by Kevin Duke

Not your Typical BMW Motorcycle

What’s this? A BMW with floorboards and a heel/toe shifter? That places style ahead of functionality? Blasphemy!

Well, not entirely. Although things like a large handlebar-mounted fairing, floorboards and a heel/toe shifter are new to BMW, components such as the excellent Telelever front suspension and the venerable Boxer Flat-Twin engine are integral pieces of the tried-and-true Beemer package.

You might remember the 2003 BMW R1200CL from our Spy Vs. Spy adventure in Northern California, when we spotted some touring bikes we’d never seen before undergoing a clandestine photo shoot. The CL and its crew did their best to evade our prowling cameras, but strategy and perseverance paid off with some of the first spy shots ever of the new touring-cruiser. In case you missed the espionage-filled tale, it’s right here.

Like all motorcycle companies, BMW is in business to make money. And while BMW’s motorcycle business has been strong of late (with 2001 sales up 13.5% compared to 5% for the general motorcycle market and its worldwide sales doubled in the last four years, bringing total worldwide production up to 85,000 last year), BMW is still not hitting the most lucrative of segments, cruisers,  hard enough.

2003 BMW R1200CL Review 

BMW accounts for just 2% of the American market, with sales anticipated to hit 15,000 for the first time. And while BMW ranks third in the Touring category, the long-distance class represents just 18% of the total on-road market in the U.S. Of the 813,611 streetbikes sold in the U.S. last year, the Cruiser category held 51% of the market. BMW’s R1200C, introduced in 1997, dipped into that pie. The new R1200CL is meant to straddle the line between pure cruiser and touring bike for another bite at the pastry.

“The cruiser market is an excellent opportunity to win people over to BMW,” said Tim Hirst, BMWNA product manager, at the CL’s launch at the posh Biltmore Estates in Asheville, North Carolina, underlining that the cruiser market represents the largest sales potential.

The R1200C, as BMW notes, wasn’t a copy of any other cruiser. The spinning propeller company blazed its own trail in making the C unique among other cruiser clones. Its typical owner was 46-years-old with an average income of $100,000. But BMW notes that the age of cruiser customers is moving upward, and 64% of them like to ride with a passenger.

In response, BMW has introduced the R1200CL, a touring-cruiser that offers a host of luxury amenities to pamper aging riders, plus plush accommodations for the back seat rider.

The “Montana” version of the R1200C featured a bolt-on windscreen and soft-look hard luggage to the base model that was BMW’s first foray into the touring cruiser category, but the new CL is a thoroughly reworked machine. (The Classic, Phoenix and Montana versions of the 1200C will continue in BMW’s lineup, but the Stiletto and Euro models have gone to the great salvage yard in the sky.)

The most obvious change is the funky new handlebar-mounted fairing that vaguely mimics Harley-Davidson’s FLTR Road Glide, one of the CL’s hard bagged and faired touring-cruiser competitors, though the RG’s fairing is frame-mounted. Other bikes in the CL’s category include Harley’s Electra Glide and T-Sport, Kawasaki’s Vulcan 1500 Nomad and Yamaha’s Royal Star Venture. Nothing, however, has the visual presence of the CL’s front view; with its R1150GS high-beams and R80GS lows, it looks like a cross between a mutant insect and a rocket launcher.

Conventional wisdom says that mounting a wide, heavy fairing to the handlebars is a recipe for a top-heavy motorcycle, and that’s indeed the case with the CL. Strangely, BMW reps weren’t able to come up with a good reason why that design was chosen over a frame-mounted unit. With that weight carried high and attached to the steering system, the CL is awkward at low speeds, as evidenced by one journo who tipped over a CL in the Biltmore’s parking lot.

Once past walking speed, the CL becomes friendlier. A wide, angled-back chrome handlebar with typical BMW controls reach toward the rider, and mirrors that incorporate turn signals offer good rearward vision while deflecting elements from hands that hold the standard, two-position heated grips. (A late revision to the bike is the air passages cut into the bottoms of the mirrors that are claimed to create less turbulence.) A new seat rests 29.3 inches from the ground, and a narrower portion near its front allow legs a straight shot at the ground below. A classy, restrained gauge cluster holds an analog clock (when’s the last time you’ve seen anything but a digital clock on a bike?) at its center so tourers know when it’s time to bring the ride to a halt.

Part cruiser, part sport-tourer, the 2003 BMW R1200CL is a curious creature. 

Power from the 1170cc Flat-Twin arrives early, aiding the relaxed cruising encouraged by the CL. Claimed peak torque of 72 ft-lbs arrives at just 3,000 rpm, giving the Bertha Beemer the poke to get out of its own way. But the CL’s engine is identical to its cruiser brother’s, and thus retains its paltry 61-hp peak.

Ridden like a cruiser, the fuel-injected Twin does the job without fuss. But if you have any aspirations of running down a well-ridden Gold Wing, you’ll be about as disappointed as when Billy Bob got the news Angelina wanted a divorce.

Making the most of what power it has, the CL is equipped with a new 6-speed gearbox. Re-angled gear teeth make for less whine, and a fettered shift mechanism offers smoother gear changes. These tranny revisions will be adapted for use on all other BMW Boxers for ’03. Changing gears conventionally (with the toe shifter) requires only a light touch at the lever; oddly, shifting via the heel shifter takes much more effort, as the shorter distance from the pivot point to the heel end offers less leverage. And, though big feet might be a hit with the ladies, with big boots they will barely fit under the toe shifter.

Sixth gear is way overdriven at 0.698:1, and even fifth is an overdrive, keeping revs low and relaxed. A 70-mph cruise equals 3000 rpm in top gear, right at the engine’s torque peak and below the 3,500-rpm threshold at which vibration through bars becomes intrusive. With the tall gearing and not a whole lot of thrust from the engine, roll-on power at elevated speeds is leisurely. BMW says the CL has a top speed of just over 100 mph, and my experience on a lightly-trafficked portion of North Carolina’s magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway gives me no reason to doubt it. But if you need a touring rig to cruise into and above the 80-mph mark and still want a BMW, look instead at the K1200LT.

A stretched out 33.5-degree rake, compared to the C’s 29.5-degree geometry, aids straight-line traveling, and a 64.6-inch wheelbase nets plenty of room for things like protective fairing lowers (that also house the electronics for the bike’s cruise control and optional engine-disabling alarm system) and thick, roomy seats. The high-ish and wide bars give arms a straight shot at levering some agility into the lumbering beast.

For the fat-tire look, ya gotta have, well, fat tires. Greater fork spacing in the revised Telelever allows a huge 150-section front tire on a stylish new 16-inch double-spoke wheel that accentuates the CL’s chunky look. A matching 15-inch rear wheel is shown off on the left side by a single-sided swingarm, and it looks quite beefy with the 170-section rear rubber. The 80-series tires provide a tall sidewall for smoother ride quality.

At press intros, motorcycle companies always try to find a suitable environment in which to test the qualities specific to the new machine. In this respect, it was mighty kind of North Carolina to build the Blue Ridge Parkway for the CL. A 45-mph speed limit keeps velocities low enough to enable riders to take in the sights of the glorious tree-covered rolling hills, while the optional CD/stereo provides an appropriate soundtrack. Considering the CL’s claimed wet weight of 679 lbs. (compared to 565 lbs. for the C), may we suggest Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom”?

Like a chunky ballerina, the CL has some surprisingly good moves as long as the going doesn’t get too tight. Keep the speed above about 30 mph, and the CL has neutral steering that allows for pavement carving beyond expectations. Communication from the contact patches to the rider is quite vague, but once you learn to trust the grip available there is enough cornering clearance to attain silly angles of lean for this type of bike. In fact, I can’t recall another cruiser-style motorcycle I’ve ridden that has as much available lean angle. And when ridden in a pack, the CLs sound like a bunch of dirttrackers as the throaty exhaust from the shorty pipes harmonize with each other as the revs rise and fall in concert. Good fun and surprising speed.

Take the CL to a tight, twisting road where the corner speeds are low, however, and it seems like a huge mutant penguin on land. Instead of graceful, the CL becomes ungainly. It wants to continue falling over in slow corners, so a rider has to apply opposite bar pressure or extra throttle to counteract the downward rotation. A bit of driveline lash from the shaft drive rears its head in the tight stuff, too. Jump back into the icy waters of Antarctica/Blue Ridge, and the giant marine bird regains its grace.

The suspension of the pengu…, er, CL does a good job at controlling the significant size of the rig while remaining plush over the bumps. Especially impressive is the Telelever front end. Despite the large amount of weight carried high, the bike’s nose barely dips under even hard braking.

BMW’s EVO power brakes, roundly criticized for being too sensitive since their introduction, were revised for all models last April, including the new CL. While less touchy than before, the power-boosted binders still require more careful attention to modulation than brakes on other bikes. A rider grows accustomed to their sensitivity, but I prefer a simple and direct hydraulic actuation from motorcycle brakes. And applying the brakes when the engine is shut off for the first time will test your bladder control, as “without the power booster working" they take a big squeeze to get any significant bite. Scary and potentially dangerous if, say, you’re repositioning your bike on a hill without the engine running. Still, the way the upgraded brakes as compared to the R1200C (larger 12.0-inch front with 4-piston calipers, 11.2 rear with a twin-piston caliper) scrub off speed from such a large bike is exemplary.

BMW’s Integral ABS is standard equipment on the CL. The ABS part is self-explanatory, and BMW is the recognized leader in bringing this safety technology to motorcycles. It’s available on every bike BMW sells. The “Integral” part refers to the German company’s version of linked brakes. Actuating either the handlebar brake lever or the foot-operated brake pedal apply both front and rear brakes. So if you haven’t got used to covering the front brake lever with a couple of fingers, a stab on the brake pedal will get the job done. Four-position handlebar levers adjust to fit nearly any size hand, but a bit of a reach from the floorboard to the rear brake pedal increases reaction time.

One of the most controversial features of the CL is its “M” shaped windshield that dips in the middle so a rider can have an unimpeded view of the road. There are actually three different shields available for the CL. The low windshield is standard, and it was about perfect for my 5’8″ body. I could ride in comfort without lowering my helmet’s faceshield, with no annoying buffeting. When sitting up higher, some wind hit the top of my helmet, so taller riders will want to fit the optional higher “Touring” screen. Also optional is the “Deluxe” screen that doesn’t have the dip of the others. My only problem with the standard windshield is that a rider has to look through its tall edges in tight corners, though that would be the case with a conventional screen as well.