Catalina Moto Mixer: Honda Monkey First Ride

You may have heard that I spent the past couple days on Catalina Island with Honda’s newest mini, the Monkey. Of all the places and motorcycles I’ve ridden, never before have I found such a perfect match of bike and location. Catalina Island is something of an anomaly, with a cap on the number of cars allowed on the island. As a workaround, many residents drive golf carts, or micro-cars registered as golf carts. The pint-sized vehicles that populate the roads mean that traffic, when it arises, feels less cramped, and the island’s uniformly low speed limits dictate that you not be in a hurry to get anywhere.

Island time is a real thing, my friends.

The CityBike Wrecking Crew has a long-standing obsession with miniature motorcycles, and we are true believers in the magic of low-displacement engines and saucer-sized wheels. Our time spent comparing Kawasaki’s Z125 Pro and Honda’s refreshed Grom is cemented in my mind as some of the biggest fun I’ve had on two wheels, with “testing” ranging from an impromptu Gymkhana practice session to “closed course” testing in a makeshift skate park.

We’re also Honda fans, or at least Editor Surj and I are, so we received the announcement of the impending Monkey invasion with a mix of gleeful giggling and starry-eyed daydreams of romping down every stairwell between CityBike World Headquarters and the entrance to the supposedly motor-free Bay Bridge bike path.

We’re not alone in our big love of tiny bikes—Honda has sold 40,000 Groms since the bike launched in 2014. The Grom delivers outsized fun, but its sporty and angular appearance isn’t for everyone, and while the chassis isn’t exactly sporting as delivered, the community that quickly built up around the bike has taken a decidedly performance oriented attitude, even if—as with all motorcycles—at least as much of that is show as go.

I’m not going to argue against performance upgrades, but that mindset ignores the purity of simply fun motorcycles, bikes that offer “enjoyable, accessible mobility… likable design, tiny dimensions, and low weight,” which is how Honda describes their 58-year old Z series.

Which brings us to the Monkey. Finally, right? Look man, I’m still on island time.

You Meet the Nicest Monkeys

The Monkey is based on the Grom’s backbone and engine/transmission package, but with real-deal “you meet the nicest people” Honda aesthetics and a dual-shock rear end transforming the package into a retro-styled fun machine.

Honda really focused on overall fit and finish, with a goal of elevating the Monkey above the Grom. Once you get past the unbearably cute first impression, the first thing that strikes you about the Monkey is the two-tone paintwork. The Pearl Nebula Red looks good in low light, but direct sunlight really brings out the deeper pearl base in the color, and Banana Yellow is a monochromatic Seventies dream. The quality of both finishes is top notch.

The shape of the metal fuel tank and its exposed seam really drive the simpler times styling home, along with the bright chrome exhaust heat shield and fenders and the fluffy tuck and roll seat. The fork tubes are loosely color-matched—the Banana bike gets gold tubes. A closer look reveals that the fork uses modern inverted units, happily sharing their internals with the Grom. The two-piston disc brake is cleanly integrated and unobtrusive.

Exceptionally cool touches abound, like grips designed to mimic Seventies grip tape and an instrument cluster that winks at you on startup. The overall feel of the body panels not just classic, but upscale—an accomplishment given the bike’s price. For me, the whole package is the new benchmark for authentic modern classic styling.

Yep, I used the A-word. And I meant it.

Technology-wise, there’s not much to crow about: a basic twin shock rear suspension, four-speed gearbox, air-cooled SOHC engine, and damper rod front fork. A significant improvement over the original Monkey, but not particularly inspiring if you’re a die-hard spec-ophile.

But the reality is that if you’re still looking at the Monkey’s spec sheet, you’ve missed the point. This is an electric start, fuel-injected fun machine with a license plate.

There is an ABS option. It’s front wheel-only, but the system is state of the art, using an onboard IMU (inertial measurement unit, the same one as the CBR1000RR) that works with the wheel speed sensors to keep rear wheel lift in check and prevent front wheel skids.

The Monkey Shines

Riding the Monkey is a radically different experience from any other motorcycle I’ve ridden, yes, even the Grom. So many motorcycles are aggressively-styled, marketed with speed or adventure or tough guy style, but the Monkey is inviting, unintimidating. There’s attitude projected, but it’s pure fun.

Ergonomically, the Monkey and Grom are not dramatically different from one another. The simian is slightly taller, more upright, with marginally narrower bars. Peg position is as neutral as it gets. These ergonomic variances, coupled with the Monkey’s Wonder Years aesthetics result in a bike that’s charming, even gregarious.

If the Monkey were a person, it’d be the quintessential laid-back surfer meandering through town in a VW dune buggy, chatting up the locals.

Personally, I’m not an advocate for riding in open-face helmets and tee shirts, but the Monkey makes a strong case for such freewheeling lack of constraints. The softly-sprung suspension—really, the entire experience of the bike—inspires you to slow things down, take a breath, take in the scenery, and I was honestly thrown for a loop. All of my usual thought patterns—trying to analyze turn-in, brake feel, throttle response, and overall chassis performance—became completely irrelevant. The Monkey just wants you to enjoy the ride.

The exhaust note is pleasant, and flooded me with memories of time spent on bikes as a kid, riding endless loops in open fields, with no agenda beyond just riding. That’s a stark contrast to my usual mindset while riding: somewhere to go, some question to answer, or a need to find the edge of adhesion. Suddenly, I just wanted to ride.

Catalina Island’s publicly accessible roads are quite limited—even at low speeds, I covered all the open asphalt in under two hours. I can’t imagine being in such a situation on any other bike, but somehow, repeatedly riding the Monkey in a relaxed manner over the same loop never lost its charm. Add in the comments and conversation that ensue as you’re cruising through town and the same route is never the same experience.

The Monkey could very well be the bike to re-instill the purity of fun riding that many recall so fondly from decades past.

The Monkey is decidedly good-natured, but you can still indulge your more baboonish tendencies if you desire. The nature and location of this event dictated that I maintain a certain level of respectability, both in the eyes of locals and Honda staffers, but I was able sample the less wholesome side of the Monkey nonetheless.

Heading up the CityBike Society for the Preservation of Front Tires requires dutiful testing of every bike’s wheelie potential, and the Monkey certainly delivers, even if its laid-back attitude means Monkey wheelies tend to be a bit slower and lower. My impromptu parking lot play session revealed the Monkey’s willingness to slide the rear wheel around between wheelies, and these activities served to reinforce the bike’s balance point between retro and modern: the disc brakes are competent and easy to modulate, clutch pull is one of the lightest pulls I’ve experienced. It’s all of the cool of an old bike, without the mechanical sacrifice.

We’ll be getting our hands of a Monkey of our own for a proper CityBike-style test in the wilds of Oakland, San Francisco, and the greater Bay Area, but if you want to plant your butt on a little banana seat in the meantime, Monkeys should be arriving in your local Honda shop any day now, certainly by October 1st. Bringing one home will cost you $3,999, $4,199 if you want ABS.

Fish is Founder and President of the CityBike Society for the Preservation of Front Tires, and our most talented mini-wrangler, which is why we sent him to Catalina Island to bond with the Monkeys. That, and Editor Surj, who has been dreaming of riding a Monkey since they were announced, is recovering from several surgeries, thanks to an errant and inattentive Civic driver. He’s not bitter. Nooo… not at all.

More Honda Monkey Photos

More Photos of Fish Riding a Monkey

 

Honda Monkey Detail & Close-up Photos

Headlight & Controls

Tank, Bodywork & Seat

Engine

Suspension & Wheels

Honda Monkey Specs

Engine

Type: 124.9cc air-cooled single-cylinder four-stroke
Valve Train: SOHC; two-valve
Bore x Stroke: 52.4mm x 57.9mm
Compression Ratio: 9.3:1
Induction: PGM-FI w/ 24mm bore, automatic enrichment
Ignition: Full transistorized
Starter: Electric
Transmission: Manual; four speeds
Clutch: Multiplate wet
Final Drive: Chain final drive; 15T/34T

Suspension

Front: 31mm hydraulic telescopic inverted fork; 4.3 in. travel
Rear: Twin shocks; 3.3 in. travel

Brakes

Front: Hydraulic; single 220mm disc w/ two-
piston caliper; ABS version gets ABS, duh.
Rear: Hydraulic; single 190mm disc w/ single-piston caliper

Tires

Front: 120/80-12
Rear: 130/80-12

Measurements

Rake: (Caster Angle): 25º
Trail: 82mm (3.2 in.)
Length: 67.4 in.
Width: 29.7 in.
Height: 40.5 in.
Ground Clearance: 5.3 in.
Seat Height: 30.6 in.
Wheelbase: 45.3 in.
Fuel Capacity: 1.5 gal.
Colors: Pearl Nebula Red, Banana Yellow (non-ABS versions only)
Curb Weight: 238 lbs. (with ABS), 234 lbs. (full shenanigans version)

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