BMW R nineT Scrambler | Bike Tests | Latest Tests
Take one R nineT, dust lightly with soil, then trim off $2K of rind without sacrificing any of its soul-soothing, smile-inducing flavour. Sound like a good deal? You betcha!
There’s no doubt about it, scrambled two-pots are flavour of the moment on the buffet of motorcycle mash-ups. Triumph got in early, Ducati reclaimed the name, and now every brand with half a heritage to celebrate is joining a mad scramble for the Deus dollar.
By BMW’s own admission the company missed the boat slightly with the whole heritage model movement. But I guess it can be excused, since it has been busy ensuring the Boxer-twin heritage continues into the 21st century with liquid-cooling and space age electronic whizzbangery. With that deed done, BMW could turn its attention to prolonging the life of the air-cooled Boxer in a heritage range which is very much a styling nod to the past in a modern package, rather than a display of retro-engineering.
As we rolled out of Brisbane, you could’ve told me I was riding the R nineT Roadster, just with knobs on, and I probably would’ve believed it. It’s been that long since I’ve slung a leg over what is one of my favourite fun-time bikes of this century, but what I instantly felt from the Scrambler version was all the same warmth of character and simple unadulterated motorcycling folly which I remember from its café-cruising cousin.
It barks, rumbles, pulses, twists and farts its way into your psyche, cosying up next to homemade chicken soup, log fires, and the smell of your mother’s hair, in the feelgood folder of your mind. Call me a kook, but that’s truly what bikes like the R nineT Scrambler can do, should do, and in this case do do for me – make me feel good about life
for a while, and smile.
At a glance, the transition from Roadster to Scrambler has been a subtle rather than seismic styling exercise. The biggest changes to the bike’s dynamic personality are at the front end, where the conventional telescopic fork is set at a more relaxed angle with greatly increased offset, and the Roadster’s 17-inch wheel is replaced by a more dirt tyre friendly 19-incher. The base model Scrambler has cast wheels, which can be upgraded to tubeless cross-spoked hoops.
A steel tank resplendent in Monolith metallic matt paint replaces the aluminium one of the R nineT Roadster, although the option to upgrade to the gorgeous hand-brushed aluminium tank with its exposed central weld is a temptation few true petrolheads will be able to resist.
Besides the usual LCD display trip meter, the Scrambler’s instrumentation is reduced to a minimalistic and seemingly pessimistic analogue speedo – there is no tacho as on the Roadster.
Of course, the quintessential scrambler styling cue of high pipes is dealt with, and in fine high-quality chrome-plated style. The tapered twin Akrapovič silencers vaguely remind me of the old Supertrapp tuneable thumper mufflers made popular in the seventies, which is a wholly appropriate look for capturing the style of a retro dirtbike. Pleasingly, the noises they make are glorious, and at times surprisingly loud. The trick is using an exhaust valve, primarily for acoustic manipulation. This allows sound levels to be tailored tightly around statutory noise emission tests in the most auditory cortex-tickling fashion possible. After much throttle fisting and careful deliberation, I reckon the R nineT sounds like the sort of robust baritone cheek flapper your fat uncle Barry would be immensely proud of belting out at a family barbecue. Unusually for me, I elected to ride the full two days without ear plugs just so I could appreciate it all the more. As the majority of our riding was tight and technical back roads, wind noise never got to a level where it spoiled the show.
The kind of classic up-country Queensland roads covered on the launch are a perfect test of a bike’s useability. Constant transient states of throttle opening, forced by a continuous thread of second, third and fourth gear corners, make this a dream come true for any excitable motorcyclist. The R nineT engine’s calibration proved to be second to none. The fact that this standard of operation has been achieved on an air-cooled motor with Euro 4 compliance makes me wonder why some manufacturers struggle to achieve acceptably smooth throttle control on similar liquid-cooled configurations. Just not trying hard enough, perhaps?
I’d read some complaints about the seat before getting my own cheeks on board the Scrambler, but the soft-jacksied journo concerned was overstating the matter in my opinion. While the Saddle Brown bench seat may not win any awards for outstanding comfort or universally adored colour choice, I found its wide pad and firm-but-fair depth perfectly fine for a day riding in the hills. As you’d expect, there are other seat options, including comfort seat options for both rider and pillion.
The Scrambler’s 43mm conventional fork may look less sophisticated than the 46mm upside-downers on the R nineT, but it’s inside where all the important stuff happens, and BMW has ensured the ride performance befits the badge. Damping quality and spring rates feel very well thought out.
My only wish was for more than its less than scrambler-like 125mm of fork travel – just 5mm extra compared to the road-focused model. The Scrambler’s fork reached its stroke limit way too easily riding over pot-holed roads and landing the occasional wheelie, and this was probably the bike’s only real negative trait. The rear Paralever suspension performed well across the mixed terrain, and didn’t suffer the same willingness as the fork to bottom-out its travel, thanks to a more reasonable 140mm of stroke, a 20mm increase from the R nineT Roadster. Despite the lack of fork travel to cope with the biggest hits, the combined chassis package is extremely well balanced on the bitumen, giving rock solid mid-turn composure, even on rough and rippled surfaces.
Metzeler Karoo 3 dual-sport knobbly tyres were fitted to all the bikes on the launch. These are a no-cost factory option, and turn the Scrambler into a more versatile vehicle capable of tackling the kind of gravel back roads which capillary across the Australian back country.
Although the widely spread blocks on these tyres give a floaty feeling when cornering on the bitumen, they grip the blacktop reasonably well and give plenty of feedback. It would be easy to mistake the sensation of riding on chunky tyres as being a vagueness in the bike’s chassis, but the Scrambler shares the R nineT Roadster’s intuitive rider connection, ensuring you feel everything that is going on beneath, no matter which tyres or trails you choose to travel on.
My first sensation of the bike was one of surprise as I pulled out of the Ellaspede Customs carpark and negotiated the first couple of corners. I was expecting fairly heavy steering, given such a shallow fork rake and long wheelbase, plus the bike’s overall bulk and its steering yoke-mounted headlight. What I found was deceptively light steering, to the point that the bike dives into corners willingly, without the need for any significant rider input, and fast direction changes are executed with a relatively easy tweak on the not-too-wide motocross-style handlebar. This flickable feel is largely due to the narrower rim size on the Scrambler, down a half-inch and an inch in width from the Roadster’s front and rear respectively. Combined with its low-slung centre of mass, this equates to a bike that feels much lighter when in motion than the scales suggest.
As with the R nineT Roadster there’s a steering damper fitted, although the Scrambler never even felt close to needing one to maintain stability.
Heated grips and ABS are standard on the base model Scrambler, and ABS only becomes switchable when the bike is also specced with the factory option Automatic Stability Control ($450). This is a simple on-or-off traction control system with a single level of intervention. Calibrating a one-setting TC or ABS system to cope with both dirt and tar duties is a difficult, if not impossible, task. But, BMW has done a good job here. On the road, the Scrambler’s electronic aunty remains actively involved without becoming overbearing or annoying. Off-road, the systems will give a lot of confidence to riders who are green to riding the brown, but experienced dirt-bikers will delight in just how much fun such an unlikely bike can be on the loose stuff with Aunty Safety switched off.
At 820mm the Scrambler’s seat height is 35mm taller than that of the R nineT Roadster. A low Scrambler is also available however, using a 17-inch front on its spoked wheel-set to reduce seat height to an altitude even BMW Dakar legend Gaston Rahier – arguably the all-time greatest of short-statured scramblers – would have approved of. For those with greater than average gait, there’s a high seat which takes the Scrambler up to a giddy 850mm. Like the off-road tyres, this is a no-cost factory-fitted option.
Thumbing through the accessories catalogue will provide endless birthday and Christmas present options for your family to choose from for years to come. My first pick would be the oval race number board and headlight grille combination, to create a more convincing scrambler face. Although, at $770 for those two items, I might be tempted to go the shed-built route and get busy with an ice-cream tub lid and some pool fence mesh instead.
Braking performance on the R nineT Scrambler is about as far from an olden days scrambles bike as you could get. This is a very good thing. In fact the Scrambler’s stoppers would be worthy of a sportsbike, and their power is only bound by the level of grip between your tyres and terra firma. This is unsurprising since the big twin 320mm discs and four-pot Brembos were top shelf supersport fare not that long ago. More importantly for a gravel friendly feel, the rear brake also gives great power when needed, but never at the expense of feedback and finesse.
In keeping with the R nineT design brief, the Scrambler’s structure includes elements intended to make it more amenable to customisation, whether that be by the hand of bolt-on bandits, backyard grinders, or professional bike artisans. A detachable subframe and two-piece wiring harness means chopping and bodging can be kept to a minimum while maximising the variety of personas the bike can pull off, yet still keeping its fundamentals intact.
Fussier fashionistas may judge the R nineT Scrambler on face value and bemoan the lack of authenticity in its look. I would have to agree that the bike’s claim to the Scrambler style is a tenuous one, although this can easily be augmented with a dip into the genuine gimme-gimme catalogue, or even a more home-made approach to customisation. What is certain is that the joy of the Scrambler is in the riding, right where it should. Pure, uncomplicated, and uplifting in a way that can only really be appreciated when you stop staring at yourself in shop windows and get the hell out of town.
TEST PAUL YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHY IKAPTURE