When BMW unveiled the all-new 2012 K 1600 GTL, a high-tech, high-performance replacement for the long-running K 1200 LT, the company declared that it had built “a shark, not a whale,” a thinly veiled jab at the Honda Gold Wing GL1800. Around the same time we got our first ride on the GTL (and its sport-touring sibling, the K 1600 GT) in South Africa, Honda unveiled the 2012 Gold Wing, featuring new bodywork, more luggage capacity, better handling, a redesigned cockpit and updated audio and navigation—a significant refresh but well short of an overhaul. Since then we’ve logged thousands of miles on the K 1600 GTL and Gold Wing (read reports in our May, July and August 2011 issues or at ridermag.wpengine.com), and as enjoyable as it has been to ride them in places as disparate as Africa and Appalachia, one can’t help but wonder: Are they truly comparable?
Yes and no.
Both have big, powerful six-cylinder engines with shaft final drive. Both offer levels of comfort and lists of features found on few motorcycles. And both of our well-appointed test bikes—the Premium-equipped K 1600 GTL and the Audio Comfort Navi XM ABS Gold Wing—have as-tested sticker prices of more than 25 large. But one weighs 134 pounds more than the other. One offers superior wind protection, greater luggage capacity and more spacious seating, while the other offers superior engine performance, sharper handling and more sophistication. One has been steadily refined over its 38-year model history, setting and resetting standards for smoothness, comfort and reliability; the other is an all-new model with a few teething issues. One can easily accommodate a trailer and has a well-developed aftermarket; the other, not so much.
Rather than the snarky shark/whale comparison—both have fins and live in the sea but are entirely different critters—a more apt metaphor for the K 1600 GTL and Gold Wing would be a thoroughbred and a Clydesdale—two strong, impressive steeds bred for different purposes. The BMW places greater emphasis on performance than luxury, its rev-happy, in-line six trumping all else. The Honda places greater emphasis on luxury than performance, its cozy bubble of wind protection and plush seating taking center stage. You can rack up miles smoothly, swiftly and comfortably on both, but you’ll come away with different impressions. The K 1600 GTL will thrill you; the Gold Wing will pamper you.
Rather than end the story right there, we took the K 1600 GTL and Gold Wing on the road for a few days, traveled nearly 1,000 miles and came home with a more detailed comparison of two motorcycles near and dear to the hearts of touring riders. On the ride was yours truly, an impatient Generation-Xer with an iPhone surgically implanted in the palm of my hand, and veteran photographer Rich Cox, a laidback Baby Boomer who still misses shooting on film. From the coast we headed inland, crossing the Mojave Desert, turning north into the Owens River Valley, venturing into the White Mountains, Sierra Nevada and Alabama Hills, staying overnight in Lone Pine and Kernville, and subsisting on pie, pizza and post-ride pints.
At our first gas stop and second bike swap, after more than 100 miles of highway cruising with a few scenic, serpentine roads in the middle, opinions had already begun to form. Both the GL1800 and K 1600 GTL are impeccably smooth, spinning their crankshafts well below 3,000 rpm at 60 mph in top gear and emitting barely a tingle of vibration. On either bike, raise the windscreen, dial in the audio system and set the cruise control; you’ll be in the next state before you know it. But when you give their throttles a serious workout, the fundamental schism between the BMW and the Honda—performance vs. luxury—becomes readily apparent. Not only does the K 1600 GTL weigh 134 pounds less than the GL1800, its smaller-displacement engine (1,649cc vs. 1,832cc) generates more output, resulting in a higher power-to-weight ratio. On Jett Tuning’s dyno, the K 1600 GTL (in Dynamic mode) cranked out 134.9 horsepower at 7,900 rpm and 114.3 lb-ft of torque at 5,300 rpm (redline is 8,500 rpm), whereas the Gold Wing cranked out 100.9 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 105.7 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm (redline is 6,000 rpm). The GTL generates over 100 lb-ft of torque between 3,000 and 7,000 rpm; the GL1800 generates over 90 lb-ft of torque between 2,000 and 6,000 rpm. Both pull strongly from low revs in almost any gear, but the BMW pulls harder, revs higher and growls more aggressively. But the K 1600 GTL’s performance advantage comes at a price. It suffers from too much driveline lash, it has long-throw shifting that feels clunky in lower gears and its throttle-by-wire system acts confused when revs fall below 3,000 rpm. The Gold Wing, on the other hand, is as smooth as Hugh Hefner, with buttery throttle response, satiny shifting and a taut driveline.
Despite similar 29-inch-plus seat heights, Rich and I both felt more cramped on the K 1600 GTL, with its smaller, harder seat and higher footpegs (a no-cost optional 30.7-inch seat is available for the GTL). In addition to its larger, more comfortable seat, additional leg room and more natural reach to the bars, the Gold Wing’s larger fairing and wider windscreen better protect the rider and passenger from wind, rain and other elements. At the end of the first day, Rich said, “BMW didn’t fully commit to building a luxury tourer; they built a fancy sport tourer.” But I disagree. From my point of view, the K 1600 GTL has plenty of wind protection (both it and the Gold Wing get my girlfriend’s seal of approval); I want to feel some wind, and I prefer less visual mass in the cockpit.
The next morning we awoke dark and early, slurped down coffee and headed into the Alabama Hills, a boulder-strewn area in the shadow of Mt. Whitney where many westerns were filmed, for some first-light photography. A snowflake symbol on the BMW’s full-color TFT display warned of near-freezing conditions. Rich and I cranked up the grip and seat heaters—controlled by two dials on the Gold Wing’s dash and via the Multi-Controller on the left handgrip of the K 1600 GTL, an easy-to-use wheel that controls suspension adjustments, traction control, audio functions, navigation (with the optional BMW Navigator IV unit) and more without having to take a hand off the bar. Rather than menus, the Gold Wing relies on a profusion of buttons and switches spread throughout the cockpit and on both handlebars. In such cold conditions, the Gold Wing’s better wind protection and foot-warming vents made it the preferred mount.
Obviously, windscreens are a big part of wind protection. Being taller than Rich, I could see over both bikes’ windscreens in their lowest positions but had to look through them when fully raised. Rich had to look through both screens in all positions, and he complained about distortion in the GTL’s irregularly shaped screen, especially when trying to read the terrain of technical corners. I felt back pressure when the GTL screen was fully raised, but could alleviate it by opening the clever fairing vents (a less attractive option when it’s cold outside). I struggled with helmet buffeting on the Gold Wing in all screen positions except the highest, but buffeting wasn’t an issue on the K 1600 GTL. Aftermarket windscreens offer different shapes or more coverage, as desired. That you must unlock two levers to manually raise or lower the Gold Wing’s screen is a hassle; the K 1600 GTL’s electrically adjustable screen is the way to go.
After our early morning photo shoot and a hearty breakfast at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant (elk patty and eggs!), Rich and I headed south, turning onto Nine Mile Canyon Road and climbing up into the Sierra toward Kennedy Meadows. Like a Clydesdale, the Gold Wing feels rock solid at any lean angle. Even though its new fork bushings and Bridgestone radials help it feel more nimble, steering the Gold Wing through technical corners requires more effort than the light-handling K 1600 GTL, which has a shorter wheelbase and sportier geometry. When the pace heats up, the Gold Wing’s extra weight, dated suspension and limited cornering clearance leave it gasping for air while the K 1600 GTL is just hitting its stride. The Gold Wing’s combination damping-rod/cartridge fork (the damping-rod in the left fork leg has an anti-dive system that uses brake-fluid pressure) chatters over rough pavement and isn’t quite up to the task of hustling 1,000-plus pounds of bike, rider and gear through tight corners. Its Pro-Link rear shock offers electronically adjustable rear preload with memory presets, but that’s it in terms of adjustment. Nonetheless, at typical touring speeds, the Gold Wing provides a plush ride, with or without a passenger and luggage. The K 1600 GTL’s Hossack-type Duolever front suspension also limits dive under braking, and its single front shock offers preload and damping adjustment, as does the single shock on the GTL’s Paralever rear suspension. Our Premium test bike has Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) II, allowing pushbutton adjustment of preload (rider, rider plus luggage, rider plus passenger) and damping (Sport, Normal, Comfort). ESA II is undeniably convenient and, as tested, the K 1600 GTL’s suspension compliance is better than the Gold Wing’s. Both have incredibly strong linked brakes with ABS (standard on the BMW, optional on the Honda), but the Gold Wing requires a firmer pull at the front lever, has less initial bite and offers less braking feel. ABS pulsing is all but nonexistent on both bikes, but the system engages early when you press on the GTL’s rear pedal.
More into marathons than sprints? Again, the Gold Wing’s higher curb weight and wider frontal area, not to mention its extra 183cc of engine displacement, cut into fuel economy, eroding the slight cost advantage it has running regular unleaded vs. the K 1600 GTL’s required midgrade. With Rich and I swapping bikes regularly over the same roads, the Honda averaged 37.6 mpg to the BMW’s 41.3 mpg. The Gold Wing’s 6.6-gallon tank is good for 248 miles while the K 1600 GTL’s 7-gallon tank is good for 289.
Both the K 1600 GTL and the Gold Wing have pushbutton-lockable luggage, with saddlebags, a top trunk and smaller storage compartments. The Gold Wing has about 150 liters of storage capacity, including two front fairing compartments (on non-Airbag models; one is lockable) and two compartments on either side of the passenger seat. The K 1600 GTL has about 115 liters of storage, including two small lockable lower fairing compartments. The Gold Wing’s saddlebags and trunk hold more than those of the GTL, but their openings and cavities are awkwardly shaped (putting helmets inside requires some fiddling). Whereas the Gold Wing’s saddlebags and trunk are integrated into the bodywork, the GTL’s can be easily removed. Even though the K 1600 GTL offers less luggage capacity, its load capacity is 40 pounds higher than the Gold Wing’s (459 pounds vs. 419 pounds).
A detailed flow chart is required to list all of the standard and optional features on the K 1600 GTL and Gold Wing. The BMW comes in two configurations: Standard ($23,200) and Premium ($25,845). The Honda comes in four: Audio Comfort ($23,890), Audio Comfort Navi XM ($26,680), Audio Comfort Navi XM ABS ($27,900) and Airbag ($29,350). Our test bikes were fully kitted with every option short of an airbag on the Gold Wing. Both have ABS, full audio systems (AM/FM, iPod compatibility, XM satellite radio and USB connectors), grip/seat heaters, tire pressure monitors and cruise control. The Gold Wing offers a built-in satellite navigation system (weather and traffic can be added for a monthly fee), but you must pay an extra $899 for the BMW Navigator IV. The Gold Wing offers electrically adjustable rear preload only; the K 1600 GTL’s ESA II adjusts preload and damping. Furthermore, the BMW’s riding modes (Dynamic, Road and Rain) work in conjunction with the Dynamic Traction Control to adapt throttle response, engine power and DTC intervention to road conditions. And the K 1600 GTL has a unique and impressive safety feature, the Adaptive headlight, which offers dynamic leveling and casts the beam into turns using information from the bike’s bank angle sensors. The Gold Wing offers electric reverse, but the K 1600 GTL does not.
Our third day on the road began with another pre-dawn start, polishing and setting up the bikes on the edge of Lake Isabella, waiting for the sun rise over the Sierra. Later, as we warmed ourselves over breakfast at Cheryl’s Diner (biscuits and gravy!), Rich and I hashed out our final assessments of the K 1600 GTL and Gold Wing. When BMW designed the K 1600 GTL, it sought to break new ground, to shake off its long-standing reputation for building stodgy, quirky, overpriced motorcycles. Unlike our previous comparisons of the BMW K 1600 GT vs. Kawasaki Concours 14 (December 2011) and BMW R 1200 GS Adventure vs. Yamaha Super Ténéré (January 2012), praise for the K 1600 GTL doesn’t come with the caveat of a $5,000-$9,000 price premium. In this case, the BMW costs $2,055 less than the Honda. For the money, BMW offers a tremendous amount of performance and sophistication. When Honda updated the Gold Wing, it sought to make the improvements its loyal customers wanted most without reinventing the core platform, which Honda says most Gold Wing owners are happy with.
That the Gold Wing’s engine and chassis haven’t changed much in 11 years but it is still in the hunt against BMW’s latest and greatest speaks volumes about how good it is, how ahead of its time it was in 2001. The winner of this contest depends on your criteria, on what is most important to you. Luxury, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. For some, it’s a big, comfy seat, a large bubble of wind protection and built-in features like plug-in intercom capability, controls for an optional CB radio and reverse. For others, it’s cutting-edge engine performance, menu-driven controls and state-of-the-art technology such as traction control, riding modes and ESA II. These definitions of luxury are not necessarily an either-or proposition, but they resonate with different folks. If I were to buy a luxury tourer, I’d want it to do as many things as possible, to make few sacrifices. For better performance and handling, I’m willing to give up some comfort and luggage capacity. Rich feels the opposite. I’m a K 1600 GTL kind of guy; he leans toward the Gold Wing. But under the right set of circumstances, be they two-up touring, inclement weather or the type of roads on our route, we could easily flip-flop into the other camp.
2012 BMW K 1600 GTL Specs
Base Price: $23,200
Price as Tested: $25,845 (Premium package)
Warranty: 3 yrs., 36,000 miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse in-line six
Bore x Stroke: 72.0 x 67.5mm
Compression Ratio: 12.2:1
Valve Train: DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Adj. Interval: Varies, computer monitored
Fuel Delivery: BMS-X EFI, 52mm throttle valvesLubrication System: Dry sump, 4.75-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, hydraulically actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: Shaft, 2.75:1
Ignition: BMS-X computer controlled
Charging Output: 580 watts max.
Battery: 12V 19AH
Frame: Cast aluminum-alloy twin-spar main frame w/ engine as stressed member & aluminum subframe; Paralever single-sided swingarm
Wheelbase: 63.7 in.
Rake/Trail: 27.8 degrees/4.2 in.
Seat Height: 29.5 in.; optional high seat: 30.7 in.
Suspension, Front: BMW Duolever w/ ESA II (as tested), 4.5-in. travel
Rear: Single shock w/ ESA II (as tested), 5.3-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual discs w/ radial opposed 4-piston calipers & partial integral ABS
Rear: Single disc w/ 2-piston caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Cast, 3.50 x 17 in.
Rear: Cast, 6.00 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: 120/70-ZR17
Wet Weight: 776 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity: 459 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 1,235 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 7.0 gals., last 1.0 gal. warning light on.
MPG: 89 PON min. (high/avg/low) 46.7/41.3/36.0
Estimated Range: 289 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 2,750
2012 Honda Gold Wing GL1800 ABS Specs
Base Price: $23,890
Price as Tested: $27,900 (Audio Comfort Navi XM ABS package)
Warranty: 3 yrs., unltd. miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, longitudinal opposed flat six
Bore x Stroke: 74.0 x 71.0mm
Compression Ratio: 9.8:1
Valve Train: SOHC, 2 valves per cyl.
Valve Adj. Interval: 32,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: PGM-FI w/ automatic choke
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 4.9-qt. cap.
Transmission: 5-speed & electric reverse, hydraulically actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: Shaft, 2.75:1
Ignition: Computer-controlled digital
Charging Output: 1,300 watts max.
Battery: 12V 20AH
Frame: Aluminum-alloy twin-spar perimeter w/ engine as stressed member; Pro-Arm single-sided swingarm
Wheelbase: 66.5 in.
Rake/Trail: 29.2 degrees/4.3 in.
Seat Height: 29.1 in.
Suspension, Front: 45mm stanchions w/ anti-dive, 4.8-in. travel
Rear: Pro-Link single shock, remotely adj. for spring preload, 4.1-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual discs w/ opposed 3-piston CBS calipers & ABS (as tested)
Rear: Single disc w/ opposed 3-piston CBS caliper & ABS (as tested)
Wheels, Front: Cast, 3.50 x 18 in.
Rear: Cast, 5.00 x 16 in.
Tires, Front: 130/70-HR18
Wet Weight: 910 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity: 419 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 1,329 lbs. (as tested)
Fuel Capacity: 6.6 gals., warning light on last 1.0 gal.
MPG: 87 PON min. (high/avg/low) 43.4/37.6/33.8
Estimated Range: 248 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 2,550