We know: The Honda Gold Wing F6B and Harley-Davidson Road Glide Custom are not true competitors. Few riders lie awake at night trying to decide whether to buy a Harley or a Honda. Or if they do, they don’t admit it to their Harley-riding friends. Each has its audience, and the overlap between those two populations is vanishingly small.
Still, these bikes share the custom-bagger styling theme, and their curb weights, engine displacements, and price tags are nearly identical. So we felt we could ride them back to back and have an enlightening compare-and-contrast conversation. Or, in the words of Digital Editor Thomas Kinzer, we could “ride them around until someone has an epiphany.”
We did, and the insight gained was simple: Motorcycles are personal and individual. We choose them for our own good reasons, or for no reason we can fully articulate. They do not need to fit neatly into categories or market segments. And brand character counts. In fact, sometimes it’s everything.
Our broad conclusions will surprise no one: Honda’s Gold Wing-derived F6B is the better, nicer, more effective machine by most modern-motorcycle standards. Yet the Road Glide Custom is vastly superior at one thing: being a Harley-Davidson. It is, in fact, satisfyingly smooth and civilized by the historic standards of that unique marque—don’t be fooled by appearances, Harley has done quite a bit of work “under the skin.”
Yes, there’s a double standard at work here, but consider the different evolutionary paths these machines have followed.
Obviously, the talented engineers at The Motor Company could make anything they want. Or anything their customers want. A more modern, technically sophisticated motorcycle that is faster, smoother, lighter, and better handling could be built at any time. But the custodians of the hallowed Harley-Davidson image know a Harley has to look right. And feel right. And sound right.
So, whatever product planners and designers might have wanted to do with the Road Glide’s custom bagger look, they had very narrowly prescribed limits to stay within.
Simple, handy luggage literally makes the bagger. Harley’s is good (loading from the top)
A stereo borrowed from your buddy’s Trans Am takes center stage.
Passengers won’t love the stock saddle, but the rider won’t mind.
Honda’s situation was very different, but the effect was similarly confining. The notion to spin off an alternative style from the Gold Wing platform would have remained merely a notion if it couldn’t be done efficiently. That is, the existing engineering had to carry over and the change had to be accomplished with an inexpensive rework of a few cosmetic pieces. The cleverness went into getting a dramatic image overhaul with a minimum of new bits.
The long, low, sinister look of the F6B is profoundly different from a full-dress Gold Wing’s appearance, yet it entails only a cut-down windshield, slightly different fairing side panels, new seat and rear deck between the stylized bags, and a lot of flat-black finish. A personality makeover on the cheap.
So both Honda and Harley-Davidson got their custom baggers while staying true to their brand values and traditions. Riding the Road Glide Custom and the Gold Wing F6B together, the conversation becomes all about the people attracted to each brand, and what they expect from their motorcycles.
Just turning on the ignition and starting the engines, these two bikes already diverge. The Honda takes an entirely conventional one-click turn of its top-center-mount key, and a push of the starter button to stir the 1832cc flat-six to life. It isn’t a silent idle, with some primary-gear whine and muted exhaust growl, but it’s smooth and refined.
The Road Glide ignition “switch” is a giant chrome block atop the steering head that you rotate from Off to On. This heavy piece has that Real Steel feel even though its practicality is debatable. Push the Harley’s starter button and there’s loud, mechanical drama down below as starter-motor gears jam into place and get those giant pistons pumping. The 103 cubic-inch engine fires quickly, and dances crazily in its soft mounts at idle.
Already worlds apart and we haven’t even put them in gear.
Which is another lesson in itself. Selecting first on the Honda is like, well, selecting first on a Honda: click. Putting the Harley in gear sounds like a minor car wreck. Harley owners smile and say, “Yeah…so?”
Six pistons up front as well, but don’t look for ABS. It’s not even an option.
Neither of these long, large motorcycles is a doddle to maneuver at a walking pace, with wheelbases that stretch well over 5 feet and curb weights within a couple pounds of 840. (Would you believe the Honda is heavier and longer?) But get the wheels turning just a little faster and both quickly become settled and manageable. They carry their weight low and the bars afford plenty of leverage.
Ergonomic packages on both the F6B and the Road Glide will accommodate long hours and big miles, but the two approaches share little beyond firm, modestly bucketed seats and an easy reach to wide-set, mid-height handgrips. The Harley puts the rider’s feet well forward on smallish floorboards. The Honda, with cylinder heads jutting out where forward controls might otherwise go, has more conventional footpegs, located a bit farther aft though still well ahead of the rider’s own center of gravity. (“Posting” to take some weight off your tailbone is more like a pull-up on these bikes, especially the Harley.)
This trimmed shield looks like a Wing with a buzz cut. Perhaps the most effective change f
Wind protection is more complete behind the Honda’s full fairing, but the frame-mounted “shark-nose” piece on the Harley does a good job, too. Those stubby windscreens sacrifice a lot of function in the interest of form, with helmet buffeting ranging from slight to annoying, depending on speed and rider height. Most six-footers will find both bikes tolerably quiet until about 70 mph. The Honda is generally better, but on either of these, you’ll be keeping your faceshield snapped closed more than usual.
Stiff, short-travel suspension on the Road Glide faithfully telegraphs bumps and breaks in the pavement—perhaps there’s an amplifier in there, too. You learn to be attentive and watch for these things. The Honda feels firm, too, but much more accommodating overall. Seats are fine on both, with properly firm padding and good shape.
Perhaps the most effective change from GW to F6B is this magnificent saddle, large as a Di
At least for the rider. Passenger accommodations are another area of sharp contrast. On the F6B the huge surface area of the rear seat appears driven by style but there is good support and certainly plenty of room. The forward location of the grab rails can pull taller passengers down into a slouch. No such issue with the Road Glide, because its standard seat wouldn’t induce anyone to ride pillion. The passenger’s section is short, hard, and sloped to the rear. Both Harley-Davidson and the aftermarket offer alternative saddles, and all but the loneliest of loners will want one.
Talking performance aspects—power, response, cornering, braking—really forces the conversation into context: Each of these bikes needs to be evaluated on its own terms, not against the other.
Harley-Davidson has seemingly tuned the Road Glide Custom for a sweet spot that is chugging along casually at 2400 rpm, straight up. Deviate from that a little and the bike will play along, but take it farther and you are clearly leaving the envelope. That big, mildly tuned engine obviously makes loads of torque, with the peak coming around 3000 rpm, which is usually about where your internal shift light comes on. Even when hustling, there’s little reason to rev much past 4000.
That narrowish range of happy revs needs lots of gear ratios to lever the bike up to cruising speeds, and the Road Glide has six (one more than the Honda, curiously) complete with a neat little “6” numeral in the speedometer face that glows green when you have reached top gear. This driveline does everything it is supposed to, helping you manage engine revs without glitches while operating with a brutally mechanical feel and sound. The gearbox lends the bike a clunky, old-school character that is nearly as central to the brand’s appeal as that signature exhaust beat.
The Road Glide Custom excels at chugging down a smooth freeway at 70 mph. Vibration control is excellent under those circumstances, the engine has ready torque, wind buffeting is modest, and the ride is as good as it gets. The 6-gallon tank lets the scene play out for hours, if you want.
Brembo-made, ABS-aided brakes definitely won’t “throw you over the bars.”
Only magazine testers and other heretics will likely push a Harley-Davidson Road Glide Custom down a winding road with real intensity. The bike is willing but it’s clearly leaving its comfort zone and the rider has work to do. There isn’t a lot of front brake (you’re expected to prefer the pedal, which works great), and while the wide bars help the bike begin a turn easily enough, beyond just a few degrees of lean angle, you are constantly working inside-bar pressure to keep the bike down and turning. And as the stiff suspension will barely acknowledge imperfections in the road, you must see and avoid them. The foot boards touch down easily, but considering the effort it takes to corner hard on the Road Glide, few actual owners will find this a serious issue.
The Harley-Davidson Road Glide Custom does everything it has to do, and does it in a manner completely consistent with the character of the brand and the expectations of the audience. So does the Honda Gold Wing F6B, though that character and those expectations are deeply different.
Honda’s flat-opposed mill sings a sweet six-cylinder song, hand over mouth. (Read: quietly
The flat-opposed six-cylinder engine has a running rhythm different from anything else on the road—and the polar opposite of the H-D big twin—but it uses the familiar formula of big displacement and mild tuning to yield major torque production across the full arc of the rev range. Anywhere from just off idle to right up against the 6000-rpm redline, the Gold Wing engine serves up loads of responsive thrust. And while the exhaust roar—though shamelessly over-muffled—gets busy at higher revs, the engine never feels strained.
A little lash in the shaft driveline encourages the rider to be gentle with throttle take-up, but any other quirks that might require accommodation were refined out of the Gold Wing platform generations ago. You just get on and ride it. The bike appreciates your being smooth and planning ahead, bending into corners gracefully and rolling on the power. But it will happily do pretty much anything you ask of it, including lunging forward really rapidly on a giant wave of torque and Porsche 911-like exhaust thrum.
It’s even surprisingly light to the touch, considering its weight, with all control efforts carefully considered and the wide bars quickly and easily managing lean angle. In fact, cornering behavior is one place the restyle sets the F6B apart from its full-dress Gold Wing forebear: The missing mass of the top box lets the rider more easily initiate a turn and then arrest lean angle where he wants it. This is no sportbike, but it can certainly be pushed on a canyon road with no complaints, feeling steady, predictable and neutral as it swings from corner to corner. The footpegs scrape readily, partly because the Honda doesn’t send you any other “take it easy” messages. It just cranks into bends as hard as you like, until the folding pegs are grating against the pavement.
More sedate riding on the freeway also comes easily to the F6B, as you would expect from something based on a Gold Wing. A little OD (“overdrive”) indicator glows orange when you engage fifth, the engine emits a distant hum, there is almost no perceptible vibration, and you feel like you could sit there happily for the duration of the 6.6-gal. fuel tank.
Functionally different, and aesthetically, too: The Harley puts its big, bright engine center stage while Honda integrates everything into smooth flowing lines that mask most of the mechanical details. The F6B has a pronounced Coke-bottle shape, with bulging visual masses fore and aft of its narrow waist. The Harley looks like a Harley, with a touring fairing and top-loading, flat-sided bags that can lend both long-distance function as well as surfaces to indulge one’s creative flair with custom paint. Familiar and functional—and it doesn’t take 10 minutes to find the latches the first time.
Together in the turnout, but a solar system apart in their approach to being baggers. Loud
Two motorcycles, two brands, two audiences: at first glance, they don’t have a lot in common. Consider them more closely and they drift profoundly apart.
The Honda Gold Wing F6B and Harley-Davidson Road Glide Custom are both elite custom baggers, sure. But brethren? No.
Off the Record
Weight: 195 lbs.
Inseam: 32 in.
One simple ergonomic tweak—replacing the deep-pocket touring saddle with this so-called gunfighter model—totally makes the F6B for me. I’ve always appreciated what the Gold Wing can do, but have never felt physically comfortable on one. Permit me to scoot back, get out of the “Gold Wing slouch,” and I’m happy. But not in love. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for charisma or seduced by too much summertime bratwurst, but the Road Glide appeals to me on a lot of levels, one of which involves my “inner fixer.” I feel the wind turbulence and think, “Man, with another inch or two on that windscreen...” On the receiving end of a pavement-induced mule kick, I’m quick to say, “Man, people make perfectly good shocks for this thing. I bet that’d help a lot...” For me, it’s part of the charm.
Weight: 185 lbs.
Inseam: 34 in.
Wow, what an eye-opener. I don’t think I have ever ridden two bikes that looked so similar but felt so different. The difference in the powerplants is just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond that, the F6B has modern, powerful brakes and effective suspension. The Harley, well, it doesn’t. Then again, the Harley sounds like a motorcycle should, and the Honda sounds like…nothing. The truth is, neither one of these baggers really does it for me. If I wanted to get a Gold Wing I’d quit kidding myself and get one with a proper windshield. And if I were to get a Harley it wouldn’t have a windshield at all, or any of the other doo-dads for that matter. Leave the stereo behind; what I want to hear is the wind in my face and 103 cubic inches of baseball and apple pie thundering down the road.
Weight: 175 lbs.
Inseam: 34 in.
First of all, I share Zack’s view on listening to music on motorcycles. I just hope that someday Zack can come to appreciate the irony level of listening to “Hey There, Lonely Girl” at a volume setting of 11 while at a stoplight. Real baggers are customs the owner has built to his or her tastes. Obviously, the H-D is a more traditional and common platform to build a true custom on and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. I confess, I’m one of those guys who secretly like (actually riding) Gold Wings, but am too vain to ever really consider buying one. The F6B just might have the styling push I need to put it on the radar. True, the eyebrow shield could use a couple more inches to make it a great tour bike, and, unfortunately, Honda only offers a near-standard-size accessory windshield. Fortunately, I have a Sawzall.
Honda’s thrustworthy Gold Wing engine has just 142cc more displacement than Harley’s 103-inch mill, but three times the cylinders. Result: Torque and horsepower superiority across the board. With torque that tapers gently in the second half and a relatively low redline for the engine’s stroke, Honda’s six-banger is clearly built to grunt, not wail. And that it does. But look at the Road Glide’s torque curve. The early peak, at just 2900 rpm, tells you exactly what Harley had in mind with its famed long-stroke machine: “Evolved, but carrying on a legacy.”
Numbers, as is often the case, tell only part of the story. Yes, the Harley carries its man-sized handgrips higher and further from the rider, and the feet-forward stance makes the seating angle look strange, but it all manages to work in concert with the bike’s essential personality. Not immediately obvious are the changes in the Honda’s ergos from a standard Gold Wing. In fact, the new, longer seat effectively moves the grips 4.6 inches forward and 2.2 in. up, even though the bars are identical to a Gold Wing’s. It’s a difference you can feel.Tech Spec
Harley-Davidson Road Glide Custom | Price: $19,799
Engine type: a-c 45-deg. V-twin
Valve train: OHV, 4v
Bore x stroke: 98.4 x 111.3mm
Fuel system: EFI, ride by wire
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate
Measured horsepower: 66.9 bhp @ 4900 rpm
Measured torque: 84.4 lb.-ft. @ 2900 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile: 13.75 sec. @ 97.66 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 6.74 sec.
Frame: Tubular-steel double cradle
Front suspension: Showa 41.3mm fork
Rear suspension: Showa shocks with air-adjustable preload
Front brake: Dual Brembo four-piston calipers, 300mm discs with ABS
Rear brake: Brembo four-piston caliper, 300mm disc with ABS
Front tire: 130/70B-18 Dunlop D408F
Rear tire: 180/65B-16 Dunlop D407
Rake/trail: 26.0°/6.7 in.
Seat height: 27.3in.
Wheelbase: 63.5 in.
Fuel capacity: 6.0 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 825/789 lbs.
Fuel mileage (hi/low/avg.): 56/35/44 mpg
Colors: Black Denim, Big Blue Pearl, Candy Orange, Vivid Black
Warranty: 24 mo., unlimited mi.
Contact: Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Co.
3700 W. Juneau Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53201
Honda Gold Wing F6B | Price: $19,999
Engine type: l-c opposed-six
Valve train: SOHC, 12v
Bore x stroke: 74.0 x 71.0mm
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate
Measured horsepower: 94.4 bhp @ 5400 rpm
Measured torque: 102.1 lb.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile: 12.19 sec. @ 106.59 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 4.45 sec.
Frame: Aluminum twin-spar
Front suspension: Showa 45mm fork
Rear suspension: Showa shock with adjustable spring preload
Front brake: Dual Nissin three-piston calipers, 296mm discs
Rear brake: Nissin three-piston caliper, 240mm disc
Front tire: 130/70R-18 Bridgestone G709
Rear tire: 180/60R-16 Bridgestone G704
Rake/trail: 29.2°/4.3 in.
Seat height: 28.5 in.
Wheelbase: 66.5 in.
Fuel capacity: 6.6 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 854/814 lbs.
Fuel mileage (hi/low/avg.): 44/32/38 mpg
Colors: Black, red
Warranty : 12 mo., 12,000 mi.
Contact: American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
P.O. Box 2200
Torrance, CA 90509