by Jason Black

Six For The Road

This had the makings of a bad situation.

It was day one of our twisty sojourn aboard Honda’s 2002 GL1800 Gold Wing headed toward Northern California’s Trinity Alps. The Wing’s saddlebags and trunk were bulging at the seams with more than 40 pounds of gear. My wife Amy was kicked-back on the cush passenger pillion singing at the top of her lungs along with the ’80s station blaring from the Honda’s Panasonic stereo system, and we were slipping past cars in the outside passing lane of a flowing corner near the top of Highway 299’s Buckhorn Summit. Life was good.

But this particular corner had a surprise in store for us in the form of a decreasing radius, and the passing lane I had so happily welcomed a quarter-mile before was funneling down into a single lane much sooner than I expected. I’ve ridden thousands of miles on Gold Wings over the years, and while their handling has always been impressive for such a big bike, numb front-end feel and an uneasy wagging of the bars at lean angle contributed to a somewhat loose, uneasy feel during aggressive cornering. What we were about to do…well, it would be considered aggressive cornering.

Wincing in my helmet, I applied a little pressure to the Linked Brake System, nudged the inside bar to tighten the line and cracked the throttle as the peg feeler dug deep into the asphalt. The chassis stayed completely composed, and with a twist of the right grip the big Wing rolled out of the corner and rocketed ahead of traffic. The same situation on the previous generation Gold Wing could have turned ugly, but this Wing didn’t even hiccup. Amy was still singing. No muss, no fuss.

A stripped-down Wing reveals the low, forward engine placement Honda employed in attempt to lower the center of mass and improve both high and low-speed handling characteristics.

Have Gold Win, will travel!

Though unchanged for 2002, Honda’s big boy is still riding high on a wave of enthusiasm generated from last year’s complete renovation. For 2001, Honda assembled a laundry list of sportbike-like components and melded them into what was, and still is, arguably the most impressive full-dress touring motorcycle to date. BMW’s K1200LT has mounted an impressive challenge over the past few years, but when it comes down to polished and (near) perfected long-haul capabilities, the Gold Wing rules the roost.

Let’s look at the shiny pieces. At the heart of the beast beats an ultra smooth running, fuel-injected, 1832cc, liquid-cooled horizontally opposed six that is nearly 2.5 pounds lighter than the previous generation’s powerplant. Honda claims 118-bhp and a gargantuan 125 ft-lb. of torque transferred to the rear tire through an all-new five speed transmission (with overdrive) and shaft drive assembly.

Cradling the monster engine is a semi-exposed multi box-section aluminum dual-spar frame, which increased rigidity and replaced the older model’s steel design, lightening the load to the tune of 25 pounds in the process. Couple that with a Pro Arm single-sided swingarm and you’ve got a chassis that would look at home on an RC51. Think we’re kidding? Be honest now, if we had a contest asking which bike this swingarm was from, would you guess a Gold Wing? The cast aluminum Pro Arm single-sided swingarm was new for 2001, and uses a Pro Link shock with 4.1 inches of travel to keep the rear tire firmly planted on the tarmac.

Consider this: the LPL (Large Project Leader) for the GL1800 was Masanori Aoki, a dyed-in-the-leathers sportbike lover who in 1977 was responsible for leading development on the NSR250 Grand Prix machine. He went on to develop the CBR250RR, CBR400RR and, closer to home, the CBR600F3. Aoki was brought in to develop the new Wing in 1996, and the end result traces back to his racing lineage. Along with the aluminum frame and swingarm come a host of performance goodies. The fork is now a stout 45mm cartridge unit with a new anti-dive system, working in conjunction with a Pro Link shock delivering 4.1 inches of travel. Wide, cast aluminum wheels and meaty radial tires reduce unsprung weight and vastly improve available traction. Shock preload can be easily set depending on your load and type of riding by using the computer controlled preload adjustment button on the left fairing; two memory settings simplify the job even more. Everything designed into the new GL was geared to make the bike more powerful, better handling and more comfortable.

After the first 1,000 miles in the saddle, it was evident that Aoki-san and his team fulfilled the press-kit hype. When you first throw a leg over the new Wing, it’s apparent before even thumbing the starter that Honda paid attention to the minutiae. A well laid-out instrument panel, speakers and wide mirrors greet the rider, and the windshield now sports a six-way adjustable ratcheting system that allows the rider to tailor the airflow around the cockpit. The low (29.1 inches) seat coddles your backside like a bag of marshmallows, tapering perfectly toward the front to help even the shortest riders plant a foot down confidently at a stop. All the levers and controls are well placed, and the rider can adjust the radio, CD player, CB, intercom, or weather band easily while lapping up the scenery at speed. Get yourself nosed into a tight spot and electric reverse is just a push button away, a huge improvement over the old lever system. Our standard test unit was void of optional equipment like the heated handgrips, 6-disc CD changer or CB, but a fully loaded Wing has more amenities than your average Civic.

Anyone under the impression that Gold Wings are only appreciated by slightly convex, card-carrying members of the AARP needs to take one for a spin. Sure, this thing’s big, like 800-plus pounds big, but it’s fast too. Lower speeds revealed a surprisingly easy-to-maneuver, balanced machine, but after a few trips up the tach to its 6,000-rpm redline, lower speeds are the last thing on your mind. Throttle response is excellent, and passing maneuvers can usually be accomplished without even downshifting. This thing can shotgun out of corners and around traffic with the authority of a high-priced sports car.

For the first time since its inception in 1975, the Gold Wing handles corners as well as it does luggage, no easy task on a motorcycle of such considerable proportions. Suspension damping settings are well calibrated and up to the task of controlling the chassis. Consistent trail braking into corners over potholes and abrupt pavement seams failed to upset the Wing, and lateral grooves in the pavement, the ones that usually send a big bike into an uncomfortable weave, weren’t even noticed.

Steering the GL off-center takes only a gentle nudge of the bars, though transitions from side-to-side while fully loaded take considerably more effort, as is to be expected. The sheer size of the bike quells any cliché references to “laser-like feedback” or “tracks on rails,” but the chassis is remarkably composed and provides more stability and feedback than you would expect from a bike even half its size. Additional rebound damping in the rear would be a benefit with the preload set to maximum. Hitting compression dips, which quickly load and then unload the suspension, caused the rear of the bike to spring back fairly quickly and take a hop or two to settle down. Nothing scary, mind you.

So you’ve got a big, great handling bike that’s faster than your average Porsche Boxster S, now you have to slow it down. Honda has gone to great lengths to improve its Linked Braking System, and it shows. Dual, full-floating 296mm discs mated to three-piston calipers up front and a single 316mm disc with a three-piston set-up out back work in conjunction to offer smooth, linear and precise braking action. In the past, on older CBR1000s, for instance, Honda’s LBS system caused too much front-end dive when using the rear brake exclusively (during mid-corner line adjustment or when performing U-turns, for example), but the system now uses a delay valve that senses the rider’s foot pressure and smooths front brake engagement, blending the two without any noticeable repercussions and offering excellent braking performance. Our test bike was also equipped with optional ABS, a welcome addition in wet, slick conditions.

All is not perfect with the Gold Wing, but its deficiencies are minor. Foot room was increased on the 2001 GL, allowing more airflow around the rider’s toes, noticeable on the coldest of mornings. The electronic cruise control does an excellent job of maintaining the correct speed, but expect a five mph drop between setting the system and it taking over. Clutchless upshifts through the smooth tranny are sometimes met by a slack lever, fixed by rolling off the throttle or a quick stab of the clutch to seat the gear. And the stereo, while greatly improved from year’s past, is a tad muted when battling earplugs and a full-face helmet. Setting the volume at 28 (of a possible 30), earplugs out and visor up is the best way to take in the tunes at speed. During two weeks aboard the Wing, we never tired of its endless amenities. The saddlebags and top trunk easily swallowed our considerable amount of gear, including two full-face helmets and Aerostich jackets. Pads on top of the rear speaker housings make a comfortable perch for the passenger’s arms. On its highest setting, the windscreen alleviated nearly all wind turbulence except for a slight breeze on the back of the rider’s neck. And the passenger seat? Let’s just say that after sitting atop a Harley T-Sport for 3,100 miles the month previous, Amy thought she had found the next best thing to a Cadillac once perched on the Wing, and was known to fall asleep on a few sections of interstate. There are plenty of pockets, both lockable and otherwise, to stow maps, wallets or other small items. And with 6.6 gallons in the tank and an average of 38 miles per gallon, we found ourselves repeatedly passing 200 miles on the odometer before looking for the next fuel stop.

The bottom line? Honda took a chance when it decided to funnel hardcore sportbike technology into its flagship touring bike, but the end result was worth it. When it comes time to load up a ton of gear, fill the tank and head out for parts unknown in first-class comfort, no other full-dress motorcycle can compare to the GL1800. And if you happen to be caught off guard by a rapidly approaching decreasing radius corner, rest assured that if you’re up to the task, the big GL will happily snick a downshift, dial-in some lean angle and crank on through. No muss, no fuss.