Sometimes things can get lost at CMG (never noticed that myself – Ed. Emeritus Lorenzo), and the BMW K1200LT vs Honda Gold Wing comparo was one of them.
There’s no good explanation as to why it’s taken so long to get published, other than that it kept on being trumped by other test rides and then it just got plain old. And like all things old, you eventually just start to ignore them. But there’s a point when it’s rude to pretend grandpa is already dead when he’s still clearly fluttering his nasal hairs with short breaths, and for the comparo, that point is now.
Besides, the two bikes are still current, with the Honda seeing some minor changes for 2006 – which we were able to experience at their recent Vegas launch and will be covered in the article below.
So, without any more excuses, let’s take a look at the two big Berthas of the touring world – the K1200LT and GL1800.
THE PUSH FOR PLUSH – A SHORT HISTORY
BMW’s K1200LT has been around since 1999 when it was launched in direct competition to Honda’s GL1500 Gold Wing, which up until that point had had a relatively free ride from pretty well everyone. BMW had done well, and Honda were starting to feel the heat.
However, the Gold Wing’s been around since 1975, and those years of development provide a tough fight for any challenger. Honda didn’t wait long, and in 2001 hit back with their new GL1800.
Outgunned by the massive power of the GL’s 1800 motor, for the 2005 model (tested and shown here) BMW boosted the LT’s compression ratio and managed to find a chunk more power – enough to actually match the Honda! They also fitted a smoother gearbox, WP rear shock, tightened up the handling with some chassis tweaks and fitted an additional light at the front.
The LT was back in the fight! But nothing stands still in this fight and while the BMW K1200LT goes into 2006 unchanged, Honda have been busy tweaking their Gold Wing.
The big news for 2006 is their integrated navigation system, which is placed in a central location where the old LCD radio display was located, just below the clocks. The system uses a 2 Gig Compact Flash card to store North American mapping (which is claimed to cover almost all of Canada) as well as the system information, which includes voice prompting through the Wing’s 320 Watt stereo system (see sidebar at the end for our quick impression on the new navigational system).
Other updates include a more powerful sound system, which now comes with auto-adjusting bass levels (alongside the volume control) to account for changes in speed, as well as MP3 compatibility (you can plug in yer I-pod) and bigger and better speakers.
There’s also a ‘comfort package’ as standard, which includes new heated grips, heated seats & backrest (now matching the LT) and a funky foot warmer, which directs hot air from the engine via two – lever-operated – louvres in the lower fairing.
Mechanically-wise, the overall cooling system has been upgraded (bigger rads), alternator output increased (to cope with the additional electrical toys) overall emissions have been reduced (with no loss in power output) and the tail section restyled.
Note – Although much lauded in the international press, the new airbag is not going to be present on the 2006 Canadian model, but will be introduced in the '07 model, with an expected release of late summer 2006.
But luxury touring is the name of the game here, and both machines push the boundaries with standard items such as ABS, linked brakes, reverse gears, heated grips & seats, radio/CD players, integrated luggage, and lazy-boy ergonomics.
The BMW opts to promote the luxury side a bit more, boasting a hydraulically-operated centrestand, electrically-adjustable screen and adjustable seat height. Honda’s response is a move toward touring practicality with the (new for 2006) built-in GPS navigation system.
But enough looking at the spec sheets, how do they compare in the real world of asphalt?
CLASH OF THE TITANS
The LT is the only model in the BMW line-up that still uses the old 1,172 cc inline four engine – mounted flat and sideways in the frame. Thanks to the ’05 update, it produces a respectable 116 hp (claimed), with 86 ft-lb of torque, but it’s hard to beat Honda’s cubes and extra two cylinders.
The Gold Wing has similar top power figures (118 hp claimed), but it’s a gruntmeister compared to the LT with a massive 125 ft-lb of torque. Its horizontally-opposed six cylinder motor is not only turbine smooth, it provides instant grunt (a whole 90 ft-lbs) right off idle and delivers a linear surge of power all the way to redline. It’s the kind of pull that puts a grin on your face, and if you’re unfamiliar to the world of the Wing, it’s surprising just how much fun can be had with it.
In contrast, the LT is a bit lacklustre lower down, not coming up with the goods until just shy of 4,000 rpm. From there it gathers its breath and is in happy-power mode from 5,000 to the redline at 8k. This is also the band where the pipe audibly kicks in, which helps gives the LT a certain character lacking in the predictability of the Gold Wing.
Needless to say, we kept the LT above 5k whenever the road got a little twisty.
But what are you doing getting into sporty mode in the first place? Good question. Well, my uneducated friend, these two uber-tourers may feel and look like couches but they certainly don’t handle like them.
In fact, during our tour we came across a guy with an R1 who kindly showed us some great roads. I don’t think he was expecting to see us consistently in his mirrors … nor did we expect to be there – it’s just that both bikes seemed perfectly happy to … be thrashed.
Although the Gold Wing has an additional 60 lb to haul around it is truly remarkable in its ability to behave like a bike half its weight. Seriously, the Wing is a master at shedding its weight and can aggressively and competently attack corners when the road tightens up – dropping in obediently and holding its line without fuss. Rolling on that smooth endless torque on the exit is quite joyous.
Cornering clearance is lacking though, and when you’re in sporty mode you have to be comfortable with a lot of peg scraping. You’re also always aware that superb handling or not, if things ever were to get out of shape, 838 lb of metal would be a lot of mass to wrestle back in to line.
The LT also has a surprising amount of handling prowess and although it fails to shed the feeling of its lardiness quite as effectively as the Wing, it has significantly more cornering clearance and proved nigh on impossible to ground out. This extra clearance however also means that the centre of gravity is higher and this is quite noticeable at lower speeds, where the LT becomes a bit pig-like to handle.
Braking on both bikes is quite acceptable. As far as sheer power, the LT has a definite edge thanks to the servo-assisted and higher spec brakes, requiring just a single finger to the Wing’s two for hard “Oh feck” braking. However, the LT’s servo lacks feel and graduation and is most noticeable when trying to do slow speed maneuvers, at which point it becomes quite grabby.
Combine this effect with the low speed handling issues and you can get into trouble. In fact yours truly had just such a moment when I found that a road I was exploring turned to gravel and then came to a dead-end on a slight uphill.
There was no choice but to turn the LT around, but it was having none of it and faced between a hernia and/or a dropped bike, I let the mother fall. After 15 minutes of sliding feet followed by a short search for help I realized that I had no alternative but to drag the bike around 90 degrees to a point where I could get a footing against a rock and right it.
Although I put my back out in the process, she was finally back upright with only a few scratches on the bellypan and a scuff on the side ‘bumper’ that had done a fine job at protecting the fairing. Bugger.
Both bikes come with ABS, with the Honda getting the edge on sheer smoothness of operation, so much so that you had to really pay attention to notice that it had come on at all. The BMW’s pulses at the lever (which some might prefer) and is generally competent – unless you hit a bumpy section at some speed, when it can have a worrying delay before reapplying the brake! Of course, most LT owners probably wouldn’t ride it quite the way we did …
Enough on performance, let’s take a look at how the luxury end is being taken care of by our two fat friends. Comfort is the name of the game here and both bikes offer super comfy seats and a seating position somewhere between that of a standard and cruiser bike.
The Wing has a super low seat height of 739 mm, but it somehow manages to work even for the tallies, probably due to a goodly amount of lower back support behind. The LT is 30 mm higher, with an additional 30 mm available thanks to an adjustable seat.
Oddly I found that it felt a little more cramped on the long haul (even with the seat at the high position), and would slide onto the passenger seat every now and then for a good stretch. Maybe the higher pegs mean less space for the rider’s legs, a trade-off for the cornering clearance? For general seat comfort though, I'd give a nod to the LT.
Overall, you really feel like you sit ‘in’ the Wing as opposed to ‘on’ the LT.
Both bikes punch a big hole in the air, the LT having the edge thanks to its electrically adjustable screen that allows you to get everything just right while on the move. For some reason the Honda still uses mechanical levers that are released to allow the screen to be pulled up or down before being re-clasped by the levers. Very odd – especially for a luxury tourer – and it meant that we never did quite get it right to stop the slight helmet buffeting.
The ‘06 Gold Wing now matches the LT’s selection of heated bits, which include grips, rider and passenger seats, and the passenger backrest, with the Wing adding louvre vents to direct warm air from the motor to the rider’s legs. Likewise, they both come with cruise control, which I found to be only somewhat useful, although if you live on the Prairies you might have more use for it.
As you'd expect in this market, both bikes come with audio systems, with the LT sensibly locating the CD player at the front instead of in the rear trunk, as on the Wing. The LT also seems to be able to do it all with much fewer buttons – the Gold Wing going for (and winning) “the most things to press on a motorcycle” award.
There’s a couple of gadgets that are unique to the LT though. Small lights under the crash bars illuminate during parking to light up the ground around the rider’s feet so at night you can see where you’re stepping – posh. And then there’s that crowd-pleasing hydraulically-operated centrestand. I wowed many a group with the slow whir of hydraulics as rider and bike rose up and bike before dismounting. The only thing missing was the lower fairing red-carpet roller-outer.
Although both bikes proved to be surprisingly apt, the Honda always seemed to have the edge for us. It’s got the grunt from idle all the way to redline and most everything comes in seamlessly. It’s just amazing how they have managed to make the pounds fall away once you get moving. The only downside was the lack of clearance in the corners … although the scraping did induce a few giggles.
The BMW is still very good, but requires some additional thought to get the best out of it and didn’t induce the same overall level of confidence to the rider as the Wing did. Also, although the Beemer has some additional trick gadgets over the Wing, I’d much prefer to have a navigational system over a hydraulically operated centrestand.
At the end of the day it’s such a close call though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if personal preferences swayed riders evenly between the two. Question is, does 2007 have a new LT with the next generation four motor? Now that might level up the fight somewhat.
GL1800 NAVI SYSTEM
It’s a Garmin system and anyone who’s used a top of the line Garmin before will be very familiar with how this works. Even if you haven’t, it doesn’t take long to get your head around the formatting.
Navigation controls are located on the right hand side fairing and left handlebar, although – as a safety control – only the display’s zoom and voice prompts are active when moving. There’s options on how you get there (scenic or just fastest) and ‘points of interest’, which include places to eat, stay, fill up with gas, and (of course) where your nearest Honda dealer is.
In use, the mapping is clearly visible on the screen and the voice prompts come through loud and clear over the system’s stereo (although I wish they’d have options on prompt formats, as the standard system is overly polite for my liking!).
I can’t help but think that it’s only a matter of time before all touring aspired machines will come with a navigation system as standard – the ability to be lead through an unfamiliar city or to the front door of a friend at the other end of the country is just too useful.
K1200LT – A SMOKIN’ MOTAH!
BMW’s idea of laying their four cylinder (K designated) engines on their side and with the cylinders running front to back is certainly an interesting one. For one, it’s unique, it keeps a low centre of gravity, and it means the drive for the shaft has one less 90-degree (power-sucking) angle to turn through.
However, it also seems to have an inherent problem with burning oil to a greater or lesser degree. Our particular test bike would smoke more than a caged baboon in a government lab at start-up (although it cleaned up when warm).
Although this didn’t seem to result in any horrendous oil consumption over the test period, having your (close to) $30,000 Beemer bellow smoke when you’re about to make a cool getaway was not exactly warm and fuzzy making.