2021 BMW R 18 Review: The Germans’ First American Cruiser Is a Promising but Flawed Start
Harley-Davidson and Indian should keep an eye on the R 18, because BMW Motorrad’s first crack at a cruiser has a lot of potential.
For decades now, BMW Motorrad has been defined by its Adventure bikes—notably, the tough-yet-elegant GS 1200. The German brand makes all kinds of motorcycles, and by and large they’re excellent machines with bulletproof powertrains and impeccable European styling. With the 2021 BMW R 18, though, it's clear the company is now stepping onto some new turf.
The GS dual-sport remains the one motorcycle most casual riders picture when they think of BMW Motorrad. The venerated on and off-road machine is consistently a top-selling motorcycle in Europe and has been for years. Still, there's a Beemer-shaped hole in the lucrative American cruiser segment, and while the market has notably dwindled from the halcyon days of the late '90s and early 2000s, American motorcycle buyers have shown they still love their large-displacement, heavyweight cruisers and are happy to pay $20,000 or more for them if you can get the formula right. It also helps that Germans love Harleys, too.
Ergo, one of BMW's latest motorcycles is the R 18, a cruiser built to satisfy (and emulate) stateside tastes. With a stripped-down, classic profile that finds its elegance in nostalgia, a relaxed riding position and an oversized, pavement-ripping 1800cc boxer engine at its heart, the R 18 is Milwaukee by way of Bavaria, a big twin cruiser aimed squarely at the likes of Harley-Davidson and Indian.
Above all, what we Americans demand from bikes like these is a comfortable ride with plenty of style and a ton of power. It sounds simple, and in a sense it is, but 500 miles on this distinctive German entry showed that even a powerhouse like BMW Motorrad still has work to do if it's going to win the hearts and minds (and wallets) of traditional cruiser fans—though the R 18 definitely a promising start.
2021 BMW R 18 Specs
- Base Price (as Tested): $18,190 ($20,565)
- Powertrain: 1,802cc air/oil-cooled two-cylinder four-stroke boxer | six-speed transmission
- Horsepower: 91 hp @ 4,750 rpm
- Torque: 116 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
- Curb Weight: 761 lbs
- Length: 8 feet
- Fuel Tank Capacity: 4.23 gallons
- Seat Height: 27.2 inches
- Quick Take: It looks incredible and rides like it should, but it needs some tweaks to truly compete with American cruisers.
Berlin-Built and Made for America
Purists will recognize the profile. The R 18’s design is clearly reminiscent of the legendary R5 model of the 1930s. Even the analog speedometer reads “Berlin Built” in Fraktur-esque block type on an antique-white face. I admit the sweeping fishtail exhaust pipe perhaps isn’t for everyone; luckily, the accessories catalog offers up a few options and the aftermarket will surely provide more.
Visually, the R 18 is unlike any other cruiser on the road today. The tubular, soft-tailed frame and low-slung seat create a custom-like silhouette. The exposed driveshaft exudes attitude. And BMW’s top-notch design touches like spoked wheels, chrome highlights, and the bike's bullet headlight fit right into the custom cruiser aesthetic.
But the heart of the R 18 is that gorgeous, monstrous 1800cc engine—the largest boxer BMW has ever built. On the side stand, you can’t help but gawk at it. And from the saddle, you can’t help but flog the crap out of it. With a displacement of 1802cc, BMW lists its peak horsepower of 91 at 4,750 rpm. From a stop, the R 18 has tremendous—and tremendously smooth—low-end grunt. Despite the 761-pound weight, it's surprisingly maneuverable at slow speeds thanks to the horizontally-opposed motor’s placement and an overall low center of gravity.
But it’s more than just raw power. The R 18 takes full advantage of BMWs renowned tech, with LED head and tail lights and a killer adaptive turning headlight. A keyless fob provides security. Other technical refinements include automatic stability control, engine drag torque control, hill start, and a reverse assist that makes parking lot maneuvering a lot easier on a 761-pound bike.
The R 18 also offers three standard riding modes you can select with a toggle on the left grip. Rain mode provides smoother throttle response and more traction control for slippery tarmac; Roll mode maintains easy throttle action but lets the power roar; and Rock mode lets it all cut loose for as sporty a ride as you can expect from a heavy cruiser. Still, it’s 2021; standard cruise control would’ve been nice. (It's an option, but wasn't available on the test bike.)
In the saddle, the R 18 provides a spacious, roomy cockpit for its rider. The wide handlebar puts its grips within easy reach, and while I would have preferred a slightly narrower grasp, it wasn’t at all unwieldy. The mid-controls provide plenty of stability and an easy knee-bend. And the generous and plush saddle is ideal for ample American asses.
With its low center of gravity, rider-friendly seat height, and wide handlebar, this bike is as fun to ride as any big twin cruiser I’ve enjoyed. And on the twisty two-lane country roads north of the city, it dove smoothly into and pulled out of lazy curves with aplomb and style—though it did scrape its pegs through every turn.
Better the pegs than the cylinder cans, I suppose, but if there’s one drawback to its riding dynamics, it’s that astonishingly unforgiving lean angle. At any speed, the footpeg sliders carve into the pavement at the mere notion of a turn. I just got used to it after a while. My riding buddies said the shower of sparks behind me looked cool. So there was that.
The R 18 also lacks a fuel gauge. There’s an idiot light and a mileage counter that oddly doesn’t show miles to “empty,” but instead how many miles you’ve ridden since it came on. Weird. My advice? Fill up that 4.2-gallon tank often, because this beast Does. Not. Sip.
R 18's Design Is a Visual Blessing and a Functional Curse
As mentioned above, the riding position is comfortable on the road and on the highway—but it’s also the R 18’s biggest conundrum. Everyone I spoke with who’s ridden BMW’s cruiser agrees: The very thing that makes the R 18 so distinctive from other cruisers is precisely what prevents it from being a great cruiser.
Everything about the R 18 boils down to that big, beautiful boxer. The massive cylinder cans—huge in diameter—stick way out from the engine block, likely preventing the bike’s designers from putting the footpegs anywhere else. So once your feet are on the pegs, that’s where they must stay. You just can’t comfortably or safely stretch your legs forward or rest your feet anywhere except on those pegs.
A staid riding position that allows no freedom to squirm, shift, or bend your knees is a huge problem for cruiser riders, who often put in long hours and hundreds of miles a day. Touring would be a huge pain, literally; you’d need to stop and stretch a lot (good opportunity to gas up, I suppose). It’s a shame because this bike is such a joy to spend long stretches of time with.
It’ll be interesting to see if and how BMW and/or the aftermarket addresses this issue. From the only place that matters—the saddle—there’s no easy fix in sight.
Timing the Competition
Many motorcycle companies have taken aim at Harley-Davidson over the years. Most have failed. For decades, the Japanese companies cranked out low-priced facsimiles that were stylistically passable and debatably more dependable. But even the Big Four—Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha—have heavily curtailed cruiser production recently. Indeed, Yamaha quietly shuttered its Star cruiser division entirely a couple of years ago and appears to have removed the term from its website altogether.
Polaris’ resuscitation of the iconic Indian Motorcycle brand a few years back was successful, however. Its deep corporate pockets allowed Indian to not just survive but compete with Harley. As a result, Indian hit the ground running with fantastic products such as retro cruisers to the attractive FTR streetfighter that satisfied customers and lived up to the name.
With regard to the BMW, there’s no denying the obvious. The R 18 is rather late to the whole “custom cruiser” game. That genre peaked long ago, and riders who wanted one then probably already have one in their garage now. Heck, if the R 18 had been released 15 years ago, it would have enjoyed colorful, red-faced discourse from Paul Junior and Senior about its legitimacy on “American Chopper.” Alas, that time has passed.
In a genre historically dominated by lookalikes and one-upmanship, the R 18 proudly stands on its own. The fact that you can ride a cruiser so distinctive straight off of a dealership lot is impressive; the fact that you can do it for under $20,000 is even more so. In this sense, it certainly has a chance to compete with Harley-Davidson and Indian.
A Shifted Market
Regardless, the R 18 is gonna be a tough sell at any price, so its success remains unclear. The American motorcycle market has sputtered in recent years and what remains has changed significantly. Despite a pandemic bump over the last year or so, new street-bike sales have plummeted in the last decade. Consumers are overwhelmingly choosing smaller, lighter, and more affordable bikes. Or opting to buy used.
Still, BMW Motorrad tried something different here. The R 18 is a tasteful nod to the past and a welcome addition to the cruiser segment. Its biggest hurdle remains in finding a target audience. Are its buyers American cruiser riders or BMW aficionados looking for a different type of motorcycling experience?
If you're an open-minded cruiser rider with some cash to spare, certainly give the BMW R 18 a test ride. It’s that much fun, it looks that cool, and the cost of entry is relatively friendly. Just be sure to hit that next gas stop because you’re going to need to stretch your legs, anyway.
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