In the Beginning, there was my motorcycle.
Right after I learned to ride it, I went places.
Places like New Mexico and Arizona, Alabama, Kentucky, The Carolinas and Tennessee. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and The Trans-Canada Highway.
From my home in Maryland, any of these places are more than a few tank-to-tank rides.
When I have to travel for work, if the destination is less than 1000 miles from home I will usually find ways to ride, rather than fly.
I’m a motorcycle traveler, because I know that out there, somewhere between your 13th hour and your third day in the saddle, everything you know and everything you believe will suddenly illuminate and align, and you will attain enlightenment and inner peace.
Riders that feel the way I do are a weird brother- and sisterhood – the monks and sisters of the meditative road.
It’s for this kind of rider that Honda designed the new Gold Wing.
My previous exposure to Gold Wings had been extremely limited. A riding friend asked me to evaluate a vintage ‘Wing that had been listed for sale in my neighborhood. The bike turned out to be a perfectly maintained, completely original 1976 GL1000.
With the original GL, Honda simply set out to build the best motorcycle ever built, and started out with some of the same design assumptions that helped to create my beloved air-cooled BMW boxer. Those assumptions were so close that the original Gold Wing prototype had actually used many of the components from my motorcycle – pretty much everything rearward of the Honda M1’s bell housing was a BMW /5 component – transmission, rear subframe, shaft final drive, rear wheel (with it’s dead-giveaway chrome hubcap), saddle and exhaust.
So it’s no surprise that my favorite motorcycle and the newly born Gold Wing came to the road with very same qualities in mind – weight carried low and forward in the frame, low roll moment, stable frames and long, long legs.
The GL I’d been asked to check out was perfect – complete service records back to delivery, and period correct matching Vetter Windjammer and cases. The bike was red – the Vetters were bright white – all the maintenance had been done – and the bike appeared to run well. I’d have no problem telling my friend he could have confidence buying this old motorcycle. When the seller found out I’d never ridden a Gold Wing though, he insisted that I ride the motorcycle, even though I explained (a few times) that I didn’t intend to buy it.
Would you have told him no? Didn’t think so.
I hadn’t ridden the GL more than 50 yards before I was completely comfortable on it – weight low, sit up riding position, sure-footed handling, and the incredibly broad spread of big drive torque. On the mountain roads around Jefferson – Fry and Mountville Roads – that original ‘Wing carved as well as many 30 years newer motorcycles I’d ridden. The indelible impression I had of the bike was that its engine was so well balanced and so refined that it almost disappeared in use. I’ll admit that my personal tastes might have preferred a different character for my motor, but there was no question that the original GL was an engineering masterpiece, and one of the short list of truly classic motorcycles.
Honda’s customers felt the same, and had demonstrated what they wanted from their Gold Wings. The Bike that Honda delivered in 1975 as a 4 cylinder, 1000cc, 650 lb. naked motorcycle were dressed with Vetter fairings and luggage and taken to the long road. Honda got that message, loud and clear – by 1980, the GL came with factory fairing and cases. Successive ‘Wings got bigger, heavier, and more complex – eventually growing to 6 cylinders and 1800 ccs – I believe one Aspencade model even featured an onboard air compressor.
As the GL grew, though, it put distance on the agility and elemental quality that the original GL1000 had delivered.
And Honda got that message too.
So they decided to do what they have always done. Which is to design something better.
Standing in front of the new Gold Wing, I get a very clear visual signal. The Gold Wing has always been Honda’s flagship touring motorcycle. The now-discontinued ST1300 was their Sport Touring bike. The new GL1800 looks like the love-child of the Old GL and the ST1300 – the new bike is smaller, narrower, more angular – the prominence of the engine, the shape of the shield, fairing, headlamps and cockpit combine to create the impression that the two motorcycles’ DNA had somehow been combined. And to anyone with a lot of ground to cover in one big hurry it’s hard to understand how that could be anything but a good thing.
The engine of the new ‘Wing is where everything starts. The 1833 cc motor is a water-cooled, boxer 6 cylinder of square design – with a 73mm bore and a 73 mm stroke – with a single overhead cam and four valves per cylinder. The engine uses coil on cap ignition and a single, shared 50mm throttle body to produce tuned intake behavior and fuel efficiency. Every dimension of the engine has been optimized during the new design to reduce dimensions and mass and optimize mass centralization. Features like a combined starter/generator illustrate the focus on mass reduction.
The Gold Wing’s engine design has a different set of requirements than that of many motorcycle motors. The emphasis is on torque, and maintaining big torque numbers across the entire operating range, and this GL delivers on that request – the ‘torque curve’ for this bike is more like a ‘torque flat’ — delivering over 100 pound feet from under 1000 rpm to its 6000 rpm redline. On the road, the engine delivers solid punch everywhere, although there is no power step at the top of the rev band.
The bike’s suspension and running gear have also been thoroughly redesigned. For the front suspension, Honda has included a Hossack-type double wishbone – with a central, electrically adjustable shock absorber – with rotation of the fork controlled by a set of tie rods that link bank to the motorcycle’s steering bridge. This design permits the movement of the front wheel to be constrained to a vertical axis – compared to a telescopic fork, which allows the wheel to move simultaneously up and to the rear – and allows the engine to be moved further forward in the frame for handling advantages. The complete absence of stiction in the system’s linkages allow for astounding levels of compliance as road imperfections are encountered – plus it’s also fun to watch the movement of the fork and linkages though their fairing cutouts inside the bike’s cockpit. Rear suspension can be automatically adjusted for preload from the cockpit controls when not in motion.
Braking is handled by Honda’s proprietary linked ABS braking system. 320 mm twin front disks are gripped by a six piston set of calipers, and a 312 mm rear disk is gripped by a three piston unit. The center pistons in each caliper are cross plumbed to the system at the other end of the bike so that activation of the front lever pressurizes the outer four pistons in the front brakes and the center piston in the rears – while use of the rear brake pedal works the outer two pistons in the rear and the center pistons in the fronts. Braking bias – front to rear – is variable and managed electronically. The system is a dramatic improvement over prior versions I have ridden – at speed, operation is transparent and trail braking to set up corner entries using only the rear pedal is now possible again. Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) models get a second, cable-operated rear caliper that serves as a parking brake, since the DCT design precludes sticking the bike in gear to prevent it rolling away.
The Gold Wing’s aerodynamics are state-of-the-art. The narrow fairing features an electrically adjustable windscreen – controlled from a switch on the left handlebar cluster. Honda’s use of fluid dynamics software and the wind tunnel are on clear display here – the shapes of the rearview mirrors and the structures that connect them to the fairing are clearly designed to control vortices coming off the edge of the screen, and it clearly works. Many touring fairings make use of either width or height to keep the rider’s head in clear air at speed – sometimes forcing the pilot to look through the screen. The GL1800’s, in contrast, provides clean air around the rider’s head when the screen is lowered below the pilot’s sightline – this is aerodynamic magic of the finest kind.
Other functional touches abound. The bike has heated grips and saddles, and a perfect glovebox in the tank top. The all LED headlamp arrays look suspiciously like their cousins from the new Acura automobiles – with each lamp – left and right — having 5 LED projectors. Absolutely no one will be looking for accessory driving lights for this motorcycle. Honda gets 6 thumbs up for the horn – which has the same punch in the gut breathtaking impact of the one on the Amtrak Acela. There is a full complement of Infotainment functions accessed through an LED screen in the center of the instrument panel – NAV/GPS, trip computer, Bluetooth phone/music integration, Apple Car Play, and detailed performance and status displays. The bike has Electronic Cruise Control and an integrated set of ride modes which control pre-set combinations of power output, traction control, linked braking front/rear bias, suspension valving and transmission shift points.
While there are less of them than there were on the previous model, there are still a great many buttons on the handlebar clusters and on the bike’s instrument panel. You will be needing some acclimation time.
The GL’s built in luggage is perhaps the one area where progress is a little tougher to identify. All three cases have electromagnetic latches, and all of mine kept throwing false positive ‘Bag Open’ messages, forcing me to dismount and latch the case again. Overall, the bike’s luggage – like every other part of this motorcycle — has been optimized for drag – pulled in tight to the rear wheel and streamlined to an extent never before envisioned. Even the top surface of the top case has been teardropped – obviously the voice of the wind tunnel, again speaking loud. The GL has two 30 liter side cases and a 50 liter top case for a total of 110 liters total capacity. This is a reduction of 30 liters capacity from the old bike – and while in principle, the reduction in mass and the improvements in aerodynamic efficiency make engineering sense, in practice, the folks that buy motorcycles like this are going to find it less functional.
Things that fit in every other hard case I have ever used – my overnighter shoulder bag, a helmet – will not fit inside the GL’s cases. All three cases have unusual interior shapes that seem to further limit their utility. If you buy this bike you’re absolutely going to need Honda’s accessory bag liners to carry anything. People who commute or travel for work on their motorcycle – I mean, this is a really nice motorcycle – you’d ride it to work if you could – won’t be able to store their riding gear in the bike while working. People who really pack up and live off their motorcycle – carrying camping gear, bedroll – will look at Honda’s stylish top case-mounted accessory luggage rack and laugh, or maybe cry, depending. I can understand that Honda might want their target market to travel with just a credit card and their iPhone, but there’s also lots of potential riders that want to be self-sufficient, and need to take stuff with them when they go.
Our test unit also had Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT), which is a 7 speed, electronically controlled gearbox – a gearbox which can be operated either as an automatic controlled by the computer, or manually by the rider via a set of paddle shifters located again, on that busy left bar cluster. The DCT brings with it a slow speed forward and reverse system called ‘walking mode’ – which sounds kind of foofy until the first time you have to park the bike in tight confines and it makes child’s play of it.
“So ride the bike already, willya?”
The Gold Wing riding experience is spookily space age right from the get go. As you approach the motorcycle with the key fob in your pocket, the bike’s central control switch will start to glow – cycling its LED brighter and darker – to indicate it has detected your presence. Rotate the main switch once to the right, and the electronic steering stem lock unlocks – rotate it a second time and the ‘Wing’s ignition turns on. When the systems finish booting, operate the ‘run/don’t run’ switch on the right bar to the run position, and the bike will start itself. The default run mode is ‘Tour’ mode with the DCT set to ‘Automatic’.
At idle, the engine sounds busy and purposeful. If it sounds like there is a lot going on down there – with fuel pump whine, injector noise, and a whistling exhaust note at idle, six cylinders, overhead cams, and 24 valves – it’s because there IS a lot going on down there. Press the ‘Neutral/Drive’ switch on the right bar – which produces a nice solid sounding ‘thunk’ as the primary clutch engages – and either leave it in ‘Automatic’ or press the ‘Auto/Manual’ selector switch to select manual mode, where you make the shift decisions.
Roll the throttle open, the clutch smoothly engages, and you’re riding away, wondering what you’re going to ever learn to do with “The Hand Formerly Known As Your Clutch Hand”. In ‘Tour’ mode, the motorcycle short shifts, sometimes shifting as high as 5th gear before 40 mph. Low speed handling is breezily perfect – in my first few moments of acclimation I decided to take a few loops in a parking lot before jumping out into suburban Baltimore traffic – and was quickly giggling in my helmet at how easily the bike handled low speed circles and figure eights – the bike’s 29 in saddle height, low center of gravity and predicable clutch application quickly took all the customary drama out of the “Big Bike /Low Speed” situation.
Once the road opens up, though, let’s face it, magic happens. This GL is as willing to turn in and as light on its feet as anything with a boxer 6 spinning beneath you could possibly be. The new front end is optimized for compliance – the steering tie rods visible in the cockpit show how hard the fork girder is working, but none of the shock and impact comes through to the rider. There were times – either on bad quality Interstate pavement or slinging pretty elevated cornering loads when I would have opted for slightly more damping, but overall the comfort and control of the system is stellar.
Once up in top gear – running 7th gear at about 2500 rpm – the boxer is just smooth enough to ride from tank-to-tank until one gets to, say, Albuquerque. Honda, to their credit, has not smoothed all of character out of this motor – like other new Hondas it does communicate its personality in a way that is only appealing. It has some growl in it where its vintage forefather had none. Those tank to tank stints will be about 225 miles or so before its time to look for a pump. Our GL averaged just over 42 mpg during the time of our test.
The Ride Modes of the motorcycle make a substantial difference in the character of the bike. ‘Tour’ mode is focused on smooth operation – with the DCT in auto mode short shifting, damping set to compliant settings and throttle response smoothed out. ‘Tour’ keeps the rpms low – so low that the engine takes on a grumbly quality at times because it’s really running a gear or two or even three too high. But switch over to ‘Sport’ mode and all that gets blown away. The RPMs come up – it feels like a full 20% of output gets unleashed there – throttle response sharpens, suspension is stiffened, and when this motor’s revs get into the happy middle you can turn the bike as you wish on the gas.
During our road tests, we ran a long stretch of US-50 coming east from Keyser, West Virginia – a road that just throws endless hills and corners at you, and after a few hundred miles of dancing with the twisting yellow line, it felt like we should turn around and run it a few more times, just for fun.
Gold Wings were always about getting there, and comfortably, if possible. The stress-free ergonomics, weather protection, and monster driveline in the new GL1800 have ensured that that part has not changed. But this motorcycle has been sharpened up, and goes harder, stops better, corners better and looks for a way to get there faster, and to have more dynamic fun doing it.
With this new Gold Wing, you’ll be looking for whole states to turn around and run again, just for fun.
Portions of this Story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 Edition of Motorcycle Times Magazine.
An extended riding impression of the new ‘Wing was published in ‘Noah’.