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First Ride: 2021 BMW R1250 RT

Now with radar-controlled adaptive cruise control, BMW’s sports-tourer is a high-tech road warrior

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It pains me to type these words but, in researching this story, I have come to realize that I have ridden every generation of BMW’s long-running RT sport-tourer. From Airhead to ShiftCam, from lowly R80 RT to the very latest R1250 version, I have clamped sweaty palm to handgrip on every single BMW Reise-Tourer (literally “travel tourer” in Deutsch) since the 1978 R100RT.

What pains me most, of course, is the realization that while machines get better with age, we humans do not. This 2021 R1250 is vastly more athletic than that pathetically slow R80 RT could ever dream to be; I, on the other hand, am not.

Indeed, compared to that old bare-bones pushrod R80, the new 1250 is truly of the space age. From the 10.25-inch TFT-screened gauge set — the same size as many an automobile — to its motorized adjustable windshield, the R1250 RT is truly a modern marvel. From its almost futuristic bodywork to its variable-valve-timed version of BMW’s Boxer engine, it’s also as high-tech as motorcycling gets.

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Most notable in motorcycling’s technology wars is the RT’s all new radar-controlled cruiser control system. Yes, I know such adaptive systems have become commonplace on cars these last few years, but BMW’s Bosch-based system is the first blessing a two-wheeler.

And, counter to some of the reviews I have read from European scribes, it is in fact quite useful. Set the cruise at a buck twenty-five — using the same basic switchgear that BMW has long used for its cruise control systems — and the new Active Cruise Control maintains a safe distance between your front wheel and the car, truck, or even motorcycle ahead. No more disabling cruise control to avoid slower traffic; no more hitting the “Resume” button when traffic has cleared. Yes, riding a motorcycle is more involving than driving a car, but the attributes that make adaptive cruise such a boon to driving apply to two wheels as well.

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So do, unfortunately, some of its faults. Like BMW’s car systems, the Motorrad division’s application of radar control is extremely conservative. For one thing, when pulling out to pass, the computer will not begin accelerating until you’re fully clear of the obstructing semi ahead of you. That gets a little dodgey when you’re trying to merge with speeding traffic in the fast lane. Ditto for the fact that the system is obviously worried about upsetting passenger, so lightly does it twist the throttle to return you to your previous cruising speed.

Faults aside, however, I’m a fan. In light traffic, it’s of minimal benefit, but when the highway is plugged with lots of slow-moving cagers, it’s a Godsend. If only it were willing to twist the throttle a little harder, it’d be perfect.

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Especially since the engine itself is so very willing. Unlike the airhead flat-twins of yore — two valves per cylinder, both actuated by long and bendy pushrods — which were best described as “plodding,” the modern Boxer is a massively oversquare, variable-valve-timed monster that loves to rev. Indeed, somewhere around 5,000 or 6,000 rpm, the 1,254-cc twin seems to grow an extra cylinder — that would be the ShiftCam system switching to its second set of lobes — and it literally sprints to 8,000 rpm and beyond.

For those familiar with previous Boxers — even the pre-ShiftCam four-valve units — such eagerness to rev is a little startling and, for the BMW traditionalist, perhaps a little disconcerting. Indeed, other than the odd rumble a flat-twin makes compared to a vee, the engine feels almost Ducati-like in its joyous response to throttle. Seriously, this is a BMW twin that likes being banged off its rev limiter. For the record, the R1250’s claimed 136 horsepower is the most ever for a Boxer, and is plenty steamy for a sports-tourer.

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From its almost futuristic bodywork to its Boxer engine, it’s also as high-tech as motorcycling gets

Good thing, then, that the new RT’s handling is more than up to the task. Truth be told, unlike the engine whose sportiness is relatively new, RTs have always handled fairly well for motorcycles with barn door-sized fairies. Oh, the original R80 and R100 versions had pillow-soft suspension — as was the wont of BMWs of the era — but they steered quite linearly compared to the touring motorcycles of the day.

That’s still very true of the modern versions, only the R1250 throws in wonderfully capable suspension and darned grippy tires, not to mention sportbike-quality brakes. Said suspension consists of BMW’s Telelever (front) and Paralever (rear) layouts which, if you follow BMW motorcycles at all, you know are the company’s patented systems that reduce dive during braking and shaft drive lift during acceleration. Throw in electronically adjustable suspension and you have a touring bike that doesn’t know it’s supposed to be soft and squidgy.

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Indeed, like the motor that astonishes with its performance, the first time you bend the big Beemer into a hairpin can be quite the surprise so assiduously does it dive for apex. If you’re looking for a bike that combines complete fairing coverage — that barn door-sized fairing I mentioned — with maximum sportiness, there’s nothing better than this BMW.

2021 BMW R1250 RT
2021 BMW R1250 RT Photo by Glenn Roberts

That said, it does exact something of a penalty for said sportiness. First off is the seating position. BMW takes the aforementioned direct steering seriously. So seriously, in fact, that its handlebars are set as low as many a “naked” sportbike. In other words, you are canted forward decidedly more than on any other touring bike on the market. On top of that, because sporty motorcycling is encouraged by looking over the windscreen rather than through it, the stock windshield is fairly short. Yes, it is electrically adjustable and can be raised significantly, but even in its highest position, there’s still quite a bit of turbulent air rattling the helmets of taller riders.

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Both issues, thankfully, are easily solved by the aftermarket. Bar risers will elevate the bars to a standard touring height and larger windshields — including one from BMW itself — offer more complete fairing coverage. European roads and high-speed autobahns encourage such a sporting seating position; North American speed limits and hyper-boring freeways not so much.

Other than that, it’s hard to find much fault with the big Beemer. Its luggage is amongst the best in the business, the handlebar controls, though complex, are intuitive to use and there’s even a wireless charging pad in one of the cockpit’s little cubby holes. Not only do you arrive at your destination with a fully charged phone, but it also means the app-based navigation system on that wonderfully big screen will work all day. As I said, the RT is amongst motorcycling’s highest-tech road warriors.

I suppose you could complain about the new RT’s $23,650 price tag, but then that’s pretty much par for the course for heavyweight touring bikes these days. Besides, it is — along with Ducati’s Multistrada V4 — the first motorcycle with adaptive cruise control, a technology too long in coming to two wheels and, despite some controversy, a very worthwhile safety enhancement. All told, it keeps the R1250 RT at the head of the sport touring class.