2020 BMW S1000 XR Review

Automorbit, Motorcycle – Frankly I was a little intimidated when I saw the all-new 2020 BMW S1000 XR sitting there in the warehouse. It’s large, and the seat’s not low, and the battleship gray and sharp prow reminded me of touring the USS Iowa. It fired up with a raspy bark when I climbed into the stiffish saddle. You barely even need to let things idle anymore before you take off, but I usually do anyway (the computer on this one will only let you past certain rpm points as it warms up). Still, its 6%-lighter engine and 7%-lighter drivetrain doesn’t like it when I try to ease away with minimal rpm; it snatches and jerks and I almost kill it a couple of times before I remember what I’m dealing with here (I’ve been riding a lot of Rebel 500s and Burgman scooters lately).

Give us some revs, you pansy.

Oh yeah, that’s more like it. Even then, though, the new XR’s 999 cc Four-banger doesn’t seem entirely happy rolling around town in stop-and-go mode, kind of hunting and pecking. At low rpm, engine response doesn’t always seem to be directly proportional to throttle tube rotation. The rest of the bike seems happy, at least.

Very happy in fact: Our totally revised Dynamic ESA Pro (Electronic Suspension Adjustment), in conjunction with an all-new frame and linkage-free rear suspension, serves up a supremely plush ride in Road mode (there’s also Rain and Dynamic) that offsets the sternness of the seat. The base XR doesn’t get the “ESA Pro” version, but it’s a software update BMW suspects 99% of buyers will spring for and part of the Premium Tech Package [$2,075] or the Premium Package [$1,100] – neither of which contain cruise control. Which is contained in the Select Package [$1,175]. Got it?

BMW says: The key to the advance in suspension design is a new control-valve technology that is based on the conventional shim package familiar from racing. This enables the engineers to implement soft compression damping (important for comfort) and stiff rebound damping (important to prevent bouncing). In parallel, the electronic damping valve acts as a bypass in real time (cycle time: 10 ms) so that at any given instant, the damping is optimum for whichever manoeuvre, deceleration, acceleration, lean angle the rider chooses. This is accompanied by perceptible progress in the field of friction reduction to increase sensitivity. Larger piston diameters, bigger oil volume, lower system pressures, better anti-friction coatings and a new swing arm with direct-mount rear shock ensure that initial rear shock action is plusher than ever before. As on the predecessor, spring travel is 150/150 mm (f/r, with lowered suspension -30 mm). However, the new linkage-less rear shock offers less progression during short and medium suspension travel action, meaning more spring travel is now usable under normal riding conditions.


We’re in a smidge sportier riding position than the previous XR model, scooted forward 20mm and grabbing a 10mm-lower handlebar that’s 30mm narrower. It’s still super upright and naturally comfy. BMW’s marketing research for the XR tells it this bike is all about highly-educated feral people who were raised on big inline-Four sportbikes, and now wanting that kind of high-revving performance without the wrist-intensive ergonomics.

Even though there’s a new rubber mount for that handlebar, though, we seem to have regressed almost to the original 2015 bike’s buzziness – which was the biggest complaint about it. If you’re buzz-intolerant, schedule a test ride before you sign anything. (Then again, our test bike seems to be smoothing out as it approaches 700 miles on the odo: Do engines get smoother with miles like gearboxes do?)

BMW has changed the gearing a bit, giving the bike longer legs in 4th, 5th and 6th gears for lower rpm at cruising speed (8% lower in top), but the bars still tingle, and you can feel it in the bodywork and even in the new 6.5-inch TFT display. But not in the seat and footpegs. I flip on the cruise control and go light on the bars, and it’s no big deal. I come back to the Iowa again: Like that boat, this one is not the sumptuous, teak-panelled vessel I expected FDR’s Air Force One would be (back before there was an Air Force). It’s all thick gray steel and serious business, and it’s only really actualized when hurling Volkswagen-sized explosive shells at things over the horizon.

It’s not that the XR isn’t a nice place to be at 85 mph on the freeway, it’s just that a GS or RT would be far more relaxing. But that’s not why the 50-year-old XR customer is here – BMW’s research says these guys are anti-GS. What matters for them is that the XR is a far nicer place to be than an S1000RR if you’re planning on being gone all day or for a night or two.

When you hit yon winding two-lane, you begin to understand what the Iowa was designed for: It wants to go fast, shake ‘n bake fast. Switch to Dynamic with a press of the Mode button, and the suspension swings into battle stations along with the throttle response. If the engine’s a little flat in the middle, it’s only because you’re doing it wrong.

There are 158 horsepower in there, but they’re between 11 and 11,700 rpm, which is easy enough to access given the freakish oversquareness of this engine; it wants to scream, and does a fine imitation of the hairiest old race-piped literbike you’ve ever ridden. The 79.4-ft lb torque peak is at 9400, but at least that curve is nice and flat, and 80% of it is online at just over 4000 rpm. By 6500 revs, you need to be holding on, and beyond 8000 you’re glad Chewbacca is at the controls.

Well, he isn’t really, but the latest in BMW nannyware is there to keep an eye on you. It felt like a good day to attempt some wheelies for the camera, since there’s a new wheelie control system in the package thanks to a new, 6-axis IMU. Hard as I dared twist the throttle in first gear, though, the front wheel never quite came up more than an inch or three. Finally, I was flooring it from stops all the way past 11,000 rpm, same result. I coulda clutched it a bit, but, but I was afraid…

Know before you go

Later, I figured out that wheelie control is on the middle setting, 2, in the Dynamic mode I had the bike in, where she’s rigged for “optimum acceleration.” Switching to Dynamic Pro lets you dial wheelie control back to 1, and then I was able to scare myself repeatedly by whacking it open on a freeway ramp in first gear. Supposedly there’s no danger of over-rotating, but my wrist never did manage to keep it pinned as I’d instructed it to. Real wheeliers will still look down their nose at power ones. For them, Dynamic Pro also allows the turning off of all life-saving devices.

Another fun new electro-gadget would be the lean-angle display that comes up when you’ve got the TFT display in Sport mode. Try to resist looking at it mid-corner, but it’s tell-tale lets you know how far you’ve leaned in both directions, and it resets every time you turn off the bike.

I was stuck at 45 degrees on both sides for a while, but with a little more time on the bike got to 47! Stupid fun. That got the pretty good Metzeler Roadtec 01s feathered to the edges, and nothing drug except my boot edges, not even our optional centerstand.

In Dynamic mode, in corners usually taken in 2nd gear on most bikes, twisting the XR’s throttle hard at the exit barely gets a twinkle from the DTC lights. It wants to be dropped into first gear and pinned, and then you’ll see the display light up and feel the rear tire stepping out a bit. More stupid fun. Is it any faster? Who cares! There’s a quickshifter in here too, which nails the 1-2 upshift nicely every time, but which had me using the clutch in the time-honored fashion for the downshift into first. It needs too much pressure otherwise.


Ringing down to the engine room for Stop is just as impressive as Full Speed Ahead. Two 320mm discs up front clamped by four-piston calipers, and controlled by the latest in lean-sensing ABS tech, allow you to brake until the rear tire’s squirreling around behind you (or stoppie in, you guessed it, Dynamic Pro mode) – and you can deactivate rear ABS for track days if you need to.

We’ve also now got Hill Hold, as well as Dynamic Brake Control, which makes sure the throttle is shut when it senses panic braking. Maybe even better, “the dynamic brake light (DBL) is also activated: the brake light flickers and the hazard warning flashers come on, warning following traffic that the rider is slowing sharply.”

In Dynamic mode, natch, your suspension is not only bump absorbent but also keeping the bike on an even keel no matter how hard you ride. thanks to ESA’s digital preload adjuster. Pretty much everything about the new XR, from its powerband to its electronics to its new suspenders, seems to conspire to make you ride it like a maniac, hard on the gas then braking hard enough to get the rear end light. The other thing about the lean angle indicator is that you register bigger numbers by braking later, then throwing the bike harder on its side deeper into the corner.

That’s a good training aid for wannabe racers, but probably more wisely used for track days than on public roads. Anyway, after an hour or two learning not to fear the beast, by the end of my first day slithering in and out of corners, I felt like Fay Wray safely in King Kong’s paw. And now it’s been hanging around for a month, I trust this BMW to do the right thing more than I do myself, and I care not at all that its low-rpm fueling is imperfect.

Lots of motorcycles, mostly lighter ones, are going to be just as fast on tight roads as this one, but few will get your heart pounding like one that has 158 horsepower and encourages you to use most of them most of the time. And on faster, flowing roads or a race track, the XR is going to say Tschüß! to just about anything with less power. The BMW’s size is part of its charm, it’s a big dancing bear, 514 pounds on our scale with a full fuel load. That’s actually not at all bad considering our bike has an optional centerstand, luggage mounts, and a shedload of heavy electrons.

What else is new:

BMW Motorrad Connected App with arrow-guided navigation: You can spring for a Nav unit, or just use your phone to call up directions on the TFT display – you can import routes or use multiple-waypoint-guidance.

Better aerodynamics: BMW says we’ve got a 7% better drag coefficient, and the bike did treat my helmet pretty well on the freeway with the two-position standard screen in its high position. Flip it to low when you get to the curves with one hand from the saddle. The new bodywork gives more coverage to upper thighs and lower legs (also a fair amount of heat on the right leg).

LED lights and slim front turn signals are standard; the Headlights Pro option gets you DRLs and cornering lights controlled by the IMU. From the S1000RR, rear and brake lights are now integrated into the turn signals out back. Is that legal??

At the end of the era…

On bikes like this one, I sometimes wonder how far back in time we’d have to travel for me to win the Daytona 200? Anytime before we went to 1000 cc bikes in 2003, I’m pretty sure. The 2020 BMW S1000 XR is far more capable than any street-going literbike from even a decade ago, way less death-defying – and I for one wouldn’t hesitate to ride it cross-country if I had the time and money, especially if I could borrow a nice custom seat and a pair of saddlebags. (The new magnesium pannier mounts are not only integrated seamlessly into the bike, they’re also mounted in floating bushings to decouple bags from bike for less chance of wobble.)

I’d probably rather go cross-country on an R1250 RT or K1600 B, just because this terrible job has made me into a sybarite, and because I don’t usually need 158 horsepower all the time anymore. But if you do need it – and you know who you are – then this XR will take you right back to your superbike childhood, in high style and near-complete safety. Truly amazing.

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