New bike review: BMW R 18

Form trumps function in this stylish reinterpretation of BMW’s classic Boxer engine cruisers.

German auto manufacturers are not usually known for favoring form over function, but BMW’s new R 18 cruiser is an exception to the rule.

The overtly stylish R 18 is instantly distinguished by the massive horizontally opposed cylinder heads of its Boxer engine, sticking out from either side of the bike like chrome exclamation marks. 

The R 18 was first shown in concept form in 2019 at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, one of the world’s most prestigious events for classic and vintage cars and bikes, where it stunned crowds with its audacious size and styling.

The reaction was so good the R 18 subsequently went into production and is now on sale in Australia in all its art deco glory. 

While it looks great in pictures, the R 18 is something else again in the metal. 

Its bulky Boxer chromed cylinder heads, cantilevered front and “hardtail” rear suspension, exposed drive shaft and fishtail exhaust pipes lend the modern classic a unique styling presence.

The bike’s uncharacteristically emotive style seems out of step with other more functional designs in BMW’s sprawling two-wheeled range, but there’s no doubt the organisation is proud of the statement it makes, with "Berlin Built” emblazoned on the instrument pod and chromed brake and clutch reservoirs.

It seems that pride is justified, too, given the many positive comments the R 18 attracted during our two-week stewardship.

In fact, of all the cars and motorcycles I’ve tested over the past couple of decades, the big cruiser attracted more attention than any other.

Five minutes after parking the $29,155 “First Edition” tested here, I was collared by a “senior chap” who gushed enthusiastically about its looks. 

BMW R 18

According to my two-wheeling friend, it reminded him of his old R 51/3 with its cruiser style, wire wheels, pinstriping and single headlight and instrument pod.

Every time I stopped after that someone else would comment on the bike or ask to take its photo. 

Out on the road, other motorists and pedestrians frequently gave us the “thumbs up” as we rumbled by. 

In terms of the question oglers asked most often, it was a split decision between “how does it handle?” and “is it comfortable?”

That’s fair enough since a walk-around of the muscular beast would prompt any experienced rider to wonder about its on-road practicality. 

Will the heads scorch shins and cause leg cramp? How will the suspension and low-slung frame cope with corners and bumps? And what about the torque effect of 158Nm pushing 901cc pistons in opposite directions?

In practice, the suspension is stiff for a cruiser, so the handling is quite precise, meaning you do sacrifice a bit of ride comfort.

The Boxer heads are not hot on your legs at all, though, and they don’t adversely affect ride position comfort. 

In fact, the amount of knee bend required is about the same as that of a Honda Goldwing, regarded by many to be the ultimate touring machine. 

Not that the R 18 is technically a tourer, but nor is it a corner carver, or a sports bike. 

BMW R 18

It’s very specifically designed as a boulevard cruiser and a stunning one at that.

But does have its quirks. 

For instance, when you hit the ignition button there is a hefty lurch to the left.

It’s way more prominent than you experience on Moto Guzzi’s transverse twins, or BMW's R 1200 and R 1250 models, so riders need to have both feet firmly planted before firing it up.

Remember too, not to blip the throttle while waiting at the lights, or you might end up lying on the tarmac.

The 1802cc air/oil-cooled engine is BMW’s biggest Boxer engine yet. 

It’s not super hi-tech, yielding only 67kW (91hp) of power, but it oozes Harley-beating torque. 

Roll on the throttle in almost any gear and the Bavarian Beast surges forward with a real sense of urgency. 

All that instantly available grunt means there’s no need to shift down when overtaking, which is just as well since the transmission is a bit clunky and the clutch on the heavy side. Neutral also proved difficult to find at times.

There are three different engine modes with the twee labels of Rock, Roll and Rain, which vary the level of throttle response and stability control intervention, with the latter also able to be switched off completely.

Out on the road I was a bit concerned about the lovely chrome on the front of the engine succumbing to road rash, but a ride along about 12km of gravel showed no ill effects.

BMW R 18

The chunky 19-inch front tyre is the same as that used on the BMW R 1250 S, with a 120mm section width that handles gravel well.

The bike weighs a hefty 345kg which puts it in Harley territory, meaning reverse assist and hill-start hold functions are factory options well worth considering. 

The Boxer engine configuration does means the 110kg engine weight is kept low, though, so the weight is only an issue when pulling it off the side stand. 

Hauling all that heft to a stop are beefy dual 300mm disc brakes and a very effective 300mm rear disc with plenty of initial bite. 

The riding position proved OK for this 182cm rider, with a firm saddle that was nonetheless comfortable for the duration of the circa two-and-a-half hours’ riding the 16-litre tank affords, given its claimed consumption of 5.6L/100km.

The test bike came with optional pillion seat and pegs, but the seat is no bigger than the perch on a sports bike and there’s only a seat strap to hang on to, so it’s not all that practical.

The wide beach bars would need to be rolled back a little to make them an easier reach for this rider. 

The bars have a classic look and feel and provide plenty of leverage for cornering.

Speaking of which, the heads don’t in fact get in the way when scratching, meaning you’ll be grinding the hero blobs and chamfering the rubber foot pegs long before a Boxer head ever touches the tar.

Unsurprisingly, city traffic is not the R 18’s preferred environment, thanks to the big Boxer’s torque effect and that clunky transmission. But the heads and bars are only about 40mm wider than that of my Ducati Scrambler 1100, so lane filtering is still manageable.

The First Edition is a minimalist model for people who want to cruise around the cafe scene. 

Consequently, there is no fuel gauge in the instrument pod, but you can toggle through a range of info on the digital screen. 

The latter includes an odometer, two trip meters, revs, voltage, clock, average/immediate economy, and date displays. 

Personally, I’d forgo a few of those items for a fuel gauge but you instead get a fuel light, which comes on to display how far you’ve travelled since hitting the 4.0-litre reserve. Suffice to say that I’d much prefer a range-to-empty display.

BMW says more R 18 variants are coming soon, including a tourer, which will no doubt have more creature comforts, like cruise control. 

That would be nice, but with or without cruise this is an immensely distinctive bike that’s loaded with the sort of personality that will make owners covet it for years to come. 

Key facts

Price: From $29,155 (ride-away).

Warranty: Three years.

Engine: 1802cc Boxer twin.

Power: 67kW.

Torque: 158Nm.

Transmission: Six-speed, shaft drive.

Wet weight: 345kg.

Suspension (front/rear): Non-adjustable 49mm cantilevered fork; cantilevered spring-preload adjustable shock.

Brakes (front/rear): 300mm dual discs, 4-piston calipers; 300m disc, 4-piston calipers (ABS).

Dimensions: 2440mm (L); 964mm (W); 1232mm (H); 1729mm (WB); 69mm (S). 

Fuel capacity: 16-litre tank.

Fuel efficiency: 5.6 L/100 km, 129 g/km C0₂ (combined cycle). 

Extras: Test bike came equipped with $6755 of optional extras including: pinstriping and chrome package; adaptive headlight and daytime riding light, lockable fuel filler cap, hill start assist, Passenger kit, heated grips, reverse gear and anti-theft alarm.