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First Times Ride: BMW rNineT

Jay Leno
Long awaited, much admired, and costly: the rNineT starts at $14,999.
It's BMW's first customizable street fighter -- a niche popular with young riders, dominated by Harley.

BMW has unveiled its long-awaited rNineT naked scrambler, a stripped street racer ripe for customization.

In reaction, the motorcycle press is doing hand-springs, and the motorcycle-riding public is asking, What took you so long?

The stodgy German motorcycle manufacturer spent years developing and delaying production of the rNineT, a prototype of which first appeared six years ago.

“This bike is a really different story for BMW, and a long one,” said Ola Stenegard, head of vehicle design for BMW’s motorcycle division. “This represents something I thought BMW would never do.”

Designed to be what Stenegard and other BMW executives are calling “a blank canvas,” the rNineT is powered by an 1170cc air- and oil-cooled flat twin Boxer engine, running a smooth, six-speed transmission through the company’s traditional shaft drive.

Compared the rest of the manufacturer’s other two-wheeled vehicles, the rNineT — the name is meant to honor the machine’s R-series engine, and the company’s 90th anniversary — is raw, rough and unfinished.

Unlike BMW’s popular GS adventure touring bikes, the rNineT has no riding modes, no electronic traction control, no heated grips or other niceties, and no windshields.

It’s a stripped-down riding platform that begs for customization. It boasts a gorgeous, hand-formed aluminum gas tank with brushed aluminum sides, many brushed and anodized aluminum parts, state of the art braking, and a stock exhaust system by custom muffler designer Akrapovic.

Key to the customization is the rNineT’s slender rear section, the main parts of which can be removed and replaced without the use of welding torches or cutting tools. Parts wrench-off, and replacement parts — sold by BMW, and by Southern California motorcycle design company Roland Sands — bolt on. Tail light, blinkers and license plates can be moved and remounted at will.

“It’s a blank canvas for your own personal expression,” said Stenegard.

On the road, pulling a fueled weight of 489 pounds, the rNineT’s 110HP motor revs fast and produces 88 foot-pounds of torque. The transmission is tight and responsive, as are the dual 320mm front disc brakes. Sitting at a low 30.9 inches, on a slender, attractive leather seat not designed for all-day riding, this unusual BMW is an appealing around-town rider with great canyon carving skills.

The response on the street is uniformly positive, as riders respond enthusiastically to the BMW’s spare styling, classic lines and terrific tailpipe sound.

They respond less enthusiastically to the sticker price, which starts at $14,999 before licensing and delivery fees and goes up fast with the cost of customization. (Aluminum engine covers go for $460. A carbon fender is $516. An upswept Akrapovic silencer, $1225.)

BMW has been savvy about selling the rNineT. Years before launch, the company sent prototypes to four of the world’s top custom designers — Blitz Motorcycles of France, El Solitario of Spain, Urban Motors of Germany and Roland Sands of the U.S. — and invited them to personalize the machines. It then filmed a lush documentary extolling the joys of custom-wrenching the rNineT.

Like the bike itself, the press roll-out in the U.S. has been a high-cost, high-quality affair. In Southern California, motorcycle press enjoyed a two-day ride that included accomodations in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and an exclusive tour of Jay Leno’s legendary Burbank car and motorcycle collection — conducted by Leno himself, who then presided over a catered lunch.

BMW has enjoyed a couple of years of pronounced success, largely on the back of its GS line, and an explosion of interest in the “adventure” riding those bikes do so well.

The company went from a 1.9% market share in 2009, for motorcycles 500cc and up, to almost 5% in 2014, and claims a 9.4% growth in sales for the first six months of 2014, over the same period in 2013. Its April sales figures are the best in its history.

Those numbers may grow. Although production constraints have produced long waiting lists for the rNineT in Europe, the model is already the fourth most popular in the BMW line, after three GS models.

But BMW executives are frank about the company’s need to draw new riders to the brand, and to the sport.

“As an industry, we have to do a better job of bringing in new riders,” said Kris Odwarka, vice president of BMW’s motorcycle division.

The RnineT will help. BMW product manager Sergio Carvajal says the new model is not attracting only BMW owners.

“We’re getting a different crowd,” Carvajal said. “It’s not the typical BMW customer.”

Follow me on Twitter: @misterfleming

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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