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1997 BMW650 Review

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by Ted Laturnus

Although primarily associated with top-end motorcycles - and cars, of course - German manufacturer BMW has entered the entry-level marketplace with the new for 1997, single barrel F650. This is the first one-lunger BMW has marketed since the R27, which was put out of its misery in 1967.

However, the F650 is not an anemic, under-engineered econo-ride. This is as sophisticated a single cylinder motorcycle as you’ll find anywhere. BMW’s own engineering expertise is part of the reason for this, but so is involvement by Italian manufacturer Aprilia and Canadian and Austrian companies Bombardier and Rotax.

Offered in two versions - Enduro and ST - the F650 is handily propelled by a 652 cc single cylinder that has twin overhead camshafts and four valves. It has twin Mikuni carburetors, dual spark plugs, and chain final drive. Transmission is five-speed, and the bike revs to 7500 rpm. Power output is 48 horsepower at 6500 rpm. Brakes are by Italian manufacturer Brembo, with a four-piston caliper up front and a two-piston at the back. For a bike that weighs a scant 420 pounds (190 kilograms) wet, this translates into pretty decent performance. In fact, once I got aboard the bike, I was absolutely amazed at its agility. It doesn’t behave like any big bore single that I’ve ever ridden.

For one thing, it’s a smooth runner. Power comes on evenly - at least in the upper rpms - and the Rotax/Bombardier powerplant revs almost like a twin. It’s eager to run and does not punish the rider with vibration or engine racket. For another, the bike has exceptional handling. When I tested this bike, I was in the company of a group of other riders, mounted on larger bikes of varying degrees of power…all of which were twins or four cylinders. The F650, although it loses out in a drag race, will more than keep up with other bigger, more powerful bikes through the twisty bits. In the hands of a skilled rider, the F650 is astonishingly quick. Indeed, the quickest rider in this group spent a lot of his time aboard the F650 and ran away and hid from everyone all day. He was, literally, uncatchable…even by those riding sport bike corner carvers. True, he’s an immensely talented rider with years of track experience, but still, he made the F650 perform like a sport bike. It’s that good a motorcycle.

It’s also a very accessible bike and very easy to manhandle at low speeds. Novice riders could do a lot worse than begin their riding career with the F650. It won’t overpower you with its performance, but will allow rookies to grow into the bike. Unlike a lot of entry-level machines, the F650 won’t put new riders to sleep as soon as they gain confidence. Once you’ve got things figured out, you can explore the performance of the bike, which is considerable. Bonus: seat height is actually normal, at least on the ST street version. BMW is offering an optional seat lowering “kit” with the ST, and you can get it down to 29.5 inches (749 mm). Because the F650 is a single, it’s also a narrow motorcycle, so even those of us that are a little short in the inseam can get both feet flat on the ground. The Enduro version - or Funduro as BMW are calling it - has a higher seat height, different handlebars, and stiffer suspension settings. It’s built for off-road use, but is also more than capable of street duty.

If the F650 has a flaw, I’d have to say it lies in the suspension. The only thing cushioning the rider in the rear is a single shock absorber that is linked to lever linkage on the bike frame. As a result, even the ST version doesn’t absorb road bumps and/or potholes particularly well. Many was the time I had my feet literally bounced off the footpegs…particularly at higher speeds over uneven surfaces. A little disconcerting. I also struggled a bit with the shift lever….as the bike got warmed up, I found it harder to find second gear. As usual, BMW’s foot controls are undersized. And BMW: please, please, please, put in self-cancelling turn signals!! Finally, this is a small bike, and larger riders will likely get a little cramped over the long haul. There are no highway pegs, naturally, and you do get kind of scrunched up.

The sticker price is not particularly reasonable. At $9350 to start, the F650 is priced well above other comparable bikes….sometimes by as much as $3000. But it is a beemer, and will probably hold its value well, which is to be expected of what is arguably the best dual purpose single on the market right now.