Authors Dave Tomlinson, Steve Moxey, Bob Mack and Zenon Krafft
It is a good time to take stock of the touring motorcycle since the UK motorcycle market has changed completely over the last few years due to the increased popularity of the adventure bike style pioneered by the BMW GS models. The Motorcycle Industry Association (MCIA) reported that in 2018 2,468 tourers were sold in the UK compared to 17,587 adventure motorcycles! The BMW R1200RT was the best-selling tourer in every month of 2018 (as it did in 2017!), whereas the BMW R1200GS/GSA has serious competition, particularly from the Honda Africa Twin 1000cc.
The RT is by far the most dominant motorcycle in the tourer segment: its only real competition is the BMW K1600. But are these bikes the future or do BMW just see them as ‘cash cows’ (or ‘cash elephant’ in the K1600 case)?
In 1978 BMW released the R100RT with a full-size touring fairing, creating the modern tourer market. The new RT range was a great success and has evolved through the R1100RT, R1150RT to the R1200RT and now the R1250RT. In fact, the value of air-cooled RTs is now increasing and if you fancy a classic machine, they can give a lot of enjoyment. Indeed, the RT eclipsed the RS in BMW’s range as chassis improvements meant the RT was pretty much as nimble as the RS whilst combining the benefits of touring and weather protection. Fortunately, the RS has made a comeback recently so we can now enjoy both touring and sports touring BMW motorcycles!
The K1600GT is a very different beast. Fortunately, BMW had this model well under way by the time of the financial crash in 2008 and the growth in concerns over fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. In today’s world it is difficult to see BMW approving a six-cylinder motorcycle project – most BMW cars only have four cylinders or fewer! The K1600 and K1300 engines were developed for BMW by Riccardo Engineering in the UK and interestingly the K1600 was finished first, as the K1300 required a more complex valve train to reach the desired power. Since its launch in 2010 the K1600GT has been continuously refined but the engine has carried on serenely, and largely unchanged.
The R1250RT by contrast is new for 2019 with the latest variable valve timing ShiftCam. The RT now produces 134 bhp compared to the 160 bhp of the K1600GT, power to weight ratios are pretty much identical.
So how to compare BMW’s Champion Tourer contenders? This article is a test report by existing K1600GT and R1200RT owners. You will not get sunny trips to Portugal, but the owners actually live with their bikes and have identified the strengths and weaknesses from many miles of real riding experience. Many aspects of the K1600GT and R1250RT are near enough identical, luggage capacity for instance, touring range, and performance are all good enough, so this test concentrates on what owners think about their bikes and how they use them.
Over time, owners adapt their riding style to their bikes which creates a natural ‘home’ and ‘away’ fixture for the test – a bit like the Champions League or European Rugby Champions Cup.
K1600GT and R1250RT at Bahnstormer Alton
The two testers are Dave Tomlinson who owns a 2011 K1600GT and Steve Moxey with a 2014 R1200RT LC. Both are thinking about their next bikes. Bahnstormer Motorrad in Alton provided the latest K1600GT and R1250RT demonstrators for the test – let ‘kick-off’ commence!
The test route from Bahnstormer comprised small country lanes, towns, sweeping A roads and dual carriageways. The testers rode out on one bike and then swapped over for the return journey. The weather during the test was good for riding, cool but with some sunshine, certainly cold enough to test out the motorcycles’ weather protection.
R1250RT Impressions and Score
Arriving at the mid-way coffee stop in Stockbridge Dave (an ex-mountaineer) staggered in trying to do a passable impression of Chris Bonington descending from an Everest summit attempt. The customers in the coffee shop braced themselves for the next logical step: a short lecture on the glories of the K1600GT and pity for those ‘cylinder challenged’ boxer riders, but no, Dave was beaming! The R1250RT was apparently “smooth, light, manoeuvrable and comfortable”. Dave picked out the better weather protection from the RT and the seat which he thought much superior to his 2011 K1600GT.
Dave summarised his impressions after his first ride on an R1250RT: “I would not be disappointed if I owned an R1250RT” – high praise from a K1600GT owner. Dave could not find anything significant to fault but thought that the rumoured integrated sat nav could be useful. The one feature he would love to carry over to his K1600GT would be the RT seat; an aftermarket Sargent seat might be an alternative option. If Dave owned an R1250RT the ideal ride would be a trip to Scotland, or a B-road blast.
Just a small point but the sidestand kickdowns are in opposite positions on the K1600GT and R1250RT – to the front on the RT, and to the rear on the K1600. This left both riders flailing around trying to locate the stands in the wrong place!
So the R1250RT had scored a surprising ‘away’ win but how would it fare on the home leg of the tie? Steve owns a 2014 R1200RT and has in fact ordered a new R1250RT from Bahnstormer, following several test rides, so he was very familiar with the new RT.
In Steve’s opinion the “R1250RT is really just like an R1200RT, but better in lots of small areas”. The two main advantages are the gearbox, which BMW continues to improve, and the ShiftCam engine, which is noticeably stronger at high revs, and is useful for keeping ahead of a K1600GT.
In terms of improvement again it is small points: it would be ideal if the thumbwheel on the RT could zoom the map on the Navigator VI, just like a GS or GSA. It is hard to be absolutely sure from riding a test bike with 2,500 miles but the R1250RT did not seem quite as smooth as expected compared to the R1200RT. Certainly the liquid cooled boxers need around 10,000 miles to reach their very best. Steve thought that the one feature from the R1250RT that would be most useful on the K1600GT would be the precise steering.
In terms of riding, Steve thought the RT was well suited to all types of riding, but you really appreciate the bike on a cold, clear winter day on a long ride that would be hard work on a GS or GSA.
So, the R1250RT seemed to be cruising along with both home and away wins. However, the K1600GT was not done yet, as we shall see.
K1600GT Impressions and Score
Steve has owned a 2012 K1600GT, which he rode to Austria and back, so he had some K1600GT experience before the test. After riding the Bahnstormer K1600GT Steve noticed the improvement over the 2012 bike, in particular the turbine-smooth engine and very good gearbox. Steve enjoyed the narrower fairing of the K1600GT, although the weather protection is not as good as on the RT. The K1600GT was surprisingly easy to manage in town and had more ‘presence’ than the RT: the whine from the six-cylinder engine attracted interest from passers by – the RT was unnoticed! The reverse gear is an essential item on a bike of this weight otherwise it is all too easy to park on a slight incline and then have to struggle to get the bike out. Occasionally you can feel the extra weight of the K1600GT in bends and it would be nice to have the ability to tune the damping settings, as on the latest S1000RR – maybe BMW could offer this on the top of the range tourer.
Steve thought the K1600 wings, which allow variable ventilation, would be a great idea on the RT allowing customers to enjoy the RT in the height of summer without fitting a lower screen. In terms of riding, the K1600GT was at its best on fast A roads with plenty of overtaking opportunities. Steve noted that the nearly new Bahnstormer K1600GT was cheaper than a fully equipped new R1250RT and could be a temptation! Possibly a score draw with extra-time here?
Dave immediately had an opportunity to try out the K1600GT reverse gear in Stockbridge and was very satisfied with the convenient operation. With a little practice it would become second nature. Dave noticed that the fuelling and lack of transmission backlash on the 2018 K1600GT was far superior to his 2011 K1600GT, or even a 2017 bike he had ridden recently. The throttle and drivetrain have a very linear and smooth response. The GearShift Pro has been improved in fact it is better on the K1600GT than the R1250RT. Hill Start Control was a new experience for Dave but he adapted to it well on the K1600GT – again BMW has fine-tuned the system on the 2019 models.
Dave noticed a small number of possible improvements: the weather protection, which is inferior to the RT, the seat, a gear lever extension to ease operation, longer front fender and again the idea of an integrated TFT/Sat Nav system as on the GS/GSA, R, RS.
Dave would be happy riding anywhere on this K1600GT, but he did admit that on twisty B roads it did help if you knew the road already! So definitely a convincing home win for the latest K1600GT.
BMW Club Members’ Views of the R1250RT and K1600GT
The BMW Club Oxford recently conducted a Facebook Poll of members to see which tourer, R1250RT or K1600GT, members would most like to see in their garage. To make the comparison fair participants were offered a basic K1600GT or a fully equipped R1250RT at a similar cost. The results were a dead-heat, which was surprising as there are more RT than K1600 owners in the club. The K1600 owners proved to be very passionate in defence of their machines! Two experienced BMW Club members, with plenty of experience of the RT and K1600 were also asked for their impressions of the K1600 and R1250RT.
Bob Mack, a long-term R1200RT owner, has ridden the R1250RT and K1600GT recently:
“My first tourer was a R1100RT which I bought second-hand with the aim of buying a new R1150RT after a year, if I liked it. I actually kept it for eight years which gives some indication of what I thought of it. During that time, I tested a K1200LT which did everything well but just seemed unnecessarily big, although it handled well and was easy to control. I ended up giving the R1150RT and the early R1200RTs with power brakes a miss and bought a R1200RT in 2008.
Since then I’ve tried every incarnation of the RT and noted the steady improvements, as the model has become more refined, up to and including the R1250RT. In between times I’ve tested various versions of the K1600GT. I find it to be exceptionally smooth, stunningly fast, hugely comfortable and extremely capable as a tourer. However just like the K1200LT it seems unnecessarily too big, two up and fully loaded. The two motorcycles can have much the same toys and kit fitted, which brings the choice down to whether you prefer a large very smooth motorcycle, that is a bit exclusive, or a smaller more manageable and slightly less expensive tourer. I’d go for the RT, even if they were the same price, simply because of the weight when loaded.”
Zenon Krafft, who has owned two brand-new K1600’s over the years, thought: “The K1600s were a pleasure to ride: all-day comfortable with rider and passenger, very smooth engines, flexible power delivery with good weather protection. I do find it strange that BMW’s flagship touring model lacks some of the features of the lesser models: there is still no full TFT screen, for example. Many BMWs had quick-shifters long before it was available for the K1600! Surely the flagship model should be the first to market with the latest technology? The latest K1600 now has a reverse gear, which I am sure will be a welcome addition for those who want a ‘do-it-all tourer,’ especially when carrying heavy loads. I am a big fan of the K1600 for what it represents and what it can accomplish – it is a very capable machine but it does have its limitations: it quickly runs out of ground clearance, resulting in foot peg scraping not to mention the engine crash bars (if fitted) when pushing-on in the twisties. That said, if you are a competent rider you will be surprised just how good the K1600 handles and what it is capable of. For me, it’s all about the engine.
The R1250 RT is lighter, more nimble and cheaper to own and maintain. Perhaps some would say less intimidating than the K1600. Police forces around the world have embraced the RT in its various incarnations, and a test ride is a must if you are considering either of these great bikes as it will become apparent early on which of these models will best suit your individual needs. They both have their own character. Personally, the K1600 would be my choice over the R1250 RT. You won’t be disappointed whichever one you choose.”
The Champion Tourer? Test Conclusions
Before discussing any conclusions two important points have to be made: every owner has different requirements and preferences, thank God, or otherwise we would all be riding GS Rallyes or S1000RRs – in motorcycling, diversity is a very good thing. The second point is that every bike has strengths and weaknesses and the way to motorcycling happiness is to find out what your bike does well and do lots of it! There are some very hardy souls who want to go on a trans-continental adventure on an S1000RR, or to take their K1600GT LE on a track day but they are the exception.
So back to the R1250RT and K1600GT, both testers agree that the K1600GT engine is exceptional and now that the fuelling and drivetrain are improved the bike is beautifully refined and powerful. The downside of the six is weight but the addition of the reverse gear has reduced this issue considerably. As a continent-crossing machine for fast roads the K1600GT is unbeatable; it is also pretty good on twisty roads, but you will need to use the engine to keep lighter bikes in touch.
The R1250RT is very good at almost everything and in practice is easily the equal of the K1600 on normal roads and is better on the tighter turns. It is certainly the superior bike in winter weather. The R1200RT has regularly won touring tests, beating the K1600GT, and the new R1250RT is better than the R1200RT in every way. Rationally the R1250RT is the best tourer money can buy and can cope with almost every requirement. The K1600GT is very enjoyable and makes a very strong case for itself. However, motorcycle purchases are rarely purely rational decisions – enjoyment plays an important part.
Both testers were pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoyed the alternative bike and might even consider one if circumstances were slightly different. It shows it is well worth trying something different when thinking about a new bike: you might discover a machine you really like.
Cost is also an important consideration and a fully specified K1600GT is going to be £3,000 more than a fully specified R1250RT, with higher running costs. But if you bring nearly new bikes into the equation then a very good K1600GT may very well be cheaper than a brand new R1250RT, which will of course lose value quickly.
A final point to consider is the choice of tyres which can transform the feel of the motorcycle. Both testers are firm fans of the Metzeler Roadtec 01, but the test R1250RT carried Metzeler Z8s and the K1600GT Bridgestones. Remember to take this into account in your evaluation!
So, the final conclusion of this test is probably inevitable – BMW does make the Champion Tourer but deciding whether it is the K1600GT or the R1250RT is very difficult. It really comes down to how you are going to use the bike and your personal taste. The best advice is to make sure you try both before you make a final decision.
Thank you to Bahnstormer Motorrad, and to Eddie Cheung in particular, for making the K1600GT and R1250RT available for the test.
Thank you to the BMW Club for choosing Bahnstormer to conduct this review, we hugely enjoyed hosting you as always. Our perspective on these two fantastic touring machines is that, as you have identified, they do require a proper test ride. The feeling you have after 30 minutes in the saddle may not be the same as after 2 or 3 hours, so take your time and enjoy the experience.
The other important consideration is that many of us who tour are carrying a pillion for a significant amount of our bike ownership, so it requires the combined thoughts of both rider and pillion to get a full view of which bike is most suitable for you. Although both offer a myriad of adjustment, subtleties in your size and height make a difference to wind protection and comfort. Don’t forget to consider the luxurious K 1600 GTL variant, especially for two-up riding as the seating, screen and bar position are markedly different to the GT tested here.
The good news for us as BMW Motorrad Retailers is that we really are spoilt with being able to offer two of the best bikes in the market for touring. Although the six cylinder bike is more expensive, you are more likely to get a good deal on one compared to the newly launched R1250 RT and the BMW Motorrad Service Inclusive packs for these bikes are £1,059 for the K and £829 for the R covering 3 years/18,000 miles, so not hugely far apart. If you are on a more modest budget we also offer superb used examples that benefit from 24 month BMW warranties and a comprehensive charter of preparation. If you are lucky enough to be in the market for a new tourer, book a test ride with us and come in with an open mind. Whichever way you choose to go, you won’t be disappointed as they provide the gateway to some brilliant experiences on the open road.