Ken Hutchison, Editor-in-Chief

Is BMW's new sport-touring bike the one to beat?

The BMW Grand Tourismo, or K1600GT, is intended to be the ultimate sport-touring motorcycle. It combines a sport pedigree with hard-to-beat touring amenities to create the latest offering in a genre that's popular among riders worldwide. BMW has established itself as a leader in the Super Sport-Touring segment by engineering some of the most powerful and best handling ST machines on the road. In 2011, there’s the all new, early release 2012 model year K1600GT, which for all intents and purposes has ensured that legacy continues for a few more years. The GT features a curious new engine configuration that adds an unexpected element to the battle for supremacy: This bike's inimitable identity starts with its Inline Six-Cylinder engine. The K1600GT is based on the same chassis platform as the 2012 BMW K1600GTL with a few less amenities but the same healthy dose of power from that smooth-running Six.

The new K1600GT replaces the Inline Four-powered K1300GT as BMW’s premier Sport Touring bike. This may come as a shock to owners of the venerable 1300 model, which has been a popular sport-touring mount for many years. But believe me when I say you won’t miss it because the new bike is even more impressive.

If you haven’t already read about the American-focused 2012 BMW K1600GTL then you’ll be interested to know how we feel about the new engine in particular. In short, we love it. The Inline Six churns out a wonderful amount of power and torque in a silky smooth manner. It has good low- and mid-range power then comes on like gangbusters after that. Plus, it emits a howling sound that will turn heads and make it very difficult to let off the throttle on long, open roads.

Inside that new mill is a bank of six dainty pistons that spin to an indicated 8500 rpm redline as they put out a claimed 160 horsepower at the crank. There’s also an equally impressive 129 lb-ft of torque which arrives at just about 5200 rpm, 70% of which is available after 1500 rpm according to BMW. Think of the GT engine as a hotrod powerplant tucked inside a plush exterior, an iron fist concealed within a velvet glove, if you will. The engine, as we stated before, is an engineering masterpiece. Each cylinder is separated by a mere 5mm and overall width is surprising at only 22 inches wide. That is right on par with the Inline Four it replaces.

Modern advancements in metallurgy allowed such close tolerances to become a reality. In particular, the new gasket material was cited as one key element that is often overlooked in such a layout, as is the latest casting processes. With the cylinders placed so close together the fuel delivery system could have gone a number of directions. Six minuscule throttle bodies would be a nightmare to maintain, and a trio of traditional multi-bodied injectors was considered, but in the end a large, single throttle body with six ports channeling fuel to each cylinder was the solution.

This simple and compact fuel-injection system performed very well during our test ride. It is electronically controlled, so there is a momentary lag when opening the throttle up quickly, but that is reportedly a function of the system itself rather than a flaw. There’s no need to unleash the full power of the Six, apparently. Overall throttle response is smooth, and once you get a feel for how the bike accelerates and where the meat of the power is, you will never want to leave that sweet spot. At around 6000 rpm, the bike is pure unadulterated fun. Roll on the throttle and it accelerates hard with a hair-raising howl. There’s even a badass gear whine lurking in there somewhere. Switch off the traction control and the thing will even pull wheelies.

The six-speed transmission retains that distinct BMW ka-thunk on engagement, but it never failed to slip into gear. The GT has all the right tools, including a slipper-clutch. Gearing seemed to be great for touring as it can spool up past triple digit speeds with nary a significant vibration. First gear is fine in the parking lots and minimal clutch work is required to get going from a stop. First is a fairly tall gear, so it doesn’t like to ride at a real slow pace. The pull at the lever is really light, thanks in part to the “weighted clutch” design. Basically, the clutch pull was heavy so BMW came up with a way to assist it internally – but it comes at a price. When you are creeping along, you can feel the clutch lever pulse as the engine lugs, in a manner that reminds me of a sportbike slipper clutch when you are feathering it into a turn. It’s weird but it works.

Power is put to the ground via a shaft-driven single-sided Paralever swingarm. The design has undergone many refinements over the years, and the latest iteration continues to be smooth and well integrated into the overall platform. It resists the funky lash of the early-generation shaft-drives, and the promise of low maintenance continues to be a selling point. As with the GTL, a single adjustable shock handles suspension duties on the back. Our GT test units featured the Premium Package ($3640) that includes the Audio System (Sirius Satellite radio, iPod/USB), GPS Preparation (Unit is extra), radio software and the Safety Package, which includes the Adaptive Headlight, Dynamic Traction Control and tire pressure monitor. It was also equipped with the GT Luxury Package that consists of the second generation of the BMW Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA II), so changes in your riding style as well as rebound damping and spring rate are all open for alteration with the push of a button. The central locking system allows all bags and compartments to be locked/unlocked by a single switch with an alarm.

The multi-controller wheel on the left handle bar manages almost all of the electronics, radio and communications, plus the majority of the software. This is not a beginner’s bike, my friends; there is a load of amenities at your fingertips, but you have to learn how to access and change them all on the fly. Otherwise you’ll need to carry the instruction manual around with you and stop to make the changes. Once you get it down, though, it will keep you entertained and comfortable for hours on end.

Up front, the trademark Duolever front end offers a sure-footed ride once again. Although front-end feel is forgone for stability and dive resistance, the Duolever is great for touring bikes. You can push the GT harder than you would expect considering the size of the bike. It weighs in at a claimed 703-lbs ready to ride and stretches seven and a half feet from tip to tail, yet it feels agile. Balance is well thought out and handling is quite stable with its 66-inch wheelbase and aforementioned mass. We hustled the GT along some spectacular roads through the Franschhoek Pass, Du Toit Mountains and foothills of Aasvoelberg while riding the hills of South Africa’s southern wine country. The pavement was bumpy but clean as it twisted and turned along steep mountain ranges, and the entire lot of us was compelled to push it harder and harder as our confidence grew with every turn. The front end sticks to the road like Velcro, and the suspension does a wonderful job of sheltering the rider from road imperfections. Plus, it handles switchbacks, long and wide sweepers, and sharp turns in a way that surprised me throughout the ride.

The 2012 BMW K1600GT and K1600GTL will feature ABS as standard equipment along with the dynamic leveling headlight (this is only half of the Adaptive Headlight technology – the optional side-to-side lighting completes the functionality), heated seat and grips, cruise control, onboard computer, multi-controller and adjustable windshield. This is a huge step for BMW, which has been a leader in ABS technology within the industry after introducing the technology to motorcycles 23 years ago. Now, BMW is one of the first manufacturers to offer ABS as standard equipment.

“Plain and simple, being able to stop a motorcycle faster and more predictably helps prevent a rider from becoming a statistic,” explains Pieter de Waal, Vice President, BMW Motorrad USA. “It’s time for all of us in the motorcycle industry to embrace the benefits of ABS. Extensive testing by safety experts, law enforcement authorities and journalists around the world consistently demonstrates that ABS reduces overall crashes and saves lives.”

Our test units were also equipped with BMW’s Dynamic Traction Control, which monitors engine torque and factors in the bike’s lean angle and wheel spin in an effort to reduce the risk of crashing on rough, dirty or wet roads. You can adjust the level of TC or turn it off entirely depending on your needs. I found it seamlessly integrated into the bike as we blasted Franschoek’s canyon roads. The only time it was annoying was when trying to pull wheelies for the camera – because I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off without looking at the user manual.

There are plenty of sporty characteristics to keep a rider satisfied though. The riding position is slightly more aggressive than the GTL with the rider canted forward two inches farther than the GTL, and the pegs are two inches higher and moved forward about 45-degrees toward the bars for a more aggressive stance. The seat is quite comfortable too; it’s flat and well-padded, and I found the riding position to be great for sport touring. Over the long haul, the GT is actually more comfortable for me at 5’ 8,” but taller riders reported the GTL was better suited for them with the extra leg room and upright riding position. Seat height is a real point of interest for BMW. The standard seat has a range of adjustability between 31.9-to-32.7 inches. There’s an optional low seat which offers a range from 31.5-to-30.7 inches as well. Factor in the amenities including the Adaptive Headlight, electronically adjustable windscreen, ESA II and Traction Control, and it is hard to deny that the GT is a formidable sport-touring motorcycle that doesn’t compromise much in either the sport or the touring aspects of the riding experience.

Like the GTL, the GT is a technologically advanced bike. In addition to all the methods intended to make the riding experience better, the bike also features creature comforts such as a communications system, entertainment system and provisions for navigation that push it close to the Luxury-Touring side of the spectrum. You can sync your Bluetooth setup to the GT and get info or tunes piped directly into your helmet. I found that the annoying GPS voice outweighed the entertainment offered by the music, so I listened to tunes the "old-fashioned" way – cranking MP3s through the dash-mounted speakers.

The windscreen is electronically adjustable, providing a significant range of wind protection and adjustability. At full mast, the windscreen is overkill for a short rider like myself and the fairing offers so much in the way of protection that BMW actually came up with a simple ventilation mechanism that channels air right into the rider’s lap. Two side vent/tabs are manually opened and the extra airflow is a huge difference from when they are closed off.

If you didn’t get the impression that the K1600GT is a great motorcycle, then let’s make that statement clear. BMW’s new K1600GT has raised the bar in the sport-touring category. Its combination of rider comfort, powerful engine and state-of-the-art technology integrated across the board are sure to make it the most coveted sport-touring bike on the market today.