Tour Test Review
Confession time: It may seem like the result of careful planning, but serendipity often plays a big role in our ability to create good magazine content, meet deadlines and still have time to get out and ride regularly. This story is a good example. I wanted to do a reasonably long tour test of the latest version of Honda’s NC700X, in part because I believe the bike to be underrated as a traveling mount, but also because it’s available with Honda’s automatic dual-clutch transmission. A case of lateral epicondylitis, a.k.a. tennis elbow, in my left arm had left me unable to squeeze a clutch lever without making it worse, so the NC700X DCT model’s lack thereof let me continue to ride as well as heal up.
But that bit was planned—the serendipitous part occurred when I was invited to ride a new motorcycle model in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, the same month, which happened to be the perfect destination for a quick 3-day tour on the Honda. I could take the “high road” to Havasu via Barstow, California, skirting the Mojave National Preserve on Interstate 40 and hopping on and off parts of old Route 66, which parallels or is overlaid by I-40 all the way to Oklahoma City. Lake Havasu is a large reservoir formed by Parker Dam on the Colorado River, which does double duty as the border of California and Arizona. After the intro, I could head southwest from Lake Havasu City toward Joshua Tree National Park in California—always good for a scenic lap in winter—before heading home.
When Honda’s twin-cylinder NC700X debuted in 2012, we gave the DCT ABS model a full review in the November issue, loaded with Honda accessories like a 29-liter saddlebag set, 45-liter top trunk, centerstand, heated grips, light bar and more, boosting its retail price to more than $11,000 from the $8,999 base that year. For 2016, not only did the bike’s cost come down considerably, Honda also updated its adventurous styling with a smaller, lighter pentagonal muffler that sounds better, a sleek LED taillight in place of the former brick and revised bodywork. A new 2.76-inch-taller windscreen increases protection, and storage capacity in the front trunk or “frunk” (a deep integrated storage compartment where fuel would normally go; the fuel tank is under the seat) is up 1 liter to 22. The bike also has an adjustable brake lever now, and the DCT ABS model gets the latest version of Honda’s dual-clutch 6-speed transmission, which offers automatic shifting with Drive and Sport modes and manual shifting with buttons on the handlebar. You can also change gears manually within the auto modes, and select from three levels of aggressiveness for Sport mode.
Although the base model is just $7,699 for 2017, unless you simply don’t want to spend the extra $600 or find a clutch lever indispensable, the $8,299 DCT model is the way to go with the NC700X. The automatic transmission is convenient and fun, and choosing this model is the only way to get Combined ABS (C-ABS), which applies some front brake when the rear is applied and keeps the wheels from locking. The latest version of DCT shifts smoothly and only a little more noisily than a manual transmission, and in Sport mode closely mimics normal shift points. Drive mode shifts quickly into higher gears for fuel economy, which takes some getting used to since it’s in 6th by 40 mph. But you can override the selected gear with the shift buttons, and it will kick down automatically under heavy throttle. I’ve become so used to the DCT that I rarely took it out of Drive on this ride.
This time around I wanted to try the NC700X in full budget mode, with no accessories, to see how it does on a long ride as-is. The waterproof frunk on the NC700X is extremely convenient, since it holds a medium full-face helmet or the equivalent in groceries, lunch bags, gloves, tools, etc., and the lid locks and closes like a car trunk. But the frunk necessitated moving the fuel filler under the locking passenger seat, complicating the addition of soft luggage, which I would need with rain likely and temperatures predicted to be anywhere from 35 to 80 degrees. In the end a large pair of Chase-Harper soft saddlebags served pretty well, since I could just undo the two back buckles and slide the bags forward out of the way to gas up.
Despite its smallish 3.7-gallon fuel tank, fill-ups aren’t usually required more frequently than bikes with larger tanks, since the NC700X’s liquid-cooled, SOHC parallel twin was designed to sip dino juice. A single 36mm throttle body, roller rocker arms in the valve train, unified exhaust port and single catcon for the two cylinders increase efficiency, and the engine’s long stroke maximizes low- and midrange torque. A high-inertia 270-degree crank and counterbalancer also give it a nice loping feel down low without vibes at higher rpm. The engine does have an unusually low redline of 6,500 rpm for its 670cc size, which can have you slamming into redline when shifting manually, but it’s not an issue when the bike shifts for you. The new exhaust adds more rumble to the overall experience, and gives the bike a nice bark when it’s revved out. Overall the twin makes power levels similar to a mid-size cruiser (we can’t dyno DCT bikes), and jibes nicely with the NC700X’s concept of versatility, accessibility and fun, with fuel economy and a price that removes the barrier to a full-size motorcycle.
After leaving Camarillo in the rain, before long the skies cleared and I was dodging giant puddles on Pearblossom Highway, snug in my electric jacket liner despite the 45-50 degree temps. For hooking up accessories, the NC700X’s battery is easily accessed under a panel in the frunk; a 12-volt socket is an option. The new windscreen keeps more wind off your chest, though I really missed the optional hand guards and heated grips. The bike’s seating position is mostly upright, neutral and relaxed if a bit short on legroom, and taller riders than me at 5 feet, 10 inches may find it cramped. Since it’s narrow in front, the seat feels lower than its 32.7-inch height spec, and I was surprised to find it plenty comfortable for long stints..
From Barstow, had I stayed on I-15 north, I could have been sipping a cold one and playing video poker in Sin City in a little more than 2 hours. Instead I hung a right on I-40, where an official highway sign at the start of the third longest Interstate in the country reads “Wilmington, NC, 2,554 miles.” I’d only be on it as far as the Arizona State Route 95 turnoff just east of Needles, California, with a stop for a photo on old Route 66 just east of Newberry Springs at the Bagdad Café, location of the eponymous 1987 movie. Since it’s paralleled by the Interstate, Route 66 is not maintained here and the road is very rough—I had to slow way down to prevent getting beaten to death. Although the NC700X’s suspension is well-damped and sprung for corners and dips and the bike handles very well on its Bridgestone Battle Wing adventure-sport tires, it is surprisingly firm and harsh over sharp bumps, and lacks any adjustment other than inconvenient ring-and-locknut spring preload in back. The suspension handles heavy loads well, though, and works adequately for most riding.
Although the NC700X DCT was getting as much as 64 mpg at times, as the day grew long I needed to push the speed up to stay on schedule. Riding uphill into a cold headwind at 80 mph dropped its fuel economy into the low 40s, and I was running on fumes by the time I reached Needles. Long stretches at high speed do make that 3.7-gallon tank seem too small.
After the new model intro in Havasu, I left on the NC700X determined to see Roy’s Motel and Café in Amboy, a famous Route 66 landmark. So I looped around the reservoir through Parker to the south, laid eyes on Parker Dam for the first time in years, then veered north at Vidal Junction to Needles and I-40, west this time. If you’ve never seen the Mojave Desert in this area, the spectacle of it is breathtaking—expanses so vast between mountains they resemble oceans, with small hills and rises here and there that could be sea monsters plying the ripples.
Kelbaker Road took me to Amboy on Route 66, a.k.a the National Trails Highway in California, where I sucked down a cold soda at Roy’s before making a beeline south to Joshua Tree National Park past the surreal sights of Amboy Crater and Bristol Dry Lake, which is mined for calcium chloride. The northern loop through Joshua Tree is a wonderland of unimaginable rock formations and ancient Joshua tree yuccas, with a stunning viewpoint at Keys View. By now I had put more than 800 miles on the NC700X, and if it hadn’t been so cold and windy I would have added another detour before heading home. It’s the kind of motorcycle that a lot of riders have been asking for—a versatile, economical yet fun and exciting ride at a reasonable price.