By Bryan Harley, Cruiser Editor

This sport bagger builds on the Gold Wing legacy

Of the manufacturers actively promoting the next generation of motorcyclists, Honda has been at the forefront recently. The first indicators were its jump into the entry-level sportbike niche with the release of its CBR250R. Suddenly Kawasaki’s best-selling Ninja had a worthy opponent. Honda continued this trend with the introduction of its affordable, rider-friendly 500-series of motorcycles this year along with the release of its versatile NC700X before that.

Honda’s efforts even extend to its flagship luxury touring motorcycle, the Gold Wing, which also got a refresh in 2013. The new Honda F6B is the best hope yet to attract younger rides to the virtues of the stalwart Flat Six-powered motorcycle.

In its effort to liven up the look and expose the Wing to a wider demographic, Honda began by lopping off the plush passenger accommodations and topcase, replacing them with a standard pillion pad, black aluminum grab rails, and dual hard locking saddlebags integrated into one cohesive tail section. The wide front cowling sports a more aggressive look, anchored by the shorty windscreen sandwiched between revamped mirrors, basically the units from the Wing flipped upside down. The view from the side showcases an attractive triple louver design while the panels are skinnier. The exhaust cover is also smaller, which allows a hint of chrome from the pipes to peak out beneath the horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine. At the far end of those pipes rests re-designed exhaust tips. Honda also swapped out seats, and the new Gunfighter saddle is shorter, thinner, and at 28.5 inches, a half-inch lower than the one found on the Wing. And while its engine remains virtually unchanged, Honda eliminated the reverse gear that comes standard on the Gold Wing. The combination of losing the topcase, dropping the extra gear, and ditching a few options like cruise control and its wiring resulted in trimming 62 pounds from the GL1800. It also lowered its center of gravity. Throw in a blacked-out color scheme and the 2013 F6B has its own sporting long-and-low identity.

The F6B has a look that’s both familiar and unique, but climb into its saddle and the differences are immediately recognizable. The bike feels lower and narrower. Riders can snug up closer to the tank thanks to the slimmer seat, pressure points have shifted in the lower back, and situating two feet flatly on the ground is a cinch for my six-foot-tall frame. Even though the bike still has a claimed curb weight of 842 pounds, it doesn’t feel like it thanks to a center of gravity that has shifted slightly forward and down on the bike. Not having to look through a tall windscreen or heft the passenger backrest and topcase behind you provides a different sense of openness to riders. Mid-controls place your feet comfortably beneath you, and it’s an easy reach to the bars so riders sit upright with a slight forward lean.

But it is when the motorcycle is in motion that the changes are most apparent. Roll on the accelerator and it surges off the line, a wave of gratifying torque smoothly delivered by its 1832cc engine. Its characteristics are much different from launching a V-Twin, the power coming on less abruptly in a powerband that is very linear. The highlight is a strong initial push and a healthy midrange, though first gear signed off a little early in the rev range just above 40 mph. Once up to speed, drop it into overdrive fifth and the F6B hums along at 65 mph at a fraction below 3,000 rpm, requiring little effort from its liquid-cooled, single overhead cam engine. The powerplant features a parallel two-valve cylinder head with direct shim-under-bucket valve actuation and is a model of efficiency, with almost no noticeable vibrations or mechanical rumblings coming from Honda’s vaunted Flat Six. This despite the fact that its engine serves as a stressed member of the frame and is rigid-mounted. The engine-mounting system features a special design for its hangers and matching mounts that quell most engine vibrations.

Its five-speed transmission displays the same traits, slipping between gears with no fuss and nominal noise. Action at the shifter is smooth, but at times finding Neutral proves to be challenging. Beyond that, the tranny on the F6B works seamlessly, each gear engaging smoothly without missing a beat. We didn’t miss the electric reverse of the standard Wing, but admittedly we didn’t have to push it back at much of an incline. It sits low enough and the seat is narrow enough that we got plenty of leverage rolling back, but shorter riders might miss the reverse gear.

Its brakes are also exemplary, the linked braking system providing impressive power. Pressure from its three-piston calipers is firm and steady without being grabby while providing great feel to riders at the lever. Honda’s Combined Braking System, with three-piston calipers front and back, has a second master cylinder and a three-stage proportional control valve (PCV) to operate the calipers in tandem. The front runs dual floating 296mm discs, and a good squeeze on the front brake lever activates the outer two pistons of the front right-side caliper and the center piston of the front left-side caliper while the secondary master cylinder and an inline proportioning valve activate the outer two pistons of the rear caliper. The rear brake pedal operates the center piston of the rear brake caliper, the center piston of the front right-side brake caliper and the outer two pistons of the front left-side caliper. It is the kind of system where riders get a good sense of the calipers biting into the disc when they squeeze the brake lever and feel the effects of smooth, even braking. Honda accomplishes this without much dive in the fork, the 45mm cartridge unit sporting an anti-dive system while utilizing the same internals, damping and springs as the Gold Wing.

As we head out of San Diego into the winding roads of the Cleveland National Forest, we waver between wanting to enjoy the beauty of the round rocks of the high chaparral and the desire to continue riding, but the way the Honda F6B is shining in the curvy stuff makes our decision to ride on an easy one. Stable at lean, predictable at the bars, the motorcycle hugs the road with almost sport-touring sureness. As you can imagine, without the topcase and with the lowered COG, the F6B transitions much easier than its predecessor. The chassis on the twin-beam aluminum spar frame is the same as the Gold Wing's but doesn’t have to support as much weight, so it too is sure-footed and reliable with just the right amount of flex. While the front fork is the same, the electronically adjustable rear suspension on the standard Wing has been replaced by a spring preload adjustable shock that sits under the right side panel and is manually adjustable. As a result, the shock’s damping rates were revised to accommodate the weight loss, and the hydraulically adjustable rear feels a tad stiffer because of the reduction. Overall, it provides the same comfortable, high-quality ride you’d expect from a Gold Wing. Our major grievance is that riders will be scraping pegs quite a bit more now!

Though there’s no topcase on the F6B, its hard saddlebags still hold more than a claimed 50 liters, and we were able to stuff a Bell Skratch Deluxe Helmet inside and still get the doors shut. Opening the bags does require riders to remove the key from the ignition to open them. A positive side effect from this is at least the saddlebags are constantly locked and it does come equipped with an electric ‘bag ajar’ indicator to inform you if they’re not shut. We’ve had bags pop open while riding other motorcycles, and having your stuff fly all over the freeway always sucks, so Honda’s attention to detail is appreciated.

Our first ride on the 2013 Honda Gold Wing F6B covered a total of 151 miles of highway miles in addition to plenty of remote two-lane traffic through winding roads with numerous elevation changes. Honda sets mileage estimates at 34 mpg, and before our stint with the F6B was done, we had about 1/8th of a tank left in the 6.6-gallon fuel cell. While riding, an open-face helmet brought awareness to the wind creeping over the shorty windscreen and hitting riders about mid-face. Buffeting isn’t bad, but the amount of air channeled back to the rider is noticeable when it’s virtually non-existent on the Wing. Besides that, the front fairing is plenty wide enough to shelter riders from most other debris kicked up on the road.

The layout of the cockpit is very intuitive, with a round analog speedo front-and-center flanked by an odometer on the left and a fuel gauge/oil temperature indicator on the right. A four-speaker audio system bookends the instrument cluster, the sound plenty loud and clear even at freeway speeds. In the left saddlebag resides a connector for an iPod or MP3 player, but the system runs standard AM/FM channels as well. Below the speedo cluster sits a digital, multi-information screen that cycles through features like an odometer/A&B tripmeters, clock, air temperature, audio controls and music information. A series of knobs and buttons to control these features is situated on a panel on the rider’s left side, the collection slightly imposing if you’re unfamiliar with them. Like most things, the imposition fades with familiarity. On a final note, both the brake and clutch levers on the F6B are five-way adjustable, a handy feature.

The 2013 Honda Gold Wing F6B will be the first model to incorporate Honda Signature Accessories like deluxe removable saddlebag liners at the time of its launch. There is a long list of Honda accessories ready to add custom touches to the F6B available as well, from a sharp-looking short, tinted windscreen to an outdoor cover that allows owners to access the bike’s saddlebags with the cover still on. It also comes straight from the factory in a F6B Deluxe version that comes with a center stand, self-cancelling turn signals, a passenger backrest and heated grips for a cool grand more.

The importance of the Gold Wing to Honda cannot be understated. Not many motorcycles make it to 38 years of production, but this bike has. Honda claims they have sold over 550,000 Gold Wings in the U.S. alone. And though the 2013 F6B has come a long ways from the 1975 GL1000, Honda reminds us that the current bike wouldn’t be possible without the past iterations that helped pave the way for it to succeed.

“Back in 1972, race-bike-engineering giant Soichiro Irimajiri headed up design of the exquisitely sophisticated and ultra-high-performance prototype M1 motorcycle, specifically to explore the outer limits of the Grand Touring concept. The final result was truly a breakthrough machine, one that set new standards of design and performance thanks to its liquid-cooled horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine with shaft drive – key features that appear in today’s F6B,” Honda stated in its Gold Wing Timeline.

Honda is confident this exercise will succeed because it’s projecting as many F6B sales as GL1800. The GL trailed only the CBR250R in sales last year, and not by much. Considering the difference in price between the two is about $20 grand, it drives home the importance of the Gold Wing to the Honda bottom line.

Honda has done a bang up job with its F6B. It still exhibits some of the same characteristics as the Wing, from all-day comfort to its potent power delivery to its road-hugging chassis, but the riding experience is much more spirited thanks to the lower COG and sheddin’ of weight. It has enough power to launch you off the start line in a kinetic burst, it hugs the pavement when the road snakes up, and its brakes more than get the job done when it’s time to scrub off speed. And though it shares its DNA with the Wing, sample one and experience the much more spirited ride for yourself, one that matches its sporty new look. After our day in its saddle, we must say we came away impressed with the new niche Honda has created, one affectionately dubbed the “sports bagger.”