When news of the Honda NM4 was first released, I wrote about being worried about its success like a big brother worries about his little brother’s attempt to talk to a pretty girl. While I appreciated Honda's boldness and willingness to put themselves out there, I didn’t want to see them get shot down too hard, and have those characteristics retreat.
Was I right to be worried? To find out, I spent an afternoon riding around Los Angeles with the press guy from Honda (so I could pick his brain about all of the weird questions I would have while riding it), and then took one home for a few weeks. After spending some time with the NM4, I’m not so scared anymore.
Wasn’t the DN-01 enough to teach you a lesson?
This was obviously one of the first questions out of my mouth once we’d stopped to grab a bite to eat. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the Honda DN-01 (or Do Not Order One, as many Honda dealers called it) was a bike released in Japan in 2008, the United States in 2009, and then discontinued in 2010. It was one of the few bikes released with an automatic transmission — in this case, a CVT, or Continuously Variable Transmission. While the transmission was a neat idea, the styling was extremely polarizing, acceleration was slow, wind protection was terrible, storage non-existent, and the bike was uncomfortable for long distances. That, plus the fact that it looked like some kind of weird shark and cost $14,599 upon its release, meant it had a hard time finding a home.
Whether I like a particular bike or not, I want every company to do well and continue to come back from the 2008 sales plunge, in hopes they will make more bikes that strike my fancy. So you can understand why the NM4 had me a little concerned. Very specific styling, high-ish price tag, no real category to call home, automatic transmission — we've seen this before.
So why did they make it?
Honda says the NM4 is intended more as a branding piece, or as a way to give their brand character and depth, than because they think they’ll find some massive new market for anime/Batman-inspired, automatic-transmission motorcycles. They feel that it’s different looking and different performing enough that it will interest non-riders, and maybe get them to consider motorcycling after seeing it. If the look on your face after reading that is as puzzled as mine was, wait until you find out that they’re right.
Our initial ride was fairly short. The Honda press guy, Wes Siler from Indefinitelywild, and I met at Honda HQ, talked shop for a bit, and hit the mean streets of Torrance, Calif. The Akira styling had us both thinking we needed some Tokyo 2050-style photos, which meant heading straight for the Port of Long Beach. Despite our attempts to find the most desolate place imaginable for pics, we were still stopped three times on the 10-mile ride down to the port by people who had questions about the bike.
“Is that thing electric? Oh man, it’s so cool, it even has disc brakes!”
“That thing looks like the future.”
“How much is that thing? My dad had a bike when I was a kid, but I don’t like sport bikes. I would ride that thing though!”
The most interesting part about the questions we got that day was that they were all from people who didn’t ride motorcycles. If the first guy’s question seems stupid to you, think about what it means that he doesn’t know disc brakes on a motorcycle are not a new thing. This guy obviously hadn’t paid much attention to us in quite some time, but he was now.
Very few people actually brought up the Akira reference when talking about the NM4’s looks. Most said things like “futuristic” and “Mad Max.” I took the bike by Roland Sands' shop to see some new projects he was working on, and we spent most of my time there standing outside his shop around the NM4, discussing how perfect the front storage containers would be for fitting machine guns and how big a front wheel he could put on it. He was far more interested in discussing the NM4, and how cool he thought it was, than this Suzucati, which could literally be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
The Honda NM4 uses the same 670cc parallel twin and main frame as the Honda NC700X and CTX700, but uses a new rear sub-frame. Many were quick to write off the bike as a CTX700 in Akira’s clothing, but the NM4 actually has a steeper rake, shorter trail, and much longer wheelbase. Paired with an 18-inch front tire and a 200-section rear, the handling is something altogether separate.
One of the other neat tricks Honda used with the NM4 was to drastically lower its center of gravity by rotating the engine cylinders 62 degrees forward. This makes the NM4 feel much more like riding a scooter than a 562-pound, 65-inch-long cruiser. Pushing the thing across the street on street-sweeping days isn’t all that fun, but this thing feels insanely nimble once you get moving.
Honda is incredibly proud of the advancements they've made with the DCT (Dual-Clutch Transmission) technology, which is altogether different from the CVT on the departed DN-01. The DCT gives the rider the option of fully automatic shifting or manual shifting, using paddle-shifting buttons on the left hand grip. Either way, no clutch needed.
The Honda NM4 comes with two riding modes: D for Drive and S for Sport. In Drive mode, the transmission short-shifts you through gears, making the NM4 feel very much like a large scooter. Sport mode stays in gears much longer, providing for some genuinely fun acceleration. You can use the buttons to change gears manually, at any time, and then if you stop using them, the DCT will take over again, unless you engage a separate switch to put it in “manual” mode. This new version of DCT is actually able to detect when you’re braking hard, and will drop you down through the gears when doing so, to help you take advantage of engine braking, like you normally would.
Outside of all that engine and transmission goodness, the Honda NM4 has a number of style… quirks. Some are incredibly awesome, while others… may need some refinement.
The pillion seat folds up to serve as a rider backrest in a variety of reclined settings, and can also be moved forward and back to fit different sizes of riders.
The instrument panel changes colors, depending on what riding mode you’re in, or will let you set custom colors, based on your preferences. There are 26 different color options. There is something satisfying about clicking the bike into Sport mode and seeing the dash change to red, but I don’t know that Honda needed to make this such a focal point upon the bike’s release.
The NM4 comes with multiple storage compartments, two in front and two in the rear. One of the front ones contains an accessory charger port and is locking while the other opens at the push of a sneaky little button. The two in the rear are lockable, but unfortunately they're much smaller than you would imagine, looking at them from outside. They provide enough room for a bottle of water, a sandwich, and a bag of chips — but that’s about it.
Honda NM4 highlights
The NM4 is definitely an attention-grabber. Honda wanted to make a splash, both with the bike’s launch and with its presence on the roads, and it’s succeeded at both.
For such a long, low, and fairly heavy bike, the NM4 handles like a dream. I was dragging floorboards instantly. Normally, when you throw something as silly as a 200-section rear tire on a bike, the handling turns to shit, but such is not the case with the NM4.
While weird and polarizing, the NM4 still manages to look kind of cool. I think the mistake with the DN-01 was that it was the wrong kind of weird, which isn’t the same here. I may not personally want to own the NM4, but there are definitely going to be more people who do than I might expect.
The NM4 is actually a very practical motorcycle. Honda has continued to update the DCT engine into something more and more sophisticated and usable with each iteration. The DCT works smoothly, and the low center of gravity aids maneuverability, which makes the NM4 a great option for riding around town, assuming you have the time to stop and chat about the bike at every stop along the way.
Sharing an engine with the NC700X and CTX700 means this mean-looking cruiser still gets an extremely friendly 60 to 70 miles per gallon.
That flip-up pillion-pad-turned-backrest is pure genius.
Honda NM4 lowlights
The downside of the low seat height is that the feet-forward riding position goes from real comfortable to really uncomfortable, fast. The backrest is a nice touch, and helps a lot, but my tailbone was on fire after 30 minutes of riding.
The DCT actually works wonderfully well, but I would love it if Honda found a way to keep the bike from shifting while in a turn. Gear changes are incredibly smooth, but it can still be a little startling if you aren’t expecting it and you happen to be riding a little aggressively. Dragging floorboards and feeling the engine change gears unannounced definitely made my heart skip a beat the first few times.
The Honda NM4, a bike targeted at non-riders or people with a flair for the new and unusual, has an MSRP of $10,999. By comparison, the CTX700 DCT ABS, with which it shares an engine and transmission, only costs $7,999. Huge disconnect here, both in value and in capturing the intended market.
The rear tire is completely unnecessary. Sure, it looks cool, if you’re into that sort of thing, but I would take a narrower rear tire that allowed room for bigger rear compartments, every day of the week.
OK, in all seriousness, the next closest thing would probably be something like the BMW C 600 Sport Scooter. It, too, has futuristic looks, is kind of a conversation starter, and is good for both around town and doing a little distance. It has a significantly lower MSRP, at $9,590, but is also missing a whole lot of black, and no one will confuse the BMW for something out of Batman.
Honda says the NM4's goal is to open the eyes of non-riders and give them a reason to consider motorcycling again. I think this will do that.
Honda says the sales goals for the NM4 are in the very low to low range. I think they will sell that, or at least come close enough not to consider it a complete failure. The price is going to make it extremely hard to move units, but with tempered expectations, I think the NM4 may not be the flop that dampens enthusiasm for future risk taking, as I feared back in April.
Honda says the intent was to disrupt the market, create something that gets people in the industry talking, and that will be a conversation-starter on the street. The NM4 does all of those things.
I wanted not to like this bike. It doesn’t fit my personal tastes, either aesthetically or performance-wise, but you know what? Who cares?! This bike delivers on every area it set out to, and then some, and for that, I applaud Honda.
Now, I just hope the next one is a little more Sean style.