Road Test Review
Two guys riding up the coast in search of scenic, twisty roads. What better way to spend a few days? That’s just what photographer Rich Cox and I did, him aboard Rider‘s own 2000 Gold Wing GL1500 and me on a 2009 Honda GL1800.
Rich has shot many of Rider‘s scenic covers and features over the years, and our objective was to bring back some classic images for this 35th anniversary issue. Our route was vague and our destination was undetermined. Just enjoy the ride and shoot pictures along the way. Stay cheap and eat well. We did just that, and we were reluctant to come home.
Coincidentally, the Gold Wing, Rider and yours truly are all 35 years old. Technically, I was born in 1973 and the Gold Wing (as a 1975 model) and Rider were born in 1974. According to the Chinese zodiac, 1973 is Year of the Ox, with those born in that year being dependable, methodical and hardworking. And 1974 is Year of the Tiger, with traits including passion, power and generosity. Seem like fair characterizations, at least as far as the bike and magazine are concerned.
In the book Gold Wing: The First 20 Years, one word is invoked when describing the origins and early development of the GL: Passion. As Honda’s most long-lived model, the Gold Wing has been critical to the company’s success, particularly in the United States. Many Honda engineers, including Mr. Honda himself, consider the Gold Wing one of their greatest achievements. It defied convention and demonstrated new possibilities. According to author Ken Vreeke, “The Gold Wing has an enduring, endearing identity, the personal stamp of those who created it, and those who continue to carry the torch.” Through continual improvement–kaizen, in Japanese–even the slightest imperfections in the Gold Wing have been identified and addressed, cementing Honda’s reputation for refinement and reliability.
The Gold Wing created a new market, meeting pent-up demand for dependable, luxurious long-distance motorcycle touring. The GL’s comfort and reliability made it easy for more people to ride more miles. Honda’snew touring customers became an integral part of the design and development process–a consumer-driven approach that has become standard in the automotive and motorsports industries.
Not long after it was introduced, the Gold Wing developed a cultlike following, and owners came to be affectionately known as Wing Nuts. Honda listened to their concerns during the evolution of the GL line, which further galvanized their loyalty. The Gold Wing Road Riders Association, founded in 1977, now has more than 800 chapters and 80,000 members in 55 countries. Its annual gathering–the Wing Ding–drew 11,000 attendees in 2008. If you’ve ever witnessed the sheer number and diversity of Gold Wings–model years and colors, sidecar rigs and customized trikes with “wing bling” accessories that would make a rap star envious–at the Wing Ding or Honda Hoot rallies, then you’re nodding “amen, brother” with regard to the intense passion that the Gold Wing incites in its owners. Since the model’s inception three and a half decades ago, nearly 500,000 Gold Wings have been sold in the United States. That’s a lot of bikes ridden by a lot of riders who have covered countless miles in all sorts of conditions.
Inspired by Honda’s “King of Kings” M1 prototype, the first Gold Wing–the 1975 GL1000–was the second most powerful production motorcycle at the time, runner-up to the venerable Kawasaki Z-1. That first GL set a precedent for power. And with a flat-four engine layout and liquid cooling, it also set a precedent for smooth, quiet performance. Responding to customer demands, the second-generation Gold Wing–the 1980 GL1100–clearly established the GL’s core design objectives: roll-on power, smoothness and comfort. To the surprise of Honda engineers, touring riders were willing to sacrifice top-end power for better midrange performance. As the GL continued to evolve, peak torque rpm moved closer to cruising rpm.
The 2009 Gold Wing’s 1,832cc flat-six engine, which is unchanged from its 2001 inception, has a 74mm bore and 71mm stroke, 9.8:1 compression ratio, SOHC and two valves per cylinder. Six horizontally opposed cylinders have perfect primary and secondary balance, and rubber mounting mutes higher-order unpleasantness. Borrowing from Honda’s automotive technology, very well regimented fuel/air mixture and temperature and ignition timing further contribute to the motor’s unwavering civility. State-of-the-art programmed fuel injection and computer-controlled digital ignition with 3D mapping round out one very large Swiss watch of a motor.
Gracefully but readily, the GL1800 generates 101 horsepower and 106 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheel (according to the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno). Torque climbs above 90 lb-ft at 2,100 rpm and exceeds 100 lb-ft at 3,200 rpm–the meat of the powerband at today’s highway cruising speeds. The torque curve arcs smoothly up to its peak at 4,100 rpm and then coasts downhill, whereas horsepower climbs like a rollercoaster to its peak 700 rpm shy of redline. These are power characteristics of an engine that has progressed steadily over time with sniperlike focus on its targets of roll-on power and smoothness. The Gold Wing has a surprising amount of get-up-and-go for a 933-pound motorcycle. Pull away from a stop like a sportbike (well, almost), hit the gas to pass, embarrass squids in the twisties–and do it all with the stereo cranked up to 11 and the grip and seat heaters on MAX.
Although the GL1800 has elicited widespread praise for impressive speed and agility, the fifth-generation Gold Wing simply did what GLs have been doing all along: surpassing the model’s own standards for excellence. From the beginning, with its underseat fuel tank and low, flat-cylinder engine, the Gold Wing has benefitted from mass centralization–a design principle that has become de rigueur more than three decades later. The third-generation Gold Wing–the 1984 GL1200–marked the beginning of a continuous effort to make the GL handle as if it were hundreds of pounds lighter than it actually was.
From its rigid, lightweight twin-spar frame to its single-sided swingarm and gorilla-grip brakes, the 2009 Honda Gold Wing’s entire chassis and suspension package handles its prodigious power and weight remarkably well, particularly at low speeds. The five-speed overdrive transmission shifts effortlessly and the shaft final drive is free of jacking. With 45mm stanchions and 5.5 inches of travel, the nonadjustable cartridge fork’s anti-dive system increases compression damping under braking. The Pro-Arm single-sided swingarm has a Pro-Link single shock with 4.1 inches of travel and computer-controlled spring-preload adjustment with two memory presets. Dual full-floating 296mm front discs and a single 316mm rear disc are each squeezed by three-piston calipers and employ Honda’s Combined Braking System. ABS works flawlessly, without pulsing or kickback.
Although cornering clearance is limited to 40 degrees of lean, spirited riders can push the Gold Wing to its limits with confidence, the only price being beveled footpegs and scuffs on the belly pan (sorry, Honda). While the GL1800 is capable of hot-rod performance, that’s not how its power is typically used. Instead, two-up touring riders rely on the Gold Wing’s wellspring of grunt to carry them and a full load of gear over peaks and through valleys from sea to shining sea. Even towing trailers or propelling heavier trikes, the GL1800 punches through headwinds and makes quick work of uphill passes around RVs and cement trucks.
Just as certain brand names–Coke, Kleenex, Gatorade–have become synonymous with their products, “Gold Wing” represents luxury motorcycle touring. For each of these brands, a market was created where none previously existed. Although competing models were introduced by Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha, none took a bite out of Honda’s dominant market share. Today, the only real competitors for the Gold Wing are the BMW K1200LT and Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide, but these three bikes appeal to market segments that are as distinct as their countries of origin.
With plush, ride-all-day seats, seven storage compartments (six on Airbag models), 147 liters of storage space, 405 pounds of carrying capacity and a list of features and options that includes an airbag, premium audio system, satellite radio, navigation system, tire pressure monitoring system and heated comfort package, the Gold Wing is first-class luxury on two wheels. There is even a key ring remote to lock/unlock the storage compartments, pop the rear trunk and “call” the bike by honking the horn and flashing the lights. You can really go for the gold with dozens of dealer-installed accessories, from running lights to a CD changer.
During this test, I introduced my girlfriend Carrie to the wonderful world of motorcycling. She was quickly put at ease by the comfortable, reassuring passenger seat and back rest. We plugged in Carrie’s iPod and listened to her playlists as we rode through Santa Barbara’s wine country. When we encountered snow on Pine Mountain Summit, we cranked up the seat heaters. However, even set on MAX, the seat and grip heaters didn’t get hot enough. And, as we’ve pointed out before (see Rider, February 2006), small or average-sized passengers sit too far back from the rider to enjoy the full benefits of the windscreen and fairing. Nonetheless, with her first ride aboard the most luxurious of touring motorcycles, Carrie will be disappointed with the more Spartan amenities of other bikes.
The base-model Gold Wing is called Audio Comfort ($20,999), which includes six-speaker audio with an 80-watts-per-channel external amplifier, comfort package (heated seats and grips, passenger backrest and foot-level warm-air ducts) and–new for 2009–a tire pressure monitoring system. For an additional $3,200, the Audio Comfort Navi XM model adds an integrated navigation system and–also new for 2009–XM satellite radio. Pony up another $1,100 for ABS and finally, for the top-of-the-line model we tested, another $1,200 for an airbag. Pick an options package that satisfies your needs and then choose a color that suits your personality: Candy Black Cherry (shown), Pearl Yellow, Metallic Silver, Deep Blue Metallic or Metallic Titanium.
The new tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), standard on all models, alerts the rider to underinflated tires. Not intended as a substitute for regularly checking tire pressure, the TPMS is designed to help riders avoid catastrophe should tires lose pressure while riding. An amber light on the dash begins to flash if tire pressure falls 10-20 percent below recommended levels (36 psi front, 41 psi rear), and the light stays on if tire pressure falls more than 20 percent below normal. The light pattern should be reversed–steady for 10-20 percent too low and flashing for more than 20 percent too low–since a flashing light is more likely to get your attention. Adding an alarm would be even more effective. The pressure monitors in both wheels run on batteries that are good for 10 years, and dealers can electronically test the system during tire changes.
Based on the system used in the Honda Accord, the Gold Wing’s satellite-linked navigation package works well, but has some rather awkward features. First, you must wait 10 seconds for a liability screen to come on before you can program the system. Second, the full-color display, which is located front-and-center and is easy to read, is controlled by buttons on the lower-right side of the fairing. Being an addicted iPhone user, I desperately wanted a touch-screen display (the system can only be programmed when the bike is parked, so gloved fingers would not be an issue). Repeatedly punching buttons to move around a keyboard is time consuming. And since I can’t watch the screen and my finger at the same time, I would often hit the wrong button and have to start over. Admittedly, I’m an impatient person, but the user interface could be made easier to use. Once I got my route programmed, I found the displays and voice commands to be elegant and helpful, both of which integrate well with the audio system.
The other new feature for 2009, and the one that I got absolutely hooked on, is XM satellite radio. Sirius and XM merged in the summer of 2008, so listeners now have an even wider range of channels to choose from. Depending on my mood, I’d groove to ’80s hits, rock out to heavy metal or laugh at comedy routines. Gold Wing buyers who select a model with Navi XM receive a free 90-day trial, but must pay a monthly subscription fee thereafter. Subscribing to NavTraffic and NavWeather services provides access to real-time traffic and weather updates. Traffic and weather maps can be displayed on the navigation screen, and when the Navi system is in use audio prompts alert you to traffic delays or inclement weather. However, I was already slowing down for brake lights or was being rained on when the automated voice started to warn me.
Introduced in 2006, the airbag is an option that only Honda offers, and only on the Gold Wing. It is designed to deploy in a frontal impact, either with a vehicle or an object. As with an automotive airbag, the purpose is to safely slow down the rider when he or she is pitched forward upon impact and thus (hopefully) reduce the risk or severity of injuries or death. It is not designed to protect the passenger, but if it slows down the rider, then it could very well slow down the passenger behind the rider. Mercifully, all of this is just theoretical to us; we’re willing to take Honda’s word for it.
Given all of these features–bells-‘n’-whistles, so to speak–getting familiar with the buttons, controls and functions takes practice. But the Gold Wing comes with a detailed owner’s manual and a user-friendly, fold-out “getting started” guide. Soon I became adept at changing channels on the satellite radio, toggling through various display options and using the navigation system. The Gold Wing makes it comfortable and easy to burn miles, exactly what you would expect from the luxury touring market leader. After more than 2,000 miles on the 2009 Gold Wing in wind, rain, fog, heat and cold and on pavement that ranged from brand-new to crumbling, we both passed the test. The GL1800 was rock-solid, exciting and oh-so comfortable, and I became a believer. I’m now a Wing Nut wannabe.
With 35 years of evolution under its belt, the Gold Wing represents the pinnacle of high-class motorcycle touring. Some bikes are faster or more utilitarian, but none bring together such a vast array of well-designed, well-integrated features. Since the GL1800 was introduced in 2001, features have been added (airbag, navigation system, satellite radio, etc.) but the bike has not been changed mechanically or structurally. Thirteen years elapsed between the introduction of the GL1500 and the GL1800, so perhaps Honda is planning a major revision to coincide with its 40th anniversary in 2014. The most obvious change would be a larger engine with more power, as well as updated styling. Items on my wish list would include push-button height adjustment for the windscreen, a gear-position indicator, a touch-screen navigation display and more load capacity. Given Honda’s track record with the Gold Wing, one thing is certain: The next GL will surpass its own golden standards.