BMW’s Burly R 18 Cruiser Is Here To Take On Harley-Davidson, But It’s No Harley

It’s the question or comment I got most often while riding BMW’s new R 18 cruiser, so let’s address it right off the top: Is the R 18 cruiser lineup Bavaria’s bid to take on Harley-Davidson (and Indian)? And if so, is the R 18 “BMW’s Harley” – something it was often accused of being while I was riding it. Answer One: Well, I guess so. Answer Two: No.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Back in the late 1990s, BMW took an initial swing at the then-Harley-dominated cruiser market with the R1200C/CL, which was based around the company’s then-cutting edge “oilhead” 1200 (actually 1,170cc) boxer motor. The result was… interesting. With its telelever shaft drive, odd paralever front suspension and funky styling, it received a lukewarm reception and by 2005, the party was over for the R1200C. But in that time, it also grew into a full-on touring platform, and to this day, the model has its fans. Now, with Harley traversing rough waters and Polaris-backed Indian back in the big-inch cruiser game, BMW is eyeing the cruiser market once again and recently debuted the new R 18, a 91 horsepower 1,800cc black beauty that sits low and sports two opposed massive air/oil-cooled cylinders out in the horizontal breeze. The R 18 platform already consists of four models, including two dedicated cruiser bikes and two more distance-enabled tourers. It’s a far cry from the oddity that was the R1200C.

I received an R 18 First Edition for review, which could be described as the base or even the “standard” model, with no added touring amenities. However, it did have “First Edition” niceties such as beautiful double-lined pinstriping over glossy black paint and an optional “chrome” package, which punched up the brightwork to be sure. Rather than trying to co-opt the look of another brand of bike, the R 18’s look pays homage to one of BMW’s more legendary pre-war machines, the 500cc R 5 from the 1930s, a classic motorcycle I might be willing to trade a semi-vital organ for, given the chance. Here it is:

And for comparison’s sake, here is the new R 18:

The R 5 styling cues are obvious in the headlight, tank shape (and striping), dual frame loops and those slash-cut fishtail exhaust pipes. The R 5 is a purposeful, stout but beautiful machine, the same goes for the R 18, but with a bit of cruiser posture stirred in. It’s a vast improvement over the old R1200C.

BMW has really nailed the look and style of the R 18, and of course, those absolutely massive 900cc cylinders, with their deep finning and pushrods, make the R 18 look more like it has small wings rather than a hulking 1.8-liter air-and-oil cooled boxer motor. Tech note: The original R 5 has chain-driven cams instead of the more old-fashioned pushrods of the R 18; that was very high-tech stuff in the 1930s.

Some interesting tech and mechanical features stand out on the R 18. Like the R 5, it has a single instrument, but it’s mounted behind the headlight on the R 18 rather than in it as on the R 5, and a small LCD display in the speedometer can show a myriad (and configurable) number of data points, including RPMs, tripmeter, time, date, gear, gas usage (but no gas “gauge”), trouble codes, and some other bits. There are also three ride modes: Rock (the sportier mode), Roll (touring/normal mode) and Rain. The speedo is rubber mounted so at some RPMs it can vibrate a bit, but it was never a problem.

The R 18 features a six-speed transmission to utilize the 116 pound-feet of torque from the big boxer, but my review bike was trimmed with the Premium Package, which included a reverse gear activated by a small lever and then powered by the starter motor, so the bike backs up, but at a very slow (and controllable) pace. Very clever and very handy if your find yourself parked pointing downhill and need to back up the R 18, which tips the scales at 760-odd pounds gassed up.

Some other nice (optional) features on my bike, which rang in at $22,615 from its $17,495 base price: heated grips with 3 levels of warmth, cruise control, and an adaptive LED headlight that illuminates corners when turning. The shiny chrome and trim bits, and natty dual-line pinstriping over the Black Storm Metallic paint were all part of the $2,2150 First Edition package.

On the hardware side of things, once you look past those glorious exhaust swimmers, you’ll notice the rear drive shaft rotates out in open air, just like the shaft on the R 5. It’s been shined up and has a cool knuckle near the back, and really gives the R 18 a bona-fide mechanical look and feel often missing from many of today’s more sanitized motorcycles. Clever and stylish details abound: The too-cool fork caps, the black spoked wheels, the two rear frame hoops, the black forks, the polished pushrod tubes atop the cylinders, even the turn signals have panache.

Riding Experience

During my too-brief review period, I had the chance to take the R 18 on numerous rides around the Portland area and also on a much longer ride out to central Oregon, which included crossing the Cascades during some crisp fall weather. As I say in the headline, this is not a BMW that wants to be a Harley. Roll on the throttle on a Harley (or an Indian) and you get a solid bark and rumble from the exhaust, but not on this BMW. Instead, the stock exhaust system is robust, but more measured and well-behaved as the bike surges forward under throttle. In other words, it’s very BMW-like. (Full disclosure, I own a 1995 BMW R1100RS).

Roll on the gas in third gear while heading out onto the open road and the exhaust tone rises with the engine pulses and throttle input, but is never over-wrought. It sounds…. nice. Refined. Even “appropriate,” if you could describe an exhaust note as such, but also powerful and in tune with the copious torque that propels you and the bike forward with alacrity. I’m sure some riders will decide to mount pipes with a more sonorous tone and perhaps the aftermarket can create a more vocal system that mimics the stylish lines of the stock fishtails. Here’s hoping, as the twin exhausts are a key style highlight of the R 18, even though I admit I looked at photos of them a little askance when news of the bike first broke online. But like so many things, they look much better in person than in pictures. For this rider, the civic-friendly sound level of the stock pipes is in keeping with BMW’s spirit of sophistication, and I enjoyed all the compliments and conversation the stylish stock pipes elicited. Many onlookers, including many riders, thought they were custom or aftermarket. Well done, BMW.

MORE FROM FORBESRide Review: The 2021 Indian Chieftain Elite Packs In Big Power, High Tech And That Big Bagger Swagger

In the saddle and on the road, the BMW doesn’t ride like a Harley, either. While the Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic I recently reviewed was also an accomplished open road roller, the BMW felt just a bit more planted, a bit more refined. It was also a bit less compliant over small road imperfections, while recent Harleys and Indians I’ve ridden definitely had a bit more squish. However, ticking the R 18’s ride mode into Rock (aka Sport) when things got curvy illustrates why BMW erred on the firmer side of the suspension equation rather than more cush. While it seemed like the chrome caps on the wide, wide cylinders of the mammoth boxer engine might grind into the pavement with ease in a tight turn, turns out it isn’t easy to do, and in fact I didn’t venture past the footpeg scrapers touching down to see if it was even possible. What was possible was more cornering clearance than I anticipated, and while this is no sportbike, it acquitted itself quite well in the curvy sections of my test route, which features 10 mph uphill hairpins, long, high-speed sweepers and technical descents with tight switchbacks. Overall, I’d have to say I was able to hustle the R 18 through my primary road test at a clip not yet matched by other big-bore cruisers, if only just.

MORE FROM FORBESSame As It Ever Was, Now Even Better: 2020 Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic Review

The seating position on the R 18 certainly assists with control in the fast stuff. While the R 18’s style clearly signals “cruiser,” the seating posture is actually very standard-like, with those big jugs pretty much ruling out any cruiser-typical “forward controls” and the wide but fairly flat bars falling naturally to hand. Indeed, the seating and controls experience is likely more similar to the old R 5; simple, upright, comfortable and in control.

The shifter and rear brake pedal are practically underneath the big air-cooled barrels and on the right side, I found my riding boot sometimes ran out of space or was a very tight fit between the brake pedal and the bottom of the cylinder, which is set back a bit from the front as required by the boxer’s crankshaft layout. Dropping the brake pedal by literally two or three millimeters would solve this issue, as would “thinner” boots but I wear what I have.

After some city riding and a couple of longer sorties into the countryside around Portland, I pointed the R 18 towards the center of Oregon for a two-day, 600 mile journey to see some friends. Most of the riding would be on highways and state roads, and the maximum speed limit in Oregon is still stuck in the 1980s at 65mph, so battling a headwind without so much as bug screen at speed is less of an issue than it is elsewhere (Texas, say), and once off the major highways, I was planning on enjoying the ride at a speed-limit-plus-a-few pace.

I threaded the R 18 around Mount Hood and across the Cascade Mountain range into Oregon’s high desert, and the big Beemer was a joy to ride naked (the bike, not me). The seating position never turned me into a sail fighting the wind, and with a tall sixth gear on tap, it ticked down the road without effort. I kept in contact and was entertained by the Cardo Packtalk Bold comms system in my full-face modular AGV helmet, and when the temperature dropped with the setting sun, the three-level heated grips kept my digits toasty and limber.

The sun long set, the single front LED headlight on the R 18 kept the road ahead well-lit, and the Adaptive Headlight system built into the nacelle peeked around corners as I traversed the high desert on a moonless night. After over four hours in the saddle, I arrived, a bit on the cool side but otherwise suffering no ill effects from piloting the unfaired R 18.

Nit picks? Why, BMW, is there no simple gas gauge on this machine? The LCD display will display how much gas you’re using per hour, leaving to you to do some imprecise arithmetic from your last fill-up while riding. It will also display your MPG stats, but that’s not so helpful as much as interesting (for what it’s worth, I got about 50mpg on the long trip, and 40ish in town). Heck, even my $7,000 Royal Enfield INT650 has a gas gauge that lives in its similarly sized LCD panel. With the R 18, I had to math out how far I might go on the 4.2 gallon tank, and then remember to set the tripmeter to zero after filling up and hope my calculations panned out. Pretty old school and more complicated than it needs to be. Otherwise, the boot/cylinder/brake lever clearance issue and the fugly black plastic oil cooler cover were about the only other things that caused me to frown temporarily.

Overall, the R 18 was a joy to ride and looks amazing. It’s no Harley, and that’s fine by me; this is a beautiful bike that can compete on its own merits just fine. The R 18 got positive comments everywhere I went, with many riders and non-riders wondering if it was a custom job due to those standout exhaust pipes. BMW must be selling them just fine as the R 18 has now been joined by two open road-oriented variants for 2022, the R 18 “B” bagger with hard cases and a windscreen, and the R 18 Transcontinental super tourer, with all the bells and whistles including an active radar assist system, Marshall audio system and a big 10-inch nav/info display. There’s also a “Classic” model with soft-style bags and a simple windscreen that should up the touring quotient just enough for those that prefer a more simple approach to motorcycle travel. Both B and Transcontinental models are inbound to my garage in the next few months, so check back for those reviews.

BMW R 18 First Edition: MSRP: $17,495 As Tested: $22,615

Previous post 8 of the Best Adventure Motorcycles for Hunters
Next post The Honda NT1100 Is A Slimmed-Down Africa Twin For The Road