2012 BMW K 1600 GTL vs. 2012 Honda Gold Wing GL1800

Text: Ken Freund • Photography: Kevin Wing, Jonathan Beck

The near simultaneous 2012 introductions of BMW’s new K 1600 GTL and Honda’s redesigned Gold Wing GL1800 beg for a comparison. Both are flagship models for their respective brands, propelled by six-cylinder engines and designed for long-distance touring. We chose the K 1600 GTL rather than the GT version for this comparison; the GTL it has more wind protection, a larger fuel capacity, and a top trunk, which makes it more similar to the Gold Wing than the sportier GT. However, that’s where strong similarities end.

Powertrain

BMW

BMW has decades of experience making in-line automotive six-cylinder engines, and their Motorrad division decided to put this expertise to good use in the K 1600 series. Displacing 1649cc, the K 1600’s potent DOHC in-line six is rated 160.5 hp at 7,500 rpm with red line at 8,500. Peak torque is 129 lb-ft at 5,500 rpm, with 70 percent of that available down at 1,500 rpm. The K 1600 engine—only 22 inches wide—is narrower than any other motorcycle’s serially produced in-line six, and the in-line configuration gives perfect primary balance.

The Beemer’s engine is powerful and refined, with smooth yet strong throttle response. The lack of vibration belies how fast you’re accelerating, and the wide torque band reduces the need for constant shifting. Clutch pull is easy, the six-cog gearbox works effortlessly, and shaft drive eliminates chain maintenance. BMW designed the new engine to be more fuel efficient than its forebears, and we got about 38 mpg riding aggressively, and up to 44 mpg taking it easy, for an average of 41 mpg. This allows a usable range of 200 miles or better.

Honda

Honda’s engineers chose a different track entirely with Gold Wing’s horizontally opposed six-cylinder powerplant. This design, in use by Wings since 1988, also has perfect primary balance. However, the crankshaft runs longitudinally with the bike’s centerline instead of perpendicular like BMW’s. Honda introduced the GL1800 with its 1832cc displacement in 2001, and the boxer-
type engine is unchanged for 2012. The Gold Wing remains a benchmark as one of the smoothest, most-refined motorcycle engines ever.

Honda does not provide power ratings, but we’ve seen rear-wheel horsepower numbers just under 100 bandied about, while the K 1600 puts out about 130-plus horses at the back wheel. There’s less difference in torque between the two, but it appears the Wing makes about 10 lb-ft less than the Beemer at peak. With the Wing’s substantial weight penalty and less power, it’s noticeably slower on acceleration than the Beemer. However, power delivery is silky smooth, with ample acceleration even when riding two up with luggage. The 6.6-gallon fuel tank, although slightly smaller the GTL’s, still provides excellent touring range.

Gold Wing’s five-speed manual transmission, which is the only available choice, seems a bit dated. The clutch and gearbox work flawlessly, and (optional) reverse makes it easy to back out uphill, but it would be nice to see a six-speed manual and an automatic or semi-auto transmission (which Honda already has) offered.

Chassis & Handling

BMW

BMW uses an aluminum bridge-type frame
and rear subframe, with a Duolever front end and Paralever rear suspension, and single-sided swingarm. This combination reduces front-end dive under braking and provides good stability, ride quality, and sporty handling. Overall, the GTL seems more like a sportbike than a touring machine in the twisties, with good turn-in and a neutral feel. It holds a line easily. The standard-fitment Metzeler Roadtec Z8 tires grip and track well, and the GTL feels much lighter and more nimble than the Gold Wing. Standard ABS and powerful brakes deliver consistent stops without fading.

BMW offers many standard and extra-cost electronic systems, including GPS, tire-pressure monitoring, and central locking in various option packages. BMW’s “E-Gas” throttle-by-wire interfaces with cruise control and Dynamic Traction Control (DTC), with three power modes: rain, standard, and dynamic. The GTL is the first motorcycle to offer an optional adaptive headlight, which helps you see around corners at night. Electronic Suspension Adjustment II (ESA II) allows riders to adjust front and rear rebound damping, rear preload, and rate. Both DTC and ESA II are standard on GTLs.

Honda

The Wing’s aluminum frame and major chassis components are unchanged. Rear spring preload is electronically adjustable, and revised suspension settings front and rear yield added compliance for better ride and comfort.

Despite weighing more than 900 pounds, the Wing is surprisingly easy to handle, especially once underway. On the highway the bike feels plush, yet controlled. The big machine can tackle corners quite well and hold a line nicely, but cornering ground clearance is significantly more limited than the GTL’s. Standard-fitment tires grip well, rain or shine, and feel stable at speed. Also, the brakes are strong, smooth, and nearly effortless, and the optional ABS is very effective, especially on wet roads.

Features & Ergonomics

BMW

Windscreen coverage on the GTL is excellent, although at its highest position there’s noticeable backpressure and buffeting. A pair of wind deflectors just ahead of the knees can be flipped outward to direct air onto the rider in hot weather, and they work well.

An analog speedometer and tachometer, plus an extensive digital display, keep the rider informed. GTL’s audio system can interconnect with an iPod, MP3 player, USB, Blue-tooth, GPS, and FM and satellite radio; the sound is excellent. The GTL comes with many standard electronic features, including ABS, DTC, xenon headlamps, heated grips and seat, cruise control, and an alarm system. All told there are 16 control units networked together.

BMW designed the GTL so riders sit more upright, with a lower saddle, footpegs slightly forward, and handgrips two inches aft (compared with the GT), which makes the GTL more comfortable and similar to the Gold Wing. Passengers get a comfy backrest and armrests, but the GTL front seat is hard, and taller riders will prefer the softer, optional higher seat. Passenger accommodations are comfy, but perhaps not quite as luxuriant as the Honda’s.

A full-face helmet will fit in either of the standard 33-liter saddlebags, and the 49-liter top trunk also provides a passenger backrest. Optional central locking with an alarm and a remote control for the storage compartments, panniers, and topcase is available.

Honda

Redesigned fairings add wind protection to the lower body, and the manually adjustable windscreen with nearly four inches of travel keeps windblast off the upper body. When fully up, it gives excellent coverage with some buffeting and push from behind. When the vent in the lower windshield is open, it relieves wind effects and allows cooling airflow.

Instrumentation is excellent, with a tach and speedo, gas and coolant temp gauges, plus warning lights and a staggering array of switches. A separate LCD monitor displays the odometer, twin tripmeters, clock, ambient temperature, audio modes, CB radio, rear-suspension preload settings, and trunk/saddlebag-open indicators.

Seating is improved and feels extremely comfortable. Passengers will also find the rear seat lush. Optional five-position heated grips and the heated seat/backrest combination are great for winter weather; front and passenger seats are regulated separately. The foot-warming system channels engine-
heated air over the rider’s feet. The Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) continually measures air pressure in both tires, and if pressure drops significantly, a dash warning illuminates.

There are four option packages. Audio Comfort adds cruise control; electric reverse; heated grips, seat, and foot warmers; and surround sound. The Navi option adds GPS and XM radio. The other two options add ABS and the only airbag offered on motorcycles.

Larger saddlebags add approximately seven liters of additional storage space. The trunk provides 60 liters of storage capacity in which two full-face helmets fit easily. The saddlebags provide more than 43 liters of storage each, resulting in a total of 146 liters of storage space between trunk and saddlebags. Altogether, the Wing has more than 150 liters of storage space between trunk, saddlebags, and fairing pockets, significantly more than the GTL. The cases and trunk can also be locked with the remote control.

Honda’s SRS CS Auto surround-sound system, with 80-watts-per-channel amplifier, belts out clear, crisp sound, even at highway speeds. It offers direct MP3/iPod connectivity plus access to the device’s functions through handlebar controls. With AM, FM, XM satellite radio, iPod/MP3 inputs, and great sound quality, the audio system makes long hauls more enjoyable. The CB radio is also convenient for chatting with other riders and drivers.

Final Thoughts

For 2012, the Gold Wing received a number of changes: styling, revised suspension settings, linked braking with optional ABS, more luggage capacity, updated electronics with advanced GPS, and the only airbag available on the market. Many buyers will find the Gold Wing offers better wind and weather protection, a more luxurious ride, comfier ergonomics, and a bit more cargo space. The Gold Wing also has a reverse that lends itself to trike conversions.

With the K 1600 series, BMW has introduced a totally new, powerful, sophisticated, and agile touring machine. Riders who prefer a lighter, faster, and sporty-handling touring motorcycle will probably find the K 1600 GTL more to their liking.

Both brands are available with virtually every feature you could want in a motorcycle, and the base prices are within a dollar of each other. However, the GTL’s top price is ,499, compared to ,350 for the Gold Wing’s top MSRP. Regardless which machine you choose, you’ll be picking an excellent motorcycle that’s designed well, built with attention to detail, and has topnotch fit and finish. While the BMW benefits from the latest technology due to its clean-sheet design, the Gold Wing GL1800 series is a mature product with a decade of refinement behind it.