I must confess that I had never heard of this bike before 10am on a gray Thursday when I saw it advertised on Craigslist. By 2pm the same day I owned it. Impulsive behavior you might say and you’d have a pretty strong case. But I did put a bit of thought into it before pulling the trigger – if only for an hour or so... First, some background. I live in a very urban area – meaning potholed and neglected roads, frequent stop signs, red lights and pathologically aggressive and permanently pissed off drivers. Not exactly a motorcycling nirvana. So I was looking for a bike that would make navigating that hot mess just a little bit more bearable.
In short then, the prescription was for a bike with the following qualities; inexpensive, light weight, a low center of gravity and relative comfort and practicality. All mixed in with just a dash of two wheeled cool.
Small engined ‘beginner’ spec bikes came to mind initially, but I’m a little too big for those and I wanted something with a bit of thrust for those rare occasions I come across a bit of tarmac not occupied by a car driven by someone who should be in anger management classes.
Scooters were out because I am just not hip enough to pull it off, besides I like gears and clutches and all that fun stuff. Dual purpose dirt / road bikes were up next for consideration but good ones seemed to be pretty thin on the ground and those narrow seats…ouch.
Obviously anything with a sporty riding position would not work (too painful) and neither would a purpose built long distance machine (too heavy). So, I was left checking out the 'nakeds' on Craigslist (stop sniggering, you know perfectly well what I mean).
It was while pursuing the various Triumphs, Ducatis, Triumphs, the odd BMW and more Triumphs, that I came across the NC. The seller had tagged it as a city bike in the title so, intrigued, I dove into the description. Low weight, good comfort, great mpg, plenty of torque, low miles – the check boxes just kept on getting, well, checked. Interest piqued, I hopped onto Wikipedia and brought myself up to speed on this mysterious machine. It seemed the seller hadn’t taken too many fanciful flights with his description after all. This merited a phone call, then a meeting and a test ride in a car park, followed by an ATM withdrawal, some negotiation and second trip to the ATM as my bargaining skills weren’t quite as sharp as I had thought. Finally though, the bike was mine.
So what, exactly had I ended up with here? The ride home would be instructive…
First impression was holy hell where did that come from? The ‘that’ being the rev limiter that I had just head butted at …. 6500rpm! I had just got on the highway on ramp and was accelerating in 3rd when it happened. I threw another gear at it and as 6k neared I clicked up through 5th to 6th. I don't mean to suggest that the acceleration was disappointing as I got up to speed briskly enough, but I was going to have to overcome a bit of mental muscle memory if I was going to avoid another rude interruption to my progress in the future. Thankfully, this recalibration didn’t take too long, as the engine is blessed with abundant torque right from tickover (peak is 44lbs at 2500rpm) so, once your ears are dialed in to the engine note, you soon learn your shift points.
NC700X Dash with 6500rpm redline
This characteristic is one of a number of things that really sets the bike apart from other more traditional mounts, and when you remember that the NC’s 2 cylinder engine is actually a 4 pot car engine sawed in half, it makes sense. One of the upsides of this forced restraint is efficiency – in my time with the bike I regularly saw MPG figures as high as 80, which extrapolated to 200 miles between stops. I’m not someone who lists frugality high on my list of priorities, but I have to say there is a certain joy in eking out the last mile from a tank of gas.
This approach also has added appeal when you take into account that to fill the tank, one has to first dismount, put the ignition key into the slot above the ‘frunk’ (more on that in a second) and turn it to the left to pop the passenger seat up and reveal the filler cap. If you have luggage strapped on the back seat (or a passenger for that matter), this is, of course, a little inconvenient. On the whole though, I felt it added to the overall ‘otherness’ of the bike. The reason for this set up is that the fuel tank actually lives under the seat – further aiding the low center of gravity, and leaving room for the frunk.
Fuel filler cap under rear seat - pic courtesy of Sport Rider
Yes, the (in)famous frunk is Honda’s answer to the question that no one had been asking. At least that was my thought when I first popped it open. To explain, on the NC, where the gas tank would normally be, is a 15 liter lockable cargo space that hinges up from the front of the seat. I think it’s fair to say that I bought the bike in spite of that feature, but I very quickly grew to appreciate the versatility and practicality that it brings to proceedings. It can swallow a large full face helmet and gloves for example, so no more having to accommodate your lid on the Starbucks table when you stop for a cappuccino. When setting off, I would routinely pack my laptop case with my glasses, headphones and other paraphernalia into it before swapping them out for my helmet and gloves when I got to my destination. Very ‘New Concept’ and very useful for urban warriors like your humble correspondent.
The NC's Frunk!
Flush off their success in realigning our expectations with the frunk (and the redline), Honda’s engineers decided that the relationship between your left thumb and the essential buttons it is used to interacting with needed updating. So they juxtaposed the horn button and the indicator switch. Because, why not? I can't think of a single reason why this is a good idea, and the results for you, and for the traffic around you as you acclimatize to this strange layout can be comical and terrifying in equal measure. Truly bizarre, and I understand that the big H is imposing this arrangement on the rest of their range too. The best I can say about it is that you get used to it, but...if it ain’t broke…
Why Honda? Just why?
Whilst on a negative roll, and with urban riding in mind particularly, there are two other areas that the standard bike is deficient and they can both be filed under ‘noise’ or more specifically the lack of it. The exhaust has the rather typical corporate Honda strangulated and sanitized chuffing at idle and does not get appreciably louder at speed. My beef with this is not so much the lack of character in the audio department, as that’s not really a big consideration with this class of bike, but that dozing car drivers can’t hear you coming. It only took two or three of them switching into my lane just as I was just pulling up alongside them to convince me that a louder exhaust was a prerequisite. A Two Brothers slip on can did the trick while sounding great and saving a good chunk of weight over the stock item.
Very much linked to this, is the frankly embarrassing sound the horn makes (when you finally find it). It issues the sort of pathetic mewing that is so endearing in newly born kittens, but doesn’t do much to draw the attention of a distracted driver who has just cut you up. To be fair, it’s not just Honda that suffers from this affliction and I understand that the NC is built to a budget, but bikes that are designed to do battle in the mean streets of a city near you need more aural firepower. A Denali Soundbomb took care of this issue.
Other thoughts? The low mounted gas tank and the 60 degree canted forward engine really do makes this bike a doddle to maneuver, which is just what the doctor ordered if a regular part of your riding involves weaving in between traffic or darting down a side street when a quicker opportunity to make progress presents itself. The seating position is very upright which means you can see over most vehicles (apart from the more supersized SUVs and trucks). There is even a DCT (automatic) version if you want to give your left foot a break. If that isn't your cup of tea, the clutch action and gearbox are light, accurate and precise.
The NC shorn of plastics. Note the canted forward engine and very low center of mass
In summary then;
•Low down power and torque makes for quick getaways and rapid progress.
•Low center of gravity makes for stress free maneuvering.
•Inbuilt storage space is surprisingly useful and practical.
•Good riding position and all around ergonomics.
•Honda build quality and durability.
•Very low redline coupled with hard rev limiter mean that you WILL hit that ceiling frequently in your first few miles.
•The inexplicable juxtaposition of the horn and indicator buttons.
•Needs to be a little less polite in announcing itself to traffic via exhaust and horn. Easy to remedy though, and again, not issues unique to this bike or to Honda generally.
•In the name of maintenance (or the lack of it), shaft drive and a center stand would be welcome additions too.
Summary - if your situation is similar to mine - slap bang in the middle of an urban conurbation of neglected roads, herds of cars piloted by exasperated and distracted drivers and frequent impediments to progress (lights / signs / roadworks / suicidal pedestrians and pets), the NC700X makes a very compelling case for itself as your ideal bike. The price is enticing too - $7,699 puts it within a lot of people's reach.
Honda is often praised for its commitment to bullet proof build quality and engineering integrity, but sometimes criticized for being a little too in the thrall of its accountants’ and their calculators, when it should harken more to its designers and their dreams. With the NC, the big H has taken a few risks, challenged a few long accepted norms, and has perhaps reshaped the perceived wisdom on what a motorcycle should be. While not everything that they have done has been successful, most of it has, and I think they should be applauded for the effort. I’ll be keeping an eye on the NC line and hope Honda stay committed to its evolution.