I had seen it in photos for months, but now, finally, here it was, in the flesh: the cool R nineT Scrambler. You have to hand it to BMW’s design team. For a variant of an already existing bike—the R nineT—the new Scrambler looks surprisingly different, easily enough to fool less than experts into thinking they’re staring at a standalone model. And there are no two ways about it: with the optional (no charge) semi off-road tires and optional ($520) wire wheels, the thing is cool. The high exhaust with twin silencers, the diminutive rear section with its tan leather seat, the classically styled tank, the conventional fork with rubber gaiters and the classy retro look all mesh superbly. It’s the kind of bike many will imagine themselves on, wearing aviator jacket and goggles.
So, style-wise, there’s no argument here, BMW’s new Scrambler looks the part and gets high marks. How well it works as a scrambler, however, is somewhat of another story.
Scramblers and café racers are part of the currently popular retro trend. Not every manufacturer offers them at this point, but it’s getting there. The case is very reminiscent of the almost instantaneous supermoto trend of some 10-12 years ago: because they were thought to be the next “thing,” one brand after another quickly launched its version.
But you can’t build a new motorcycle in a matter of months, so most were simply existing models equipped with long travel suspension, 17-inch wheels with fat tires and big brakes, and maybe a number plate to complete the illusion. In the end, that’s what most of them were, an illusion, and all but one or two—notably Ducati’s Hypermotard— quickly disappeared. It’s kind of hard not to look at the recent mass arrival of scramblers and café racers and not have a déjà vu moment. Still, they are here and some are actually pretty good bikes.
Technically, the BMW R nineT Scrambler is a lightly modified R nineT. The air and oil-cooled boxer engine is the same, as is the frame. As on the R nineT, the Scrambler’s rear section can be shortened for a solo look. The biggest technical change is the front end: instead of an upside-down fork and a 17-inch wheel, the Scrambler is equipped with its conventional fork and a more off-road credible narrower 19-inch wheel.
The rear wheel diameter remains at 17 inches, but the tire is a narrower 170 instead of a 180. The riding position on the Scrambler is noticeably different with a higher seat, lower and more rearward footpegs and a higher handlebar that reaches further back towards the rider.
With a construction so close to the R nineT’s, it’s no surprise that practically the same qualities and flaws are found on the Scrambler. In terms of qualities, that wonderfully torquey 110-hp Boxer twin sits high at the top of the list.
It’s plenty powerful enough for even an experienced rider to a have a ton of fun, especially since it produces a throaty drone that is not only as wonderful as it is unique, but also surprisingly loud.
Low and mid revs bring with them a strong and pleasant trembling, but higher revs become annoyingly buzzy. Electronic aids are limited to the standard ABS and the optional Automatic Stability Control ($420), which gives the ride a nice analogue old-fashioned feel.
One of the largest differences in feel between the R nineT and the Scrambler comes from the different front wheel sizes. Where the original rides normally and handles neutrally, the Scrambler felt strange and almost clumsy from the moment we left the parking lot of the posh New York hotel where BMW held the model’s launch. Almost immediately, as cool as they looked, the optional off-road tires seemed to be mostly responsible for this, especially the rear as its profile is more square than rounded. Problem was, of the dozens of Scramblers present at the launch, none were equipped with the stock tires to allow a back-to-back comparison. There’s little doubt the unusual resistance to initial turn-in followed by the sudden drop into a turn would be close to eliminated with the street rubber’s normal profile.
That being said, and I realize this may sound strange, but that aspect of the R nineT Scrambler’s handling didn’t bother me very much. First, the bike is, let’s face it, somewhat of a styling statement, and those rugged off-road tires ARE cool, down to the truck-like whine their big knobbies generate on pavement.
And, second, I’m used to bikes needing so little input and behaving so well, so predictably, that to have to muscle this one a bit through the many twisty roads we were on didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I quickly got used to it and had no problem keeping a fun and sporty pace even on the twistiest and tightest portions of our route. All it took was a bit more concentration and involvement, which I didn’t mind.
Actually, my biggest pet peeve about the R nineT Scrambler concerns comfort. To be blunt, it’s not very good, at least on longer rides. On shorter, urban outings, the bike feels compact and agile and offers a good riding position that really does boost confidence. But start riding for hours and you’ll begin to notice that minimally padded seat. However, more annoying than everything else is the taut suspension. The original nineT has the same issue. Why? This makes even less sense on the version supposedly capable of light off-road duty. Shouldn’t suspension then be supple rather than very firm? The Scrambler isn’t intended to be a GS, we know that, but wouldn’t GS-like settings be preferable to S-RR settings? The answer is obviously yes in both cases and BMW knows these things, which makes the situation even more baffling.
Still, all in all, I liked the R nineT Scrambler and I think those who might be attracted to it will too. It’s not really meant to wander off-road, but rather look like it could. And it achieves that on top of being derived from a great base, both chassis and engine-wise.
BMW ended the event in Brooklyn, at some hipster themed store where you could sit on a hipster couch, sip hipster coffee, shop for hipster jackets and helmets and look at various hipster-styled bikes. Most of the manufacturers who produce these new scramblers and café racers seem to have a deep conviction that this type of motorcycle will manage to bring out droves of young hipsters from their parents’ basements and tattoo parlors, then make them run straight to a dealership and give them money—a quite reasonable $14,250 in this case.
I personally don’t think these people are who the buyers will be, but then again, I hate coffee and tattoos aren’t my thing, so what do I know?
Actually, even if I maintain a few reservations about it—reservations that could easily be fixed by BMW— I know this: the R nineT Scrambler is one of the most fun and interesting looking bikes out there.