The latest generation debuted in 2001, boasting an aluminum-framed chassis and stout and smooth 1832cc six-cylinder engine that made it king of the long roads. Now, a year after moving production from Ohio, to Kumamoto, Japan, Honda has delivered a revitalized Gold Wing for the 2012 model year.
While not an all-new machine, it has several notable comfort and convenience upgrades, including additional luggage capacity, an improved audio system with surround sound, and a faster, more fully featured GPS system. Visually, the ’12 Wing distinguishes itself by restyled (and two-tone) side fairing panels and swoopier saddlebags.
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Our FNG, Tom Roderick, recently got to sample the new Wing on a quickie day ride, but he didn’t get enough seat time to truly test the bike’s long-distance touring capabilities. Lucky for me, Honda invited us to take a multi-day jaunt from Virginia to Tennessee to fully sample the updated Gold Wing over some of America’s best roads.
One of the Goldie’s best features has always been its ability to transport two riders in comfort, and we’ll put that reputation to the test with the help of an expert pillion – my wife, Carolyn.
In fact, the passenger accommodations of the GL1800 is the one area it has a clear advantage over the sporty, new BMW K1600GTL. The Beemer’s pillion seat has limited fore/aft room, especially compared to the Wing’s generous perch, and the tightly mounted grab rails are difficult to fit fingers under.
My better half literally had nothing negative to say about the Wing’s pillion environment – she’s never been more comfortable on motorcycle. Carolyn appreciated its wide seat that provides broad support even as the miles roll on, and its low floorboards supply acres of legroom. She loved having her own controls for the heated seats, and two fold-out bins below the armrests provide handy stowage room for small items that can be easily accessed. If you’ve got a fussy passenger, this might be the motorcycle throne that will keep them quiet!
The pilot of a Gold Wing is also well taken care of. A phalanx of buttons and switches is initially intimidating, but they are logically laid out and become intuitive after a few hours in the saddle. Adjustable backlighting keeps buttons visible at night. A trio of large analog dials provides info for rpm, speed, fuel and engine temperature, underlined by a large color info screen that can show a multitude of functions and settings, including an iPod/MP3 menu to control a music player via the USB input in the top box.
The screen is also the display for the optional GPS navigation system that also includes XM radio. The updated navi is faster to boot up than before, is easier to see in daylight and offers quicker re-route instructions. It also has a new lane-assist function to inform a rider on which side of the freeway a desired off-ramp is, and a new 3-D terrain view provides a more realistic representation. It also boasts a feature that identifies all nearby Honda dealers or lets you search for them. Also notable is a memory card slot in the trunk that allows you to share trips with fellow riders at Tripplanner.honda.com.
While the GPS itself functions seamlessly, it’s not perfect. Although it boots up quicker than before, a rider has to wait for it to boot up before riding off – if not, its functionality is switched off while on the move. The other drawback is that it’s bundled in a $2700 package on top of the $23,199 base Gold Wing. It’s a good system, and it’s bundled with XM radio, but it’s very pricey.
Audio output over the six-speaker system is good but not great. Its 80 watts per channel offers decent quality if speeds are below 65 mph but becomes less distinct at higher speeds, especially for the passenger. I used the fader to shift more sound rearward for Carolyn, but sound levels up front suffered. The best solution is to use good helmet speakers. Full iPod integration allows easy navigation of playlists from hand controls. The Wing comes with 90 days of free XM radio on the “Audio Comfort Navi XM” model, and its breadth of music channels plus XM NavTraffic and NavWeather make it a worthy travel mate.
The rider’s ergonomic triangle is about as accommodating as you’ll find, with the slightest of reaches for the handlebars and a 90-degree knee bend. Only really tall riders might have a complaint about a lack of knee and foot room. The plush and supportive seat, covered in a new perforated urethane material, is placed a reasonable 29.1 inches off the ground, but its broad base forces shorter riders to scoot forward to flat-foot at stops. It’s a small price to pay for a saddle that coddles a butt so supremely.
Even though our ride wasn’t especially cold, we appreciated the Wing’s standard heating elements in the grips and seats, although their outputs feel a little weak for really cold weather. The GL’s latest Large Project Leader, Yutaka Nakanishi, told us Honda can’t further increase outputs because a burn could result without a rider realizing it. Ducts in the lower fairing can be opened to direct warm air from the engine to a rider’s feet.
Electrically operated windshields were almost unheard of when the most recent generation Gold Wing debuted in 2001, but they’re now standard equipment on almost every touring bike – except the GL, and that continues through the 2012 model. Nakanishi-san says one couldn’t be added without redesigning a new nose fairing, so adjusting the shield remains a two-handed yanking procedure.
For my 5-foot-8 body, I am barely able to look over the top edge of the shield when in its low position, so that’s where I kept it. A ratchet system offers five higher settings over a range of 4 inches. Protection from the elements is expansive, lacking only a roof, and the side fairings are said to offer increased lower body wind protection.
Luggage capacity takes a 7-liter jump for 2012 thanks to redesigned saddlebags now hinged all the way to their rears and lacking the brake/signal lights formerly integrated into them. Their downward flair appears more streamlined, and the whole back end is attractive. The top box is rated at 60 liters and can hold two full-face helmets. Total stowage capacity is 150 liters, and all compartments lock and unlock with a remote-control key fob.
Other niceties to note are high-quality finish and materials, lengthy 32,000-mile valve-adjustment intervals, side-exit valve stems since tire-pressure monitoring was added a few years ago, and a transferable three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty.
Facing a trip and the Wing’s imposing physical size almost makes one want to strike a bottle of champagne across its bow. But despite its big-boned proportions, the GL is remarkably cooperative. Almost zero throttle is needed against its smooth clutch to get rolling, and once past walking speed it becomes amazingly adroit and precise. A rider is soon able to perform tight u-turns without drama.
The Wing’s horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine is special. Its Boxer configuration keeps weight low and well-balanced, and its output is as linear as they come, pulling strongly from as little as 2000 rpm.
The last time we tested a Wing – our 2009 Luxury Touring Shootout – the Honda pumped out 103 ft-lb of torque at 4200 rpm on the dyno, which is about the same as the K1600 makes at the same revs. But it’s about 10 ft-lb less than the BMW when it peaks at 5200 rpm. The Wing generated 96 hp at 5600 rpm, which is dwarfed by the K16’s 130-plus peak horsepower at nearly 8000 rpm.
The above may make it seem like the Honda is severely outgunned, but it actually never feels slow, and its low-end power bias gives it an effortless and deep well of grunt to draw from. Throttle response is exceptionally smooth, and the exhaust note has a distinctive whoosh unlike anything else short of a Porsche.
Power is routed through a 5-speed tranny and shaft drive. Its gearbox usually shifts smoothly, but it’s not perfect, sometimes suffering vague engagement. An overdriven fifth gear keeps highway revs down and mileage up. Expect a range of around 200 miles from its 6.6-gallon tank.
Our first leg of the trip took us from Lorton, Virginia and along a portion of the deservedly famous Blue Ridge Parkway, rising and falling gently among dense foliage and spattered with occasional rain.
Along the way, the new Gold Wing proved to be a cooperative and regal conveyance. Bending it into a turn takes little effort, but more importantly, the response at the handlebars is perfectly linear. Along these mostly gentle curves, the Wing requires only minimal effort to make quick and sure progress. New Bridgestone tires supply good grip in both wet and dry conditions.
The Wing tracks assuredly through corners, using a beefy 45mm cartridge fork equipped with an anti-dive system. New bushings in the Showa fork use a different alloy material that has less friction, so it is more responsive over smaller bumps. Out back, a single-side swingarm is supported by a single shock with computer-controlled spring-preload adjustment with two memory presets.
Thanks to the Wing’s exemplary comfort, we arrived at our hotel in Roanoke fresh and pain-free.
The next day had us slogging out a lot of superslab miles, just like most trips across the USA, and the Wing ably gulped up the trip. A CB radio kept us in touch with the group, while XM radio kept our ears entertained. Three cockpit storage bins (two lockable) give the pilot space for small items, and standard cruise control locked onto whatever speed we figured we could get away with.
So we rolled into to Asheville, North Carolina, once again quite fresh and ready for more. We needed to be perky for the last leg, which would take us up the infamous Tail of the Dragon.
US 129 in North Carolina is a sinuous climb consisting of some 318 turns in just 11 miles, and it isn’t what you’d think of when discussing the merits of the 900-plus-pound Gold Wing. But the GL’s capabilities on such a road re-surprised us.
BMW’s new K1600 GTL has raised the stakes in the luxury-touring category, as we found out when we rode it at its press introduction earlier this year. Its lighter package and stronger motor clearly has more sporting potential, relegating the portly Wing to second place in terms of twisty-road prowess.
But that fact unfairly overshadows how well the Gold Wing comports itself when ridden aggressively. Turn-in response is incredibly quick, relatively speaking, and its rate of bank-angle change is perfectly linear up to the point it drags its comfortably placed footpegs. Available lean angles are greater than almost any cruiser, and it can confidently be flicked from peg to peg like a much smaller machine.
Its flat-Six motor has a deep well of power, pulling quite strong from just above idle and quickly building speed through its bountiful midrange. It hurls the Wing surprisingly quickly over the Dragon, even two-up, and it can do it very smoothly – Carolyn had no worries while recording video in the twisties.
The GL also satisfied with its braking performance, supplying a firm lever and secure power from dual floating 296mm discs with three-piston calipers up front, partially linked to the rear 316mm disc and three-piston caliper. Antilock brakes come in an optional package that bumps the price to $27,099. The airbag package comes with all previously mentioned options and brings the MSRP to $28,499.
A three-day trip with a passenger on the upgraded Gold Wing supported the notion that there is no better way to travel on a motorcycle two-up, despite stiff new competition from Bavaria. While the K1600GTL is undoubtedly sportier, our trip up the Dragon and on other swervy roads proved the Gold Wing has the capability to quickly cut up a canyon road that exceeds the limits of most American riders – just ask the DR-Z400SM rider who couldn’t match our pace on the Dragon.
I’ll admit to being a bit underwhelmed when I learned of the Wing’s limited updates for 2012, and that feeling was reinforced after riding BMW’s new six-cylinder touring rig, which is a little more youthful than the now-stodgy GL.
And yet, spending some quality time with the Gold Wing reawaked my fondness for it. Despite the platform’s age, there is still nothing available that can match a Gold Wing’s comfort and performance for a pair of riders.