BMW F650GS SE long term test – first impressions

Full, 4000-mile report here.

My immediate thought on riding a new F-GS SE off of Vines forecourt was ‘What a nice engine!’. Easy to pull away briskly and spins up fast enough to normal road speeds. And it sounds great too – didn’t know new bikes could still do that. It has the recognisable snappy blat of the bigger flat twins – perhaps a cunning marketing ploy to get new GS-ers used to the sound and induce an upgrade to a GS12 when the time comes.
Brakes are fine too – switchable ABS – and nothing to complain about with the steering either. Feels a bit more confidence-inspiring on slimy late February roads than the 21-inch 800GS I rode for a day or two in Arizona last year.
You get tricked into thinking this sure is ‘nippy for a 650’, but of course it’s actually a 15% detuned and regeared F800GS motor with 10% less torque, but 1200 rpm lower down the rpm scale which explains why it’s nice to ride. And however they do it, these twins have outstanding economy in their class. I’m told the 800 Triumph Tiger or Transalp 700 don’t get close.

Along with the leaden, butt-end-of-winter skies, the low screen and hard seat stopped it all being too cushy a ride – that might come later. The 250-mile ride down to Cornwall was not so tiring, but on the way back it got to me, even with a heated vest. Perhaps because I took more back roads and I’ve not ridden a bike in ages. However, the nifty heated grips won me back here. Never had these before but it’s surely the way to go if you ride in temperate zones. No more of that desperate, numb-fingered clawing for your zip as your struggle to contain your bladder’s needs by the roadside. I have a more clumpy set waiting to fit to my GS Overlander for later; the BM’s are as thin as normal grips.
Like I say, on the way back I tried out my Aerostich Kanetsu heated vest that’s been sitting around for a couple of years. I don’t have a proper motorbike jacket at the moment, and with fog on the moors and temperatures down to 10°C according to the readout, the Kanetsu set on halfway took the edge off things, as I soon noticed when I experimented with it switched off. It should mean I can wear less bulk and hopefully get less fatigued too. Lacking a waist belt, I did feel that the gap between the arms and the body could be filled to press the heating elements against the body; at times I bent my arms and could feel the missing warmth get pushed against the skin. It was only when I got back and looked on Aero’s website that I realised I actually had the full Kanetsu AirVantage liner model which you put on and inflate with a mouth tube (left) so as to push the heating elements against the body. Only works for the trunk, not arms but that’s ingenious in theory. I’ll do a full review when I get back from Morocco.
When I think how we’ve all suffered over the years in the cold, and yet heated bike clothing is nothing new. Back in the late 1970s I was despatching with an eccentric bloke called Maurice Seddon who was all wired up to his BSA and lived in a 12-volt tarp-house, powered by a windmill.
Enough reminiscing; right, a fish pie and salad by The Cobb in Lyme Regis, Dorset.

Fuel consumption over the first 500 miles was as follows:

• Heading down, headwind, <4000rpm = 70mph. 66.5mph / 23.6kpl / 55.4US
• Heading back, backwind, same rpm but with heated vest/grips. 73.5mpg / 26kpl / 61.2US

So not quite as good as the XT660Z when it was near-new, but it’s early days yet. I expect the 650 to be a little better overall and intend to keep full records while I have the bike, as I did for the Tenere. I’m still not sure if the heated vest affects mpg; as in more draw on the alternator magnets takes more bhp to overcome.
Anyway, after two full days on the bike I like:

• Looks good
• A surprisingly rorty exhaust note
• Low seat
• 19-inch front wheel
• Tubeless tyres
• On-board computer data (time, air temp, trip + more)
• Light clutch
• Engine response and fuelling
• ABS
• Firm suspension
• Heated grips
• Great fuel consumption

Don’t like

• Low OE screen, even if this is the ‘high’ option
• Hard, narrow seat
• Indicator cancel switch; would prefer it on the non-throttle side
• Gearing too tall for slow dirt use
• Reliability legacy, though that was all over three years ago. Full story and more info here
• Would prefer a clearer, bigger Tenere-style digi speedo and ability to change it and odo to kms
•  Would be nice to switch the lights off too, when heading discretely for a wild camp for example.

Regarding the gearing, I read on UKGSers that …the gears on the F650GS twin are higher than … the F800GS due to different sized … sprockets. But also both bikes use the gearbox from the F800S and ST road bikes So that explains the close-ratio road gearing. At tick-over it’s still doing 10mph – just like the Tenere I recall – and at 70mph is less than halfway to red line. I’m hoping that a tooth less on the front sprocket may make it rideable at 5mph without slipping the clutch, because you can certainly balance it easily enough at near walking pace.
The seat was notably narrower than my Cornish mate’s Transalp; there’s no getting round it: fat, middle-aged backsides need a perch to match. But at least it doesn’t have the step of the Tenere and so enables shuffling fore and aft as the discomfort increases. Suspension is supposed to be ‘cheaper’ than the dirt-oriented 800, so time will tell if what felt like ‘firm’ equates to ‘harsh’, but it’s sure better than too soft. I haven’t meddled with the shock settings yet.

Why the 650, anyway?
I’m going through a ‘mid-weight twins are the best all-rounders’ phase at the moment, and now they’ve had their teething problems sorted, I believe the ‘650’ beginners’/women’s version of is the best of the two F-GSs. I speculated as much in the next AMH, although it’s a coincidence that the book has an F-GS (don’t know which) on the front cover.
BMW Motorrad did suggest I might like a new Sertao for Morocco job, but I believe that bike has little to prove out there. Overall, I prefer the smoothness (unsnatchiness) of a twin and as for weight, there’s less than 10 kilos in it while you get a lot more smooth power and as-good economy. With enough protection, moderate speeds and alternative tyres, the 650 should be fine on dirt roads.
Perhaps with the exception of gearing, everything that differentiates the 650 from the 800GS makes it more suited to my preferences, and while the new SE version has been scoffed at as a ‘parts bin special’, on top of the snazzier paint job all those extras (computer, centre stand, ABS, heated grips) make it better still.

Still interested? Read this then this or just my 4000-mile report here.

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