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The Greatest Motorcycle in the World

I put 2,500 miles on the Honda Gold Wing Tour riding from the UK to Italy and back, and loved every minute of it

“Oh, look. This thing has a sport mode,” I mutter to myself. “Bless.”

I’m at a stoplight in Monmouth, Wales, sitting on a Honda Gold Wing Tour – just a few hours shy of having collected it from the nondescript East Midlands town where Honda keeps its press fleet. The bike has a dizzying array of buttons and switches on each grip, as well as the ‘tank.’ So many that it has taken me 120 miles to find this particular one, lost as it is on the right grip, amid the starter switch, hazard lights switch, cruise control button, cruise control settings switch, and DCT settings buttons.

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This sort of thing is at the heart of why I prefer long-term tests of bikes. Being flown somewhere warm to eat and drink on a Victorian scale in a five-star hotel is awesome, but the average press ride is no more than 120 miles and the pace is always chaotic; there’s no time to think, no time to actually asses the motorcycle.

I’ll have plenty of time to think about the Gold Wing over the next two weeks, though. Honda has loaned me its capstone tourer for my annual trek to EICMA in Milan. It won’t be warm, and the quality of accommodation won’t excel beyond that of a Holiday Inn Express (because free breakfasts give way to free lunches if you’re clever enough to bring your own sandwich bags), but by the time I make the return journey to Northamptonshire I will have come to the conclusion that the Gold Wing is, without exaggeration, the Greatest Motorcycle in the World.

My justification for such a claim boils down to the Gold Wing’s brilliance in three key areas: engine, handling, and comfort.

The all-bells-and-whistles version I’m riding is the Gold Wing Tour, equipped with top box, DCT and airbag. It costs a few quid shy of £31,000 and during my time with the bike I’ll spend a lot of time debating the merit of that price. I’ll admit that in a pure numbers sense, it’s stepping into “You’re an idiot” territory – the absolute maximum I would consider paying for a motorcycle. And I’d inherently expect a hell of a lot of something in return.

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Identifying that something can be a just a teency bit tricky with the Gold Wing because it has to be experienced. If this were a BMW, the Gold Wing would vindicate its price tag with dizzying technowhizzbangery; certainly it has a fair share of doodads, but none better or more abundant than those found on bikes costing half as much. If it were an Indian, the Gold Wing would justify its cost in meticulous detailing and deep paint lovingly applied by bearded South Dakotans; the Gold Wing is attractive and of unquestionable quality, but there’s also a lot of plastic. Instead, the ‘something’ of the Gold Wing comes in the three areas mentioned above: engine, performance, and comfort. What Honda does well it does better than anyone else. In the case of the Gold Wing, what you are paying for is excellence.

The Gold Wing is a big, beautiful beast

Engine

Back at that stoplight in Monmouth, I’m clicking through the Gold Wing’s four riding modes – Tour, Economy, Rain, and Sport. It’s that last one that’s amusing me. Sport mode for a bike that weighs 383 kg (845 lbs) wet. OK, Honda. Sure.

The light turns green and I crack the throttle to the stop. The traction control light flashes rapidly, my head snaps back, and I fight to keep myself from flying off the bike. The walloping instant power of the bike is so unexpected that my brain goes offline for a millisecond. When I come back, I’m several hundred yards ahead of traffic – which doesn’t appear to have even moved from the light – and there’s a Jim Ross voice in my head screaming: “GOOD GAWD ALMIGHTY! HONDA PUT A DAMNED MUSCLE CAR IN THIS MOTORCYCLE!”

The Gold Wing’s 1832cc flat six is, of course, the stuff of legend. I’ve never heard anyone suggest it to be anything other than wonderful. But I’ve always understood that wonderfulness to manifest in the form of a smooth, workhorse of a powerplant that’s completely unfazed by one’s desire to visit all 48 contiguous states in a week. And, indeed, that’s what this bike is in Tour, the mode I had been using up to this point.

‘The Gold Wing is, without exaggeration, the Greatest Motorcycle in the World.’

I had been perfectly happy in Tour (and will, in fact, primarily stick with this setting in travelling to Milan). Powerful enough to launch the bike ahead of traffic at even motorway speeds, it’s a mode that offers car-like smoothness, delivering a (very quiet) growl that reminds me oh so slightly of the Ford Ranger pickup I used to have. This was more than enough in my opinion, and far, far beyond my expectations for such a large, heavy machine.

Where all the magic happens

Stop and think about what I’m saying here: the bike exceeded my expectations, despite the fact I’ve lived my entire life listening to people yammer on and on and on and on about how great Gold Wings are. Normally, years and years of build-up breeds disappointment. But the Gold Wing is not normal; it is just as extraordinary as everyone’s always said. Especially in Sport mode.

In Sport, the bike launches off the line with a ferocity to rival the most brutish of big V-twins. It is ready to go, damn it. Along with the bike’s sublime handling (see below) it turns the Gold Wing into a bike that can out hustle bikes half its size. It’s ridiculous. It’s wonderful. No, it doesn’t scream like a Yamaha R1 or the like, but it will move with a ferocity that no sane person would ever ask of such a large machine.

Meanwhile, on this trip I’ll eventually discover that Rain mode is somewhat indistinguishable from Tour – a little sluggish comparatively, but not overly so. At no point will I spend a great deal of time in Eco because, as Grayson Perry recently observed: who the hell buys a Gold Wing and worries about economy?

The greatest motorcycle in the world. If you’re willing to pay for it

Handling

A few days after Monmouth, I’m up early and speeding toward Folkestone to catch the train to France. The Chunnel has been around for 24 years, long enough that I’m not sure anyone calls it the Chunnel anymore, but it still seems a bit magic to me: a 31-mile tunnel under the sea! The fact that you can ride a motorcycle onto a train that travels through said tunnel feels even more magical. We are living in the future, y’all.

The people who made the half-mile-long Eurotunnel trains clearly weren’t thinking about motorcyclists when designing the things. The floor is metal and uneven, inclined to be slippery and something of a gymkhana challenge in terms of balance. The trains are loaded by opening up a large door at the rear, then having vehicles move through the carriages, slowly filling them up. The stop-start-keep-balanced-don’t-drop-don’t-slip nature of riding through a Eurotunnel train’s carriages is stressful… unless you’re doing it on a Gold Wing.

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This bike has no right to be so well balanced. It is something you feel instantly. Back in that East Midlands town where Honda keeps its bikes I had been swooning within 20 feet of riding. I had come up on my own Triumph Tiger Explorer XRx, leaving it in Honda’s care while I have this bike on loan, and even before riding out of the complex’s gate I had been daydreaming of saying to Honda’s fleet manager: “Look, you can just burn my bike. I’m keeping this thing.”

Navigating inside the train, the only blip in the bliss comes in the fact it is not possible to feather the clutch on this DCT-equipped bike. First gear is just a little enthusiastic for ultra-slow maneuvering. Without a clutch lever to allow me to ease in and out of bite point I’m left to restrain the engine with the brakes. This occasionally results in the bike lurching, which, in turn, disrupts the magic of the Gold Wing’s balancing act.

A bike in a train that goes under the sea

Unfortunately, it is not just in the niche environment of a train that the bike does this – it can be just a teency bit annoying in stop-start traffic and disrupts rhythm when filtering. Personally, if I were shopping for a Gold Wing I’d save a little money and stick with a boring ol’ manual transmission. That all said, the seven-gear DCT system on this bike is markedly better than the one I experienced a few years ago on the Honda NC750X.

Off the train, I hop onto the relative speed of French motorway, spending the morning with cruise control locked, flying past farm fields. Northern France is quietly beautiful. Not in the sort of way that I ever particularly ache to vacation here – I prefer the heavier earth and rolling hills of Germany, which remind of Wisconsin (or vice versa) – but when I find myself in the country I am never unhappy.

The scenery gives me slightly wistful memories of visiting France in my early 20s. I was studying in Portsmouth in those days and had a girlfriend who lived in Nantes; I’d take the ferry over, then travel to Nantes by rail. Rural public transportation is often decades behind the curve, so my memories of these journeys have a particularly old-school tinge. It was the 1990s but the trains were old Corail stock from the ’70s. Some were even older.

I remember once finding myself on a train carriage that seemed to have been built before the war. It had benches with backs that could be moved to allow you to face the direction of travel. The peeling interior was painted in exactly the sort of soul-destroying, used-to-be-lime green that you would expect from a struggling socialist state. The carriage was unheated, at a time when Europe was experiencing its coldest winter in 500 years, and had been tacked onto the back of several grotty Corail carriages to serve as the only non-smoking option. A desire for clean air, it seems, is very un-French.

Roadside toilets in France: urinals more or less exposed to the elements and clearly visible from a distance. It’s only slightly better than just peeing in the street.

Back in present-day France, a desire to break from motorway drudgery leads me to stop blindly following the bike’s built-in GPS and leave the autoroute east of Reims. I promptly get lost, which is the best state of being where a Gold Wing is involved. After a few hours of meandering in roughly the right direction, however, the heavy light of winter afternoon begins to encroach and I click the GPS back on. To my initial delight, the GPS takes me on a mountainous route through the Ballons des Vosges Natural Regional Park.

Hitherto I haven’t been inclined to navigate such a massive bike through hairpin turns but here I have no choice, and again I discover that the Gold Wing is made of magic. This enormous thing dances through corners like no other big bike I’ve experienced. It is so well balanced, so reliable in the turns, that I’m soon tipping it all the way to the point of dragging pegs. This is not because the Gold Wing lacks lean angle, but because it inspires so much confidence.

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The mountain roads are too much for the GPS, though. It has no idea where I am, showing a map that relates in no way to the terrain through which I’m riding – sometimes it seems to think I’m off roading. The plus side is this gives me a great excuse to double back on sections of road I enjoy most, tearing up and down mountain routes to find my own way using the paper map I was clever enough to pack. Unfortunately, the heavy winter light soon becomes heavy winter dark and I have to return to more boring/direct roads to get to my hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland.

The next morning, taking advantage of the fact I’m, you know, in Switzerland, I wander off into the twisting roads of Entlebuch natural reserve. At some point I find myself chasing a rider on a Ducati Panigale. He/she is clearly surprised by my ability to hang through some corners; I get a jaunty head nod before the bike’s front wheel lifts and it screams off into the distance. It’s a reminder that the Gold Wing is fast and nimble but, you know, within context.

Getting lost is good

Comfort

One of the areas in which the Gold Wing is rarely matched, let alone beaten, is comfort. With every leg of my journey I finish the day feeling as if I have not ridden enough. It’s common for people to draw comparisons to a car when talking about a Gold Wing, because there really is no other two- or three-wheeled vehicle as relaxed and untaxing. In fact, I’ve been in a number of four-wheel vehicles that lacked this many creature comforts.

The aforementioned handling and engine performance play a big part in this facet of the bike’s excellence, especially when riding in the sort of manner better suited to a large touring machine – the Gold Wing requires minimal effort. But on top of this there are the bike’s amenities. Seating is massive and comfy, ergonomics are roomy. Heated rider and passenger seats, heated grips, massive fairing and a ginormous electronically adjustable screen help to keep most of the weather off. However, the back pressure you get from having the screen fully raised somewhat negates its advantages.

The pressure is the most noticeable I’ve experienced on a bike. At motorway speeds, with the screen fully raised, the pressure is such that it feels like there is someone gently pushing on the back of my helmet. There is a pop-up vent on the dash to direct air at the rider on warmer days; clicking this helps disrupt the air pressure enough that I don’t have to strain my neck as much, but it also means being hit in the chest with cold Alpine air.

Soon I’m in the warmth of the Gotthard Tunnel, however, and able to get a sense of what the bike is like in warm weather. At 10.5 miles, the Gotthard Tunnel is one of the longest road tunnels in the world – long enough that it has its own climate. While the temperature outside is 8ºC (about 46ºF), inside it quickly raises to 30ºC (or 86ºF), according to the bike’s external temperature readout. The screen is all the way down, the dashboard vent is deployed, and I’m comfortable enough that I don’t feel the need to pull over and remove some of my winter clothing, as happened when I did this ride on a Kawasaki GTR1400 two years ago (Of course, some credit goes to the Oxford Montreal 3.0 jacket I’m wearing, which is easy to open up a little while on the move). The engine’s been running for a few hours now, so I assume it’s putting out heat but I can’t feel it.

Honda’s buttonage is a little OTT

If I were hot, though, I wouldn’t be able to keep a bottle of water in the small compartment on the right side of the fairing. Most big touring bikes I’ve ridden have compartments like this, including the Harley-Davidson Ultra, and Indian Roadmaster. The Gold Wing’s compartment isn’t as useful, though. It’s physically large enough to (barely) hold a 330ml bottle of water but the interior is angled in such a way that the bottle comes spilling out as soon as you open the compartment door. In the process of this trip I will find the compartment is good for holding the credit card I use when going through tolls, but not much else.

Once I exit the tunnel I’m in the Italian-speaking side of Switzerland, with even the language on the road signs having changed. It’s basically Italy with less corruption. Near Lugano I decide to click on the radio. You can say a lot of wonderful things about Italian culture but its modern contributions to the world of music are lacking. That’s not the stereo’s fault, though; I don’t really care about sound systems on motorcycles but this is one of the better ones I’ve encountered. Not quite the mobile disco of an Indian Chieftain Elite, but very good. A week or so later, the radio will facilitate a strangely enjoyable evening of riding around listening to an Ed Sheeran concert on Radio 2.

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Cruise control for the Gold Wing Tour is set via switches on the right grip. I have always disliked when manufacturers do this. It may make sense on one level – placing the thing that controls the throttle on the same grip as the throttle – but it’s always a pain in the ass to set. Once done, however, the system work well, holding the mighty Wing to its speed regardless of terrain.

Related to the issue of speed, the Gold Wing uses an analogue speedometer offset to the left of the dash, which means it’s not in my immediate line of sight when riding. I have to make a conscious decision to check my speed rather than always being aware of it. The dial is set for miles per hour (what we use in the UK), so now that I’m in Europe reading the tiny kilometer numbers is tricky. There is a giant screen in the center of the dash that offers all kinds of information but there is no option to have a digital speedometer on this display, which strikes me as silly.

Bafflingly, there is no 12v or USB port on the Gold Wing

I primarily use the display for the bike’s built-in GPS. The system is somewhat disappointing, though. It is controlled via a large knob on the bike’s “tank,” not touchscreen as you’ll find on BMW, Harley-Davidson, and Indian touring bikes. Here on the Italian autostrada it performs well but, as I had discovered the day before on French hairpin roads, it will struggle to identify where you are if roads are close together or features such as mountains or buildings are obstructing signal. The whole thing feels behind the curve, reminiscent of using Google Maps on a first-generation iPhone: you’re here, or maybe here, or over there, or maybe none of these. In other words, be sure to pack a physical map.

The GPS is disappointing because it goes against the excellence ethos of the Gold Wing. From time to time with this bike you will be surprised/frustrated that it lacks certain modern amenities (there is no 12v or USB port, for example) but you reconcile it with the knowledge that the stuff that is on the bike works well and will continue to do so long after you’re dead. Not so much with the GPS.

Oh, but did I mention the reverse gear? Excellent. Useful and better than any other bike’s reverse gear ever. Paired with the Gold Wing’s impeccable balance it means you will forget that the bike is heavy – there will rarely be situations in which you have to deal with the weight unaided. And speaking of excellent things, the Gold Wing’s easy-set parking brake will make you angry that no other bike manufacturers make such a thing.

It backs up well

Milan and Home

I spend three days in Milan, checking out all that is new, and using the Gold Wing to get around. It is surprisingly adept at commuting, something I will prove again to myself in the week after I return home, making my way to and from work each day. The two-day ride home to Cardiff is uneventful; the Gold Wing eliminates even the quietest of concerns you might have about touring on a motorcycle – it is built for this. I spend an afternoon exploring a section of Switzerland that turns out to be the home of William Tell but otherwise keep to motorways, keen to get back to Jennosaurus.

By the time I return to the East Midlands to give the bike back I will be a full convert: the Honda Gold Wing is the Greatest Motorcycle in the World. I am happy to state that over and over. But over and over I also ask myself whether I would really want the greatest motorcycle in the world. More precisely, I ask whether I would really want to pay £31,000 for it. I mean, the BMW K 1600 B isn’t quite as comfortable or effortless, but it’s a damned good machine and even the all-bells-and-whistles LE version costs a solid £10,000 less. Having said that, though, I’m not sure a K 1600 B is designed to run forever. Whereas it is not exactly rare to see a Gold Wing with 200,000 miles on the clock. With basic maintenance, the Wing could be the last bike you ever buy. That’s true even if you’re buying one when you’re 20 years old.

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Of course, most of the folks buying a Gold Wing will be considerably more seasoned. For 2018, Honda overhauled the Gold Wing to give it a sportier look, aware that the model had earned a reputation as an Old Man bike and eager to entice younger riders. My feeling is that this makeover ultimately won’t achieve that goal because it addresses a ‘problem’ that wasn’t ever a problem. It was never about look and feel.

The Gold Wing has long been a surprisingly nimble, surprisingly powerful beast. It has always been a motorcycle that any rider in his or her right mind would be happy to own. But it has also always been crazy expensive, and it’s simply the nature of things that older people tend to be the ones with enough disposable income to pay for one. Honda has changed the looks of the Gold Wing but its price remains completely beyond the scope of most people under the age of 60.

Meanwhile, in trying to appeal to an audience that can’t afford the Gold Wing, Big Red has scrapped a few of the previous-generation luxuries that old boy owners liked. The luggage doesn’t hold as much stuff; there are fewer vents to direct air when it’s hot; there are fewer compartments up front; it looks slightly less like a star destroyer.

I stumbled upon the village that claims to be the home of William Tell

Would I Buy It?

If I had £31,000 I might get a Gold Wing, or I might get a K 1600 B LE and spend the rest of the money buying an Aero Leather jacket for every day of the week. Or I might get a Roadmaster and spend the extra money on performance upgrades. I’m not saying the Gold Wing Tour isn’t worth its asking price – it is. Without question. It’s the Greatest Motorcycle in the World, after all. I just don’t know if my standards are so exacting that I wouldn’t settle for less.

Ultimately, the end result of my time with the Gold Wing is that I’ve decided I would be very much like to own one, but the bike’s reputation for quality and longevity mean I’d be more than happy to own a used one. A quick check of the internet suggests I can get a 2006 model with 52,000 miles on the clock for £8,000. That’s more like it…

This bike has a lot of class

The Three Questions

Does the Honda Gold Wing Tour suit my current lifestyle?
Well, uh, yes and no. It does pretty much everything I want a bike to do, and in many cases does it better than any motorcycle on the planet. It sure as hell wouldn’t fit through my garden gate, however. Related to that, although it has perfect balance it’s only ever going to fit in the widest of gaps when filtering.

Does the Honda Gold Wing Tour put a smile on my face?
Definitely. There is so much to love about this bike. And it is a deep, lasting love. You will frequently do that thing of staring at the bike after riding, partially in admiration of its aesthetics, but more so in admiration of what it can do – all the places it can take you, all the adventures it can facilitate. Ride a Gold Wing and you will find it impossible to not entertain thoughts of selling all your things and living the rest of your days on the road. You could be like that dude who had sex with Elspeth Beard in Lone Rider.

Is the Honda Gold Wing Tour better than my current motorcycle, a 2017 Triumph Tiger Explorer XRX?
Hahahahahahahahahaha. What a stupid question. Are your grandma’s cookies better than getting shivved in prison? Is waking up next to Anna Kendrick better than being jettisoned into the perpetual emptiness of space? This is the Greatest Motorcycle in the World we’re talking about here. OF COURSE it’s better than a Tiger Explorer. Within 30 seconds of throwing my leg over the Gold Wing’s saddle I was having fantasies about setting my Triumph on fire. It wasn’t the usual reaction to a nice bike, where I think: “Gee, maybe I could sell my bike and get one of these.” I was daydreaming about a big Tiger Explorer bonfire, my face painted with the expelled oil from its smashed engine, dancing in a fervor and shouting insults at John Bloor. For touring, you will not find a better moto than the Gold Wing; the only question to answer is whether you want to pay for something this good.

Getting lost in Switzerland is always a good idea
Can you guess why I always ride to EICMA, even though it takes longer and costs more than flying?