Honda's 750cc NM4 Vultus: A new species of motorcycle


April 9, 2014

The Honda NM4-1 on display at the Tokyo Motorcycle Show(Photo: Stephen Clemenger)

The Honda NM4-1 on display at the Tokyo Motorcycle Show(Photo: Stephen Clemenger)

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Honda has announced a new motorcycle – the 750cc NM4, which will be known as the Vultus in European markets – and it's a new species of motorcycle that represents such a bold departure from tradition that it could become a landmark in the evolution of motorized two-wheeled transport.

The NM4 (NM stands for "New Motorcycle") is styled along “Japanimation” lines, and though the cult anime/manga bodywork is no doubt challenging to the eye of existing motorcycle enthusiasts, it’s not the styling that sets the NM4 apart – it's the combination of the very low seat height, semi-recumbent, feet-first rider posture, adjustable backrest and large futuristic dashboard to create what Honda describes as the seating position and cockpit of a “fighter pilot.”

At just 650 mm (25.5"), the seat height of the NM4 is much lower than anything we've ever seen before in a 750 cc class, mass production motorcycle an indication that Honda is intending to produce large capacity motorcycles for people less than 170 cm (5' 7") tall.

When the Honda NM4 Vultus reaches showrooms later this year (2014), it will have the lowest seat height of any large capacity motorcycle at just 650mm. Whatsmore, note the location of the footboards and brake pedal. The NM4 Vultus is a recumbent motorcycle - a brave move from Honda.

What's more, the NM4 has been designed for ease-of-use. It comes standard with Honda's proprietary Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) and Combined Brake System that includes a dual-channel Anti Lock Brake system (ABS).

Between the two systems, the two most-difficult aspects of riding a motorcycle (braking and changing gear) have been reduced to scooter-like simplicity. At the same time, by removing the necessity to have the rider's feet at the foot controls of a traditional motorcycle, it is offering a great deal more choice about riding position (while the foot brake still exists, its use is optional because the brake lever on the right handlebar operates both front and rear brakes through the linked braking system).

1 - Tapping new markets

The design of the NM4 facilitates several potentially rich new sources of customers for Honda.

The first and potentially largest new marketplace for the Vultus is in young style-conscious Asian countries where edgy futuristic Manga design is a desirable attribute, scooters are the most common form of personal transport, average height is considerably less, and riding motorcycles is not almost exclusively gender-specific as it is in Western society.

1-1 Eastern Markets

The first and potentially largest new marketplace for the Vultus is in young style-conscious Asian countries where edgy futuristic Manga design is a highly desirable attribute, scooters are the most common form of personal transport, average height is considerably less than in Europe and North America, and riding motorcycles is not almost exclusively gender-specific as it is in Western society.

Seat height is already a key decision-making criteria in the purchase of motorcycles for the small percentage of women in Western countries who buy them. In Asian countries nearly all existing large capacity motorcycles currently preclude women from the mix by virtue of their seat height, not to mention a significant proportion of males. Two-thirds of the world's population lives in Asia and has been raised in an environment where scooters ARE the family car.

More people live inside this circle than outside. The 21st century is sometimes referred to as the Asian century. The rise of Asia’s wealth is changing the world and has profound implications for people everywhere - including the shape of personal transport.

1-2 Western Markets

The NM4 can also be expected to cultivate new customers in Western markets, as it will undoubtedly be the first large capacity motorcycle to appeal to non-enthusiasts with its futuristic Japanese cult styling and ease-of-use.

A poster for the 1988 Japanese theatrical release "Akira" which has been heavily influential in Japanese culture

Drawing heavily from the futuristic bikes seen in the anime/manga illustrated books, television series and films, it has many similarities to Shotaro Kaneda's bike from Akira, and the work of Katsuhiro Otomo.

Known collectively as “Japanimation," both genres are established adult entertainment in Japan, woven into the fabric of society. Now, the philosophy, attitude, fashion and feeling of this originally Japanese entertainment form have spread worldwide and become a mainstream phenomena.

Finally, Honda is keen to attract car drivers onto motorcycles and it recognizes that the current state of the world's increasingly congested roads is driving change in the global personal transportation marketplace.

In advanced economies, a wind of change is sweeping through motorcycle land. After decades of refinement, enthusiast motorcycles are now astoundingly good and the enthusiast is already well catered for. The NM4 caters for the non-enthusiast who is not mired in traditional, often spartan motorcycle form factors.

1-3 Urban Markets

The imperatives of ever-increasing fuel pricing and road congestion are about to generate a new reason for the world's commuters to consider motorcycles as a form of transport, a reason which won't go away and will gradually increase to the point where it cannot be ignored. The time is coming where enthusiasts will no longer dominate the motorcycle market – commuters will rule.

2 - Vultus NM4: A very "New Motorcycle"

Just as technology freed the first generation of motorcycle riders from an array of hand throttles, advance-retard mechanisms and chokes a century ago, technology will now remove another layer of anachronistic control mechanisms left over from a prior generation.

My take is that the NM4 is designed by Honda to emancipate motorcycling one further step, to make riding a motorcycle as easy to ride as a scooter, and the Japanimation styling is just a sugar coating.

The introduction of a bike as radically non-traditional as the NM4 is brave new territory, even for a company with the resources of Honda. When announcing the bike at the Osaka Motorcycle Show, the synopsis in the first paragraph of the press kit read thus:

New model: A ground-breaking machine inspired by the desire to establish a unique riding experience and an identity not bound by standard motorcycle design, with strong echoes of futuristic bikes seen in Japanese movies. Created by a young design team who remained true to their original concept at every stage through to production, the NM4 Vultus brings radical style to the streets, with function from the future for a new breed of rider.

“Honda is a big company. 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'." "The NM4 Vultus exists because of a passion from deep within our company. 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.” Mr Keita Mikura, NM4 Vultus Project Leader, Honda Motor Company

Then followed the carefully chosen words of Mr Keita Mikura, the Project Leader for the NM4 Vultus, which are worth considering in context. Kimura's brief statement is reproduced under the image above.

Given the lukewarm reception Honda experienced with the DN-01, it has every reason to be nervous about how the NM4/ Vultus will be received by its public. Mikura's above words suggest the company has decided to forge ahead in this direction regardless, and we can expect the NM4 to be on the market a lot longer than its direct predecessor – the DN-01 was announced in 2005 at the Tokyo Motor Show, came to market in 2008 and was withdrawn in 2010. I was attendant at the 2005 launch of the DN-01, and I have no doubt that Honda thought the moment was a very significant one in its history.

The DN-01 (read Loz Blain's road test of the bike here) remains one of the very few large capacity motorcycles ever to have used an automatic transmission, in this case an ingenious CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), which worked well and offered many benefits to learners and experienced riders alike but was largely misunderstood and lambasted by the traditional motorcycle media.

Much of the DNA of the Vultus can be found in the DN-01, with its semi-recumbent seating position, electronically-controlled "Human Friendly Transmission" and equally human-friendly, big V-twin motor. The DN-01's motor was built for mid-range and usability, not outright horsepower and performance, and was roundly criticized by the same motorcycle media for its lack of outright horsepower.

Given the reception of the DN-01 at the cash register, and the response of a motorcycle media staunchly resistant to any motorcycle without sporting aspirations, Honda's move in releasing the NM4 is to be roundly lauded. It has regrouped following the disappointment of the DN-01 and is backing its own judgement on the future evolution of the motorcycle regardless of the opinion of the current change-resistant enthusiasts and a myopic motorcycle press. It is hoping to use its corporate momentum to take motorcycle design in a more practical direction.

3 - Honda deliberately but gently breaks the traditional mold

Honda has thrown every bit of trickery and technology it can muster at the Vultus NM4 which combines both synthetic feel-good technologies and a full hand of electronic rider assistance technologies to make riding a motorcycle much easier. Honda's long term investment in R&D; to develop expertise which gives it a competitive edge is being brought to bear to create the best possible user experience.

Honda's CB750 of 1969 is regarded as the first superbike. Comparing its vital statistics to those of the Vultus NM4 is highly illustrative

When Honda launched the CB750 nearly half a century ago, it created what enthusiasts commonly refer to as the UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) – a four cylinder bike with smooth power delivery, but lacking the character which motorcycle enthusiasts held dear. It might seem like a no-brainer now to create a compact multi-cylinder motorcycle, but the first few thousand bikes shipped from Japan to America had sand-cast casings for good reason – Honda wasn't sure the bike would sell and did not wish to invest in the tooling required for serious mass production until it had proof that the motorcycle was viable at the cash register. The rest is history.

3-1 Honda's 750 parallel "faux" V-twin

Five decades on, and the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer is no longer smoothing the vibrations but purposefully infusing its machinery with characterful rumblings. It may have balancing shafts to remove annoying high frequency vibrations, but the primal rhythms of the Vultus are a critically important part of the primary design.

On the surface, the NM4 is powered by a SOHC 8-valve 750 cc parallel twin, similar in power output and capacity to the 650 cc Triumph Bonneville (35.8 kW @ 7200 rpm), 750 cc Norton Commando (43.8 kW @ 6800 rpm) and 650 cc BSA Lightning (35.8 kW @ 7000 rpm), which were kings of the road almost 50 years ago. By comparison, the 750cc Vultus stacks up well with 40.3 kW at 6,250 rpm with a far stronger low- and mid-range than the bikes which lost Britain's motorcycle empire.

In reality, Honda's parallel-twin engine has a 270 degree crank throw, which gives it the feel and sound of a V-twin. In building the NM4, Honda has combined all of the advantages of a V-twin, while conveniently canting its parallel twin forward to fit it neatly into the form factor it desired. The DN-01 had a big V-twin, the NM4 has a faux V-twin.

It's no co-incidence that most of the truly iconic motorcycles and those with massive cult followings have used the V-twin engine configuration.

From the iconic motorcycles of yore such as Indian, Brough Superior, the legendary Vincent Black Shadow, through to the most recent cult machinery such as Ducati, Buell/EBR, Victory and Confederate, and the Harley-Davidson marque which has endured a century based on a proprietary 45 degree design, all have used the uneven firing order of the V-twin to seduce their audience. V-twins offer a sweet, torquey mid-range, but it's the vibrational characteristics and intoxicating sound of a V-twin which are as much key factors in their allure as the engine's usability.

As hall-of-fame motorcycle designer Erik Buell recently told, "motorcycles are a very emotional product and big v-twins sound cool ... sound is a key part of the experience for the rider."

The numbers speak for themselves: 17 of the 20 most expensive motorcycles ever sold at auction are V-twins, one is a flat twin BMW, and two are V4 Ducati MotoGP bikes. 100 percent are four-strokes, 95 percent have V-configuration engines and 85 percent are V-twins.

The 745 cc engine of the Vultus is largely identical to the 700 (actually 670 cc) engine already in use in Honda’s CTX700 and NC700, with the bore increased by 4 mm to 77 mm and the same 80 mm stroke for a swept volume of 745 cc.

We've been through the clever design of the canted compact Honda twin previously.

It's not a sports engine but one designed and specifically tuned for real world speeds and conditions. The additional benefits of the NM4's 10 percent engine capacity increase over the 670 cc motor used in the NX700 and CTX700 have resulted not in greater peak horsepower (as is customary with engine capacity increases), but in a punchier lower range, with peak torque of 68 Nm produced at just 4,750 rpm.

One final thought on the Vultus engine. While traditional motorcyclists might scoff at its less than sporting performance in comparison to the extreme sports motorcycles in the same capacity class, it is interesting to compare the NM4's engine performance with Honda's most famous motorcycle, the CB750, a motorcycle generally regarded as the first "superbike."

In terms of horsepower, the CB750 produced 50 kW @ 8,000 rpm, which is 24 percent more peak horsepower than NM4's 40.3 kW at a slightly more modest 6,250rpm.

In terms of torque, the NM4's 68 Nm @ 4,750 rpm is 13 percent more than the CB750's 60 Nm @ 7,000 rpm, and it produces that grunt much lower in the rev range.

In the real world, most CB750s averaged around 35-40 mpg and that is where the biggest single performance difference can be seen between the two – the NM4 delivers better than 80 mpg. That's miserly scooter-like gas-pump-performance from a motorcycle capable of outperforming any car this side of $100,000, and it'll easily leave a supercar behind without ever raising its revs beyond that torque-laden mid-range.

The NM4 is a rare motorcycle designed with a surfeit of common sense – a motorcycle for the real world. It might not cut superbike lap times, but in its natural habitat, it will be a far nicer traveling companion.

3-2 Honda's Dual Clutch Transmission

Honda has been seeking to make motorcycling simpler for a long time. It produced automatic versions of its 400 cc twin and 750 cc four cylinder road machines for a brief period in the late 1970s and I spent a week on the CB750A at that time and loved it. With an powerband restacked for low-range torque and two-speed Hondamatic gear-changing, it was simplicity personified – twist-and-go and enjoy the ride.

Even then, the trends Honda was watching in the United States car market suggested that motorcycles would one day be automatic, as automatic transmissions were taking over from stick-shifts in cars. Humans want simplicity it seems and by 1976 when Honda launched its automatic motorcycles, two thirds of new car sales were fitted with an automatic transmission.

The current percentage of new car sales in America with automatic transmissions is 92.5 percent. The staunchly traditional motorcycle marketplace did not however, feel the same way about the idea of an automatic motorcycle in the 1970s and the Honda CB750A only garnered a few thousand sales. It was shelved and it was another three decades before the Honda DN-01 emerged with another automatic. The DN-01's "Human Friendly Transmission" was a CVT, but regardless of what mechanisms it used to do its job, it was an automatic.

The Dual Clutch Transmission is different though. It uses two clutches: one for first, third and fifth gears, the other for second, fourth and sixth, with the mainshaft for both clutches concentric, and each independently controlled by its own electro-hydraulic circuit. When a gear change occurs, the system pre-selects the target gear using the clutch not currently in use. The first clutch is then electronically disengaged as, simultaneously, the second clutch engages.

Honda spent a lot of money and time developing its own DCT. It's the only motorcycle currently in production that uses a DCT, though quite a few manufacturers use dual clutch transmissions in their performance cars. Numerous models from Ferrari, Audi and Porsche, plus supercars such as the Bugatti Veyron, Lamborghini Huracan, McLaren MP4-12C, Mercedes SLS AMG, BMW M3, Nissan GT-R, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X use dual clutch transmissions and Lotus has just applied for a patent for a simplified DCT. With a list of DCT devotees of such quality, Honda's efforts in developing the only motorcycle DCT in existence seem more than justified. A DCT does it faster and more efficiently and smoother. Q.E.D.

Remarkably, the DCT fitted to the Vultus is already Honda's second generation motorcycle DCT, the first being fitted to the 2009 VFR1200F.

The Honda DCT offers three modes of gear changing - automatic twist-and-go in D and S mode, plus a trigger-operated computer-game-style manual MT mode - similar to the paddle gear-changes on a Formula One car and quite different to the foot-pedal operated sequential gearbox of a traditional motorcycle. In MT mode, the gears are shifted manually using the left index finger to shift up and the thumb to shift down

Traditional motorcycle enthusiasts love to pedal a manual gearbox, loading up the gear shift lever and flicking the throttle off momentarily for a fast gear change under acceleration. The irony is that novices will be able to change gears faster and smoother on the NM4 because the co-ordination of swapping cogs efficiently is done with technology, not with human clumsiness. Put two riders of equal weight, reflexes and co-ordination on two otherwise identical bikes, one with a manual gearbox and one with DCT, and the rider of the DCT bike will be faster over a quarter mile. Similarly, when hurtling into a corner and downshifting under brakes, enthusiasts love the challenge of getting it right by blipping the throttle and matching the revs to avoid the rear wheel chirping, as there's nothing quite like mastering a big motorcycle to make you feel king of the universe. Beginners will be able to achieve the same feeling and results without the same degree of riding expertise on the NM4 – another reason enthusiasts will hate it.

The DCT delivers a quick, smooth, consistent, seamless gear change conducted by a computer that is better than any human can orchestrate with a clutch, throttle and shift-pedal ... every time, no brainpower required. As the transmission transfers drive from one gear to the next with infinitesimal interruption of the power to the rear wheel, there is no gear change shock, and pitching of the machine is minimized, making the change feel direct as well as smooth.

The NM4 does not have a clutch lever or shift pedal. The Honda DCT offers three modes of gear changing – automatic twist-and-go in D and S mode, plus a trigger-operated computer-game-style manual MT mode – similar to the paddle gear-changes on a Formula One car and quite different to the foot-pedal operated sequential gearbox of a traditional motorcycle.

In MT mode, the gears are shifted manually using the left index finger to shift up and the thumb to shift down. This can even be employed to use engine braking to stabilize the bike on the entry into a corner. As it has two clutches, the NM4's power is delivered to the rear wheel without a break, and downshifts are seamless.

The digital dash of the NM4 changes colour depending on the drive mode selected, with subtle colour changes from Neutral (white) through D (blue) to S (pink), ultimately to MT (red). The rider can choose one colour from five other tonal ranges of each colour - 25 individual colours altogether.

Automatic D mode is ideal for city riding, and offers the best fuel economy. Automatic S mode is sportier and the ECU lets the engine rev higher before shifting up and shifts down sooner when decelerating for extra engine braking. In either D or S mode, the DCT offers manual intervention – the rider simply selects the required gear using the up and down shift triggers on the left handlebar. It's not immediate, but soon after you've told it you want to go up or down a gear, it will shift seamlessly into that gear. Thanks to engine mapping and a well-programmed ECU, the DCT is designed to seamlessly revert back to automatic mode when it decides the excitement is over, using a number of parameters (throttle opening, vehicle speed and gear position) to make that decision. If you're a purist or a control freak, the Vultus will piss you off big time.

Furthermore, in D mode, the DCT system detects variations in rider input typical to certain environments, from busy urban streets to mountain switchbacks, and adapts its gear change schedule accordingly to create an extra level of riding compatibility. Motorcycling newbies raised on game systems will love these adaptive features, traditionalists will not.

3-3 Honda's combined brake system and dual-channel anti-lock brakes

Stopping a motorcycle is a difficult business for the uninitiated. Unlike with automobiles where you simply press one pedal to operate all four brakes, motorcycles usually have independent braking – one brake for the front wheel, controlled with the right handlebar lever, and one for the rear wheel, controlled with the right foot. Curiously, the brake on the right handlebar lever must be operated with the same hand as the throttle twist-grip, which is also on the right handlebar – one of those "we've always done it that way" design throwbacks which would not pass muster in usability testing these days. The majority of braking on a motorcycle, around 70-80 percent, is done with the front wheel, though the rear is important in stabilizing the bike and reducing the forward pitching under heavy braking.

This forward pitching under braking changes the geometry, and can catch an inexperienced rider out, and though an experienced rider can vary the braking power applied to each wheel for the best results in different conditions, it's a minefield for newbies. With long travel suspension and powerful brakes, controlling a motorcycle in a crash stop situation on slippery road surfaces has brought many a newbie to their knees (and hands and face).

Honda's Combined Brake System aims to automatically generate an ideal balance of braking power to each wheel, achieving expert level braking with one hand. Once more, it does so with no brainpower required.

Yes, Vale, Jorge and Marc are better with two independent brakes, but there are only two problems: most riders are nowhere near as good as the aforementioned, and all riders like to think they are. Automating the difficult and critical bits of riding a motorcycle makes sense, and stopping a motorcycle is a critical business because the human body is both frail and vulnerable, particularly at speed on a motorcycle. This is indeed a matter of life and death.

Honda's combined braking systems only employ one front disk for some reason (presumably a logical one) despite the seemingly obvious engineering benefits of two front discs generating symmetrical forces through the fork legs. I'm prepared to back that Honda's single front 320 mm disc, two-piston brake caliper set-up and single rear 240 mm disc and single-piston caliper with the aforementioned technological cunning applied, are more than up to the task.

3-4 The recumbent feet-forward riding position

Like almost every idea under the sun, there is "prior art" regarding recumbent feet-first seating positions but not from a manufacturer with gravitas. Most feet-forward motorcycle manufacturers (Quasar, Alligator, Ner-a-car, Acerbion, Swiss Zerotracer, ad infinitum) have sold dozens of motorcycles. Honda sells 22 million motorcycles a year.

Not one recumbent (feet-forward) motorcycle has ever never seen mass production. Until now! The Vultus is the closest motorcycle yet to the "feet forward" definition. Honda has indicated the Vultus will be available to buy this year (2014), and Honda doesn't do small production runs, so the new Vultus might well influence the form-factor of the motorcycle in a big way if its distinctive aesthetics catch on.

The existing bikes which will most likely be seen as the NM4's competition: Aprilia's SRV850 at top left, then clockwise, BMW's C 650 GT, Yamaha's T-Max 530 and Suzuki's Burgman 650

The Vultus has the most pronounced feet-forward riding position yet seen on a mass production motorcycle and a very low seat height of just 650 mm. By comparison, the Suzuki Burgman’s seat height is 755 mm, the Aprilia RSV 850’s seat is 780mm high, the Yamaha T-Max 530’s seat height is 800 mm and the BMW 650 GT runs to 805 mm, and they are all bikes that have paid a lot of attention to getting a very low seat height in the first place. Motorcycles are another level of seat height above the scooters.

The NM4's seat also has a built-in back-rest for the rider, completing the seating position in a non-conventional way – its angle can be adjusted through three positions and it slides backwards or forwards 25mm through four settings, so "cockpit comfort" can be fine-tuned.

Non-traditional technologies and shapes haven't sold all that well in the past, but there are now growing imperatives for motorcycle manufacturers to begin melding car-like feature sets with their motorcycles for non-enthusiast riders, and we're likely to see more non-traditional motorcycles like the Vultus appearing in the not-too-distant future. Yamaha and Suzuki have shown many concept bikes in a similar mold, but none apart from the Yamaha Maxam Morphous ever saw production – the Morphous lasted just two years on the showroom floor before it was shelved.

Top images: Honda's new 750cc Vultus NM4. Bottom row: Honda's 750cc Elysium, 750cc Griffon and 900cc E4-01 concepts. The Vultus is designed for the next generation motorcyclist, with a very low seat, recumbent riding position, and ease-of-use foremost. As can be seen from its concept bikes (more inside), Honda has been gauging opinion as to when to embody these ideas into a production motorcycle for decades. Do not discount the possibility the Vultus will be offered with an optional Elysium-style roof within one or two model updates

On this point, the low seat height and the angle of the Vultus windscreen suggest to me that a folding roof is the next logical step for the Vultus if it gains acceptance and begins selling. The seat is low enough to accommodate a rider under a roof line which continued onwards from the screen (as with the Elysium concept it showed at Tokyo Motor Show in 2001), and it would be the final factor that would complete a two-wheeler capable of delivering car-like weather protection. Honda has indicated that a taller screen will be available as an option for the Vultus/NM4 though it has not been shown at this stage. A taller screen could facilitate an even better roof line.

This article will no doubt generate a bit of controversy about whether the Vultus actually constitutes a feet-forward motorcycle, so we've used the term recumbent motorcycle as much as possible to try to focus on the issues.

The Vultus' instrument panel plays the "fighter pilot" cockpit metaphor to the full - it is viewed from a much lower angle than normal due to the lower seat height, is wider than normal, the digital instruments are outlined with LED lights, and the central display changes colour depending on the mode deployed.

The Vultus sits somewhere between a normal maxi-scooter and a full feet-forward motorcycle. Malcolm Newell, inventor of the Qasar and feet-forward design evangelist, after being continually asked if choppers were feet-forward motorcycles, proposed a definition that feet-forward motorcycles should have "a seat base less than 20 inches (500 mm) from the ground."

By Newell's definition, the Vultus' 650 mm seat height means the Vultus is not a feet-forward motorcycle, even allowing 50-100 mm of padding on top of its v-shaped seat base. It is however, significantly closer to Newell's definition than anything before it from a major manufacturer, and Newell's definition is largely arbitrary anyway, perhaps motivated by a wish to ensure his futuristic designs didn't fall into the same category as customized choppers.

Hence the Vultus seat height will be greatly appealing to the large population of existing scooter riders in Asia who are getting wealthier faster than the rest of the world. By comparison with existing traditional motorcycles, the Vultus will be a lot easier to control at the traffic lights for smaller riders, and with the pillion seat which flips up into an adjustable backrest, Honda’s claims of a “fighter pilot” seating position seem well founded.

4 - The imperatives of convergence

Aware that the world of personal transportation is changing globally due to ever-increasing fuel prices and traffic congestion, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki have all been exploring the right formula for new models that will attract more customers from the potentially much larger non-enthusiast segment with concept models offering more comfort, ease-of-use, economy, safety and weather-protection.

From top left clockwise: Yamaha's Gen-Ryu Hybrid Concept (2005), Yamaha's Luxair Hybrid Concept (2007), Suzuki's G-Strider Concept (2003) and Yamaha's Maxam 3000 Concept (2005) all explored feet-first riding positions

The imperative to begin pushing the boundaries of luxury motorcycle design has been increased in recent times with automotive companies beginning to develop new types of three- and four-wheeled vehicles with smaller footprints and vastly improved fuel economy, so the race is now on to provide viable transportation options in the middle ground between the car and the motorcycle.

Since Nicholas Negroponte first came up with his landmark teething ring visualization of the coming together of communication, computing and content, the term convergence has become the uber buzzword.

Now the convergence of the personal transport industry we discussed in detail in Narrow Track Vehicles is beginning to accelerate.

Narrow track four-wheelers will begin to encroach on motorcycle sales over the next decade as vehicles such as Toyota's i-Road, Yamaha's Gordon Murray-designed Motiv, Volkswagen's L1 and Renault's Twizy offer smaller road footprints and frugal economy, with weather and driver protection

Many more miniature, narrow-track cars with electric power trains are coming to market over the next few years. From top left clockwise, Toyota's COMS, Nissan's Mobility Concept, Honda's MC-β and Renault's new Twizy Cargo

The biggest single threat to motorcycling's urban mobility advantage is Toyota's i-Road. It's electric, it tilts and is hence loads of fun to drive, and it's so easy to drive that any car driver can drive it straight away

Car makers are attempting to downsize their vehicles to make them better suited to the world’s increasingly crowded roads, and motorcycle makers are trying to combine the crucial missing elements from the motorcycle to make them suitable for sophisticated consumers in technologically-advanced countries.

Once you have experienced the creature comforts crammed into the automobile, moving to the current crop of two-wheelers is going to be difficult, particularly for those who do not wish to be exposed to the weather and physical danger of riding a two-wheeler in predominantly car-centric environments.

In summary

The NM4 appears to finally consummate the long-standing efforts of the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer toward designing motorcycles with greater ease-of-use so it can attract to a new generation of rider considering two-wheels for its low cost-of-ownership (primarily fuel consumption) and the ability of a narrow-track vehicle with a small footprint to ride through the ever-increasing traffic congestion on our roads.

Clarification re the name of the Vultus NM4

Announced at the Osaka Motorcycle Show, the press materials from different arms of the Honda empire appear to be conflicting about what to expect. Honda Europe has announced the Vultus as being produced only in black, while Honda’s Japanese headquarters is referring to the bikes as different models, dubbed NM4-1 and NM4-2 respectively, with one presented in pearlescent white and coming standard with integrated panniers in the rear.

Gizmag's Stephen Clemenger attended the Tokyo Motorcycle Show last weekend and reported that the name Vultus was not used by Honda in any context – all references to the bike were the black NM4-1 and white NM4-2.

Though Honda Japan is touting the bikes as different versions, the integration of carrying capacity appears to be the major, indeed, the only difference, and panniers will be optional on the all-black Vultus anyway. The images of the white prototype may hence be of a machine which doesn’t carry the name Vultus when it appears.

About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, (Australia's largest Telco), (Australia's largest employment site),,, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon

More horrible Japanese design...It looks great for urban transport, but essentially without a proper gear shift all it is a big scooter. Only the gravitationally challenged and disabled amongst us bikers would be seen on one. It looks so cheap, like all Japanese products, with cheap plastic and components built to a cost accountant's whims, not an engineer's. ugh, awful!!!

The Master

It's a maxi- scooter with the engine moved off the swing arm. About time. Still a lousy riding position but try telling that to a Harley rider.

Windsor Wilder

'... there's nothing quite like mastering a big motorcycle to make you feel king of the universe. Beginners will be able to achieve the same feeling and results without the same degree of riding expertise on the NM4 ...'

Nope, no they won't. I don't doubt that beginners could go quicker with this system, but it would not be fun. The key is in 'mastering' -- if it was easy to get it right, there is no real reward. Nobody would gamble if they won every time.

Sure, there are people who have no interest in mastering the machine, but they are by definition not enthusiasts, and are unlikely to shell out for something like this. I really struggle to see who this is aimed at.

(And for the record, changing gears competently on a motorcycle isn't that hard, for God's sake...)


If they want to penetrate the Asian market they need to make a two seat version.


Thanks for a very informative article.

I imagine that at some future date these machines will appear with two front wheels. As for its appeal to the average person, perhaps the demographic artwork showing Asia as having more people than the rest of the world combined says it all; that, and the deliberate design considerations around 5ft 7in rider height, of course. Oh, and we must not forget that in that part of the world motorcycles are already ubiquitous.

Whilst traditionalists might be upset about this design, as some of the above comments clearly show, it is not meant for them. This is for the next generation, a generation that is already turning away from car use. This machine is only the first in a line of development that will take personal transport and make it fit the average 21st century person's requirements. These machines are going to have to communicate and respond to transport infrastructure, along with all other road users. Traditional machines will find their 'home' in museums and country fairs, along with horse-drawn farm machinery and steam driven road rollers.

It looks like world leadership in personal transport is, along with commerce generally, moving eastwards. Oh well, "to everything a season, turn, turn turn ..."

Mel Tisdale

Why is a motorcycle any less a motorcycle just because it's automatic?? Myopic was a great choice of word early on in this article: Lacking foresight or intellectual insight. My top 4 car driving experiences to date are my old Alfa Romeo 156 Selespeed, The BMW M3 SMG, the Audi TT DSG and my wife's Golf, also a DSG. These are all manual gearboxes, with automated clutches, either single or dual, exactly the same as this Honda. Being able to race through the gears, blip the throttle whilst down-changing flawlessly, holding gears on corners and not having a slushbox torque converter ruin the experience for me is one of the greatest advances in recent motoring history. Not having to depress the clutch pedal, whilst still maintaining full control is simply better. Which is why the top car and supercar manufacturers are providing them. Best of both worlds, with none of the downsides associated with mediocre driving skills.

The future is coming and I for one can't wait. Bring it on.

Jason Catterall

I love the technology in this machine: the DCT, the low-CG parallel twin, the fuel efficiency for the performance. The riding position, for all of Mike's verbal gymnastics to try to make it sound novel, is not that different from your average Shadow (the Phantom's seat height is listed at 25.8" - a mere 0.3" taller than this beast, and its certainly feet-forward - as Windsor Wilder mentions, "lousy", but yet, comfortable.)

I go back to the huge blob of a fairing, the "maxi-scooter" look, and wonder at what is driving this ugly, seemingly wasteful, mass of plastic design. The anime-loving crowd here in the States doesn't seem like the sort to be able to shell out the big $ for this kind of non-essential toy - they come across to me as being too busy attending comic conventions and designing cosplay outfits. Video game playing convenience store clerks who can barely keep their rickety 50cc scooters alive, much less being "affluent" enough to toss a leg over this monstrosity. Would they even want to if they could? Given the funds, I'm betting a WRX or similar "drifter" hot rod sedan emblazoned with shiny LEDs would be more in their cross-hairs.

So, for the US market, Honda, how about taking the tech in this drive-train and drop it into a classic cruiser chassis with hi-tech accents, much like you've done with the Fury, but at a cost-conscious level. Suzuki tried this with their Gladius and failed due to a style disconnect, I believe. If you can combine whatever current "cool" trend with twist-n-go ease of use, low cost and efficiency, you'll win. This is a commendable effort in that direction, but not likely to get much further than the very similar DN-01 here in the US.


This is aimed at folks who are not ossified "enthusiasts". It is aimed at people who are willing to embrace new concepts and don’t immediately throw up a little when words like “new” or “different” are included in a sentence. As such the American market will probably not be big for this machine. As they mentioned the Asian market is already accustomed to scooters so twist-n-go is normal as is the feet forward position so it’s not a huge stretch for them to like it. It is also not aimed at the enthusiast crowd who use them for pleasure rather than as a primary transportation. Manual gear shifting is not too challenging if the bike is operated on back roads and uncongested highways, stop and go traffic makes toe shifting a tremendous pain in the boot.

As for the comment: "(And for the record, changing gears competently on a motorcycle isn't that hard, for God's sake...)" Try it in stop and go traffic jams sometime. I’ve been riding for close to 10 years with 5 of those commuter years. If there was one thing I would rip off the darn bike when I’m in a traffic jam it would be that fiddly gear shifter.


Pro tip: the term "Japanimation" has been disused since the early 90's because it can be parsed as "Jap Animation" which the Japanese would see as a racial slur.

Jon A.

Reminds me of Dan Gurney's (guy who initiated spraying champagne at racing events) "Alligator" motorcycle, the initial run of which was in 2002...


Honda's NM4/Vultus is pretty ambitious, and very interesting. It reminds me most of Dan Gurney's "Gator". I'd give it a try, for sure.

I bought a Honda Silverwing scooter seven or eight years ago. I sold it last year. I bought it because of the CVT. I SOLD it because of the CVT. I kept my old Suzuki because of the manual shift.

My current car (smart for two) has an "automated" manual, with paddles for "manual" operation. It is a great, and reliable, system. It can work in a motorcycle, too, regardless of seat height.

I really enjoy Gizmag!


Stephen Van de Castle


was bummed not to see an EV version.


" It looks so cheap, like all Japanese products"

That's probably THE most vacuous - and demonstrably just plain wrong (not to mention borderline racist) - thing I think I've ever read on here.

Keith Reeder

Drag your knee in the corner, see the landscape up close, as this wags the rider off like a Flee on a dogs tail. No thanks this thing has way too much power = danger

Jay Finke

Wow,what a excellent, article, Mike. Always enjoyed your writing back to the cycle magazine times. Thanks!


I like it.

It's obviously designed as a daily bike, comfortable enough to commute to work every day and powerful enough that you wont be scared on the motorway.

Despite what some people say above, mopeds/scooters are probably the best selling bikes.

Who wouldn't like to sit back and cruise through the traffic on the way to work. It would be nice for emergency services too, where they can concentrate on whats going on around them in comfort.


Having taken the time to more fully appreciate what Honda has done I can begin to understand the 'enthusiasm' expressed by the author but I must disagree with MzunguMkubwa. The design of this motorcycle is deeply subversive and for that reason it may be a work of art fit for study: It sounds like a Harley, it goes like a Harley and you ride it like a Harley (laid back) only it's clean, convenient, reliable and looks like something from the 21st century as envisioned by commercial artists in the 1950s.

Thanks for making me stop and think, MM. I owe you one. It's not every day etc.

Windsor Wilder

Why are so many people complaining about the design. I ride a K100 BMW and you gotta be around 6' ft. tall to even consider riding it. So why not a low profile bike? I also would like to see a three wheel version, dual in front, and with canopy also two seats would be more practical. I'd buy one if the price is right!


Another great article Mike. Honda has obviously put a lot of effort into this, but the more sanitised it is, the less it appeals to the like of me. Phil Irving came up with the idea of a 270degree crank in a parallel twin, and used by Yamaha in the TRX. Don't sound like a Harley, but does come close to a Ducati, which is infinitely better than a 180 or 360 degree parallel twin in sound and feel. So that is good at least. That and the low seat height.....

Martin Hone

Doesn't look terribly safe being wedged into a bike like this. The first thing you need to do in a crash is separate yourself from the bike. With this design you will likely get mangled with the bike meaning you will go wherever the bike drags you. Which is usually the path of the oncoming traffic.


@Nairda the back rest can fold down and be used as a rear seat.

It really does look like they put a lot of thought into the design.

The US is seriously lacking in good commuter motorcycles. I commute on a used 600 rocket that still gets 40MPG but makes a useless amount of unnecessary power (105 HP) for public roads. I don't need to drive something that will hang with a Bugatti Veyron in a 1/4 mile for my daily commute but at the time there were not a lot of good options to choose from.

I went from a too slow 50cc (~10HP) Aprilia to the overkill of a 600cc super sport but something like this (40.3 kW is 54 HP) seem much more suited. If their mileage numbers are accurate it would put the gas mileage in line with a 35HP 250cc kawi Ninja and make it one of the most fuel efficient bikes on the market.

I think it looks like a solid design but right now the US market tends to be more concerned with things like image than practicality but there really aren't many decent motorcycles that break outside the mold of being either cruiser, sport, adventure, dual sport, or scooter.

If you want a good commuter motorcycle today you are mostly forced into one of those categories unnecessarily. I think this is a great writeup of a motorcycle with a lot of potential. Maybe its time that more motorcycle companies have a catagory of motorcycle called "commute" as a catagory since that is the main reason people usually travel on roads.

If I were to dock it on one point (I can't not do that) I would say if the dashboard is too brightly lit it could be a distraction. My speed is the only thing I really need to know at a glance and the rest of the information could be shrunk down much smaller. They could use the spaced saved to make room to mount a GPS and a dash cam. A dash cam won't protect people from idiot drivers but motorcyclists really should have them because hit and runs are fairly common and "other drivers" is probably the biggest reason you rarely see motorcycles in places like LA where the weather permits them most the year.


There should be design credit given to Dan Gurney whose "Alligator" has been around for years. While production is low they are real "Canyon Carvers".


I can't see this NM4 being a big seller in the US though it has features some will want and 80mpg will attract others. If Honda or the other big motorcycle companies want to make real money in the US market, they should buy the Elio Motors company and put their reverse trike product on the market ASAP. If they don't and the Elio comes to production at the intended price, their motorcycle sales are going to drop off dramatically!


Wholeheartedly agree that Dan Gurney's Alligator should be mentioned. The above is actually a shorter version of the original article which contained details of all the "prior art", in particular all the prototypes shown at the Tokyo Motor Show over the last few decades and the work of Malcolm Newell, Dan Gurney (an astoundingly accomplished engineer, from the All-American Racer to the "gurney flap" through to becoming the individual who began the tradition of spraying champagne from the victory dais when he won Le Mans in 1967) and the most promising of the enclosed 'feet-forward' crop, the Zerotracer. It's on my "bucket list" to ride/drive the Zerotracer, which I've also added to the image gallery. Gizmag's editor-in-chief Noel McKeegan has actually tried one of these, but that's another story.

Mike Hanlon

Finally... A major manufacture has made a vehicle I actually want to own! As a user of PTWs for more than 30 years, I have owned many bikes and scooters of all makes and sizes. Frankly, I cannot think of one I would buy again, as they nearly all failed to live up to expectations, with the possible exception of a 250 Honda scooter-absolutely brilliant, and almost 100 MPG all day long despite being ridden flat out most of the time. Sure I love bikes and biking, but when you wake up from that haze of nostalgia, the sad reality is that the roads in the UK are way too crowded and small to use even a fraction of the available performance of most bikes safely (and legally) and the weather is crap most of the time. The vast majority of big bikes (with the possible exception of tourers perhaps) spend most their time in the garage or being polished before a short blast on Sundays. Here is a bike that is actually usable, looks way cool (to an Akira fan anyway!) and anyone can just get on and ride without having to go through all the biker bullshit just to master a mere machine. Surely machines should be easy to use, not intimidating? After all, you wouldn't buy a manual washing machine would you! Great article by the way! Ride safe.

Simon Payne

Reminds me of the 8-year-old SuMo , the e-drive of a similar design

Such a shame such bikes do not go beyond the concept stage.

Thanks for a thorough article.


Not enough storage space to be practical.


Ive ridden all sorts from my fathers Triumph Tina to V twins flat twins and 6 cylinder bikes,Ive raced 4 strokes and 2 strokes tried sidecars and off road and have a lot of all weather miles under my bum. Far,far too many people want fast sports bikes but really have no clue as to how to ride them to their potential,in reality they just are unable to do that on public roads anyway and many of the knee scraping idiots I see overtaking on blind bends etc should be confined to mopeds. The media's obsession with speed and power is ludicrous, often driven by journalists with very little real world experience striving to make a name for themselves and misleading ordinary motorcyclist into buying a bike that is really not suited to riding in all conditions and for long distance as well as their desire for round the block posing. I would buy one of these NM4s, at the right price.The concept is sound,the motor very adequate for everyday use and comfort along with luggage capacity looks carefully considered. Get away from the rut of identikit racer shaped rockets,buy a bike that you can use for anything and dont be swayed by media hype written by spotty erks who say they are the fonts of all motorcycle knowledge,they are not. There,I feel so much better now nurse.


Mike, you fell for Honda's PR about the cycle. Feet forward bikes have been around for a long time. Don't be so lazy. If you had done just a little bit of research you'd have found lots of examples. For instance, on YouTube and Wikipedia, search for "feet forward motorcycle".


I think that they have a great concept here. I know someone else mentioned it is a hassle to change gears while driving to work in busy traffic. I have a 350z and its fun but not as fun when going back and forth to work. It also takes premium fuel. I have a motorcycle license but haven't ridden for years. Maybe I am one of the minority but this bike has some appeal to me. My commute isn't that far and I plan to start cycling soon (pedal). If the price of this was realistic I would look at it. (Unfortunately, I live in Australia so likely this will be more expensive than anywhere else in the world).

Mark Emmerton

I've owned many Japanese motorcycles, mostly Hondas for their excellent build quality and usually very good engines. The Vultus? Oh My Ghod that is one ugly bike! Twist and go is getting better and better all the time, I could own a Silverwing easily, but I digress.

I'm waiting for, hopefully, Honda to take a good hard look at the interesting Zero SR and decide they can do it better. I don't want something that looks like Judge Dredd's personal transport and the feet forward thing may be comfortable but that's it's only advantage over a conventional stance.

The thing that keeps burning through my brain is a scene from "Who killed the EV1?", a shot of a table loaded with a year's worth parts and oils that an ordinary car will probably need during it's life. I've heard (not gospel so please don't hold me to it) that Toyota cover the bills with new car sales but make real profit from spare parts. If this is true then effective electric transport will either need to be produced on a 'maybe break even' basis (that rolling thud you just heard was the accounting department fainting dead away) or priced hard to make up for lost revenue.

Sometime soon a factory in probably China will start stamping out ridiculously cheap, indifferently styled electric cars and bikes that go great, have a worthwhile range and an utter minimum of parts. And we'll flock to buy them. The last personal transport I ever own will not be hydrocarbon powered.

Mike Sayle

Pretty much everything that a big motorcycle isn't. I'm a motorcycle enthusiast and I love this "bike". I started with big 4 stroke single thumper trails bikes in the early 80's, done my fair share of scooter commuting, sports bikes and cruisers over the years and love the appeal of all of them. This will definitely be my next commuter bike. I commute 200 miles a week every week (except for 70mph+ winds and ice/snow). I would take exception with people saying get rid of the foot shifter, that's not the bit that's annoying on an inner city commute, it's the clutch lever that's the killer. Clutchless 750 performance and 80mpg makes this a serious contender for my commute and who knows, it may even be up there for weekend cruising.

Peter Tanczos

It's funny t took so long for someone to design a bike that is good looking, but also appears to be comfortable. It's purpose built like cafe, enduro, motorcross, trials, cruiser, etc. Too simple of a concept.


like it or not,this is direction we need to be headed.We cannot keep filling the roadways with large vehicles with one person onboard Smaller,more aerodynamic,fuel efficient vehicles will be a welcome addition to American's highways.I would love to have a small tandem seat aerodynamic vehicle,motorcycle or other narrow tracked vehicle,easy to fix,gets 100 mpg 2 liters per 100 Km,I could be very happy.And it doesn't have to be expensive, unsafe and slow,enough with all the excuses.


I used to own a Suzuki Burgman 650. Which, in my opinion, really is a motorcycle even though they make it look like a scooter. The big thing I disliked about the machine was the seat height. If it was lower I would have felt stabler at a stop light. I'm 6' and I still felt like my feet didn't really sit on the ground solidly enough.

Another small thing I didn't really like was the use of gears to the back wheel instead of something more common like a belt, shaft, or chain. It worked, it just seemed like it was bulkier, heavier, and just bad idea compared to the other options.

I loved the CVT on the Burgman. The small gripe I had with the CVT was when you wanted to coast a bit when slowing down. Laying off the throttle would cause the bike to break on the engine. So you would have to be a bit precise with the throttle to keep the speed. In the beginning I was lurching a bit trying to find the right twist but after a while I got it. But it does mean you have to keep the throttle on at some setting instead of just kicking it in neutral or disengaging the clutch.

I suppose the the DCT will have a similar issue but at least there are physical gears so coasting I think will be a bit easier. The CVT will adjust the gearing continuously and you feel it a lot. I still liked the CVT though. The burgman also has the D, S, and M settings as well although in M the gears are simulated.

DCT is the direction manufacturers are going. My folk's VW Diesel Jetta has it and it drives really nice. More and more super bikes are going this route as well as far as I can see. It makes for a lot smoother ride.

Personally I like the look but then I like the Akira bike and the Suzuki G-Strider Concept as well so this bike's appearance appeals to me. I know it's not everyone's cup'o'tea. Sometimes I wish they would just put the tech in this bike or a burgman into a regular cruiser bike and not feel the need to make something totally different. I.E. Honda DN-01 should have had a magna/shadow appearance instead of something foreign in my opinion.

Maybe they should do what they do with cars. Offer transmission choices (and other options) on the same models instead of having to make something completely new.

One other thing I found with the Burgman 650, I really didn't need all that power for the riding I did. Even though the Burgman is probably low powered compared to what some commenters have mentioned. I could get away with a sport tuned 250 (like what's on a Kawazaki Ninja 250) or something in between. For an everyday commuter and the odd fun ride, I didn't need more.

Zekaric you got some great pages

Robert Hestand

I welcome these new vehicles and hope its just the start of some incredible new vehicles.We really need to rethink the way we commute to work,someway,some how we need to reduce the amount of large vehicles on the road during rush hours.A small,safe and comfortable commuting vehicle,first one who gets it right will be the next Henry Ford.

Thomas Lewis

I'm going to miss my VTX1300, but I'd have one of these in a minute. I like it, A LOT! You make it, I'll buy it!

Christopher Blake
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