BMW suspends launch of super bike - again

Dealerships are in the dark, and critics are unimpressed. Tim Luckhurst on the difficult birth of the K1200 S

BMW Motorrad's new superbike, the 165bhp, 175mph K1200 S, has been withdrawn from sale until March. Although launched to the press in July, BMW says this delay is "necessary to resolve technical issues that have arisen after an intensive test and development programme". The company blames a "defective manufacturing process of a third-party supplied component" and says that a camshaft has been made "to a lower standard than BMW specification". Dealers have been asked to "suspend all K1200 S riding activities until further notice".

The K1200 S is BMW's first modern superbike. In an industry too often guilty of calling modest improvement revolution- ary, it is genuinely innovatory. But its trouble-plagued birth has conveyed an impression of chaos and suggests that BMW has lumbered into territory it previously left to Japanese and Italian manufacturers without doing sufficient homework first.

BMW's growth in the last decade has been impressive and its reputation for luxury, reliability and innovation deserved. But there has always been a gap in the range: it contains no pure sports machine to compete with the Suzuki Hayabusa or Yamaha YZF-R1.

For a company that is already selling close to 100,000 motorcycles a year, that may look like a trifling problem. The sales charts suggest it is not. The best-selling motorcycle in the British market is the R1. Honda's 160mph CBR1000RR Fireblade is close behind. BMW has concluded that building bikes that can circle the globe without faltering is no longer enough. It needs a knee-down, white-knuckle racer, too.

Of course, the K1200S was not conceived as a blood-and-guts monster. BMW does not do crude. This is supposed to be a 165bhp swan, the most powerful BMW ever but still a showcase for cutting-edge techno- logy. It has electronically adjusted suspension modes, power-assisted ABS brakes and state of the art safety features. The Duolever front suspension, which eradicates dip under braking, is based on an early 1980s design patented by British inventor Norman Hossack.

It is too early to say that the project has failed but the launch of this long-awaited newcomer has been shambolic and the bike itself seems plagued with technical faults that should have been eliminated long before it was introduced to the public. A BMW spokesman says: "This is a big new market for us to be working on. In the process we have learned how important it is to keep testing and testing. It is not great to be launching the bike if it is not ready."

The problem is that BMW has done exactly that, twice. Mass production started in Berlin in June and the K1200S was unveiled to journalists in Munich a month later. Initial reports in the motorcycle press were enthusiastic, but candid reviewers identified glaring problems. The bike suffered from what one rider termed "fuzzy throttle". The engine stammered and surged unpredictably between 2,000rpm and 3,000rpm before settling at higher revs. It was apparent that the electronic fuel-injection system required urgent attention.

Another critic condemned the transverse four-cylinder engine as crude and found vibration intrusive at high motorway cruising speeds. BMW acknowledged teething problems with the fuel system but insisted the K1200S would be a model of refinement by the time it reached the showrooms.

That happened later than planned, a fact BMW's press office acknowledged in a release dated 17 September that noted: "Motorcyclists nationwide can breathe a sigh of relief as BMW Motorrad's first superbike - the K1200S - is finally launched." The company was fortunate that no consumers had actually received their new bikes when the camshaft problem was identified.

Last week BMW dealerships were still in the dark about when deliveries would be made to customers who have placed orders. One dealer complained that "BMW tell us nothing. We do not have a clue what is going on". The company responds: "Providing dealers with machines for their customers and for demonstration purposes is an absolute priority for BMW Motorrad and a further announcement will be made as soon as modified bikes are available for test riding and delivery."

The K1200S may eventually become a standard setter for very fast motorbikes. In theory it looks like a very rideable partnership of power, elegance and practicality. But it is not ready. BMW's first venture into the superbike category has provided a harsh lesson about the amount of testing and development required at this level. Many admirers of BMW technology are surprised that the company did not already know this. The errors mean that K1200 S will be subjected to ruthless scrutiny when it is launched for the third time in March 2005.

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