x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

With new focus and design philosophy, Honda finds a winning formula

Honda deserves credit for making affordable and youthful motorbikes that are boosting the industry, and the NC700 is another fine example.

The Honda NC700 is a mid-sized bike that is no road ripper, but its lack of top-end power is not a barrier for having fun on two wheels. Courtesy of Honda
The Honda NC700 is a mid-sized bike that is no road ripper, but its lack of top-end power is not a barrier for having fun on two wheels. Courtesy of Honda

The motorcycling world, at least that part considered the developed world, has seemingly had its fill of traditional motorcycles. Blame the recession, blame ageing bikers with creaking knees and even the youth - traditionally motorcycling's backbone - who have all but abandoned biking, but whatever the case, the sales of large displacement street bikes in the UK, North America and Europe have all tanked.

The 600-cc supersport class, once the mainstay of sportbikedom, has all but disappeared. The Japanese Big Four - Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha - have seemingly given up on four-cylinder 1,000cc superbikes, preferring to let BMW and Aprilia into a playground once a Japan-only segment. Even the cruiser segment, the backbone of the North American market, has fallen on hard times. Big bikes, especially if they're accompanied by equally hefty price tags, are just not selling.

The only bright spot - and it's still a relatively niched market, is adventure tourers. Once the sole domain of BMW's quirky GS series, adventure touring is blossoming, bikers finally figuring out that a motorcycle doesn't have to weigh 317kg to be comfortable.

This seismic downturn, no matter how damaging, has at least had one positive side-effect. After decades of ignoring the youth market, Japanese manufacturers are once again building motorcycles that are both affordable and fun to ride. For Honda, it was first the CBR125R that had seen surprisingly robust sales in Europe and North America. Encouraged, Honda followed up with the CBR250R, similarly powered by a single cylinder engine but just a little bigger and more powerful.

The question on everyone's lips then was what would Honda do to follow up. Even newbies will eventually get tired of 250 cubic centimetres and eventually want to trade up to something more powerful. But, if history has proven any indicator, these non-traditional motorcyclists want nothing to do with the hyper-powered superbikes that have always been motorcycling's traditional move-up machines.

Enter the NC700. Available in both quasi adventure touring X guise and as a naked S model, it looks far more traditional than the way rad (some would say too rad) DN-01 that was supposed to also appeal to non-traditional motorcyclists. It's got regularly-sized 17-inch wheels, there's a conventional six-speed manual (though an automatically shifting DCT may be offered) and it looks very much like the Japanese equivalent of Aprilia's Shiver.

The NC700's attributes that Honda is touting, however, are anything but traditional. For instance, though maximum horsepower hasn't been finalised, it's almost assured that the 700cc parallel twin will produce less than 60 horsepower, a fairly minuscule number for the displacement. And, looking at the instrument gauges, the first thing you notice is that the tachometer is redlined at a low, almost diesel-like 6,500 rpm. What the …?

On the other hand, Honda claims that the NC700 manages about the same fuel economy as the incredibly frugal single-cylinder CBR250R. In the UK they're talking about 80 real-world mpg (3.5L/100km), a number usually only matched by the lowest powered of scooters.

And, indeed, the NC700 feels different to ride. Since it's a mid-sized motorcycle, one expects it to rev to the moon and then, when you try to spin it, a pretty harsh rev limit halts the party at ten-thirty-on-a-Friday-night; 6,500 rpm seems that absurdly low. It's odd and a typical motorcyclist - that was me for the first 15 minutes aboard the X - will be banging hard against that rather abrupt rev limiter.

But switch gears, metaphorically speaking, and start short-shifting - literally now - the slick six-speed trannie to keep the engine in its 2,000 to 6,000 rpm sweet spot and it all starts to make sense. No, it's no road ripper, but, on the other hand, I had no trouble keeping up with the 1000cc Varadero adventure bike that was our guide. Unless I was trying to play junior hooligan, I would never have noticed the lack of top-end power. The closest metaphor I can come up with is the old BMW R100 airhead I used to own. The power started right off idle and there was but 50 or 60 rear wheel horsepower available, whether you spun it to 5,000 or 7,000 rpm. But it never really felt underpowered; just adequate in the best sense of the word. The NC700 is just a modern version with a heaping dose of civility.

The engine also has some character, a sensation that many complain is sometimes lacking in modern Hondas. Although it is a parallel twin, its crankshaft has the pistons spaced 270-degrees apart (360 is much more common) and, even more unusually, the two cylinders don't share common cam timing; the intake cams for each cylinder are different. The effect is the loping beat of a 90-degree vee twin, not unlike the thumpa-thumpa of an old air-cooled Ducati (it would be nice to hear the NC700 with a little more soulful exhaust pipe).

The engine is also tilted radically forward, barely 28 degrees from the horizontal. Combined with the fuel tank that is under the seat (the traditional tank is actually a scooter-like storage area that can fit most common helmets), it makes for a very low centre of gravity. Even with a seat height on the tallish side (830mm), that lower concentration of mass makes the NC700 a doddle to ride. And, to make sure that everything is manageable for the envisioned newbie rider, ABS is standard.

Honda has not yet set pricing, but NC700 will sell in Canada, for instance, for less than CD$9,000 (Dh32,400). It's not for everyone and, indeed, if your motorcycling life is full of powerslides and wheelies, the NC700 is definitely not for you. But, as the CBR125 and 250 have proved, there are oodles of non-traditional bikers for whom the NC700 will make an ideal trade-up vehicle. And Honda is to be congratulated for actually paying more than lip service to bringing new riders into the sport.