Dang! Just when I thought my first-year F 800 GS was perfectly set up I spent a week on a 2019 F 850 GS in the Premium (“soup to nuts”) configuration. Having upgraded my suspension with Traxxion Dynamics fork internals, and a HyperPro rear shock, then adding a Scott’s steering damper (read: lifesaver), AltRider body protection, a Sargent seat and other goodies, I figured my GS was tricked out nicely. Over the past 60,000 miles, we’ve worked quite well together. Then here comes BMW with a brand new bike for their middleweight adventure slot. Do I need one?
It’s the 850’s new engine that I find most appealing. The whizzy doo-dads like dynamic traction control, electronic suspension adjustment, various riding modes, ABS Pro, keyless ignition and tire pressure monitoring have their place, but I’ve survived several decades of dual-sport and adventure riding without them. And though I was able to strafe my rocky test road with more speed and confidence using the 850’s electronic suspension helpers, most of my adventuring isn’t at a blitzkrieg pace. For newer riders, I see the technology advances as beneficial for making the sport more accessible and the learning curve less painful.
The one electronic goodie I do covet is cruise control, made possible by throttle-by-wire technology. The Kaoko throttle lock on my GS does its job well, but set-and-forget cruise control is a serious step up in long haul comfort. Having endured a couple of 600-mile days on a recent trip, I know precisely how much better my right shoulder and wrist would have felt with a set/resume button at my fingertips.
Another plus for the 850 is its tubeless-capable rims, claimed to be stronger than the much-maligned hoops on my 800. It’s not their strength I want–I’ve bashed into plenty of rocks and ruts without bending a rim–it’s the convenience of fixing flats with a plug.
About that motor: per BMW specs, the 850 has five more horsepower and two lb-ft more torque, both coming in around 500 rpm higher that the 800’s maximums. The 850 revs more quickly though, creating a sensation of greater gains (and wider grins). A 270/540-degree firing order gives the mill a more substantial feeling than the legacy 360-degree design, while the counterbalancer eliminates the 800’s slight buzz. Instead, the motor emits a subdued lower frequency vibe that rumbles through the pegs, bars, seat and tank, an almost appealing lumpiness that seems to say “Wick it up, bro. I’m ready.”
BMW has also played with the gear ratios, lowering 1st through 4th gears and raising 5th and 6th. Sixth feels like a real overdrive now, whereas on the 800 it was too low for comfortable interstate cruising. An extra tooth on the countershaft sprocket fixed that on my GS, and if my math is correct it gives me nearly the same ratio as the 850 in top gear. Paired with a bullet-proof clutch, the slightly relaxed gearing has worked for me in the most delicate situations.
The 850’s full-color TFT instrument panel is a splashy upgrade over my bike’s analog/digital unit, featuring numerous screens of data about the machine. Unfortunately, the simple task of resetting the tripmeter requires futzing with two thumb controls and drilling down multiple levels to the correct screen–not what I want to do at every gas stop.
I welcome BMW’s change to an industry standard push-to-cancel turn signal unit from their old and clumsy three-switches-are-better-than-one standard. But all the new wizardry requires more and smaller handlebar switches, with mixed results. The riding mode button is convenient, where the heated grips one is a reach. Changing display screens is easy, but hitting the high beams requires reaching around the left cluster and flicking a small switch outward with a gloved finger. Perhaps BMW’s development riders all have long, thin fingers.
There’s also a short list of where I feel BMW failed in the upgrade. The gas tank, now between the rider’s legs instead of under his or her bum, is handier for filling, but holds less fuel. In spite of a claimed 57 mpg, I can’t believe anyone who’s keeping up with Interstate traffic will see 200 miles from a tank of gas on the 850. And it appears that wizardry adds weight–the 850 has porked out, besting the 800 by 50 pounds. You won’t feel the difference while riding, but it materializes immediately when the bike topples over.
Some components will need replacing upon delivery. The footpegs, which have an adventure-ready serrated surface, are much too narrow for extended periods of standing–my arches complained after half an hour. Down below, the plastic bash plate invites expensive repairs, in spite of the 850 gaining over an inch of ground clearance over the legacy model. This is a $17,000 motorcycle that’s jam-packed with electronic goodies and you still have to cough up a couple bills for decent underbelly protection. In that way, it’s exactly like my 800.
From where I sit on my trusty steed, the 850 offers some big improvements and stacks up better to its middleweight competition, while also failing in some key areas–mainly weight and range. And although the new motor, wheels and suspension make a tempting combo, my 800 has proven itself a faithful, reliable partner in my adventures, and not one I will cast aside anytime soon.