RIDING THE BEEMER
BMW's F650 Funduro
What is it about the BMW name that encourages such strong reactions? It's akin to the Harley Davidson name - it seems to draw powerful emotions from people. Some sneer. Others are in awe. But there's almost always a sense of respect for the German engineering.
When I purchased my 14th motorcycle and my first BMW - a used 1998 F650 - in fall of 2001, I was greeted with a mixture of responses. First among them, however, was the perception that the BMW was a premium ride, quality, high-class vehicle, like the cars. And it was expensive - I took a lot of kidding about my sudden improvement in income. In fact, the F650 is BMW's 'entry-level' bike and is reasonably priced at around $10,000-$11,000 CAD, depending on version. Mine was considerably less because it was previously owned.
But the reaction to the F650 was again different from other times when I've pulled up with a new bike. First, it wasn't my usual ride - cruisers and chrome. Some people assumed it was a sport bike. Others thought it was some enduro beast. Most people thought it was a hot, fast bike. It isn't, really, but the combination of styling and the BMW name encourage that image. Fortunately, most admirers and detractors alike are unaware that the bike was saddled with the unfortunate name 'Funduro,' knowledge of which will surely turn admiration to mirth (a pox on marketing departments and their executives who, although they have never even sat on a motorcycle, much less ridden one, are allowed to dream up ridiculous names for their clients' bikes).
Owners of the marque seem steeped in a curious love-hate relationship with their bikes. They love the make, the design, the technology. They seem universally distressed over service and parts costs and often the perceived snobbishness of the sales people. They are proud of riding an elite machine, yet online complain vociferously about problems communicating with BMW corporate and its representatives. Yet they also seem fiercely loyal to the BMW rondel. And among all the larger, shaft-driven Beemers and their dispassionate perfection, the little chain-driven F seems to instill a fiercer loyalty and affection.
The F stands out as BMW's only chain drive motorcycle since they began making bikes in 1923. It is BMW's first single since their early post-war production, and unique for the international flavour of its design and manufacture: built in part by Aprilia (based on their Pegaso model), with an Austrian-made Rotax engine, and the rest built and assembled by BMW (post 2000 models are built entirely by BMW).
But how does it ride? you ask. Well, it's different - at least from most bikes I've owned. The single 650cc Rotax engine plugs along competently and cleanly at highway speeds as well as around town. It's slightly buzzy as one would expect in a single, but not excessively so and doesn't translate much through the grips. The power band is broad, with no noticeable weak spots. It will continue to accelerate up to the 7,500 rpm red line, although after 140 kmh, it starts to run out of steam as you push it higher.
At low speeds, you have to be careful to downshift when the engine starts to lug. It has a tendency to shudder when under-revved. Where most motorcycles seldom have to be shifted down to first gear, the F650 complains noticeably in second when the revs get too low. This bike does not pull cleanly from low to high revs in any gear, and instead must be stepped through the gears in both directions for smooth riding. I also find I often need to downshift to get the 'oomph' to pass at highway speeds.
The steering is rock solid. Going over rough pavement, hard pan or gravel roads, the head remains stable and unshakable (however - see tires, below). You can jiggle the handlebars and it never sets a wobble in the steering as it might in other bikes. The mirrors are reasonably stable and clear at highway speeds, but the vibrations at low speed can make it harder to see in them.
The Bridgestone tires are aimed at rough riding, if not real off-road use. They need to be carefully filled to proper inflation levels (32 lb. front, 36 rear). If overfilled, they provide inadequate contact, and give the F a slippery feel, like riding on marbles. This seriously and dangerously compromises handling until the pressures are returned to the correct levels. Plus, they are noisier than the usual street tires.
The F650 seems light, lighter than it really is by 100 pounds. In the wind you get blown around and a passing truck can really shake the bike. Riding into a strong headwind or crosswind takes a lot of concentration and frequent counter-reaction. The small fairing probably contributes to the effect. It's a little deceiving, but the 400-lb-plus F650 rides like a much small, lighter bike.
Despite the apparent height, the F650 isn't really that tall except when on the centre stand. I can get both feet planted firmly on the ground when stopped. Going around corners, you notice the height more, at least initially, until you become more accustomed to the balance and the lean angles. It's also a narrow bike, which contributes to the sense that it is a tall bike. But handling feels like a lower bike and it's easy to get accustomed to the ride and the corners.
The suspension is not nearly as soft or compliant as I had expected. It is not a dirt bike with long-travel suspension, but rather a street bike that is better on the gravel than most. You still need to exercise caution off the pavement, but the combination of stable steering and good-grip tires allows you more confidence in the gravel. You can change the rear shock setting and the rear suspension spring preload for improved handling, but not the front forks.
The seat is very comfortable, although I find mine to be far too slippery. I can't tell if this is because the former owner treated it with something, or that's the natural surface. Under hard braking, I find I slide forward too easily. But on the highway, it's unobtrusive and adequate for two-three hour rides. I'm told by other riders it is comfortable for long trips of 10 hours. Solo riders can easily shift up and back to gain another, higher position on the seat and help alleviate the numbness of long-distance rides. The riding position is pretty upright, with a relaxed 'kitchen-chair' position. The stretch to the bars is average and a throttle lock would suit the F well.
Brakes are good. The front Brembos are very solid and will stop the bike hard if required. The rear disc is also good, although I find the rear wheel tends to slide and wobble a bit if braked hard. The non-adjustable hand levers are set a fair distance away from the handlebars. This might make it more difficult for people with smaller hands to grab the levers when necessary.
On cold mornings, the F is slow to warm up. It takes about 10 minutes before you can fully release the choke. In this, the F is similar to my Harley and Enfield. The cold-blooded carb-based Fs are prone to be cranky and even stall if not properly warmed. Getting started again sometimes takes a bit of tinkering the choke position. This may be different on the fuel-injected models since 2000.
The F is quiet, as one expects of a BMW. I find the engine sounds mechanical and somewhat tinny - like an angry lawnmower, as it has been described online. It takes some getting used to after cruisers and their throaty, muscular growl. Surely aftermarket pipes would give it a better voice. You might be able to get more performance out of the bike through some minor modifications to the airbox and a third-party muffler, but you will also need to re-jet the carbs at the same time. You can also change the 16-tooth front sprocket to a 15-tooth socket for better low-end riding.
Overall, the F650 rides well and competently. It is not a sports bike by any means, but it has enough power to accelerate quickly and ride at and above posted highway speeds. Around town it's also very good once you learn to downshift frequently. It has become one of my all-time favourite rides, and the best general-purpose bike I've ridden.
Accessories are always a selling point. There are many for the F650, more so for the later models. Mine came with two extras: hand protectors and heated grips. It's hard to say enough in praise of heated grips. After a short ride on a cool fall day (5C in the sun), I was feeling the cold everywhere except my hands. The deflectors also help keep wind off the hands. My next purchase will be an accessory power outlet and an electric vest.
I purchased a small off-the-shelf top box at Motorcycle Superstore. It required some longer bolts to fit with the thick BMW luggage rack at the back, but it works quite well. There are larger boxes available, if you need to carry more. I was concerned that anything much larger might affect handling and encourage more vibration. There are hard side bags, too, but they require special mounting hardware to keep the left-side bag away from the muffler.
Third party products include luggage, tank bags (the plastic shell will not permit a magnetic bag, so you need a special bra to hold a tank bag), windscreens, mirrors, sprockets, chains, headlight protectors and of course tires. I would recommend a kit that changes the turn signals into running lights as well, and possible an additional light package front and rear. You can never have too much light on a bike.
Overall impressions: good, solid, competent, comfortable. Well made, clean lines, nice ergonomics. Good fuel economy, reasonable power and acceleration. Attractive (especially in red), easy to ride and a fun bike on or off the pavement. A good bike for novice (not beginner*) and experienced riders alike. Not going to win many races, but that's not what the F is all about. This is an 'adventure' bike without being a serious dirt machine.
The only serious design flaw is that the bike cannot be started in neutral on the side stand. The side stand must be retracted - so the rider has to be on the bike, or the bike on its centre stand. Seems a bit silly if you consider the bike may need to be started offroad where the centre stand is not very effective.
Notes for mid 2002: My longest non-stop trip so far has been 160 km (and back). The F rode well on a hilly, winding road in the fog under slightly wet conditions, on unpaved back roads, major highways, two-lane twisties and busy urban streets. The F has performed beautifully - comfortable, easy to ride, with enough acceleration for the ambient traffic. Brakes may be a tad under-powered (or in need of new pads), but I haven't found any significant flaws in ergonomics or engineering. But then, what did I really expect from the vaunted German engineering (even if it has a dash of Italian and Austrian in it)?
Click here for some comments on how I chose the F650 over some other motorcycles: why f650.html. For links to BMW motorcycle sites see my links pages. I highly recommend www.bmwmotorcycles.com, BMW's official riders' site and the Chain Gang at www.f650.com. Both have an active forum for news, tech tips and more, although the discussions on the Chain Gang can be more freewheeling and sometimes heated. For my warning signs about road hazards, click on the link. People with little or no sense of humour are recommended not to do so.
* Beginners should learn the art of riding on smaller, shorter bikes, preferably a used one that will dent the pocketbook less when dropped, and better still a lighter one to improve riding confidence. The height of the F requires different riding and mounting techniques from shorter bikes. While not a sport bike, the F is in the same power bracket as the fabled Triumph Bonneville and a Harley Sportster, so treat it with respect.
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