2021 BMW R nineT Urban GS review – still our favourite retro bike?
Testing BMW's updated and emissions-friendly air-cooled legend
Even if you're a car person with but a passing interest in motorbikes, you probably won't be surprised to hear that bikes are being subjected to increasingly strict emissions laws.
That's why we've seen loads of motorcycle manufacturers releasing updated versions of their bikes to meet the latest Euro5 emissions regs, which usually involves finding ways to increase engine power to offset the oomf lost through more restrictive exhausts and the like.
Such is the case for the BMW R nineT – the German brand's air-cooled, 1,170cc retro-styled naked bike that's been one of our favourite vintage-styled back-road scratchers since it came out in 2014. But the Berlin boffins behind BMW's bikes have given the R nineT a host of subtle upgrades to go along with its updated polar-bear-pleasing engine.
Join us for a ride review in the video below, or read on for more thoughts.
The R nineT still uses an air-cooled version of BMW venerable two-cylinder boxer engine (which lives on in 136hp fully water-cooled form in the brand's modern-styled bikes). It's lost 1hp and is down to 109 ponies in this latest Euro5 form, but maximum torque remains at 116Nm – with more of it between 4,000 and 6,000rpm than previously. Redesigned cylinder heads help improve the emissions, and supernerds can tell these new bikes apart by the new cooling fin layout.
Updated for Euro5 regs, the 1,170cc boxer twin gets redesigned cylinder heads. Be still our beating hearts etc.
The rear suspension has also been tweaked, and you now get lean-sensitive ABS and traction control that adjusts in the new riding modes – road, rain and dirt. The bike still comes in various forms, including the top-end one simply called "R nineT", which gets sportsbike-like upside-down forks and radially mounted front brakes, and then a smattering of cheaper bikes with right-way-up forks. This Urban GS model is one of the latter and will cost you £11,950 before options.
What's it like?
The R nineT still fires into life with a satisfying brap and a pleasing sideways wobble as the chunky crank spins along the bike's centreline, mildly testing the support of your left leg. Click down into first gear, let the light clutch out and you're immediately aware you're riding a big lazy, friendly bike.
The R nineT's gearbox shifts solidly but smoothly up and down using the clutch, but it's dead easy to slot a gear home without using the clutch on the way up the 'box.
The £435 'Design Option Exhaust' has a very subtle Akrapovic logo etched into it. Isn't loud.
Crack the throttle in second gear and the bike fires forward with a serious shove, and although there's no rev counter on the Urban GS, you sense when to shift up by way of the power tailing off. This is a bike that loves being pummelled through the bottom and centre of the rev range, and it's seriously brisk when you want it to be.
It's well worth mentioning the noise. You're treated to a very satisfying and muscular throb whenever you twist the throttle tube, and it adds a huge amount to the bike's grin factor, with the odd burble from the exhaust when making use of the considerable engine braking.
Our bike had the optional road-legal Akrapovic exhaust fitted which likely does more in weight saving than in noise making. But that's fine – from the rider's seat you're treated to a beautiful mechanical noise that puts you in a genteel frame of mind.
How does it handle?
Brilliantly, really. Turn-in is lightning quick, although it's not the last word in mid-corner stability, especially if you back off the gas mid-turn. The suspension is reasonably soft up front, so you'll want to pay attention to your mid-corner throttle inputs to avoid getting a bit of a wobble on when you're riding like a twat. The upside-down fork version is better for riding quickly in our experience.
Urban G/S models get the red seat, M colour scheme and the white fly screen. Gold spoked rims are a £465 option
The updated rear suspension, sadly, is still too firm and will kick you out of the seat over bigger bumps and potholes around town. BMW says it's tweaked the rear suspension strut, but it feels much the same as the old bike – at least to our tenderised buttocks. Once you're up to speed it's perfectly fine, however.
Comfort aside, this is still a bike that seems to take pleasure in being ridden fast through corners. It's a huge amount of fun popping out of second gear corners with the handlebars light in your hands and the engine bobbling along to the next gear change as Messerschmitts and Spitfires duel in the skies overhead. Perhaps we're just getting carried away with the whole vintage vibe thing.
What else do I need to know?
The simple Brembo front brake setup does the job, although the brakes have a noticeably softer bite than the radial setup on posher R nineT models. In reality though, you quickly adjust to the lever feel and just squeeze it harder.
No rev-counter on the more basic R nineT models. You don't really need it
In terms of tech, you now get LED indicators which look spot on, cruise control is a worthwhile option as is an adaptive headlight beam. If you're serious about taking your retro bike off-road you can spec your R nineT with spoked wheels and knobbly tyres, although we'd not bother with the latter, simply because this really does feel like a road bike and its beautiful on-road performance would be knackered by the vague weighty feel of knobbly tyres.
Should I buy one?
If you're on the hunt for a retro bike then there's a fair chance you'll just buy the one you like the look of most. BMW knows this, hence the huge choice of R nineTs on offer.
If you're on the hunt for a retro bike that rides sublimely, however, the BMW should be at the top of your shopping list. It feels solid, has plenty of go and is grown-up enough to be used daily, for tours or even the odd trackday. It's not been engineered to look good first and be a motorbike second – it's a superb, characterful naked bike that just happens to look like your Dad's.