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Let’s Tell Honda What to Do

Japanese manufacturer doing well but missing out on the little things

Hey-hey, it’s been a while since we’ve done a “Let’s Tell xx What to Do” article here on TMO and with the moto show season just around the corner I thought it might be a good idea to throw out a few suggestions with the hope of being able to claim credit for them a further down the line.

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Manufacturers and moto accessories makers tend to display their latest and greatest products at shows that take place through the winter. The two biggest shows this year will be Intermot, in Cologne, Germany, in October, and EICMA, in Milan, Italy, in November.

2018 X-ADV
You have to give Honda credit for being willing to do some wacky stuff, eg, the X-ADV adventure scooter.

I anticipate interesting things from a number of manufacturers at these shows. Indian has told us we’ll be seeing the production-version FTR 1200 by the end of the year; revealing it in time for show season starts just makes sense. It also seems likely Harley-Davidson will unveil the Livewire that it’s said will hit dealerships in 2019. There’s strong and reliable talk that BMW will be pulling the cover off an overhauled R lineup, with capacity reportedly boosted to 1250 cc. Yamaha will give us the Ténéré 700, whereas KTM will give the 790 Adventure R its official airing. We know Triumph will be showing off its Scrambler 1200, but I’ll be a little surprised (and disappointed) if it doesn’t also produce an updated Tiger Sport.

One name you’ll notice missing from that group, however: Honda. The Japanese manufacturer’s been putting out good bikes in recent years – most recently the CB1000R (and stylistically similar CB300R and CB125R) and overhauled Gold Wing – but I’m expecting little from Big Red this year. Sure, there’s always the possibility it could roll out that long-rumored super-charged NC750X, but if such a project actually exists I’d think it more likely to appear in 2020 – coinciding with changes to EU emissions law.

Moto Guzzi

That’s all fine, though, because the gist of my advice to Honda is simply: keep doing what you’re doing. Well, mostly. Actually, you should be doing a little more…

The new CB10000R isn’t the fastest or best-equipped in its class, but it’s managed to win many people’s hearts.

Incredibly diverse and producing everything from lawnmowers to robots, Honda traces its history to the years immediately following WWII, having been set up by famously persnickety engineer Sochiro Honda. Like all good success stories, Honda’s beginnings were relatively humble – 12 dudes working in a 170-square-foot shack, making motorized bicycles with 50cc engines.

That was 1946. Within 13 years Honda had become the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer – a position it holds to this day. In the 1960s, Honda (and the other major Japanese manufacturers) delivered bikes so reliable and affordable that it decimated British motorcycle manufacturers and drove Harley-Davidson so close to bankruptcy that it was snapped up by a bowling ball company. Through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Honda was at the forefront of a Japanese motorcycling dominance that has really only loosened in the last four or five years.

I’d argue that the Europeans – in particular BMW, Ducati, and KTM – are leading the way these days, especially in terms of rider-aid innovation and delivering what customers want. But Honda isn’t far behind. The brand has a strong and generally deserved reputation for building reliable, durable machines – the trade-off being that they often lack the character of competitors, be that in performance or aesthetics.

Honda CB4 Interceptor Concept
The CB4 Interceptor Concept displayed at last year’s moto shows demonstrates that Honda could be doing some crazily cool stuff if it wanted to.

The Little Things

As an extension of that lack of character, Honda has a frustrating habit of apparently feeling that external elements don’t matter much. It weirdly doesn’t pay attention to the stuff people pay attention to – the tiny details. You can build an engine that is internally perfect in every way but the thing people actually notice is the fact that there’s no cruise control on the Africa Twin (or VFR1200X), or that the the panniers on the Gold Wing are too small.

One usually has to nitpick to find things wrong with Honda bikes, but it’s annoying that the company seems willing to ignore those things. I find it impossible to believe that a company capable of delivering an otherwise sound motorcycle legitimately can’t figure out how to make heated grips that actually get hot or a windscreen that actually blocks wind. That’s hooey, man.

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Yeah, I went there: hooey. I hate to use such strong language, but I can think of no other way to describe it. Honda’s laziness when it comes to the finer external details is hooey. Because every single one of us knows it could be delivering all the whizbangery of a KTM without the glitches of a KTM, the shine of a Ducati without the transmission of a Ducati. It just chooses not to.

2018 Africa Twin
The Africa Twin is a good motorcycle – no one denies that. With a little more effort, it could be unbeatably great.

¿A Dónde Fueron las Sport Tourers?

When you think of the best Hondas of all time, a lot of sport-touring bikes hang out at the top of the list – the CBR1000XX Blackbird, the VFR750/800, the VFR1200F, and the venerable the ST1100/1300 Pan-European. All but one of those bikes is gone now and although the modern Gold Wing is a little more sprightly than it used to be Honda generally seems to have given up on the genre. Unlike other manufacturers, it isn’t really filling the space with adventure-touring bikes (I predict we’ll see the end of the disappointing VFR1200X in the next year).

That’s a shame. The reliable nature of Honda products lends itself well to the sport touring class. It was something Honda was really good at. For a while there, Honda made the best sport tourers, whereas these days applying the phrase “best in class” to anything Honda does is a little more tricky. Honda makes very, very, very good bikes but it’s hard to say that any one of them truly stands above its competitors.

VFR800F 17ym
The VFR800F is the only sport tourer left in Honda’s lineup.

Somewhat related to this, Honda used to make pretty good cruisers, too. Again, they lacked some of the character of the American V-twins they were mimicking but, man, I know a lot of Honda cruiser owners who have nothing but love for their motos. The genre has been dropped from Honda’s European lineups and in the United States it hasn’t progressed in very long time; the five-speed Shadow still runs drum rear brakes.

Figure Out a Way to Make Me Want Your Bikes

I struggle to really say anything hyper negative about Honda, and I admire its willingness to try out-of-the-box stuff like the NM4 or Grom. Meanwhile, in the form of the CB1100 RS, Africa Twin, and Gold Wing, Big Red offers a number of bikes that, on paper, are very much my kind of thing.

I SHOULD LOVE THIS BIKE, BUT DON’T: 2017 Honda NC750X – Ride Review

But, see, I don’t want any of those. I like them. I sure as hell wouldn’t complain if someone gave me one, but I’ve never really been able to build up that sort of wild-eyed “Oooh! I WANT one of those!” feeling that often drives a motorcycle purchase.

17YM CB1100 RS
The CB1100 RS is aesthetically pleasing but I wouldn’t sell my kidney for one.

Maybe it’s a character thing. But, then, isn’t the churning reliability of a Honda engine a character in itself? A Honda that shook or belched noise or whatever wouldn’t really be a Honda, would it?

So, maybe it goes back to the need to pay attention to the little things. With a Honda there’s always that feeling that you’re sacrificing something. My friend, Rich, once said that he prefers bikes that either scare the shit out of him or make him laugh his ass off. Honda’s don’t really do either. They give you a feeling of satisfaction – quiet confidence. That’s good, but I feel it wouldn’t be all that difficult for Honda to deliver great.