The first thing that strikes you about the Honda GL1800 Goldwing is the sheer scale of the thing; the world's No.1 touring bike is 2635mm long (that's longer than some five-door hatches!), 945mm across the fairing, 1455mm high with the screen in its lowest position, and weighs 424kg with a full (25-litre) tank of fuel.
Add to that the visual bulk of a barn-door fairing, a high-backed, fully-upholstered pillion backrest and cavernous, built-in panniers and top box, and you are looking at an intimidatingly large motorcycle.
To make matters worse, I hadn't ridden a full-dress tourer in years and the test Wing was delivered to the office at lunchtime on a Friday, so the first time I rode it was in the weekend lemming luge.
But I needn't have been so nervous; once up and running the infamous Lead Sled is as stable as its time-honoured nickname implies and its steering, though a little ponderous by real-world standards, is light (and accurate enough) enough for some (very cautious) lane-splitting. My regular commute took about twice as long as usual but even that was no hardship, with Fine Music Radio on the six-speaker stereo and my bum cosseted by the most comfortable seat I've yet experienced.
That night I waded through the 210-page owner's manual and over the weekend I was able to take the Wing out into its natural habitat - the open road - and begin to understand the zen behind Honda's flagship tourer.
For, despite its state-of-the-art brakes and electronics, the 1832cc Goldwing is mechanically old-school. The architecture of the flat-six engine is the same as the GL1000 of 1975, with a low (9.8:1) compression ratio, and SOHC, two-valves-per-cylinder valvegear. The only significant changes in more than 36 years of production have been the addition of two extra cylinders and the substitution of two 40mm Keihin throttle bodies for the original downdraught carbs.
Maximum power is 87kW - the same as my 650cc sports bike - but the Big Six peaks at an understressed 5500rpm whereas my Daytona needs 12 750 revs. The Wing, however, leaves the Triumph for dead with its 160Nm at a mere 4000rpm.
The (well used) test Goldwing topped out a true 196km/h, with 205 showing on the speedometer and 5500rpm on the rev-counter, demonstrating once again Honda's talent for getting the gearing of its motorcycles exactly right. But it cruised best at a gentle 3250rpm, with the speedometer needle pointing straight up at a indicated 125km/h and, over a week of mixed riding, returned a creditable (for a half-tonne motorcycle!) 7.4 litres per 100km.
The rest of the drivetrain is also conservative, with a positive, fairly vocal five-speed gearbox (of which the top ratio is an overdrive) and shaft final drive, seemingly clonk-free, inside a single-sided swing-arm as per Honda's VFR all-rounders (and Ducati and BMW, of course).
The hydraulic clutch, however, takes up suddenly, very close to the grip, especially first thing in the morning when its plates are sticky with cold oil, and can catch you unawares. It's more likely to pull you off balance than stall, even cold, so it's as well to treat the left-side lever with respect on start-up. Once warm, it's more amenable to smooth take-offs although still very positive in operation.
And those take-offs can be deceptively rapid; given a handful off a standing start, the Goldwing doesn't so much accelerate as gather momentum, going through the 'box in short order to dispose of the standing quarter-mile (400m) in just over 13 seconds.
Given that it's a flat six, you'd expect it to sound like a Porsche - and it does display a certain Germanic growl at full throttle - but most of the time all you can hear (if you can hear it at all above the music) is a rather apologetic whizzing from the valvegear and ancillaries.
The suspension offers no adjustment other than a power-operated, remote rear preload setting, and the ride, especially in front, is unexpectedly firm.
Nevertheless, even our notorious bumpy test route couldn't easily overcome the sheer inertia of a bike this heavy - although I did get bumped right out of the seat twice.
For the rest, however, the bumps were felt more as hard-edged vibration through the handlebars than through the seat or 'pegs. On faster, more open routes, the bike handled as one might expect of a land yacht, with stately, unhurried progress (even at a thoroughly naughty rate of knots!), unruffled stability and slow, predictable turn-in.
Once you get used to its weight and bulk, the Goldwing is surprisingly rideable; it's worth bearing in mind that the designer of the GL1800 chassis, Masanori Aoki, was also responsible for the NSR250R, CBR250RR and CBR400RR. Nevertheless, its behaviour on our ride-and-handling section forcibly reminded me of the memorable occasion when I was invited to drive a bus around Zwartkop circuit - you have to think ahead and plan every move in advance.
Honda has incorporated a mechanical anti-dive mechanism in the Wing's already fiendishly complex combined braking system, so that no combination of lever or pedal - right up to the point where the ABS restores some sanity to proceedings - will cause the front end to dip by more than a couple of millimetres; very reassuring an a bike this size and, somehow, all of a piece with its no-fuss persona.
The reverse gear is electric; put the bike in neutral with the engine running and engage reverse, then push the starter button and the starter motor will gently propel the bike rearwards at a slow walking pace. It's a lifesaver when you find yourself nose-down trying to turn round on a steeply cambered road.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
There are a lot of them: not counting the throttle, brakes, clutch and gears, the Goldwing has no less than 49 levers, switches and knobs to confuse the rider, plus another for your pillion to adjust the heating on her seat independently of yours.
They include the controls for the screen and vent adjustments, audio system, cruise control, headlight and suspension adjustment, intercom and external music devices, (there are built-in connections for an iPod and helmet intercoms) and five-position settings for the temperature of the grips and seats.
Not all the tech is high, though; the screen is adjusted by hand (Honda says that saves the cost and weight of electric motors) as are the fairing vents and the little vent ion the middle of the screen that's supposed to direct cool air into the rider's face (it works but it's a lot simpler just to drop the screen to the lowest position).
Riding solo, I was most comfortable with the screen down but the lowest position produced an eddy that buffeted my pillion's helmet and gave her a headache, so we raised the screen when riding two-up.
There's plenty of storage too; in addition to the 60-litre top box (which really will take two full-face helmets) and two 43-litre panniers, there are two small storage compartments in the fairing (the one on the right is lockable) for a total of 146 litres of cargo capacity (again, there are hatches with less that).
In addition to the conventional ignition key, each Goldwing comes with a three-button remote transponder. Two of the buttons lock and unlock the panniers and top box, the third independently unlocks and unlatches the top box - which makes more sense than you'd think at first glance because the top box is the most convenient storage for riding helmets and gloves whenever you stop along the road.
And that's the theme of the Goldwing. Yes, it's big and indeed, it's pretentious but, with more than 30 years of practice, Honda has learned how to build a very practical grand tourer.
Price: R229 999.
Test bike from Honda SA.
Engine: 1832cc liquid-cooled flat six.
Bore x stroke: 74 x 71mm.
Compression ratio: 9.8:1.
Valvegear: SOHC with two overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 87W at 5500rpm.
Torque: 167Nm at 4000rpm.
Induction: PGM-FI electronic fuel-injection with two 40mm Keihin throttle bodies.
Ignition: Computer-controlled digital with 3-D mapping.
Clutch: Hydraulically-actuated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: five-speed constant-mesh gearbox, including overdrive top and electrical reverse gear; final drive by shaft.
Front Suspension: 45mm air-assisted conventional telescopic forks with anti-dive.
Rear Suspension: Pro-Link Pro-Arm with electronically-controlled remote spring preload adjustment.
Front brakes: Dual full-floating 296mm discs with CBS three-piston floating callipers and ABS.
Rear brake: Ventilated 316mm disc with CBS three-piston floating calliper and ABS.
Front tyre: 130/70 - 18 tubeless.
Rear tyre: 180/60 - 16 tubeless.
Seat height: 740mm.
Kerb weight: 424kg.
Fuel tank: 25 litres.
Top speed (measured): 196km/h.
Fuel consumption (measured): 7.4 litres per 100km
Price: R229 999.
Bike from: Honda SA.