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Fun, functional, frugal… or flawed? Honda’s NC700X tested

Let’s start with Honda’s own PR:

“The NC700X redefines the multi-role motorcycle by uniting a strong, fuel-efficient engine with a comfortable riding position and a versatile chassis. Ideally suited to commuting during the working week, the bike also inspires an adventurous spirit at the weekend. A long tour, a leisurely ride into the countryside or a trip into the city with a passenger to meet friends – the NC700X is ready for anything.”“The NC700X crossover offers the long-travel suspension, agility and commanding riding position of an off-road bike in an overall package with high standards of stability, braking and engine performance. It promises a fun, engaging riding experience together with the practicality and ease of use that make it a machine eminently suitable for daily commuting.”

And a couple of press articles:

“[Honda] came at the project from such a left-field angle, this has the potential to be the most significant motorcycle engine of recent times.” (Kevin Ash, Ash on Bikes)“Just about every aspect of the NC700X is unconventional, but the heart of this adventure bike-styled machine is different from anything Honda has offered to date, in a motorcycle at least.” (Justin Dawes, MotorcycleUSA.com)

When I saw the Honda NC700X at the NEC last year, as well as the ‘adventure bike’ styling I took notice of three figures:

  1. 47hp* 215kg / 474lbs* 78mpg

(*51hp and 505lbs with the auto transmission and ABS combo)

And I would imagine that like a lot of riders, my first thought was:

“How little power? How much weight?”

So is the bike really so incredibly different? Or is it just a re-tread of old ideas?

The idea of using car technology in a motorcycle isn’t new, for all the excitement about the NC700 engine being half a Honda Jazz. The original Goldwing was based at least partly on the Honda Acty minivan motor. And of course a low revving, torque-centred twin cylinder design harks back to the days of the British motorcycle industry. The spec figures of 47hp and a 6500rpm red line wouldn’t look out of place on a Norton or a Triumph from the 60s.

Nor is a ‘modular’ design with several machines based around a single ‘platform’. Yamaha got part way there with the TDM/TRX/XTZ range of twins, although the Honda scores here by utilising not just the motor but the same frame too.

And the basic structure of the NC700 leans heavily on a path trodden in the late ’50s by the Ariel Leader / Arrow two strokes. Just take a look at the Ariel’s laid down engine, the fuel tank accessed via a hinged seat and the dummy petrol tank with enough space to store a helmet. The NC700’s innovations are lifted straight from the Ariel spec sheet.

Nevertheless, none of this matters a jot if the bike works. So what’s it actually like to ride?

Let’s start with the basics. At the moment, there are three colour schemes and two transmission types. The red/grey and white/grey work for me, the black/black option somehow manages to look like a black banana has been laid over the wheels and motor. Build quality looks good, with alloy hangers for the footrests and solid-feeling bodywork, though the frame and swing arm are steel which contributes to the weight.

The cast wheels wear fairly standard 120-70/17 and 160-60/17 road-oriented tyres front and rear which means it’s not possible to fit dual sport rubber, which dents the ‘adventure bike’ claim. I’m not expecting a full-on off-roader but something with the ability to plod down a gravel road Transalp-style would have been nice.

The bike’s stopped by single discs front and rear, which point up the budget basis of the machine, but rather than plain round discs, Honda have opted for a bit of eye-candy with petal shaped ones. By contrast, levers are non-adjustable, even on the brake side.

Forks are plain, ordinary right-way-up at the front with a rising rate monoshock tucked out of sight at the rear. Neither are adjustable (other than for preload at the rear) but they offer a substantial 153mm (6″) of movement at the front and 150mm (5.9″) at the rear. Final drive is by chain, seat height is a not insubstantial 830mm (32.7 inches), and fuel capacity is 14.1 litres which is a tad over three gallons for those of us who still think imperial. At the claimed mpg, that would give a range of approximately 240 miles.

Options include hard luggage, a taller windscreen, 12-volt power sockets, an LED fog light kit, and centrestand – yes, it’s yet another bike where a sidestand is deemed sufficient as basic equipment.

On board, the seat’s broad at the rear, narrowing at the front and long enough to shuffle backward a bit before hitting a slight bumstop. The passenger seat also looks decently supportive with two big grab rails either side. Mirrors are trapezoid shaped but give a reasonable view without being too wide, the bars are a nice natural height for the style of bike and the ergonomics between seat, bars and pegs just about right for my 5′ 9″ frame. The instrument pod is tiny but clear enough, although the auto for some reason features a gear indicator and the manual doesn’t. Also, Honda have reversed the indicator switch and the horn button, otherwise (auto controls apart) the switchgear is fairly standard.

The tank, of course, is a dummy and turning the key slot in front of it one way opens the lid and reveals a big enough hole for a full face helmet. Turn the key the other way and the rear seat flips up to reveal the fuel filler. The tank itself is plastic, and runs from below the rider’s seat then down the front of the rear wheel and over the top of the gearbox.

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So, onto the motor. We’re told the Honda NC700X is powered by an all-new liquid-cooled, 8-valve 670cc parallel twin powerplant. The engine is tilted 62 degrees forward which allows for the storage space above it, there’s only one balance shaft, “partly to endow it with some character by allowing for a degree of vibration, partly to minimise weight and friction” says Kevin Ash. “The NC700X is the first modern motorcycle engine designed primarily for fuel efficiency rather than a high power density, without pandering to any outright performance pressures.” To this end, the long stroke motor uses a single 36mm throttle body to feed both cylinders and it’s got a car-inspired combustion chamber shape which aims to get an efficient fuel burn at low revs rather than flow lots of gases for peak power. Other ideas include low friction coatings on the bores, rockers on low friction and hopefully long life roller bearings, and easy to adjust screw and locknut tappets for an 8,000 mile service interval – hurrah for that!

So far, so good…

Then it gets complicated. For some reason, Honda chose to use a 270 degree crank. Ash explains: “this means the pressure in the inlet tract is different when the valves in each cylinder open. The solution is to have more overlap on one cylinder than the other… the cam timing is different for each cylinder to ensure they are working the same amount”. Hmmm.

The manual has a standard six speed gear box but the DCT version uses a six speed auto with two hydraulic clutches for smooth shifts, and three options, normal ‘drive’ mode, sport which hangs onto intermediate gears a bit longer and a manual mode controlled by paddles on the left handlebar.

So how does that translate on the road?

I took the DCT out first. Before I set off, I was warned that the bike would change up at very low revs and hold high gears when slowing. The salesman suggested I might find it a bit easier if I engaged sport mode in town, which seemed a bit cock-eyed right from the start, but as I rode out from the dealers, the bike had already shifted to second before I’d got more than a dozen metres across the carpark.

Out onto the dual carriageway, I just opened the throttle and away we went. The NC changed gear for me, we accelerated moderately briskly up to an indicated 80mph and once there, it was quite happy to sit there. If you need acceleration, twist and go. Open the throttle wide and it’ll notch down the gear or two (depending on how fast you are riding) to give more acceleration.

At motorway speeds, the airflow round the tiny screen is actually rather good. I could feel a bit of flapping round my shoulders, but there was none of the buffeting at helmet level I had experienced on my short ride on the Tiger 800. The seat’s comfortable for a couple of hours although it’s a bit slippery, but the width of the dummy tank forces your knees out into the breeze and after just 30 minutes at motorway speeds I could feel the strain of keeping them tucked against the tank. I guess it’s the cost of the helmet sized storage and apparently, there are deflectors available to alleviate this problem, so I’m guessing I’m not the only one to have noticed.

Leaving the fast duals, I rolled up to a roundabout and shut the throttle to find the transmission hangs onto a high gear until you’re travelling quite slowly. The result is that there’s not a lot of engine braking – it’s really very similar to coasting along on a closed throttle on a four cylinder machine that’s still in top. It’s no big deal and quite frankly for someone used to modern car driver training where you’re supposed to hang onto top when decelerating and only selecting the right gear when slowed, it probably wouldn’t even be noticable, but it would be rather foreign to a motorcyclist used to shifting sequentially down the box.

Moving away again in ‘drive’, it shifts up at a lowly 2000rpm. That’s low enough to actually cause a bit of judder in the chain and equates to about 9mph in first gear. That’s the kind of speed the average junction is taken at, and whilst the actual shift is smooth enough with only a faint jerk as it goes in, it’s still a little disconcerting when the bike breaks all the rules and changes gear mid-manoeuvre. It reminds me of a diesel Passat I drove that insisted on changing to second just as I was moving onto a roundabout and losing all acceleration at a vital moment. Switching to ‘sport’ mode as suggested moved the change up point to around 3000rpm and so 2nd was taken a bit further round the junction when the bike was more nearly pointing where I wanted to go again, but even so once the throttle’s rolled off it’ll select race up through the box to find top at fairly slow speeds.

Getting used to the auto isn’t actually very difficult, I think the only time I went for the missing clutch lever was when starting the engine when I’m in the habit of pulling in the clutch. The paddles also override the auto in either mode, so you can drop it down for some extra acceleration, for example when planning an overtake, but the auto mode prevents you from holding an intermediate gear for instant drive as well as some engine braking unless you switch to manual mode. You can flip down the gears with a paddle in auto but after a moment,  the box double-guesses the rider and changes up again. I did try manual mode and it’s perfectly usable but quite frankly, if I was going to use the paddles as a regular option, I’d just ditch the DCT model and go for the manual transmission.

The manual works fine except for running out of revs as you accelerate. It’s easy to say that the rider should change up early and drop into the bump of the torque but the lack of rev range means that it’s actually difficult to ride the torque curve, simply because there’s only a minuscule rev range each gear will work in.

In particular, first is extremely low and forces a gear shift almost before the bike’s moving. The red line comes up at just 30mph and the delay imposed by shifting to second compromises a rapid traffic light getaway. My diesel Nissan Serena has a similarly low first gear and I’m constantly aware that from a standing start I’m shifting up just when the car behind is continuing to accelerate. The Honda gets off the line a lot quicker than my Serena, of course, and the issue is something the almost seamless shift on the auto disguises, but I’m still not convinced that a forced shift at such low speeds is a good idea.

And it’s that restricted rev range that determines the bike’s real character. Forget all the talk about how the firing intervals are the same as a 90-degree V-twin’s or comments about the ‘diesel-like torque’. My own take on the bike is that you’ve got the feel of a big single, and the machine that immediately sprang into my mind was Honda’s own NX650 Dominator. It’s uncanny just HOW like that bike it feels, with a thudding power delivery from low revs with a bit of chain chatter too, and a restricted upper rev range where it runs out of puff.

The problem is that at 80mph, just like the Dominator, there’s not a lot left in the NC700’s arsenal.

The bike’s turning over at a car-like 4000rpm at that speed and whilst the 6,200rpm red line would give a theoretical top speed of around 120mph, I don’t think you’d get there without a downward slope and a following wind. At one point on the motorway, I was travelling at an indicated 80mph and closing on a car that was itself catching a truck on a moderate upward slope. I opened the throttle to accelerate clear and… nothing much happened. Eventually I’d gathered another 5mph and passed safely enough but even my XJ6 has some top gear zip at that speed.

In town there’s no such problem with lack of oomph, and the handling is nimble, light and accurate although the indicator / horn arrangement was an annoyance, with me several times hooting the horn rather than signalling. You’d get used to it and the dealer explained it by saying it put the indicator button “in a more natural position” but quite frankly just like I have to swap between a Toyota and Nissan cars with indicator and wiper controls reversed and get confused, I have to swap bikes and I’d prefer the horn was the easy one to hit without thinking about what I was pressing.

But put it in the right environment and it’s fun in the same way my NX650 Dommie was fun – it’s a hoot round narrow country lanes and twisty rural B roads where the emphasis is on speeds between 20 and 60. The handling is light and precise and the weight of the bike really does disappear. It changes direction on a sixpence and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s over 50kgs lighter than it is. The brakes are predictable and smoothly powerful rather than sharp and ideal for the iffy surfaces we have on our back roads, whilst the basic suspension is firm enough for enthusiastic cornering but helps soak up the bumps effectively. With a determined rider, it would be difficult to shake off.

At least, right up to the point where the rider ahead used the power of their bike to overtake on a the typical short rural straight. There’s no way the NC700 could stay with anything with vaguely sporty pretensions. It would struggle to stay with a sports 400 like the old ZXR400, let along a modern R6. The extra 4hp claimed for the DCT model over the 47hp manual is undetectable, incidentally.

So what’s it for? The NC700X would be more than adequate for an urban commute, or even a budget long distance tourer provided the rider was planning on finding fun roads rather than eating miles as quickly as possible. But as a budget tourer there’s a proviso. Remember that fuel filler under the seat? Yes, that means any soft luggage strapped on has to be removed to get to it. If you fit the hard stuff, it’s not an issue but if you don’t want the looks of an overlander but fancy carrying some camping gear, it’s going to be a real inconvenience.

I’m also concerned about chain life. Big singles have always had a reputation for destroying chains in short order and the low rev gear shifts on the auto in ‘drive’ mode definitely feel like they cause chain chatter. As a motorcyclist, I’m not too bothered about twirling spanners and keeping the chain adjusted but if the target market is the “ride and forget” crowd, I’m not sure they’ll be too happy about that.

And unfortunately, I’m not convinced about the fuel consumption claims. A quick look at Fuely.com shows typical MPG to be 60-70, and that matches what Kevin Ash found. He says in the Telegraph that: “a steady indicated 70mph feels on the slow side on motorways… but you do get 75mpg. It’s not quite Honda’s claimed 79mpg, but this is achieved without any particular effort aside from keeping the speed down.”

Good… but not outstanding.

Then he adds: “It’s best to stick to the speed limits, because faster cruising speeds, say 85mph or so, dent the economy, which can drop to 57mpg”.

Ouch.

I mentioned the similarity in feel betwen Honda’s NX650 Dominator and the NC700X. The specs are illuminating. Twenty years ago, the single cylinder Dommie produced a claimed 44hp @ 6,000 rpm and 40ft/lbs of torque @ 5,000rpm. The 2012 NC700X produces a claimed 47bhp @ 6,250rpm and 44ft/lb @ 4,750rpm. I said the NC FELT like it was 50kgs lighter than it is but the Dominator really IS 50kgs lighter at 164kg (362lbs).

All that extra mass has to be shifted and however frugal the motor, moving the NC700X along the road from A to B eats into the fuel consumption.

Though I’ve owned 150mph bikes, I’m no speed freak and will happily motor round on my Diversion but even back in 1996 when I owned the NX650, it was underpowered on motorways, yet that’s the bike Honda have recreated performance-wise. Sure, modern engines have to overcome the drawback of a catalytic converter acting as a bung in the middle of the exhaust, but technology has moved on twenty years too. Even in the most charitable light, what it really comes down to is that Honda have produced an overweight bike that for all its clever design and back road competence struggles on the open road. Honda are right that it delivers what most riders use most of the time and whilst a practical road bike doesn’t need 150hp, it does need a bit more than what we use most of the time, just to allow for some acceleration at those speeds. It would have been better, much better with 10 extra horsepower to give it some overtaking zip and with an extra 1000rpm on the red line to give it some flexibility in gear. And there’s no reason Honda couldn’t have achieved that – BMW have with their F800 engine.

Realistically, if you’re looking for a way of saving cash, the reported fuel figures (as opposed to the claimed consumption) take away much of the reason to look at the NC700X particularly if you stump up the extra for the DCT. The manual Honda costs £5,850, which puts it in the same ballpark as the XJ6. My Divvie is an easy 15mph faster, has just about the same midrange but a far more flexible motor, whilst depending how I ride it it returns high 50s to low 60s. And if fuel costs really are that important, then Honda’s own 250 isn’t that much slower in real terms!

So… it’s better than I feared. I wanted to like it. Dammit, I DO like it. But much as I love the back road manners and the urban power delivery, and truth be told the styling too, neither is it quite as good as I hoped. It’s just not got enough power to be a real all-rounder and I’m not sure I could live with that particular compromise.

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