2001 Honda GL1800 Gold Wing

Transcontinental meditations on the land yacht that zigs

There isn't much to do between Oklahoma and New Mexico at 6:54 a.m. A tiny computer maintains forward progress, inhaling exactly 80 miles of Interstate 40 West each hour. The pyrotechnics inside six fuel-injected cylinders are all but imperceptible at 3400 revs in top cog. The fairing whittles a stiff, North Texas headwind down to light gusts around the elbows--and a digital cockpit readout is the only tangible evidence of the edgy, 40-degree air outside. Full tank of gas. Emmylou Harris on the CD player; between Boulder and Birmingham, she says. Life is good.

Welcome to Monday morning, day four of our nearly transcontinental get-acquainted session with Honda's 2001 Gold Wing. The plan going in was simple: ride from the GL's Marysville, Ohio, home (and location of the bike's press launch) to ours in Los Angeles. It is here, right in the middle of said proceedings, that I-40 narcosis kicks in. Sort of a four-lane rapture of the deep. The mind floats ahead, taking various exits on a freeway all its own. Is there really a Helium Museum in Amarillo? Does Elvis know they transplanted the Cadillac Ranch? Then, splat! An ill-fated bumblebee free-associates us all the way back to Arkansas.

It's hard to tell with him splattered on the windshield like that, but look closer and everything comes together. Although he cruised comfortably at up to seven mph mere seconds ago, Bombus Terrestis--Mr. Bumblebee to you--is ostensibly too fat to fly. Too bad nobody told him. We're just happy nobody told Honda that an 898-pound, two-wheeled luxury liner with cruise control, six-disc CD changer, reverse gear and 141 liters of luggage space can't carve up a 200-mile slice of sportbike heaven through the Ozarks. And at speeds that would make Daisy Duke wet her cutoffs.

Alas, we digress. That was Day Three.

Day OnE begins suitably at the crack of noon, loading our pearl-blue GL1800 with enough foul-weather paraphernalia to survive 2800 miles of anything the Weather Channel can spit out. First impressions? Popping the trunk lid from across the lot with a button on the key fob is astoundingly convenient when your hands are full--even if it does scare the hell out of the janitorial staff. And you can lock everything with another button when you're done, and even honk the horn. That really scares 'em. Still, anybody who's ever packed a GL1500 will find less room to stuff stuff in the 1800's bags. (Mental note: Look for motels with a washer/dryer.)

OK, so it's pricey ($17,499; $18,499 with ABS), and its nifty pop-up compartment in the trunk floor--which houses the optional six-disc CD changer--eats five liters of cargo room; still, the CD player contributes immeasurably more to cross-country bliss than wool socks, Powerbars or whatever else you might cram in there. Take a stroll around the grounds and take in the architecture. The 2001 Wing is outwardly smaller than its immediate predecessor, with a fluid, organic silhouette that makes the straight-laced GL1500 look like an extra from American Gothic. From hand controls and switchgear to the Acuraesque dash layout, everything you push, pull, turn or read is intuitive, displaying Honda's characteristically excellent attention to ergonomic detail. Loading a half-dozen CDs, the 25-watt Panasonic audio system pumps anything from Ludwig van Beethoven to Stevie Ray Vaughn with enough accurate punch to shame some home systems and wake up the neighbors. Although sound quality deteriorates as you approach freeway speeds, the only vehicles with higher fidelity have four wheels and a roof. To anyone climbing off a sportbike, the GL1800 cockpit initially impersonates an F-18's, but don't panic. Audio controls are equally common-sensical, as are those for the CB, cruise control, rear suspension and headlight angle. Now get on the thing.

Although Honda's published saddle height for the 1800 remains at the GL1500's 29.1 inches, once you're aboard, the new bike's seat accommodates a broader range of riders. Miss Five-foot-five gets a firm footing at a stop, and Mr. Six-foot-four has abundant legroom on the road. Still, the riding position is arguably sit-up-and-beg; riders are right up against the bar ends, not bad for shorter folks, but a touch cramped for those taller than average.

If the GL1800 feels lighter than the previous six, it's because it is. At 898 pounds complete with a full 6.6-gallon fuel payload and eight pounds of optional ABS braking hardware, the 1800 is still 13 pounds lighter than our 1999 GL1500SE. Reduced frontal area contributes to the improved aerodynamics and that smaller feel. However, most of the perceived compactness comes from moving the rider two inches closer to the steering axis (which somewhat explains the close-cropped riding position). Every aspect of riding the motorcycle thus becomes more direct, more exact, and for us at least, much more fun than anything with a Gold Wing badge has ever been.

Turn the key and a wiry version of the illustrious Gold Wing Eagle materializes in the cockpit's central LCD display in what Honda calls the "opening ceremony." That little number goes from cute to annoying to switched off before we leave the lot. The engine boots up with the instant precision associated with Honda fuel injection, settling into an edgier rendition of the familiar GL idle. Honda's flat six has always been receptive, but this one wants to go. Now. Slipping into traffic, that responsiveness--especially right off idle--triggers a twinge of driveline lash in low gear; the softish fork amplifies any unsmooth throttle antics during takeoffs and slower riding. Shifting during slower speed work felt a touch notchy, too, though things smoothed nicely once the miles added up. Once under way, you know you're aboard a Gold Wing; the gear-whine of the flat-six engine, the seemingly unalterable straight-line stability, the calmness behind the fairing.

From there, the experience is all new: no more disconnected, high-anxiety Steamboat Willie urban choreography. The 1800 turns when and where it's told, with a direct--dare we say sporty--feel. New suspension bits are tuned to match. With the single rear shock set to the 15th of 25 electrically adjustable spring-preload positions (via a push-button system that includes a two-position memory), the ride is a bit taught relative to the GL1500's anesthetized feel. With an even 100 foot-pounds of torque on tap at a mere 2250 rpm, the big six yanks harder down low than even Suzuki's Hayabusa (which manages 99.0 foot-pounds at its 6750 rpm peak). The two-wheel Torque King GL finally peaks with an imposing 109.9 foot-pounds at 4250 rpm. That sort of grunt lets it pull smoothly from 35 mph to an indicated 135 in top gear. But enough of this. That's Interstate 71. This is the throttle. Twist it, and traffic shrinks into the rear-view mirrors at a heady clip.

Armed with 85 horsepower at 5000 rpm, the GL1500 had respectable acceleration--for a cruise ship. Respectable enough to cover the quarter-mile in 13.52 seconds at 96.1 mph. Making 104.1 horses at 5500 rpm, the GL1800 is way faster. Jumping from 0-60 in 4.4 seconds, the 1800 knocks back a quarter-mile in 12.78 seconds at 103.3 mph. That's still a half-heartbeat behind the 12.76-second/100.8-mph best of Honda's own Valkyrie Interstate. But how about some truly meaningful perspective? Our 2001 GL is quicker to 60 and through the quarter-mile than a Lamborghini Diablo VT. As that sinks in, please observe a moment of silence to contemplate the emotional aftershocks of having your $286,000 Italian ego extension slain by a touring bike. Sure enough.

Following I-71 through the heart of Cincinnati, the 1800's triple-digit torque becomes quite the practical advantage. Merely opening the throttle at 70 mph dispatches the somnambulistic Camrys, impudent A4 Audis and all manner of mobile interstate chicanes at a rate the GL1500 would need one, maybe two downshifts to match. Against the clock, the GL1800 squirts from 60-80 mph in 5.9 seconds in its overdrive fifth gear, vs. 7.1 seconds for the GL1500. Seconds blur into minutes, then hours. Soon you're nodding off to a regrettable Madonna video in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and awakening to a battalion of Future Farmers of America forming up in the motel parking lot.

Day two is winding down as the Wing rolls into the Shell station in Union City, Tennessee, just east of the Mississippi River and the Missouri state line. With 208.8 miles on the first of its two LCD tripmeters, the 1800 swallows 5.2 gallons of unleaded. Maintain that 40-mpg performance and the low-fuel light wakes up at 228; 36 miles past that and you're a pedestrian. Stiff headwinds and a restless throttle hand dropped our average for the trip to 36 mpg; one mpg better than our last GL1500 test rig, but still a plenty-safe 230 miles between fill-ups.

Cutting west, the little toe of Missouri pointing south into Arkansas is a desolate extremity. Sad little ramshackle houses set in gray fields of shorn cotton. Not even the radio can find anything cheerful. Snapping the throttle open hard to reel in some happier scenery triggers a subtle pinging in the engine room. Despite its two 3-D digital fuel-injection maps and a 3-D digital ignition map, 87-octane unleaded provokes indigestion. Best switch to the midgrade stuff. Chasing a blustery sunset into the Ozarks, the day ends in Hardy, Arkansas, with a carefully chilled liquid refreshment on the banks of the Spring River.

Day Three starts early on roads so perfect you don't deserve to know where they are. OK, if you're in the neighborhood, don't miss U.S. Route 62 between Harrison and Yellville. Just behave yourselves or we'll hear about it. Who needs the Alps when you have this? No bumps, no holes, no herds of maladroit soccer moms in lumbering SUVs--just miles of arcing, sweeping, diving pavement. The kind of roads that usually makes us take the Gold Wing name in vain and pine for an F4. Know what? No more. There's no CD changer in an F4.

Turn up the David Lindley and hang on, baby. Acceleration is suitably linear for a motorcycle of this stature, but once the tach needle crosses 4000, things happen fast. The corner that was there is here, and much quicker than it ever would have been on the 1500. Thankfully, the new bike's brakes are more equal to the task. A year ago, this type of corner entrance speed would make one large, GL1500SE-sized hole in a highland forest on the Ozark Plateau. Now? Working with the antidive system, Honda's new syncopated braking arrangement slows the half-ton-plus bike/rider combination strongly and predictably. No drama. No excess chassis pitch. No worries. Should you be unlucky enough to cross something slick on the brakes, the ABS simply takes care of it. Why only 20 percent of 2001 Gold Wing production will be ABS-equipped is beyond us. We wouldn't own one without it.

Now, where were we? Oh yeah--turn! Push on the bar to initiate the new trajectory and your orders are executed--immediately. There's a direct line of communication between pullback bars and contact patches. With shock preload bumped to 20, the bike develops a mild allergy to square-edged pavement scars. Beyond that, the fork and shock manage the Wing's ample mass beautifully at a sporty clip. The new aluminum skeleton and single-sided swingarm suffer none of the midcorner monkey motion that plagued the old bike's steel bones. It just carves dutifully around the corner until the pegs drag, carves deeper until those big crash bars drag. Carve deeper than that and you'll find out why they're called crash bars. Relatively squatty Bridgestone radials (130/70R18 front, 180/60R16 rear) help tighten up the new GL's handling equation also. Presumably to preserve some of that trademark plushness, our carefully prepped test bike (and at least one other we checked) was delivered with 32 psi up front and 36 psi in the rear instead of the 36/41 combination prescribed by the label inside the trunk lid.

However, since the lower pressures did more to improve straight-line plushness than twisty-road behavior or tire life, we pumped 'em up and had no rubber related complaints on wet pavement or dry.

So maybe you go to the Ozarks. And maybe you wonder why it's so green. Because it rains!--in this case, from clouds the color of perfect coals in some great celestial barbecue. Set to the lowest of its four click-stopped positions, the new windscreen is just low enough for a six-foot-three incher to peer over, which helps immeasurably in the wet. A little rain sneaks around the sides of the fairing; otherwise, weather protection is first-rate.

The 1800's Starship Enterprise headlight array throws a perfect swath of light from shoulder to shoulder of this meandering two-lane. Cornering lights do a miraculous job of illuminating bits of wet, curvy roadside you won't see on other bikes. A handy dial in the cockpit controls a motorized aiming system that lets you raise or lower the beam to match any situation. No motorcycle on the planet lights up the pavement after dark like this new GL.

Fayetteville, Arkansas, arrives just in time to avoid a thorough drenching. Which is more than we can say for the surly little waiter with our tacos al carbon y un cerveza por favor. Touring is a beautiful thing, but it enforces certain compromises. Say, for instance, you burn an entire day milling down footpegs against the tastiest roads in the Ozarks, take a long lunch and cover maybe 232 miles. That would leave you roughly 1568 miles and four states from home. Time to face the music and the I-40. That's when you thank God and Masa Aoki for traditional Gold Wing virtues.

It's Day Four and Oklahoma is for cruise control. Touring often inspires such profundity, which in turn inspires Oklahomans to write nasty letters. Still, somewhere between Hydro and Elk City, it's nice to let that little silicon chip lock the speedo needle on 80 mph and listen to the weatherband's virtual Stephen Hawking foretell atmospheric unpleasantries yet to come. Thankfully the Wing offers other electronic diversions to the transcontinental tourist. Punch up the ambient air temperature, then have the radio hunt up the dozen strongest AM and FM stations. Fine-tune the bass, treble and ambient functions to match the new U2 CD; discuss foreign policy with fascist truckers on the CB--it's all good. The best compliment we can pay the seat is that we never thought about it in nearly 2800 miles. Not even on the mind-numbing Day Five drone from Amarillo to Flagstaff. Allied with the revamped ergonomic package, there's more lower back and thigh support, and better overall weight distribution. The new fairing strikes a laudable balance between aerodynamic efficiency and wind protection.

Still, anybody taller than six-foot-two will feel a smattering of turbulence just above the helmet. And more wind sneaks around the side of the cockpit relative to last year's GL1500. While we like the bike's suspension, irredeemable fans of the old magic carpet ride may deem it a bit too taut.

In a perfect world, the new Wing would do 350 miles on a tank of gas. Its saddlebags would always latch the first time instead of requiring a determined thwack to stop the insistent blinking of the cockpit display from mocking your incompetence. The cruise control would grab the requisite speed on uphills and downhills more quickly. Maybe the dash display should include a GPS readout. And the cockpit could be roomier for larger folks. But for that stuff we can wait for 2002. Maybe.

Just as the first 1500/6 was in 1988, the new 1800 is just far enough ahead of its time to bother certain less-progressive segments of motorcycling society. Sporting traditionalists will recoil at a Honda motorcycle with almost as many part numbers as a Honda Civic, and deem it the harbinger of a mini-van apocalypse. Good Sam tourists in sack cloth and ashes will whimper on about Honda abandoning the multitudes in pin-encrusted vests and "Hi, My Name Is" badges who made the Gold Wing what it is in order to court the performance-addled Lexus set. We say that kind of talk encourages random drug testing.

We also say the 2001 Gold Wing does just what its ancestors have done for 25 years, and better than anything else: define and redefine the art of luxury motorcycle travel. Before the GL1800, sporting performance enforced an uncomfortable minimalism on the motorcycle traveler, while luxury motorcycles displayed a distressing resemblance to Mom's '70 Chrysler New Yorker. Honda has changed all that. The fact that it has done it for a base price of $17,499--$100 less than a 2000 GL1500 SE--leaves us with only one bit of bad. If you're not already in line to put a 2001 Gold Wing in your garage, it may already be too late.

Details, details...
·Key-fob luggage latch release a real treat
·Big, wide-set mirrors let you check your six
·Huge taillights make sure you're seen
·You'll peel paint with those high beams
·CD player's location will collect dirt and moisture; gotta unpack, too
·How about adjustable ergos, Honda?

Honda GL1800 Gold Wing
$18,499 (w/ABS)
Warranty36 months, unlimited miles
Colorsblack, blue, red, yellow
Typeliquid-cooled opposed-six
Valve arrangementsohc, 12v
Bore x stroke74.0 x 71.0mm
Compression ratio9.8:1
Carburetionfuel injection
Transmission5-speed (plus reverse)
Final driveshaft
Frametwin-spar aluminum alloy
Weight898 lb. (wet) 858 lb. (fuel tank empty)
Fuel capacity6.6 gal. (25L)
Suspension, front 45mm fork for spring preloadSuspension, rear single shock adjustable for spring preload
Brake, frontdual three-piston caliper, 296mm disc
Brake, rearthree-piston caliper, 316mm disc
Tire, front130/70R18 Bridgestone G707
Tire, rear180/60R16 Bridgestone G704
Corrected 1/4-mile*12.78 sec. @ 103.3 mph
0-60 mph4.44 sec.
0-100 mph13.27 sec.
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph5.90 sec.
Power to weight ratio**10.25 lb/hp
Fuel mileage (low/high/average)30/40/36
Cruising range (exc. reserve)205 miles
CD changer capacity6 discs
Honda Gold wing
Engine10Massive torque, smooth delivery
Drivetrain8Slightly sharp clutch takeup, all else OK
Handling9Most sporting dresser ever
Braking10Phenomenal power, feedback; ABS, too!
Ride8Not cush but totally in (new) character
Ergonomics7Tight for tall ones; fine for everyone else
Features10What doesn't it have besides a roof?
Refinement8Ride and fuel-injection could be improved
Value8Pay a lot, get a lot, but it'll last forever
Fun Factor8Higher than you'd think by lookin' at it
Verdict: Honda successfully balances the contradictory needs of long-haul touring and big-bike sportiness in a package that resets the standards in the luxo-touring category.

Off the Record
Age: 52
Height: 5 ft. 10 in.
Weight: 210 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.
Someone took your GL and you need to ride 400 miles tonight. What to do? Take the Cessna Centurion.

Since the GL1100s, the Gold Wings have been one of motorcycling's marvels. Honda has consistently managed to make them behave like much more compact machines, and the new Wing Lite stretches the envelope even further. Now you get all the gadgetry and conveniences with even less compromise in handling and manageability. And then there is that added power. This is actually the class where strong power makes the most sense, because tourers are the ones most likely to need to launch past a line of trucks crawling up a hill.

My major complaint is that the seat and handlebar are too close together. I really wanted to slide back a couple of inches, especially when the long tillerlike bars were turned to full lock--putting my hand in my ribs. I hope that someone makes shorter handlebars.

I have some minor gripes, like more buffeting with the windshield lowered and not quite as excellent sound quality, but most of the details turn out to be useful.

I'd want ABS with such strong linked brakes, which make it hard for me to get the precise braking I want at each wheel during hard stops on dicey surfaces. That is the only area where BMW's 1200 surpasses this bike, in my opinion. But then I liked the GL1500 better than the Beemer too. Now there is no contest. No recount needed here. The GL1800 is the undisputed King Tourer. --Art Friedman

Age: 48
Height: 5 ft. 10 in.
Weight: 185 lb.
Inseam: 31 in.
Someone took your GL and you need to ride 400 miles tonight. What to do? Hop on the ST1100.

How to tell if you're driving a car: If your backside is nestled in a formed bucket seat that promises hours of comfortable support, you could be driving a car. If your instrument array includes an LCD that informs you of everything from radio tuning to whether a trunk lid is unlatched, you could be driving a car. If you have individually adjustable vent outlets to control temperature around your legs and upper body, you could be driving a car. If opening the throttle calls up impressive thrust all across the rev range, you could be driving a car. If wind roar barely increases as the speedometer needle sweeps into triple digits, you could be driving a car.

But, if you lean the right way in turns, into them, graceful as an airplane, instead of out of them, in the crude manner of four-wheelers, then you're definitely riding the Wing. --Kevin Smith

Age: 30
Height: 5 ft. 4 in.
Weight: 145 lb.
Inseam: 28 in.
Someone took your GL and you need to ride 400 miles tonight. What to do? Can we have a virtual meeting? Being vertically challenged, I've always been a bit intimidated while riding large, luxo-touring rigs like the Gold Wing. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself able to touch the ground with both feet when aboard the GL. Combined with the bike's narrow saddle (the front part, anyway) and lowish seat height, this meant I was able to ride the Wing with confidence. Out on the road the Wing was impressive, with great handling (for a 898-pound motor cycle), smooth power delivery, greenhouselike wind and weather protection, and had a better sound system than my car. Now if I could only learn to split lanes on the thing! --Garrett Kai

Age: 37
Height: 5 ft. 10 in.
Weight: 200 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.
Someone took your GL and you need to ride 400 miles tonight. What to do? Top off the R/GS and I'm gone.

Amid the preintroduction hype was floated this hot-air balloon: The new Gold Wing is so good, so sporty, that Honda may as well kill the ST1100 now and get it over with. Yeah, right. I'll admit that the GL1800 impresses with its grace under way and irresistible torque, and that it's vastly more tolerant of aggressive riding than the previous six-banger Wing, but it's still very much a Gold Wing. That means stuff, lots of stuff.

Most of it works: big, legible instruments and a surprisingly good still-air pocket (particularly in light of the smaller fairing), and an engine that harbors just a bit of rowdiness. Some of it doesn't: the nagging warning system that insists a saddlebag lid is open when it's not (once you've slammed it good and hard a couple of times to actually get it closed) and a riding position that literally pains me. Maybe that's how I know I'm not ready to get off of sport-tourers just yet. --Marc Cook

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