Scramblers have always had a special place in my life. That might be because my very first motorcycle was a Honda MTX50 at the age of 16, though I'll confess the original purchase was swayed by the fact that it looked bigger and meaner than any of the other fifties parked back at school.
But the MTX soon set a trend and the bikes that replaced it were equally adept to tackling rougher terrain when the tar proved lackluster, long or slow. A Yamaha DT 175 followed, then a XT350.
If a BMW Xcountry had been available at the time of my last upgrade, I would have definitely considered that. Instead I had to opt for the ever-green and decidedly popular F 650.
Point is: I fell in love with scramblers, and for one very simple reason. They captured the very essence of what biking was about for me - freedom.
With the MTX I soon learned that I could easily tackle a gravel shortcut that would save me valuable minutes when waking up late for school before hopping back on the tar. And the XT350 showed me that with lots of grunt low in the rev range I could take to washed away and eroded hiking paths on the flanks of Devils Peak.
This kind of freedom is also what the BMW Xcountry (pronounced Cross Country) is about.
As Rob Barnes, Marketing Manager for BMW Motorrad put it, "with the Xcountry you can go through a park, rather than round it."
The all-new G-series of BMW motorcycles broadens the German manufacturer's offering with three very different models. There is the G 650 Xcountry scrambler, the G650 Xchallenge hard enduro and the G 650 Xmoto Street Moto.
"These models will not replace the current F 650 GS and the F 650 GS Dakar, which are to remain in the model line-up in 2007, with production continuing at BMW Motorrad?s Berlin Plant," said Barnes.
All the bikes are powered by the same 652cc single cylinder engine from the F 650-series, which has been tweaked to develop 39kW at 7,000r/min and torque of 60Nm at 5,250r/min. The four-valve engine now features a lighter crank-drive and a number of other modifications. The rear wheel on all three models is, finally, driven by an O-ring chain.
The Xcountry model that I rode at the launch of the new series, is all about carefree riding on the road and off.
This is no serious enduro bike, for that you should rather look towards the Xchallenge, yet it will satisfy nearly all your off-road desires.
Once you've swung your leg over the saddle, you immediately notice its low weight. With a dry weight of 144kg, the Xcountry is the lightest BMW motorcycle currently available. A smaller 9,5 liter tank also means a lower weight even when you've filled up.
The Xcountry and its sportier sisters feature a lightweight steel and aluminium frame, a bolted on rear frame and lower sections made entirely from aluminium and a double swing arm of cast light alloy.
The Xcountry features a spring strut adjustable for length and boast a 19-inch front and 17-inch rear wheel, both with wire-spoke (what else?) and rolling on hollow-drilled wheel shafts.
Its telescopic fork offers ample and relatively smooth wheel travel with 240mm overall travel to ensure riding comfort and appropriate off-road qualities.
The rear gas-pressure spring strut, in turn, comes with an adjustable inbound stroke and spring pre-tension allowing 210 mm spring travel.
It also features convenient adjustment for length allowing variation of seat height from 840mm to 870mm. The high-rising aluminium handlebar ensures a comfortable riding position.
ABS brakes is definitely not the norm in this segment, but a light and compact two channel ABS system is available on Xcountry. If you are up for some serious fun in the dirt you can of course deactivate this system.
On the outride through the streets and suburbs of Pretoria, and with plenty of dirt riding thrown in for smiles, I was impressed by the performance and handling. Not only is the engine more than capable of high speed highway driving, but the bike felt secure and stable throughout - even at speeds in excess of 120km/h.
The saddle is reasonably comfortable. For the shorter distances it didn't prove any problem but after a while in the saddle the sides start eating into your thighs and at high speeds your bumb tingles with numbness from the vibration of the single cylinder. But that's about as far as it goes in terms of negative comments.
Where the exhaust sound of the F 650 GS might be a tad too refined and subdued for some riders, the gruffer tone of the Xcountry suits its rougher image perfectly.
As far as styling is concerned the Xcountry features a smooth-lens round headlight, 'naked' cockpit without fairing, two-level seat and the front mudguard running close to the wheel and held in position by a stable tubular bracket. At first glance you cannot help but notice the front's resemblance to classic scramblers.
The traditional front is offset against a modern rear, accentuated by an LED taillight. Direction indicators come as standard with white lenses.
Off the road the Xcountry shone brightly. It is as agile and nimble as a greased up cat (largely because of its low weight) and even on challenging veld trails it proved its mettle.
The Xcountry has plenty of torque low down in the rev range and when cutting through a piece of deserted land you hardly have to touch the throttle. It tuts along merrily without stalling.
I'll be honest. I liked the G650 Xcountry. A lot. It does everything a scrambler is supposed to do and then some and it looks the part with conviction. The 'G' in its name could easily stand for 'Go'. As in anywhere.
The Xcountry retails for R70 600, and ABS will set you back a further R4 000.