For a month, I’d been asking myself if Honda’s overhaul of the Gold Wing (the new Gold Wing Tour) would hit the mark, or if it was going to be a dud.
Honda sent the lovely Mrs. Lem and I some plane tickets. They also picked up our tab for a hotel, grub, and a lot of Shiner Bocks, presumably so I could tell the whole world how brilliant the sixth-gen Wingy is. (And I do mean a lot of Shiner Bocks. We got iced out for a whole day, which left me with no wheels and sitting in a hotel bar.) The motorcycle is still unmistakably a Gold Wing, but so much has changed from what the fifth-gen machine offered riders for so long. (Too long, really.)
Honda cannot build a Gold Wing for every rider the way they want it. Not possible. End of story. This bike is difficult to review for the same reason it was difficult to build: The Gold Wing rider no longer fits into a pigeonhole. The Gold Wing is not a dud, but I’m not sure if it’s a home run, either.
Honda has sold about 800,000 Gold Wings since the model was introduced, most of ‘em in America. Given the cost of that bike and number of ‘em that Honda peddles, it must be fairly obvious that the big tourer is a profit center for them. It’s also their flagship two-wheeler; the bike everyone knows. However, in the media presentation they gave, recent sales appear to be modest, with 2017 looking the worst. Are touring riders aging out? Was 2017 sales data incomplete when that chart was made? Is the Gold Wing just painfully overdue for an overhaul? (Actually, those questions can be answered with an unequivocal “Yes!” But still, you get the point: something had to change.)
In their presentation, Honda had one slide that poignantly described the customers they needed to capture: existing (has a Gold Wing now), returning (had a Gold Wing in the past), and new (has not had a Gold Wing yet.) Step back for a second and consider the ages, marital status, economic means, and riding styles of these riders.
The 63-year-old married retiree on his third Wing riding coast to coast on the reg probably has a pretty different list of needs than the single 38-year-old IT guy who jams Slayer while trying to make the most of the occasional three-day-weekend. Yet both are supremely important to the current and future health of the Gee-dub.
To Honda’s credit, they didn’t halfass the redesign. For better or for worse, they scrapped a lot of functional (but old) bits and bobs, and presented a very new motorcycle. Spurgeon's first look article already broke down the basic differences between the five new Gold Wing and Gold Wing Tour models, so I'm going to focus on the major changes from the old model and first impressions of how they work.
Major changes to Gold Wing: Electronics
Gold Wings and Gold Wing Tours now use a smart key, which I found thoughtfully placed in the the fuel tank “pocket” that also housed a USB connection point. Good work, Honda.
Before even climbing onto the bikes, the first group of writers slated to ride were all milling about. Some took the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the new information/navigation/entertainment suite. I was among them. I dread this part of learning a new bike. Most of these things become pretty natural after riding a particular motorcycle for a few weeks, but I rarely have a few weeks to test ‘em. Mrs. Lem and I were not rocking a comm system, so there was no call to pair it with the bike, but I had Mrs. Lem pair up her iPhone to the Gold Wing Tour Honda had us ride. (She used Bluetooth, though, not Apple Car Play, which the Gold Wing is equipped with.) Pairing was lickety-split once we found the right menu (which did not take very long.) That said, we had to crank the radio and the phone up to max volume to hear at highway speeds. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced BT as an input having a comparatively weak signal.
One curiosity is that the menus can only be navigated from the left pod once underway. The center jog wheel and button are disabled… but the hard buttons beneath them are still active. Odd, because the wheel is probably safer and way easier to activate than the buttons; it’s larger and one does not need to see it to operate it. In a related note, the thumb buttons are rather small. Bulky gloves make navigation tricky.
Overall, the electronics suite is pretty intuitive. You do have that weird “is there a hard button for this or do I have to go through a menu?” thing, but that’s par for the course these days on technologically advanced bikes like this one. Bike info is listed in a separate LCD screen that is easy to use and gives critical info at a glance (fuel level, miles traveled and tire pressure, for example).
Later in our ride, I moved on to SiriusXM radio as an input source, which worked exactly as expected. I didn’t have time to program in presets, but that would have made switching channels a lot quicker. Navigation appeared straightforward enough. The entire display and layout makes a ton of sense: the TFT screen is beautiful and easy to see (it also appeared to handle brightness very well, visible in strong sunlight on down to dusk conditions.) Buttons in the control pods are mercifully still backlit, which is good. There are still a ton of buttons on the pods. It’s less cluttered than the older version, but only by a bit. The tacho and speedo are analog clocks. Good work again, Big Red.
Some people are going to be unhappy with the new setup, like anyone who uses a CB. CB radio is gone. It’s an accessory, but I’ma spout off a hot take: I applaud Honda for dropping it. In the days of Bluetooth comm systems, it’s a needless expenditure, and results in tumor-like buttons growing out of an already comically enormous control pod. So, my CB-loving friends, take out your wallets and buy the accessory CB kit.
Others, who don't want the dizzying spray of doodads that comes on all the bikes, will cry foul that there is no peasant-model Gold Wing. I’d argue that having multiple models to build would actually increase costs for Honda. I met a Gold Wing Owners Forum member who said, “My wife and I have been through 48 U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces, and we haven’t turned on our radio.” He didn’t seem mad about paying for it, though. I think most people are going to love the very customizable electronic system on this bike. If the remainder who don’t can adopt a similarly cheery attitude and simply not use what they don’t want (without being mad about paying for it), all the better.
The Honda flat-six changed displacement this year by one little cubic centimeter, up to 1,833. (About 111 cubic inches, for those of you comparing to Harley-Davidson and Indian.) However, the engine is now perfectly “square,” having a 73 mm bore and stroke. Honda lightened the engine and trans package by 13 pounds on the manual bikes, and eight pounds on the DCT-equipped models. Power and torque saw modest gains, but the real story here was improved fuel economy, enabling Honda to make the fuel tank smaller and the bike lighter.
The new mill is a single-cam affair, but there are four valves per cylinder. Honda’s “Unicam” system is also used in their 250 and 450 motocross bikes. The cam acts directly on the intake valves and then exhaust valves are actuated via roller rockers. The net effect? Honda gets better performance without making the engine any larger. Compression goes the same way we’ve seen in most bikes as of late: north from 9.8:1 in the old pancake to 10.5:1 in the new six.
This new engine (and the old one) use timing chains that are are more or less maintenance-free. Initial engine oil change is at 4,000 miles, followed by 8,000-mile intervals thereafter. That Unicam setup is interesting in terms of how it affects maintenance. The old valve check interval was 32,000 miles. The new Unicam is either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you want to see it. The intake valves are still clearanced with shims, but the exhaust side valves are the old-timey screw-and-locknut adjusters. This brings the check intervals down to 24,000 miles, but also decreases the chance one has to purchase shims: exhaust valves are usually the ones that lose clearance, so most owners are likely going to find the intake valves in-spec at each check, and the exhausts can be adjusted back to specifications rather quickly. I call that a blessing, personally, but high-mileage riders may not care for the decreased interval.
I found the engine peppy enough. It's not blazing fast, but it will do the job, and these bikes, like their predecessors, gather speed with alarming haste. Pilots and intenders need to remember that with fuel on board, this bike weighs 833 pounds. It takes nothing short of a miracle to move that much bike, plus passengers and gear. I was able to jam on the Wing, though our ride pace through Texas Hill Country was on the sedate side, even by Mrs. Lemmy standards. (“It seemed like we were going really slow pretty much the whole time.”) The engine doesn’t feel very different than the last iteration, and I think that’s a great thing. In some respects, riding the Wing is like riding a very small cheapy sport bike. If you can carry corner speed, stay off the brakes, and not upset the chassis, it will perform admirably. The only downsides I can see to this are the folks who want hyperactive touring speeds, in which case the BMW K 1600 GTL will likely be the bike you want instead.
The five-speed manual is gone. Replacing it are a six-speed manual and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT). Personally, I like fewer choices in my gearbox. When I’m out examining the countryside, I like to get my old sleds up into top gear and run ‘em. Especially on a bike like the Wingy that makes prodigious torque, more gears just means more shifting. That said, I’m in the minority. Most customers want more gears, and with this version of the Gold Wing, they got ‘em.
Smarter customers want wider ratio spreads, too. First and sixth on the seven-speed GW are just a mite taller than the old first and fifth. Seventh, however, is literally a whole gear taller. (A Honda rep confirmed that sixth-gear on the conventional transmission is similarly tall.) Maximum economy on the highway will likely occur on this machine in those top gears.
I began my test day aboard a DCT Gold Wing Tour. Though it was a bit off-putting throwing a bike into “D” to get underway, I adapted. It’s possible to run the DCT in either auto or manual mode. Auto is just what you’d expect; sit back and let the bike do the job it was designed to do. In manual mode, the gears can be manipulated using a pair of shift triggers on the left control pod. (They also can be used to a limited degree in automatic mode.) Letting the computer make the shifts worked better for me than trying to manage the transmission.
Motorcyclist’s Ari Henning and I (and our wives) swapped bikes at the end of the day, so each of us could get time on the other trans. I think I preferred his standard six-speed, but only by a little. And if I was considering one of these bikes, I'd be one of the two principals involved in the purchase decision.
“I like the bike shifting for you, because it’s so smooth, and it was less jerky," Jessica said. "Even when we were riding aggressively, the automatic still shifts better than you do.” (She’s not wrong, but the box is a little slushy. I like firm neck-snappers a lot of the time.) That said, it worked fine and it’s pretty damn relaxing to park in the saddle and let the bike handle all the shifting.
Rider modes affect each bike differently. There are four modes: Tour (the default), Sport, Economy, and Rain. In the six-speed bikes, it affects the Honda’s traction control (monitoring wheelslip) and rear suspension adjustment, as well as the throttle sensitivity. In the seven-speed bikes, rider modes also influence shift points. On the seven-speed, Sport was my mode, but I wished it was a little better about avoiding seventh gear. On the six-speed, though, Tour was my jam; the throttle was a hair too sensitive in Sport mode.
I liked both bikes just fine. I’m stuck in my ways, so I’d probably buy a six-speed, but that seven-speed DCT does its job well. Except for a few times when it went hunting for a gear, it was slicker than a snotty doorknob. This is one area I feel all riders will be happy about. There are more options than ever, and they’re both pretty good. I would urge anyone who is about to buy one of these to ride both. That DCT is very nice. Hell, I was even able to shoot some video while riding because I had no clutch to fool about with.
The two 320 mm rotors up front are joined by a 316 mm disk in back, compared to the old model’s 296 mm units up front. (Rear was unchanged.) Front calipers are now radially mounted and ABS is standard. Bikes still use Honda’s Combined ABS. The front calipers are now six-piston units, not three. The brakes work well. I want more saddle time to evaluate them, because our ride pace with Honda’s people was pretty sedate, but they felt much more effective to me. (On a side note, remembering to take the e-brake off on the DCT models is kind of funny.)
Everyone should agree on this aspect of the updated Wing, methinks. I still wish C-ABS would let the rear brake pedal only operate the rear only, especially on the DCT bikes. Dragging the rear brake makes low-speed maneuvering much smoother on most big bikes I've ever ridden.
The Wingy’s saddlebags are smaller. They taper in towards the centerline of the bike at the rear of the bag, and they also taper vertically at the rear. They are much less deep than I remember the old bodystyle’s being. Moving to the top box, that shrunk, too. Mrs. Lem’s 2XS is practically a child-sized helmet. I borrowed a medium lid from Abhi Eswarappa, (my bike-urious friend) and there was no way both those helmets were going into the top box. I don’t ever need to carry two lids in a top box, but it is sort of the gold standard for, “Man, that’s got some capacity.”
I mentioned it to a Honda rep and he said there was a list of helmets that would work, and there was a bit of a trick to putting them in there. Whatever, man. Here’s how you did this on the fifth-gen ‘Wang: open box, toss in helmets. No trick needed.
Honda is trying to cover its bases and capture those three mythical riders at the same time by projecting a smaller, sportier, ST-like feel with this bike. They indicated to us that the touring rider now trips for something like two to three days, rather than the rider of yesteryear who headed out for five or six. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s also a harbinger of the fact that people now need to work their asses off to afford these bikes. This is not political, and it’s certainly not a knock against Honda. We have objectively better motorcycles now than we did 30 years ago. The cost of them is relatively unchanged when inflation is accounted for. The largest difference is the lack of wage growth. The bikes aren’t too expensive. Riders' (and non-riders') rate of pay simply never kept pace with the inflation.
I think the reduction of bag space is a sin. Mrs. Lem scratched this bike from our list immediately due to the lack of space. The Gold Wing Tour moved from the old total of 147 liters of combined luggage room to the now-current combination of 110 liters. And the non-Tour? Combined 60 liters. That’s paltry. Well, we do tour for five or six days (when we can).
Consider Honda losing a sale of a Gold Wing or a Gold Wing Tour to a couple like us who might instead buy an Indian Roadmaster (140 liters) or an Electra Glide (133 liters) based strictly on carrying capacity. That’s.... absurd. These top-tier tourers are packed to the gills with tech and frippery, but the basic nuts and bolts behind a touring bike is a motorcycle that can carry necessities. Honda seems to have forgotten that fundamental aspect of this class of bike.
Mrs. Lem and I are not the only people Honda has to please, however. If this touring bike does indeed capture three generations of riders, Honda’s got it made in the shade. I’d also be willing to concede that Honda may have done more homework than I have. I need to talk to more riders before I can get a good handle on whether this sin was a mortal one or a venial one. Maybe I’m blowing it out of proportion.
I also need more ride time on this bike. Since this was a first ride, I didn't cover some major elements like the chassis and redesigned front end. Rest assured you'll read about them. By the time you are reading this, I'll be on a plane back to Texas for more riding in order to make a video on the new Goldy.
And I have one final note that may wrap up this review for now. In talking about the luggage on the plane back to Philly, Mrs. Lem did mention that she feels our bedrolls and tent would probably fit on an optional or aftermarket topcase rack on a Gold Wing Tour. (I know a place that sells those. I also know a guy who could install one.)
She reminded me of something very gently in her persuasive way that rounds out my first experience with this new 'Wing well. “Honda cannot build a Gold Wing for every rider the way they want it," she said. "Not possible, Lem. End of story.”