Road Test Review
Imagine for a moment that you’re a 20- or 30-something motorcycle designer in Japan, head swirling with futuristic ideas thwarted by practicalities. Then you’re tasked with drawing something that blows away two-wheeled convention so that it will stand out in the increasingly competitive North American and European markets. Some of your influences are anime and manga—animated movies and comic books, often with wildly futuristic and decidedly adult themes that are popular in Japanese culture. The recumbent motorcycle in the cyberpunk manga and cult anime Akira, for example. Combine them with some aeronautic influence for which Honda is known, in this case probably the F-117A Stealth Fighter, and BAM! FFOOM! ZZAP! the NM4 is born.
“Honda is a big company,” said Keita Mikura, Large Project Leader (LPL) for the wild motorcycle you see before you. “We make every kind of motorcycle. It’s great that sometimes we make a certain machine simply because we can and because we want to, not because we ‘should.’ We wanted to create something special, not just in the two-wheeled world, but truly unique in the whole world—a machine that engages a human soul like no other. Our intention was to make something that makes every moment feel cinematic, and we want riding it to be an event—guaranteed—every single time.”
To that end, the Honda NM4 has succeeded in spades. Enthusiasts may scoff, but the general public is entranced by the flat-black NM4 (“That’s cool! I like it! Does it fly?” etc.). This bike reaches outside the industry and beyond enthusiasts and gets people who perhaps never even thought about riding a motorcycle dreaming about it. It raises curiosity as if it had just landed from outer space in front of the Piggly Wiggly, drawing more attention and interest from non-riders than anything we’ve ever ridden. And in an interesting twist, it even makes bikes like Honda’s recent line of CTX “un-cruisers” look downright normal.
The NM4 may be just a styling exercise or social experiment, but it actually works pretty well as a commuter and day-tripper if you don’t mind the stares and attention. It’s powered by the same liquid-cooled, 670cc parallel twin with a single overhead cam and four valves per cylinder first seen in the versatile NC700X and subsequently used in the CTX700/N. Low-revving, with an emphasis on torque, fuel economy and a redline of just 6,000 rpm, its twin balance shafts reduce vibration while the 270-degree crankshaft gives the engine a nice rumbling feel and sound. Lightweight aluminum roller rocker arms with screw-and-locknut valve adjusters actuate the valves, and PGM-FI fuel injection and a single 36mm throttle body deliver the mixture.
The NM4’s engine is paired with Honda’s 6-speed automatic dual-clutch transmission (DCT). Four modes—Neutral, Drive, Sport and Manual—are selected with buttons by each grip. Manual transmissions are nearly extinct among modern cars, so Honda believes an automatic transmission is important for the bike to appeal to a new breed of rider. Drive mode shifts smoothly and quickly into the higher gears, even at low speeds, and is most fuel efficient, allowing more coasting to stops before downshifting into first by itself. Pop it into Sport and the engine revs more between shifts and at steady throttle for quicker bursts of power, and Sport also downshifts more aggressively to increase engine braking. The clutch and shift levers are replaced with + and – buttons on the left bar, which can be used to playfully shift the 6-speed in Manual mode (it still downshifts into first at stops by itself), or more importantly, to override the DCT’s automatic selections. You can make it downshift sooner and initiate more engine braking while coming to a stop in D mode, for example, or quickly drop it a gear or two for passing. Neutral has its own button, and a parking brake keeps the bike from rolling away on hills.
While it will still out-accelerate most cars and has the flattest torque curve imaginable for usable power at any speed, the NM4’s engine is a mellow fellow, not a screamer, tuned for ease-of-use, low emissions and mpg. When we ran a CTX700 with the same engine on the Jett Tuning dyno (Rider, September 2013), it made about 44 horsepower at 6,100 rpm and 42 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm at the rear wheel. That’s just enough for a solo rider with a moderate load on the 560-pound fully gassed NM4 to have some fun, cruise at 80 mph all day long and get around slower vehicles easily, but you won’t be setting any records at the drag strip. On the other hand, it delivered nearly 60 mpg in more than 600 miles of mixed city/highway riding, for a range of about 180 miles from its 3.06-gallon tank.
The NM4 gets the latest version of the DCT, with improvements in the shifting logic that make it more “aware” of road conditions (hills, curves, etc.) and gets it away from stops with more authority. In addition to full LED lighting, part of the NM4’s techno-package is a backlit instrument panel that automatically changes colors with the DCT mode—neutral is white, D green, S pink and manual red. It’s quite a colorful show, especially at night. The backlighting can also be set to one of 25 colors manually, just in case you’re in a purple mood.
Straddling the NM4’s wide, comfortable, ultra-low 25.6-inch-high seat and settling in behind the polygonal mirrors and digital instrument panel feels like climbing into the cockpit of a fighter jet, though it’s so low and easy to ride nearly anyone can fly the NM4. The floorboards are well forward, and the wide, flat handlebar is pulled-back, giving the bike a semi-recumbent seating position like a low-slung cruiser. It’s quite comfortable as-is, but even more so when you raise the passenger seat into one of three rider backrest positions. The backrest can also be unbolted and moved fore-and-aft a few inches to better-fit shorter riders and/or move the rider closer to the handlebar. Overall it’s like riding in a comfy reclining chair. In the down position, the padded bottom of the backrest can catch the rider in the lower back, which some riders found irritating, and passenger comfort is greatly hampered by the lack of grab handles.
Wind protection from the sleek windscreen is decent, though we’d really like to try the optional taller one on longer rides. This bike will come to the U.S. in such small numbers that aftermarket support will likely be minimal, and factory accessories crucial. Honda offers heated grips in addition to the taller screen, as well as a backrest/luggage rack to supplement the smallish storage compartments. Though they look pretty big from the outside, together the two cantaloupe-size saddlebag spaces are actually just big enough to hold, say, a couple pairs of spare gloves, a sack lunch and a six-pack of soda. Two hidden compartments flanking the headlight in front are helpful additions, as the non-locking one can carry a couple bottles of water, and the locking one maybe your wallet and cell phone, and it has an electrical accessory outlet. I managed to secure a tailbag on the bike with the loops on the otherwise-useless passenger grab strap and a pair of concealed bungee hooks under the tailsection, but the luggage rack would be a far better addition.
Despite its long wheelbase, fat 200-series rear tire and chopperesque 37-degree fork rake, the NM4 handles quite adroitly and has good enough cornering clearance that it can be whipped around corners pretty aggressively. It helps that four degrees of the fork angle is actually fork or triple-tree offset, and that the castor angle is actually just 33 degrees. Unlinked single discs front and rear offer good braking and the two-channel ABS does its job well, though I’d like a bit more stopping power up front. Besides some niggling inconveniences like an awkward fuel filler and pessimistic fuel gauge, my only real gripe is with the bike’s progressively linked but non-adjustable rear suspension, which works well most of the time but does little to prevent big bumps from walloping heavier riders. Crawling around under the bodywork to maintain the chain final drive isn’t much fun, either—riders on the owner’s forum say a wheel stand helps a lot.
With fewer than one NM4 per dealer coming to the U.S., the stealth bike will probably be a rare sight in most states, especially because it costs several thou more than the “conventional” NC700X and CTX700/N with the same powertrain. Hmmm, could this also be a ploy to drive customers toward those machines? We’ll see. In the meantime, there are several thousand people in our area who are a little bit more aware of motorcycles today because the NM4 got their attention. That’s a good thing.