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Arguably, the first Scrambler ever was built by BMW in 1951 when Motorrad unveiled the R68. With that heritage, and the success of the the RnineT Roadster in recent years, it seems a natural fit to create a spiritual successor to the original. The RnineT Scrambler was introduced last year in Europe, this year, it arrives in North America.
Nostalgia is big these days. Everything that is old is new again, and if that means more bikes like the RnineT Scrambler, that's fine by me.
Scramblers were a popular style of motorcycles from the 50’s to the 70’s, often seen under the coolest stars of the day such as Steve McQueen. Not only did they ooze cool, but they were designed to be the quintessential “do everything” bike. You’d see Scamblers used and abused anywhere from racing to carrying a surfboard to the beach. Often, completely customized; a true extension of the rider.
BMW isn't offering ‘instant cool’ as an optional accessory with its Scrambler. Instead, you'll have to accept people coming up to you and saying things like "nice bike". After a while you'll be so used to it, you'll feel like The Fonz every time someone approaches.
The modern Scrambler is built, like its forebear, as a no-fuss, stripped back motorcycling experience. This return to yesteryear features no engine maps, no gear shift lights or on board entertainment system. There’s not even a tacho on the dashboard. All you get is a speedo, a clock and a few lights that tell you you’re out of gas, and that you (occasionally) left your turn signals on. This sparsity might help explain that at 220kgs (484lbs) wet, the Scrambler is fairly lightweight - It’s simple, honest motorcycling.
Not that the BMW is devoid of modern devices. There is a trip computer and ABS is standard. There’s also the (optional) ASC (automatic stability control) traction. In keeping with the “simple” ethos, there is nothing to change or alter. You can however disable both which, given the off-road pretensions of this vehicle, is very welcome.
Firing up the engine, you’re greeted with a deep, highly mechanical burble that is so characteristic of the 1170cc Boxer engine. It's not particularly aggressive, nor is it particularly loud, but it does have a sense of purpose about it. Rev it and you’ll be greeted by a very pleasant exhaust note, courtesy of the two highly slung pipes. I’m sure the BMW engineers spent time tuning it to make it as pleasing as possible and to my ears, they succeeded. For those of you with a craving to sound bad-ass, there's an optional high-slung "sports" Akrapovic pipe.
Riding at low speed, you’ll almost certainly notice the steering has an unusual character. It’s fairly firm and then it just tips in. This is almost certainly the profile of Metzeler Karoo’s on the 19” spoked wheels as tested. But this is the press fleet, and there are always changes. I’m told at the dealership the bike is stock with cast alloy wheels and Michelin Pilot Road 4 rubber, which is an excellent street tire. If you fancy that true off-road experience, you can have the knobby tire as a no cost option, but the spokes are going to cost extra.
It didn’t take long to acclimatize to the BMW Scrambler's character and within a few miles it was being effortlessly thrown into corner after corner without a one single complaint.
Off-road, the Scrambler isn’t a dirt bike, but it could be. The high pegs, low tank and low-rise bars mean that unless you were a non-female cast member of Snow White, you won’t be gripping anything with your knees when you stand. You could, if you want, squat down but that’s no way to get a bike properly good and dirty.
Having ridden a number of street bikes off-road, it’s quite surprising how composed the Scrambler is on dirt and gravel even in stock form. The Karoo’s make it possible but you will want to disable the electronics for maximum fun. We did around 30km of what I would call light off-roading and it was awesome to feel the rear wheel slide around in a controlled manner. Anything more that potholes, puddles and a loose surface however and you may want to consider the softer route. Either way, I’d fit the bash plate and engine guards.
The versatility of the Scrambler is best demonstrated by the wrong turns I frequently take. At one point, after an awesome stretch of twisties in Harriman State Park, I missed a parking lot entrance. Normally, it would mean a tight turn and doubling back, but with the Scrambler I just turned into the next parking lot and rode up the 10’ tall grassy bank. Somehow, it seemed like the right thing to do, even though I doubt I would have tried it on many other bikes. That’s the Scrambler all-over. It breeds confidence.
After the back roads, it was time to hit the city: New York City. Lower Manhattan to be precise. If ever there was an environment designed to punish a street bike, it’s lower Manhattan. The traffic is both slow moving and aggressively tight between the claustrophobic towers. You need eyes in the back of your head, as well as a precise throttle and brakes to stay upright. Here, the lightweight of the Scrambler and it’s torquey engine made it a cinch. I’ve ridden lots of bikes in lots of cities, and the BMW is as good as any with one exception: my Scrambler was complaining about overheating from Battery Park to Brooklyn. This was late afternoon traffic, and most motorcycles being overtaken by pedestrians do not fair well, especially those cooled by air and oil. It could have been worse. It could have cooked my legs or just shut down. As it was, I was limited to a flashing dashboard light and the occasional stall when moving off, which could just have been me getting lazy.
My only other complaint about the Scrambler is that I’d like better suspension. For the most part it’s pretty soft and that makes it comfortable on the highway. The suspension does it’s job for braking, too, with a predictable dive. But I’m a big guy and there we some potholes and ruts that just came right up through the seat. If I had the bike longer term, I’d would need the rear to be firmer and a little better damped.
Touring-wise, the Scrambler would be an admirable machine. It’s perfectly comfortable cruising highways all day at 120km/h+ despite the lack of wind protection, but for the distance enthusiast there is one major oversight: no side bags, even as an option. You can get a tank bag and a soft bag for the rear seat, but I tend to travel with more than those two would collectively hold. I’m sure it’s something the aftermarket will fix.
Being a Scrambler, there’s also plenty of options for accessories so you can customize it as much as you want. No matter what you end up with the base package will always be the same - The RnineT Scrambler comes in the single color option you see here. Aside from the previously mentioned protective options, the heated grips might be worth a look - they came in really useful at 8 degrees celsius on Fall mornings in New Jersey.
BMW knows you have a choice in Scramblers. There’s the Triumph, the Ducati and fairly soon a Yamaha. All of them are good looking motorcycles, but while the others are built around smaller engines, the BMW is the no compromise option.
In terms of riding, the Scrambler is definitely in another league compared with the Triumph. Comparison with the Ducati is harder. The RnineT Scrambler is definitely more fun off-road, but the Ducati is slightly cheaper. The extra power of the the BMW will come in handy if you plan on longer distances.
All of which is to say that the RnineT Scrambler is a very good bike indeed. A cool bike, a fun bike. A simple, pure bike. It’s a bike for the city, the highway, the back lanes and the odd section of fire road. Most importantly it’s about the joy of riding, and it delivers.
The RnineT Scrambler is priced at US$13,000 and CN$14,250 - available now at BMW Motorrad.