Offering a trio of motorcycles representing distinctly different ways to enjoy touring, Honda is a leader in long-distance motorcycling. The Gold Wing serves as ambassador for the luxury category, the ST1300 represents the more sport-oriented contingent and the VTX1800T is a great machine for the bagger clan. The only similarities among the three machines—other than Honda logos—are shaft drive, windshield, five-speed transmission, and liquid cooling. Otherwise, the three are wholly unique vehicles, designed and engineered for different approaches to different types of roadways, and each is tailored for a specific riding preference. Clearly each of these highly targeted bikes excel in their own type of riding environment. But, because most owners encounter a mix of roads and riding, we were curious how each bike would perform on roads not necessarily its forté.
For a repeatable test route that contained an exhaustive mix of road types we turned to the expertise of Mad Maps (www.madmaps.com). For those of you not familiar with this convenient, almost essential accessory to riding and trip planning, Mad Maps was founded in 1997 with the goal of helping to usher the willing adventurer into the great American elsewhere. The Mad Mappers have painstakingly researched countless miles of freeways, byways and back roads to chart scenic and entertaining routes, complete with directions, roadside attractions, speed limits, plus detailed information on such varied topics as fuel availability and frequency of law enforcement patrols.
Much of our testing was on "Get Outta Town" Los Angeles Mad Map’s Padres National Forest route. The 250-mile loop takes us from the Robb Report MotorCycling offices in Malibu, into the Santa Monica Mountains, through Santa Paula—the self-described Citrus Capital of the World—to Ojai for food and gas, followed by a romp through the winding roads of the Los Padres National Forest. The route then snakes through Lockwood Valley, landscape transforming into desert on the crossing to Lake Hughes, before dropping down high-speed sweepers into Castaic, ending with a final blast of Interstate back to home base. (Click image to enlarge)
The three Hondas represent vastly different engine configurations that complement each machine’s individual purpose. The Gold Wing, the class-leading freeway flyer, is graced with its signature 1832cc opposed flat-six powerplant, that delivers exceptional smoothness regardless of load, speed, or duration of ride. The ST (sport touring) is powered by a sophisticated 1261cc longitudinally mounted, 90-degree V-4, capable of executing cross-country hauls as well as respectable performance on narrow, twisting mountain passes. Maintaining the status quo of the cruiser set, the VTX is appropriately emboldened with a stalwart 1795cc V-twin, possessing enough of the essential throaty growl to earn it respect in mixed company.
The gentle Pacific Coast Highway allows one to acclimate to the bikes before turning onto the infamously tight Decker Road for passage through the Santa Monica Mountains. As expected, the sporty ST1300 gobbled up the twists and turns with aplomb, its comparative light weight and agility inviting a spirited ride. However, contrary to what we had anticipated, both the Gold Wing (despite its bulk) and the VTX (with its limited-clearance floorboards) handled the canyon pass with surprising ease. This was the first pleasant revelation of our outings. Expectations were that the ST would shine in the twisties while the other two would languish far behind, struggling with the tight switchbacks and tiring the riders with excessive manhandling. Not so. Both the Wing and the VTX carry their weight low in the chassis and proved to be exceedingly manageable at lower speeds and in tight turns, whether under acceleration for the ascent into the mountains, or on the brakes descending the other side.
A quick blast on the freeway, the Gold Wing’s time-honored domain, reminds why this machine has been its class leader going on three decades. With a superlative combination of muscle, perfect balance, and unequaled comfort, the Gold Wing has set the bar exceedingly high. Naturally, with cruise control, GPS, and a stereo, the bike effortlessly devours highway miles. Fairing and windscreen design provides excellent protection, forming a safe little cocoon in the cockpit where there is virtually no turbulence. In fact, airflow is so minimal you will find yourself wishing for some on hot days. Our Wing was equipped with adjustable fairing and windshield deflectors to remedy this. Curiously, for a full-tilt luxury machine, the windshield is manually, rather than electrically adjustable.Once again, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the other bikes compared in the Gold Wing’s arena of flat-out freeway cruising. The ST, although placing the rider in an upright, ready riding position, manages to deliver comfort for extremely long hauls. In the high position, the electrically adjustable windscreen provides a decent amount of protection from turbulence. Despite its smaller displacement, the ST has plenty of power to maintain high speeds for extended periods with enough additional muscle on tap for overtaking. Equally impressive, the VTX’s cruiser ergonomics and plush seat are an open invitation for traversing the Interstate—albeit at a more laid back approach than its cohorts. However, the ergonomics encourage the rider to slouch, inviting potential back tweak if you are not careful. The fixed windshield breaks up the air nicely, but has a tendency in certain conditions to push the rider forward with swirling vortices at the back. The V-twin powerplant might be a little behind the other two on the on-ramp, but once up to speed it finds harmony among the brood. On all three machines, top gear provides decent overdrive, keeping the revs low, while the shaft drives are quiet and worry-free.
RIDING STYLE | Helmet: Shoei Multitec; Eyewear: Maui Jim; Jacket and over pant: Olympia Airglide 2 Mesh Tech; Gloves: Red Wing (prototypes); Boots: Kushitani Field System.
Detouring through the labyrinth of orange groves flanking Santa Paula and up through Sulphur Springs’ winding roads, we landed in Ojai, where the VTX found its place, strutting its stuff, cruising the main drag of the quaint town as we searched out a place to eat. The VTX carries its weight extremely low in the chassis and, when combined with the wide handlebars, gives it extremely competent manners for executing tight U-turns or near-zero mph maneuvering. Style is the name of the game in town, and although the Gold Wing and ST1300 have their appeal, the focus of most eyes will be on the masculine VTX.
We continually swapped mounts at frequent intervals on our outings, and the exercise revealed more than we expected. With the opportunity to hop off the cruiser, get directly onto the luxury liner, then swap for the sport tourer, emphasized not only their radical differences, but in turn allowed us to better understand and appreciate the diversity of disciplines the machines represent.
As the days unfolded, there was none of the usual vying for time on the one machine that usually happens as the clear favorite emerges in multiple bike tests. More interestingly, our common experience was trader’s remorse immediately after switching, having fallen in love with a mount. But, after a few minutes of acclimation, a new favorite was born, as we settled into the appeal of each machine. Unlike boys fighting over the prettiest girl at the prom, we gladly traded off, always eager to exchange dance partners once we realized that each machine had its own undeniable charm and grace.
Luggage capacity seems appropriate in relation to the categories. The Gold Wing has an abundance of space, more than adequate for a two-up coast-to-coast tour with reasonable expectations about carry-on. By comparison, the ST is going to demand a little more thought about what to take and what to leave behind. The detachable bags provide sufficient room for a night or two, provided you are not dating Imelda Marcos. Stock bags on the VTX are really only suitable for an extended day trip or overnight romp. However, capacity is easily expanded with an aftermarket backrest-mounted bag, such as those from Dowco.
The list of things we did not like is relatively short. The VTX runs sans fuel gauge, so the rider must exercise due diligence and keep track of miles traveled. The ST’s lower fairing design, in relation to the foot pegs, forces the rider to spread-eagle a bit putting a foot down when stopped. In situations involving tight maneuvering, there is a little uneasiness due the Gold Wing fuel-injection system’s slight hesitationjust off idle. The trick is to apply just a bit of gas, then slip the clutch to control speed instead of nursing the throttle. Once mastered the technique remedies the problem.
We enlisted the services of an expert pillion tester to educate us on the perspective from the passenger seat. The Gold Wing, as expected from its demeanor, delivered a thoroughly luxurious ride, allowing her to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Between the wind protection, stereo and intercom, "it was like riding on a couch," she observed. The seat area encases the passenger in a little womb created by the backrest, trunk, and armrests, rendering a feeling of absolute security. Elements such as the heated seat and passenger compartments (within easy reach for access while on the move) present an unequaled level of comfort and convenience.Upon first sight, our pillion tester assumed the ST 1300, with no backrest and limited points to wrap a hand around, was going to demand some effort to hang on. Once underway she discovered the side bags provided support for her legs, giving her a feeling of being safely mounted on the bike. This, combined with large surface area footrests, made for a sense of security and comfort. As it turned out, between the three motorcycles, she was the most impressed with the overall combination of the ST with regard to ride, comfort, mechanical smoothness and agility.
The VTX came up on the short end of the stick for our passenger. The backrest of the seat is angled so that it puts pressure on the backbone. The passenger pegs negate the ability to change leg position, resulting in some cramping. On the plus side, the seat position places the passenger slightly above the rider, allowing for an unobstructed view. Also, the big V-twin’s vibration ebbs right up through the pillion position. That same vibration rendered our tank pouched, hard-drive equipped iPod inoperable, unfortunately silencing the discreet Honda Genuine Accessories sound system, which was a shame.
The Gold Wing is the Acura of motorcycles, and it is easy to get spoiled by gadgets, performance, versatility, and class. About the only thing left for Honda to incorporate into its stellar flagship—and I bet the engineers have considered it—is air-conditioning. The ST is a capable canyon dancer with a weekend get-away alter ego. Highly versatile, it manages to walk the line between sport and touring duties without sacrificing performance for comfort, or vice versa. The VTX oozes boulevard savvy and attitude for day cruises, while being perfectly amenable for a run to Sturgis—with appropriate planning and preparation.
Each of these Hondas is more than capable of helping you stockpile travel memories. Truth be told, as a devout sport rider, I found my time aboard the Gold Wing, the ST1300, and the VTX1800T equally fulfilling. The enlightenment of this comparison was not how different the three machines are. Rather, we gained welcome insight into how well each machine performs the tasks that are the supposed specialties of the other bikes. The versatility that Honda builds into each of these motorcycles is staggering. You can go long distances on the ST, nail the twisties on the VTX, and cruise down Main Street and on quiet back roads on the Gold Wing.
Ultimately, this assortment of bikes would round out a garage pretty nicely. That way, whatever mood you wake up in on Saturday morning, you know you have a bike to suit. Still, no one is likely to feel particularly cheated if there is only a single slot for one of these machines.