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Motoring: Touring in the grandest style: A relaxed BMW is marred only by engine harshness, says Roland Brown: K1100LT

THE CLASSY image of BMW's motorbikes, like that of its cars, has been painstakingly and expensively cultivated over the years. No surprise, then, that the German manufacturer's copywriters have been working hard since the launch, earlier this year, of the latest gran turismo two-wheeler, the K1100LT.

In addition to having the biggest engine BMW has ever bolted into a bike chassis - a watercooled four-cylinder with a capacity of 1,092cc - the LT is also the most lavishly equipped machine in the range. Features such as an electronically adjustable windscreen, ABS brakes and capacious, colour co- ordinated luggage panniers, help explain why, at pounds 9,575, it is also the most expensive BMW bike yet.

The K1100 has been developed from last year's K100LT, which has been so thoroughly overhauled that little of the older model is left. As well as increased size, the engine - which uses shaft drive, not a chain - gains a 16-valve cylinder head and a more sophisticated fuel-injection system. Power output is increased by 10 per cent, to 100bhp.

There are further changes in the chassis, which follows the sportier K100RS in using several major components made outside Germany. The Marzocchi forks are from Italy, as are the Brembo disc brakes. The single rear suspension unit is made by the Japanese specialists, Showa. BMW's Paralever system of rods combats the adverse effect that a drive shaft traditionally imposes on handling.

A touring bike stands or falls on the comfort and convenience provided by its bodywork and accessories. BMW's new flagship not only has a clock and fuel-gauge, but also a map-reading light and optional extras, including a stereo and heated handlebar grips. The seat and protective fairing have been redesigned to make the upright riding position more roomy; the panniers and top-box are larger.

The LT's star turn is its windscreen, the position of which can be adjusted by pressing a cockpit button. Suzuki tried a similar idea several years ago, but the GSXL 1100FJ's screen was small and its range of adjustment limited. The BMW's larger screen has three inches of vertical movement, and changes angle to alter the amount of protection provided.

Although such sophistication smacks of gimmickry, the LT screen is a work of genius. Most touring screens give reasonable wind protection but, depending on the rider's height, the top edge can create turbulence or reduce visibility, or both. But the BMW rider can create a pocket of still air, while retaining an unobstructed view over the screen.

Two of us set off from London for a weekend trip to Paris, and I easily found a position that allowed rapid cruising in perfect tranquillity - normally impossible for someone over six feet. And when a shower soaked the M23, the fairing's protection meant we did not need to stop for waterproofs.

Unfortunately, the calm served to emphasise the harshness of an engine which, although improved, remains unsophisticated by modern standards. The BMW vibrated noticeably at about 70mph in top gear, and at most speeds lacked the long-legged feel that characterises the best touring powerplants.

Riding through northern France, we stuck to the narrow D-roads, where the new model's improved performance at low engine speeds made progress quick and effortless. If pushed, the LT will race to 8,500rpm and a top speed of 130mph. But a relaxed approach was preferable, partly because of the rather imprecise five-speed gearbox.

There were few such problems with the chassis, despite the LT's weight of more than 600lb. Suspension at both ends provided a plush but well-controlled ride. Handling was reassuringly neutral, backed up by excellent brakes and tyres.

Ironically, the efficiency of the BMW's big fairing, which has no ventilation, meant that on a blazing day the engine's heat became unpleasant. And my pillion and I both found the seat uncomfortable before the petrol tank's 170-mile range necessitated a stop.

At least, when we reached Paris, the LT's quickly detachable panniers made checking into our hotel easy, and had kept our clothes uncrumpled. Motorcyclists travelling in France rarely suffer from the prejudice they sometimes experience in Britain. Even so, our quick transformation from leathered bikers to typical tourists surprised the concierge.

Cross-channel trips of this kind - or preferably much longer ones - are BMW's traditional forte, but the competition has never been fiercer. Honda's ST 1100, in particular, is smoother, arguably more comfortable and almost pounds 2,000 less expensive. The ST lacks one vital extra, however: a blue-and-white propeller badge on its petrol tank.

The K1100LT's exclusive image is its greatest asset, but despite a few faults, the LT is BMW's best grand tourer yet. That should be enough to satisfy not only the copywriters, but the German firm's legion of enthusiasts, too.

(Photograph omitted)