BMW K1600GTL vs. Honda GL1800 Gold Wing | MC Comparo

Multiple Choice

By Jamie Elvidge, Photography by Kevin Wing

It's judgement Day - or so the billboards around Southern Tenneessee keep reminding us - and here we are just beginning our comparison of the all-new BMW K1600GTL and Honda's freshly updated GL1800. We've been waiting years for the Germans to replace the old K1200LT, and now that we finally have the new challenger and the Gold Wing on the road together, the last thing we need is an apocalypse!

But so far, the only earth-shattering event in Tellico Plains seems to be the appearance of our freshly minted luxury-tourers. My test mate is Brent Ross, a former Motorcyclist staffer who long ago traded Southern California for the slower pace of the Southeast. And who can blame him? This smattering of mountains, stitched together by famous roads like the Tail of the Dragon, Moonshiner 28, Diamondback and Cherohala Skyway, is the Eden of motorcycling in the USA.

The group of riders congregating outside Tellico Motorcycle Outfitters is like a pack of wild dogs descending on a couple of rabbits as we roll up. Both of these long-haul tourers are powered by silky-smooth, strong-like-bull sixes. A sexier motorcycle engine configuration does not exist, which is why it doesn't matter that they're wearing fat suits. Their torquey goodness will quicken your heart the moment you goose the throttle.

The Gold Wing's horizontally opposed six has been in production for just over a decade, and remains virtually unchanged. Age, however, has hardly left the Honda engine feeling long in the tooth, though it could be said that the new BMW mill has sharper, lighter, more compact teeth-24 of them, to be exact, compared to the Gold Wing's 12. And the number of valves per cylinder is only the beginning of the K1600's high-tech appeal. It's the lightest, most compact inline-six ever mass-produced for a motorcycle-less than an inch wider than the four-cylinder K1300GT it replaces. Redline for the inherently self-balancing 1649cc six is 8500 rpm, but everything from 1500 rpm to cut-off is fair game in any gear. This means you can hit freeway speeds in ..rst, loft the front wheel in third or throttle smoothly from a rolling stop in sixth. Power delivery is brilliant, and the sound of the engine is pure sex appeal- though unfortunately not from the saddle, where it's barely audible.

The Gold Wing's 1832cc "flat-six" is no slouch either, delivering silky, consistent torque throughout the rev range, which tops out at 8000 rpm. The combination of intake and exhaust might not sound as wicked as the BMW's, but the GL does sound delicious, and it's not for off in terms of power. One thing both of these luxury-touring flagships have in common is they're stinkin' fast! This is something people often forget about the Gold Wing, particularly if they've never ridden one. It's an anomaly: a wolf in steer's clothing. Another shared characteristic is smooth yet Ginsu-sharp throttle actuation. The only hiccup here is the BMW's E-gas throttle-by-wire EFI creates some minor hesitation at low rpm and small throttle openings, and also causes the rpm level to hang for a split-second when you close the throttle abruptly. The Wing's flawless, old-school, cable-actuated system holds a slight advantage here.

BMW's E-gas may help fuel economy, however, as the GTL delivered an average 43 mpg compared to the GL's 37 mpg. But on the flipside, the BMW requires premium unleaded while the Honda is just fine running on regular.

After knocking back lunch at the Tellico Grains Bakery and some ice cream at the Downtown Creamery (what is it about touring bikes?), Brent and I roll up the Cherohala Skyway. Crazily, it took some 34 years and a reported $100 million to complete this 43-mile National Scenic Byway, which was officially opened in 1996. Compared with the snarling wormhole of the nearby Tail of the Dragon at Deal's Gap, Cherohala is the kind of serene, super-scenic sweeperfest you'd like to ride all day-which is what we do.

No matter how hard you push them, both of these bikes-with their low-slung CGs, linked brakes and dial-to-suit suspension- are extremely nimble for their size, though the BMW is clearly the king of the fast stuff. The Honda is easy enough to flick from side to side, and it'll stay planted in sweepers if you remembered to pump up the preload. It also helps to set your entry speed early. The Wing likes to go into corners cool and be carried through hot; otherwise you'll be asked to make mid-corner adjustments.

The BMW's extremely light and neutral steering makes it an absolute joy to ride in the twisties. Dial-in the optional, second-generation Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA II) to adjust not only rebound damping front and rear, but also rear preload and spring rate. Choosing the right combination from the nine available is child's play using the computerized system.

First, choose your load state: solo, solo with luggage or two-up with luggage. Next, click on your desired chassis stance: comfort, normal or sport. The damping changes are easily perceptible, and dialing-in the system greatly enhances chassis composure regardless of how heavy your load or immoral your intentions.

Add the advantage of the K-bike's optional Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) system adapted from the S1000RR superbike, and your suspension setup harmonizes with environmental factors, measuring bank angle and wheelspin to correct for road surface conditions as well as human error. The only bummer here is a tendency for the DTC to intervene during wide-open-throttle, clutch-slipping launches, which killed our quarter-mile times during performance testing. But then luxury-tourers don't spend much time at the dragstrip!

Push the GTL to its limits-you'll be positively howling along when you do-and the bike remains composed. Even on the tiptoes of traction-say under extreme mid-corner braking when you're well into the rear ABS-the bike remains righteously true to both line and lean angle. Just ask that guy in the red Jeep...

The Gold Wing's brake system is likewise world-class, but requires higher effort while offering less feedback. Though they're both shaft-driven, where the Honda betters the BMW is in its seeming absence of driveline lash. The Beemer dishes out a discernable amount of slop under lead-fisted throttle applications, but also during routine stop-and-go traffic

When we finally wrap our photo shoot on the Cherohala Skyway, it's well after dark. Contrary to predictions the world hasn't ended, which means we'll have to search for dinner and a motel. Our quest for shelter turns into a 150mile flog on knotted roads through darkened towns, and it's after midnight when we finally crawl into bed at a way-off-the-beaten-track B&B called the Hemlock Inn in Bryson City, North Carolina.

Both of these bikes are loaded with convenience features, but one of the coolest has to be BMW's optional Adaptive Headlight. In stock trim, the main headlamp beam is adjusted via a mirror to compensate for ride-height changes, say under braking. The Adaptive Headlight option adds a servo-motor that adjusts the mirror in relation to changes in the bike's bank angle as well, effectively directing the beam around corners. The system is a game-changer, and once you've experienced it on a twisty road at night, you won't want to go without it.

With so many features, the biggest challenge is to organize them and make them easily accessible. And here, BMW and Honda have chosen entirely different approaches. On the GTL, everything is futuristic. Each convenience-from the seat-heater to the ESA II settings, electronic tire-pressure readouts to the navigation and audio commands-are accessed and manipulated via the "Multi-Controller" ring just inboard of the left handgrip. This is very cool and intuitive, especially for those who enjoy living with modern electronics.

By Jamie Elvidge
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