more than happy to turn, but only up to a certain extent. The sound of metal scraping asphalt accompanied anything sharper than a 90-degree turn. In the twisty canyon roads, sparks flew like the fourth of July. Though the R 18 wasn’t too keen to lean, we have to remember that BMW isn’t aiming to create an all-arounder here. The platform is more suited to customization and pure cruising, and that’s who the Bavarian brand is after with the R 18.
Win Their Hearts
Following our first taste of the R 18, we received a rundown of BMW’s strategy within the cruiser space. Like most gatherings in this post-COVID world, we jumped on a Zoom call to hear the plan from BMW Motorrad’s top brass. Learning that the brand is targeting the custom cruiser market, a sub-sect of the larger segment, helps us distinguish the Harley-Davidson Softail and Indian Chief as the R 18’s main competitors.
To subvert the American establishment, BMW is focusing its efforts on riders in their late-30s and 40s to trade in the Bar and Shield for the Roundel. The Munich manufacturer believes this group is less brand-loyal, more open-minded, and financially stable enough to put a beastly Beemer in their garage. By playing into the customization market, the company is also tapping into the lifestyle model that Harley has enjoyed for years with endless accessory and clothing lines.
Though the target audience is well-defined, there’s always the question of whether or not it’s too niche. Similar to Jason’s experience at the LiveWire launch, we’re surprised to learn that such a limited demographic is the target for such an ambitious model. However, if we look to the ever-popular R nineT and its slew of iterations, we can speculate on the R 18 platform BMW hopes to create.
If the new cruiser succeeds, will we see a fully-dressed bagger in the future? Will a performance-oriented R 18 take on one of Harley’s other darlings? Unfortunately, BMW wasn’t in a position to answer any of these questions yet. Fortunately, we have the R 18 for the next few weeks and will provide a full assessment of the big-bore boxer and how it stacks up against its Hog competition soon.
Despite championing the boxer engine, BMW rarely takes a pugilistic stance, but they’re training the R 18 to land a body blow on the MoCo. Indeed, the plot will only thicken when/if Harley casts the second stone by encroaching on BMW’s adventure bike domain with the release of the Pan America in 2021. As more manufacturers launch campaigns into uncharted territories, we stand to gain as consumers, and in the end, the addition of the R 18 is a big win for cruiser customers and choice.