BMW has moved on from its iconic Boxers. Tim Luckhurst is impressed by its middleweight twins

Engine: 798cc liquid-cooled parallel twin.
Maximum power: 85 bhp (62.5 kW) @ 8,000 rpm
Maximum torque: 86 Nm @ 5,800 rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, toothed-belt final drive.
Brakes: front twin 320mm discs, rear single 265 mm disc (ABS optional)
Weight: F800S 182 kg, F800ST 187 kg.
Seat height: 820 mm.
Tank Capacity: 16 litres.
Price: F800S £5,995, F800ST £6,495.

For half a century BMW made only flat-twin motorcycles. The Boxer engine was the company's trademark, as distinctive as a Coca-Cola logo. Developing a viable alternative proved difficult. Only in the last few years have the new, four-cylinder, K-Series performance bikes begun to win a reputation for excellence. BMW has also enjoyed success with its single-cylinder F-series machines. But these are beginners' bikes. In the mid-range, beloved of riders returning to motorcycles after years on four wheels, BMW was, until now, badly exposed.

Dr Herbert Diess, the president of BMW Motorrad, is blunt about the commercial logic behind his company's new F800 series. "We want to get people who are coming back to riding. This is BMW's first bike for returnees. There are between seven million and 10 million people in Europe who have a motorcycle licence but don't ride. The F800 is for them. It is a serious motorcycle, powerful enough to ride with friends and not get left behind, but also accessible and not intimidating."

The most striking characteristic of the F800S sports machine, and its touring sibling the F800ST, is its upright, parallel twin-cylinder engine. This is the way British manufacturers including Norton and BSA made bikes in the 1950s. The long piston stroke it permits and the momentum of two pistons moving in tandem maximises torque. The configuration is also slim. But older riders remember parallel twins for tooth-loosening vibration that got worse as engine revs mounted. In those days the only compensation was a gorgeous noise.

The F800 has the sound and I love it. But the vibration has gone. An ingenious, additional swivelling con-rod allows this twin to rev beyond 8,000rpm while remaining velvety-smooth all the way. The all-new 798cc engine was developed in partnership with the Austrian specialist Bombardier-Rotax and is built for BMW at the Austrian Rotax factory. It is an impressive innovation which reveals more character the harder you thrash it.

At its international launch in South Africa's Western Cape I rode the F800S and F800ST on mountain passes and motorways and in dense urban traffic. The engine is versatile and the handling superb. Performance is athletic rather than stunning, but that is not to say that F800s cannot go fast. They are delightfully nimble, and this agility is enhanced by an under-seat petrol tank that lowers the centre of gravity (and makes for easy filling).

BMW boasts of class-leading torque at low revs. This misses the point. Its all-new power unit responds best to harsh treatment. Keep the revs above 5,000, exploit the steering precision and gazelle-like handling, and this machine flies through tight bends. With its sculpted, single-sided, aluminium swinging arm weighing only just over 5kg, it is balletic under pressure.

It does not hang around on the open road, either. I didn't begin to feel any vibration until I hit 115mph in sixth and the engine was still pulling well. A low-maintenance toothed drive-belt delivers power to the back wheel, and the close-ratio gearbox is perfectly matched to the new power unit.

Quibbles? I have one big one. BMW has a habit of making one bike and then dressing it up in a range of suspiciously similar guises. With the F800S and F800ST models they have pushed the trick a little too far for my liking. The "touring" version has a slightly higher windscreen, an expanded fairing, higher handlebars and a luggage rack. Beyond that the changes are purely cosmetic.

To make the distinction even less clear, the F800S can carry the same clever panniers as the ST version and neither bike comes with them fitted as standard. The ST's windscreen is non-adjustable and I found wind protection at least as good on the S (and for a tall rider bending down behind the sports fairing is not uncomfortable - even over distance.)

BMW has really built one-and-a-quarter new F800 models, not two. But it is not a fatal flaw. Both bikes are comfortable over distance, both could be used for solo touring, and for a small rider and equally small passenger either version would work fine. But these are slim, compact motorcycles and space is limited.

The F800 is an excellent motorcycle. The new engine is a consummate piece of engineering, equipment levels are good and pricing is competitive. It is hard to make a bike for born-again bikers without producing something offensively anodyne, but the F800 twins are the exact opposite. Their performance is thrillingly dynamic. The mid-range has a new standard setter - and that swinging arm is a work of art.

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