EIC Drevenstedt asked me a simple question: “How many Honda Gold Wings have you ridden?” My answer required lots of mental calculations: maybe 75 or 80 total? “Okay,” he said. “Then you go ride the 2021 Gold Wing Tour DCT and tell me how it fits in with all those past Wings.”
Back in the late 1970s, I worked at Cycle magazine, and we rode the living snot out of every test bike, including the big ones. So full disclosure: I’m an outlier regarding performance standards. I’ve always pushed motorcycles far beyond the typical pace, and I prize light and lively handling above all else. Since 2000 I’ve ridden over 40 different fifth-gen Wings (2001-2017 GL1800s), but I had yet to ride the sixth-gen GL1800 that was introduced in 2018 and updated in 2020.
The mechanicals, measurements, electronics, and such of the sixth-gen GL1800 have been thoroughly covered in previous Rider tests (September 2020, November 2019, May 2018, and January 2018). But there are several updates baked into this 2021 iteration:
Revised passenger accommodations: The passenger seat backrest reclines more and has thicker foam and a taller profile. Both my wife and daughter prefer this setup compared to the previous-generation GL1800s we ride (2003 and 2008; see “SIDEBAR: A Tale of Two Gold Wings” below). They especially like the longer armrests but regret the loss of the two rear storage compartments.
Larger trunk: The top trunk now holds 61 liters (up 11 from before; total luggage capacity is 121 liters) and can now stow a pair of full-face helmets. The low back lip facilitates easy loading, but care must be taken to tuck in the cargo’s stray straps, sleeves, etc. so the lid latches securely.
New seat cover and rear turn signals: The seat’s new suede-like material has a premium look and feel to it, and the colored seat piping is a nice touch. The rear turn signals are now all red for a cleaner look.
Updated audio: Improvements include upgraded, 45-watt speakers with richer sound, optimized automatic volume-adjustment level, a standard XM radio antenna and new Android Auto integration in addition to the previous Apple CarPlay integration.
My other impressions of the sixth-gen Wing? Awesome brakes. Truly awesome, much like sportbike binders. I never felt the brakes on my 2008 Wing were lacking, until now. Equally important, rider ergonomics are vastly improved. I’m a big guy, and I’ve always felt cramped and confined by the previous-gen GL1800’s seat/bar/peg configuration. The latest iteration offers much more natural and comfortable ergonomics.
Gold Wings are engineered to be run hard — really hard — and they’ll go better and faster than the vast majority of owners will ever suspect. For 2021 the overall feel is taut and modern, much closer to the sport-touring side than ever before.
The Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) is also impressive and relieves some of the rider task load, especially while riding around town and dealing with traffic. Its shift points in Tour mode are accurate, if a bit relaxed, while Sport mode’s power delivery feels much crisper and even a bit abrupt. Sport mode holds shift points so much longer you really need to be totally sport focused, not even a little bit lazy in your planning. And that’s not a complaint; Sport is my preferred setting on tight back roads. The DCT can be a little tricky during ultra-low-speed maneuvering, but I adapted fairly quickly. I do, however, miss being able to slow-roll a tight turn using the clutch during gas station maneuvers and such.
As for styling, the new machine looks stunningly sleek and remarkably athletic parked beside my 2008 GL1800. However, I am not much swayed by a machine’s cosmetics; it’s what she’ll do that counts. And Gold Wings have long been unfairly maligned for their size and looks without proper respect for their high level of full-throttle performance.
It’s hilariously revealing when anybody bad-mouths the Honda Gold Wing as an “old man’s bike,” especially if their opinion isn’t based on actual riding experience. When I wrote the test for the then-new GL1200 for the February 1984 issue of Cycle, my conclusion was: “This year the Honda engineers have pulled off an unbelievable trick — they’ve taken a 790-pound machine and made it nimble and manageable. The choice is clear. Why put up with a big-feeling touring mount when you can have something as close to magic as we’ve seen in a long time?”
Whew! Lofty praise indeed. But it reflects how much Honda engineers have always invested in the basic bones — the chassis and engine — of every generation of the Gold Wing to create a good-handling package.
Things got bigger and better with the gen-four GL1500. I didn’t spend much time on full-dresser 1500s, but I fell deeply in love with the stripped-down 1,520cc Valkyrie muscle bike — unvarnished, rowdy fun! Do you have your October 1996 issue of Rider handy? That’s my story, “The Great Escape,” with our daughter Kristen joining me on the new Valkyrie in Montana. After completing that trip I had more Valkyrie miles logged than any non-Honda employee. And I loved it.
The Gold Wing has been Honda’s flagship touring model for 46 years. It has set and reset standards for comfort, performance, reliability, and sophistication, and won Rider’s Motorcycle of the Year award in 2001 and 2018 (and the Gold Wing-based Valkyrie Tourer won in 1997).
Within the realm of big tourers, I am especially enamored with the fifth-gen Wing for both its handling and power. When I dove into the first corner aboard the GL1800 back in 2000 during the bike’s press intro, that previously beloved Valky instantly turned to toast; the GL1800 simply smoked it on handling alone, not to mention the big boost in power. For riders with a serious sporting bent, it was a real revelation thanks to its delightfully agile handling and precise steering. (We have former Large Project Leader Masanori Aoki, who was responsible for several CBR sportbike models before heading up the GL1800 project, to thank for that.) It felt nothing short of wondrous at the time and it remains a wonder and a mystery even today, which is why many uninitiated “experts” still foolishly look down their noses at Wings.
Fact is, I’ve personally schooled more than a few leather-clad sportbike riders by treating them to a sudden appearance of a Wing in their mirrors — followed by polite passes, of course. I’ve logged thousands of miles on dozens of different GL1800s and I know exactly how well they get down a road, twisty or straight. Until you’ve ground down a GL1800’s footpegs to half-length smoldering stubs, you’ve got nothing to say about how a Gold Wing supposedly cannot perform.
That brings us to this 2021 Gold Wing Tour DCT, which is an impressively sporting, fun, and stylish package. It’s so good in so many ways it really outshines the early fifth-gen GL1800, a bike I love dearly. In my book, the sixth-gen’s main shortcoming is that its Hassock-style front end that lacks the delightful steering agility of its predecessor. And that nimble feel is what originally set the GL1800 apart from other big rigs. The 2021 may be 80 pounds lighter, but that benefit is largely offset by heavier steering and muted front-end feel and feedback.
After rolling up thousands of serious test miles on all of these models and more, which is my favorite? It’s probably just me, but the nimble steering of fifth-gen Gold Wings still holds sway in my heart.
I regret that loss, but then I’m a nut for steering agility. In the real world, for every rider with a sport orientation like mine, dozens more will line up for all of the comfort, convenience and technology features that make the latest Gold Wing Tour DCT such a sweet touring machine.
2021 Honda Gold Wing Tour Specs
Base Price: $28,300
Price as Tested: $29,300 (DCT model)
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, longitudinal opposed flat six, Unicam SOHC w/ 4 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 73.0 x 73.0mm
Transmission: 7-speed Dual Clutch Transmission automatic (as tested)
Final Drive: Shaft
Wheelbase: 66.7 in.
Rake/Trail: 30.5 degrees/4.3 in.
Seat Height: 29.3 in.
Wet Weight: 838 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 5.6 gals.
Fuel Consumption: 40 mpg
SIDEBAR: A Tale of Two Gold Wings
Motorcycle industry gurus talk about expanding the touring market with younger riders. But nobody seems to do anything about it. So I did.
Back in 2019, I had one motorcycle — my trusty Honda 919. My wife Katie had basically quit riding with me even though a pair of artificial hips let her hop on a backseat freely again. A GL1800 seemed a nonstarter. Yet next thing I knew, I owned not one but two Gold Wings.
How’s that? Well, we had invited the entire family to vacation with us in Tuscany last June, including motorcycle rides with a private guide. Sweet, huh? That commitment meant Katie needed seat time prior to Italy and a Wing in the garage would supply necessary incentive.
In November of 2019, I found a used 2003 GL1800 showing 29,000 miles. It was a cream puff, and for $5,500 it was a steal. Katie and I mounted up and she fell in love with riding all over again. Life was grand. And then COVID-19 hit. Even worse, serious health issues sidelined me for nearly all of that cursed year.
So I told my son-in-law Gregg (not Drevenstedt!) to come and take the Wing so my daughter Kristen could enjoy a break from the pillion of their Yamaha R6. Kristen had logged thousands of miles with me on Wings and Valkyries from her teen years onward, so she’d surely dig it. But to my surprise, Gregg immediately fell in love with the whole Wing thing and they headed out riding most weekends, having a blast. Months later, I’d feel like a heel by repossessing it. So I bought another GL1800, this time a 2008 for $7,800. And I gave them the ’03. Growing the touring segment one young couple at a time … for less money than that trip to Italy would’ve cost us! — KL