A Mini-Van for Millennials is Actually a Sleeper for Gen X
F900R and F900XR
BMW Factory Press Launch Santa Barbara California
March 3, 2020

by Sam Q. Fleming

Once upon a time Dodge released an ugly but incredibly practical passenger vehicle onto an unsuspecting suburban population and ushered in millions of mini-van sales.   These sensible vehicles were the perfect solution to a utilitarian transportation need. The ubiquitous mini-van even became short hand to represent suburban motherhood. Intrinsically there is nothing wrong with suburbs, or motherhood, but the mini-van became a pejorative. Although a design triumph of practicality, they became a symbol of staid monotony.

Enter the SUV. Although 99.9% of the miles logged were on pavement, and they are actually more dangerous for children due to roll overs, the SUV offered the illusion of frontier spirit to the denizen of subdivisions. The mini-van was replaced by the now standard issue SUV, albeit with less comfort and interior space.

Professional rider depicted on private property.
The F900R will not do this without a fair amount
of caning from the rider, and disabling the
electronic nannies. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

With motorbikes we followed a similar path. Standard motorcycles with road tires and pavement focused suspension and brakes slowly morphed into sport bikes. Although I love sport bikes with almost all my heart, they make terrible street bikes. So, the dilemma, buy the road version, and face the ridicule of “Why didn’t you buy the sport version?” or buy a big upright lazy bike that looks all butch and tough. Enter the adventure bike. Although objectively ill-suited for road riding what with the semi-knobby tires, high weight and compromised handling, they are so comfortable. And, rather than looking like a sensible mini-van, they speak to aspirational tours to far off places.

So far so good.

Use the spin thing (which rocks in and out as well) and the menu button to get into the engine control
settings to set the power to maximum turn off the ABS, the TC, and the wheelie control. Then hit
that button with the circle thing on it to let the bike work like a bike. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

Ten years ago BMW decided to combat their old man reputation by building the fastest sport bike on the planet. That opened up a new market and customer base and gave BMW a performance reputation that slapping some carbon valve covers on a mostly aircooled twin had, surprisingly, not secured.

However, they released the S1000RR right as the sportbike sales wave was crashing against the rocks of the global financial crisis. No doubt many a meeting room across the motorcycle industry reverberated with confident predictions that soon sales would recover…eventually.

But a demographic time bomb had been building for years in the USA, if only we’d been quiet enough to hear the ticking. Automatic transmissions.

A stylish muffler draws the eye away from the pedestrian chain adjusters. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

Boomers all learned to drive on manual transmissions, and, once your brain has learned about engagement points and gears changes, the transition to a motorbike (coupled with some basic bicycle skills) was pretty easy. Gen Xers, what with our unsupervised bicycle riding of the 70s, and, again, manual transmission starter cars of the 80s, supported the motorcycle boom of the 90s and early 00s. But Millenials, as a rule, learned to drive late, and learned to drive solely on automatic transmissions. In fact, my daughter almost failed her driver’s test because the proctor kept insisting she put her car in “Park” and the poor girl has no idea how to respond with her five speed.

Plus, of course, it is impossible to ride a motorcycle without putting down the smartphone.

Put yourself in the shoes of the hapless motorcycle manufactures, trying to design a product for a shrinking customer base which, by the market research of the manufactures are: intimidated by the vehicles, have terrible riding skills sets, no interest in mechanics and, as a rule, don’t want to do anything that requires putting down the phone.   #FML.

A beautiful TFT display with lots of different display screens and configurations. Apparently that’s
what the kids are into these days. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

BMW, following along with Yamaha and others from the past five years, has decided the solution to the vanishing motorcycle customer base must be to lower the price of admission, and hence, the F900R. Only slightly paraphrasing the official press briefing the design criteria was “It’s gotta sell for under $9,000, look cool in photos, and make the performance as bland as possible so as not to intimidate the customers and tons of electronic rider’s aids to reassure our nervous notional customer that’s its safe.”

It checks all the boxes. It’s pretty. It has neat LED lights. It has a pretty instrument cluster. It has phone integration. The seat is narrow and lowish which gives riders with balky clutch skills a fighting chance of keeping the bike’s ponderous bulk upright in low speed maneuvers. The press briefing focused on the aspirational market for the bike and, while the photos depicted smiling connected social mobile local millennials (female!) straddling bikes while wearing sneakers (no ATGATT brah?), the expected average age of folks actually buying the bike is…43. So, skinny jeans for Gen X?

BMW had determined that most people buy the F model on appearance alone and, to their credit, the bike looks great in pictures and IRL. They are releasing both Berlin built models in a wide variety of colors with the possibility of matching luggage and accessories. In fact, there is a dizzying array of up- sell features available like quick shifters, lever guards and dynamic suspension. There are also a complex arrays of ride modes, anti-lock brake, anti-wheelie control and traction control settings.

Current emissions laws dictate big exhaust systems. The XR puts a lot of it just before the rear wheel.
That long swing arm attached with no linkage the shock dictates a pretty beefy spring, but it comes
with a handy remote prelude adjuster. Both the R and the XR were comfortable riding standing
when the pavement got rough. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

In fact, the press briefing was pretty much solely focused on the lights, the style, the electronic settings that they barely mentioned the engine, suspension or frame. Most of all, they didn’t mention the weight.

The F900R , replete with steel frame, weighs 465 lbs while the XR version scales at 483. The Yamaha MT-09, the bike which BMW stated as their direct competitor for the F900, weighs in 424lbs and, being a triple, has 115hp to the BMW twin’s 99hp. Tough competition indeed.

Which brings us to the R and the XR. The R is the naked bike which starts at $8,995 while the XR starts at, the XR has higher bars, slightly longer travel suspension, and a bikini fairing which starts at $11,695. Checking a couple boxes on the order form can add $2,850 to the purchase price to add heated grips, GPS prep, saddlebag mounts, tire pressure monitoring, cruise control, keyless ride, gear shift assist pro, ride modes pro, anti-theft alarm, dynamic rear shock and fancier headlights that illuminate more in turns. There is also a factory lowering kit, a variety of seats to change the seat height and both hard and soft bags.

One of the author’s youthful female riding buddies ‘Luci’ has a non-riding mid-twenties female
friend ‘Chelsea’. One day Chelsea commented that Luci was kind of an old man trapped in a
young woman’s body. Met with quizzical eyes Chelsea elucidated that Luci was “into old man stuff
like cows, and motorcycles.” Remember that the next time you are tempted to feel cool pulling
your helmet down over your gray hair. Old man stuff. Like Cows. And motorcycles. (Photo by
Kevin Wing)

Quite frankly, after the press briefing I was prepared to hate the bike. Both are good looking motorbikes and at least they were designed to be ridden on the street without dirt pretensions. They also don’t have linkage rears suspension (costs more), have non-adjustable forks (costs more), have steel frames (what year is this?), and cheap chain adjusters, levers and master cylinders. Anywhere on the bike that non-mechanical people wouldn’t notice, that’s where BMW shaved costs. BMW put the money into the lights and the instrument panel. Although I love super bright headlights, I also appreciate a good swingarm.

My recreational street riding is bi-modal. Most of it takes place on the delightfully curvy roads in the mountains of West Virginia and my riding companions are divided between the Raid group (ex and current road racers, all experts, a spirited pace where the tires blue overnight) and the Princess Sparkle Pony Ride (PSPR) group (my daughter and three other millennial females, plus some of the experts…riding their vintage bikes or other slow stuff). I tried to put myself in the mindset of the latter group but the ride leader in California was very much thinking the former.

I rode the XR for the morning and the R in the afternoon. The first thing I did was get into the settings and turn off the ABS, the wheelie control and the traction control. The XR ships with Michelin’s superb Road 5 tires. I have a fair amount of hours on this rubber and know for a fact that the rear tire will wheelie, not spin, in the rain. That 180 tire was not in any danger of lighting up from the F900’s meager power output.

The R has a riding position that is roadster, not sport bike, but it allows the rider to get over the
axle and weight the front more. BMW did an excellent job of making an attractive roadster at a
low price without going down the nostalgia path. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

Our morning route was a mix of California suburb and canyon scratching. I thought the low seat would squish my 5’ 10” frame to the foot pegs, I thought the bucketed seat would get uncomfortable, I thought the budget suspension would annoy me. But I thought wrong. The first part of our ride was Princess Sparkly Pony pace. And the XR’s lazy engine, upright seating position, even the easy flip up adjustable windshield, were all very civilized. I could easily see the bike being a friendly, low-intimidation all day bike for leading a PSPR. Yeah, the seat was a little low, but they have taller ones available from the factory.

Once we got to the canyons my riding colleague’s enthusiasm required that I up my game. The XR has more of a rear wheel weight bias and the high bars make it very difficult to load the front tire with body weight. But for an upright, it could hustle. The chassis, relaying feedback through overly stiff springs (for my 175lbs) felt pretty dead but the Michelins only ever moved when crossing gravel. If I’m riding fast I like a lot of feedback from the chassis, however, all that feedback is tiring and distracting when I’m not trying to ride fast. The BMW is engineered to be less tiring over a day of riding which means less chit-chat from the bike.

Initially I didn’t like the front brake as I was trail braking into turns to try to keep the long travel suspension compressed. The brakes lacked bite at the first 5% of lever travel but, as the ride worn on, I realized that it was just that the bike I was riding only have 8 miles on it and the pads had not yet bed into the rotors. Once broken in, the brakes worked well for the rhythm of the roads.

Dual long air snouts feed cool air from in front of the radiator into the four valve, 13.1:1 forged piston 895
parallel twin. The crankshaft is a 90 degree which means the bike fires more like a v-twin than a parallel
twin. In a high horsepower performance setting the longer duration between power pulses gives the tire
time to recovery, in this context it was to give a ‘characteristic sound’. (Photo by Sam Fleming)

And the XR hid its weight well. We were rolling hard on paved single lane at a pace more appropriate for Raid than PSPR, cleaning the rear tires, and using full throttle off the apexes to try to make incrementally tiny bits of time on the parsimonious straights (50 feet?) between blind second gear turns (with no center line). The fueling on the F900 is very linear without the snatchyness one expects from the ultra-lean mixtures required for the EPA. The XR even responded well to mid corner corrections required by the odd erratic boulder or washed out section of road. Sure, the suspension wasn’t ideal, but that was at a pace that, honestly, most of the target market for this bike will never attain. And at cruise, the parallel twin, with its dual counter balancers, was very smooth, smoother than many fours. The foot pegs were absolutely placid and the bars only had a bit of buzz in them but nothing that intruded.

The transmission was robust. Passing on the highway (100mph?) required more of a middleweight tactic. Drop two gears. Pin the throttle. Speed shift (my bike didn’t have the quick shifter but PRO TIP: You can speed shift most modern bikes!) as the RPM approached redline. The highway passing was one of the things that would put this bike firmly in the PSPR, not Raid, camp. It is perfectly happy rolling along at a brisk pace on its own, but it needs some runway to get around traffic on back roads.

And that seating position is so comfortable! The high bars make is easy to ride standing up, either over rough pavement or just to stretch the legs.

Exuberant hooligan riding gets to the next level screen. A quick rolling key off reboot put things
back to normal. (Photo by Sam Fleming)

After lunch I switched to one of the R models. The XR is definitely more of the old man bike to the R. The R has lower bars (but by no means low), Bridgestone S21 R tires (another very good tire), slightly less travel (but the springs on both bikes are so stiff it ain’t like I was getting through the suspension on either one) and no fairing.

As expected, the R felt a little sassier in all regards and was a little more inspiring to hooligan antics. There was only about 60 seconds to familiarize myself with the bike from throwing my leg over the bike for the first time to where Kevin Wing was shooting photos in the vineyard but I was able to clutch up a mono for him.

The R was definitely more of the rider’s bike. The lighter weight and lower riding position meant it was easier to scratch on the canyon roads but it still was far from anything like sport bike ergonomics. Trying to keep a pace on the bike meant riding like a lightweight. Keep the engine spun up, keep the momentum through the turn and get the throttle wide open every chance you can.

The R has about 3% more weight on the front wheel and, coupled with the lower bars, it was a bit easier to get the front tire loaded in the hard canyon carving. Sure, the lack of the XR fairing means a bit more cool mountain air into the front of my vented leathers but the bike isn’t really fast enough to generate that much wind blast and, what wind lift there is balances nicely with the bar height. And the $2,700 price difference between the R and the XR easily pays for an electric vest and a nice multi-season riding suit.

The XR holds its own well outside of its natural element. The flip up windshield helps take the chill off
the morning and the Michelin’s perform admirably on dirt roads, wet or dry. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

Our afternoon route took us over some very rough decaying pavement. Potholes, gravel, broken pavement. The budget suspension was a bit stiff for such shocks but it was easy enough to just stand on the pegs and ride it like an enduro.

Watching the sun set over the Pacific I reflected on the past 250 miles of aggressive riding. For comfort on a PSPR, I’d grab the XR. But for all other riding, it would be the R all the way. As far as BMW’s aspiration for this bike to be the sensible mini-van for my millennial female riding friends’ second bike? No. Too heavy.  

However, for the Gen Xers looking for an entry into a great brand at a bargain basement price? Oh yeah, these work.

About your author: Sam Fleming has logged 300,000 street miles on various BMWs, captained the national endurance team Army Of Darkness to thirteen national championships(five on BMWs) and mentors a group of princess sparkle pony street, track day and dirt riders.

(Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)

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