Full-Dress Heavyweight Tourers
Three Big-Rigs Place You In The Lap of Luxury
In the early days, anyone who could ride more than a couple hundred miles in a day was made of iron. And probably an exceptional mechanic, because the bikes were made of iron, too. Nowadays, with the current crop of high-mileage, big-rig touring bikes, it's not uncommon for a touring rider to see a thousand miles in a single day's worth of saddle time. Which luxo-touring motorcycle is best suited for this task? We decided to sample the best offerings from Japan, America and Europe to find the answer.
Surprisingly, the only common ground our three heavyweight tourers (a Honda Gold Wing SE, Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide and BMW K1100LT) have was how much they cost; you'll lay out at least fifteen big ones for any of them. You see, while the Honda has always been a purpose-built tourer, both the Harley and BMW are adapted from standard motorcycles, and the resulting differences in how they roll down the road is amazing.
Levels of equipment also vary. The BMW and Honda have liquid cooled engines with shaft drive, the Harley uses the familiar 80 inch air cooled engine with drive by belt. The Harley and BMW have fuel-injection, the Honda carburetors. The Harley and Honda have cruise control, the BMW doesn't. The Harley and Honda have stereo/intercoms/CB units, the BMW a radio only. The BMW has a trick servomotor-controlled adjustable windshield, Honda's is manually adjustable, and the the Harley's shield offers one-time adjustment via a hack saw. We could continue, but what does it mean on the road?
Ride along as we put these behemoths through the paces on a 2500 mile tour up California's coastline to San Francisco, across to Yosemite National Park, through the Sierra Nevada mountain range at altitudes up to 10,000 feet, then over to Arizona and its blazing desert heat, all before returning to the concrete canyons of L.A. to test their mettle as daily commuter mounts.
3. Honda GL-1500 Gold Wing SE
With its 1000cc opposed-four-cylinder layout, belt-driven cams, liquid cooling, shaft drive, and fuel tank under the seat, the original Gold Wing recast the world of big-rig motorcycling when it came out in 1975. But touring still wasn't easy.
Used to be that if you wanted to turn a motorcycle into a touring bike, even a Gold Wing, you had to put it together yourself. Buy the fairing, saddle bags, trunk, and spend countless hours trying to make it all fit to a bike that wasn't designed for the stuff.
Then, with the introduction of the 1980 Gold Wing Interstate, you suddenly had all the tools you needed for a long-distance touring mount. Air suspension, wide, high-mileage tires, adjustable seating, an integrated full fairing, saddlebags, and trunk. Even came with an optional stereo. The evolution of the Gold Wing, now in its fourth generation, has taken it to a point where it is now one of the top selling motorcycles in Honda's vast lineup, sharing top billing with the hot-selling CBR600F3 sport bike. Through the years no other touring motorcycle has enjoyed the popularity of the Wing.
The GL-1500's much-heralded six-cylinder powerplant is its heart and soul, delivering smooth, seamless performance that covers the ground effortlessly. It pulled the steepest mountain grades we could throw at it without hesitation, even fully loaded. Dispatching of slower traffic was as simple as dropping it into fourth gear and twisting the throttle. And it'll cruise the interstate readily at speeds that will have the local constables quickly writing you an invitation to traffic school -- Editor-in-Chief Plummer covered about 32 miles in Utah in less than 15 minutes, fully loaded with a passenger and the radio blaring.
All this performance, though, combined with the Wing's portly 816-pound profile, extracts a toll on fuel economy, and you'll see the Honda's reserve fuel light come on after only 150 miles or so. In short, the Gold Wing sucks gas. On one particularly long, blazingly hot stretch of Arizona two-lane, we had to refuel after 138 miles, netting only 26 mpg.
Prodigious thirst can be a good thing, as we found both the rider and passenger seats to be too soft, resulting in backside fatigue after 130 miles in the saddle. The seat-to-bar relationship of the Wing was the best of our three touring mounts, though, offering a level of comfort unmatched by the others. The Honda's large fairing and adjustable windscreen offers the rider complete wind protection and submerges him in a cone of silence, allowing the rider to watch the miles roll by unfettered by wind buffeting. But the fairing becomes a liability on a hot day, like any day around the Arizona desert, and we found the Wing's fairing ventilation system lacking, leaving both the rider and passengers' legs baking from engine heat spilling up from underneath the bodywork.
Where the Wing really shines is in its luggage capacity. The huge, fully integrated saddlebags come with nifty, high-quality saddlebag liners that can be lifted out and carried into the hotel or campsite. Together with the large top trunk (also equipped with a liner bag), you'll be able to carry enough gear to last a couple for a week-long tour. In typical Honda fashion, the SE has, by far, the best detailing and most carefully conceived touring features, and its myriad comforts and electronic gadgets kept us well occupied during some of those long empty stretches of highway.
All of these accessories, though, force a compromise. If there's ever been a recurring complaint about the Wing, it has been its weight, which has increased more than 250 pounds since that original model in '75. The SE's handling, although respectable for a machine this size, never feels completely planted in turns, and it exhibits a ponderous, unwieldy feel while riding around town, with both problems accentuated by an overly soft, Cadillac-style suspension that lets the Wing wobble when the going gets twisty.
Is touring boring? It shouldn't be, yet the Wing is a shade characterless compared to the other two bikes. And when the road starts to wind and twist, its limited ground clearance and heavy weight consign it to the back of the pack. If touring was all interstates -- well, we'd probably buy cars.
2. Harley-Davidson FLHTCUI Ultra Classic Electra Glide (w/EFI)
The FLHTCUI is a bike spawned from years of slow, deliberate improvements. As evidenced by the seven letters in its name, the Ultra Classic is the product of a long, distinguished line of H-D touring motorcycles that are definitely American. Uniquely styled, it all started with the big-twin tourer FLT in 1980 (which remained in the lineup until last year), followed then by the FLHT in 1984. The 'C' came along during the mid-eighties when some more standard features were added in, and the 'U' is the Ultra designation for yet more features (FLHTC Electra Glide Classic is still available). Finally, the 'I' was appended in 1994 when Harley introduced the electronic fuel-injected version. Around town the Harley struck a balance between our other two touring rigs. It is listed at 765 pounds dry, but it carries its weight well, and was surprisingly manageable at slow speeds despite its fork-mounted fairing. Comfortable and responsive, the Ultra handles everyday commuting in urban confines better than either the Gold Wing or the Beemer, with all its controls well laid out, falling readily to hand and foot. It has a good sound system that was easy to control and increased in volume with speed and rpm. We found both the stereo and intercom/CB more convenient to operate than the Honda's since the hand controls are easier to reach and use. And the Harley was the only one equipped with radio/intercom controls for the passenger, a very nice touch on a long ride.
Out on the open highway, there is a distinct lack of wind hitting the rider due to the tall windscreen, and the Ultra's upright seating position is a plus for long-range comfort. The windshield did manage to garner several complaints, though, as it was just the right height for the top edge to obstruct the rider's line of sight, meaning riders in the 5' 8" to 6' category are either crouching to look "under" the top of the shield, or straining to look over it. Harley does, however, offer both taller and shorter shields as accessories for the Ultra. Offering a bit more luggage capacity than the BMW, the Harley's hard saddlebags were still a tight fit compared to the Gold Wing. The top Tour Box, though, was the best of the three, with an easy-to-use side-latch opening and more than adequate space for all that stuff the significant other hates to leave behind. As an extra bonus you can remove most of the touring gear (fairing lowers, saddlebags, and with some extra effort, the Tour Box) in under an hour for a lighter ride.
Suspension action is about what you'd expect from a large, comfort-oriented touring mount: soft yet controlled on smooth level pavement, but we quickly overwhelmed it while trying to follow the Beemer heading down a mountain pass. The Ultra does handle tight mountain roads much better than the Gold Wing, though. The triple disc brakes are typical Harley, very effective but requiring a strong pull to stop the large machine.
Floorboards are more comfy than footpegs on longer rides, allowing more room to move your feet around. The forward mounted foot controls are huge and somewhat clunky, but are very easy to use, and the ergonomics of the riding position are excellent. Ample ground clearance and rollerskate-quick steering allow relaxed cruising gait anywhere, even on winding country roads.
Plus, of course, the eighty inch motor rumbling around somewhere in the engine room adds a distinct character to this touring beast. Out on the road, other Harley riders wave at you. Whenever you stop, little old men appear as if from cracks in the sidewalk to tell you about their model JD and the ride to Phoenix in 1930. And you'll never be short of something to talk about in the coffee shop, that essential component of every motorcycle tour.