Wes Reyneke takes BMW's new bruiser for a cruise.
WORDS Wes Reyneke IMAGES Adam Fitzgerald & BMW Motorrad SA
Part of me had high expectations when I swung a leg over the BMW R18 for the first time. But another part of me felt like BMW Motorrad had already achieved everything they had to with it. That's because before you've even fired it up, the R18 ticks all the right boxes on aesthetics alone.
It successfully encapsulates the allure of the vintage BMW R5 that it pays homage to—even if it is packaged as an oversized cruiser. Its elegant teardrop tank, piano black paint and white pinstripes are an unmistakable nod to BMW's heritage. Its faux-hardtail frame is flawlessly executed. Its exposed shaft drive is too cool for words, and the way the rear wheel hub sits 'in' the frame (just like it did on the R5) is damn slick.
I can forgive the R18's overly-chromed cockpit and the oversized exhausts, because BMW's design team got so many other things right. Heck, even the mammoth boxer motor that dominates its form is borderline art.
Sure, you can complain that the final product isn't quite as slick as the concept bike was... but when is it ever? For a production-ready motorcycle, BMW did good—the R18 is hella classy, with build quality to match.
And more importantly, it has presence. It looks just as good parked outside the prestigious Lanzerac Wine Estate in Cape Town, South Africa, where I rode it, as it does cruising between the autumn-kissed forest lanes of New Hampshire.
But as soon as I actually put some miles into the R18, I couldn't help but wonder: Is it the answer to a question no one asked?
Here's the thing: BMW Motorrad generally builds technically good motorcycles. I recently fell deeply in love with the R1250R—a liquid-cooled boxer with an ultra-sharp chassis, countless electronic aids, a quick-shifter and adjustable riding modes. But in the cruiser market, ‘technically good’ doesn’t top the list.
It's a sea of contradictions: well-balanced but with a limited lean angle; ergonomics that aid handling but hurt comfort; a motor that shakes enough to make you smile, until it’s too much.
Like the R nineT before it, BMW's challenge with the R18 was to take the modern bits that work, and scrap those that detract from the heritage ethos they're pitching. So while BMW has designed the biggest boxer motor they've ever made, they've made it visceral rather than refined.
Strike it up, and the R18 jerks to the side and settles into a satisfying shimmy at idle; just like an old boxer, except with more oomph. It's tuned for maximum torque too, with a stonking 116 lbs-ft on offer; but just 91 hp, because, if we're being honest, horsepower doesn't matter in this segment.
There's traction control, linked ABS braking and three basic rider modes—but there's no fancy TFT display. Instead, BMW kept it simple with an analogue and digital combo dial. (So simple, in fact, that there isn't even a much-needed fuel gauge.)
Those rider modes are really clever, even if they do have dismal names. 'Rock' unleashes the motor's full potential and all the vibration that goes with it, while 'Roll' turns the throttle lethargic, and 'Rain' tames it completely. At first, 'Roll' feels lame—but it ultimately makes sense for anyone who's buying an R18 purely for cruising down the local promenade.
I can't fault the R18's power delivery—even if its soundtrack is sanitized by those bloated fishtail exhausts. Power rolls on strong and raspy, and since it's a big boxer with a wide torque curve, there's a lot of room to move in each gear. The R18 has six, but most of the time it only needs three.
Just make sure you shift up before 3,000 rpm. At that point, that quirky boxer throb turns into an unbearable vibration that'll shake the change out of your pocket and have you hanging on for dear life.
Slaying corners with the R18 is both surprisingly fun but also a little frustrating. With plenty of leverage from the wide bars, and most of the weight near the ground, it's remarkably easy to pitch over all 761 lbs of the R18. That is, until the pegs hit the ground, which they do, frequently.
But when it comes to ergonomics, the R18 just has too many nits to pick. The seat, for starters, is notably uncomfortable—so much so, that I hated it within five minutes of riding.
And then there's the peg placement. The R18's PR campaign pushes the idea of mid-mounted pegs as a superior setup for handling, but the truth is there really isn't anywhere else to put the pegs on this bike.
BMW's spiel isn't entirely off-base either—with your feet more or less under you, muscling the R18 around is easier. But those pegs are in a weird spot, right where the wind can push on your thighs at speed to tire you out. And they're close enough to the seat that you'll want to stretch your legs, more than those cylinder heads will let you.
So while the R18 excels in some areas, it runs into problems elsewhere. It's a sea of contradictions: well-balanced but with a limited lean angle; ergonomics that aid handling but hurt comfort; a motor that shakes enough to make you smile, until it’s too much.
I honestly thought the R18's biggest problem would be finding an audience. But it's actually not—the thing the R18 struggles with most, is defining itself. It's a modern classic that also wants to be a cruiser, a cruiser that has roadster aspirations, and a tourer that's too uncomfortable for touring.
With any luck, future versions of the R18 will hit the mark stronger. BMW has already announced the R18 Classic, which gets a screen and soft bags, and there are rumors that a hard bagger is around the corner. Add to that the possibility of a variant in the vein of the club-style ‘Concept /2’ that was teased, and maybe the R18’s niche will figure itself out.
But ultimately, does a heritage cruiser with a 1,802 cc boxer motor really need to make any sense? One of my favorite cruisers is the Harley-Davidson Low Rider S—a wholly impractical bike with silly ergonomics, that also happens to be barrels of fun. So why do I criticize those same traits on the R18?
On my second day riding it, the things I didn’t like about the R18 seemed to matter less. The seat was still uncomfortable, the pegs still touched asphalt and the big boxer was still tiring to ride. But on day two, none of that stopped me from enjoying the ride.
Yes, the R18 is quirky, and I’m still not sure who BMW made it for—but it’s aesthetically on point, and capable enough. If you don’t overthink it, the things that hold the R18 back might actually make it charming instead.
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