by Victor Wanchena
Honda’s New Face for Touring
The face of touring has begun to change. The stoogey image of touring bikes of the past is slowly being eroded by the sleek high-end touring bikes of the present. For the past 25 years the Honda’s Gold Wing has been, pardon the pun, the gold standard of touring. The wing has most certainly dominated the market in the US and has grown to be synonymous with touring. After getting a wake-up call from European and the US manufacturers, Honda has updated the Wing with a vengeance, essentially redesigning it for the ground up.
For those who want a short history lesson the Wing was born in the mid-seventies as Honda’s idea of the ultimate motorcycle. It was not intended to be a tourer. Instead, Honda wanted to build a motorcycle that would best Kawasaki and their Z1 on the street. The Wing, originally known as Project 371 inside Honda, would be the bike to restore their corporate pride. Honda never billed the bike as tourer or a sport ride, instead they wanted it to be everything to everyone. It wasn’t long before the buying public discovered that the Wing was the best suited for touring. Soon people were adding fairings and bags to their Wings. In fact so many people added those accessories that soon Honda began to offer their own dressed version of the Wing, known as the Interstate. It was all downhill from there. The displacement of the Wing’s motor was continually bumped up from the original 1000cc to the 1800cc of today and the flat four gained two cylinders to become the super smooth six.
Jump ahead a few years and we find the Wing is still king of the hill but now its design is starting to show its age. The slab sided bodywork was very reminiscent of the eighties and the Wing’s 1500cc flat six had remained virtually unchanged since being introduced in 1988. Couple that with the warning shot BMW had fired with the K1200LT and it was all too apparent to Honda what needed to be done. The engineers were given a very nasty chore. Redesign the most popular touring bike in history. They had to make the Wing as modern as possible while paying close attention to the things that made the Wing so popular in the first place. Not Fun!
The result of all that is the bike you see gracing these pages this month. The Honda GL 1800. As you can see, Honda did not simply warm over the old Wing and bore out its motor. This is a new machine from stem to stern.
Honda paid close attention to the feedback they got from customers. The biggest request was for more power. Wing riders are known to pack, carry and most notably tow all manners of things. The old Wing wasn’t under-powered, but if you found yourself in the mountains towing an over-loaded camp trailer, you would have wanted a little more motivation. The new Wing boasts a new 1823cc power plant that puts out an impressive 118 horsepower and 125 foot pounds of torque. This is a big improvement. The motor is still the silky smooth flat six but features some major refinements. Most notable is the addition of fuel injection which was long overdue. It is a closed loop system (EPA friendly) that uses two large throttle bodies to feed air to each cylinder bank. Fuel is delivered at each cylinder by a high-pressure injector. Combine that with two catalytic converters, a fully automatic choke and various sensors and you get a motor that is now more powerful and smoother than the previous Wing while maintaining the same fuel economy. Service intervals have been extended on the motor. This includes the two-valve heads, which use shim-under-bucket style lifters and have a service interval of 32,000 miles. They don’t even require the 600-mile break in service. Also the cams are now run by silent style chains that are maintenance free as well.
The transmission is still a five-speed unit, though Honda claims to have made fifth gear an overdrive. The tranny was smooth and easy to shift with no clunks or weirdness. An electronic reverse gear is still included with the Wing to aid you in backing up. I know that reverse sounds like sheer foolishness for those of you who have not experienced a bike weighing over 1300 pounds with a pair of riders and gear, but believe ole’ Vic when he says that it feels very practical when you need it. The clutch is still a wet multi-plate style and hydraulically actuated. Cooling of the motor is now handled by two radiators mounted on either side of the bike ala Honda’s RC51. And as a plus for all the accessory fanatics, you know the guys with GPS, radar detectors, cell phones and coffee makers mounted on their bikes, the Goldwing has an 1100 watt alternator.
All that new motor is hung in a perimeter style cast aluminum frame which uses the motor as a stressed member. This is another big improvement over the old frame which was still a steel cradle style frame. The swingarm is now a single sided unit that is pretty trick for a touring bike. If you are used to the old Wing the new one will feel very taught. The front forks are 45mm units and feature a new anti-dive system. Utilizing brake fluid pressure, the anti-dive system worked pretty well but wasn’t quite as nice as other front end designs that naturally eliminate brake dive from the forks. The rear suspension was soft enough to soak up most bumps without being too spongy in the corners. One of my favorite features on the Wing was the preload adjustment for the rear shock that was controllable from the cockpit. Along with a screen on the LCD display showing you the preload setting it also had two preload memory presets. Nice touch.
The brakes are a set of triple disks and are the next generation of Honda’s Linked Brake System (LBS). I am not a real fan of LBS and on an ABS equipped bike it seems like overkill. The first problem with LBS is knowing you have it. While trying to get a feel for the front and rear brakes individually I forgot about the LBS and was very dismayed by the braking performance. It wasn’t until I tried some hard stops from speed using the brakes as the engineers had intended that I remembered, LBS. Stupid is as stupid does. My real criticism of LBS systems is that they seem to be a band-aid fix to the problem of improper braking. If a rider is practiced with their brake use the LBS will have no effect on stopping distance. End of story. The ABS did work wonderfully and never felt intrusive. Anyone buying the Wing should definitely get the ABS option.
As is obvious from the pictures, the Wing got a major overhaul in the bodywork department. Honda claims to have reduced the drag coefficient by 10% on the new Wing over the old style. I believe this because the previous style of Wings had only two rounded components on the exterior, the wheels. I still hold a little venom for the boxy angular designs of the eighties that were held over for far too long. The new design is far more pleasing to my eye. The only flaw I found was that the fairing did let air get directed at the rider’s wrists. This is nice on warm days to have a stream of cool air running up your jacket but, when the weather turns sour, it becomes annoying. I also think it was foolish of Honda not to motorize the windshield adjustment. The operation of the manual adjustment is very cumbersome and can be downright difficult. On top on that Honda touted it as being better than those “complex” electrically operated systems.
The instruments and dash of the Wing will be familiar to owner of the previous generation of Wings. The layout of the gauges and switches is essentially the same but the gauges feature a high contrast white on black display. There are all the usual warning lights, a tach, speedo, fuel gauge and temp gauge. Then there is the high tech LCD display. It contains the odometer and two trip meters, all audio mode displays, open bag or trunk warnings, air temp, rear suspension setting and even the level of illumination of the gauges. Also it does what Honda terms as an “opening and closing ceremony”, which consists of the Goldwing logo and the word Goldwing appearing slowly on the screen. Personally I was thinking this little ceremony would be of a grander scale maybe involving the bike speaking to me or asking me to ride it a little longer today. For those who wish this option can be shut off.
The audio system that comes standard on the Wing is nice. It features AM, FM, Weather Band, optional CD player and CB radio, as well as an intercom. All the radio function worked well but the model I rode did not have the optional CD player or CB so I won’t say much about either except that its nice to have those options. The controls for all the audio system were laid out well and fairly intuitive. I just wish the Wing came with more than two speakers standard. The rear speakers and passenger audio controls are options that are currently available but, at a cost. Also, the CD player compartment is completely buried if you have anything in the trunk. Making CD changes a real production on the road.
So what are my impressions of Honda’s newest tourer? First off, the most obvious point needs to be made. The Wing is a large bike and I don’t mean it’s kinda big but you could get used to it. No, I mean it is as big as they come. And don’t be fooled, that weight never completely disappears. Even at highway speed you need to be deliberate in your handling of the Wing, but this is true of any bike this size. The seat is low enough that keeping both feet planted should not be a problem for most. The handling is predictably slow. Not that the Wing is ponderous, it’s just that it takes some forethought to maneuver in traffic. The conservative steering geometry does pay big dividends on the open road where it makes the Wing rock solid at speed. The stability is very nice even in heavy crosswind, i.e. any western state. Parking lot maneuvers, on the other hand, are a little trickier. The suspension did a very good job of keeping the Wing planted during corners and like 90% of all motorcycles built the Wing really needs more cornering clearance. With all that largeness you do get one fun motor. It pulls like no other from nearly off idle. A good full throttle acceleration in first or second gear will darn near pull your arms off. The absolute lack of vibration and the fun factor of all the power make it tough to behave at all times on the Wing.
The second and most notable impression I get from the Wing is that it wants to travel. If you get on you will not be content with a ride to the convenience store. Instead the Wing begs you to cross a couple state lines before calling it a day. And I suppose that’s the best compliment you can pay a touring bike. Touring is simpler and easier on a bike designed to cross great distances with ease. Honda had a hard act to follow and despite any complaints you might have against the previous generation of Goldwings they were hands down the most popular touring ride in this country. It is always hard to improve on an old favorite.
I have only two real beefs with the Gold Wing. First is that it gets horrible gas mileage. I do realize that it has an 1800cc motor churning out big horsepower, but when you’re on the open road mid thirties is not acceptable, especially when you only carry 6.6 gallons of fuel. 200 safe miles of range is far to low for a bike that is so at home in open spaces. Second, dollar for dollar the wing is not as good a value as the BMW K1200LT or the Yamaha Venture. Granted you are getting the most powerful touring bike on the planet but when you consider the features that come standard on the competition’s tourers the Wing is a bit over priced.
The folks at Moon Motors, who were kind enough to loan us the Gold Wing, did remind us that the new Wings were selling like ice cream in the dessert so you may have to move quick to get the options and color you want.
Regardless of any criticisms I may have Honda has done very well in bringing their flagship int the next millennium and I feel that this current design will bring owners happy touring for years to come.