2020 BMW S 1000 XR Review: Hellraiser 2

Leow Ju-Len

The new BMW S 1000 XR is lighter and has an all-new engine, but there’s now a soft side to its violent personality

ALMERIA, SPAIN —If you’ve ever ridden in a convoy of fast riders up (or down) a damp, unfamiliar mountain, you know it’s not the bloke in front of you that you have to worry about. The basic rule of riding in a group is, don’t try to keep up with the knee-sliding hero ahead, especially if you’re struggling. It’s the nutter behind you that’s the real source of stress.

Out here on the curving, bazoomy hills in the south of Spain, I’m working fairly hard to stay with the other journalists in front of me, but the Hungarian crazy behind me is signaling his boredom with the pace by pulling wheelie after wheelie after wheelie. Nothing says “Hurry the hell up” quite like filling someone’s mirrors with the underside of your bike, every single time the road turns remotely straight. Gulp.

To be more precise, there are two absolute nutjobs behind me. The Hungarian wheelie merchant, and the bike he’s riding, the new BMW S 1000 XR.

The old one came out just five years ago, and I can still remember it vividly for being the kind of bike that makes you feel like you’ve gone six rounds with Ronda Rousey. This is a ground-up replacement, not a facelift, and it’s unmistakably an S 1000 XR.

It has the same adventure-bike-meets-sportsbike genetic mix, and is still where you’re supposed to go after your middle age paunch has finally grown large enough to come between you and the handlebars of your GSX-R 1000 or R1. Or S 1000 RR, for that matter.

Basically, if you want something that doesn’t punish your skeletal system on long rides but still powered by a screaming, ballistic four-cylinder, the S 1000 XR is still it. We hear it’s already in Singapore, but the powers-that-be haven’t had their chance to approve it for sale here. July is a plausible date for a local launch.

Meanwhile, the new one looks similar to the 2015 original, I’ll grant you that, but it has more angular lines and slimmer lamps (thanks to LEDs), along with a new frame and tank shape that make it easier to grip the bike between your knees. Maybe the easiest way to spot the new bike is to look for the brake light, especially since there isn’t one now. Instead, the turn indicators glow red to fulfill that function.

More to the point, the new XR is actually lighter by up to 10kg when fully loaded with equipment. 

The engine is also new (and 5kg lighter than the old one), though it makes the same power as before (which takes some engineering skill, if you think about it) — 165 horsepower at 11,000rpm (but only if you run it on 98 octane petrol), with peak torque of 115 Newton-metres at 9,250rpm.

Like before, it’s a version of the S 1000 RR’s lunatic engine, tuned for less top end power but more mid-range grunt, which explains the omission of BMW’s ShiftCam system here.

Why redo a whole engine to make the same power? The achievement here has actually been to make the same amount of oomph available while reducing emissions to meet Euro 5 standards. 

And whatever it says on paper, the BMW is still bonkers. The XR is a little snatchy when you start rolling, but once you’re going and you crack the throttle open, you find religion in a hurry.

The screaming, tireless engine generally thrusts you along like a rocket booster, but when the engine comes on cam somewhere past 6,000rpm, that’s when you start doing the sums in your head about whether you can afford the monthly payments. You’ve been warned.

Like the original, the new S 1000 XR can be surprisingly easy to ride despite all that wanton power. The beefy engine alone means you ought to have no problems keeping up with your pals, whatever they ride, but it’s the predictable handling that means they might have trouble keeping up with you.

Tilt your head, dip your shoulder and the XR responds fast, and there’s a huge amount of lean angle available. The trip computer says I flicked the BMW down 45 degrees on each side, yet peg never touched tarmac.  

It does the low-speed stuff well, too. At 173cm I have to tiptoe at walking pace atop the tall XR, but when you’re actually rolling it’s light and eager to weave.

All of that — brute punch mixed with deft handling — was what made the first S 1000 XR great in the first place. Where this bike makes obvious strides is in comfort, and in being less tiring to ride all day.

First things first, the original S 1000 XR used to buzz at the handlebars like crazy. This one doesn’t frazzle your hands at all, which I thought was down to a smoother engine at first, but turned out to be simply a matter of bolting the handlebar risers to the headstock on rubber dampers.

Second, BMW says it’s made the bike a bit quieter (in spite of an exhaust can that looks smaller than before), while giving it taller gearing from 4th and above to calm the engine down at highway speeds.

I seem to remember the old bike imitating firecrackers during the odd downshift, but this 2020 model doesn’t crackle noticeably, which is surely something the lunatics who buy bikes like this will miss.

But that’s in line with a subtle shift in personality for the XR that sees it trying to soften up when it’s clear the rider just wants to cruise. 

As before, electronics play a huge part in tuning the way it behaves. You get four riding modes (Rain, Road, Dynamic, Dynamic Pro), and BMW’s ESA (or Electronic Suspension Adjustment) is now standard, so between those you can fiddle with the setup to your heart’s content.

Do all those settings make a difference? More than ever. In fact, the envelope between comfy and sporty seems to have widened. The BMW really only feels like the S 1000 XR you expect it to be when you’re in Dynamic mode (or Dynamic Pro, if you’re a wheelie nut) — it’s worth pointing out that even in Dynamic you get reduced torque from the engine in first and second gear.

Below that, it’s so controllable in the Road mode that the soft, lazy Rain setting seems surplus to requirements.

As a matter of fact, the XR is noticeably soft in Road mode as well. The engine’s still brawny but not obviously spoiling for a fight, and the suspension becomes Cadillac-like in its plushness, so much so that if you see a corner and go for it, you soon find the BMW moving and squirming under you, suddenly all bouncy.

Turns out that’s on purpose. “There’s no point having different riding modes if they all feel the same,” Maximillian Renko, the S 1000 XR’s product manager, tells me. “We really want the rider to feel the difference in Dynamic mode.” Fair enough, and it’s true that the new XR almost feels like different bikes whenever you prod the Mode button.

That’s not the only way the XR leans on tech. Naturally the 6.5-inch TFT display that the latest BMWs offer is present and accounted for here. It’s bright, surprisingly easy to use and it pairs with your smartphone so you can log your trips, keep track of servicing, relay navigation instructions and so on. Not much more to ask for there.

The traction control and cornering ABS systems that made the first XR less hair-raising to ride in tricky conditions are here as well, along with the quickshifter system that makes gearchanges such a doddle, along with a new e-throttle based system that keeps the rear wheel from locking up if you decelerate too abruptly.

The analogue stuff is where the XR continues to shine. The saddle is slightly narrower to make tippy toeing around the carpark that much easier, but this is still a tall bike by any measure. The screen was excellent on the last model and it is on this one, only it’s more easily adjusted now, since you can raise or lower it with a flick of your wrist.

A small compartment atop the tank gives you a handy place for a Cashcard or Touch’n’Go card, and it’s not hard to imagine loading the XR up for a week’s ride to Thailand and back.

Ironically, the XR’s newfound manners mean you might actually feel like taking it slightly easier and riding a bit more slowly, given how the added comfort no longer means you just want to blitz the highway sections as quickly as possible before losing all feeling in your hands.

In fact, it’s pretty clear what BMW set out to do with the new S 1000 XR: retain the outstanding performance, and add a softer side to its personality. If you want more bike than this, you’re crazier than a certain Hungarian wheelie monster I know.

BMW S 1000 XR
Engine type 999cc, 16V, inline 4
Gearbox type 6-speed manual with Gearshift Assist Pro
Max power 160hp at 11,000rpm
Max torque 114Nm at 9,250rpm
0 to 100km/h 3.3 seconds
Top speed >240km/h (est.)
Weight (fully fueled) 226kg
Seat Height 840mm
Price To be announced
Available July 2020 (estimated)

The XR comes in smaller, less manageable form, too — meet the F 900 XR. It could well be BMW’s sweetest bike at the moment!


bmw motorrad s 1000 xr

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