On Golden Wings
This standard-setting motorcycle is going stronger than ever
They call me the "Million-Mile Man" around these parts because I love to ride -- anywhere, anytime -- but, believe it or not, in all that saddle time I've never cruised on Honda's seminal tourer, the Goldwing. When the opportunity for MO to test one arose, I quickly took delivery of a bright yellow, 30th Anniversary Edition Wing with pure, visceral excitement in my heart and mind.
Thus equipt, I set sail for points north of MO with all haste. I must admit, I approached this king of long distance with some trepidation regarding its overall dimensions. Thoughts like "how am I going to handle this behemoth?" come to mind. Once aboard, my fears quickly diminished -- everything just seems to fall into place once moving, bringing the bike back down to size, so to speak.
Under power, the motorcycle becomes less of a threat to your bike handling skills than you would think, thanks to easy-to-reach bars that give plenty of steering leverage, six cylinders offering torque-o-plenty and a chassis with unexpected agility. Once I convinced myself to ride this two-wheeled car like a motorcycle and not the Millennium Falcon, it proved to be effortless at times.
Smooth, flowing lines still grace the 2005 Gold Wing. In fact, the blend of body panels to saddlebags is so silky in appearance that it's almost phallic. I found myself wanting to just reach out and run my hands over the smooth headlamps, across the upper portion of the fairing, down the gas tank then along the prominent aluminum frame spar and all the way back to the flawlessly integrated luggage. Once again, Honda refinement comes through. Speaking of integrated styling, turn signal and brake lamps seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the bodywork. As seen from behind, the Wing might be mistaken for a Civic or Prelude. Very Honda indeed.
"Even with only the front two speakers installed on this unit the music often sounded like it was coming from headphones."
Refinement continues throughout the cockpit. Analog gauges handle the basics with the speedometer front and center. Just below the line of sight for the gauges is an LCD display offering radio/CB information and various setting readouts, as well as trip and odometer readings. Ambient air temperature can be displayed by pushing the mode button and will remain on-screen for approximately thirty seconds before returning to your choice of radio stations. Glancing further down the console to the area just above the fuel door is a myriad of buttons and dials. What you'll find here are controls primarily for radio, CB and intercom. There are six preset buttons for each of two FM and one AM "banks", for a total of 18 presets. Additional selectors control weather band, CD and auxiliary items in the event you want to pipe in your IPod.
Speaking of IPods, Fonzie the photographer commented rather dryly, "The built in IPod ready mini-pin is a sweet touch for the new class of touring riders. I imagine the older rider, those with 100K miles on the original Gold Wing, will be quite confused as to what to do with the little wire stuffed in that glove box."
Directly to the left and right of the selector buttons are a dial for volume and mode. What the mode button offers is an option to tune something Honda calls the "ambiance" settings for the speakers. Consisting of a low, medium and high. In essence, this creates a "surround sound" effect. Believe me, it works quite well. Even with only the front two speakers installed on this unit the music often sounded like it was coming from headphones.
Not to be left out of the bells and whistles game, each handlebar gets a few goodies to play with as well. The controls found on the right bar are for setting and adjusting the electronic cruise control. Mmmm...cruise control (you should begin salivating right about now for a nice, comfortable ride up the interstate). Additionally, there is an odd little push button just left of the starter button. It won't eject you out of your seat at the precise moment you find yourself in danger but it will make you go backwards. Yes, it's the mighty reverse device, and it operates in an easy and slick fashion, by pressing the starter button. You must have the ignition on, but the bike can't be running. Simply push the reverse button to on, wait a second or two, and then use the starter switch as your "throttle." It moves just fast enough to keep you upright while you use your little feet as outriggers to keep you upright.
"It should go without saying, but if storage is your thing, the Wing has you covered."
Over on the left bar, things get a little more in-depth. A pod set atop the grouping is specifically for CB control with volume, channel and squelch. The remaining buttons are for adjusting AM/FM volume, channel or disc selection (if you have the optional CD player) and a nifty mute button. Pushing the mute button will cause 'MUTE' to display on the LCD and that's good because as our beloved Alfonse said: "The quick mute is rather handy at the toll booths and when haggling with the hobos wanting to clean the windshield."
Wrapping up the electronic gizmos are two trick little features. Just within reach of the riders left, you'll find a dial for electronically adjusting headlight pitch. This is here for good reason, as the neighboring buttons are for electronic pre-load adjustment of the rear spring. If you find yourself carrying a large load, passenger or both, you'll have the option of increasing the pre-load to help firm up the ride. If you're mostly empty but aggressively slicing up canyon roads, you'll want to increase pre-load as well to help with greater ground clearance.
Should you be casually tooling down interstates or surface streets, decreasing the pre-load will provide a softer ride. If you're in tune with your bike and know exactly where you want the rear end situated then you can create two pre-sets: ideally one firm and one soft. Given all that, Alfonse (That's Fonzie to most of you) remarked, "The electronic suspension system was quite spiffy, but not as cool as on the current BMWs which adjust on the fly so you can really sense the change. Yes, I am spoiled, thank you!" The suspension settings are also displayed on the Gold Wing's LCD.
A couple more remarks with respect to all the dials, knobs, buttons and the like: they're all relatively easy to use, even when adjusting on the fly while wearing medium weight gloves. Most of the controls and gauges are back lit for your visual pleasure, after the sun goes down.
It should go without saying, but if storage is your thing, the Wing has you covered. Three cavernous hard bags, as usual, are seamlessly integrated with the bike. I was able to stuff a full set of racing leathers, gloves and a few odds and ends in the trunk. I used one saddlebag for a duffel containing a small laptop computer, some camera gear and a couple of other office related trinkets. The other bag held my clothing and shoes, enough for a four-day trip.
Both bags still had plenty of room for the little last minute items that we all seem to remember right after the bags are closed. If you wander around back and look underneath the trunk, you'll note two helmet locks tucked up out of sight. They're operated via a small knob on the floor of the trunk closest to the turn signal/brake light area. Unfortunately, Honda engineers weren't considering ease of use when they placed the releases here. It was often a chore to work my hand in to a point where I could use them. Nevertheless, the locks are a nice convenience. In a trap door on the floor of the trunk, you'll find the storage area for the CB and CD player. Both items are apparently a luxury as Honda considers them accessories.
In the "tricked out" department, there are two more treats: a keyless/wireless remote to lock or unlock the bags and a display on the LCD to let you know that you're absent minded and neglected to completely latch any of the three. This proves to be more than just an electronic scolding. It will actually prevent the bike from starting. The bags are, in essence, airtight and the bike knows it. So make sure you get a solid click from each saddlebag, as they were often the culprits preventing me from a quick departure. That's not to say the bags were a problem to close, but rather were very subtle and you don't have to slam them shut.
"The prime directive of such a machine is to cover great distances with as much comfort as possible."
Just a nice, firm push with a reassuring click of the latch and you'll be down the road. If you find a handful of smaller items to carry along, feel free to utilize four little cubbyholes. The driver and passenger each get two with one being lockable on the driver's right. They're rather small in my opinion, but at least you can shove a mobile phone, pair of gloves or set of keys in each.
The prime directive of such a machine is to cover great distances with as much comfort as possible while still allowing you to enjoy the activity of motorcycling. There are purists out there that opine that such a motorcycle will rob you of the true experience. They often claim that motorcycles like the Gold Wing are too isolating from the elements, too refined and too car-like. In many ways, I can understand opinions like that. After all, I would venture to guess the rawness of motorcycling is what lured and then trapped many, if not all of us into such a blissful existence.
Quite frankly, I don't want to be beat down from the ride itself when I arrive at my destination. After years of saddle time or maybe just age, I find that doing any distance that requires most of the day to cover is best served on a bike like the Gold Wing. If a more pure form of motorcycling is desired then I'll seek it out at the racetrack or local canyon carving. The distances will be shorter or more invigorating, going by much more quickly by virtue of the increased mental activity.
Overall ergonomics were just about perfect for my 5'8" frame. Generally, it gives a feeling of sitting in a well-designed office chair. Fonzie had similar thoughts: "Although I am approximately 150lbs shy of the typical rider load for this bike, I didn't feel lost within its bulk. I say within the overall bulk because it's nearly the same in the front and the rear, leaving just a "low spot" for the rider and passenger to fit into from the side." All controls are within easy reach and don't cause any real distraction from the road. The only nit I've to pick is with the saddle (it truly is a saddle). When drifting down the road the wrap around edge is pure heaven. However, when it was time to bring the big Wing to a stop I had to develop a little technique of sliding just forward, toward the gas tank, in order to get my thigh past the seat's edge.
When you're trying to finesse nearly a thousand pounds (with a passenger and gear) to a smooth stop you'll want the ability to securely place your feet firmly on the ground. Although I suppose I could just grow a few inches and resolve the whole thing. Nevertheless, the seat is plush.
I had the opportunity to sample passenger accommodations courtesy of Fonzie riding me around city streets. I must say I'd almost rather be a passenger. The comfort level back there is better than most cars I've been in. It was reminiscent of being in my favorite recliner.
Handling, whether on the street, canyon or freeway was always two things: stable and predictable courtesy of the "multi-box-section dual-spar aluminum frame", which Honda has siphoned from racing technology. Lane changes at speed required the slightest input. Despite the heft of the Wing, it never lumbered or wallowed if the pavement was rough, and rapid steering inputs didn't upset the chassis in the least. Don't infer from these qualities that the bike is as responsive as a sport-touring machine. After all, with a 66" wheelbase, 4.3" of trail, a little over 29 degrees of rake and a claimed dry weight of 799 lbs it's never going to be very "flick-able."
But considering these dimensions while careening down the Angeles Crest Highway the Gold Wing is still a formidable tool in the twisties. After cranking up the pre-load to its highest setting in order to increase ground clearance (though that's not the true purpose of increasing pre-load), chasing a sport bike with a passenger was quite entertaining.
The reason I mention harassing the sport bike rider isn't to regale the reader with my riding prowess but more to illustrate as to what the Wing can actually do despite its size. Truth is, it's a great handling bike. Whether at freeway speeds, parking lot pace or canyon carving you can have just about as much fun as you would on a much more focused machine, as long as you don't get too carried away.
"I noticed the throaty exhaust note which sounds a lot like a modern six cylinder sports car."
Despite the fact that the 74.0mm x 71.0mm, two valve, SOHC, 1,832cc engine is over-square, it never seemed to be lacking in the torque department. It seems to have it in reserve, which is quite nice when trying to carefully guide the bruiser up and around a tight curve when you're loaded down. In fact, I found it easier to start from a dead stop in second gear rather than first. First always seemed too short and the powerful flat-six was easily capable of pulling from zero mph in second.
Speaking of power, I found most of it useful from around 2,200 rpm but the 4,500 to 6,000 rpm neighborhood is where a lot of your freeway juicing will be used. It was also the point where I noticed the throaty exhaust note which sounds a lot like a modern six cylinder sports car. Use the five-speed tranny to get to overdrive (or "sixth gear", as some might call it) and comfortable cruising speeds range anywhere from 85mph to around 110mph. While we're on the subject of the transmission, I want to mention that first gear is a little short and shifting was a tad on the notchy side. It wasn't uncommon to find a false neutral between 2nd and 3rd.
Braking is optional on the Gold Wing. Well, not exactly, but Honda's ABS/LBS (Linked Brake System) is, and it'll cost you an extra $1,100.00. My test unit was so equipped and I generally like ABS on a bike like this. Since I'm not seeking the ultimate in performance, I'm willing to sacrifice some progressive feel in exchange for coming to a solid stop quickly. While staying in the general foot peg area, MO's intrepid photographer Alfonse said this: "One little addition I would like to see included with the GL1800 is a heel shifter. The peg is big enough to move your foot around on already, but I needed to click away with my heel at times."
Thirty years ago, a pioneering Japanese motorcycle manufacturer created a machine that would set a new benchmark in motorcycle touring, or even motorcycling for that matter. In 1975 Honda Motor Company, Inc. introduced the Gold Wing. Otherwise known as the GL1000, its heart was a 999cc flat four-cylinder power plant. However, it was first tagged as a muscle bike and it looked a lot like other "standards" of the day, save for the heads lying low in front of the rider's feet. It's beginnings gave little hint to its future transformation into a first-class touring bike.
The year 1978 saw the introduction of the now famous (or infamous as some would have it), Comstar wheels, in addition to an instrument 'pod' placed on the gas tank. Higher rising handlebars came the year before. It wasn't until 1979 that the bike received a set of hard saddlebags and trunk, and an official Honda fairing wasn't available until the 1980 GL1100 Interstate model, finally placing the bike in the true tour bike mode. It has continued in this direction ever since. An important note to the history of Honda: 1981 saw production of the Gold Wing move to Ohio, in a seemingly obvious maneuver to bolster their US presence.
The Aspencade model of 1982 offered an electronically operated air pump for the suspension, CB radio and Clarion AM/FM stereo as standard equipment to set it above the Interstate model, on which those items were optional. Stepping up the horsepower game in 1984, the Wing was graced with an 1,182cc motor, although still a flat four. Some aficionados alleged this to be an answer to Yamaha's Venture. Whether one can believe it or not, fuel injection made its debut on the 1985 model, along with cruise control and an on-board "travel computer."
A major wind of change blew across the indomitable touring bike in 1988, bringing with it a complete redesign with dramatic styling changes, a reverse gear and most importantly, a whopping increase to 1,520ccs of displacement, thanks to the addition of two more cylinders. This new flat-six engine configuration would become a hallmark of the Gold Wing. Aside from obvious modernizing changes in style, the bike we see today draws much of its lineage from this model.
However, thirteen years of steady production ended to give way to the most current model: a new Gold Wing flying on an 1,832cc platform now known as the GL1800, graced with an all-aluminum frame, ABS and technology on loan from its sport bike cousins.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2005, Honda gave the venerable touring master a special badge, matching key and an opening banner display on the LCD dash to proclaim to the world a dominating history that any motorcycle would be honored to have. Other than the nice touches for its birthday, little has changed on the Wing since 2001, when it received a face-lift, new frame and the aforementioned displacement boost. Nevertheless, today's bike is even more of the legend that people have come to respect. Even the non-riding public knows a Gold Wing when they see one.
After years spent growing up in Michigan and watching Wings sail up the highway in front of my house, I often desire to climb aboard the large machines and glide along to any place I wish, with complete comfort and confidence. No other motorcycle exemplifies the ability to do just that as well as a Honda Gold Wing.
"With this standard-setting motorcycle going stronger than ever, it's easy to see another thirty years of production in its future."
Earlier I mentioned that I had a nit to pick. I lied; I have more than one. For instance, it's beyond me why the windshield is manually adjustable instead of electric. In order to raise or lower the screen you must "unlatch" a small lever on each side (below each of the front speakers) and then pull the shield completely up before you can reposition it. This is quite inconvenient to say the least. Fonzie points out one important thing though: "It's amazing how much air can be deflected by that windshield. Just open the vent at 60 mph and you'll be surprised!" Moreover, for a motorcycle coming in at just under $20k, I would expect a minimum of one 12v outlet. As far as Honda is concerned, that's an accessory. Likewise I expect four speakers for my stereo system, not just two.
After thirty years of continuous production driven by unparalleled demand it's hard to find something seriously wrong with the 30th Anniversary Edition of the Gold Wing. With a super smooth and powerful flat-six, ABS/LBS, an unflinching aluminum frame, armchair-like ergonomics, a command center for a cockpit and enough storage capacity to keep you and a companion on the road for a minimum of a week the Wing offers an awful lot in a motorcycle. With this standard-setting motorcycle going stronger than ever, it's easy to see another thirty years of production in its future.