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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Gizmag.com, "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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.