Memorable Motorcycle: Honda NC750X DCT

September 24, 2014
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Here’s the scenario. Let’s pretend that since the 1930s, all bikes have had automatic gearboxes with no manual control of the clutch. By 2014, Honda have perfected this system so that upward changes are truly seamless and downward ones almost as good. Automatic gearboxes are all that we know, or have known since the dawn of motorcycling, so we’re all very satisfied.

Then some maverick manufacturer, with an iconoclastic designer, launches a radically new method of changing gear – with a manually operated clutch. Now a skilful rider, but only one with a high degree of competency, can balance the bike just with the most delicate use of the clutch and throttle. Downward changes are swift, smooth and laser accurate. It’s simple to hang on to a gear for effortless overtaking or extra engine braking on slippery surfaces or when descending steep hills. In fact, this new-fangled manual clutch thing connects the skilled rider with his bike in such an intimate and involving way that we all wonder how we ever got along with automatic gearboxes.

This is the problem the NC750 faces.

Okay, let’s do the easy bit of this report. The NC750 is a thoroughly competent motorcycle. The 745cc, twin-cylinder, eight-valve engine produces a claimed 58 horsepower and is okay in the sort of dull, competent way in which a cardboard box does a perfectly acceptable job of bringing half a dozen bottles of wine back from the supermarket, without breaking them.

American customers, who Honda feel can’t quite manage the visceral, loin-tingling thrill of 58 hp, have to manage with the original 670cc motor which is 75cc smaller and produces 4 hp less.

With the redline at 6500 rpm, the NC’s Twin feels like a car engine, which isn’t surprising because it is effectively half a Honda Fit motor.

The engine’s one outstanding trait is that it is ludicrously light on fuel. David Lawton, the owner of our test bike, regularly gets 70 mpg and can manage 200 miles between filling up the small, 14.1 liter (3.72 gallon), underseat fuel tank.

The NC750Xs simple front brake is superb.
Our reviewer found himself surprised by the
NC750X’s front brake, which he rates as the
best single-sided brake he’s ever used.

I don’t wish to be dismissive of that 58 hp. The NC750 will outdrag 98% of cars you will ever meet at the stoplights and provides ample power to flatten hills and cruise effortlessly at speeds which will get your license suspended. You could easily take this bike across the Rockies and back and never, ever need more power in order to complete your trip competently and safely.

The biggest danger you would face is falling asleep with boredom as you try to hear the very heavily silenced twin drone on and on and on.

The NC750 handles okay too – as does my lawnmower. My lawnmower doesn’t crash into our pond, or throw me off into the nettles or frighten our pet sheep and in the same way you won’t find corners a buttock-clenching thrill riding with the NC750. Corners arrive, the bike goes round them and you come out the other side. As I said, a thoroughly competent lawn mower.

In fact, for me, the handling is just slightly ambitious. I would have preferred an even shallower head angle, and more trail, so that the handling becomes completely innocuous. At present, it errs ever so slightly more to the sporting side of the spectrum and NC750 riders are, largely, not sportbike fans.

The suspension is, frankly, old fashioned and feels very budget conscious. It’s not bad but this is 2014 and “not bad” equates to “not good at all.” Again, for me I would have softened everything and made the NC750 glide along. If you want to chase the innocuous market then why not do it properly and remove all riding sensation from the rider?

The riding position is, and I apologize for using the same phrase again, competent. The bike has quasi AT styling, so there is plenty of room in the saddle and the riding position is comfortably upright.

The saddle is low so shorter riders can reach the ground easily and the NC750 is light by modern standards at only 488 pounds, while the twin-cylinder engine makes it narrow. In short, there is nothing to argue about and no reason for complaint. I would, and could, ride the NC750 all day and it would be a lot better than walking or catching a bus.

In terms of the instrumentation, the accountants had their number crunching hands on this part of the design to ensure that, while there is enough information to keep the rider legal you shouldn’t expect anything sexy or interesting. You get enough for your needs in terms of speed, fuel consumed and miles covered but don’t expect a pretty server arriving with your meal or any palate-tickling sauces. This instrument package hasn’t come from Ducati!

Occasionally, things go wrong and Honda slips in some really clever engineering which brings a smile to my face. The 320mm, two piston front brake, although apparently simple and basic, is a real cracker.

How? I don’t know because it is such a basic unit, but this is the best single-sided brake I have used and offers effortless braking with just one finger.

Perhaps because the auto box on the NC750 doesn’t provide quite the same degree of engine braking as a conventional engine, Honda were getting tense at the thought of a fully-loaded NC diving off the edge of a mountain road because the rider ran out of brakes?

Not only is the front brake a gem but it also comes with ABS as standard and this is both a sensible and worthwhile safety aid.

Equally clever is the centrally-mounted fuel tank. Although of small capacity it lives where fuel tanks ought to be – low down and in between the rider’s legs. Normally, this is the space occupied by high tech airboxes but a 750cc engine producing only 58 hp can be much more relaxed in terms of airbox design.

Not only is the fuel tank where it ought to be in a bike of this design but Honda has provided a really useful storage box where the fuel tank normally lives. This is deep and wide, and will take a helmet and gloves or tablet computer. I like this thoughtful engineering.

The presentation of the NC750 is drab. There is nothing to generate the stirring of the soul which should happen every time you look at your bike. There’s nothing criminally wrong with the bike but it is dull beyond description. It’s not that Honda lacks the ability to make lovely bikes – look at the CB500 range as an example, or the jaw-droppingly beautiful CBR1000RR SP.

Rather, the NC750 looks as if it has been styled on the last Friday afternoon before finishing work for the Christmas holiday. It’s not overtly ugly but you will never stand proudly next to it at the bike meet.

So now to the punchline: the auto shift. First, the NC750 is not a CVT transmission like a scooter. On this system, the front pulley contracts in size and the rear expands to lower the gearing and vice versa to increase it. The Honda has a lot more engineering.

First, it has a “conventional” six speed gearbox in that inside the motor are main and layshafts, gearbox pinions and selectors. However, it has two, not one, clutches and this means that the next higher gear can be pre-selected before it is used.

In practice, the upward changes are seamless – really good. In fact, they are as good as you can get by using a clutch and a modicum of riding skill. Now that’s a novel thought.

Wheres the clutch
Where’s the clutch? The NC750X sources Honda’s DCT (Dual Clutch Transmission) technology, which makes for idiot simple operation. But not everyone approves, including our traditionalist critic, who opines: ‘I am not a motorcycling idiot and therefore don’t need any idiot proof system.’

Changing down isn’t as good and there is a distinct clonk as the lower three of six ratios comes into play. Now, remind me. Can’t you get seamless downshifts with a clutch and smart throttle control?

There are two main auto choices – plus a manually controlled option too, operated by a pair of switches.

The first job is to release the handbrake. Because you can’t just leave the bike in gear to stop it sliding downhill from that lovely scenic car park and into the ravine below, you need to lock on the rear brake. However, unlike a car with an electronic brake which flies off the moment you start, the NC brake doesn’t. When I started with it on, it was a near miss in terms of a minor crash as the rear brake brought me to an immediate and dramatic halt!

Next select one of the two auto modes: “Drive” or “Sport”. There is a pleasing clunk as the first gear goes in and then that’s it. Open the throttle and the NC pulls away as briskly, or slowly, as you wish. To say it is idiot proof is the understatement of the year. The problem I face is that I am not a motorcycling idiot and therefore don’t need any idiot proof system.

In the “D” mode, the bike changes up too quickly as it rushes to get into sixth. This is how the NC gets its incredibly frugal fuel consumption. Low revs and high gears mean that gas is sipped.

Select “Sport” and the motor hangs on to gears for a shade longer. In a practical sense, the NC will go as fast as you need to ride if you intend keeping both your life and your license but you will have little part in the exercise except to open and close the throttle.

Then there is the fully-manual mode, which is operated by two buttons on the left hand side of the handlebars. These are fiddly to find and, yes, they do allow gears to be changed up and down but what a remote, uninvolving experience it is. What can’t be done is to blip the throttle and so come down through the gears fast and smoothly.

For me, the most useful thing for the manual gearbox would be lock it in a low gear to descend steep hills when fully loaded – something I could do with my ’57 Chevy.

You will have gathered that I am not a fan either of the NC or its automatic gearbox, so who is the bike aimed at?

Our test bike is owned by David Lawton, a vastly experienced rider who has ridden more bikes than most of us can even imagine. Here’s David’s take on the NC.

“I like riding a motorcycle. I really do enjoy the experience of riding. I don’t want the trouble and work of a bike which has far more power than I can ever use and which I don’t want.

“The NC isn’t threatening but I don’t want to be threatened – I want to ride at my own pace in safety.

“The gearbox is brilliant and as an engineer, I love the technology in it.

“It’s also narrow, light and easily managed – and these are all important to me.

“I think that the NC is the perfect combination of practicality and user friendliness. I love it!”

By contrast, for me, the NC is an abrogation of all the reasons I ride a motorcycle – or want to ride. I want my bikes to be demanding or involving. I want to be rewarded for being a good rider and I want my bike to tell me about my mistakes. I want an anthropomorphic relationship with my motorcycle.

But most of all, I want to lust after riding. I want to close up everything for the night, switch off my computer, lock the office door – and then sneak across to the garage for one last look at my motorcycle and that’s why the NC750, and its ilk, will never be for me.

Special thanks to David Lawton for the loan of his NC750X

 

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