HONDA'S NCs are an unusual range of motorcycles.
For a start they’ve got an engine based on a car’s. The starting point for the parallel-twin design was half a Honda Jazz engine.
They have the character of a car engine too, with a bland power curve to a lowly 6,500rpm red line.
They’re a diverse family of machines consisting of the naked NC750S, the adventure-styled NC750X and a maxi scooter called the Integra, somehow all sharing the same engine and rolling chassis, or ‘platform’. The very idea induces revulsion in some riders, who say bikes should be based on passion, not platforms.
The motorcycles in the range have a luggage compartment where you’d normally find the tank.
And then there’s the optional automatic gearbox using Honda's Dual Clutch Transmission system, with computer gaming-style shifter buttons on the left bar. Cue paroxysms of rage from said riders. What’s wrong with a normal clutch and gears, for God’s sake?
At the launch of the NC750X, the adventure model, in Athens, journalists argued over this exact point. For 2014 the NCs have been given a 75cc capacity boost, from 670 to 745cc (they used to be called NC700s), and a corresponding power increase from 48 to 54hp. We were to ride the DCT version the following day. What’s wrong with changing gear in the conventional way, someone asked. It’s part of machine control, part of motorcycling.
There’s nothing wrong with conventional gears. But imagine yourself on a semi-automatic bike, like the Aprilia Mana 850, with a foot shifter. Would you change gear yourself or let the bike take care of it? If there’s a chance that the answer is the latter, then, like it or not, you do have a use for twist-and-go transmissions.
Honda’s DCT is probably the best twist-and-go system available. Most automatic scooters and motorcycles have Continuously Variable Transmission. It effectively creates an infinite number of gears using a belt spinning between two pairs of cones, which move together or apart to alter the ratio. Imagine front and rear sprockets which can instantly change size. That’s more or less the effect. Unfortunately, CVT can be heavy, comes with power limitations and does not lend itself to a direct throttle response.
DCT, on the other hand, features six gears, just like most other bikes, and gives a throttle response just as direct. There's an automatic box and two clutches. One clutch is responsible for odd gears, the other even. As one disengages first, the other instantaneously engages second, and so on.
It makes for extremely smooth shifts. Acceleration doesn't come in a series of surges between gear changes. It's much more constant, punctuated by shifts so smooth you hear them as much as feel them.
DCT is only one part of the explanation for this. The other is that bland power curve. The rev counter is a flat, horizontal line across the dash, an unlucky coincidence because that’s how the power curve feels. There’s a lot of torque at the bottom end. It builds a bit. Then it hits the low red line before you know what’s what. Coupled with those button shifters on the left bar, it adds up to confusion about when you need to change gear.
The buttons work well insofar as you can use them to change gear without shutting off. Even shifting down with the throttle open doesn't result in a jerky change. You just feel and hear the revs rise, along with an increase in engine braking.
But they don’t give the same mechanical connection to the gearbox as a foot shifter. It’s like changing gear by remote control.
That's why the system is best enjoyed in automatic mode. There are two twist-and-go settings: ‘Drive’ and 'Sport'. Drive is too lazy. No doubt it helps Honda achieve the claimed 81.6mpg but it tends to sit in a gear or two higher than I would choose. When you open the throttle to accelerate, there’s little response until it shifts down.
This is the second generation of DCT, which Honda says has a new ‘intelligence’ allowing it to adapt to throttle input. So if it detects that you’re getting a bit more lary, it will too. It seems to work. Even in Drive, if you accelerate hard, then shut off, it doesn’t immediately change back to a fuel-saving gear. It holds a low one, expecting you to roll on again. If you’re next throttle input is gentle, it will then revert to saving the planet.
It’s still just better in Sport mode, because its default gear selections are closer to those of the average sub-octogenarian, giving you more instantly accessible drive at most times.
Like any automatic gearbox, it has its limitations. When you open the throttle to accelerate, it sometimes has to change down; with a conventional gearbox you’d change down first. And like Drive mode, it can hold a low gear for too long after you roll off.
But whenever you feel like it you can override it by pressing one of those shifter buttons. This is where the system starts to work best; letting the transmission take most of the decisions, but occasionally correcting it.
Ridden hard, it gives you most of the 54hp most of the time, and the NC750X becomes fun. The increase in power is enough to make it feel just a bit more of an animal than the old one. There’s more torque across the range. At low speed, it doesn’t need to change down to accelerate hard.
Switching between modes doesn’t require shutting off the throttle, like some traction control systems. You just press a button on the right bar with your thumb and it’s done.
The suspension can feel like it’s not doing enough to cushion bumpy surfaces, but that could be down to false expectations raised by its adventure looks. It’s really just a road bike. It copes well with corners at speed and the wide, high bars make it easy to lean and point.
The brakes are surprisingly good considering there’s a single disc up front. It’s not so powerful that the nose dives as soon as you touch the lever, but you won’t have any trouble stopping. ABS is standard.
Basically, every feature seems designed to be as user-friendly as possible. Considering its quasi-adventure nature, it’s the polar opposite of big adventure bikes like BMW’s R1200GS. They are made to look intimidating as a proposition to ride. The NC750X’s raison d'etre is to be unintimidating.
The throttle response at walking pace is the smoothest I’ve felt on any automatic motorcycle. Most CVT systems give an on/off jerky response. Tickle the NC750X’s throttle and it creeps forward as smoothly as if you were slipping a clutch. Together with the upright riding position, and those wide bars, it aids low-speed control, making tight U-turns easy.
It's fuel-efficient. Ridden how I wanted, it achieved 58mpg. The dash tells you your average fuel consumption but I calculated it from a petrol receipt, just to be certain. The filler cap is under the pillion seat, which is hinged, with a handy arm to hold it open.
It's practical. At a squeeze, the luggage compartment proved just big enough for my full-face HJC helmet. The seat is low enough for me to get both feet flat on the ground, and I'm 5’9”. The screen is just tall enough to afford fairly generous protection without going overboard. It's comfortable and there’s a useful handbrake on the left bar.
Detractors of the NC range say they are like kitchen appliances. Motorcycles for people who want to keep their hands clean. I think it’s true to an extent. Why has Honda made plastic covers that look like engine cases and put them over the real engine cases?
However, one of my favourite possessions is a kitchen appliance. I don't care if my coffee maker shares a platform with other models. It makes nice coffee. And I like coffee, so that's something to get excited about.
NCs are the perfect welcome for those cautiously returning to motorcycling, who may want a proper, big bike, but don’t need 100hp. Or for people who want to reap the congestion-busting benefits of two-wheeled transport, and have a bit of fun, but not annoy the neighbours with a loud exhaust, or use unnecessary quantities of fossil fuel.
It’s a fact that motorcycling is not favourably viewed by all. It doesn't receive credit for the environmental benefits of reducing congestion. It’s seen by some as selfish, while cyclists are saving the world. It’s under pressure over emissions. TV likes to make occasional shock documentaries focussing on irresponsible riding.
On top of which, big bike sales are down and rider numbers are under pressure because it’s more difficult to get a licence. What better time for bikes to be inviting to novices and lapsed riders, and look more socially acceptable to the rest of the world? If the NC range are like kitchen appliances, maybe they are what motorcycling needs.
Model tested: Honda NC750X DCT
Price: £6,899 (manual version £6,299)
Kerb weight: 229kg (manual version 219kg)
Seat height: 830mm
Colours: Red, black, white, silver
Read our Honda NC700X first ride review