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.

The Gold Wing, on the other hand, has numerous large buttons and switches covering its entire cockpit area, and even more on this 2012 model than in years past. It's all very PlaySkool, and while it's easy to see the buttons and poke at them, it's not aesthetically pleasing, and frankly isn't as safe as the BMW's setup because you have to take a hand off the handlebar to reach most of them.

Brent actually preferred the old-school switches for some things, like the heated grips, questioning why someone would want to scroll through a menu when he could simply flip a switch. He also warned that 10 years from now it will still be easy to fix a switch, while not many motorcycle shops will likely have the knowledge and equipment necessary to repair the BMW's high-tech electronics.

When we wake up at the Hemlock Inn, we're in for a big, Southern-style surprise: a breakfast of eggs, grits, potatoes, biscuits-and-gravy and sizzling sausage patties. Maybe the world did end and we've died and gone to heaven?

After the comfort food fest, we board our cruise ships for two more high-mileage days chasing after the storied roads of North Carolina and Northern Georgia. We'll also burn a few hundred miles throttling aimlessly up and down freeways. And here's where we really begin to dissect the difference between these two motorcycles...

When it comes to touring motorcycles, luxury begins at the bum. No doubt, the Gold Wing has the best one-size-fits-all seat ever stitched together. The GTL? Not so much. This could be a tad subjective, as riders with meatier cheeks don't seem to complain as much. But I'd rather sit on a 2x10 then the "low" seat that comes standard on the Beemer! Even propped up to the higher of its two settings, it's just too low for the relating ergos, and forces your hips into an unnaturally tight angle. So far, the optional "high" seat hasn't been made available. One hopes it's more comfortable...

The ergonomic philosophies behind the GL and GTL are as different as the bikes' intentions. It feels as if you sit in the Honda and on the BMW. You also sit more upright on the Wing, with its bars closer to your body. Brent said it reminded him of a wheelbarrow.

The Honda's mirrors are car-like in size and thus highly useable, while the BMW's small, stalk-mounted rearviews aren't as clear. Windshields are also a mixed bag. The GTL's is electric; very smart and slick in its operation. The GL's manual screen is larger, and requires the flick of two levers and then two hands to pull it into position. But without debate, the Honda's windshield provides a more restful pocket of stillness, without being so huge that you feel you're inside a car. The smaller, more stylized BMW screen creates noisy buffeting in the lower range of its adjustment, and causes a zone of negative pressure that sucks the rider forward when fully raised.

Both bikes offer innovative solutions for fine-tuning airflow. In addition to a cooling vent in the GL's windshield, there are improved foot-warming vents in its redesigned fairing lowers. One of the neatest features on the GTL is its pair of flip-out fairing wings. When deployed, these flaps channel huge amounts of cooling air into the cockpit. And when closed, they disappear into the fairing.

The Honda shines in the luggage department, too, showing how decades of real-world research pays off. Capacity of the trunk and saddlebags is enormous, and their operation is very car-like, so you can stuff in your junk and snick it shut with one hand. The BMW's trunk and saddlebags feel flimsy in comparison and bow when even slightly overpacked, which looks sloppy and compromises their watertightness. The top case's latches are difficult to line up, and use tooth-like tangs that tend to snag items, further complicating closure. Ironically, the GTL offers a slightly higher load capacity than the GL. Too bad it's not as good at carrying the goods.

Delicate, retractable fabric tethers intended to hold the BMW's saddlebag lids open at a right angle quickly broke, along with the elastic straps designed to hold your belongings inside the clamshell-style cases. In their defense, the GTL's saddlebags are lightweight and easy to remove, and their closing/locking mechanisms are superior to those in the trunk.

The GTL's cockpit view is sparse, echoing BMW automobiles' more utilitarian approach to styling. The GL's "snap-together" aesthetic is much more Acura-like, with nary an exposed bolt head, and all bells and whistles proudly on display. There are a couple things that really bother us about the BMW's styling and cheapen its feel. These include ill-fitting speaker covers for the dash-mounted tweeters, an unsightly bundle of cables running beneath the handlebar and, most frightful, those Buickesque, chrome "6" emblems on the cylinder block.

We preferred the BMW's audio/navigation system because it's more intuitive and, once you have use of the Multi-Controller down, easier to manipulate. The monitor is also situated higher in the cockpit, allowing you to better keep your eyes on the road. The fact that you can use the GPS while you're moving is a bonus.

Being required to stop to make any adjustments to the Honda's Audio-Navi system isn't just inconvenient; it's often less safe to pull over to the side of the road than to push a button on the fly. Both systems are state-of-the-art, however, and offer up-to-date mapping information and audio options, including iPod access through the dash screen. External sound quality is much better on the Honda at speed, but the BMW's Bluetooth interface makes it appealing to use in-helmet speakers.

By the end of our time comparing these two luxury-tourers, several things had become apparent. Most interesting, BMW's K1600GTL does not redefine the category in the way we'd anticipated. Yes, it's the more fun of these two bikes to ride, especially if you're going to be riding fast. But when you're looking for luxury- which that "L" suffix denotes, after all-it doesn't deliver nearly as much as the Honda.

Does the GTL create a new category: luxury sport-touring, perhaps? No, that would be the domain of its sister, the K1600GT. Most of the tweaks BMW made to the GT to turn it into the GTL actually work against it. The softer suspension exacerbates driveline lash; the more upright ergos don't feel as neutral; its taller windshield is a little too tall; and the tail trunk is somewhat dysfunctional and stylistically looks like a last-minute addition. The GT is definitely the better motorcycle, which is why this magazine named it our Best Touring bike of 2011.

All of which means that, until the next Judgment Day at least, Honda can rest easy. Because when it comes to luxury-touring, the GL1800 Gold Wing remains the King of Cush.


OFF THE RECORD

BRENT ROSS
AGE: 51 | HEIGHT: 6'1" | WEIGHT: 225 lbs. | INSEAM: 32 in.
Sitting on the BMW K1600GTL, I thought to myself, "This thing is going to spank that new Gold Wing!" For me it did, but not before receiving some solid whacks...

I ride Interstate 40 round-trip from Tennessee to California about three times per year, and I grab the keys to the Honda every time. It offers superior comfort, wind protection and luggage,plus easier-to-operate features. It's also more comfortable for a passenger.

Apart from my blasts to the West Coast, the bulk of my riding focuses on enthusiastically exploring back-roads. This is where the Gold Wing takes its licks, as the GTL provides a more solid platform for spirited riding. Then, of course, there's that oh-so-wonderful inline six-cylinder engine-silky-smooth and fast!

To my eye, these two bikes are not comparable. It's like comparing comps from downtown lofts to country manors. They offer different ways of living or, in this case, riding.

JAMIE ELVIDGE
AGE: 45 | HEIGHT: 5'10" | WEIGHT: 145 lbs. | INSEAM: 34 in.
Part of me was dreading this comparison. The Gold Wing is a legend. For years it's outshone everything in the luxury-touring category. You hate to see a champ get knocked out, and that's exactly what I believed would happen.

The moment of truth for me came when I had to ride back to California after our test. Before the trip, I'd been whining that it was the Honda that had to be returned immediately. By the time I was packed and pointed west, you couldn't have paid me triple to ride the BMW that far!

I made it from North Georgia to Southern California in 31/2 days, and I lost a half-day waiting for some tornados to blow by. I was comfortable the entire way. If I were to consider one of the new K1600s, it would be the GT, not the GTL. And the Gold Wing? Sorry I doubted you, big guy!

2011 BMW K1600GTL | PRICE: $23,200 (AS TESTED)

Dyno
The BMW's dyno graph looks sloppy, but from the saddle all you feel is smooth acceleration. An extra 30 horsepower, a few more lb.-ft. of torque and a higher redline make the K1600GTL feel sportier, but its Dynamic Traction Control interfered with full-throttle dragstrip launches, hence its slower quarter-mile time.

Tech Spec
Engine type: l-c inline-six
Valve train: DOHC, 24v
Displacement: 1649cc
Bore x stroke: 72.0 x 67.5mm
Compression: 12.2:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate
Transmission: 6-speed
Frame: Aluminum twin-spar with single-sided swingarm
Front suspension: Duolever with ESA II
Rear suspension: Paralever with ESA II
Front brake: Dual Brembo four-piston calipers, 230mm discs with linked ABS
Rear brake: Brembo two-piston caliper, 320mm disc with linked ABS
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Bridgestone BT022F
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Bridgestone BT021R
Rake/trail: 27.8˚/4.2 in.
Seat height: 31.9/32.7 in.
Wheelbase: 63.7 in.
Fuel capacity: 6.3 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 782/744 lbs.
Measured horsepower: 126.8 bhp @ 6800 rpm
Measured torque: 109.6 lb.-ft. @ 5100 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile: 12.45 sec. @ 105.88 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 3.95 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 47/35/43 mpg
Colors: Royal Blue Metallic, Mineral Silver Metallic
Availability: Now
Warranty: 36 mo., 36,000 mi.
Contact: BMW of North America
P.O. Box 1227
Westwood, NJ 07575
800.831.1117
www.bmwmotorcycles.com

Ergos
You sit deep within the BMW, with a fairly long reach to the handlebars and a little less legroom than is comfortable for taller riders. Simpler controls make the GTL easier to interact with, while the electrically adjustable windshield gives it a leg up on the Gold Wing in terms of adaptability.


HONDA GL1800 GOLD WING | PRICE: $28,499 (AS TESTED)

DYNO
Its numbers are lower, but the Gold Wing puts down power in an impressively linear fashion. Over 80 lb.-ft. of torque are on tap across most of the rev range and horsepower builds steadily, but the big 12-valve engine signs off beyond 5000 rpm. Short-shifting is the best way to keep the Honda riding the crest of its power curve.

TECH SPEC
Engine type: l-c opposed-six
Valve train: SOHC, 12v
Displacement: 1832cc
Bore x stroke: 74.0 x 71.0mm
Compression: 9.8:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate
Transmission: 5-speed with electric reverse
Frame: Aluminum twin-spar with single-sided swingarm
Front suspension: Showa 45mm fork
Rear suspension: Showa shock with electronically adjustable spring preload
Front brake: Dual Nissin three-piston calipers, 296mm discs with linked ABS
Rear brake: Nissin three-piston caliper, 316mm disc with linked ABS
Front tire: 130/70R-18 Bridgestone G709
Rear tire: 180/60R-16 Bridgestone G704
Rake/trail: 29.2˚/4.3 in.
Seat height: 29.1 in.
Wheelbase: 66.5 in.
Fuel capacity: 6.6 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 938/898 lbs.
Measured horsepower: 95.6 bhp @ 5300 rpm
Measured torque: 104.2 lb.-ft. @ 4100 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile: 12.12 sec. @ 120.23 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 5.42 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 43/32/37 mpg
Colors: Black, blue, red, white
Availability: Now
Warranty: 36 mo., unlimited mi.
Contact: American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
P.O. Box 2200
Torrance, CA 90509
866.784.1870
www.powersports.honda.com

ERGOS
Both bikes are as comfy as your living-room recliner, but the Gold Wing's saddle is plusher and offers more back support. Some 3 inches greater legroom and a more relaxed reach to the bars add up to a nearly ideal riding position, but the bike still has a manually adjustable windshield.

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By Jamie Elvidge
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