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The BMW R18 First Edition.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The coolest thing about the all-new BMW R18 cruiser is when you hold in the clutch and blip the throttle. The whole motorcycle gives a little shake, left to right, as those two giant pistons throw themselves with more urgency to each side.

This is why the horizontally-opposed air-cooled twin is called a “boxer” engine, because of the one-two stabs of the pistons away from the core. Other BMWs have smaller boxer engines that have that vibration muted. Harleys and Indians won’t give you the same shake, with their front-and-back V-twins. Moto Guzzis will, but when did you last see a Guzzi on the road?

BMW bikes used to do this all the time. The German company made only single-cylinder and boxer-twin engines for its motorcycles, and vibration management wasn’t what it is today. So when BMW decided recently to re-enter the cruiser market with a throwback to its R5 motorcycle of 1936, it was important that it must feel right and look right, with modern engineering and technology to ensure today’s riders enjoy the experience.

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The BMW R18 First Edition uses solid steel for an authentic experience.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

It certainly looks right. The slope of the double-loop steel tube frame is bang on. The rear shock absorber is hidden beneath the seat for the rigid appearance of the original hardtail that must have surely shaken the rider’s kidneys into oblivion. There’s even white pinstriping that’s part of the “First Edition” package on the black tank, and just a single gauge on the headlight.

The pride of the bike, however, is that enormous engine, the largest boxer twin that BMW has ever built, which weighs more than 100 kg toward the hefty 345 kg total weight. That’s more than a third of a ton in total, and this is a stripped-down motorcycle. So much for shaving grams with lightweight aluminum and carbon-fibre. This is solid steel for that authentic experience.

I can’t say what the original half-litre R5 felt like to ride, but the R18 never lets you forget its sheer size. Yes, it kicks you up the backside when you whack that throttle, with 91 claimed horsepower and 116 lbs.-ft. of torque pretty much throughout the low-revving range, but you’ll want to set up well in advance for corners. This is no Ducati Diavel or Harley-Davidson FXDR, both of which have more confident handling around the curves; it does well enough though, and a brave rider will not be left behind.

BMW targeted the R18 directly at buyers of the stalwart Harley-Davidson Softail Slim, right in the middle of the American maker’s cruiser range. “Cruiser riders want a classic-looking bike, but they’re not too faithful any more to one particular brand, as in the past, and the time has come for something new,” says Vinnie Kung, product manager for BMW Motorrad USA.

The R18 boasts 91 claimed horsepower and 116 lbs.-ft. of torque.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

“I’ve labelled it ‘Harley Fatigue,’ and I think it’s the fact that Harley’s always been there and probably will be for quite some time, but now we have a newer generation of rider that’s thinking a little more differently.”

He’s realistic. He estimates more than 60 per cent of cruiser owners will not abandon their beloved Harley, but that still leaves almost 40 per cent that will, or have already done so, and BMW wants that market.

Unfortunately, the R18 is not a great bike. It’s good, sure, but it has faults. There’s no gas gauge – who’s the bright spark at BMW who missed this? It’ll warn you when you drop into the reserve tank, but otherwise, you have to just reset the tripmeter each time and know how far you can ride. And the seat is not comfortable. I couldn’t ride much more than a half-hour before I lost all feeling in my crotch.

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These are easy to fix, but the biggest issue is not a simple fix at all. The bike’s standard saddle is low to the ground at 690 mm, and the rider’s feet rest on pegs (or optional floorboards) that are just a little ahead of the seat, for extra reach, but it’s not enough. My knees haven’t been pushed up so high since the last time I visited the doctor.

The pride of The BMW R18 First Edition is an enormous engine that makes up more than 100 kg of the bike's total 345 kg.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The problem is that most cruisers have either forward-mounted pegs (often too far) or a combination of forward- and mid-mounted pegs, but the pegs on the R18 can never be farther forward than they are now because those massive cylinders are in the way. The only solution for a rider with my 30-inch inseam or greater is probably the optional higher seat that adds an extra two cm, but I can’t know if it’s enough without trying it. Even then, it won’t work for riders taller than my 5-feet-11-inches height. Mustang seats offer a variety of official aftermarket choices, and perhaps they’ll help.

The ride itself is enjoyable for short distances; the looks are impressive; the quality of the build is impeccable. The bike itself is expensive at $20,895, and the extra $2,850 on top of that for the First Edition buys only some additional chrome covers and the pin-striping, and a hat and a belt buckle.

BMW says there will be a whole line of bikes built around this huge boxer twin, though there are no details yet. If you don’t like the feeling of your crotch going numb, perhaps you should wait for the next one.

Tech specs

  • Base price/As tested: $20,895 / $23,755
  • Engine: 1,802 cc air-cooled flat-twin
  • Power / Torque: 91 hp / 116 lbs.-ft.
  • Alternatives: Harley-Davidson Softail, Indian Vintage Dark Horse, Ducati Diavel, Moto Guzzi Eldorado


Looks

The R18 is a retro bike with unparalled build quality.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The R18 looks great, and the quality of its build cannot be faulted. This may be a retro bike, but it’s the real deal. It would be nice if it was available in something other than black, which is the traditional colour of vintage BMW motorcycles, but that will probably come in the next model year.

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Performance

The R18's torque peaks all the way from 2,000 to 4,000 rpm.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

It’s as powerful as you’d expect, and the torque peaks all the way from 2,000 to 4,000 rpm, which means it’s almost always on the bubble. There are no surprises when you lean into a corner, provided you’re prepared for it. When you do, it feels like the cylinder heads will touch the ground, but rest assured the footpegs will always spark first.

Technology

The bike comes with linked brakes and ride modes.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The lack of a fuel gauge is just dumb, but the keyless fob, the excellent linked brakes and the three electronic Ride modes – Rock, Roll, and Rain – save the day, together with traction control that can be turned off. Rock makes throttle response almost instant, which isn’t always comfortable but fun for the city, while Roll smooths everything out and Rain mutes the power for slippery roads. Heated grips are standard in Canada, while cruise control is a $465 option and a slick reverse electric drive ($1,320) is a good idea for such a heavy bike.

The verdict

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Well, it’s not a Harley-Davidson, and it totally pulls off the authentic look with its sloped frame, exposed driveshaft, fishtail pipes and huge boxer engine. It’s a clever trick. If the vibration in the seat can be tamed, and normal-length legs can somehow get more room for the rider’s comfort, this bike would have the magic it deserves.

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