Oubaai, Southern Cape - Seeing the BMW G310 GS for the first time at the South African launch last week, I was struck by how much bigger, how much more grown-up a machine it looks than its G310 R roadster sibling.
But would that impression hold up on the road? The GS has the same oddball back-to-front, rearwards-tilted 313cc single as the R, delivering the same 25kW at 9500 revs and 28Nm at 7500rpm, and the same six-speed gearbox.
Asked about the reasoning behind the architecture, BMW Motorrad SA boss Edgar Kleinbergen explained that while there have always been gas-flow advantages to having the exhaust exit to the rear, the heat build-up around the exhaust port has always been a problem - until now.
Advances in vacuum casting, he said, have made it possible to cast a cylinder head with coolant channels very close to the exhaust valve seat that can carry away the excess heat without causing the head to crack (Ford, are you listening?).
But - and this is an 11 kilogram but - the GS has longer travel suspension (180mm at both ends) a 19 inch front wheel in place of the R’s 17 incher, and typical GS styling, not least in the ‘flyline’ running from the high-mounted ‘beak’ (there’s also a real mudguard closely fitted to the front wheel) over the tank and back up from under the front seat.
It also has switchable ABS (all BMWs have ABS, but being able to disable it is crucial for rapid progress on gravel roads.) All of which means that the GS is 11 kilograms heavier than the R at 169.5kg ready to go - not an issue on a litre-class machine, but possibly a factor on 313cc single.
It also has the same neat little instrument pod as the R, with the rev-counter in the form of a bar-graph across the bottom; I’m not going to belabour the point as to why that doesn’t work, beyond saying that I saw 129km/h on the speedometer at one point on the launch ride, but I have no idea at what revs. Other than that, the display is clear and legible, including a (very useful) gear position indicator.
The handlebars, however, are higher, wider, and angled further back than those of the R, making the steering, presumably, even lighter and quicker – at which point I should perhaps explain that I hadn’t yet ridden a G310 R, so I could draw no further parallels, and approached the GS with an open mind.
Both G310 models are made by BMW joint venture partner TVS in Chennai, India; build quality is excellent, the castings and ancillary componentry well up to European standards.
The only aspect in which the bikes’ third-world ancestry is evident is in the quality of the fastenings, obviously bought in from local Indian suppliers (it would make no business sense to get them anywhere else). While perfectly adequate for the job at hand, the finish on the visible heads of the (mostly) Allen screws is simply not as crisp as the best of the Italian suppliers.
After a presentation during which both Kleinbergen and BMW PR maven Edward Makwana emphasised that the G310 is not an off-roader but an urban warrior that can handle a bit of gravel en route to your weekend adventures, we moved out in convoy the next morning - straight onto the Montague Pass, the oldest unaltered mountain road in South Africa, still exactly as it was when Australian engineer Henry Fancourt White (after whom both the Fancourt golf estate and the nearby village of Blanco are named) completed it in December 1847.
Most of its 17.3 kilometres were in very good condition, causing no problems for the little GS, but the steepest section (aptly named Regop Trek!) had been badly eroded by recent rains and had the bikes hopping from rut to rut, relying on forward momentum to carry them through - with the result that I let the revs fall too far, even in second gear, asking more than the willing little single could do, and stalled - twice!
On a bigger beetle-crusher that could have been a recipe for disaster, but the G310 GS has a seat height of only 835mm (alternative seats are available from BMW that will take that up to 850mm and down to 820mm) so I was able to plant both feet flat on the ground before hitting the start button, shifting down to first and crawling my way out of trouble.
Getting back onto the tar at Herold was a welcome change of pace, as was hooliganising over the Outeniqua pass to George, where I learned that the G310 GS is reassuringly stable under braking and turns in like a terrier after a rat (the steering is actually a bit too quick on long sweepers; the bike has a slight tendency to fall towards the inside unless you concentrate on where you going) and that there’s just too little space between the left footpeg and the gear lever for my size 10s - gear changes require a little finesse and more ankle than usual.
But the little single enjoys revving hard, pulls like a trouper up to its 10 000rpm rev limiter, accompanied by an unexpectedly deep-throated growl under acceleration - which is certainly fast enough to embarrass the GTI Joes around your neighbourhood.
We refuelled the bikes at the lunch stop and I was able get very accurate fuel consumption data, averaged out across eight bikes ridden by riders of varying sizes, weights and experience. The resulting figure of 4.3 litres per 100km, while significantly higher than BMW’s claimed 3.3, was nonetheless impressive for a morning’s worth of riding in lower gears on gravel and pinning it on open roads.
But more impressive was that the G310 GS had earned its chops. Big enough to be comfortable for full-grown riders, it’s more than quick enough around town and quite capable of holding its own on gravel roads in pursuit of weekend adventures.