Honda has a problem.
And in truth, most motorcycle makers are in the same predicament, to varying degrees. Said problem? The average age of the average motorcycle rider is getting older and older. Meanwhile, new riders are not coming into dealerships and picking up the slack. Why not?
Over dinner before a preview ride on Honda’s newest motorbikes, Jon Seidel with American Honda was blunt: today’s young people – the very people they need to get interested in riding – perceive motorcycles as complicated to operate and even dangerous. And it’s not just because their moms said so.
Honda and everyone else putting out two-wheelers are running up against new generations of consumers who grew up riding in cars with ABS, safety seats, and airbags. They wore mandatory bicycle helmets, wrist guards, shin guards, mouth guards and had mom and dad orbiting around them to ward off anything that might leave a mark. Their thrills came not from getting skinned knees jumping curbs on their Schwinns but from attaining the next level on the latest video game challenge.
Conversely, the motorcycle industry as a whole has traditionally marketed their wares as cutting-edge, tough-guy cool and/or rebellious – not “safe.” And let’s face it, riding motorcycles is riskier than driving a car or working a game controller.
Additionally, new data shows that many of these cellphone/internet/videogame-obsessed youngsters don’t care much about cars (or motorbikes) in the first place, and most of those that have even bothered to get a driver’s license have never driven a car with a manual transmission. And they likely never will.
Enter the Honda CTX.
Built around a “Comfort, Technology and eXperience” philosophy as well as a 670cc parallel-twin motor that borrows heavily from the popular Honda Fit economy car engine, for a reasonable $8,000 the CTX comes with the latest generation of Honda’s Dual-Clutch “DCT” 6-speed automatic transmission. Additionally, buyers who opt for the $1,000 DCT option also get ABS brakes in the deal. The most basic version of the bike with a manual 6-speed transmission and no ABS is an even more-affordable $6,999, but you’ll do the shifting and braking old-school style.
The automatic DCT gearbox first appeared in the soft-core Honda VFR 1200 sportbike in 2010 and more recently in the popular and verstile NC700X, which foreshadowed these CTX machines. The NC model is more dual-sport oriented while the CTX bikes are pure street machines.
Honda has actually been down this road before with a small slate of hydraulic-actuated 2-speed automatics in the late 1970s. They were slow, heavy, complicated and did not sell well.
But times – and technology – change. This new automatic is not some glorified scooter CVT tranny with made-up shift points or an update to the 2-speed boat anchor fitted to those 1970s bikes. This is the direct derivative of Formula 1 technology with six real cogs in the box and shifts that take place far faster than anyone can work a clutch lever and gear selector. Smoothness and precision is the order of the day. The only time the transmission lightly clunks is when you drop it (button it?) into first gear to start your ride.
… Don’t expect any wheelies or blowing anyone away in the quarter mile. Ever. That’s not this machine’s mission.
The CTX bikes are not fast, not radical in design (excepting the DCT tranny) and are unlikely to become collector classics down the road like so many other Hondas. While they have a modicum of style, their DNA is utilitarian and not bred on the race track. This is not a bike you win street races with.
Seidel freely admits the CTX bikes are designed to be very unintimidating at nearly every level. Honda has plenty of other choices for experienced motorheads. The CTX concept combines a low seat, a comfortable feet-forward riding position, wide handlebars, simple instrumentation, an approachable aesthetic and no surprises from the engine compartment. Impressively, the bikes get over 60 miles to the gallon and Seidel said a light throttle hand could improve even on that number. There’s even a parking brake.
The torquey long-stroke, liquid-cooled parallel twin engine features a lumpy 270-degree firing interval, a laydown design for a low center of gravity and is decidedly uncomplicated and low-powered by performance bike standards.
It features a single fuel-injected throttle body feeding both cylinders and four single-overhead cam-actuated valves per cylinder. Final drive is by chain. Properly cared for, this engine will likely last forever. Redline is a low 6,500 rpm – nearly identical to the Fit. For comparison, the redline of the $11,400 CBR600RR, Honda’s premiere lightweight crotch rocket/hyperbike that is 100cc smaller than the CTX? 15,000 rpm.
The torque-oriented powerplant has a broad spread of power and will easily outrun most any car from a stoplight, but don’t expect any wheelies or blowing by anyone in the quarter mile. Ever. That’s not this machine’s mission.
Dual Clutch = no clutch lever, ever
Sitting on the CTX’s low, comfortable seat for the first time, I turned the key and the small, car-like LCD display quickly booted up. No classic round gauges here. The display shows speed in digits with a bar graph across the top showing RPMs, along with a fuel gauge, clock, dual tripmeters, the usual idiot lights and a prominent gear position/drive mode indicator – which is very important on this bike. Two big buttons ride outside the display to toggle through information and reset the tripmeters.
After mounting up, a quick stab at the starter button brought the twin instantly to life and it settled into a friendly, lumpy idle. Both cylinders exit gases into a 2-to-1 exhaust system that hides away all the government-mandated scrubbers and empties into a nice-looking chrome pipe low on the right side.
It’s clear that putting the rider’s focus on the ride, not the machine, is where the CTX excels.
In Drive mode, which the bike defaults to when started up, the engine and DCT management systems work to achieve maximum gas mileage and minimal drama. Sixth gear comes as early as 35 mph and the twin rarely rises over 3,000rpm unless you wring the throttle to the stop, at which point more power is made available and revs climb.
But typically it just putt-putts along with a quiet burble from the pipe and a pleasant vibe in the bars and seat that do nothing more that let you know the engine is running. Most beginners will be well-served by Drive mode.
Slam the throttle open from a dead stop and the CTX moves forward with smoothness and some urgency. And of course, if a rider panics and drops anchor on the brakes, the ABS is there to smooth out the stop. Well done. I wish my first bike (a venerable Honda CX500) was this easy to ride when I started out decades ago.
Get into some twisty bits and another stab at the button switches the DCT to Sport mode and the bike revs much more freely, with gear shifts coming much higher in the rev range, including close to redline if you hammer on it. For an older, more experienced rider like myself, this mode felt the most similar to riding a regular bike.
However, aggressive riding on a twisty road will eventually get you grinding hard parts, although my boot heels were the first thing to touch down in corners, followed by the forward footpegs. The achievable lean angle is decent and more than sufficient for beginners or re-entry riders coming for older lean-challenged machines. If corner strafing is what you’re after, this is the wrong bike. But it will get over far enough to entertain most any beginner for a long time to come.
Pull the little trigger on the right pod and the DCT goes into Manual mode, with the rider triggering shifts using two buttons (Seidel did call them paddles, actually) on the busy left handgrip pod, which is also crowded with the horn button, turn signal button and hazard light button. Short of feathering the clutch, Manual mode gives riders nearly total control over the transmission. Interestingly, the transmission will not shift up for you if revs hit the 6500 rpm redline. You just run out of go power as the ignition cuts out softly. On the flip side, the transmission will shift down by itself if you forget to do it pulling up to a light, etc. It won’t let you stall the engine, a leading cause of slow-speed tipovers for newbies. Smart.
The downshift button is where the horn button has traditionally been, so it took a while to acclimate to pushing it consistently. And more than a few drivers got some horn when I was trying to activate the turn signals. The price of progress, I guess. Beginners learning from scratch will likely have fewer miss-honks.
First time riders, returning riders and scooter graduates will be hard pressed to find a better alternative.
Out in the flat, twisting the throttle to WFO while in Manual mode brought rapid forward progress, yet still in a fashion that could never be characterized as “scary”, out of control or something that would terrify a beginning rider. I saw 90 mph on the speedo one time during a photo shoot pass with more to go, so it’s not like the CTX is neutered or terribly slow, it’s just not eyeball-flattening fast. Extra-legal high-speed riding is just not the central idea behind the design, but you can do it if you try.
At a legal (or slightly better) pace, the bike felt best to me in Sport mode but I dropped it into Drive for a long stretch of gentle curves along the California coastline and sat back to just enjoy the ride and scenery, the DCT picking gears up and down so seamlessly you eventually forget it’s even working below you. In clogged city traffic, the DCT transmission is the best thing to happen to motorcycles since disc brakes. No more zombie clutch hand!
In any mode, I was duly impressed by the transmission’s low-speed, first gear behavior, easily the trickiest issue for the engineers to deal with. Get it wrong, and riders are tipping over from a lack of forward motion. Too much grab and new riders can freak out from the sudden thrust. Honda got it just right. While the bike has zero “creep” while stopped and in gear, rolling on the power results in a perfect takeoff every time and I was able to ride the bike in a tight circle with excellent modulation at the smallest of throttle openings. This kind of minute control is critically important for new riders and Honda totally nailed it.
Take your pick
The look of the CTX strongly recalls Honda’s ill-fated 2009 DN-01 scooter/motorcycle experiment that also featured the DCT transmission and an unfortunate $15,000 price tag. This time around, the look, price, size and performance levels of the CTX are more realistic.
The CTX can be had in two basic versions and the differences are only skin deep. The basic bike comes in a “naked” or vaguely streetfighter-ish configuration (above, left) with minimal bodywork, a big trapezoidal headlight and either black, white or red metalflake paint. I was partial to the red iteration, although the glossy black looks nice as well. There were no white versions on our test ride.
Styling of the CTX is a bit tough to describe. It has a bit of a vague Styled by Committee look that Honda can sometimes fall into. The basic version of the bike certainly has a street-fighter vibe, helped by petal-style brake rotors (one front and rear) and it’s angular stance. That vibe immediately dissipates when you saddle up and put your feet on the forward-mounted pegs, but it’s not a stretch like pegs on a cruiser can be.
For a few hundred more dollars, you can opt for a small bagger-style fairing with an eyelid windscreen (top of the story and back left, above) and the bike takes on more of a cruiser feel. It looks nice as well but less edgy than the basic setup. Throw more money at Honda and the CTX can be decked out in full tour mode, with a larger windscreen (above right) that was still too short and sent choppy air into my helmet and plain or color-matched hard bags. Grab handles, a backrest, heated grips, a 12v power plug in the cubby and more bits round out the farkle list. Also, any Honda accessories purchased when the bike is bought can be financed, according to Honda.
The options for outfitting the of CTX reminds me of the old Honda CX-based GL500/650 Silverwing models from the 1980s, which could be had plain-Jane or gussied up to Interstate full-tour trim levels. Same idea here.
And hey Honda, if the “T” in CTX stands for “technology” and if you want to succeed in drawing in the target demographic, that little 12v port should be standard issue, and add a USB port while you’re at it.
Don’t fence me in
The CTX is a gamble for Honda. While other bike makers are satisfied to offer beginners scaled-down sportbikes and me-too mini-cruisers, Big Red is offering a more accessible riding experience with a novel and high-tech bike new riders can grow with and explore their limits on before moving up to more specialized machines.
It’s clear that putting the rider’s focus on the ride, not the machine, is where the CTX excels. Quick enough to entertain newbies and re-entry riders and just manual enough for old-school riders to enjoy, it’s easy to envision a new rider commuting on the CTX and then heading for open roads on the weekend, maybe even two up, the polished tech of the six-speed DCT letting the rider focus on the road rather than four levers and a throttle.
And that’s the real idea behind the CTX. First-time riders, returning riders and scooter graduates will be hard-pressed to find a better alternative to start riding a big bike. Only time will tell if it is enough to pry today’s young adults away from their phones and gaming consoles long enough to take a spin and find out if they are awakened by the special experience that is motorcycling.
- Enticing big-bike platform for new riders
- Excellent DCT automatic transmission option includes ABS
- Sport and Manual tranny modes for more spirited riding
- 60+ mpg and tall gearing for touring
- Affordable price, even all decked out
- Styling a bit on the odd side
- Feet-forward seating position might not be long-trip friendly for some
- No helmet-swallowing storage bay in the gas tank like the NC700X, just a little cubby for your phone and gloves
Additional photos by Kevin Wing