BMW’s S1000RR, for those motorcyclists who have lived in a cave these last five years, is the fastest superbike on the planet. Even more astounding is that it has held the crown since 2009, an eon in a segment when the reign at the top of the horsepower heap is usually measured in months, not years.
It achieves its horsepower superiority by revving higher and harder than any superbike previous. Where most of its big bore competition sign off at 12,000 or so rpm, the S1000RR keeps revving higher on its way to an incredible 13,000rpm, 197hp power peak. To sample — preferably on a racetrack – that last extra kick of high-speed in the top of fifth or sixth gear is to know both elation and fear.
The mechanics behind all that high-speed horsepower are Formula One derived, BMW Motorrad borrowing some nous from car-side and developing a hugely oversquare 80mm x 49.7mm design that boasts a sky-high 13.0:1 compression ratio and some F1-style camshaft finger followers rather than motorcycling’s more traditional direct-to-bucket valve actuation system. Techno gobbledygook or not, virtually everything about the S1000 engine was designed so it could spin as fast as possible and produce more power than the rest of the superbike field (BMW has yet to wear the WSBK crown, but the S1000RR instantly transformed the formerly sleepy manufacturer of sport-tourers into a superbike powerhouse).
Pretty much everyone, however, assumed that intrinsic in this design would be a lack of bottom-end torque, those aforementioned bore and stroke dimensions hardly the classic route to punchy mid-range response. So when BMW announced that it would morph its clipped-on track-ready superbike into a high-handlebarred, oriental-style “naked” machine, the first question on everyone’s lips was how would all that high-revving power mesh with a chassis now geared to street riding?
Well, it turns out that we were all wrong about one thing: As successful as the S1000 has been at spinning its way to unprecedented horsepower, there’s absolutely nothing at all preventing it from also being, given the right tuning, as tractable as a Gold Wing. Indeed, with only minimal changes – a little camshaft timing and some fiddling with the inlet tract – the single-R has been transformed into a slightly detuned (if 160 still rompin’ and stompin’ horsepower can in any way be considered detuned) and imminently torquey road bike engine.
Comparing the two bikes’ dyno curves provided by BMW, the supposedly lesser single-R actually outmuscles the double-R by as much as 10Nm all the way from 3,000rpm to 9,000rpm. The R’s peak torque – 117Nm – remains the same. But make no mistake, BMW has managed to move all that grunt way down the powerband, making the naked S1000R more immediately responsive than the double-R.
And, indeed, it’s really quite amazing how tractable the new S1000R can be. Exiting hairpins high in the Majorcan mountains at barely 2,500rpm, there’s so much torque that downshifting is, thankfully — because the cold, damp Spanish roads were so darned slippery – rendered superfluous. Not having to deal with vagaries of wet weather traction while trying to contain a chomping-at-the-bit superbike is a surprise beyond the pleasant.
Even under this heavy load, the still highly tuned (160hp from just 999cc) four-cylinder accelerates up the steep Majorcan coastline with no snatching, no spitting and nary a performance concession to the fact that it is barely above idle. It’s amazing how a simple rejigging of the camshaft timing and some narrower, higher-velocity intake ports has the previously highly-strung BMW thinking it’s a Harley.
There will be some who still will lament the S1000R’s 33hp downgrade of the giant-killing original, even if I suspect the loss is more about bar stool bragging than any actual downgrade in performance. I’ll personally open myself to criticisms of wimpdom by opining that I think the reduction is a good thing. For one, it imbues the 1000R with the instantaneous throttle response that makes wheelies a doddle (and, know this, wheelies are the very raison d’être for this naked bike phenomenon). Less downshifting is required and the S1000R’s ability to scoot by slow-moving traffic is truly spellbinding. The only thing lost is the double-R’s final, 12,000rpm kick, where the superbike version slips in one final burst of mega-horsepower insouciance on its way to making those aforementioned 193 horses.
Even with its “meagre” 160 ponies, the S1000R – thanks to its rearward weight bias caused by its naked-bike mandated, upright riding position – starts to get decidedly light in the front end when that screaming 999cc four hits nine grand; it would be nigh on unmanageable if there was still another kick to come at 12,000rpm. Complain all you will about the softening of the power delivery but I’ll take tractability over inadvertent 160kph wheelies any day (it should be noted that the S1000R also has anti-wheelie control built into its DTC traction control system – it needs it).
Besides, for those hooligans who might be lamenting that the S1000 has been overly tamed, rest assured that tractable doesn’t mean civilised. The S1000’s engine actually remains just as insistent as the Double-R version, the highly tuned engine nervously “hunting” on steady throttle, as if it can’t quite believe anyone would bother riding it below 4,000rpm. It barks on overrun, occasionally spits when you back off from high revs and always howls like a superbike no matter what speed you’re cruising at. Naysayers, again looking at that 33hp deficit on the spec sheet, will try to decry the R as too civilised; in reality it still chomps at the bit like a Rottweiler with its eye on a particularly weedy poodle.
BMW tries to further tame the R’s wayward ways by kicking out the frame’s steering angle 0.8 degrees and increasing the trail by five millimetres, both measures contributing to the single-R’s 22mm longer wheelbase. All the changes are designed to render a little stability to what otherwise might be a hyperactive ride at high speeds (those who have never ridden a high-powered naked sports bike should note that just removing the aerodynamic front fairing and raising the handlebars to a comfortable riding position so dramatically shifts weight to the rear wheel so that the front end gets decidedly light and the steering twitchy). That said, the raked-out front end does render the R’s steering heavier at low speeds than the double-R’s, and not quite as linear. Again, critics will decry that 33hp deficit, but I’d suggest the more noticeable loss in real-world performance is that smidgen of reluctance to turn in that BMW built into the S1000R’s frame geometry in its quest for high-speed stability.
The resultant seating position, however, is comfy as a couch, the higher handlebar and slightly lower and further forward foot pegs a tonic to those of who suffer from wonky spines. The seat itself is also lower to the ground, despite being more generously padded than the RR’s perch. It all adds up to a bike more comfortable than a hyper-focused superbike but, as I mentioned above, with most of its capabilities.
That’s also true of the S1000R’s electronics. In base form, the naked bike’s high-tech handling enhancements are simpler than the RR’s, there being just two modes – Rain (which cuts max power to 136hp) and Road – managing traction and the engine output. But fit the optional Sports package and one gets a more sophisticated engine management system with racier Dynamic (which offers minimal intervention) and Dynamic Pro (which completely disables the Dynamic Traction Control and is definitely not for newbies) engine management modes.
As well, BMW offers its Dynamic Damping Control (DDC) as an option. By toggling through the ABS switch, one can alter both front and rear suspensions between Soft, Normal and Hard damping settings, this last largely reserved for track use, especially when the DTC system is in Dynamic or Dynamic Pro mode. Set to its softest position, however, compliance is almost sport-touring friendly.
If there’s an oddity to BMW’s naked bike, it’s that the company claims that the S1000R concept is a recent inspiration. Most motorcycle companies plan their naked versions at the same time as they start engineering the superbikes on which they are based, but Alexander Buckan, BMW’s chief designer, says the R’s styling was penned only recently.
In most aspects, there’s little effect of the S1000R being an afterthought, but one can tell the potent engine was designed to be covered by the RR’s all-encompassing superbike fairing and not to be exposed as motorcycle art (à la Ducati, for instance). The water pump and its attendant piping, for instance, would never be as prominently displayed on an engine destined from the start for naked use. That huge under-slung catalytic converter, partially hidden by the fairing on the RR, is no thing of beauty either.
These are, nonetheless, minor foibles on a bike that extends the appeal of motorcycling’s most powerful engine to a wider, less track-focused audience. Indeed, that’s the allure of the single-R version of BMW’s venomous S1000. It commutes in comfort. It will, if accessorised with saddlebags and a small windscreen, tour to destinations distant and still scare the heck out of you. That’s the magic of the naked versions of superbikes and none does it better than BMW.
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