This two-day, 750-mile heavyweight match was contested on the freeways of California’s Central Valley and on the twisty two-lane roads of the Southern Sierras. The riders/judges for this bout, MO editors Pete Brissette and Tom Roderick, with Maria Sia providing passenger feedback, endured hot and cold temperatures, straight and curvy roadways as well as gravel, tourists and insects in determining the strengths and weaknesses of both bikes.
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Returning under cover of darkness early on a Sunday morning in the first week of July, all three participants were tired and sore from two very long days in the saddle. If, hypothetically, you were in their position and forced to continue, which would be your bike of choice? The answer to that question depends on what kind of rider you are and the topography between you and your destination.
The aging Gold Wing has its hands full. The BMW is the younger, lighter and more powerful contender. Not that Honda hasn’t kept the Gold Wing in top condition by revising its suspension for 2012, updating the Wing’s look with a restyled fairing as well as tweaking its Satellite Linked Navigation and its surround sound stereo systems and enlarging and restyling its saddlebags.
The BMW definitely has the advantage of being the all-new model while the Honda is largely unchanged since 2001 when improvements and upgrades were heaped upon the original design of the 1800 format. But the old adage, "Why fix what isn’t broken?", definitely applies to the Gold Wing because, until now, there hasn’t been any significant competition besides other BMW models. With the introduction of this exciting six-cylinder Beemer, though, Honda must be sweating its new adversary.
Other manufacturers gave up competing with the Gold Wing years ago, leaving only BMW as a luxo-touring alternative to the Honda. The Gold Wing usually receives “Best Touring Bike” honors from various media outlets each year, with BMW getting the occasional nod to keep the category from stagnating. The K1600GTL will certainly swipe many “Best Touring Bike” trophies from Honda’s mantle this year because, in terms of technology, the new Beemer has leap-frogged the Honda.
In addition to the K16’s technological upper-hand is the bike’s performance advantage. BMW has apparently chosen the lure of light weight and high horsepower over the Gold Wing’s array of creature comforts and the low center of gravity offered by its horizontally opposed six-cylinder motor. In fact, with a weight closer to an ST1300 rather than that of a Gold Wing, the K16 has possibly created a new category, something along the lines of Sport-Luxo-Tourer.
But, for all of the newness and apparent advantages of the Beemer, it’s far from a first-round knockout. So onto the blow-by-blow action.
2012 BMW K1600GTL
Let’s begin with some elemental differences. The BMW has an electrically adjustable windscreen, the Honda doesn’t. In fact, the Honda’s manually adjustable windscreen has been around since the 2001 redesign of the Gold Wing. The BMW’s electric windscreen allows a rider to adapt on the fly to changing temperatures and comfort preferences. Changing the position of the windscreen does, of course, affect wind flow.
“With the windscreen set to its tallest position a notable vacuum is created in the cockpit that forces the rider forward, which leads the rider to exert some energy on the grips to counteract this sensation of pressure on the back of the helmet,” says Pete. “Thankfully, when the flip-out vents on the upper fairing are opened, they redirect airflow that eliminates most of the negative pressure on the rider’s back and circulates welcome air into the cockpit.”
The flip-out vents to which Pete’s referring are the manually operated tabs on either side of the front fairing below the rearview mirrors. A seemingly inconsequential addition, when these two flaps are deployed they have an amazing affect on cockpit wind flow.
When it comes to absolute protection, however, the Gold Wing provides a better cocoon by way of more frontal fairing area, wider lower panels and heated foot vents. However, its lack of an electrically adjustable windscreen limits its rider-customization capabilities. Too much protection can be seen as a detriment to the Honda in extreme heat, but BMW will first have to fix the BTUs that heat a rider’s left leg from big toe to shin before I’ll knock the Honda for excessive temperature imbalances (at least the Gold Wing’s foot warming vents can be shut).
Both bikes share amenities such as cruise control and electronically heated seats and handgrips, but the BMW’s seat is adjustable to two positions; the lowish 29.5-inch seat height can be raised to 30.7 inches so taller riders can enjoy enhanced legroom.
Unless you consider a corded communications system and a CB radio cutting-edge electronics technology, BMW’s electronic package in the K16 is to Honda’s Gold Wing what Tesla’s AC was to Franklin’s DC.
A rider can adjust rear suspension preload on the Gold Wing via two buttons on the lower right fairing, but that’s as far as the remote options go. Meanwhile, BMW’s optional Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA II) allows remote preload adjustment to suit particular loads plus three remote settings (Comfort, Normal, Sport) which alter damping settings to dramatically alter the suspension’s responses.
“ESA II provides practical and effective changes to ride comfort and handling dynamics,” Pete says. “It’s not just a fancy pushbutton gadget – it works.” Like the Gold Wing, the K16’s preload can’t be altered while in motion.
The K16 also touts three different ride modes (Dynamic, Road, Rain) that change power delivery to suit road conditions or rider preference. Throttle response from the fly-by-wire configuration, says Pete, “is flawless when rolling smoothly.” However, he did note that quickly blipping the throttle reveals an “electronic/digital feel, as the EFI/engine takes a moment to catch up to the throttle position.”
Our GTL was also graced with BMW’s Xenon adaptive headlight. So effective is this technology I wouldn’t be surprised to see the look-into-the-corner technology become mandatory on all motorcycles in the future. After a late dinner, on the final twisty, black-as-space stretch of road before reaching our cabin high in the Sierras for the night, Pete and I were amazed at its ability to light up a corner so well we were both fooled into believing there was a car coming in the opposite direction. The Xenon bulb is so bright that Pete says he could see the self-leveling lamp clearly in the Wing’s mirror during daylight when the BMW was at least a half-mile behind. Yeah, it’s that good.
On a twisty two-lane road late at night with on-coming traffic when high-beams aren’t an option, the adaptive headlight increases both the visibility of the road as well as the rider because car drivers will know in advance that something is coming around the corner. “Its one flaw becomes apparent only on a tight twisty road,” Editor Duke observes. “When exiting a curve with another turn directly ahead in the opposite direction, the lamp isn’t pointing in the intended path. But overall it’s a huge boon to any night-riding tourers.”
Another electronic advantage the K16 has over the Gold Wing is Bluetooth capability. With my Schuberth C3 with integrated Bluetooth along for the ride, I was easily able to establish a connection with the K16 and listen to bike’s included XM radio. I’m assuming you’d also hear directional changes if the GPS system was installed, but our test unit wasn’t equipped with one so we cannot provide feedback on its operation. It should be noted that the K16’s Bluetooth is not a rider communication system. Rider communication is an aspect of Bluetooth systems installed within the helmets (microphone required) via the aftermarket. And although the Honda comes with a wired communication system, both rider and passenger helmets must be configured to operate with the system. Given the choice between wired and wireless, we’ll take the wireless Bluetooth.
Controlling these electronic functions and more is the K16’s iDrive-like multi-controller scroll wheel mounted on the left handlebar. Somewhat confusing in its operation at first, the scroll wheel is a godsend compared to the Gold Wing’s menagerie of switches, buttons and dials. The multi-function screen displaying the scroll wheel’s selections, however, doesn’t default to the home screen the way the Honda’s does and, as Pete found, “if you’ve got the stereo cranked and want to lower the volume while in another setting, you cannot adjust the volume until returning to the audio screen.”
We have praise for the Beemer’s excellent brakes, including standard Integral ABS; our Honda didn’t come equipped with its optional antilock system. “A healthy squeeze of the lever translates into a near immediate halt,” says Pete about the GTL’s system. “And while feel at the lever isn’t up to top-shelf sportbike levels, it’s sufficient.”
We believe the BMW’s ABS system is a genuine asset for a touring rig like this. It takes a serious tug to feel ABS intervention from the front lever, but the rear setup has a lower threshold for activation, as at times it didn’t take much effort to feel the system pulse back through the pedal.
2012 Honda Gold Wing
When the American automotive industry was at its peak, the Cadillac stood head and shoulders above all others in terms of dimensions, heft and luxury. And so it has been and still is with the Honda Gold Wing. This, until recently long-time American-made Honda, is synonymous with motorcycling opulence. The modern Gold Wing set an unassailable benchmark in two-wheel comfort, which no manufacturer’s been able to surpass, not even the new BMW K1600GTL.
From seat to stereo, the Gold Wing remains the epitome of rider and passenger comfort. The shape of its seats and their foam density and material comprised to give both rider and pillion a superior experience compared to the K16. During aggressive riding, Maria remained in one place due to the seat’s hugging nature, and when on the freeway, the armrests and floorboards elevated comfort levels for her well above the passenger accommodations of the BMW. My only complaint is that the seat’s width (which is part of its comfort equation) forces even taller riders to move to its forward (narrowest) portion when coming to a stop in order to get good footing, essential for holding up the 900-pound bike.
“Rider ergos left me wanting nothing at the end of our long trip,” remarks Pete. “Honda’s years of ergonomic refinements to the Wing are patently obvious.”
When it comes to performance it’s no secret that a bike with a 136-pound weight advantage and 25 more horsepower will be faster and more nimble than the heavier, less powerful bike.
“The Beemer transitions with minimal effort between turns as it rolls smoothly across its axis in one fluid motion, with confidence-inspiring stability from upright to full lean,” Pete raves. ”Whether riding the K16 like a comfy sportbike-hunting missile in the canyons or ambling casually down the boulevard or interstate, this bike is a smooth operator, and yet a thrill-inducing ride at the same time. If you’re a retiring sportbike rider looking to move into the comfort and distance realm, the K1600GTL is the bike for you.”
However, with all three trunks loaded with gear and Maria riding co-pilot I managed to keep the Gold Wing on the heels of Pete and the K16 until running out of ground clearance. After bashing the exhaust cover into the apex of a downhill left-hander and forcing the front wheel to skip an inch to the right, I received the “slow down” tap from my co-pilot.
When we switched bikes, Pete also praised the Gold Wing’s surprising, albeit ground-clearance-limited, performance. “When you sling the big Wing along winding, snarled canyon roads, its ability to gobble up the corners in rapid-fire succession is at times astounding! Build a good rhythm and the GW flows like melted butter on hot toast. However, my foot would get snatched off the peg by contact with the road when dragging a peg. That’s too bad, ‘cause if the bike is otherwise willing to lean in and rail, why hold it back?”
Both bikes have impressive sound systems, but, as Pete says, the Honda’s is “hands down the better sound system.” It’s more powerful, has better clarity, offers speakers for the passenger and has a Mute button – these latter two things are missing from the BMW. The XM satellite radio adds a level of entertainment, and the USB connection in the trunk supplies full iPod integration.
When it comes to storage the Gold Wing has the BMW beat by a significant 31 liters, 146 vs 115 (43 liters in each saddlebag with a 60-liter trunk for the Gold Wing vs. 33-liter saddlebags with a 49-liter trunk for the K16). However, the BMW’s saddlebags and its trunk are removable, which can be a huge advantage when it’s time to pack or unpack. The saddlebags dismount and remount in a flash, but the trunk’s release is at the bottom, beneath whatever is packed inside. At least it’s removable.
Both bikes feature a key fob with remote locking of the bags at the push of a button.
Although our K16 wasn’t equipped with its optional ($850) dealer-installed GPS system, our Gold Wing was delivered with Honda’s Garmin-built Satellite-Linked Navigation System. At the Honda Trip Planner website, where you can share travel routes with others, I was able plan our route with the same accuracy and shortcomings (six turns to go around the block) as using Google Maps. I then downloaded the route onto the supplied SD card then uploaded it into the Gold Wing’s on-board computer.
The system worked like other automotive GPS systems... as long as we kept to the pre-programmed route. Any divergence from the route upset the system on our test bike, causing it to reboot instead of simply re-routing from our new location. The GPS, of course, is designed to automatically re-route after diverging from the programmed directions. Honda reps said this is the first time they’ve ever heard of a failure of this nature, but they admit they were able to recreate the glitch on our test unit. Honda Japan and Garmin are investigating the issue. “We’re going to look into it and make it right, as we would with any customer bike,” Honda’s media rep commented. We’re promised an update when further info is found.
Pete appreciated the color screen display for the GPS, but notes that, “during direct light the concave shape of the protective lens covering the display often distorted or obscured the view of the lower half of the screen. It was downright difficult to see at times.”
When the Honda was parked safely in my garage and the BMW in Pete’s, we both collapsed in our respective beds to catch up on much needed sleep and dream about Mike Tyson beating up motorcycles. The next morning we tallied the scores.
Did the K16 defeat the indefatigable Wing? Hardly. What it succeeded in doing is enriching the options from which touring bike enthusiasts have to choose. In our humble opinion BMW did something far better than simply create a better motorcycle, they created a bike that strengthens the sport of motorcycling.
In other words, if you’re staring down an Iron Butt Rally or simply crisscrossing the country by way of a combination of Interstate blacktop, the venerable Gold Wing remains the most comfortable long-distance, straight-line mileage gobbler on two wheels. Honda’s dealer network also eclipses that of BMW, which could save a lot time and headache in case of a roadside breakdown.
If you’re on a six-month motorcycle vacation and the only straight lines marked on your map are the shortest ones connecting various mountain ranges where you plan on spending most of your time carving corners, the K1600GTL is the better choice. But you’ll have to pack lighter.
What’s inevitable is a ground-up redesign of the iconic Gold Wing, as we believe the 2012 iteration may be a stop-gap measure before an all-new version debuts in a future year yet to be announced. It’s unclear how Honda will retaliate against this new competition from BMW, whether it plays to the GL’s strengths or tries to compete directly with BMW’s sportier machine.
While reducing the Gold Wing’s weight and upping its horsepower would be beneficial, regardless of its competition, we feel it would be silly for Honda to chase BMW for the best performing luxo-tourer and stick with what the Gold Wing does best — delivering unmatched comfort in long-distance, two-wheel travel.
Let BMW carve a niche for retiring sportbike owners with touring tendencies who revel in the challenge of bending a big touring bike through repetitive corners, while those who want to pound out big mileage crossing state lines will enjoy the Wing’s offerings.
It’s a better world for all motorcyclists with both these bikes in it.
|By the Numbers|
|Honda Gold Wing|
|Observed Fuel Economy||34.3 mpg|
|Retail Price as Tested||$25,899|
|Audio Comfort Navi XM Package||• Satellite-Linked Navigation System|
• XM Radio
|Observed Fuel Economy||35.5 mpg|
|Retail Price as Tested||$25,845|
|Premium Package||• Safety package (Xenon adaptive headlight, dynamic traction control, tire pressure monitors|
|GTL Luxury Package||• LED fog lights, ESA II, power central locking system, anti-theft alarm|
2012 Honda Gold Wing Unveiled
2012 Honda Gold Wing Review - First Ride
2012 Honda Gold Wing Review - Video
2012 BMW K1600GTL Review
2012 BMW K1600GT and GTL Six-cylinder Unveiled
2009 Luxury Touring Shootout