Any cold weather you may encounter doesn’t bother you because your seat is heated at the flick of switch, and a big windscreen shields you from wind, rain and bugs. Getting lost doesn’t really worry you ‘cause you opted for the GPS system, and once you’re finally out on that long stretch of lonely interstate you can relax a little after setting the cruise control.
You’re on a road trip, the Great American Getaway. But are you in a car or on a bike? Judging from the above carefully chosen wording it’s hard to tell. Slippery wording aside, the truth is that we’re talking about motorcycles. And if we’re talking about motorcycles with such accoutrements, then we must be talking touring bikes!
Because touring is such an important part of the U.S. bike market, we wanted to get the best of what of each manufacturer had to offer. In light of that we went with a trio of luxury liners that are made in America, and we ordered them as loaded with options as we could get them. Let the trip begin…
2009 Harley-Davidson CVO Ultra Classic Electra Glide $35,499 ($35,699 Calif.)
Custom Vehicle Operations, or CVO for short, is a small collection of bikes gathered from Harley’s substantial array of motorcycles. This separate line-up usually consists of four bikes chosen from among the standard models, each receiving the hop-up treatment from a group of designers and engineers dedicated exclusively to the CVO line.
Each bike is a rolling display of many of the thousands of accessories available in the fabled Harley-Davidson Parts and Accessories Catalog. The bikes have rap sheets of chrome bits and custom accessories too long to list. Three available paint schemes that are unique to the CVO line, and truly are custom, receive hours of closely supervised painting and hand-laid pin-striping.
• Fuel-injected, air-cooled, Screamin’ Eagle 110 cubic-inch, twin-cam, pushrod 45-degree V-Twin
• Dyno tested at 75 hp at 5,100 rpm and 88 ft-lbs at 3,800 rpm
• Motor sometimes coughs off idle, which can be unsettling when pulling away from a stop on a 900-lb bike.
• In this group, the 110 c.i. Screamin’ Eagle motor isn’t very screamin’. The Vision’s 4-valve 106-cubic-incher has 13.3% more hp than the CVO and 15.9% more torque.
• Top-gear roll-on power is sufficient but lags considerably behind the other two bikes
• Still the best looking motor of the three; it’s a classic!
• The Ultra’s new chassis is much stiffer than previous – it’s a huge leap in performance, and Harley devotees of older FLH platforms would be smart to trade up.
• Suspension offers a forgiving ride without feeling sloppy or under-sprung.
• Brembo calipers and ABS are big advantages on just about any bike, all the more so on a large touring rig. On the Harley this system provides good feel and confidence-inspiring stopping power.
• It proves to be more nimble than the uninitiated might expect. Initial turn in is light for such a big beast.
• Surprisingly, the CVO has the shortest wheelbase at 63.5 inches.
• Claimed running order weight of 924 lbs.
Ergonomics and accessories
• The saddle is what Harley is calling “suspended.” In simple terms, the suspension in the saddle comes from a hammock-like arrangement of materials that allows the seat to flex under the rider. Though seat height is a humane 29.8 inches, its wide shape can make flat footing difficult for riders under 5’10”
• Overall rider triangle is neutral, but still not nearly as tailored-feeling as the Gold Wing
• When folded down, the passenger floorboards can bang into the back of the rider’s leg when back pedaling out of a parking space or driveway.
• Clutch lever pull is quite heavy; this could be a pain, literally, in city riding or rush hour traffic.
• Classic round analog gauges that fill the dash area add to the high-quality look and feel of the Ultra.
• Top-gear indicator
• It has probably the best, most powerful stereo in the group, plus XM satellite radio. Audio-only (no onboard display) GPS system operates through the sound system; however it wasn’t activated on our test unit.
• Dual heated seats are easily turned on via a toggle switch on the lower left side of the rider saddle, and they stay quite warm. However, the heated handgrips offered the least heat of the three bikes, and the rheostat-like adjuster at the end of the left grip was difficult to operate, especially with cold-weather gloves.
• The electronic saddlebag and top box locking system operated via a key fob seems like a trick feature, but we were disappointed to learn that the locks, in fact, can’t be operated manually with the key, believe it or not.
• Easily the least wind protection of the three; considerably more wind buffeting.
“Say what you will about H-D products, but the Ultra wins my vote for Coolest Bike in this test. From the paint to the chrome to the iconic style, there is something reassuringly familiar with its style.” Those wise words come from salty road dog Kevin Duke.
Harley is force to be reckoned with in the touring market. Milwaukee baggers are synonymous with touring, and the CVO version of the long-running Ultra Classic Electra Glide offers the best of what Harley has to offer. However, at over 35 grand this bike blows the other two out of the water, but for the wrong reason. The Ultra is over $11,000 more than the second next expensive Gold Wing. Yet clearly it doesn’t offer that much more in terms of engine, handling or anything else for that matter.
Truth be told, by purchasing the non-CVO Ultra you can still get a good touring bike and save about $14.5K, but you’ll be powered by a 96 c.i. engine and missing a lot of bling. But, hey, at least the CVO Ultra is the only bike with an old school cigarette lighter!
2009 Victory Vision Tour Premium $22,699
Surviving in the presence of such a giant as Harley says a lot about a company. Key to Victory’s success is the company’s willingness and eagerness to listen and learn. The humble company, a subdivision of Polaris Industries, from Minnesota started with one bike 10 years ago and now offers four base models. With numerous versions of those base models raising the total number of bikes available to upwards of 15 models, Victory must be doing something right.
Victory’s ability to adapt is another key to, well, victory, and by jumping into the competitive touring segment the company has seen the future, a vision if you will. The Victory Vision encapsulates everything about Victory: a high-quality product with heavy emphasis on design and styling.
• 106 c.i., six-speed, fuel-injected, air/oil-cooled 50-degree V-Twin modernizes the Vee platform with four valves per head and SOHC
• At 102 ft-lbs at 3,000 rpm the Vision is down only 1 ft-lbs to the six-cylinder Gold Wing; dyno results showed 85 hp at 5,400 rpm
• Plenty of top-gear passing power, but the solid-mount engine gives considerable vibes at higher revs.
• Flawless throttle pickup
• The transmission is notchy and a few missed shifts were experienced when hurrying several times - worst gearbox we’ve experienced from a Victory, which leads us to believe our bike was an anomaly.
• Clutch engages near end of lever travel; this can make slow speed maneuvering difficult, especially due to the bike’s top-heavy nature.
• Feels top-heavy, due largely to fuel tank placement high on the frame.
• Confidence suffers by the impression that the handlebar flexes during aggressive maneuvers; Pete called it the Flexi Flyer because of this sensation; some vagueness to front-end feel at speed.
• Front brake needs a good squeeze, despite braided lines, and quick stops are only made when activating the rear brake pedal thanks to the linked rear brake. The middle piston of each 3-piston front caliper is applied when a certain amount of rear brake is applied. A fully linked system, one that also involves rear brake activation when front brakes are applied, might be a good idea on the Vision. Being a premium model the Vision should offer ABS as the Harley and Honda do.
• Though the sweeping handlebars offer an easy reach to the grips, they’re distance from the steering head means that turning the bars to full lock has the outside grip quite a distance from the rider. This, combined with the bike’s top-heaviness, can mean precarious tight-radius U-turns.
• Claimed dry weight of 849 lbs.
Ergonomics and accessories
• While the other bikes have a fairly handy top-gear indicator so you’re not doing a fruitless upshifting motion with your toe, the Vision goes one better by having a highly visible gear-position indicator on its centrally mounted info screen.
• Bright blue dash lighting is both attractive and effective.
• The addition of an HID light easily gives the Vision the best retina-burning headlights package.
• Switches for heated seats are hidden below the lip of the passenger saddle, making them difficult to access when moving.
• Heated grip switch located in front of the handlebars, below the dash, is too far of a reach to be done safely while riding (at least if you’re 5’8”).
• The GPS unit mounted externally on the fuel tank looks like it could be kicked off by a thief.
• When the windshield is up high enough for full coverage, a rider gets pushed forward from negative pressure. At least the screen is electrically adjustable, which makes finding the best compromise of positions possible.
• At 80 mph, the stereo sounds like an AM radio in a 5-gallon bucket but has auto levels
• Externally wired bar controls create a bit of a mess; cruise control switchgear mount looks like an afterthought.
• The whacky, Buck Rogers-inspired styling looks less outlandish the more time we spend with it. A flowing profile with the attractive engine placed in a setting is its best angle for viewing. It’s only really the head-on view that causes us to shake our heads. Nevertheless, it got lots of complimentary remarks from passers-by.
The Vision is an impressive machine for Victory’s first effort in this tough class. It generally outperforms the CVO, but its stretched length and uninspiring chassis knocks it down a peg. Still, its 26.5-inch seat is easily the lowest of the three, a big deal on such big and heavy bikes. And the 6-gallon tank means long stretches between fill-ups. The Vision is the kind of motorcycle that can make enemies between family members, but those that like it really like it. As evidence of such, Victory created a loaded-to-the-teeth 10th anniversary edition of the Vision which saw a complete sell-out of 99 available bikes in seven minutes online.
2009 Honda Gold Wing Audio Comfort Navi XM ABS $24,399
“American Touring Motorcycles”
That was how we wanted to title this review, but figured we’d get plenty of confused readers sending us flaming emails or posting scathing remarks in the forums when they read the proposed title, then saw that a Honda Gold Wing was one of three machines ridden.
It’s a safe bet that most folks didn’t realize that the venerable Gold Wing has been made in Marysville, Ohio, starting with the GL1100, since 1980. It’s probably an even safer bet that many motorcycle enthusiasts aren’t aware that production of Gold Wings (and VTX1300 models) at the Marysville Motorcycle Plant is slated to come to an end in the spring of 2009 when Honda will move production to a new master facility in Kumamoto, Japan. Kind of sad news there, but we think 28 years is a pretty good run, and for that reason we still like to think of the Gold Wing as an “American” touring motorcycle.
• 1,832 cc fuel-injected, liquid-cooled two-valve per cylinder, SOHC flat-six (six-cylinder boxer)
• Class-leading dyno results with 96 hp at 5,600 rpm and 103 ft-lbs of torque at 4,200 rpm
• The flat-six motor handily out-muscles its twin-cylinder competition, and it does it with a creamy feel - it’s like the bastard offspring of a Porsche and an electric motor, with tons of grunt everywhere and an exhaust note that begs to be uncorked. It has instant thrust and is sublimely smooth.
• Five-speed overdrive tranny gearing is perfectly matched to the motor and provides easy, classic Japanese-quality shifting.
• Very light clutch pull with good feel.
• Stout aluminum frame provides plenty of rigidity and stability without harsh feedback
• Shaft final-drive is heavier than belt drive of Harley and Victory, but is also virtually maintenance free and should last for eons.
• Linked braking and ABS are not only the best by far in this group, but very good by any braking standards
• Light, neutral steering makes the GW the easiest of the three to ride once the rider gets used to the seating position.
• Refined suspension offers the best ride quality of the group
Ergonomics and accessories
Whoa! Can any bike compete with the number of buzzers and whistles on this loaded Wing? Not likely. This bike has it all. Be warned, though. If you’re the type that gets a little spooked by techy things, brace yourself for the dizzying array of buttons, knobs and dials when you climb aboard. Cockpit is truly an accurate way to describe the view from the saddle.
• GPS system is top shelf, with real time weather updates and turn-by-turn audio directions pumped through the sound system. However, a poor choice was made with the concave-looking lens over the display. Glare often impedes easy reading of the large LCD.
• Rider triangle is like sitting in an ergonomically designed office chair, but peg placement directly below the rider’s knee creates a bolt-upright position that takes some getting used to.
• Silky switchgear is a noticeable step above the competition; big, well-marked and backlit buttons (only one of the three) are easy to punch with gloved fingers.
• Roomiest hardbags also have the sturdiest-looking hinge system.
• Biggest and best view from mirrors
• The manually adjustable windscreen is one of the few black marks on the Wing’s scoresheet - it seems positively archaic in this world of heated seats, GPS and remotely operated luggage.
• Venting options are a nice touch.
• Compared to the other two bikes, the handlebars sit much closer to the rider; ergos feel the most natural of the three motorcycles.
• Styling is getting dated, or at least is starting to look too much like the past iterations. We’ll take that update any time now, Honda!
• Best wind/weather protection.
Honda has been at this luxury touring game a long time and it shows in the Gold Wing. It's $1,700 more than the competent Vision, but then again the Vision doesn't offer ABS or a fully linked braking. Factor in a GPS system that rivals systems in many luxury sedans, push-button rear suspension adjustment, or little things like backlit switchgear, and the Wing, even at lesser trim levels available, offers unrivaled value.
Ol’ Editor Man Duke sums it up best: “The Gold Wing is about what you’d expect from a long-running model in Honda’s lineup. It’s a rare case when Honda is out-R&D’d by anyone, and the high level of finish and overall competence of the Wing is further testament to that theory.”