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Motoring: BMW leans towards Italy: Roland Brown rides the British-designed, Italian-built and Austrian-powered Funduro

BMW's recent purchase of Rover surprised many in the car world. But it was by no means the German firm's only move to broaden its horizons. Its latest motorcycle, the F650 Funduro, is built not in Germany but in Italy - using components from Austria, Italy and Japan.

The F650 is also the first single-cylinder BMW since the Sixties, and the first bike in the firm's 70-year history to use a chain, rather than a shaft, to drive the rear wheel. Radical stuff indeed, for the maker with motorcycling's most conservative image.

The Funduro represents a serious effort by BMW to break into a new sector of the market with an entry-level machine. At pounds 4,495, it is priced on a level with several Japanese rivals and is far cheaper than any other BMW. The desire to reduce development time and costs led BMW to team up with the Italian maker Aprilia and the Austrian engine specialist Rotax to build what they call the 'first European motorcycle'.

BMW is keen to emphasise that the Funduro is much more than a rebadged Aprilia (that firm's Pegaso trail bike uses a similar 652cc, single-cylinder Rotax engine). It stresses that its engineers helped to develop the motor, which has significant differences, including a water-cooled cylinder head with four valves (the Aprilia's is air- cooled and has five valves), a redesigned crankshaft and a new stainless-steel exhaust system.

The F650's chassis is derived from that of the Pegaso, and consists of a steel frame holding a single rear-suspension unit and conventional front forks from Showa of Japan. A few items, including the wire wheels, are shared with the Pegaso. But although many other components originate in Italy, they are produced to BMW's specification. Construction is overseen by a group of BMW engineers permanently based at Aprilia's factory near Venice.

Even the bike's striking styling is not the work of a German but of a British designer, Martin Longmore. Despite a few cost-cutting touches (non-adjustable hand levers, basic metal fuel tap), the F650 radiates thoughtful design. Its seat is both low and wide compared with those on most large-capacity single-

cylinder bikes, making slow-speed manoeuvring easier for short riders. The wide, raised handlebars give a roomy riding position and the BMW feels very manageable although, at 416lb, it is not light for a single.

Acceleration is pleasantly punchy throughout the range, thanks mainly to the engine's seamless power delivery. The maximum output of 48hp gives a top speed of about 100mph, with comfortable cruising at 80mph. Below that speed (at 5,000rpm in top gear), the BMW engine's balancer shaft helps give a ride that is smooth by single-cylinder standards. Vibration comes drumming through the seat at higher speeds, but by then the exposed riding position becomes tiring anyway.

The F650's chassis is impressive, at least for road riding (for which the bike is primarily intended). The frame and swing arm are suitably rigid; but the key to the BMW's poise is its suspension, which has substantially less travel than that of its dual-purpose rivals. This means that the Funduro can sustain its modest top speed with no hint of a weave, and can be braked and cornered much harder than a typical trail bike.

The Pirelli tyres are biased towards road use, and provided enough grip for footrest-scraping cornering angles. Front and rear disc brakes are also powerful, the rear a little too much so.

The corollary of this is that the Funduro is less suited to off-road excursions. The bike coped well with the gentle dirt trails I ventured down, but faced with mud, water or big bumps would have been outclassed by bikes with more suspension travel and grippier tyres.

However, most people who buy the F650 will never take it off-road, and instead will be impressed by the wide mirrors, broad dual-seat with its built-in luggage rack and pillion grab-handles - and the four-gallon fuel tank that gives a range of well over 150 miles. Some cynics will insist that the F650 is not a real BMW. But despite its Austrian engine, British stylist, Japanese suspension, Italian construction and equally non-German price, the Funduro has inherited much of the marque's traditional appeal.

(Photograph omitted)