On its website, Honda says the NC750X has a “relaxed character”, calls it “pleasant” and declares that it “maximizes purification efficiency”. If this confuses you about what kind of motorcycle this is, you are not alone.
Let me tell you a secret. I used to be a weirdo.
Ever since high school I understood that I was not typical, not one that could easily be placed into one of the accepted categories. I didn’t belong to the Dungeons and Dragons club, though I played the game. I was on the soccer team, but didn’t fit in with the jocks. I was nearly always a straight-A student but no one would have called me a nerd. I was a hodgepodge of disparate interests wrapped in a body that was in some ways athletic but also physically unattractive. I wasn’t, as you may have guessed, popular.
Motorcycles also come in a vast array of flavours and most fit neatly into predefined categories. One can usually glean from the shape and proportion of a bike if it’s meant for off-road or track use, for example. Among the biker fraternity, great joy is derived from the minutiae of mechanical detail, because those nuances in component size, quality and layout further articulate the specific use of a motorcycle. Beefy brakes telegraph speed; lofty fenders speak of backwoods adventure; and so on.
Like human beings, the more in-character a motorcycle presents itself, generally, the more popular it is. So it comes as no surprise that a bike like the Honda NC750X falls into the weirdo category. Strange looks, confused layout and totally oddball riding qualities make this one difficult to understand from the get go. Living with one for a few weeks did not make the picture much clearer.
So good on paper.
I originally supposed to get the NC750X in early summer, but due to some minor planning changes got the marvelous CB500X instead. From what I had read and seen of the NC750X, it was going to be every bit as good as the CB only more refined and, well, more memorable. As I wrote many times, Honda motorcycles are peerless in execution but often lack character. I tend to forget about them minutes after giving them back.
The New Mid Concept that Honda presented in 2011 previewed a break from convention. Simple twin cylinder motors laid low in a steel frame with lots of design flexibility, the NC700S and NC700X that entered the market a year later promised all that: ease of use, agility, cargo space and extremely low fuel consumption. Indeed, they became the Honda naked models I most gravitated to at shows.
Having eyed the NC platform, I expected great things. Here at last were mid-capacity, entry-level motorcycles that could be both practical and desirable. As a motorcycle design professional I’ve always been more attracted to novel ideas, especially when they pertained to bikes lower down the price register. After all, it is a lot easier to make greatness happen when price is no object, but to create a great low-cost motorcycle is difficult.
So is the Honda NC750X great? It should be. With a starting price of just $8,999, it comes with generous seating, a lockable helmet storage compartment in the tank, sharp bodywork reminiscent of contemporary European adventure machines and technical goodies like ABS and a very nice TFT instrument panel that changes colour the faster you rev.
The NC750 has an average wet weight (220 kgs) for a budget 750, but the weight is carried low thanks to a parallel twin motor slanted severely forward, and a fuel tank underneath the drivers seat. This, combined with a very long wheelbase, hints at stability even in hurricane crosswinds and tippy-toe handling at parking lot speeds – features that beginners and casual riders ought to find attractive. All these facts point to greatness. But then, life does not happen on paper.
Real life is not just punching the clock
Riding a motorcycle is dangerous at the best of times. The risk is high, but so too is the potential reward. It is this complicated mixture of thrills that entices us to do it, to seek the highs that can only be found on a perfect day riding a motorcycle. How much of the experience aboard one is created by circumstances, and how much is due to the bike?
Last year, I rode the wheels off Honda’s CBR650, and gushed about it to the world. Much maligned by the enthusiast press, that bike had been a revelation for me. It did everything so well, and made me feel so good about myself and life, that it made me rethink my whole motorcycle design ethos.
My expectations for the CBR650 were low, so the delight I felt riding it came as a wonderful surprise that melded with the emotional highs of my trip. Honda had, as usual, delivered a nearly perfect machine but one that somehow also managed to stir my soul. It liked me. I ended up in love with it.
The 2016 Honda NC750X is, I am told, an improvement over the outgoing model. In Europe it was a top seller for Honda, and even here it has won high praise from some pretty tough critics. The formula of low price, features and ease of use, evidently, was just what the market ordered. New for 2016 are LED headlights, some revised bodywork, and other improvements. The fuel consumption is purported to be so low, that owners will forget where the filler cap is located (under the passenger seat).
But none of that matters, because it’s all entirely lost on me. Not because I do not appreciate all the clever features, but because even with them the NC750X is utterly flaccid.
A motorcycle for the oatmeal crowd.
When the NC platform was first presented, Honda said it was attempting to win over people new to motorcycling as well as those who were budget-minded and practical. Combine those three consumer qualities and you end up with porridge. As in the lukewarm, flavourless breakfast paste championed by unimaginative people everywhere.
According to Honda, the NC puts out 56 hp, not much considering its girth. When called to task, the NC750X will accelerate but only very reluctantly, hitting the redline at 6500 RPM, at which point the ECU raps you on the hand with a red-flashing instrument screen and the jerking, pogo motion of a motorcycle bouncing off the rev-limiter. I have hit the rev-limiter on a manufacturer test bike precisely twice in my life. Both times were on the NC750X, in city traffic, and in neither circumstance was I acting like a hooligan. Anyone with even a casual familiarity with riding will end up doing this daily. The bike simply has no go.
The NC farts down the road, pulsing slightly but not enough to make a noise worthy of the word “motorcycle”. There is a barely discernible vibration in the pegs, but like the engine noise it is not sure if it’s supposed to be there or not, so registers as just annoying. The Honda is mechanically neutered, forgoing even the mellow rasp of a pedestrian Yamaha T-Max scooter or the throaty thumping of the humble Suzuki V-Strom 650.
As far as fuel consumption is concerned, it is as miserly as advertised, but still inadequate. I hit the reserve after 200 kms of legal speed riding in a metropolitan city area. It only consumed 11 or so litres, so that’s very good. However as the former owner of two bikes with short range I can attest to the irritation and eventual rage that comes with hitting the pump two times per week during summer commuting months, or every two hours on a tour. In this day and age, no manufacturer should be selling anything calling itself practical that cannot at least crawl 300 km on one full tank. A Ducati Hypermotard can flash the empty light with 187 kms on the trip meter, not a Honda adventure model.
The Unexplained Brilliance?
I tested the NC750X as I imagined it was meant to be used: commuting from ex-burbs into a congested city. Living 40 or so kms from downtown Halifax my setup was perfect: I would run my daily errands and go to meetings on the Honda. One particular day, I had to hit four different meetings in three distinct areas of town, bring along some product samples, and then pick up some groceries for dinner. A job perfectly suited to Honda’s idea of an urban SUV on two wheels.
But as I loped along the magnificent coastal road I am blessed to live on, the disappointments came swiftly. For sure the NC750X handles. In fact, I would say that handling is the only thing this bike does well. The riding position is natural, upright and the suspension and seat isolate the frost heaves without eliminating road feel. The brakes, too, are typical Honda. Perfect.
However, that useless motor meant that shifting often was the only way to get in and out of the tight turns around the bay. Normally that is a rewarding experience on a motorcycle, but on the NC it just felt like work. Honda’s CB500X, by comparison, could be left in third gear and just surfed all day long on the same stretch of road.
In town, the engine’s shortness of breath required lots of clutch use. My test bike was not equipped with Honda’s DCT electric shift option, which costs an extra $1,000 and allows clutchless operation, something that would have been welcome. Heat management is fine, and comfort excellent, but again, unlike the CB500X, the windscreen is not adjustable which limits aerodynamic performance for taller riders.
The tank cargo space is, at best, a cubby hole. Advertised as helmet storage, the only one of my five helmets that fit inside was that of my wife. Any of my full face lids (size large) would not allow the hatch to close. It was another disappointment, and one which is inexcusable. In product design rule number one is never promise if you cannot deliver. A few extra cm would have made all the difference, and there was no technical reason it could not have been done. If Honda can achieve this with SH-series scooters costing $4000, then why not here?
Answering a question nobody asked
Riding at night with a cargo-tank full of fresh corn I picked up from a roadside vendor, my thoughts went back to high school. I eventually figured out who I was going to be, and let go of the rest. I hated being on the soccer team, was content to read fantasy fiction in public, and liked that I could use big words in foreign languages. What others thought didn’t matter, so I gave up the pretense of fitting in with those with whom I had nothing in common.
The Honda NC750X is a $9000 motorcycle with the body of an adventure bike, the motor of a scooter and the ride qualities of a compact car. Given that we ride motorcycles to feel something visceral in a sanitized world, these are not flattering characteristics. It fits nowhere. Too weak and poorly provisioned for adventure touring, but also lacking the wheels and tires for venturing off-road. Design features like the tank stowage are novel, but not practical, while the styling and colours are generic, completely missing the opportunity presented by the layout.
It is a technically competent motorcycle that tries to do many things but does none of them well. A mediocre commuter, tourer and lousy sport ride with delusions of adventure, it is a clear example of what happens when you succumb to peer pressure. The NC750X works hard but for all the wrong reasons. It needs to relax, let go of the outcome and maybe come back next summer a changed being.
The market is full of amazing bikes right now, many from Honda, all of which makes me wonder. The CB500X is similar in comfort but more fun, more versatile, nearly as fuel efficient, and costs $1800 less… For me NC platform stands for No Chance.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ About the author
Michael Uhlarik is an international award-winning motorcycle designer with more than 16 years of experience creating bikes for Yamaha, Aprilia, Piaggio, Derbi and many others. He is a veteran motorcycle industry analyst and part-time industrial design lecturer. He is based in Nova Scotia.