Honda Builds The Crossover Of Bikes

2012 Honda NC700X

Here in the land of Harleys and highways that stretch to infinity, Americans don't care much for sensible motorcycles. Unlike the majority of global bike buyers, North Americans tend to choose escape over utility, performance over practicality – that's simply how it's been done in the land of the free, at least until a funny thing happened on the way to the global recession.

As bank balances thinned and fuel prices crept skyward, sales of puffed up sportbikes and cartoonishly endowed cruisers plummeted. Americans rediscovered that motorcycles could be used for tasks like workaday commutes and trips to the grocery store, not just for riding into a Marlboro Man-approved sunset, fringe in tow. As consumers matured, manufacturers slowly responded with bikes better suited for purposeful priorities.

The American Honda Motor Company rode the wave of frivolity while it lasted, experimenting with stunts like stuffing a mammoth 1,795cc v-twin into their VTX series of cruisers, until the humbler (but still hulking) 1,312cc mill took over. But Honda eventually got sensible and beefed up its scooter lineup, launched the beginner-friendly CBR250R, and – lo and behold – took a cue from the European market by introducing the NC700X stateside. But here's the rub: As much as the alphanumerically cumbersome model visually resembles a rugged BMW at a glance, the NC packs enough practical equipment to suggest there's a sea change in the way motorcycles are being marketed and sold in the US.

2012 Honda NC700X

Shift-phobic newbies can order an NC700X with an automatic, dual-clutch transmission.

First, the price.

The NC700X starts at $6,999, or about 60 percent the price of the cheapest car in America, the Nissan Versa 1.6 S. Sure, it's got half the number of wheels (and zero protection from the elements), but this all-new Honda also lays claim to a bunch of innovations that signal a new string of priorities for American bike buyers. For starters, shift-phobic newbies can order an NC700X with an automatic, dual-clutch transmission. The $2,000 package is bundled with anti-lock brakes – an unfair deal for clutch-loving ABS aficionados, but more on that later.

By moving the fuel tank under the seat, the so-called false tank has now been freed to function as a giant glove compartment – or, should we say, helmet compartment; the 5.5-gallon cavity still clicks shut with a large, full-face AGV crammed inside, leaving one less thing to lug after a long ride. And speaking of lengthy rides, the NC700X is motivated by a modestly sized 670cc parallel-twin that's capable of 64 miles per gallon, for a theoretical cruising range of 236 miles with the 3.7-gallon fuel tank.

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Engine architecture shared with the four-wheeled Fit helps the parallel twin powerplant sip fuel.

Swing a leg over the saddle, and you're met with an LCD instrument panel with a digital speedo and bar-style tachometer display. Straddling the NC700X doesn't feel ergonomically dissimilar to mounting a run-of-the-mill office chair that happens to be 32.7 inches above ground, and our tester was equipped with a suite of accessories like a tall windscreen ($170), fairing deflectors ($90), cowl panels ($90), saddlebags ($600, plus $90 for panel kits), heated grips ($230, plus $60 worth of wiring and harnesses), and a trunk ($300, plus another $300 in mounting hardware.) Yep, Honda knows there's loot to be scored in the accessories racket, and it's not holding back on the available doodads. Order the ABS/dual-clutch combo, and the clutch lever is replaced with a Sport/Comfort/Neutral rocker switch at the right grip, and a +/- shift override at the left; otherwise, it's fairly standard motorcycle stuff from the cockpit, with an adventure touring vibe and a street savvy twist, thanks to the towering accessory windshield mashed up against the LCD display.

There isn't much sound or fury as the twin-cylinder engine spins to life, and the mellow hum from the midsized parallel twin won't exactly set your horsepower loving heart aflutter. But tilted forward 62 degrees (which frees up the aforementioned storage compartment and lowers the bike's center of gravity), the engine works effectively in concert with the 41mm forks and a rear Pro-Link equipped swingarm to make the NC700X's 474 pounds (or 505 when equipped with the dual-clutch and ABS option) feel rather light on its toes. Honda says engine architecture shared with the four-wheeled Fit helps the parallel twin powerplant sip fuel, but their R&D department is mum on the exact correlation. They do, however, state that a uniaxial primary balancer "achieve[s] the emotional comfort of a slightly rough throb and satisf[ies] the development concept of a 'ride to suit mature tastes.'" Seriously.

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The DCT costs 2,000 bucks, 31 pounds of mass and an estimated 3 miles per gallon.

Our tester was a dual-clutch version that required a learning curve, despite its supposedly idiot-proof setup. Release the parking brake with your left hand, click into "D" with your right thumb (creating an audible clunk as the gearbox engages first gear), and twist the throttle: The transmission transfers power smoothly to the rear wheel as the bike eases forward. This is the point where experienced riders might reflexively grasp for the clutch lever and feather the throttle, but the tasks at hand are suspiciously (or delightfully) absent; as the engine revs dip and the transmission clunks again, the bike whisks forward, like a grown-up scooter on steroids.

It takes some time to grow accustomed to this automated gearshift arrangement, especially when involuntary mid-corner shifts are performed. But at least the manually selected cog swaps allow the engine to bounce off the rev limiter, rather than presume automated upshifts. Switch to "Sport" mode and the transmission works more urgently to switch gears with sufficiently satisfying alacrity. While there's some cognitive dissonance associated with the old school sound of clunky gear changes – after all, dual-clutches suggest a brave new world of quicker, smoother and invisibly seamless forward propulsion – Honda's DCT unit effectively delivers its promise of mindless shifting and user friendliness for beginner riders disinterested in clutch mastery, though that laziness will cost 2,000 bucks, 31 pounds of mass and an estimated 3 miles per gallon.

2012 Honda NC700X rear 3/4 view

The NC700X's suspension, with its nearly 6 inches of rear wheel travel, is plush enough to traverse potholes with ease, and the commanding view of the road encourages lane-splitting and all the urban antics you'd dismiss from your four-wheeled cage. On the twisty bits, corners are negotiated with easy flicks of the handlebar, and the rider's upright posture and clear visibility encourage an aggressive attack of the road. And while the single-disc, three-piston front brake works well enough – it's safe to say the two-piston stoppers on the non-ABS version don't bite as crisply – there's no confusing these binders with dedicated sportbike brakes in terms of lever feel and initial bite. But longer distance riding is where the NC700X shines. If you miss the gut wrenching acceleration of a superbike or the rugged disposition of a more focused adventure bike, this Honda will redeem itself with its comfortable seating position, easy road manners and willing maneuverability.

The dual-clutch gearbox's bundling with anti-lock brakes is one of the bike's few failures.

The NC700X satisfies a surprising spread of the motorcycle scatter plot, even if some of its crowd-pleasing nature comes from its available clutch-free transmission. In fact, the dual-clutch gearbox's bundling with anti-lock brakes is one of the bike's few failures. After all, plenty of motorcyclists prefer traditional gearboxes yet crave the security of skid-free stops, which Honda's latest-gen ABS unit delivers rather well with smooth engagement and virtually no pulsing sensations.

Capable, comfortable, practical and attractively priced, the Honda NC700X is like the vaguely intriguing nerdy girl who might have initially put you off with her sensible left-brain side (i.e., that fuel-sipping parallel twin powerplant), but turned out to be surprisingly fun to be around (spunky handling, agreeable ride). It's not the überpowerful or omnipotent bike of adolescent dreams, but with this impending era of two-wheeled functionality looming large, the Honda NC700X answers a whole lot of questions Americans never knew they had about modern motorcycles.