Photos by Kevin Wing

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina – Talk about an oxymoron. Until very recently I never thought I’d ever use BMW and bagger in the same sentence. Yet here we are in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, to ride the 2018 BMW K1600B Bagger. Yes, a BMW bagger.

To put it simply, the bike is electric-smooth and almost completely devoid of vibration.

For the uninitiated, a bagger is essentially a slightly-stripped-down and lowered touring bike. This American phenomenon began sometime in the 1990s, when riders began customising American-made V-twin touring bikes by pulling off top cases, chopping windshields, and slamming suspensions. Harley-Davidson, Victory (now defunct), and Indian produced traditional V-twin baggers, and a few years ago Honda joined the bagger bandwagon by stripping a Gold Wing and producing the pared-down F6B. Although Honda seemed an unlikely candidate to produce a bagger and broke from tradition by making one with a flat-six engine, even more unlikely is a bagger coming from Germany. Yet here it is.

A touring bike at heart

The K1600B’s undercarriage and chassis geometry are borrowed from its K1600GTL sibling, but it has a redesigned rear frame that sits 71 mm lower. This subsequently drops the passenger seat height by an equal amount, while the rider’s perch is 780 mm, which is 30 mm lower than GT and 30 mm higher than the GTL. Though seat height is not adjustable, a no-cost low seat option drops seat height to the GTL’s 750 mm. It also uses the GTL’s 700-watt alternator, as opposed to the GT’s 580-watt unit.

The fairing closely resembles the one on the GTL, which is slightly different from the sportier GT, but it features a much lower windscreen. Like on the touring bikes the screen is electrically adjustable, raised or lowered via a button on the left-hand switch assembly. At the rear are new, more streamlined side cases that, unlike the GT and GTL, are not easily removable but rather bolted on, though they have the same capacity at 37 litres each. Also new are the oil-drum-sized mufflers.

From the rider’s seat you’ll find the same instrument cluster as on the two GTs, which includes analogue gauges for the speedometer and tachometer, and a central TFT colour screen for selecting ride modes (Rain, Road, or Dynamic), seat and grip heat levels, and suspension settings, and for displaying trip info. Your hands, however, grasp a new tubular handlebar, which kind of resembles a drag bar, but with a U-shaped tube attaching it to the top clamp. If you find its styling odd (I do) you can request a forged aluminum handlebar at no extra cost.

To keep controls uncluttered, handlebar and seat heat are activated by scrolling through menus in the screen, which is inconvenient but relatively easy to do using the menu button and scroll knob on the left handlebar switch pod; the passenger just needs to reach down to hit a switch on the right-hand saddlebag to activate the bun warmer.

Like the Honda F6B, a six-cylinder engine powers the BMW K1600B, but unlike its Japanese competitor, the Beemer’s engine is an across-the-frame inline-six. The engine displaces 1,649 cc and produces 160 horsepower and 129 lb-ft of torque, making it the most powerful bagger you can bag. It drives the rear wheel through a six-speed transmission, via shaft drive.

My test bike is equipped with forward-mounted floorboards (a $240 option) beneath which are cleverly concealed engine crash bars. It also has LED fog lights, which are part of the $1,750 Equipment Package that also includes keyless operation with central locking, electric shift assist (up- and downshift), and an anti-theft alarm. It also has an optional electric reverse (à la Gold Wing), which is part of the $2,500 Touring Package that also includes an audio system.

With sport touring tendencies

Once fired, the engine emits a melodic inline-six hum – unusual today, but more common in the 1970s and ’80s, when Benelli, Honda, and Kawasaki produced bikes with this engine layout. Rolling away, I was pleasantly reminded of just how smooth the K1600 platform is. To put it simply, the bike is electric-smooth and almost completely devoid of vibration. It feels like it floats over pavement, though the incredibly smooth roads in Tennessee and the two Carolinas, through which our two-day, 700 km route wound, likely contributed to the polished ride.

Despite its land-barge-like proportions, the K1600 is the best-handling touring bike platform out there. Although it weighs in at a claimed 336 kg wet (14 kg lighter than the GTL) it has a remarkably rigid chassis and rolls on supersport-sized 17-inch tires (120/70 front; 190/55 rear). When the ESA suspension is set to the firmer Road mode (Cruise mode is softer) the bike rails through high-speed corners completely unperturbed. Ample cornering clearance is available, allowing for a very spirited pace, though this isn’t a point-and-shoot sport bike, something that I’m reminded of by the smell of heated brakes after one particularly enthusiastic run through a set of twisties.

Comfort is exceptional, which is no surprise being that the Bagger is derived from a long-distance tourer. Our hosts had installed the optional low seat on all of the test bikes, but most riders above about five-foot-ten, like me (I’m six feet tall), requested the standard seat on the second day. While the low seat provides an effortless reach to the ground, the perch is too cramped for taller riders, though the optional footboards do provide some relief. Wind protection is excellent, especially when the windshield is raised to the sweet spot, where there is no buffeting or reverse draft.

Starting at $26,100, the K1600B costs $2,100 more than the F6B and $500 less than the 2018 Harley Road Glide. More importantly, it costs almost $6,000 less than the GTL, making it a smarter choice for a solo rider looking for touring-bike comfort, since the GTL is better equipped for two-up riding. It has a long list of standard features, including ABS Pro, traction control, BMW’s ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment), a xenon headlight, cruise control, heated handgrips, heated seat (rider and passenger), and an accessory power socket.

Despite its moniker I don’t consider the K1600B to be a bagger, a name that suggests laid-back V-twin cruising. Think of this bagger as more of a larger-scale sport-touring bike, which combines touring-bike comfort and convenience with sport-bike prowess, and wraps it all in a streamlined silhouette.

Maybe BMW should have called it the K1600B Black, giving it a more sinister connotation – and since it’s the only colour you can choose.