Are Honda’s NC700s merely rather tame bikes with clever storage, or do they represent completely new entry points to motorcycling? Depending on your perspective, they answer questions about Honda’s “missing years.”
Honda Rolls the Dice
So Honda built a couple of entry-level bikes with a storage compartment. After taking a quick look at the manufacturer’s all-new NC700s and giving their specs a glance, no one could be blamed if that was their sole conclusion. And though that certainly isn’t wrong, the fact is there’s a whole lot more to the NC700 bikes than just a way to step up from a CBR250R. Actually, looking at Honda’s NC700X crossover and NC700S standard strictly as entry-level machines would be almost missing the point. And the point is, the X and the S could very well be giving a good indication of the direction Honda’s motorcycle division may take in the near future. Which in turn would answer a slew of questions regarding the brand. To get these bikes and grasp what they mean, then, requires understanding the context.
Like most manufacturers, Honda doesn’t really share information about its future plans. So, as the once Mighty Brand slowly but surely slipped over the past dozen years or so—from the position of revered leader of two-wheel innovation, audacity and engineering to being “just” one of the Japanese brands—questions about Honda’s decisions and direction piled up. Although no one at Honda ever admitted such a slip, facts are facts.
From the first V4 Interceptor to the magnificent machine that was the RC30 to the at-the-time revolutionary flat-six Gold Wing to the incredibly lightweight CBR900RR to the first modern middleweight Supersport that was the Hurricane— I could go on—Honda was THE manufacturer pushing the limits of engineering and audacity. That was the 1980s and ‘90s.
But then something happened that to this day hasn’t even been acknowledged by Honda, let alone explained by the company. From the turn of the century, it seemed Honda lost its way. It seemed Honda wasn’t Honda anymore. It seemed the brand that led and amazed and took risks had become a mere participant. Today, you can still hear motorcyclists speculating that next year will be the year of Honda’s comeback. That it will be the year we see a Gold Wing with a flat-eight and a V5-powered double X. But those hopes never materialized. And although there have been sporadic sparks of originality, like the Fury, models like the DN-01 equated to the proverbial couple of step backwards to the one forward.
What in the name of everything that is Holy had happened to that glorious brand? After extensively riding both NC700s at their Barcelona launch, I think I may know. These seemingly mundane NCs may just have finally shed some light on the Honda enigma.
I USUALLY AVOID QUOTING marketing talk as it is exaggerated and biased by definition. But this is an exception. First, there’s the name itself, NC, which stands for New Concept. Because of the way they are designed, the NCs literally are new concepts. Then, there’s Honda ad campaign suggesting the NCs are an invitation to “Rethink everything you know about motorcycling.” The NCs really do bring a new approach to motorcycling.
Paying close attention to the NC700s’ architecture is the best way to understand what’s so different about them. Stripped down to their rolling chassis and engine, it becomes obvious they’re built and packaged like no other motorcycle. Bikes have forever been built with the engine and gas tank at the centre of the picture, with some sort of frame wrapped around them. And if the tank was repositioned, it was only for technical reasons, to make room for more airbox volume or to move weight around. On the NCs, right where there should be an engine, a gas tank and a frame, there’s, well, nothing. The frame goes down rather than up, following the low profile of the all-new parallel Twin, while the gas tank is moved under the seat. All of which neatly clears the traditionally cluttered centre of the picture, making room for the X and the S’s unique 21-litre storage compartment. There’s no two ways about it: not only have the NCs been engineered around an empty space, they literally are built like no other bike. There is, however, something they’re architecturally close to: surprisingly, big scooters.
And then there’s that 670cc Twin with its uncharacteristically low 6,500 rpm redline. It’s a motor that could vaguely be described as half of the inline-four powering Honda’s European Jazz automobile, a tie that not only explains the relatively low rev limit, but also the extremely low emissions: the NCs already meet tough Euro 5 standards. Although the engine itself looks like a normal, well-finished motorcycle engine, a few signs tell otherwise, such as the exhaust manifold cast within the head and the catalytic converter located very close to the exhaust port, both common features on car engines and both part of the reasons for the low emissions.
Connecting all the dots draws a pretty clear picture of what the NCs are not: common motorcycles built solely for leisure or performance like cruisers or sportbikes. They’re actually just the opposite, machines with practicality and accessibility at their core, values that gives a lot of credibility to the New Concept theme.
For all their technical singularities, at a glance, there’s absolutely nothing unusual about either the NC700X or the NC700S. Take a seat on the tallish X (its seat height is 830mm, some 40mm over the S’s 790mm) and other than slightly higher and rearward bars, you’re welcomed with an inviting standard-like position that’s very close to the S’s.
Both models have the same clean but minimalist instrumentation, both offer a firm seat that remains comfortable in every situation but all-day rides and both (especially the X) provide better wind protection than their small screens might indicate.
In Canada, both models come standard with linked ABS and while a new generation DCT auto gearbox is available on other markets, it isn’t offered here at this point. Black is the only colour option for the X, silver and yellow for the S. Although pricing has not yet been announced, rumours point toward about $9,000 for the X and $8,500 for the S.
Similarities between both models extend to the mechanical stuff. Actually, other than the X’s longer travel suspension and a very slight power advantage (about four horsepower and one ft/lb. torque), both models share virtually everything.
Considering how technically close the NC700X and NC700S are, how different they feel is quite surprising. The X is somewhat similar in proportions and general feel to a Suzuki V-Strom 650 or a Kawasaki Versys 650. It does make you feel like you’re on a tall bike, but not one that’s annoyingly so. Its steering is light, but not nervous and everything about it has that typically polished Japanese bike feel.
Although displacement is relatively low at 670cc, the X’s general behavior is easily solid and precise enough that even a mature rider could feel at home on it. The S is very different in that regard as it’s so much lower and lighter to flick around that the immediate impression it gives is that of a machine aimed at novice riders. Both bikes are built first and foremost for the European market where aggressively splitting lanes and zigzagging through dense automobile circulation is not just allowed, but rather how two-wheelers get from A to B on an everyday basis. Only in that environment, which I got to experience first-hand during our time on Barcelona streets and traffic, can the real benefits of the S’s bicycle lightness be grasped.
But the NCs are by no means only city bikes. Getting out of town to experience Spain’s deliciously twisty country or costal roads, it became instantly clear these are serious handlers. Although the highly flickable nature of the S does make the X feel somewhat heavier steering, the reality is both models require very little effort to dissect a tortuous piece of road, an exercise it is impossible to accomplish on any of the two without a wide grin. Even experienced and demanding riders will find very little, if anything, to fault about the NC’s handling. It’s that good. Even braking is strong, and although there’s only one disc at the front (the back disc is smartly punched out of the same piece of metal as the bigger front one), the combined system linking front to back along with the ABS allow powerful and precise stops. If I had one little complaint about the system, it’s that the back to front linkage is a bit aggressive, which can result in locking the front wheel for a fraction of a second (in between ABS pulses) if someone stomped on the rear-brake pedal at low speed on a slippery surface.
And while we’re on the matter of things that could improve, the suspension on the X is surprisingly firm considering the length of its travel, which just means it isn’t fully used. The problem isn’t that the suspension is too harsh — it’s actually pretty well balanced — but rather that a motorcycle with suspension that’s too firm to use its long travel simply becomes a tall bike. The NC700X, then, is really only tall for style reasons.
If there’s one characteristic of the NC700s that will immediately strike even slightly experienced motorcyclists as being different, it has to be their engine. Well, maybe not quite immediately, as the 670cc Twin is about as docile and friendly as can be during normal riding, especially in town. Torque is very good for the displacement, probably the equivalent of the torque a 100cc bigger Twin would usually produce. But start building speed on an onramp or pushing things on a twisty road and you’ll quickly hit your nose on the somewhat abrupt 6,500 rev limit. While experienced riders used to much higher revs will need to adapt to such an unusual rpm limit for a street bike, new riders won’t and they’re a big part of the hoped-for clientele for the NCs. As far as I’m concerned, the adaptation wasn’t hard, and if I occasionally kept hitting the rev limiter, it was more because of the Twin’s remarkable smoothness than anything else. Not only does it not rev high, but it also never feels nor sound like it’s approaching its redline, unlike most motors. Which means it can basically run at very close to redline without the rider noticing.
With about only 50 horsepower and 45 ft/lbs. torque to play with, performance isn’t stellar. What performance there is, however, is constantly usable, which definitely is a different kind of compromise. The NC700s feel almost as though they are really 750s that can only be revved about two thirds of their rpm range. It’s a more practical way of producing power than would be the case for a higher revving, slightly more powerful but less torquey Twin of similar displacement, but it’s also a less exciting way of making power. Mechanically, the NC’s are practical and logical, but not really exciting and certainly not stirring. Giving even more depth to their practical side is exceptionally low fuel consumption. I personally calculated 4.1 litres per hundred kilometres on a ride that certainly wasn’t going to give the best possible mileage. It’s definitely realistic for the average owner to expect even better fuel mileage numbers.
Combine a very specific engine with the undeniable practicality of a 21-litre storage compartment—which I didn’t really use to lock my helmet, but rather to throw in rain gear, sweater, identity papers, camera, maps, and even a big 1.5-litre water bottle with room to spare for a few more—and given the unique architecture of the platform on which they’re built, and both NC700s do indeed take the shape of a new way of looking at motorcycling.
It would be wrong to conclude their philosophy is all about practicality at the expense of fun. While far from being the most exciting bikes on the market in a straight line, they remain motorcycles with a remarkably high quality of handling that will satisfy and amuse even demanding riders.
Honda hopes their unusually developed practical sides combined with the absence of anything extreme about their nature will make a new breed of motorcyclist take notice.
The logic behind the plan is that it provides an alternative to most bikes on the market today, which have been conceived with the sole intent of exciting longtime motorcyclists (even if the parallel consequence has been the alienation and intimidation of potential new ones).
While this is all sound logic, there is one thing. A Kawasaki Ninja 650 or Suzuki Gladius, for example, are both extremely high quality motorcycles that could satisfy the same needs as the new Hondas. What sets the NC bikes apart are their storage compartments. But is it enough? There’s also the fact that, power-wise, they are designed to be accessible. But is that an advantage or are higher revs not such a bad thing? One thing is certain: for all their many qualities, neither the Ninja 650 nor the Gladius—or any of their rivals for that matter—have succeeded in attracting non motorcyclists to motorcycling.
All of which makes the NC700X and the NC700S a gamble on Honda’s part. If the gamble pays off, the doors to motorcycling could well open to a whole new clientele, funneled toward the H brand. It’s also a bet that could explain where Honda’s been spending its energy for the past dozen years or so and why it seemed lost to us old experienced riders. Maybe, just maybe, (and this is just my brain spewing random nonsense) for all those years, Honda had already figured out what most manufacturers are only beginning to think about today. That at some point, both the sportbike war and the race to the biggest cruiser would become unviable. Has Honda simply been looking much further down the road than anyone else in the industry? Taking a long hard look at these new NC700s would seem to answer the question affirmatively.
By Bertrand Gahel,