Flying Armchairs: 2003 Cruiser test

Indeed. Relax into the luxurious world of the touring machine as Honda's seminal Wing hitches its skirts and hangs with some twin cylinder company

What it all boiled down to, I decided, was this - how does this bike make you feel? And, nearly as importantly - does it work?

Actually, that's two criteria you could apply to any motorcycle. But there's a certain competence demanded of touring tools and Honda's GoldWing, Harley's Electra Glide and BMW's R1200CL most certainly qualify in that category and deliver that competence, to varying degrees.

Me, ad-giant Giles and lensman Critchell racked up 1500 miles in the South of France in a limited space of time - blitz-touring, if you like. In short order we discovered the strengths and weaknesses of each bike and we felt 'em, too - good and proper.

In no particular order I'll start with the Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide, AKA the Hog, if you prefer. This particular bike is a 2003 100th anniversary celebration model, and festooned with little reminders - on the tank, engine covers and seat. Actually wherever you look on the Hog you are reminded that you're in the presence of a product of H-D, Milwaukee. Which is partly what you're paying for, right?

The BMW R1200CL - who said Über Glide? Who was it? - is based on the wacky-looking R1200C cruiser and is, as you'd expect from the Chermans, an efficient Teutonic take on the 'chilled' touring/posing vibe. Whether it works or not depends on your point of view - but BMW think some of their (or their competitors') customers fancy something like this out of the Munich stable, so here it is.

The Honda GoldWing. It is unique and readily condemned by the majority of bikers who write it off as an armchair on wheels. Well, they're wrong. The Goldwing's an excellent motorcycle in its own right - its rebirth as a brand new model two years ago saw to that - and perhaps its only problem is the 'Caravan Club' image that goes with it. No matter - only people who haven't ridden one dare take the piss and that's a fact.

The Hog's comfy. Actually they're all comfy but the Harley especially so. You settle into that soft leather seat, which so nicely cups your buttocks and it's hard not to give an audible sigh of contentment as you snuggle in. It feels low, and is so well balanced and neutral at walking pace that its size just evaporates. The simple V-twin engine, underneath all that metal and chrome, is a refined chugger. It's got a liquid, almost magnetic feel to it. Where the Beemer flatly punts like a ditch pump, and the Wing whirrs and roars like a rheostatic turbine, the Hog effortlessly slips its power out to the rear wheel. It obviously needs written notification of a hurried gear change but settle into using your heel to clank through the cogs and it feels fine.

Relaxed is the word which best describes it, but ironically the Hog's no sloth, easily outpacing the asthmatic BMW over 95mph. Which, to be honest, you should only ever find yourself doing if you're very late for, say, a ferry as travelling at any real speed on the Harley is a little undignified. Below 65mph the Hog's a beautiful ride, above and the handling gets a little, um, interesting.

They call it the Electra Glide because it does just that, glide. The front forks are super compliant, and set up to iron out every bump which they do well. They also bless the Hog with a full hinge-at-the-headstock and combined with the broad-shouldered fairing that's clamped onto the forks will induce a good old-fashioned weave at anything over 80mph. A cats eye, raised white line or gust of side wind will set it off but it never gets out of hand. And it has no ground clearance whatsoever - do not lean this bike over, you'll wreck the footboards.