Road Test Review
Last year, more new touring motorcycles were sold than bikes in any other individual street bike category, even cruisers. Touring includes luxury performers such as the Honda Gold Wing, BMW K 1600 GTL and the like, but the vast majority of those top-selling machines were “baggers,” large V-twin touring cruisers with factory hard bags and windshields, or fairings with windscreens. And the vast majority of those baggers were—you guessed it—Harley-Davidsons, like Electra Glides, Street Glides and Road Glides. Since the touring category continues to grow, most of the Japanese manufacturers and Victory compete with Harley head-on for a bite of that plump peach with their own large V-twin baggers, bikes like the Vaquero, Nomad, Voyager, Roadliner and Cross Country. Makes you want to saddle-up and hit Route 66 just reading those names, huh?
Oddly, for some time now, Honda hasn’t offered a big V-twin bagger, or even a cruiser larger than 1,300cc for that matter. Its Shadow VTX1800 was discontinued after 2008 in the middle of the economic meltdown, so perhaps engineering a competitive V-twin replacement for the VTX was delayed. You can bet Honda wants some of that bagger business right now, though. So, if you can’t whip-up a cookie-cutter bike and steal some existing market share, what’s the next best thing? Expand the market in your direction, with something that attracts with its looks but breaks from the norm in every other way.
Enter the 2013 Honda F6B. Sure, it started life as a Gold Wing GL1800—that’s how the economics were made to work. Honda’s done it before with a cruiser based on the GL1500, the Valkyrie F6C (F6C = Flat-Six Cruiser; F6B = Flat-Six Bagger? Honda isn’t saying). This time, the transformation is subtler, simpler and perhaps more effective. In place of the Wing’s top trunk is a sleek rear cowl between the saddlebags, which gives them a cleaner look despite being unchanged. A slicker, lower gunfighter seat replaces the Wing’s tufted throne, and that shorty windscreen only needs tinting and some skulls to complete the look. Some trim has been axed, most of the chrome and silver bits have been given the black satin treatment, and the Wing’s mirror housings were flipped over to hunker them down along with the rest of the F6B. New muffler tips, a shorty antenna and passenger footpegs instead of floorboards complete the bagger transformation.
While the stylists slammed and smoothed, in the cruiser tradition of less is more, the engineers took stuff off. Reverse, cruise control, windscreen adjusters, foot warmers—all history. Navi, integrated CB controls, heated seats—fuggedaboutit. There’s a Deluxe model for $20,999, like our test bike, that adds heated grips, a stubby passenger backrest, centerstand and self-canceling turn signals, but leaving all of this stuff in the bin brings the standard F6B’s price down to $19,999, about $4,000 less than the standard Wing. Just as importantly, it shaves 62 pounds and gets the F6B’s base weight down to 842 fully fueled.
As they say, if you want to add speed, add lightness. Crack the throttle and the difference between the F6B and the potato-potato bagger pack hits you in the chest like a fire hose. While the entire liquid-cooled, 1,832cc opposed flat-six engine, transmission and shaft final drive are unchanged, we’re already talking 100.9 horsepower and 105.7 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheel of the Gold Wing (see Rider, August 2011). The F6B’s added lightness makes what is essentially a really big sportbike even more responsive. It leaps from a stop, accelerates with a flat-six snarl and is capable of quick bursts for passing, even in its overdrive top fifth gear, and warp speed on the highway. Instead of lumbering and rumbling, the power delivery is smooth and fast, like turning up a dimmer switch on a booster rocket. I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like with a little (just a little, mind you) more tone from a set of aftermarket mufflers. Of course, the more you twist the loud handle, the further the fuel economy goes out the window. We averaged 34.8 mpg from 86 PON fuel for a range of 230 miles from the bike’s 6.6-gallon tank.
Less weight brings more benefits in the handling department, too. After riding the F6B for several hours on twisting back roads and then climbing onto a Gold Wing for comparison, it felt as though a passenger had climbed on with me, or that the tires were underinflated. The F6B’s c.g. is lower too, so it steers noticeably lighter and transitions from side-to-side quicker, without the delayed wiggle the Wing’s top trunk can input into the steering. Though it does begin to drag its footpegs just as early as the Wing when you really put the cane to it, thanks to that sport-derived twin-spar aluminum frame and firmer valving in the suspension, there are very few baggers that can claim comparable cornering ability. The F6B also stops quicker and harder with the same unified triple disc brakes (ABS is not available on this model), enough that I found myself using just the front brake much of the time. And I found the bike’s lower seat and nimble, low-speed handling make reverse mostly unnecessary.
On the highway, the F6B cruises as smoothly as the Wing. Though the shorty windscreen allows a lot of noisy wind to hit you at helmet level, it really opens up the cockpit, and curiously there’s no buffeting. In addition to being lower, the gunfighter seat also allows the rider to move farther back than on the Wing, so the reach to the grips is comfortable and natural. While the seat itself is thinner, overall I found the seating position more comfortable than the Wing, and a taller windscreen is available to complete it for touring. Changing the rear shock’s spring preload for varying loads is done with a remote knob under the right side cover, but the suspension is firm enough you’ll rarely find it necessary. Riders coming from a Gold Wing may in fact find the ride a little harsh, especially over sharp-edged bumps.
With the exception of the top trunk, the F6B’s storage is the same as the Wing’s, so there’s a good-sized locking compartment in the center console (the location of the air bag on that Gold Wing model), a left fairing pocket and the two saddlebags. The bags unlock using the ignition key in a tail slot and open with levers under the grabrails. Unlike the Wing, they can’t be left unlocked and the key removed, a minor annoyance that resulted in my sometimes walking away with the key still in the tail. The bags are large, and with a duffel on the optional luggage rack on our test bike there was enough storage for a two-up weekend getaway.
I did miss having cruise control at times, but incorporating it on a bike like the F6B (and Gold Wing) that don’t yet have throttle-by-wire adds weight, complexity and cost. Mirrors are automotivelike in clarity and function, and the analog and LCD instrument package has been styled up to suit the F6B. It retains the Gold Wing’s premium sound system with AM/FM/WB/AUX/USB input that is iPod/MP3 ready and comes with a rider’s headset jack; the passenger’s is optional. We wish Honda would incorporate Bluetooth headset connectivity, but in the meantime just get a set of wired helmet headsets and your audio and intercom needs will be fully met. The speakers sound great at lower speeds, but everything except vocals blow away in the wind on the highway.
Getting the F6B Deluxe adds a centerstand (vital for touring and fixing flats); self-canceling turn signals; toasty five-level heated grips and a passenger backrest. The latter adds a little lumbar support to the passenger’s extremely roomy seat and some confidence they aren’t going to fly off the back when you nail the throttle. Other options on our test machine included driving lights (round in the Wing’s rectangular holes for a more traditional look that matches the headlights—they look good, but only come on with the low beam), chrome handlebar ends and a chrome sidestand. Other accessories, like covers, bag liners and organizers are available, too. We’d like to see the mufflers finished in flat black rather than chrome, but Honda says that so far it hasn’t been able to do so to its satisfaction. Or it figures, why bother, most people are going to replace them with something throatier anyway.
In repurposing the Gold Wing for the touring cruiser crowd once again, this time without the Valkyrie moniker but perhaps even more successfully, Honda has built a performance machine that may just give the GL a whole new audience. In red or black, it’s a big, bad bagger, but it’s not your Grandpa’s bagger. Or Gold Wing.