Which Used BMW Motorcycle Is the Most Reliable?

Browse car enthusiast forums enough, and the subject of reliable used BMWs inevitably comes up. The company might have a reputation for premium performance and engineering, but that’s often code for ‘headache-inducingly-expensive repairs.’ But it’s not just BMW’s cars that enjoy this reputation; its bikes do, too. Yet despite classic BMW motorcycles’ status as stalwart steeds, Consumer Reports once ranked its more modern bikes near the bottom of its reliability list. So, does that mean used BMW motorcycles are unreliable rides? Or are there some dependable ones out there?

Used BMW motorcycles are often durable, but reliability depends on (sometimes expensive) maintenance

A white-blue-red-and-black 1987 BMW R80 G/S Paris Dakar at IMS Outdoors Chicago 2021
1987 BMW R80 G/S Paris Dakar at IMS Outdoors Chicago 2021 | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

First, you should know that since releasing that reliability report, Consumer Reports has stopped testing motorcycles entirely. Also, that report hasn’t been updated since 2015, when it featured 2008-2014 data. So, somewhat ironically, it’s not a reliable source when it comes to all used BMW motorcycles.

Secondly, yes, classic two-wheel BMWs have gotten more expensive in general in part due to their reputation for durability. But durability and reliability aren’t synonyms. And that applies to old bikes as much as new ones.

A vintage BMW bike might have fewer electronics and a less complicated engine than a modern one, but that just means fewer potential failure points. If you don’t maintain that classic motorcycle properly, it will fail. And motorcycle maintenance intervals have gotten significantly longer as technology and engineering have improved. But as BMW’s own M Endurance chain showed, modern technology doesn’t replace proper maintenance. And maintenance can be a pricey sticking point for non-DIY riders when it comes to used BMW motorcycles, MCN says.

That’s not to say BMW’s modern bikes, i.e., those less than 25 years old, were perfect right out of the box. The German company isn’t immune to recalls, including several fuel-pump-related ones, RideApart notes. But barring any production-introduced defects, which will be covered, properly-maintained examples of the used BMW motorcycles described below should be solid machines.

Whether air- or liquid-cooled, a used BMW R Series GS is reliable and durable enough for any adventure

Charley Boorman with his silver "Long Way Round" BMW R 1150 GS Adventure motorcycle
Charley Boorman with his “Long Way Round” BMW R 1150 GS Adventure motorcycle | Andy Butterton – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

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Spec2000-2004 R 1150 GS and R 1150 GS Adventure2005-2018 R 1200 GS and R 1200 GS Adventure2019- R 1250 GS and R 1250 GS Adventure
Engine1130cc air/oil-cooled boxer-twinPre-2013: 1170cc air/oil-cooled boxer-twin
2013-2018: air/liquid-cooled boxer-twin
1254cc air/liquid-cooled boxer-twin
Power85 hpPre-2010: 100 bhp
2010-2012: 108 bhp
2013-2018: 125 bhp
136 hp
Torque78 lb-ft (based on Cycle World dyno results)Pre-2013: 85 lb-ft
2010-2012: 88 lb-ft
2013-2018: 125 lb-ft
105 lb-ft
Curb weight549 lbs (GS)Pre-2013: 496 lbs (GS)
2013-2018: 525 lbs (GS)
549 lbs (GS)
591 lbs (GS Adventure)

It’s hard to find a used BMW motorcycle more durable or reliable than the GS. The original R80 G/S invented the adventure bike segment in the 1980s, and its successors quickly earned a reputation for stalwart service. And they really became by-words for it after Long Way Round debuted. BMW has continually refined the GS bikes over the years, and the R80 G/S’s descendants carry on its legacy.

Before you go searching for a used GS, keep in mind that BMW often uses ‘GS’ on several disparate models. What you’re looking for is an R Series GS, as seen in the table above. Although each offers a different blend of features, they’re all built around BMW’s iconic formula of a boxer-twin engine and low-maintenance shaft drive. And all of the listed models have six-speed transmissions, as well as BMW’s trick Telelever front suspension.

Which used BMW R Series GS motorcycle should you get?

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For old-school purity, MCN recommends the BMW R 1150 GS bikes, as they have significantly fewer electronics. But they also pack some welcome features, including adjustable Showa suspension with 7.9” of travel and an adjustable seat. Cycle World calls it “the very essence of a two-wheel Swiss Army knife,” hence why the Adventure model was the bike of choice for Long Way Round. If you’re stuck between model years, the 2003 and 2004 models have servo-assisted ABS and more spark plugs to decrease engine surging.

Motorcyclist lists its successor, the BMW R 1200 GS, as one of the best used adventure motorcycles on the market. The air-cooled models still offer features like electronically-adjustable suspension, heated grips, and LED lights, but they’re lighter and simpler, Bennetts notes. However, the 2013-MY updates also introduced features like a slipper clutch and multiple riding modes. BMW added a steering damper in 2014, and further tweaked the engine and electronic suspension for the 2017 MY.

Used BMW R 1250 GS motorcycles are practically new bikes right now, making them significantly pricier than older models. But they offer the most bells and whistles, particularly the off-road-prepped R 1250 GS Adventure. However, while they’re the newest bikes, they’re also the most complicated to work on.

What kinds of problems should you watch out for on used GS bikes?

A well-maintained used BMW R 1150 GS is a durable, reliable motorcycle. Bennetts recommends avoiding the servo-assisted ABS or finding a late-model R 1150 GS with the ‘standard’ version installed. But generally speaking, the bike’s only faults are age-related; it even avoided the fuel pump recall mentioned earlier. There’s a reason Cycle World says that this bike has “durability and reliability rivaling an anvil.” And with the Telelever front end, you get the benefits of long-travel suspension without the drawbacks of brake dive.

As for the R 1200 GS, it’s similarly stout, but it has some known failure points. Early models had some teething issues, MCN says. As a general rule, the 2006-and-later models are more reliable, while MCN calls the 2010-and-later ones “the best of the bunch.” However, make sure you check the clutch slave cylinder, as it’s a “notorious weak point,” Bennetts reports. Plus, the engine has some sound-insulating foam that often absorbs moisture and causes corrosion. Many used examples have it removed for this reason. And some used BMW R 1200 GS motorcycles were part of the previously-mentioned fuel pump recall.

It’s also worth noting that the electronic suspension, called ‘ESA,’ is not repairable, Bennetts cautions. If it fails, you have to replace the entire shock. Fortunately, it was an option. So, if you’re worried about parts and labor costs, avoid bikes that have it. In addition, some 2014-2017 R 1200 GS bikes were recalled due to fork damage after extensive off-roading, RideApart reports. Pre-2014 and 2018 models appear to be exempt from this, though.

Because the BMW R 1250 GS models are so new, it’s difficult to truly gauge their long-term reliability. But some 2019 and 2020 bikes were recalled, not just for fuel pump issues, but also swingarm pivot pin problems and leaking front brake calipers. However, it’s worth noting that all of these recalls affected other BMW bikes. Also, some used BMW GS motorcycles are still under warranty.

None of these issues are necessarily deal-breakers, so long as the bike you’re looking at has been properly maintained. But for maximum peace of mind, the R 1150 GS is arguably the most reliable used BMW motorcycle.

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