For the past 35 years Honda has pretty well held the title of luxury tourer in the motorcycle world.
From it’s debut with a horizontally opposed four 1,000cc engine in 1975 to its spectacular remake in 1988 with an opposed six, and again in 2000 when it grew to 1,832 cc and got an aluminum frame to boot, the Gold Wing has seen off contenders almost as swiftly as Colonel Gaddafi.
But nothing stays the same forever, and 2012 sees a new contender for the crown in the shape of BMW K1600GTL tourer.
Like the Gold Wing, the BMW uses a six-cylinder motor (with inline configuration as opposed to, well, opposed) and have matched much of the Gold Wing’s trinkets, only the GTL also weighs in at a massive 64 kilos less… and it comes with an electronically adjustable windscreen too (gasp)!
Whether this sent the engineers in Japan into quick makeover mode, or the fact that Honda recently moved Gold Wing production back to Japan and wanted to give it a tweak in the process, is not known.
But a tweak it got and CMG’s Costa Mouzouris is among the first journalists in the world to give it a spin at Honda Canada’s annual media event, held in the warmth of Savannah, Georgia.
Question is, has Honda done enough to quell the revolution and keep the Gold Wing firmly in its position at the top?
Well, mechanically speaking the 2012 Gold Wing remains unchanged. It’s in small refinements to existing hardware that Honda has focused on.
A restyled fairing adds extra wind protection to the lower body and leg areas, and a set of vents have been integrated around the taillight to reduce air pressure in the cockpit, providing smoother airflow around rider and passenger.
Also new in the bodywork department are reshaped and more streamlined saddlebags with increased capacity (with an additional seven litres of space), bringing the total storage space to more than 150 litres.
The suspension also gets some attention, with revised settings and new bushings in the forks that help smooth suspension action over sharp bumps. There’s a new urethane seat and cover, beneath which is new seat foam, both changes meant to improve comfort.
Oh, and there’s a next-generation navigation system which has a brighter screen, acquires satellites faster and gives a lovely 3D terrain view. It also has the capability to share routes between bikes using an SD card to transfer GPS files.
There’s also a new audio system that now connects to your iPod through a USB port, allowing you control it with the sound system’s handlebar-mounted switches, as well as providing a charge to the iPod’s battery.
The previous ’Wing only had an auxiliary wire that plugged into the iPod’s headphone outlet, so no control was available and the battery didn’t charge.
But when the changes go on to list reshaped tail lights and updated instrumentation, then you have to wonder if the BMW K1600GTL has caught Honda with their pants down.
At least the Honda has an airbag option that you won’t find on the Beemer.
From a distance, the new two-tone paint scheme and absence of chrome give the 2012 Gold Wing away. But it’s from the rear, especially when looking at the saddlebags – which are now more integrated into the machine – that you really get an idea that a few things have been changed.
Sitting on the machine doesn’t hint at any major redesign; all the familiar buttons are there, the riding position is mostly the same (the seat bolster on the new bike seems to be a bit farther back), and hitting the start switch reveals the same flat-six drone the Gold Wing has been emitting since 1988.
It’s once you’ve been rolling awhile that you realise you’re riding a new Gold Wing.
The biggest change is in the suspension. Although the changes seem trivial on paper (New for 2012: fork bushings!), what they’ve done to the ride is quite noticeable. Where the previous model would send jolts through the chassis and handlebars on sharp-edged bumps (we had a couple of 2010 models for comparison), the new bike rode over them with nary a hiccup.
The change isn’t revolutionary, but I’d liken it to having a bike with fully adjustable suspension and finding the ideal setting. As on the previous model, rear preload is adjustable via pushbutton.
Also, the previous Gold Wing, weighing up to 421 kg (928 lb) wet (ABS model), had a slightly rubbery feel at the handlebars when turning (relatively) aggressively. This tendency has been noticeably reduced on the new bike, with a much more solid, connected feel between hand grips and front tire.
This is surprising, because aside from a change in internal suspension settings and newly developed Bridgestone tires, the chassis and suspension received no other changes.
Changes to the bodywork claimed to improve cockpit comfort – do. Airflow is, as claimed, smoother from the waist down, so smooth, in fact, that you can feel warm air at your lower legs when opening the warming vents. Turbulence around the feet on the previous model made this feature redundant.
Also, the vents incorporated into the tail end, around the taillights, seem to have reduced the back draft that used to push a rider slightly forward at speed on the older bike.
One item, however, that unfortunately got no attention in the “redesign” is the windscreen. It’s the same, clunky, manually adjustable item as on the previous model, and it still causes some helmet buffeting, though the changes to the airflow may have reduced it a tad.
Gold Wing riders may or may not rejoice at the new sound system. Menus and operation are familiar, so someone trading up from a previous-generation bike won’t have to relearn all the controls.
Sound quality is much improved though, and the new USB wire for iPod connectivity, which allows you to control several of the iPod’s functions from the rider’s seat, is convenient.
The USB wire is now located in the top case (the previous iPod connector was in the left-hand fairing compartment), but there’s no secure place to mount your iPod and you’ve got to leave it flopping around in the cavernous top case, which is a little odd to say the least.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE
I have to wonder why Honda didn’t perform a more thorough redesign of its flagship touring machine. It would have been the opportune time to do so, after all, with Honda’s move of Gold Wing production to Japan and a new six-cylinder luxo-tourer coming from Germany, why not?
Heck, I wonder why Honda’s engineers didn’t just strip the machine to its chassis and build up from there, much the way the company did with its Crossrunner, which is essentially a redressed VFR800.
That way they could have finally included that ever-elusive electrically adjustable windscreen …
It’s a good thing that the Gold Wing’s design was pretty sound to begin with, though, because to justify Honda’s reluctance to really redesign the bike, a true Gold Wing enthusiast can at least use the old adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
But will that be enough to fend off the rebellious BMW?
The 2012 Gold Wing will be in dealers in May, available in airbag and non-airbag models. Pricing hasn’t been released, though Honda has hinted that the target price is expected to match the price of the 2010 model.
|Bike||2012 Honda Gold Wing GL1800|
|MSRP||TBA (expect around $30,000)|
|Engine type||Horizontally opposed six, liquid-cooled|
|Power* (crank)||117 HP @ 5,500 rpm|
|Torque*||123 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|Tank Capacity||25 litres|
|Final drive||Five speed (plus electric reverse), shaft drive|
|Brakes, front||Dual 296 mm discs with three-piston caliper|
|Brakes, rear||Single 316 mm disc with three-piston caliper|
|Seat height||740 mm (29.1″)|
|Wheelbase||1,690 mm (66.5″)|
|Wet weight*||405-417 kg (904-933 lb) depends on options|
|Colours||Candy Red, Blue Metallic (comes with airbag)|