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2009 BMW G650 GS: MD Ride Review

Dual-purpose bikes are great for most people’s real-world motorcycling needs. They are light, economical, steer easily, and usually have enough power to beat the traffic. For beginners, adventurers, commuters, and women riders, the so-called dual-purpose motorcycle has undeniable appeal.

There’s only one thing wrong with many of them; the seat’s too high.

Check out the popular Kawasaki KLR650. The standard seat height’s 35 inches. Honda’s XR650L has a seat way up there at 37 inches. Hey, I’m six-foot-five, but my inseam is only 34 inches long (yes, I have the Phelps body type). Long story short; with seats this far off the ground, some people have trouble getting their feet down.

This is the trump card BMW plays with its born-again, entry-level thumper, the G650 GS. Its already low standard 30.7-inch seat height can be dropped even more with a special optional suspension kit, to 29.5 inches, for only $175.

That’s probably a good enough reason to keep the model in production right there, but there are some other compelling motives. BMW needs an entry-level model, and the F650 GS that replaced this bike (and took its old name) is an 800cc twin, and it retails at $8,750, including freight. Its seat height is higher too, at about 33.5-inches. Obviously, with a new 800cc F650 GS in the range, the 652cc single-cylinder model had to be renamed. Hence the G650 GS moniker.

BMW told us that F-prefix bikes are twins and G-prefix bikes are singles. But the Boxer twins are R-prefix bikes, so we’re still confused. Anyway, at $8165 (including $495 freight), the re-introduced G650 GS is BMW’s cheapest bike, but only by $585, which makes one wonder why the company would go to all the trouble of setting up Chinese production of the formerly Rotax-made single-cylinder engine and confusing us all with this altered terminology.

There are two answers to that question. One is that the model sold well in its last full year of production (2,200 units in 2006), the other is that it now comes standard with ABS and heated handlebar grips. For some people, those items may be worth more than an extra cylinder, another 150cc of displacement, and 32 more horsepower — especially when they arrive on a perfectly capable little bike like the G650 GS.

It might only boast 53-horsepower and have just five speeds in the gearbox, but the 425-pound machine has perfectly calibrated fuel injection, powerful Brembo brake components, and decent suspension bits from Showa (the fork) and Boge (the shock). So it’s a hoot to ride. It plods along happily at low revs, and doesn’t require manic engine speeds to provide brisk acceleration. Nor does it produce much vibration.

The best thing about the bike is its chassis. It is light and maneuverable, thanks in part to a center of gravity held fairly low by its underseat fuel tank and comparatively light engine parts. With plenty of leverage at the tubular bar, the little BMW can be flicked from one extreme to the other with slight effort. Ground clearance isn’t bad, allowing a respectable amount of lean before the rider’s soles begin grinding softly against the road. The footpegs are quite narrow, so riders’ boots are always the first to touch down.

My biggest problem — as a tall and possibly unsuitable customer — was that the scalloped seat shape doesn’t really allow much movement. Not only did that keep me in one riding position, concentrating pressure in one small contact area, it was a little too close to the bars. I found myself actually leaning backward in some corners. On the long trip away from the bike’s introduction at the fancy Grand Del Mar resort, I needed to resort to another way of riding, perched atop the passenger’s seat to spread the load.

It may have looked odd, but it didn’t feel too bad, even though it put my head and torso up into the wind. With scant protection against the blast, the BMW won’t be a favorite for long freeways trips. But it’s a comfortable mount for moderate journeys, and it’s great for canyon adventures. Even with the large amount of void in the tread pattern (for good water drainage and some gravel-road bite) the GS has pretty good grip, and transmits enough of what’s going on at the contact patches to provide a rider with the confidence to corner pretty hard.

With only one front disc, the braking was strong enough to slow the bike without ever reaching the ABS threshold in normal use. Yes, of course we tried it out. After all, BMW spokesmen had told us that a new, lighter actuator with an analog operation was fitted for a friendlier feel at the lever. And it was true of the front brake, which pulsed smoothly with the ABS activated, even though the rear brake pedal seemed not unlike that of some cars in the way it throbbed underfoot.

It’s good that the system can be switched off for off-road work, because there are occasions in the dirt when you want a wheel to lock up. But for riding in the rain-particularly here in Southern California, where infrequent rain makes for some slippery surprises-the ABS provides welcome reassurance.

The heated grips are just great. I miss them already. That long trip back up from San Diego to my home in the South Bay was made so much more comfortable by these two-position hand warmers. One click gets the grips warm, two clicks is hot enough to brave the worst of winter’s chill air. At least, here in SoCal it is.

With four gallons under your seat and 60 mpg potential from the black-painted Chinese single (BMW says there is no discernible difference in quality between this Loncin-built engine and the Rotax-supplied original), you can ride a long way between stops. So a little light touring is not outside the realm of this BMW 650. Particularly since the bags designed for the bike fit so well, and telescope cleverly to accommodate larger loads.

According to BMW spokesmen, the G650 GS is a bike often bought by relatively affluent new riders who are finding out whether they want to go motorcycling. Many of them buy another BMW motorcycle within 18 months. So, is that a sign that the G650 GS is not enough bike, even for beginning and re-entry riders? No, we think it’s because the little bike works so well and imparts so much confidence in a short period of time that people who can afford it decide to get more adventurous.

The bottom line is that this entry-level BMW is a perfectly adequate tool for most people’s needs, so long as they are not over six feet tall. The price may seem high in comparison with other makes, but the little BMW has high-quality components and an enviable resale value. (The Kelley Blue Book suggests $6235 as the retail value of a 2006 F650 GS).

Only a few countries continue to import this one-lung 650 GS, and BMW is hoping that the market will justify that strategy. With gas prices down, it’s anyone’s guess whether the bike will sell in significant numbers. Let’s just hope it does. The world needs more bikes like this one.