What if… you could walk into a Honda dealership and buy a brand-new Honda from fifteen years ago or thereabouts? Would you buy a sixth-generation Accord, all 2,950 sensibly-sized pounds of it? What about one of those Year 2000 Civic Si coupes, the ones that are worth almost as much with 200,000 miles on them as they were when they sat on the showroom floor? How much would you pay to travel into the increasingly distant past of Japan’s most enthusiast-oriented, detail-driven automaker?
Well, here’s the good news: you can walk into a Honda dealership tomorrow and buy a fifteen-year-old design with just the barest minimum of minor cosmetic updates to separate the “new” model from the one you could have gotten back in ’01. Here’s the bad news: it’s a motorcycle. Here’s the worse news: it’s a Gold Wing. Here’s the worst news of all: if there has ever been a Honda that truly needed to be revamped into compliance with the state of the art elsewhere in the industry, it would be this one.
Last week I wrote about “darksiding”, particularly as it relates to heavy touring motorcycles like the Honda Gold Wing. But, I was hiding a rather dark secret of my own: I’ve never so much as ridden a Gold Wing across a parking lot. That doesn’t mean I have no experience with “road sofas”. To the contrary, I’ve ridden thousands of miles over the past twenty years on “full dressers” from Harley-Davidson, BMW, Victory, and Indian. Just a few months ago, in fact, I took a 2017 Indian Chieftain “bagger” from Portland to Denver via Jackson Hole and Sturgis in four days, covering as much as 650 miles in a single day and dealing with everything from gale-force thunderstorms to 110-degree baking sun.
Of course, by the standards of the authentic “Iron Butt” touring motorcyclists out there, that’s training-wheels stuff at best. The riders who regularly cover 50,000 or more miles per year exist in a completely different world from that of the weekend tourist or casual traveler, and those riders, as a whole, prefer the Gold Wing to anything else out there. After all, Honda virtually invented the durable touring bike with the original ‘Wing in 1975, and it delivered the death blow to the Japanese competition decades ago with the boxer-six GL1500.
The problem, if there is one, is this: There hasn’t been a substantial update to the Gold Wing since the current-generation bike appeared in 2001. Five years ago, Honda updated the fairings and the electronics a bit when it moved production from Marysville, Ohio back to Japan, but it would take a practiced eye to tell the difference between a 2001 model and the 2016s in the showroom today.
I rented a 2015 Gold Wing in Digital Silver from the Orlando, FL Eaglerider this past Sunday morning, using a few of my “Club Eaglerider” credits. (If you want to know more about Club Eaglerider, you can find out on my site.) There are four different trim levels of the Wing available; mine was the $23,999 base model. Now, allow me to give you a list of all the things you don’t get on the $23,999 Gold Wing that you do get on the frightfully vintage-looking Indian Roadmaster, which is currently my favorite touring motorcycle:
- Bluetooth integration. The Gold Wing doesn’t have Bluetooth available in any trim level.
- Touchscreen navigation. Nav is an option on the Wing â€”Â but it’s not good.
- Tire pressure information beyond an idiot light.
- Electrically adjustable windscreen;
- Or any kind of windscreen adjustment at all.
- Distance to empty or any advanced trip computer functions.
- Anti-lock brakes! You’ll need to spend at least $28,999 for an ABS-equipped Gold Wing.
- USB power
- And probably a bunch of other stuff that I just haven’t realized isn’t there yet.
If you didn’t know that the GL1800 was a turn-of-the-century Honda product, a five-second look at the hot mess of Space:1999-font buttons and sliders scattered around the bike would clue you in. And while I’m sure that the various controls on the Wing are durable, they sure don’t look expensive â€”Â which is troubling in a motorcycle that sells for more than an Accord EX-L once you add ABS.
The dashboard, too, is ancient history and immediately familiar to anybody who has driven a fifth-gen Accord. Unlike in the aforementioned Accord, however, this instrument panel is especially useless because all of the idiot lights wash out in direct sunlight. This is a problem in a motorcycle, because you have your neutral indicator on the instrument panel and the TPS warning, which carries rather more immediate importance than it would in a four-wheeled “cage”, is also on there.
Okay. Enough bitching. Let’s ride the thing. My test loop carried me about 225 miles from Orlando to Tampa, from there to Clearwater Beach, and then back to Orlando. The first thing you notice about the Wing is that it’s not really that difficult to maneuver by yourself. Perhaps alone among motorcycles, the big Honda offers a sort of rudimentary reverse gear that uses the starter to spin the transmission backwards, but you probably won’t need that unless you’ve made a serious mistake parking the bike. Unlike the American “dressers”, the Wing enforces traditional motorcycle sit-up-and-beg seat positioning. There is plenty of lower back support, but this doesn’t really matter because most experienced riders will immediately swap in their own aftermarket seats.
The Wing is powered by a boxer six that develops about 100 horsepower. Coupled to a five (yes, five!!)-speed transmission, it’s good for about a 12.2-second quarter mile at 120 miles per hour, according to the various magazines. That’s pretty serious acceleration in the automotive world â€”Â think Corvette Z51 or previous-generation M3 Lime Rock Edition â€”Â but for bikes it’s pretty tame stuff. My ZX-14R makes more than twice the power while weighing just a bit more than half as much, and can take nearly three seconds off the Honda’s quarter-mile. Still, if the Wing is your first bike, you’ll be amazed at the way it leaps forward under full throttle.
Less amazing: the sound of the machine. With open pipes, I think the Honda would probably sound like a feisty air-cooled Porsche, but the standard-equipment exhaust absolutely strangles anything like music or even noise from the proceedings, leaving only the whirring sound of the transmission to keep a rider company. It’s almost eerie how quiet the bike is; if you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was a hybrid.
Almost immediately, I had to face the fact that I don’t fit the Gold Wing as it’s delivered. The windscreen is too low, sending a hideous, eyeball-shaking buffeting right into my helmet. My CB1100, which has no windscreen at all, is easier on me. But that’s something you’d fix in the aftermarket. Just as problematic: the seat is too low for me to be comfortable on the pegs. Compared to an Indian or Harley, this bike is a penalty box for me.
I enlisted Mrs. Baruth to be my passenger for the trip. She hated the way the Gold Wing put her almost five inches higher than me, fully into the wind and providing very little sense of security â€”Â and I hated it too, because it meant that any motion on her part had a remarkable amount of affect on the direction that the Honda was pointing. I outweigh her by something like a hundred pounds, and I am very used to having a passenger on motorcycles ranging from a CB550 to a Softail, but when she shifted in the Wing’s back seat the whole bike wobbled. She just had too much leverage. Given how often I see men on Gold Wings whose female passengers outweigh them by a considerable amount instead of the other way ’round, I have to wonder how they don’t die in a ball of flame ten minutes or less after getting on the freeway.
On the positive side of the ledger, the Honda has all of the American competition beat for crosswind resistance. I found myself cruising at 85-90 in the kind of wind pressure that would have had me dropping to 65 or less with a Roadmaster. It’s at least as good in this respect as the K1600 BMW, maybe better. And the brakes, while requiring a firm hand for hard stops, are more than adequate to the task.
Our trip back from the beach put us into heavy Tampa traffic, thickly populated with the sort of insane Florida morons who will swerve randomly across three or more lanes without checking their mirrors or indeed offering any warning whatsoever. This was where I lost much of what little affection I had for the Wing. It’s too quiet and too anonymous, particularly in that “Digital Silver”, to prevent anybody from simply moving into your lane. And it’s too slow-witted to get itself out of trouble, particularly in top gear. I would have felt a hundred times safer on my big green Kawasaki; it can flick from lane to lane and accelerate from 60 to 120 in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. With this big Honda you just clamp the brakes and pray the idiot behind you is paying attention.
By the time you read this, I’ll have returned the Gold Wing to Eaglerider and probably boarded a plane for home. I’m glad that I took the time to get acquainted with what is probably the archetype of touring motorcycles, but I won’t be renting one again. The Roadmaster and Electra Glide make more sense for me; they’re more comfortable, almost as quick, and considerably more involving to ride. On the other side of the market, the BMW K1600GT is an absolute rocketship, it out-handles anything short of a proper sportbike, and it offers a full suite of electronic safety features to go with its outstanding weather protection.
None of that makes much difference to the Honda faithful. They value durability and predictability above all, and in those categories no Bavarian dilettante or American showboat can touch the big boxer Wing. If you needed to put 100,000 trouble-free miles on a bike, this is the one you would pick. Yet I can’t help thinking that Honda’s refusal to update its flagship is both short-sighted and cowardly.
This is a machine that would benefit hugely from virtually every technical toy in the company’s toolbox. As a hybrid dual-clutcher with double touchscreens and laser cruise control, it would be untouchable. And it would also be an explicit statement of Honda’s ability to make technology work in the long run. The original 1975 Gold Wing was just such a vehicle. This 40th Anniversary model may carry its name, but the spirit of the thing â€”Â the ghost in the machine â€”Â got lost somewhere on those endless roads, ten years or more long gone.