By Fish, with Max Klein and Surj Gish
Photography: Angelica Rubalcaba
Rider: Max Klein
Fish: Deal with it
We like the NC. You’re gonna have to deal with it.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the NC700X is Honda’s do-it-all value bike aimed at catering to all the things American riders don’t use motorcycles for. You can get one for just $7,499, and its focus on fuel economy, utility, and comfort are equally odd and revolutionary in a marketplace that largely views motorcycles as toys. That oddball status is enhanced by the placement of the fuel tank under the seat, with a tank-shaped storage compartment or “frunk” (trademark Fishco, son!) where the fuel tank “should” be. The NC hits that one-or-two-months-SF-rent price point thanks to trickle down parts bin economics, including an engine design from the shockingly good Honda Fit (that’s a car!) as well as DCT transmission technology that debuted on the previous-gen, non-ADV-ish VFR1200—the one that sold like ice at the North pole, maybe worse.
For 2016 Honda has updated the NC in a few meaningful ways (as well as some not so meaningful ways) compared to the bike we first rode a few years back (“2012 Honda NC700X, A motorcycle for the ages?” – January 2013). Honda describes the bike’s updated appearance as having a “tougher, adventure ready look,” which as you may have guessed, falls in the not so meaningful category. The muffler has been updated as well, for a sharper look.
I’m not sold on how hypothetically tougher looks make this thing more adventure-ready. I mean, it already has a beak—what else does a bike need to be “adventure ready?”
Looks aside, Honda did extend the windshield by 70mm to give us riders over 5’6” some wind protection. The DCT tranny has gained three sport modes, and there’s an LED tail light which is welcome to those of us who hate replacing bulbs. Snuck into those aggressive new lines was some extra capacity in the frunk, so I guess I can forgive the marketing jargon.
With formalities out of the way, here’s the deal: the NC could be the fabled only bike. We tested the DCT (dual clutch transmission) version, and that—perhaps surprisingly—really made the difference for me. First and foremost, I’m not a technology guy, and I’m also not an auto trans guy. Every vehicle I own has a manual transmission, even my diesel towing pig.
But the unconventional power delivery of the NC can catch you off guard. It’s a Honda, so it revs as smoothly as expected and you hit the low, low redline and corresponding rev limiter—or more accurately, it can hit you, rather forcefully—very quickly.
The DCT totally fixes that. As hard as it may be to accept the DCT concept, Honda has this technology sorted. New for 2016 is the aforementioned adjustability of sport mode—I found myself in level two most often.
In addition, there is full on commuter mode (called Drive, like a traditional auto trans) which is incredibly smooth and efficient—it really optimizes fuel economy and conserves energy. The downside is that it doesn’t downshift or engine brake in this mode, and that takes a little getting used to.
The other end of the spectrum is the full on flappy paddle gearbox manual mode. I can see someone getting the hang of this, but it’s not immediately intuitive and ended up overly complicating things. The various levels of Sport mode are really where it’s at.
The Sport modes deserve quite a bit of attention. Let’s start with level one—this lets the bike hold gears slightly longer than Drive, and is still smooth and well suited to commuting and focused city riding. Fuel economy doesn’t noticeably suffer, and it adds just enough punch to the bike to justify the button push.
I personally found myself in level two the most. Here the bike runs right up to the torque peak and shifts with authority. This is closest to a CVT feel, because the bike never stops pulling. When faced with sharp, slow-in, fast-out curves, the bike is always in the right gear to reward a twist of the throttle with train-like drive on exit. It will gently downshift on decel and corner entry, but not enough that it would ever upset the bike. Level two does force you to rely on the brakes a bit more, but you can still use the manual buttons to drop an extra gear when you find the end of their heat tolerance—which we did.
Level three is there to remind you that shifting at redline isn’t always the best idea. Perhaps the ratios aren’t matched well, but I found that when doing anything other than drag racing, the shift points here left me with less drive and too many revs in some places. Level three does add serious engine braking into the equation, but it’s not worth the drag race-y power delivery.
Contrary to popular belief (and photographic evidence presented in these pages), I do more than just hoon on motorbikes. As a matter of fact, I do use them for daily errands throughout the congested East Bay area. So while the hoon-ability of the NC is what really sealed the deal for me, the business-handling side of the equation is what makes it a viable option.
We all know that upright ergos paired with a tractable power band makes for great ‘round town appliances. The NC combines that with a just right chassis size that fits well in many urban situations. The ground clearance and adventure-esque attitude of the X means you’ll have no problem hopping curbs or making a less than legal u-turn over a median. These capabilities should not be overlooked.
The frunk is such an amazingly useful feature. Not only is it great for stashing your helmet when you arrive, this little cavern can easily transport an entire top end of an air cooled 80 cubic inch American V-twin engine! I hate backpacks, saddlebags kinda cramp my style, and topcases look stupid. This is the best cargo transport feature I have ever seen.
As for the hooning—the upright ergos come into play again. I’m of the opinion that low sporty ergos are not an asset when partaking of spirited-pace riding in the idiot-infested wilds of our public roads. The NC doesn’t ask you to curl up in a ball or move your body into convoluted yoga positions to go around corners, and the light effort required to move the bars means that you can ride the shit out of this bike all day.
The suspension may be budget, but 5.4” of travel up front and 5.9” out back mean that it’s reasonably tolerant of the lovely roads we have in our little slice of California. There were a couple places where I simply jumped when I encountered tree root-induced bumps in the road. While doable with a more sporty bike, the NC was right at home in such situations. I did manage to find the limit of the rear shock on some particularly choppy roads, but the addition of more throttle meant that the ample torque just stepped the rear tire out. When you’re really acting like an ass, you can also find the limit of that single front brake. It does at least fade gently, and give you enough time to mellow yourself out.
Completing the do-it-all trifecta is freeway duty, and the extra 70mm of windscreen really helps on the interstate. I had to make a weekend run to Sacramento on the NC, and it totally shined. I half-expected to finally find some inherent weakness in the little twin that could, but failed to do so. I could not ask for a better engine to handle the awful winds of 680 between Martinez and Fairfield, and the chassis was planted, minimally affected by the sideways gusts. Headwinds? Simply not a problem.
The cherry on top is the passenger-toting ability. My return from The Sac was a two-up affair, and the NC served us well, providing surprisingly ample passenger space for a middleweight. I encountered the usual bottleneck of yay-hoos returning from Tahoe on I-80, and filtering through with a passenger was drama-free, thanks in part to the NC’s low center of gravity and smooth power delivery.
Ultimately, yes, this is a compromise bike. It’s never going to be a competitive motocrosser. You’re probably not going to win an AFM race on it, and you’ll definitely never win a beauty contest on it. I imagine you’d find the limit of the engine if you wanted to tow a Gold Wing behind you.
Honda advertises fuel economy of 64mpg, but I saw numbers closer to 55mpg. Can I complain about that “typical OEM dishonesty?” Sure, but seriously? 55 miles per gallon with the treatment it received from me? I’ll take it.
I’ll be honest—I wouldn’t sell my FXR to buy an NC, but I’m an idiot. For anything short of a truly special snowflake, this bike is the solution to doing it all in a very competent way. And if you’re too special, too hard core, too real of a rider to compromise, you probably already have the perfect KTM or Ducati getting its valves adjusted at the shop right now anyway.
Max: Dual-Clutching a Double-Smoked Bacon Sammich & a Cup of Coffee
I have to admit that I was borderline disappointed when I went to load the NC700X into the CityBike diesel truckster. My usual act of clutching the bike up into the back of the truck was impossible, due to the apparent lack of clutch.
Eventually, I fired up the motor and while trying to figure out how to put it into gear I worried about A) just how far would I put the bike into the cab of the truck and B) how pissed Editor Surj was going to be about me bringing a seemingly glorified scooter back to CityBike World HQ.
Fortunately for me—and all of us, really—I kept the bike in the bed of the truck, and the NC turned out to not suck in a very decisive way.
No, it’s not a fire breathing torque monster ready to destroy supersports in the canyons, and contrary to what Honda would have you believe, it’s not an adventure bike, although they do caveat the adventure-ness by saying it’s ready for “everyday performance” on their adventure page.
That’s not to say that you can’t go rail the twisties or even do some exploring on this thing.
But, it wasn’t love at first sight (twist?) for me. Leaving a stoplight in the default power mode with a throttle input equal to the flow of traffic had the NC700 puttering into in 3rd gear—at 20ish mph—before I even got through the intersection. Keep rolling with the flow of traffic and you’ll find yourself in 5th gear at 35mph.
In the name of fair and balanced moto-journalism, I decided to ride it like this for a tank and see where I ended up. Even with some hamfisted moments I got 77mpg, and that tank was spent at pretty much my normal pace in the hills and about 80mph on the freeway.
With that out of my system, I switched over to Sport mode, specifically the super-secret sporty-sport Sport mode—Honda calls it S3… and still managed to get between 62-68mpg, depending on how long I waited for it to shift into top gear on the freeway. Honda’s DCT would downshift almost exactly like I would if rowing the gearbox myself, allowing me to power out in second gear instead of lugging through in fourth.
Strangely, I often had to manually kick it up a gear if I was cruising along at 75, kinda like it was egging me on. “There’s more… there’s always more…”
It reinforced that stealthily mischievous side with “Ride Red Bro” appearing on the dash when I turned the key.
But my favorite part about the bike might have been the frunk, a name Fish, or some subsidiary of Fish’s life called Fishco, is trying to lay claim to.
I went to pick up some Chinese food and was able to fit not only dinner for 4 in there, but also a sixer of Tsingtao to wash it down. When I rode it to Thunderhill to shoot a track day, I loaded my camera, a 28-300mm lens, extra batteries, memory cards, change of shoes, extra shirt, and a couple of water bottles into the frunk with a little room to spare.
With the frunk nearly-fully loaded, I hit the pre-dawn road. For some reason Honda decided to make the tachometer change color relative to speed and throttle, and I found it downright distracting in the dark.
I hit the fine city of Willows with enough time to grab a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich from Starbucks, but not quite enough time to consume my breakfast inside. So I went through the drive through.
I added the double-smoked bacon sammich to the already extensive contents of the frunk and rode off clutching my coffee instead of the transmission. That was first time I’ve truly wished I had a modular helmet.
Funnily enough, the thing I liked least was the gas tank. Honda decided that with the massive miles per gallon you get with the NC, you don’t really need an adult-sized tank. I’d have no problem with that if the thing was easy to fill up, but with the filler located under the passenger seat, you have to unlock the seat, flip it up, look for a good place to put the filler cap, and put in your 3.7 gallons.
That underseat tank location also means that you will need to pack creatively if you’re going on a long trip. The frunk holds a lot of stuff, but I don’t think anybody is going to cram camping gear in there. It didn’t cause me any grief, but it might if I owned one.
Smallish tank aside, it gets great mileage, was fun to ride, and can hold the contents of a KLR milk crate in the frunk. What’s not to love, besides the Lite Brite tachometer?
Surj: The Editor Has No Tank
CityBike has something of a long-term thing with Honda’s NC700X. Gwynne, our long-time Queen of Making-Shit-Happen and oftentimes face of the mag (because she’s the one that smiles so nice) owns one, and rides the shit out of it. In fact, she’s probably the reason Honda categorizes it under adventure on their website, instead of… I dunno, some other category, probably one that doesn’t exist. Fuck-yeah-do-it-all-shoulda-been-a-moto-messenger, maybe? Or just do-it-all, to keep the “make America great again” do-gooders happy.
Gwynne is understandably miffed about the treatment of the NC at the hands of the moto-press, and even at the hands of the whatever-CityBike-is press. She’s been on a one-woman crusade to get people to understand the awesomeness of the NC for a few years now.
One time, she showed me a picture of her NC on its side, halfway up, or maybe down, some slickrock gnarl halfway to someplace I’d never even heard of, and told me how she ended up dragging the bike out of there. I said, “you ought to write a story about your NC adventures,” but she only shrugged and said, ”Just another day on the NC.”
So while we’re given to scoffing at the adventure-ness of the NC—and damn near every other motorcycle bestowed with ADV branding—the truth is, it’s an incredibly capable motorcycle, even if on paper it looks like the most boring goddamn thing since golf.
Those capabilities often go woefully underappreciated, because American motorcyclists, overly concerned with cool, with owning the ultimate solution to whatever their particular motorcycling problem is, have historically overlooked bikes that are cool in an understated, sensible, occasionally odd way: Yamaha’s TDM850, Honda’s Pacific Coast, and other bikes that were ahead of, or just outside of, the curve.
But I’ve started seeing other NCs here and there, not just Gwynne’s. Maybe we’re wising up. Like Fish, I have a hard time seeing myself as the owner of an NC as my only bike, or my main bike—even though it makes an awful lot of sense, especially as a utilitarian moto-commuter. And the dumb thing about it is that it’s not because I can’t assemble a longass list of use cases that the NC excels at—I can. It’s more about more obscure components: emotional connection, excitement, and yes, cool.
The NC (not cool?) is the equivalent of an Aerostich suit. Eminently useful, but to the layperson… well, not that cool.
“But Surj, you wear a ‘Stich.”
Yes. Yes, I do.
In an attempt to understand this dichotomy between rational acceptance of the NC as arguably the perfect guy for a guy like me and muddle-headed refusal, I rode it everywhere, just as Fish and Max did—from my daily commute to dipshit devilry. Which is what we do with most bikes we get, except maybe that damn Forty-Eight.
I took it to the Tom Perkins Legacy Foundation ride in San Francisco (“Doing The Inaugural Tom Perkins Legacy Foundation Ride On The Wrongest Possible Bike” – Pit Stops, October 2016), thinking it’d be an interesting test of how people react to it. Perhaps surprisingly, the Harley folks dug the NC—I got a lot of thumb-up action, positive comments and curious questions.
I also took it on a CityBike photoshoot as a sort of support vehicle. Which is a typically overblown Bay Area-esque way of saying I led us around on the NC, looking for cool graffiti to use as a backdrop.
It was perfect, and I ended the day wanting one of my own. Like Max on the way to Thunderhill, I loaded the frunk with camera gear, and yeah, that was cool—although it woulda been downright blissful if I’d been able to open the frunk without the key. But still, I rode around, waving my hands in confusing attempts to point out cool stuff, stopped randomly and didn’t have to worry about snicking into neutral before gesticulating. You could argue that the DCT dumbs down the experience of riding, but you should ride a bike equipped with one before you do.
Riding support for that photo shoot, the bike’s sleeper hooligan spirit revealed itself in a way that doesn’t rear its head in the daily running of the gauntlet. Quick, give me the first thing that pops into your head when I say, “You’re in West Oakland, on a motorcycle… what do you do?”
You fucking wheelie off curbs, smoke the rear, and hope the cops are busy with real crime, right? Goddamn right you do, and that’s just what I did.