Review: BMW's K1600GTL, featuring headlights that look around the corners
By Loz Blain
April 2, 2013
The BMW K1600GTL is a luxury mega-tourer. It falls into that category of bikes that has next to zero relevance to me at this point in my riding life cycle, as I've got no current plans to circumnavigate Australia or have a crack at the Saddlesore 1000. And yet I've actually been hanging out to get my hands on one of these things, because it features what I'd call the single coolest innovation I've seen on a motorcycle since I first put aside my prejudices and felt just how good the Piaggio MP3 tilting 3-wheeler is to ride. It's the second coolest thing I've thrown a leg over this week.
We'll get to the headlight later. To start with, the GTL is a bit of a beast when it comes to basic specs. It starts with a 1649cc, inline 6-cylinder engine block that by all rights should make the bike a barrel-chested brute of a thing like Honda's old CBX. Except that it doesn't. Despite more than a whole supersport bike's worth of extra engine capacity, the K1600 engine barely makes itself noticed poking out of the fairings. You'd easily mistake it for a K1300 4-cylinder job if it didn't have a big chrome 6 on it, and BMW tout it as the lightest and narrowest 6-cylinder engine ever mass produced for a liter-plus motorbike.
Tilted forward at a slightly odd-looking 50 degrees, the motor produces a healthy 158 horsepower and a stonking 175 newton-meters of torque, while revving out to around 8500 rpm. That's more than enough to make light work of the GTL's 348 kg wet weight – pulling power simply never feels like an issue and I'd happily hook up a caravan if I couldn't already make camp in the huge luggage allotment.
K1600GT vs K1600GTL
The GTL is the luxury upgrade to the K1600GT. As such it features slightly altered ergonomics for a more upright riding stance, and a standard top-box with built in passenger backrest. I didn't personally get along so well with the seating position, I found it made me slump a bit – but that's very much a personal thing. For reference, I'm a shade under 6 foot and weigh around 110 kg. None of the passengers I took out on the GTL had any complaints whatsoever. They're looked after with a big wide seat, nice chunky footrests and that most effective of selling points, the sturdy, reliable backrest.
The luggage is enormous and spacious. Each of the removable side panniers will fit an XL helmet with room to spare, and you can fit two more lids in the top box. The top box is also removable, although you have to rummage around underneath all your stuff to get to the latch. There's also another two small compartments in the side fairings big enough for phones, wallets and the like – one of them has a built-in USB charger with an iPhone connection. Each of the luggage compartments opens at the touch of a button, and since there's so many, BMW has endowed the K1600GTL with central locking off the key fob so you can lock and unlock them all at once.
The GTL also comes with a standard audio system (pretty much every extra on the GTL bar the ergonomics are options on the GT) that's nicely integrated into the bike's multi-control menu and operable off a toggle and scroll wheel on the left handlebar that's quite nice to use once you get the hang of it. The stereo on our test bike came pre-set on our local hits and memories station – and that felt pretty much spot on, so that's where it stayed.
The audio system shares is also integrated with the in-dash, touch screen GPS, and can also plug into an iPhone or other USB audio player, complete with the ability to choose tracks directly through the dashboard menu. And if that wasn't enough, the whole thing is Bluetooth enabled so that if your tunes are lost in the wind noise of freeway riding, you can pipe them straight into your Bluetooth helmet. Bodacious.
I'm not usually the kind of rider that likes listening to music as I go, but I thought I'd give it a go. The stereo adjusts its volume to account for wind noise as you speed up, and it sounds great around town. But at freeways speeds it gets pretty difficult to hear through a full face lid. And it's also easy to forget you're on a motorbike – I pulled up and parked outside a university campus at one point and wondered why everyone was staring at me … it took a minute to remember that it's not normal for motorcycles to blast "Money for Nothing" at ear-splitting volumes. Whoops.
BMW makes a good argument for consideration as the most technology-forward motorcycle company in the world. And the K1600GTL is more or less its technology flagship. So here's a quick rundown of some other gadgets it features that you wouldn't ordinarily find on your motorcycle:
Fully electronic cruise control – I can't stress enough how lovely it is to have a good cruise system on a bike. You can rest your wrists on the highway, or just use it to keep yourself under your local area's idiot-friendly speed limits.
Electronically operated suspension – this makes quite a noticeable difference. Set on "comfort" you can enjoy a nice soft ride that cushions the bumps on a highway very nicely but decks out the centerstand fairly early if you try to ride it hard. Pop it on sport, and the whole thing firms itself up to let you turn much more aggressively in the twisties.
Tyre pressure warning system – over the years I've developed the ability to tell when my bikes are maybe 4-5psi down on tire pressure. This system takes away the need.
Electrically adjustable touring screen – honestly, this is one of the most annoying features of this bike for me. I don't like screens much at the best of times, but the GTL's is a shocker. You have to drop it all the way down if you want to see the road surface in front of you clearly, but when you do, it forces a lumpy stream of buffeting wind right at your helmet. Raise it up higher and the buffeting wind disappears, but you have to look at the road through a curved bit of perspex, and it also creates a slight negative air pressure hole that draws your upper body forward at freeway speeds. There's probably an aftermarket fix out there but I spent a lot of time fiddling with the switch that I could have spent concentrating on other stuff.
Switchable engine mappings, ABS and traction control – almost not worth a mention given how common these features are becoming on modern motorcycles, but all three systems work well here. Unfortunately it's a bit of a slog to go and turn off the traction control if you want to chuck a wheelie – but that's probably for the best.
You've doubtless read a tonne of other megatourer reviews that praise the way these behemoths handle once they're moving – and this is a fantastic example. At 348 kg (767 lbs), there's no getting around the fact that the GTL is a handful to push around. You'd better think about where you park it, and if you end up nosed into a downhill parking spot, you may well need help to get the big bugger out.
Slip the clutch and get it moving though, and from walking pace upward the big K handles beautifully. At low speeds it's responsive and maneuverable enough to do figure-8s on, or dodge around blockages while you're lane-splitting in stopped traffic.
Credit for the K1600GTL's superb steering has to go at least partially to Norman Hassock – BMW basically out-waited the patent life of the Hossack front end suspension system and re-branded it as "Duolever." It works superbly to deliver pinpoint-sharp steering at all speeds, to eliminate front-end dive under braking and maintain constant steering geometry under all conditions.
Riding the GTL hard in the twisties, you're certainly aware you're on a weighty bike – particularly when you have to pull up hard from high speed for a corner entry. But the big ABS brakes are up for the job, and the bike's steering is light as a feather at all times, so it's actually a pleasure to play, even if its performance envelope is well down on sportier machines.
Firing it out of turns is also quite a pleasure thanks to the surprisingly loud and throaty engine roar that develops when you wind the K1600 up – and there's muscle aplenty to trouble the traction control as you do.
I will note that the GTL suffers a little from what I'd term overapplication of the luxury brush. I don't like it in cars either – there's a big difference between the immediacy and responsiveness and instant feedback of a sportscar, and the soft, neutered, unmechanical feel through the pedal of some luxury cars. In the K1600GTL, this manifests as a vagueness through the clutch lever that makes it difficult to find the clutch point, and a weird sense of disconnection between the throttle and the engine. It might add a touch of "class" to the feel of the ride, but I didn't appreciate stalling this giant thing more than a dozen times, often in embarrassing places. And I'm not a bloke that normally stalls bikes.
And now, with all that riding around rubbish out of the way, we get to the best bit. The K1600 series is the first in the world to feature an optional adaptive headlight that freakin' looks around the corners when you tip in.
Here's the problem – headlights are designed to illuminate as much of the road in front of you as possible, but without shining directly in the eyes of other road users coming the other way. So they cut off with a horizontal line. Of course, when you lean a motorbike into a turn, that horizon line tilts with the bike, putting the side that you're turning towards downward and basically ensuring that you can't see where you're going:
So you've got to hit the high beams or fit special driving lights so that when you go riding in the twisties at night, you can actually see a bit.
Not with this little black duck. BMW's ingenious adaptive headlight system shines a constant beam into a tillable mirror. When you turn the bike on, it tests the mirror by scanning the headlight up and down, and when the bike's inbuilt lean angle sensors tell it you're tipping the bike in to a corner, it tilts the headlight the opposite way to maintain a constant horizontal beam.
Does it work? Hell yes. So nicely you can hardly tell it's doing anything at all unless you're actively concentrating on it and trying to catch it moving. Sure, it's an added complication when it comes to long-term servicing, but as a safety feature for night-time riding on bendy roads, I wish I could retro-fit it to every bike I own.
BMW's K1600GTL is at the sportier end of the luxury mega-tourer market, particularly placed next to the Honda Goldwing. At an MSRP of US$23,650 (including ABS) it's slightly cheaper, some 50 kilograms lighter and nearly 50 horsepower up on the big Honda GL1800. Its outstanding suspension caters nicely for comfort while being ready to flat-out boogie in the twisties.
It features pretty much every gadget known to man, nicely integrated into a sweet control system. It gives a really sweet combination of "king of the road" feeling and light, nimble steering. And it has headlights that look around the freakin' corners. That's enough for me. I'm a fan. Enjoy our photo gallery!
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