Fashionably Late: The BMW R18 Cruiser

BMW looks back in time to style a new retro cruiser.

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by John L. Stein

We would love to have been a fly on the wall in Munich when the idea of building the new 2021 R18 arose.

After the 2007-2009 recession, cruiser sales sagged … and never fully recovered. Still, big-displacement cruisers are as American as pickups, Stratocasters and barbecued brisket, and so the segment got BMW thinking. Harley has been Harley since time immemorial, first the Japanese and then Victory and Indian made important inroads, and even Ducati and Triumph build bruiser cruisers. So why not BMW with the ginormous 1,802cc R18? After all, a small piece of a big pie is still a nice meal. And BMW directors, shareholders and dealers would surely love the sound of that.

And speaking of sound, you have never heard a BMW like the R18. It offers no liquid-cooling to thwart mechanical and combustion noise. The cylinders and heads are air- and oil-cooled only, and simply enormous — think watermelon sized. And the intake tracts and exhaust pipes — some 13 feet worth combined — are nearly the size of sewer drains. And the engine internals: With a 107.1mm (4.2-inch) bore and 100mm (3.9-inch) stroke, the R18 dimensions are whisker-close to a Chevy 427’s.

Engine: 1,802cc air- and oil-cooled OHV opposed twin, 107.1mm x 100mm bore and stroke, 9.6:1 compression ratio, 91hp @ 4,750rpm, 116lb/ft @ 3,000rpm
Top speed: 111-plus mph
Fueling: Electronic fuel injection, throttle by wire
Transmission: 6-speed, plus electric reverse, shaft final drive
Electrics: 12v, electronic ignition Frame/wheelbase: Double-cradle steel frame/68.1in (1,730mm)
Suspension: 49mm Showa conventional fork front, single coilover ZF Sachs damper rear
Brakes: 11.8in (300mm) dual discs front, 11.8in (300mm) single disc rear, ABS
Tires: 120/70 x 19in front, 180/65 x 16in rear
Weight (wet): 761lb (345kg)
Seat height: 27.2in (691mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.2gal (15.9ltr)/34mpg (as tested)
Price: starting at $19,870 (First Edition)

Revival style

Stylistically, for BMW history buffs, the R18 is like a homecoming of sorts too. That’s because the designers reached back into the company’s 97-year history to borrow — or more diplomatically perhaps, pull forward — key design cues from past decades. The black and white dual pinstriped finishes, for instance, are an homage to boxers from 1923 on, while chromed fishtail exhausts honor 1930s boxers. Elsewhere, the double-cradle frame, fuel tank and rigid-look swingarm evoke the 1936-1937 R5, while the nickel-plated exposed driveshaft and universal joint that anoint the right side of the machine recall BMWs into the 1950s.

The finishes are impeccable, as are the discrete routing of wires and hydraulic plumbing, the fasteners, and the components. There’s very little to argue about the execution, except that the front polished brake calipers and bobbed front fender look cut-rate. BMW likes to note that the fenders are steel rather than plastic, encouraging bike builders to cut and weld at will. Like we would do that with a machine retailing for $19,870, as does the R18 First Edition tested here.

Ready room

So let’s actually go for a ride. The R18 has no traditional key; instead, an automotive-style transponder fob can stay in your pocket while you ride. The bike senses the proximity of the transponder, so simply step aboard, grab the 37-inch wide bars (wider than a motocross bike’s), yank the beast upright and kick back the forged steel sidestand. Then tag the “PWR” switch on the right handlebar to switch “on” the electronics, and touch the start button.

Shaky town

Owing to the rotation of its longitudinal crankshaft, when starting, the R18 tosses itself left. Same goes when you rap the ride-by-wire throttle. It’s a quirk that BMW boxers have long exhibited, and it’s keenly represented in this machine too. The trait will surprise first-time BMW riders, but those steeped in the brand will find it familiar — like coming home.

After the R18 shakes to life, the rest is straightforward Motorcycling 101. Release the hydraulic clutch and major flywheel effect gets the bike moving. The low-end grunt is so great (BMW claims 116lb/ft of torque at 3,000rpm and 91 horsepower at 4,750rpm), that the engine scarcely cares which gear is used, and six are available. Shifting is way smoother than for classic boxers, which have notoriously clunky gearboxes.

Despite the opposed twin’s perfect primary balance, the ride experience is hardly vibration-free. Instead, the rider feels the tingle, buzz and vibration of a big engine in motion — especially when they’re on the gas and the explosions inside the combustion chambers are biggest and quickest. Steel mass dampers bolted to the handlebar ends prove BMW recognizes this; we think a stiffer bar or additional mass is required, and that ADV or touring grips designed for quelling vibration might also help.

Rider’s choice

Remaining are two optional, easy tasks. One is to select among the three ride modes: “Rain” has gentle power delivery (and early traction control engagement) for slippery conditions; “Roll” provides normal power and traction control for regular riding; and Rock borders on savage performance ripe for burnouts, zapping up freeway on-ramps, passing traffic, or attacking mountain roads. (Machines like the HP2 Sport of a decade ago show that BMW can make a righteously fast boxer, and the R18 carries this forward.) The selection is easily done by tapping a Mode switch on the left handlebar to cycle through modes until the desired one is achieved. Happily, you can change ride modes in flight, and the active mode is always displayed on the speedometer’s multifunction display so you can ride with confidence, knowing what you’ll get when you twist the grip.

Also optionally, riders can choose the data they want to see at the bottom of the speedometer unit. Tapping the Menu button, likewise on the left handlebar, displays over a dozen choices, including engine rpm, average speed, trip mileage, average fuel economy, etc. (Incidentally, in our combined freeway, around-town and two-lane riding, the bike returned 34mpg.)  In our time with the R18, we used engine rpm most often.

Lazy Susan steering

Frankly, the R18 steering feels odd. To go with its long 68.1-inch wheelbase, the R18’s rake and trail are a whopping 32.7 degrees and 5.9 inches, respectively — which is out there, even for cruisers. The rake is useful because it mellows out the steering response at cruising speeds, while the trail centers the front wheel at speed, stabilizing the chassis. In practice though, at low speeds, the geometry requires applying much effort at the grips; only as the machine picks up speed does it begin to feel right. Freeways good; frenetic canyon roads not so much.

The R18 communicates early cornering limits as the folding footpegs drag on the ground, generating a grating noise and sending vibration through the pegs and into the rider’s boots. This doesn’t hurt anything, but with dusk or nighttime comes a spectacular light show as the pegs’ steel feelers throw sparks. Worry not, though, because the Bridgestone Battlecruise tires are up to the task, and practically, the vast majority of R18 riders will run out of brave pills long before the tires tap out.

Ergonomically, we found the R18 just satisfactory. The seat is low and firm, the amidships foot controls reasonably placed, and the super-wide handlebar acceptably shaped. In other words, the R18 passes the “ergonomic triangle” (bars/seat/pegs) geometry test that is in vogue today. Smaller riders will be happy with the setup and taller riders can specify an optional tall seat.

Reverse engineering

Did we mention reverse gear? The R18 has one. If this seems ridiculous, that’s understandable. But big cruisers are heavy — 761 pounds for the R18, ready to ride — which is about four times the weight of the average American. As such, unthinkingly nose the R18 into an off-camber parking spot or get stuck trying to turn around on a slope and good luck paddling backwards and uphill.

Enter the R18’s reverse gear. To activate it, put the gearbox in neutral, turn a T-handle on the left side of the gearbox, and then press and hold the start button to reverse the BMW at a slow walking pace under electrical (not engine) power. Philosophical anathema or not, reverse is a useful feature.

Bumps and brakes

Many R18 riders would benefit from more wheel travel. Up front is a 49mm Showa conventional fork with 4.7-inches of travel, and the rear suspension uses a single coil-over ZF Sachs damper providing 3.5 inches of wheel travel — both barely adequate. Clearly, to dance with the cruiser segment, the R18 is low. But to excel dynamically, it needs better suspension … and chassis geometry … and ergonomics. Cruisers typically lag in this department, and the R18 doesn’t get over the hump here.

The linked 4-piston braking system — dual Brembo up front and a single rear — are strong enough but lack great feel, and we feel BMW could do better here, too. Predictably, the ABS jumps in relatively easily at the rear wheel, and you’ll be massively hard on the brakes on slippery pavement before you activate the front ABS.

R18 sum game

With its enormous torque, wide-ratio gearbox, decent ergonomics and just acceptable 142-mile touring range between fill-ups (based on its 4.2-gallon tank and the indicated average fuel economy), the R18 shows some capability as a touring cruiser. Just add soft bags, wind protection as desired, and go. And then, everywhere you do go, the sumo-sized cylinders and lovely design and finishes will attract huge attention at rest stops and parking lots, traffic lights and coffee shops. (And gas stations, motels and cafes too.) Which is perhaps, a key point.

Encouraged by the success of the retro R nineT in 2014, BMW developed the R18 as a totally bespoke piece for the cruiser segment, which research tells them is not only still alive, but given the right products, ready to thrive. Judging by its unique and thoughtful design, attention to detail, massive engine and generally good performance, the R18 will probably do just that. MC

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