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Gilera GP800: MD First Ride

Dear Diary: I’ve been riding the GP800 for a week now and I’m soooo sad. Was so hoping to find some real motorcyclists on the road to play with but lo and behold! It’s been raining cats and dogs all week and all the macho riders leave their steeds’ home. But today the sun shone at last and I found my first unsuspecting prey. Just a mile or two before reaching home, I heard the loud thumping of a big single while I was waiting at a stoplight. It was a Yamaha 660 rider and judging by his nervous ticks and glances, he was all set for a nice dash from the stoplights. Green light comes on, I give the GP800 a good twist of the wrist, and the Yam rider is left gasping for air. Ooops…. At the next stoplight he’s more ready for the unexpected challenge and there’s a sizable straight ahead. He drops the clutch fast and for a few yards stays ahead but as soon as the automatic clutch in the GP catches fully, I pass him again. He’s really trying now, banging through gears in quick succession, giving all his might to no avail. In the meantime, I leave my left hand on my lap while the speedometer of the GP800 climbs steadily: 80, 90, 100, time to chop it off for the next stoplight. As I wait there, the Yamaha rider arrives in an embarrassing delay, does a U-turn and heads back. Turns out that he simply went on riding just to see if he could beat this swank maxi scooter in a drag race. I feel for him. After all, I am a motorcyclist too, not a scooter-man . . . but then this GP800 thing is something else….

Just eight years ago I was at the Piaggio X9 500 scooter launch, mumbling to myself: “Wow! This thing is really strong!” when the speedo needle hovered over the 85-90 mph mark. At the time, it was the first scooter to go over the 400cc threshold. Oh my, how the world changes. Only months later in 2001, Yamaha launched the 500 cc T-Max while Piaggio had to recall their X9’s for changes to improve its stability. By the time Piaggio’s X9 was back on the market, the amazing T-Max had become a hit in the scooter crazed Italian market. Hard to argue with 15K+ units a year for the T-Max, and that’s in Italy alone! Honda and Suzuki have tried to crack the T-Max’s success with their even bigger 600-650 twin cylinder Mega-Scooters, the Silver Wing and Burgman 650, but have not achieved even a fraction of Mr. T’s sales numbers. If you thought that those sporting Italians are all into repli-racers and crotch rockets, think again: last year 16,000 T-Maxes were sold in Italy, while the biggest selling proper bike was the Z750 naked Kawi with some 6,500 units. Any wonder why Piaggio, the company that invented the scooter couldn’t sit still? If 600-650 twin cylinder scooters didn’t manage to dethrone the T-Max, then maybe an 839cc V-twin will do the job? An interesting engine with a stepless auto transmission had been sitting in Piaggio’s arsenal for some time. Initially designed for a motorbike, it was first installed in Aprilia’s unique Mana 850 motorcycle. Could that mill be squeezed into a scooter’s frame, too? Could this tool become the new scooter king?

Dear Diary: By this point I think I get the idea: the GP800 is simply devastating in city riding. An acceleration rate of about 5 seconds and change for 0-60 mph might not sound like much, big bikes do it in less than 4, but that’s only in theory, i.e. with a very sharp rider on board who’s ready with the clutch lever. The GP800, on the other hand, churns out those fast 0-60’s in quick succession, like a well oiled machine, just twist the throttle and go! Hard trying SuperSport riders do beat me if they insist, but all the rest? It’s almost embarrassing. But how about some quick roadwork? Just as I am joining Milan’s “Tangenzialle” ring road, a GS 1200 rider flashes by . . . he seems in a hurry. I quickly pick up the pace to 85, close the distance and only then start to really pump up the volume. Our brave BMW rider seems confused, he’s not really supposed to clear the left lane for a lowly scooter, is he? By now we are both up to 100. Him, seemingly struggling with his sail-in-the-wind riding position and the high and wide bars to hold on to. Me, in a nirvana like state behind the protective full fairing and electrically adjustable screen of the GP800. A really fast sweeper comes along, he chops the throttle a tiny bit, I keep it open and shoot forward, climbing up to 110 or so. The GP800 is not only a good sprinter from standstill, but it also has an impressive mid-range drive. Our Ewan McGreggor wannabe tries to keep up for a while, but then gives up and I have a clean and fast run until my off-ramp arrives.

So just in case you wondered, the answer to the previously posed question is positive. You can slot an 800 V-Twin into a scooter frame and this is really the new King Scooter. Even if this Gilera has got some issues and shortcomings compared to the T-Max, it’s very hard to argue with the exciting combination of a 75 hp mill and an automatic transmission that simply keeps the revs at the optimum point at all times. It feels almost like cheating. With such performance on tap, Piaggio engineers took no risks with this one. Up front there’s a 16” wheel while at the back, a wide, 160/60-15” puts the power to the ground. A Harley-like 63” wheelbase completes the package and shows that shoehorning this big mill required plenty of real estate. A 45%-55%, front –rear weight distribution sounds pretty sporty too, but can the GP800 deliver more than blinding speed?

Dear Diary: I just had to see “How much she’ll do?” . . . all in the name of science. On the highway towards Genoa, I open ‘er up and the motor hits the rev limiter just when the speedo is about to show 120. It feels as if the GP800 could go faster with taller gearing. I can’t say that it’s rock steady at these speeds, but I‘ve been on quite a few proper bikes that were no better in that sense. It does eat the miles with Gold Wing-like smoothness at 90, though. Off the highway, into the twisties and it’s not love at first sight. The GP800 is not comfortable in this environment; it’s just too long. With time, I get used to the strange but planted steering, and do manage to maintain a brisk pace. Honestly, calling it a GT 800 (for Gran Turismo ) would be much more fitting than a GP 800 (for Grand Prix?)

GP or GT, under the plastic body panels you’ll find motorcycle-like componentry: The 90 degree V-Twin is liquid cooled, has 4 valves per cylinder and is actually in a mild state of tune: 75 HP @ 7200 rpm out of those 839 cc’s. The steel tube trellis frame holds the motorcycle-like front fork, while at the back there’s a cast ally swingarm with eccentric chain adjusters that would look just fine on a big sport tourer. This motorcycle-like spec means that although the GP 800 tries its best to be a scooter, the final weight is closer to that of a heavy motorcycle rather than that of a Vespa. With 540 pounds of dry weight, it is no wonder it felt a bit slow steering when pushed. Luckily, those 300mm Brembo discs are up to the job. It’s all pretty impressive mechanically speaking, so it’s a bit of a pity that design wise the final result looks bland compared to the last version of the Sporty T-Max. Not the kind of look you’d expect form those flashy Italians.

Dear Diary: Even in town this swordfish trombone moves along with grace. Regardless of its weight, wheelbase and general heft, a clutchless scoot is so cool when dealing with an everyday commute. Whenever you need to you can simply torque it out of tricky situations with a flick of the wrist. On the weekend, my girlfriend came along for the ride and found the rear seat more comfy than on many bigger bikes she’s been aboard (and she’s been on the back of a few). Over city potholes, the suspension of the GP 800 feels well sorted, two up or not. The driver’s seating position is a tad tight for a 6’4” guy like me, but no complaints heard from the back seat.

After a year on the market, the sales numbers show that the GP800 didn’t quite create the stir that Piaggio was hoping for. Italians might be very performance minded, but the overall balance of the Yamaha T-Max 500 seems more convincing than the top speed numbers of the GP 800. And yet, I have no doubt in my mind: this is the new king of the Maxi-Scooter market. When I found myself choosing it without any hesitation over my 1100 Suzuki for a quick 80 mile jaunt, it can only mean that these big twist’n-go scoots are becoming a valid alternative to proper motorcycles. 500-650 cc scooters have not attracted much attention in the USA, so maybe an 800 will do the trick (but we don’t expect it here in the U.S. anytime soon – Ed)?

Dear diary: I am sad again. Didn’t think it would be so, but as I was riding towards Piaggio’s Milan warehouse, I felt really sorry to give the GP 800 back. Worse than that, after hopping on my Streetfighterized GSXR750, it suddenly felt slow coming off the mark! The only thing that brought a smile back to my face was being able to blip the throttle at a standstill and do those vrooom!-vroom! noises while waiting for the green light (something the GP 800’s centrifugal clutch just won’t let you do). If they ever sort that little shortcoming in big automatic scooters, then who knows, I might cross the line forever. Yes, they are that much fun.

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MD Readers Respond:

  • The Gilera GP800 is an appealing new scooter, but, like most modern
    motorcycles, it’s a niche machine. I have a Buell Lightning Long (XB12Ss)
    that I rode to work today. Yesterday, when I had more to carry and wanted
    better protection from the cool morning air, I rode my Aprilia Atlantic 500
    scooter. While there will always be those who rely on their choice of bike
    to define their manhood, there are many riders who just want the best bike
    for how and where they ride. If you’re commuting to work in bumper to
    bumper traffic, carrying a laptop computer, lunch, and papers,
    performance-oriented maxi-scooters like the GP800 and the Yamaha T-Max are
    made to order. Forty five minutes of arm pump while working the clutch,
    hunched over on a liter-class sportbike, is more than most commuters are
    willing to take. Some people are just looking for a nimble, fuel-efficient
    commuter vehicle that’s more fun than their Toyota Corolla or Chevy Aveo.
    Others want something to take the wife or girlfriend for a ride — and many
    women just aren’t real happy with sportbike accomodations that have
    footpegs so high that they have their knees in their armpits. For those
    riders, the GP800 is a great bike.

    Now, if only we can convince Piaggio that one of the largest countries in
    the world would be eager to buy the largest, fastest scooter in the
    world… They can bring it in as a Vespa, Aprilia, or Piaggio if they
    don’t want to bring the Gilera nameplate over to the U.S. Fred

  • Every time you guys post my feedback, some coward takes issue with it, but here goes anyway: I’ve felt for some time that this was the future of motorcycling. Honda’s DN-01, while being severely limited, appears to be just the start of things to come. Although I have to admire Ducati and Harley for being successful in going against the grain, I can’t help but think future advances in scooter technology will result in the majority of bikes being hybrid motorcycle/scooters of some kind, and not just in Italy. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it, no matter how good they function. Ernest