BMW turned the motorcycling world on its head with the S1000RR, with a smoother ride and more precise throttle control.
If Bugatti built bikes, they would be like the BMW S100RR
What's truly surprising about BMW's incredible S1000RR superbike isn't that the once staid manufacturer produced such an overtly sporting motorcycle. Although the Bavarian Motoren Werke is best known for its "Boxer" flat twins - surely the fuddy duddiest of motorcycling engines, it has been creeping up on this high-performance mandate for quite some time - witness the K1200S, followed shortly by the even more powerful 1300 version.
Nor is it that the S1000RR's 999 cubic centimetre four is so powerful. It really shouldn't be that big a surprise, since BMW's 2003 P83 was the most powerful in the Formula One paddock (pumping out more than 900hp at an even more incredible 19,200 rpm) from which the Motorrad division gleaned all manner of internal combustion tricks.
Nor should it be a surprise that it's been such a phenomenal sales success, outshining all the Japanese litre bikes that have dominated the open-class segment for so long. Combine otherworldly performance with BMW's reputation for quality and a price tag much lower than anyone anticipated, and you have an almost iron-clad guarantee of at least a modicum of good fortune.
What truly is a surprise - to this cynical motojournalist, at least - is that nobody has really succeeded in besting the big Bimmer since. Oh, Kawasaki took a run at it with last year's all-new ZX-10R but it fell a few ponies and kilometres-per-hour short. Honda says it's taking a different tack with its 2012 CBR1000, code-speak for an admission that they don't actually see winning this horsepower war with BMW. And both Suzuki and Yamaha seem mired in such financial difficulty that it's hard to imagine them scaring up the precious R&D resources to tackle the very difficult problem of unseating BMW as the new horsepower kings.
Which explains why the 2012 S1000RR, while boasting some new bits and software revisions, is still quite familiar. The engine, for instance, is essentially the same, benefiting from last year's switch to a 2kg heavier crankshaft (demanded by BMW's motorsports teams in search of more rideability, even at the expense of quicker throttle response). Nonetheless the 2012 S1000RR's maximum horsepower remains 193; and same goes for the maximum torque of 112Nm.
That's not to say the character of the engine is not changed. Indeed, everything from the throttle return springs to the engine power curves have been manipulated so that the engine feels completely different even though it is, essentially, the same.
The "rain" mode, for instance, now has its own power curve, which is actually stronger than the previous (a maximum of 163hp versus 150) model. BMW found that allowing the extra power actually made it easier to ride in the wet by making the powerband more linear rather than abruptly cutting off top-end power.
Meanwhile, all the other three settings - sport, race, and slick - get the full 193hp monty. As well, though the rain setting retains the "soft" throttle response necessary for guiding a powerful litre-bike over any wet, slimey tarmac, the sportier three modes offer even more direct throttle response than the old S1000. So while there's a noticeable lag in the rain setting, in race mode it's as if the electronic fuel injection is hard-wired to your synapses, so direct is the connection between wrist and piston. Part of the credit is S1000RR's fatter mid-range - there's more torque available between 5,000 and 7,000rpm thanks to exhaust and intake improvements - but the electronics have also been modified as well for more immediate response to the throttle.
Those thinking of going racing will appreciate the additional changes to the Dynamic Traction Control system's "slick" mode, which is now more liberal with wheelies. And the EFI now bleeds a little fuel through the engine under closed throttle. BMW's race teams complained that the previous model's engine braking caused the rear end to lose traction when braking hard for corners and that cracking the throttle open a smidgen reduced the back-torque to the rear wheel. Racers will also appreciate that BMW's onboard laptimer has a new GPS function which can tell, section-by-section on the racetrack, if you are going faster than your previous lap (a green light on the dashboard shines if you are quicker over the last 100 metres than the same section on the previous lap). Supposedly, this will be popular with the go-faster boys, but being decidedly cowardly, I never mustered the courage to take my eyes off the track long enough to check my progress.
That all sounds well and good, but how does the new version feel when compared with the outgoing model? Well, ultimately it doesn't feel faster (nor, truthfully, does it need to, as the S1000RR's acceleration never fails to take the breath away), but it is substantially easier to ride. The more direct throttle response eliminates the sensation that you were piloting a virtual Xbox game rather than riding an actual motorcycle. The improved mid-range torque gives you much more leeway in gear selection through corners, the engine finally feeling as torquey as its 999 cubic centimetres. Even the lighter throttle allows more precise throttle control, especially important when there's 193hp on tap.
Aiding all of this speed is revised chassis geometry - less rake, lower ride height in the rear, altered anti-squat geometry and a slightly shorter wheelbase - that BMW claims makes the newish S1000RR easier to turn after blitzing the straightaways. And, indeed, it is easier to initiate corners and hold a tight line - especially evident as we hustle the RR around Valencia, Spain's Circuito Ricardo Tormo. It also retains the previous model's incredible high-speed stability and feels positively planted no matter how hard you're squeezing the front brake for that tight hairpin. But, although it steers more precisely than before, the new S1000RR still balks a little in tight, decreasing radius bends as if it could use even more than the 2.5mm reduction in fork offset that BMW determined was adequate for 2012.
That said, the S1000RR is still the fastest thing on two wheels. BMW can talk all it wants about linear throttle response and controllable power delivery, but out on the long back straight of Ricardo Tormo, one of F1's premier test tracks by the way, all that you're really thinking is how oh-my-goodness fast it is.