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BMW’s G650GS – feel the vibes

Sometimes you ride a bike and just fall in love. My first Honda CB400-F was like that. I loved it at first sight, rode it all over Europe, and never fell out of love with it till the day – crashed, bashed and despatched – it was stolen 80,000 miles later.

Some you appreciate for what they do. That describes the CX500. I bought it for a job – to carry two people and luggage around Europe – and it did it to perfection. It was a cold-hearted purchase, and I sold it just as cold-heartedly 20,000 miles later.

Some you’re not sure if you’re going to like but grow on you despite their faults. The NC700X was rather like that, a pleasant if uninspired ride.

Others you spend half the time cursing and that other half giggling stupidly. My Jawa 350 fell into that category. It was slow, the speedo never worked, broke down all the time and had about as much charisma as the Berlin Wall. Yet it constantly made me in fits of laughter.

And then there’s that rare beast, a bike that I simply don’t like and for which I can find no redeeming features.

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And so to the G650GS. If I’m perfectly honest with you, I have ‘previous’ with BMW’s 650 single in the form of the BMW Funduro 650. I first rode one over twenty years ago, as a wet-behind-the-ears instructor, just starting his first job at CSM in Catford, London.

CSM had a mish-mash of instructor bikes and as the newest instructor, I got last pick. There was the Triumph 750 Trident that head office had bought in bulk and which was far too big, heavy and cumbersome for following learners at 28mph, and was either used as the boss’s private transport or to be found languishing lonely at the bike of the lock-up. There were a couple of GPZ500S’s (the later, 17″ front wheel model) which I loved but rarely managed to blag, because the other instructors always nabbed ’em, some others I can’t remember, plus the Funduro.

Now, I’ve done a lot of miles on big singles – getting on for 200,000 miles on various Hondas, including an XBR500 and the NX650 Dominator which at the time was probably the Funduro’s nearest competitor as a road-oriented dual sport. Both were smooth, flexible engines that delivered reasonable power over a decent rev range. I’ve also put some miles on other machines including Yamaha’s XT660 and KTM’s 690 Duke, as well as a Husqvarna 610TE which certainly represents the less-civilised end of the spectrum.

As a single cylinder fan, I was keen to try the Funduro, with an eye on buying one myself – after all, it was reputed to have BMW build quality at a very reasonable price, complete with a decent frame-mounted fairing.

When it appeared in 1993, the F650 was BMW’s first single for ages, and a marriage of convenience between the Bavarian company, Italian manufacturer Aprilia (the F650 was based on their Pegaso 650 dual sport), and Austrian engine builder Rotax who built a version of their engine specifically for BMW. A revised version of the engine appeared in 2000 and the machine in various guises was in production until 2007, when the F650GS parallel twin replaced it.

So I wondered why it was that the Funduro that was left by the others. I soon found out.

First impressions was that it was built for six-footers and over. The seat was high. Add in a lot of weight, carried high. It was over 25kgs heavier than my Dominator, and rather bizarrely considerably heavier than the equivalent Pegaso. Being tippy-toe everywhere, I had to be careful where I put my feet down – not something I really wanted to be distracted by when following some unpredictable learners in south London rush-hour traffic – and a mission to get on and off with the CSM-standard topbox on the rear carrier. So I ended up learning where I could step off onto a high curb on the training routes.

But once we got moving, the second impression was dominated by the god-awful motor. It made reasonable power but vibrated more than the similar performance Hondas I was familiar with, particularly as the revs rose towards the low red line.

But worse that that, it had absolutely no flexibility. Between the chain snatch which set in below 3000rpm and the vibes and red line, there never seemed to be a comfortable gear in the five speed gearbox – at any particular speed, I was either getting into the uncomfortably buzzy end of the rev range, or shifting up and dropping the revs back to the snatchy end. In particular, trying to hold 50 behind the learners just happened to coincide with one of those neither / nor speeds and I inevitably ended up speeding up and slowing down whilst shuttling between two gears, rather than try to match speed with the trainees.

At the end of the first day, I was puzzled how BMW could have designed-in so many problems. By the end of the week, I disliked it. After a couple of months (when I left CSM) I never wanted to ride one again – it was anything but fun. No doubt there were good features but twenty years on, I can’t remember any.

Now, fast-forward to the present day and BMW’s G650GS.

In 2008, the original single was brought back with new G650GS name, to prevent confusion (there’d been enough already!) with the F650GS twin. In essence, the bike is the 2007 single-cylinder F650GS with some minor modifications but with the engine assembled by Loncin in China instead of by Rotax in Austria, but using Rotax parts. The finished engines are apparently shipped back to BMW and assembled into complete machines in Germany. The model reached the UK market in 2010, slightly downrated to 47hp, just in time for the new A2 licence laws.

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This particular machine is a 2014 model, and spent its early life at an off-road riding school, hence it’s cosmetically untidy, but very low mileage.

Looks-wise, it’s nice enough. The fuel tank mounted under the rear seat contributes to a much less bulky looking profile than the original machine, and front on, it does have something of the R1200GS / F700GS family look, thanks to the beak and asymmetric lights.

Turn the key, press the start button – positioned top of the switch cluster – and it quietly duff-duffs into life. Climbing on and I notice the seat’s not as high as the old one, though it could be a lowered version – I don’t know and forgot to check. I can get on and off easily enough despite the huge and obligatory aluminium box on the rack, and once astride, I can get both feet flat on the floor. It doesn’t feel as heavy either although the stat sheet doesn’t agree. Maybe moving the fuel lower has helped.

Putting it back on the sidestand proves a trial though. The stand swings sideways rather than down, and for the life of me, I couldn’t lower it sat on the machine.

Easing the light clutch out and moving away confirms that the revised engine pulls from just off idle. There’s nothing like the chain snatch of the old Funduro. And because it pulls from low revs, the motor is far more flexible, even though it has no more ratios than the original five speed box.

That’s a relief, but there’s a downside. Blipping the throttle at a standstill sends a ripple of vibration through the seat. As the revs rise, so does the buzzing through the seat. Although the seat’s broad, well-padded and very comfortable (at least for my test ride), as soon as the machine’s moving, the vibes come straight through the foam. Although the footpegs and bars are fairly well isolated – there’s no problem seeing a clear image in the too small, awkwardly shaped mirrors – try to grip the tank with your knees and the vibes come through the tank too.

This isn’t just the typical thudding power delivery you get with a single or a big twin. The bike vibrates. A lot.

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Getting out onto the open road, I opened the bike up, hoping that away from the 2500-3000rpm I was using in town, the machine would smooth out. It doesn’t. If anything it gets worse. Trying to hold a steady 70 on a stretch of motorway had my teeth rattling against each other unless I deliberately shut my jaws. Only if I dropped down to 55mph or below, did it smooth out a bit, but nothing short of turning the motor off got rid of the massage cushion effect through the seat.

Frankly, the last time I rode a bike with vibration this obtrusive, it would have been Yamaha’s truly awful SRZ660, a bike I was desperate to like and also ended up hating.

Positives? There’s decent acceleration on tap from accelerating from a lorry-chasing 55mph on the motorway to the 75mph required to go with the flow in the middle lane. It’s plush-feeling, stable and reasonably nimble, and rides the potholes and bumps well. And the small blade of a screen does a surprisingly efficient job of keeping the wind off the chest.

Negatives: the G650GS joins the growing list of bikes with the horn button where the indicators should be, with the result that it’s almost impossible for someone with small hands (me!) to slip the clutch and push or cancel the indicator at the same time. The digital instruments are washed out and faded, with a tiny and far-too-small-to-read vertical bar for a rev counter. I kept finding neutral between 1st and 2nd because the shift’s flabby-feeling. And some dangling wires have rubbed the paint off the bodywork on the fake plastic ‘tank’, which also meant my magnetic tankbag was useless.

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But it’s that engine I’m going to have to come back to, and not in a good way. I’m afraid that despite the stable handling, the predictable braking, and the fuel economy which easily hits mid-60s, that motor intrudes all the time. Even on country lanes where it’s difficult to reach much more than 60mph, all I could feel was that buzzing engine.

By the time I handed the bike back and rode off with a sigh of relief on my creamy-smooth XJ6, I realised that the G650GS has done something very rare and managed to add itself to that short list of machines for which I can find no redeeming features.

With a decent engine, it would be a pleasant if uninspired, ride. But instead it has that horrible single motor that BMW buried ten years ago. And in this case, sleeping dogs should have been left well and truly alone.

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