Tim Luckhurst is blown away by BMW's latest reinvention of the touring motorbike
FROM SEA level at Playa de Las Americas on Tenerife's south-west coast to the extinct volcanic Pico del Tiede at the heart of the island is a climb of 3,718 metres. In January it is a journey from bright, warm sun to freezing fog and gale-driven snow. Riding the route by motorcycle is akin to leaving St. Tropez on a June morning to reach Oslo in bleak midwinter just in time for lunch. Road conditions vary as dramatically as the microclimate. Straight, silken asphalt on the coastal motorway gives way to a tortuous switchback that grows rutted and rock strewn as you climb above the pine dominated tree-line to the forbidding snow-spattered lava field beyond.

It takes a truly versatile motorcycle to give a rider confidence in the face of such diversity. A Honda Pan European could do it. So could a Ducati ST4. But until now the luxury machine in the market for ultra-versatile performance tourers has been BMW's R1150 RT.

Since launch in March 2001 more than 2,350 of the boxer-engined RTs have been sold in the UK. Rider loyalty is such that 60% of BMW tourer riders replace their bikes with new BMWs. The only commercial problem is that R1150RTs do not break easily. Provided they are regularly serviced, four- year-old high mileage models can feel as good as new. There are still many excellent examples of the older R1100 models on the road to emphasize the durability of the core design.

So BMW might be accused of cynicism for introducing the new, lighter, more powerful R1200RT so soon after the birth of its predecessor, thus giving existing owners something expensive to lust after.

Forgive them. The R1200RT is sumptuous. Foolishly under-dressed in lightweight summer gloves, t-shirt and leather jacket at its launch last week, I rode one through everything Tenerife could throw at me and enjoyed every mile and every sunbeam, snowflake and sudden side-on gust.

But there is a flaw in the new design. The locking catches on the panniers are clumsier than the tried and tested version they replace. Apart from that one of my riding companions complained of slight raggedness in the electronic engine management system when accelerating from low revs. We swapped bikes for half an hour. His did need a modest tweak. Mine pulled smoothly throughout the range.

This bike feels lively and agile throughout its six-speed gearbox. Where the R1150RT is a consummate long-distance tourer, its replacement is that with oodles of fun thrown in. This motorcycle can be thrown into corners on the lumpiest of surfaces. The standard version is as agile as any tourer on the market.

Descending steep twisting slopes running with a mixture of water and partially melted snow is as good a way to test brakes as any. The R1200RT comes with partially integral ABS as standard. A squeeze on the handbrake lever applies pressure to front and rear wheels, leaving the footbrake linked to the rear wheel only. The arrangement is brilliantly responsive with the bike remaining rooted and stable even under emergency pressure.

BMW have long boasted that their ABS permits a rider to make the cardinal error of braking in a bend. It is an appalling habit, but the R1200RT forgives it with tremendous grace.

Weather protection is class leading. My legs and hands were completely shielded and the electrically adjustable front screen, controlled from a switch on the handlebars, is tremendous. Riding at 90mph on the motorway I tilted it to minimize wind noise before choosing a more upright position that lifted snow and rain over my head and kept my visor clear.

Another model of clarity is the R1200RT's dashboard. Traditional speedometer and rev counter are augmented by a flat screen display that gives mileage readings, oil temperature, fuel level and estimated range and continues BMW's helpful tradition of displaying the gear currently selected (a simple idea that has saved riders much risk and embarrassment when approaching roundabouts a little too fast)

It would be wrong to rave if the BMW R1200RT was not a very special motorbike. But it is special. From its heated handgrips to the delightful spoke-mounted valve that makes tire pressure checks a doddle, this is a machine to which a rider can trust his own safety and that of a very special pillion passenger secure in the knowledge that, even after hundreds of miles in the saddle, both will dismount buzzing with the sheer pleasure of motorcycling. It has all the technological finesse that gives BMW motorcycles their global reputation for safety and reliability and an added element of sheer sensuality.

At pounds 10, 710 on the road it is not cheap, but this is not a toy motorbike. The BMW R1200RT is for seriously adventurous motorcyclists keen to cover long distances at high speed. There is not a car on the road that can bring the sustained speed-voyaging pleasure of a motorcycle as refined as this one. Even more thrilling is the certainty that BMW's competitors now have a new target to beat.


Model: BMW R1200RT

Price: pounds 10,710

Engine: Air-cooled 1170cc flat twin.

Transmission: Six-speed gearbox. Shaft drive.

Maximum power: 110 bhp at @ 7500 rpm

Max torque: 85 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm

Brakes: front, 320mm double discs, rear 265 mm single disc, partly integral ABS fitted as standard.

Tank capacity: 5.9 gallons (27 litres)

Top speed: More than 125 mph