Last week, Zac took a look at the resurgence of Japanese retro-styled bikes, so we thought we’d actually ride one and figure out the appeal for ourselves. The Honda CB1100EX certainly looks the part and walks the walk, but does it talk the talk? We got Jeff to find out.
Hamilton, Ontario, is going through a significant renaissance. Artists and creative types are coming to this surprisingly cosmopolitan city in droves due to affordable real estate, great natural geography, and an underlying grittiness that gives the perennial urban underdog its bravado.
A few months ago Jeff Campagna and spouse, Tania LaCaria, opened up the newest cool hangout in the city, called Steeltown Garage. It boasts “kick-ass espresso and motorcycle lifestyle in Hamilton” and occupies a simple brick building on the still-grungy Barton street, just around the corner from the now-trendy James Street North.
The visitors to Steeltown Garage appear as eclectic as the bikes they ride – everything from original Triumph Bonnies to Laverdas can be found out front from time to time – but the disco-era Japanese rides with plenty of patina draw the most love. Jeff’s own ’77 Honda CB 550K is a regular fixture parked out front and I couldn’t resist parking its great-grandkid next to it.
What’s it got?
The 2017 Honda CB1100EX is a stunner that’s much better appreciated in the flesh than in photos. Walking around the bike, the serious attention to detail that Honda’s designers and engineers paid to the $13,299 CB1100 is immediately apparent. Every bit of chrome is flawless, as is the hand-brushed aluminum side panel that presents the CB1100 badge, and of course that sparkling candy-red tank. Even the Honda wordmark printed on the rear of the vinyl seat harkens back to how classic Japanese bikes looked decades ago.
Better yet, there’s a series of wholly modern elements that pay homage to CBs of yore. The head- and taillight, along with the turn signals, are LED lights that cast a crisp and bright light that no incandescent bulb could ever hope to achieve, but the chrome and plastic housings for these lights look like they came off a 40-year-old machine. This is a good thing. Even the Honda-authentic twin horns presented right below the headlight look right – but they broadcast much more authority than most modern bike horns, which have all the anger of a squirrel sneeze.
Throw a leg over the well-padded, 795 mm (31.3 inch) seat and it’s easy to plant feet firmly on the ground, even for average-height folks like me. Twist the key, thumb the starter and the big inline-4 fires with an immediacy that riders of old carbureted CBs can only dream of. The 1,140 ccs of air-and-oil-cooled Honda engineering whir away as quietly and smoothly as I can recall from any motorcycle engine.
A few snaps of the right wrist reveal the CB’s character is more cool operator than frenetic sport bike. Revs climb slowly, spinning a heavy-feeling flywheel compared to 4-pots in other bikes, and while there’s a pleasing depth to the engine’s voice, it never shouts. Of course, a pair of replacement pipes could unleash some more audible aggression if one were so inclined.
Tapping down into first gear, the transmission reminds me of the gearbox in CMG’s long-term RnineT Scrambler this year. It asks for more effort than most Japanese bikes require, but rewards with a serious mechanical chung as the gear is engaged. Honda fits a slipper clutch to the CB1100 and the pull from the adjustable lever is pleasingly light.
How does it ride?
Within mere metres of setting off, it’s clear Honda has crafted a motorcycle that embodies the sheer, fundamental goodness of riding, without most of the hair-raising excitement that typically accompanies it. Where damn-near every other motorcycle I’ve ridden urges me to twist the throttle harder and press deeper into turns, the CB1100EX encourages a rider to chill out. Life is not a race, says this bike – it’s about enjoying the ride and looking good getting there.
With 66 lbs.-ft. of torque and almost 90 horsepower, the CB1100EX is far from slow, especially considering the torque curve is impossibly flat. Serious steam builds from the low numbers on the tach but runs out early on, making more noise than motivation once the needle swings much past the 5 or 6 on the dial. Still, getting out ahead of four-wheeled traffic from stoplight to stoplight is no effort, and aside from the wind buffeting, the Honda is happy to cruise along at super-legal speeds all day long – or at least from fill-up to fill-up (which I found to be an easy 275 kilometres or more). In fact, at 100 km/h, the CB turns only 2,500 rpms – fewer revs than my car at that speed.
Mercifully, the brakes are very modern on the CB1100EX. Up front are a pair of 296-mm drilled discs, clamped by four-piston Nissin calipers. The rear has a single 256 mm disc with a two-piston caliper. ABS is standard equipment as well. The brakes offer good bite and strong, progressive stopping power, even hauling the Honda down from highway speeds when coming upon inevitable and repeated traffic slowdowns.
Despite resembling Honda’s superbikes of the ’70s, the CB1100EX isn’t a corner-strafing machine. The touring tires measure 110/80R-18 up front and only 140/70R-18 at the rear. The skinny width does help the bike feel eager to lean over (and its relatively tall centre-of-gravity contributes to this), but a lack of confidence in the grip and the suspension’s ability to keep everything planted deters hair-on-fire cornering antics. The 41 mm telescopic front fork and old-school-style twin shocks are tuned more for comfort than the sportier suspensions on most modern naked bikes. What’s more, the 1,490 mm (58.7 in) wheelbase, and 247 kg (545 lb) mass mean it’s no fly-weight café racer to move around the garage, despite the Honda’s chain drive.
All that size and heft equates to both the bike’s stability at speed and its calm demeanor. The riding posture, thanks to tall handlebars and an otherwise neutral riding position, makes for a comfortable enough perch for touring. The seat is thick and offers sufficient space for both rider and passenger.
Is it worth the price?
Parked next to the ’77 CB550, the newer bike absolutely towered over its predecessor, most notably at seat- and tank height. While largely complimentary of the new CB’s appearance, Jeff did point out a few cheap-looking plastic bits, and the chintzy chain guard seems out of character for what’s otherwise a very well finished machine. A pair of older patrons of the Steeltown Garage asked what year the CB1100 was, figuring someone got wildly carried away with a restoration project and spent an absolute fortune to make it look so good.
At $13,299, the CB1100EX seems expensive compared to the patina bikes. But the new Honda is equipped with modern technology, exceptional build-quality and the promise of unwavering reliability, not to mention a great paint job and gleaming chrome. To restore a classic CB to anywhere near this caliber would surely cost plenty more, and when compared to the more expensive Triumph T120 Bonneville or BMW RnineT, the Honda’s pricing seems even more appealing.
The oxymoronic modern classic bikes are a hot-ticket item these days across a broad spectrum of riders. They appeal equally to both the nostalgic and the hipster crowd, and can be appreciated for their dedication to the fundamental joys of riding. They’re the sort of machine that excels at neither speed nor touring, and yet could be ridden every day, whether to commute on, or hit the back roads, and still acquit themselves reasonably well – leaving the rider grinning ear-to-ear.
With modern influences and an infusion of artistry, Hamilton is rising beyond its earlier days as a great industrial city, and it’s places like Steel Town Garage that are helping to do it. Technology and modern influences have helped Honda take a classic design and keep it relevant for today’s rider. Plus, the CB100EX looks good enough to warrant prime parking spots, even among the revered classic metal.