The classic cruiser mold has been well and truly set for some time now, and woe unto those who mess with success. Now along comes Honda with a brand new idea and the CTX1300.
Credit must be given where it’s due, and these days, Honda definitely deserves some. After a long nap that netted remarkably little innovation over something like a decade, the Japanese giant seems to have at long last awakened. Just as remarkable as the rarity of significant new models from about 2003, is both the courage and the vision behind many of the numerous new motorcycles lately being released by Honda. There may not be a better example of this than the all-new-for-2014 CTX1300.
Change rarely comes unchallenged and sure enough, if only for its looks, the CTX1300 has already gotten its fair share of criticism from pundits. Some find it hideous, while others can’t believe it’s the new ST1300. Obviously, most don’t have the slightest clue what it really is. Honda is partly to blame for this, as it never really specified what it intended this unique looking machine to be and who it is meant for.
I will acknowledge being myself quite confused about it and that it took me a while to figure out what it really is. Normally, Honda’s designations give some hint of the brand’s intentions with a specific model, like an “F” signifying an orientation toward street use, an “R” or “RR” a machine more dedicated to sports riding or track performance. But CTX (Comfort, Technology, Xperience) means just about nothing. Is it supposed to be sporty? A cruiser? Sport cruiser? Perhaps a sci-fi styled tourer?
“CTX” certainly doesn’t answer any of these very frequent questions. It actually isn’t the first time Honda’s identity has seemed utterly confused. Remember the absolutely category defying DN-01? And what about the first CTX700s, the N and the T launched last year? A cruiser riding position slapped onto a bizarrely styled but otherwise “normal” motorcycle? Come on … What in God’s name is going on over there? Has this brand completely lost it? Turns out no, it hasn’t. On the contrary.
To get what the CTX1300 is, you need to take a step back, you need to put it in context and you also need to know a little bit about what is selling well and what’s not selling so well today. My own aha! moment came when I saw the CTX1300 simply standing there the evening before a motorcycle show. The Palais de congrès, in Montréal, was a bit of a mess, as usual just before a show. The Honda booth was being prepped and the CTX1300 was the first bike brought near it. But it wasn’t alone. Alongside, was the also new-for-2014 Valkyrie and, logically, the smaller CTXs. Up to that point, I still wasn’t sure exactly what to make of the latter, even months after I’d ridden them, and the 1300 seemed like one more shot in the dark by Honda.
I think I only saw in it some weird attempt to mix genres, say like a Kawasaki Versys or a Ducati Diavel. But seeing all the CTXs alongside the Valkyrie immediately made thngs crystal clear: they are all cruisers with Honda DNA, not Harley-Davidson DNA. It’s that simple.
I get heat every time I say or write this, but the fact is basically every classic cruiser on the market today is an imitation of some Harley-Davidson model. And for a long time, that business model—copying H-D— worked very well. Cruisers were popular. Harley sold a ton of them and whoever offered something similar sold it too. But cruiser sales aren’t what they used to be and the customer isn’t the same either. All of a sudden, Harley-Davidson must work a lot harder to sell far fewer bikes and vaguely imitating its products just doesn’t do it anymore for would-be buyers. The question, then, becomes what will do it? What new type of cruiser might reignite motorcyclists’ interest?
Which brings us to the million-dollar question—it’s one I’ve been asking for years. With a clientele that cares a whole lot more about styling than specs, how exactly do you make a cruiser evolve? Can it even be done? What happens when customers start demanding more than a Harley-Davidson imitation? What do you present them with?
To this day, those questions have remained unanswered. Some have tried to do things somewhat differently, like Triumph or Moto Guzzi, but the products end up looking like a different take on the same old H-D theme and are simply not sold in great numbers. Astonishingly, the fact is even after all these years of super strong cruiser sales no one has ever really tried to reinvent the genre or to go about it truly differently. Until now.
Take a look at the CTX1300. It doesn’t really look like a cruiser because the very image of a cruiser that’s embedded in our brains, like a Fat Boy or an Electra Glide. If it doesn’t look similar, then it must be something else.
But says who? Why can’t there be another way to “cruise” than accompanied by the rumble of a V-Twin and with classical H-D inspired styling? And if there was another way, then what would it be? If not a V-Twin, then what type of engine? What type of chassis? What look? And would the result still be a cruiser if all that were changed?
With this context in mind, what the CTX1300, CTX700N, CTX700T and the Valkyrie have in common becomes much easier to grasp. All are new types of cruisers, ones that go about cruising the Honda way with no mandatory inputs from the Harley-Davidson universe. No V-Twins, no H-D tanks or fender styles, no air-cooling and no specific frame type but, rather, just technology and shapes straight from the core of Honda.
The CTX1300, then, is simply a bagger done the Honda way. Climb aboard and a wide, cushy and comfy seat welcomes you. Feet forward, legs bent about 90 degrees, hands falling naturally on a pullback handlebar, you’re positioned in a way that’s very reminiscent of what the average bagger offers in terms of rider posture.
The fairing is frame-mounted with a low windshield (a higher one is available) and the equipment is rather complete. There’s a Bluetooth sound system with dual speakers ready for a source to connect to, heated grips and even the most complex self-cancelling signal system ever installed on a motorcycle—it interprets the variation between wheel speeds to make its cancelling decisions.
Combined ABS and traction control are standard on Canadian models and thanks to big buttons on the top of the tank, there’s no need to access menus. Somewhat strangely for a motorcycle with touring claims, however, there’s no cruise control.
Under the hood is probably the CTX1300’s single most interesting characteristic: a longitudinally mounted V4 sourced from the ST1300 and heavily retuned for this use. Power is brought down from 125 to 83 hp, while torque is reduced from 85 to 78 ft/lb. but delivered 1,500 rpm earlier at 4,500 rpm. Wet weight is just about identical to the ST1300 at a hefty 332 kilograms.
Although its proportions, power and seating position are similar to those of a regular bagger, the CTX1300 offers a different riding experience, first and foremost because of Honda’s unique V4. It’s no powerhouse, but it’s torquey enough to move the big CTX satisfyingly, especially for riders used to cruiser levels of oomph.
There isn’t a huge amount of V-Twin type torque right off idle, but from about 3,500 rpm to just below the 7,000 rpm redline, acceleration is pretty entertaining. It’s an engine that feels particular for many reasons. First, it never really feels like it’s revving high. At highway speeds, it can be left loafing along in top gear, which is fifth, but feels just as unstressed in fourth or even in third. The real-world consequence is you end up using even the highest revs surprisingly often—and sometimes without realizing it—instead of avoiding them.
The V4 is also very particular because of its sound and feel. Every moment in the saddle is not only accompanied by a smooth pulse that has nothing to do with the annoying buzz of an inline-four, but also by a very pleasant exhaust note and by an exquisitely exotic whine reminiscent of something like an RC30.
Although many now offer light and precise steering, very few cruisers really allow spirited riding on a twisty piece of road. The CTX1300 does. It’s no sportbike, and it’s not a sport-touring bike either, but it will easily lean much farther than the average cruiser.
With only a very light push required to initiate a turn and very nice manners while banked, the big CTX allows a surprising pace on serpentine back roads. The suspension, which is only adjustable for preload at the back, isn’t bad at all and only becomes overwhelmed on bad pavement at a fast pace. The triple-disc brakes are plenty capable of slowing down the massive machine and the combined system works transparently without causing any awkwardness during slow, tight manoeuvres.
If there’s one area of the riding equation where many serious baggers like a Street Glide do well it’s in touring mode and in this environment, the CTX is pretty much an equivalent. With a relaxed riding position, wide and plush seat, quality suspension and good wind protection with only minimal amount of buffeting, hours in the saddle certainly aren’t out of the question. However, the not so generous capacity of the hard bags—neither will accept a full-face helmet—limits the amount of stuff that can be brought along.
What the CTX1300 achieves then, with its high-tech V4, inviting handling, good comfort and futuristic styling, is indeed offering a new type of cruising. It’s very difficult to predict who—if anyone, actually—will find that proposition attractive. Cruiser buyers have proven time and again to be extraordinarily conservative, systematically rejecting anything that doesn’t look and feel like a Harley. And the CTX decidedly doesn’t.
On the other hand, there are a ton of riders who absolutely do not care for Harleys or the lifestyle and the image associated with both the brand’s products and their very similarly designed competition, but aren’t fundamentally opposed to cruisers either. So who knows, really? One thing is certain: if no one tries to push the cruising envelope further than where it’s been basically forever, if no one tries to build a truly different type of cruising machine that offers a truly different cruising experience, then the status quo is guaranteed and we’ll never know what could have been. What Honda is doing right now, with the CTXs and the rest of its latest cruisers, is pushing that envelope more than anyone ever has. It’s risky and, even though the CTX1300 is most definitely a fun and very well behaved motorcycle, may not work. But someone has to be the one to try things and after a very long and initiative-less nap, I for one am very happy to see Honda back in the role of risk taker and boundary pusher.
By Bertrand Gahel, Canadian Biker August 2014