I have been riding motorcycles off and on since the mid 1970’s. My list of bikes includes a Suzuki 380, Honda 360, 1999 HD Dyna-Glide Convertible, 2007 HD Road Glide, 2017 HD Ultra Limited, 2017 Can-Am RT-Limited, 2019 BMW R1250GS, and most recently a 2021 HD Pan America Special.
I don’t have a lot of experience with the true adventure style riding, which I would consider dirt, gravel, and fire roads, or desert/beach sand and rocky trails. I don’t want to travel something like that alone, due to my not wanting to get stranded in the middle of somewhere without access to help.
Since Harley Davidson has focused their attention on the BMW R1250GS/GSA as one of their main competitors in the market, and now I have one of each, I can compare these bikes against each other based on my riding style and goals.
I will list what I think are some of the main points of interest for people who may be considering one over the other. This will not be a complex detailed analysis going into engineering issues, but things that I think people will care about.
As I get started, a quick disclaimer. I purchased each motorcycle. Neither manufacturer nor dealership have paid me or given me compensation in anyway for this comparison. The views expressed are mine alone and my experiences. I may address comments from forums on certain issues, but the responses will be my opinion.
Let’s get started
I purchased the BMW R1250GS (referred to throughout the rest of this write-up simply as “BMW”) with factory low chassis. When the seat and suspension are all set to the lowest settings, this provides about 31-inch seat height. I can almost flat foot the bike when stopped. The suspension can be adjusted to the high setting, which adds about 2 inches to the seat height.
The “package” on the bike includes many features, mainly the GPS wiring/mount, keyless access, wire wheels, and Dynamic ride control.
The Dynamic Ride control provides ride modes for rain, street, and enduro (off-road), but also the ability to make adjustment to various setting in traction control, ABS (anti-lock braking system), and throttle response. The Dynamic Ride feature requires plugging what looks like a USB drive into the bike (it is NOT a USB drive, the plug is BMW specific)
Harley-Davidson Pan America Special
I purchased the Harley-Davidson Pan America Special (referred to through the rest of this write-up simply as “HD”). This model comes standard with a center stand, adaptive lighting (lights corners as you lean, really neat), and the ability to order wire wheels, adaptive ride height, and special colors/graphics. I ordered the “Special” because I wanted the wire wheels and the adaptive ride height. I picked Gauntlet Grey.
The adaptive lighting is not active when riding in a straight line or in slight curves. When you lean the bike, the adaptive lighting automatically turns on to shine light into the curve/corner. It isn’t noticeable by the rider during the day, but you will notice it at night. If you are leading someone whose bike has the adaptive lighting, it looks different when you watch them lean the bike.
The adaptive ride height allows the motorcycle to lower about 2 inches when stopped (and the ignition is on). This can be set to lower as the bike is stopped; wait .5 seconds after stopping to lower; wait 1.0 second after stopping to lower; or not lower when stopping. Mine is set to lower as I come to a stop. This feature allows greater ground clearance when riding while still allowing “vertically-challenged” riders the ability to put down one or both feet.
BMW: 1254cc, shift-cam, liquid/air-cooled.
HD: 1250cc, revolution engine, liquid cooled.
BMW: 6-speed with optional shift assist.
HD: 6-speed (shift assist is not available).
BMW: 549 lbs (wet)/1025 lbs max load (includes bike).
HD: 559 lbs (wet)/1003 lbs max load (includes bike).
Price: (price with my options)
BMW: $25,956 Included options: Vario Panniers, wire wheels, factory low suspension, GPS,
and keyless access.
HD: $21,749 Included options: wire wheels, adaptive ride heights, and Gauntlet Grey).
Both engines are classified as 1250cc and have similar performance. The transmissions are both 6-speed (1down-6up). Difference in weight is 10 pounds between the BMW R1250GS and the HD Pan America Special.
Both bikes were purchased with optional tubeless wire wheel. Though the tires on the HD are labeled as “Scorcher” from Michelin, the tread pattern is almost identical.
Both bikes have adjustable windshields. The wind deflection and wind noise are the same between the two bikes, whether at low speeds or highway speeds. I wear a Klim adventure helmet. I have read that people comment about the wind noise on the HD. I expect that those comments are from people who have come from the HD or other touring motorcycles. Having ridden touring motorcycles, the adventure motorcycles are noisier than a touring motorcycle.
Please remember, I have had the BMW for a little over 2 years and have had the HD for a couple of weeks. I have taken both on dirt roads (a couple of the same dirt roads to get a true comparison) and on highway. The BMW currently has 40,000 miles, the HD has about 1,000.
First, the performance. I can notice the lower torque on the HD at the low end. On the BMW, I can start from a stop (on level ground) in 3rd gear. Not that I do this as a habit, but I have done it. Shifting to a higher gear on the BMW can be done without straining the engine at lower RPMs. Shifting to 6th gear on a slow acceleration at 45mph, the HD will lug, rattle, and vibrate.
Once you get to a higher RPM, the HD seems to pull a lot stronger. The HD hits peak horsepower at 9,000 rpm, the BMW hits is about 7,750rpm. I have not hit red-line on either bike, but I expect that the HD may have a little higher top speed (unless electronically limited like the BMW).
Several people have commented in various forums that the HD should have shift assist. The BMW has shift-assist, and I love it. This feature allows upshift without the use of the clutch lever. While you accelerate, simply lift the shift pedal to the next gear. Fair warning, the load clunk on the HD when not using the clutch lever will wake you up!
The weight of the two bikes are within 10 pounds of each other, with the HD being the heavier. When looking at the two bikes, the BMW has a boxer engine, which means the two cylinders are horizontally opposed. This would appear that the weight of the engine would be closer to the ground. Upon closer examination, the weight of the engine and transmission on the BMW are higher than the main engine/transmission mass on the HD. When handling both bikes in the garage, the HD appears to have a lower center of gravity. Though I have mounting racks for luggage on the BMW, I don’t feel that these significantly raise the center of gravity.
The seat height of the two bikes are configured at about the same. It doesn’t take long to adjust to the nuances of the adaptive rider height on the HD. It was a shock the first time I stopped to fill for fuel. I turned off the bike, flipped down the side stand, and went to hop off. As I was about to hop off, the bike raised. Yep, changed my center of gravity, almost flipping me into the gas pump. I now leave the ignition on until I am off the bike.
However, I do like the adaptive ride height on the HD. I like that it lowers when I stop, yet raises the bike when rolling or when the ignition is off. The BMW is much closer to vertical when on the side stand; with the suspension lowered, this may lean the bike in the direction away from the side stand (bike will lie down and take a nap). The HD does have more lean toward the side stand, even when the suspension is lowered. The BMW can have the suspension raised, but the bike must be stopped, with the engine running, to raise or lower. The suspension on the BMW cannot adjust itself when you come to a stop.
The handling of these two bikes is both outstanding. They each have strong points over the other. I like the comfort and handling of the BMW when on a divided four lane road. But I like the feel of the HD on narrow twisty roads and dirt roads a little better than the BMW. As mentioned, the tires are almost the same; so the difference is attributed to the bike. I would have no problems loading luggage on the BMW for a week trip including long stretches on highway with two-lane and dirt roads thrown in for excitement. I will attribute part of this to have over two years of fine-tuning the seat and seat pads. I am sure that the HD will get there once some accessories are available.
For a stock seat, the HD is great for about 3 to 4 hours before my butt starts letting me know it wants a break. The BMW takes about 30 minutes to get comfortable, then I can ride all day with minimal issues. Once after-market custom fit covers and pads are available, I expect that the HD’s seat will be better than the BMW’s.
The console on the HD seems to try to do so many things at once. The ability to put “widgets” on the screen can be a little distracting. I am still learning how to work with these; I hope to find how to add only one or two widgets instead of having all four. I also need to figure out how to move them around to different locations on the screen.
The interface between the bike and the phone is very different. Each has their own phone app, which is not required to interface the phone, but does give some extra features. One such feature is GPS guidance. The BMW came with an external GPS manufactured by Garmin, but the phone app does provide a secondary GPS, as well as speed limit indicator on the console. The BMW app has the ability to download state maps (which are updated) to the phone. So, if you are without cell coverage, your phone GPS will still work. Also, the clock on the BMW is set with the phone and external GPS. Though it does not adjust time instantly when you cross a time zone, it will adjust when you stop and restart the bike.
The HD app gave me serious concerns. The permissions requirements for the app was enough to keep me from installing it. The app requires full access to the phone, all data, contacts, and locations, as well as the permission to reset the phone to factory settings as it deems required. The GPS in the app requires you have cell coverage. For a bike that was designed to be ridden in remote areas where cell coverage may not be available, why have an app that only works when it has cell coverage?
The side stand peg on the HD is ahead of the shift pedal; on the BMW, the side stand peg is between the foot peg and the shift pedal. For both, the side stand is ahead of the of the shift pedal. Not a major issue, just one that will require a mental awareness if you have more than one bike. Both of these have a center stand. I have found it to be a little easier to put the HD on the center stand than the BMW. I can’t put the BMW on the center stand unless I am wearing boots; I have been able to put the HD on the center stand in the garage while wearing sandals.
The HD has the ability to adjust the brake and clutch levers, there are five setting options for the pull of the levers. There are after-market products that can be added to the BMW to give this ability, but it is standard on the HD.
Each bike has multiple riding modes. Both have rain, road, and off-road. The HD also has sport mode. Each bike will allow you to change which modes can be available while riding, though rain and road are both available all the time. To set up custom modes on the BMW, you have to have the module, which is similar to a USB thumb drive. You can then make adjustments on the suspension stiffness, traction control, ABS, and throttle control. For the HD, you go to option A or B and select edit. You can use one of the other modes as a starting point, then fine tune the same parameters as on the BMW. I simply find it easier to set up the custom options on the HD.
One major difference that I have found is the availability of accessories. The BMW GS models are celebrating 40 years. Over these 40 years, many manufacturers have accessories for the BMW. Computer controllers for lighting, luggage options, and farkles galore are available for the BMW. For the HD, I regret that even Harley-Davidson has basic adventure accessories on back-order. Wire wheels have a long wait time, luggage racks are on back-order with no one sure when they will be available. Other manufacturers may not have been able to get the HD for them to engineer new products to fit. Over time, I expect that this will be resolved. But for now, it is an issue.
Reliability. Both BMW and Harley-Davidson have been around for over 100 years. The basic design of the BMW Boxer engine and the HD V-twin have been the mainstay of each company. Both companies have had air cooled, liquid cooled, and liquid/air cooled engines. I have to put both companies as having reliability as a strong suit.
Even with exceptional reliability, there are times you need to visit a dealer. Whether it be for maintenance, parts, or something broken! Harley Davidson has an outstanding dealer network. Though I have visited a few that were less than stellar, Harley-Davidson dealerships are overall great places. Even a small dealership can usually handle an emergency repair for a traveling owner. I was able to call my dealership the day I was going to reach 1,000 miles and schedule my initial service with them for the next day.
BMW, on the other hand, has few dealers. And these dealers are under the roof with several other brands. Not that having multiple brands under one roof is a bad thing, but BMW may not be a primary concern. A dealer may have 5 or 6 brands, but only one technician is trained to work on a BMW. The parts department has a limited space for parts, with BMW not getting a lot a shelf space. If you are traveling, the dealers are less likely to have the parts you need once the technician can fit your bike into their schedule. The initial service for the BMW was 600 miles. When I bought the bike I was told the first available time for a service was in about 2 months. I hit the 600 miles in a week. They did fit me in that next Saturday since they only work on first come-first served on Saturdays. I called the nearest BMW dealership about a brake recall, to set up an appointment. The dealer can get to me in two weeks before they can install the parts which have been on order for four months.
Both the BMW and HD require oil/filer change and overall check-ups at 6,000 and 5,000 respectively. The BMW does require checking the valve adjustment every 12,000 miles. The HD requires cleaning/adjust/lube the chain every 500-600 miles. With the exception of adjusting the valves if needed on the BMW, most of the maintenance can be done by many riders. With the HD being the first bike in a long time with a chain, this 500-600 mile maintenance will be an adjustment for me.
I have not had any mechanical issues with either bike, nor do I expect any issues. There are things that will require me to mentally adjust, such as the engine whine and chain noise on the HD.
Each of these bikes fit well into the adventure-touring market. Each having things that they do better than the other.
The BMW has a plethora of accessories available, but lack a dealer support network, which may include parts to repair the bike. The HD is lagging in accessories, but has a fantastic dealer support network.
Having one of each, and being very similar in function, one would question my plans on keeping both bikes. At present, and for the foreseeable future, I do plan to keep them both. Right now, the HD doesn’t fit me as the best. It is close, but not yet. I expect that there will be computer updates, recalls, and technical bulletins which will each improve the HD. Accessories both from Harley-Davidson and after-market manufacturers will become available. These too will improve the HD by allowing customization for everything from seating and luggage to lighting (Hex EZ-can and Denali Can-Smart lighting controllers are fantastic!).
I enjoy working on my own bikes. YouTube has many videos on how to do things to the BMW. There are not many people with videos on the HD, I am learning the hard way on doing things (such as removing the tank to install electrical accessories).
There are people who will drink the black/orange Kool-Aid and support Harley-Davidson as the only motorcycle to ever ride. There are those who feel that BMW is the motorcycle to ride. I think that both bikes will find a place in the adventure market.
I like both brands, I like motorcycles. If I had the finances, space, my way, and permission, I would probably have one of every bike. Or at least one for every day of the week, then for every day of the month, eventually having more than Barber Motorsports Museum or Wheels Through Time.