Press Launches

By Steve Thornton

November 15, 2012

BMW C600 Sport and C650GT

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PRESS LAUNCH

BMW C600 Sport and C650 GT

The old man and the C got along just fine, and then the lunch bell tolled for him

“I rode the bull,” I said to the man seated next to me. It was a trans Atlantic flight. We had a lot of time for talking.
He stared at me stupidly. “The bull?”
“You know,” I said, “the cow thing, with the horns.” I showed him a picture.
“That's a scooter,” he said.
“Squint.”
“It's blue!”
“You're weak,” I said. “Go sit with the women.”

I don't know how it happened, or when, exactly, but some time during my visit to Spain, I began to feel the ghost of Papa Hemingway. Unfortunately, this ghost didn't come with any of Hemingway's writing talent, but I could surely drink as well as him, and I could ride the bulls.
Or, as my former seatmate insisted, scooters. I could ride the scooters. After all, BMW Motorrad had taken me to Madrid so I could do battle with these two brand new vehicles, the C600 Sport and the C650 GT maxi scooters. That is what I did, and I'll tell you right now, there wasn't much to complain about. When BMW sets out to explore a new genre, they have a knack for getting it right (we won't mention the oddly structured C1, a scooter with a roof).

BMW also seems to have a knack for choosing a location. Madrid, the capital city of Spain, is a teeming, tumultuous, wonky city with ornate — I'd say baroque, but my architectural knowledge is as impoverished as my knowledge of Hemingway — buildings that never seem to grow more than four stories tall. Traffic streams in all directions without regard for stoplights or sense, people throng the central plazas in short skirts and tight pants, and there are no dogs. Not one. It was a good city.

In the flow of this congested, directionless spasming metropolis, large scooters make a great deal of sense. And they are popular. We saw hundreds of them in our brief exploration of Madrid; in fact, large scooters — that is, with engine sizes of 400 cc or more — seemed equal in number to 50 cc or 125 cc scooters. The way people used them was not much different than the way they are used here: scooters are transportation. Sure, there are knobs who plaster their scooters with lights or plastic Jesuses, but for the great majority of Canadian scooter owners, scooters are tools, made to get you somewhere quickly and cheaply. In Madrid, where scooters make up a larger portion of vehicular traffic, their use as transportation is quotidian, everyday, while here they are still a bit cultish, but the difference is in degree, not kind. If motorcycles are luxury items or toys, scooters are just cars without all the wheels or (except for the aforementioned C1) roofs. In Madrid, where space is at such a premium that cars are parked bumper to bumper along narrow streets and sometimes on the sidewalks, not having all the wheels increases utility.

So a lot of people use them, and you see people in business suits, high heels, skirts, and other kinds of distinctly nonmotorcycling garb. There seems to be no particular demographic for scooter use in Madrid; they're not bank tellers or students or musicians, they're just everybody.
Which makes it odd that BMW would pursue this market with the C600 Sport and C650 GT, two scooters that are nearly motorcycles and that have been built to accommodate needs that are  specific and specifically motorcyclist-like. A BMW representative said the scooters are aimed at “sporting customers,” and “customers who want comfortable touring,” which sounds more like a target for motorcycle sales than for scooter sales, but BMW plans to sell three-quarters of these maxi scooters in three countries: France, Italy, and Spain. Once that market gets its product, we'll see the scooters in Canada (this fall, prices as yet undetermined), where potential sales volume must be a sliver of what they'll sell in any large European city.

Will students and musicians and bank tellers buy them? Who's to say? The scooters certainly raised eyebrows when we ravaged Madrid aboard them. At one point, two cops stationed at the side of the road yelled at us as we slowly made our way past them. “I don't speak Spanish!”
I said. “You'll have to shout.” “Good?” one of them said, eyeing the silver-toned GS under me. I had to say he was correct. “Yes, good.” Another time, parked on a wide sidewalk downtown during a photo shoot, I got off the C600 Sport, which was painted a very pretty shade of deep blue, and went to stand in the shade. More than one person approached the scooter to look, some took phone-photos, and some tried to ask me about it.

They catch the eye, you could say, and in a place like Canada, where two-wheeled vehicles are status symbols as much as anything else, that might work.

So, what are they, exactly? They are 647 cc, parallel twin-powered maxi scooters with excellent ABS brakes, adjustable windscreens, large underseat storage compartments, tachometers, nearly endless cornering clearance, 15-inch tires, and CVT shiftless transmissions. From the front, in just about any light, they look like sportbikes; from the sides, they look like scooters. The engines, however, are not placed over the rear wheel as they are in small scooters, but in front of and below the rider, which forces body design to include a sort of camel hump under the rider's knees and alters the centre of gravity in a pleasing way. As if these were actual motorcycles, I fell into the habit of throwing my right leg over the seat when mounting, and I observed others doing that, too — that hump in front of the seat makes simply sliding on a bit difficult, especially if you're not wearing your Gucci scooter shoes (an accessory “tank” bag that slips into that space eliminates the scooter step-through feature completely).
There are significant differences between the two models: the 249 kg GT is 12 kg heavier and its seat, at 795 mm, is 15 mm higher than that of the Sport. Despite its greater seat height, the GT feels more like a cruiser, perhaps because the handlebar is higher. The GT is considerably wider than the Sport, too. What appears at first glance to be hard luggage on the sides behind the rider are actually just side pieces, bulging out to allow room for two full-face helmets. The Sport admits both helmets by a clever system that BMW calls “flexcase,” which is a floor under the seat that pops downward, like an upside-down top-hat, almost to the point of contact with the rear tire, making a bowl in which can rest a helmet, upside-down. A second full-face helmet can fit in the space forward of it, but also upside-down. The first time I used it, I forgot to pop the floor back up, and then got left behind by other riders because my scooter would not start until I lifted the seat and retracted the extensible floor. The GT has extra space under the seat, so no “flexcase” trickery is needed.

In riding, despite seating positions that are lower and sportier on the Sport and higher and more cruiser-like on the GT, performance is very similar. I was in Madrid with three other Canadians, former CC editor Costa Mouzouris, writer Steve Bond, and BMW rep Rob Dexter; for much of our ride in that zany city, we were a pack of three: Costa, Bond, and me, and after having the scooters photographed, we were set loose to explore the old Madrid environment, which consists of many narrow side streets, cobblestones, wide plazas or squares, very busy main streets, and pedestrians, parked cars and trucks, and buildings, some stunning, most just crowded together. We dodged and shimmied and creapt around like thieves, and the C600 Sports we rode responded with alacrity. The ABS brakes, as I said, were excellent: controllable, sensitive, and powerful. Steering was quick and precise, and engine power was more than adequate. The following day, we toured the country north of Madrid, and there we found roads that would give a California canyon-carver fits of envy. At a lunch stop, the four of us took off for about three-quarters of an hour on a loop that climbed over a beautiful lake in country that reminded me of my former home territory near Kamloops, B.C., and we maintained some frisky speeds. The scooters handled it easily, and in fact there were times when I felt like shifting my weight a bit, as if to hang off in the curves. It's not easy on the scooters because even on the Sport model your feet are in front of you, under the dinner table, as it were, and the seats are covered in a grippy fabric; getting your ass up and over was just not in the cards — but the point is that these scooters handled in such a way that you felt you wanted to do it. Many times in tight curves I felt that a slide or a hard-part scraping the ground was imminent, but it only happened once, a centrestand tang scraping briefly as we chased a photo car driven by a maniac. At other times, when we could let the throttle remain wide open for a few seconds, we saw speeds upward of 160 km/h, and there were indications of more where that came from.

At 10 o'clock that morning, the air was cool, and the windscreens were useful. Before lunch, we were on the Sport models, and these have manually adjustable windscreens. I left mine in the low position, and later, I complained about feeling cold to Steve Bond. He said he hadn't felt anything like that, and then showed me his windscreen, in the high position. Lunch was served on the patio of a beautiful countryside restaurant, made of stones and arches, and as we pigged out we watched a flying water bomber in practice. It would scoop down onto a lake, pick up water, then fly off and drop it, making rainbows while we ate chicken and spicy things and strange potato things and drank Coke in the bottle. Dessert was four things with Spanish words. My plate ranneth over.

After lunch, on the GT models, we were able to electrically move the windscreens by the press of a button, on the fly, which was a nice feature but accounts for some of that 12 kg of extra mass. Either way, the windscreens are effective, and I noticed no helmet buffeting in any position. I did notice a considerable reduction in noise with the GT's screen raised high, though.

We spent hours on the scooters on that second day, most of it roaring around the Spanish countryside, working off our excessive lunches, and we finished up on a major highway running south into Madrid for an hour or so. I don't recall feeling worn out or sore at any time, even near the end of the day.

There were, admittedly, one or two occasions when I grabbed a handful of rear brake, thinking I was grabbing a clutch lever. It's fortunate that what we generally think of as a clutch lever was not connected to the front brake, but the scooter's reaction to my inappropriate impulse was calm and gentle. It took almost no time to accustom myself to the absense of shifting and clutch levers, and I enjoyed the experience of using a CVT-transmission. With a claimed 60 hp, the C600 and the C650 accelerate strongly, and the inability to declutch and roll on some throttle didn't seem important. These bikes handle well enough to excite an experienced rider and accelerate well enough to pass anything short of a high-performance motorcycle. They also come with storage space, and burn very little gas.

If BMW is right in aiming at “sporting” and “comfortable touring” riders, the company is betting that customers won't mind losing some of the strengths of a motorcycle — the manual transmission, 17-inch or larger wheels, straddle-type seating and much more powerful engines  — in order to acquire the ease of use and comfortable features of a big scooter. Customers will find that they don't have to give up a whole lot of riding fun, or even excitement, so when I told that guy on the plane that I rode the bulls, I wasn't kidding. Papa Hemingway might even have ridden one of them, if he could have. It would have been good.

Late that night, in a bar overlooking much of lighted Madrid, I watched skinny chicks in high heels and whippet guys in expensive boots and narrow jeans mix it up while music blared and people talked with drinks in their hands. Most of the music was Spanish, but sometimes a song by the Stones or U2 would play. I felt a little aggravated; after a day of riding in the Spanish countryside, I was energized, ready to play, to drink, to get my Hemingway on. But the skinny chicks would have called the cops on me, or their tight boyfriends would have beaten me up. I felt like Mick Jagger, who was blaring out of the speakers, not getting no satisfaction. It served me right, I suppose, for succumbing to the temptation of pretending to be Ernest Hemingway aboard a scooter. Because, as everybody knows, Papa was a Rolling Stone.