CAPE TOWN – Perched behind the tiny screen of the F850 GS, I pierce the thick, chilly fog. Sure, these heated grips are lovely, but was it really worth it swapping the warmth of my bed for this test of human endurance at 05:30? Suddenly, the icy blanket lifts, revealing the turn-off to an inviting stretch of dirt road and all is forgiven. This is the essence of adventure riding: new experiences on pretty much every ride, taking one's mind off the chores of daily life.

New engine

This all-new, mid-size enduro motorcycle replaces the F800-series machines and features a new 853 cm3 parallel twin engine designed by BMW but manufactured under license by Loncin in China (where the bike is also assembled). It now features a 270-degree firing order mimicking the character of a V-twin. Although torquey, the soundtrack is somewhat muted because of European legislation (I'm sure a change in end-can would revive the rumble). The 850 offers 70 kW compared with the 57 kW of the F750 (a detuned road-biased version with conventional front shocks). Even with twin-balancer shafts, a fair amount of vibration still reaches the rider.

What else is new?

Walking up to the bike, it's evident this is no facelift. The fuel tank has moved back to the standard position (remember the under-seat tank of the F800?) and the frame is now of a steel bridge monocoque design replacing the steel trellis, with the engine being a load-bearing unit. In Rallye spec, the bike gets minor cosmetic enhancements, including the addition of golden-anodised wheels, hand guards and red-and-blue decals (on white paint). There's no denying this is a good looking machine.

Taking centre stage, though, is the 6,5-inch full-colour TFT display replacing the analogue layout of before. Part of me misses the sweeping of the needles but this screen is one of the best of its type we have encountered from an ease-of-use and legibility point of view. The advantage is that in a bike bristling with technology like the Rallye, the cluster can easily adapt to display a host of information to the rider, effortlessly controlled with the “menu” button and handlebar multi-controller. Last mentioned also functions with the optional sat-nav when installed.

On the move

During a 300 km ride on tar and dirt, the adaptive suspension (dynamic ESA) – which can be separately toggled to the ride modes (rain, road, dynamic and enduro pro) – did a great job in providing comfort or precision when needed. Our test bike was fitted with knobbly tyres and it was found that the enduro pro mode would allow sufficient slip and sliding of the rear tyre (also disabling ABS) on dirt, but keep a certain level of stability safety-systems active for rider preservation. Obviously, the rider can switch those off as well if desired.

The 21-inch front wheel did a great job of finding traction on some sandy sections and the clutch-less quick-shifter is useful when swapping gears without easing the grip on the handlebars in tight situations. The advantage of a mid-size adventure bike is that the rider can attempt more technical terrain than would be enjoyable on a heavier bike such as the legendary R1200 GS (the 1250 GS will be launched soon).

Summary

BMW is dominating the local bike sale charts and it's easy to see why. Its bikes offer the capability the rider requires (as well as the lifestyle angle) with a service network to back up the product. The recent introduction of the G310 GS to our market opened adventure riding to a new, younger client base that could soon crave a move up the ranks. That is where the F 850 GS comes in, offering true long-range expedition potential without being as intimidating as the larger 1200.

The only concern we have is that the gulf in price (of more than R100 000) may be too much for a young rider ... and this opens the door for a switch to an opposition machine at a cheaper price. Perhaps BMW should consider offering a base-spec version sans all the electronic wizardry to fill the void still left by the F650 GS (single-cylinder) that departed some ten years ago...

Author: Nicol Louw