As always, I was excited to try a category of motorcycle I've never ridden previously: the BMW C650GT über-scooter. I also had never tried the category-defying Honda NC700X.
Since I laid hands on the NC700X first, I'll begin there. My immediate impression of the NC was that it was an ideological descendant of the ill-fated Honda Pacific Coast 800: both are sleekly swaddled in a genre-bending, polarizing bodywork design and offer modest (but useable) power. The NC is styled on the coattails of one of the fastest-rising niches of design: the adventure bike. If you squint, it looks vaguely like a Ducati Hypermotard, which also has two cylinders. That is about the extent of the similarity.
In the engine bay, the NC is mechanically interesting since it uses what many motorcycle industry pundits are describing as “half a Honda Fit engine.” The mill has a redline of just 6000 rpm and the PGM-FI system has executive control over power delivery, via throttle-by-wire. Intended or otherwise, it definitely has a nanny built in to prevent rapid acceleration—but do we really need this feature in a 474-pound machine that puts less than 50 horsepower on the ground?
Chassis-wise, there is nothing ground-breaking about the steel tubular frame other than the fact that there is a spacious trunk where one would expect to find an airbox and gas tank. The longish wheelbase makes it feel stately when initiating turns. The suspension seems budget-spec'd: non-adjustable, under-sprung, under-damped. The suspension travel is a bit more generous than usual for a street bike. This makes for a pleasantly plush ride around town, but is disappointing on bumpy, twisty roads. I managed on several occasions to cause the forks to shudder alarmingly when braking hard. As near as I can tell, this is supposed to be the new “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” bike—something designed to entice people who are intimidated by motorcycles to buy a motorcycle, but I have my doubts.
The BMW C650GT does everything well, but tends to fall short when conveying a sense of passion to the rider. The Honda NC700X falls short at the end of the powerband but is nimble and easy to operate.
As for the BMW C650GT scooter. I like this machine, in part, because I have vastly different expectations for its genre. In my worldview, scooters are supposed to be a privation: underpowered, uncomfortable, and a humiliating penance for losing one's driving privileges. This scooter is exactly the opposite. It's ridiculously comfortable, with heated grips and a wide, plush, heated seat. Yes, I said heated seat (included with an optional comfort package—ed). Zipping along San Francisco's waterfront on a chilly, damp fall night with fog churning past the piers, I am warm and dry because the adjustable windshield works great, and my backside is toasty.
The C650GT has a continuously variable transmission, which puts the engine rpm near its peak torque and adjusts the “gear ratio” to suit the immediate acceleration needs. It works great. It's actually surprisingly quick, especially when passing on the freeway.
Because it has 15-inch wheels, the tires theoretically have a smaller contact patch than traditional motorcycle tires. However, in practice, I could not detect a difference in braking or turning ability. The handling is predictable and stable, and despite some anxiety about the full-coverage bodywork, I never ran out of ground clearance in corners. Under braking, the ABS always kicked in before the tires broke loose.
The BMW is also chock-full of other clever amenities. For example, when you deploy the kickstand, there is a tiny little master cylinder that activates a second (and adorable) mini-caliper on the rear brake. This is the first bike I've ever seen with a real parking brake, not just a clip to lock the brake lever. It's brilliant and as “Chancellor of Motorcycling” I command this be an option on every motorcycle henceforth. The kickstand does, however, lock out the ignition, so the ability to idle unattended is absent.
BMW's scooter offers touring features like luggage capacity, wind protection and amenities usually only found on top-of-the line luxury-touring machines.
The trunk will accommodate two full-face helmets. It's also lined with that synthetic felt found in automobile trunks, and has a little LED dome light that comes on when the seat is lifted. I kept looking for a jack and a spare. I'd venture a single person could carry a week's groceries in there.
The step-through part was a little awkward for me, a novice in the ways of the scooterist, but allows a wide variety of seating positions, even for my 6-foot-2 frame. It was sufficiently comfortable and I wouldn't hesitate to take it on a 300-plus mile day (Gabe says, "I did!"). With the BMW accessory trunk, you could easily tour two-up with this scooter.
About the only thing I disliked were the placement of the mirrors: they are so far away that they are difficult to adjust when riding. Maybe next year BMW will include power mirrors.
Riding the BMW scooter for me is much more agreeable than riding the Honda. It could be that the Honda feels like an ill-planned experiment, while the BMW feels like its designers knew exactly what they wanted to achieve, which is ironic: this is BMWs first scooter, and Honda's bazillionth motorcycle.