Is the BMW R NineT the perfect retro for real riders?
Unless you’ve been living in the same deep, dark cave as Donald Trump’s sex appeal, you’ll have noticed that many of the big selling motorbikes of the moment are retros. The classic look has never been more current, with brands such as Triumph, Kawasaki, Honda and just about everyone else putting out models that hark back to the days when bikes were basic, clean, elegant and incredibly likely to deconstruct their own engines.
BMW’s entrant into this hotly contested arena is the R NineT. If you’re not an uber bike geek you can easily spot it by virtue of its engine – that silvery bit that sticks out of either side of the bike.
It’s an air-cooled, horizontally opposed two cylinder engine. No other modern bike engine has quite the same heritage as BMW’s boxer. You can find its genesis in the early 1920s, when some bright spark thought it a good idea to put a portable industrial engine into a motorbike frame. It’s evolved over the years to produce more power, torque and use less fuel, but essentially the R NineT has an engine architecture that’s knocking on 100 years old.
Does it feel it though? No, not really. The R NineT is a flippin’ brilliant real-world bike – and here’s why.
It looks as good as it rides
The bike we tested was resplendent in BMW’s option 719 paint scheme, which is laid over a bed of brushed aluminium and lacquered with a satin finish. This gorgeous blue and red scheme has been garnished with £2,550 of optional billet accoutrements. This swaps the standard cylinder heads, front engine cover, brake reservoir covers, both levers and both foot controls for shiny silver trinkets machined beautifully out of aluminium.
Look carefully and you’ll see a whirlpool of machining marks, dips, ridges and lips all achingly designed to gift the R NineT another £5,000 of aesthetic wow factor. If there’s an option you need to tick then it’s this one.
Elsewhere the R NineT is littered with glorious details. The small BMW badge in the centre of the headlight is just delightful, and the twin clocks on this top-spec R NineT replace the single unit you get on the Pure models and its spin-offs.
But back to that engine.
It'll rock your world (gently, from side to side)
Before you prod the starter and fire the bike into life you’ll want to make sure you’ve got your balance. Y’see, the boxer twin shows its personality the second it fires into life, thrusting the bike slightly to the right, an effect of the crank’s rotation across the bike’s left-right axis. It’ll make you raise an eyebrow the first time you experience it, but you’ll soon be blipping the throttle unnecessarily just to feel the gentle rocking sensation. Think of it as a baby’s cradle, albeit one with 110hp.
The boxer twin gives the R NineT an easy balance, and you can do super-slow, feet-up U turns from the get go. Stick it in second gear and pin the throttle, though, and the air-cooled engine’s torque slams you forward with the urgency of a big diesel engine. Like a diesel it doesn’t thrive on revs, and you’ll want to shift up well before the redline to keep the engine in its strong bit.
You get power everywhere you need it for road riding. Overtakes don’t require any downshifting because you’re nearly always in the meat of the torque curve, and because it’s a twin you get enough engine braking to bleed off speed to slot in behind the next car without touching the brakes.
It has proper sports bike DNA – for better and worse
Oh yes, the brakes. The full-fat R NineT as tested here has the forks and brakes from the BMW S1000R naked sports bike. The one with 160hp and enough grunt to trouble your bowels. That means that the R NineT can stop on a sixpence, with real brutality when you grab the lever. Single-finger braking is all you need here, and the Brembo calipers give you an amount of retardation that’s totally at odds with the bike’s genteel looks.
Those forks aren’t just for show either. Whereas many retro-looking bikes handle with period-correct servings of blancmange, the R NineT can be ridden as aggressively as you like. It feels great leant over, and drops into turns almost worryingly quickly at times, allowing you to roll hard on the gas sooner than you’d think. Our bike’s optional traction control never intervened, but it’s a nice mental safety net when your ride home comes over all otters pocket.
If there’s a downside to the R NineT, it’s the rear shock. As it comes it’s just too firm, and you’ll find yourself subconsciously standing on the pegs over bumps in the road to avoid an unpleasant jolt up the bum. We didn’t fiddle with it, but we’d recommend having it set up for your weight, or replacing it with an aftermarket item if you really do want to ride the bike like it’s been stolen.
Which, you might think, is missing the point of a retro bike. Surely these are meant only for people who like to polish and pootle. Well, doing so on the R NineT would be missing a huge chunk of its potential. It’s so punchy, so capable in the bends and just a delight to ride. It’s the perfect antidote to modern, liquid-cooled rocketships, and it’ll still let you use your sportsbike riding skills without having to compromise your corner entry speeds too much.
It’s a retro for the real riders.