2012 Honda Gold Wing - First Ride

The Squid on the Whale: A quick spin aboard Honda’s reskinned, re-refined flagship GL1800 luxury touring bike.

2012 Honda Gold Wing - First Ride

It hurts when people say mean things, and when Honda's people read that BMW's people were calling its new six-cylinder touring bike a "shark," and dissing Honda's not-so-new six-cylinder touring bike by calling it a "whale," well, it wasn't nice. "Oh, yeah?" said Honda's people, "Well, the Gold Wing is a killer whale," and they invited us to Malibu for a ride on the upgraded 2012 version to prove it.For those not familiar with the area, there's more to Malibu than beach: Inland, you'll find all sorts of classic canyon roads (Mulholland Highway, etc.) and classic stops (the Rock Store). The Gold Wing might not have been the bike of choice for the typical canyon squid 20 years ago, but now that he is us, it's semi-amazing how well a bike that weighs 900 pounds can make its way through those tight canyon confines. (I still contend there's something Weeble-like about bikes with longitudinal crankshafts.)Mainly, the 2012 upgrades involve revised bodywork and electronics, but the Gold Wing's ride also benefits from new fork bushings that reduce stiction for a more compliant ride, and from the fact that Bridgestone Exedras are now used exclusively (on the bike's now-clearcoated wheels, for easier cleaning). On top of that, a new seat adds a bit more "compliance" of its own. (I'm still shrivelled from the lack of heat from the allegedly heated Gold Wing seat I rode upon last year, the result of a complex ambient-temperature system Honda says hasn't changed.) In any case, it's a 900-pound motorcycle, but you'd never know it based upon the 'Wing's light steering effort and Joe Frazier reflexes.

2012 Honda Gold Wing

The new plastic gives the bike a “flow line” from front to back, according to Honda, while adding more wind protection for the lower part of the rider as well as 7 liters more capacity in the sidebags.

But the big news is not that the new bike handles five or eight percent better, the big news is its new sat-nav and sound systems—if you spring for the $25,899 Gold Wing Audio Comfort XM, that is ($27,099 gets the same bike with ABS). The new GPS loads faster, we’re told, comes with an amazing map for the entire U.S. and Canada, complete with gas stops, points of interest, Honda dealers, etc... all of it on a more visible display with new 3D terrain view and lane guidance. There is also a slot for a removable SD card that lets you download route info, share with other riders; Honda is also poised to launch a Trip Planner website that will allow riders to lay out a route on their home computer and upload it to the navi system, as well as save and share routes with friends. The sound system is also iPod compatible now, which means you can plug your iPod into the trunk receptacle and operate it with the bike’s controls. The XM part of the equation gets you a shed-load of commercial-free music pouring through the excellent six-speaker sound system (for 90 days; after that you’ll need to buy a subscription), not to mention XM weather and traffic, which works with the Navi system to route you around storms and/or traffic jams. Great. What’ll we do now for frustration and anxiety?

The $23,199 base Gold Wing Audio Comfort gets the excellent new 80-watt-per-channel sound system, but no Navi. The $28,499 Gold Wing Airbag (still a catchy name!) is for the rider who wants it all.

The other big news is the new look, with fresh plastic covering a bike that had its last major overhaul back in 2001, when the amazing Boxer Six grew to 1832cc and the GL1500 became GL1800. The new plastic gives the bike a “flow line” from front to back, according to Honda, while adding more wind protection for the lower part of the rider as well as 7 liters more capacity in the sidebags. Style is a personal matter, but my eye suggests shades of Buick Eight, which is to me a good and more distinctive thing than the previous ’Wing.

Speaking of Buicks, America still loves them (do we still make them?), and while the new BMW K1600GT/GTL is reputedly a hellacious motorcycle, the market will decide if it (or they) fit in quite the same niche as the Gold Wing. Our test numbers from 2006 have the 'Wing travelling the quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds at 102.5 mph, topping out at 118 and producing 112 ft-lb. of torque at 4170 rpm. Meanwhile, the new BMW Canet tested last month ran 11.20 at 118.7 and all the way up to 139. It took Mercedes and BMW decades to dethrone the Crown Victoria; then again, the Crown Vic was usually about half the price of a Teutonic touring sedan.

Then again, the Gold Wing is no wallowing Crown Vic; it's a serious high-performance touring bike that's not quite as fast or as light as the new BMW. But if the Honda's Boxer Six isn't every bit as smooth as the new BMW inline one, and if its cockpit isn't just as comfy and maybe a little more so, I'll eat my intercom. The big question might wind up being: Will the BMW's performance advantage matter all that much in the land of speeding-ticket revenue generation and the left-lane SUV train?

As always, it’ll be good to don our Jacques Cousteau Speedos and jump in the water with the shark and the orca and find out. Or lie on the beach and watch them duke it out.

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