Let's call it an exotic for the masses. An Italian design statement you can leave in the rain. Italian? But isn't that "Honda" on the tank? How can it be Italian?
Well, it turns out that Honda operates a factory in Italy, building dirtbikes, scooters, and the 599, also known as the "Hornet" in Europe. It's significant that it's made in Italy, because that affects the motorcycle's design and how it's received by Americans. According to Honda, it's the most popular street motorcycle sold in the EU, but here in the USA, the total sales will hardly be a drop in the bucket. It's a stylish, European motorcycle that handles great, is reliable as an ethnic joke at a Klan rally, and is cheaper than most other European street bikes, but Honda seems to have low expectations for the redesigned bike.
To help you understand why, we'll take a tech tour of the 599. We covered the bike in depth in 2004 during our middleweight standards comparison, but I'll recap a bit. At the heart of it is a truly wonderful powerplant, the 16-valve, water-cooled dual-cam inline-four 599cc motor from the F2/F3 series motorcycle. The motor makes a healthy 86 hp (2004 model) at the back wheel, breathing through a quartet of good `ol fashioned 34mm flat-slide CV carburetors like Mom used to make.
A six-speed gearbox and cable clutch complete that package. The motor is bolted into a steel-tube chassis with a large backbone. There's a steel swingarm bolted directly to a rear shock, and up front is a new inverted-fork front end. Triple-disc brakes and calipers you might recognize if you owned an F2 or F3 bring you to a stop. Aside from that, you get a 4.1-gallon gas tank, a seat, some instruments... and not much else. It's a simple, elemental motorcycle, what used to be called a UJM. *Claimed* dry weight is 404 pounds. Bene.It was an amazing fall day in Torrance, so John Seidel, Honda USA's assistant motorcycle press manager, gave us just a quick briefing on what was different about the new 599 before we set out for some riding in Malibu's canyons with development rider and champion roadracer Doug Toland.
Where did the machine go in 2005? I had assumed lack of interest in the 2004 599 led Honda to discontinue it for 2005, but John assured us it was too late to bring in the revamped 599 in for 2005, so it was held back a bit for release as a 2006 model.
The first big change you'll want to know about is the price. At $7,099, the 2004 599 was $500 more than the sophisticated Triumph Speed Four and a whopping grand more than the almost-as-fast but better-handling SV 650. Honda solved this by adding another $300 to the sticker. John reacted to our shocked gasps by giggling nervously a bit when he told us, but making stuff in Europe is apparently expensive. "[The price] is what it is. We can't bring anything in that we'll lose money on." The high price is probably what will keep Honda from shipping more than a few bikes to each of Honda's 1200 US dealers.
Who's Buying UJMs, Anyway?
We've all read it and heard it a thousand times, haven't we? "If they would only build a comfortable bike with decent power and a nice, simple look, they'd sell `em by the millions." It seems that American motorcycle consumers have been clamoring for new Universal Japanese Motorcycles (UJMs) for years.
Too bad that when standard bikes are offered here they sell about as well as garlic fries at a vampire convention. Of the million-plus motorcycles sold in the USA annually, only a small percentage -- probably less than 10%, although neither the Motorcycle Industry Council nor the OEMs will give exact figures -- are standards. A standard motorcycle, despite its simple and humble appearance, still requires the same laborious, expensive process any other model needs to be introduced and sold in the USA, from noise and emissions testing to producing microfiche and American English service and owner's manuals ("What the heck is a spanner, Verne?") to stocking spare parts for 20 years. It's a lot of work for a small profit, which explains the relative lack of standard motorcycles available from the manufacturers.
So why bring them in at all? Well, even though most US buyers want cruisers or hard-core sportbikes there's still a solid, if small group of folks who clamor for -- and actually buy -- lightweight sporting standards. Suzuki's SV650 is a great example, and Kawasaki is selling modest numbers of their not-so-bad Z750S.
Even though they expect only mild interest and success with a model like the 599, Honda still wants to offer it to US buyers as a smaller alternative to the larger 919 and just because influential employee/enthusiasts like John Seidell and Doug Toland think it's a fun product. Ex-roadracing champion Toland calls the 599 "the ultimate city scalpel", and Seidell kept referring to the bike's "fun factor."
Honda could take the safe way out and just offer what they know will be smashing sales successes, but according to Seidell, "Honda follows its own trail on some of these things, and we understand that the best-selling bike in Europe isn't going to be the best-selling bike here in the States."
It seems that offering a broad product line, even if some products don't sell so well is a good way to keep us walking into dealerships. A 599 appeals to a lot of people, according to Seidell: "The demographics that have bought this bike are really broad -- everyone from women and first-time buyers to the enthusiast, including a guy in Texas who races his."
Suzuki only brought in a few of their new DRZ-based Super Moto bikes, but they doubtlessly brought many more customers in to showrooms than they actually sold.
No matter how popular cruisers and sportbikes are, standard motorcycles will always be available to US buyers, even if the numbers are small. The presence of enthusiastic employees in the industry ensures a steady supply of fun, interesting machines, as long as a minimal number continue to be purchased.
"95% of prospective 599 buyers don't want to twiddle with adjusters and prefer that Honda set it up right for a broad range of riders and then leave it alone."
Other than those extra three Ben Franklins, most of the 599 is the same except for the front end. A big, beefy HMAS cartridge fork now gives the 599 a more filled-in look and similar internals to the 600 RR for a smoother, more compliant ride. A rival website's representative complained a bit about the lack of adjustment on the fork, but John reminded us that 95% of prospective 599 buyers don't want to twiddle with adjusters and prefer that Honda set it up right for a broad range of riders and then leave it alone.
The last big change is the instruments and fairing. For 2006, the instrument panel leaps onto the digital speedometer bandwagon, with extra-large digits so the police can see your speedometer from a helicopter. There is also a programmable countdown odometer, a digital fuel gauge, temperature gauge and a clock. The fairing is about the size of a Pop Tart but looks pretty stylish. And speaking of style, Honda is at least giving you glossy paint for the extra $300. Matte black paint is so 2002, don't you think?
Stepping outside to examine the new bikes, we can see that allowing Italians to build Hondas doesn't take away from that legendary Honda fit and finish. The paint is deep and glossy, hoses and wiring are covered and tucked away, and trim covers tastefully make the naked bike look finished and sleek. The new fairing is color-matched and hides the blocky instrument cluster well.
"Olive Oyl on a unicycle would be hard-pressed to get through narrower gaps in traffic than this little black beauty."
If you've ever ridden or owned a CBR600F2 or F3, the sound that comes from below the tank when you hit the starter should be familiar. It starts up without choke and settles into a perfect, smooth idle. The clutch and gearbox are smooth and effortless, if a bit vintage-feeling. Carburetion is just right. The motor revs quickly and pulls from as low as 3,000 RPM.
The 599 is a "city scalpel" designed for the crowded streets and highways of European cities, and with congestion in LA approaching European standards, that's a good thing.
At an urban pace, the 599 is a great tool. It feels like a much smaller, lighter bike than it is, with a low seat and narrow tank. In fact, it feels like a Ducati Monster 620 with a smooth, powerful motor and more balanced handling. Carving and weaving through traffic jams is as easy as a casual glance. Olive Oyl on a unicycle would be hard-pressed to get through narrower gaps in traffic than this little black beauty. If you can't lane-split in your state legally, contact your AMA rep and ask her why.
The 31.1-inch seat is actually lower than it sounds, as it is narrow at the front and deeply scooped. Shorter riders, especially the ladies, would do themselves a disservice not to consider at least sitting on a 599 saddle. Comfort-wise, it's OK for an hour or two, but angled down towards the tank, which is uncomfortable for my lower back after a while. Fortunately, the seat is big enough to slide around on and find an accommodating position. For the passenger portion, a grippier materiel on the pillion portion keeps your partner from getting too familiar when it is time to stop.
Stopping is easy, thanks to large, 296mm brake discs on the front wheel. Lever travel is short, and one-fingered squeezes were sufficient most of the time. The feel was surprisingly good, despite the old two-piston calipers that look just like the ones from the 1991 CBR600F2.
The feedback from the rubber lines was much less mushy than usual, and we asked development rider Doug Toland why Honda didn't use steel-braided brake lines like the European manufacturers do. He told us that Honda could spec rubber lines with as much rigidity as steel lines, and that the extra expense wasn't worth the small benefit the steel lines provide anyway. However, we couldn't help but notice the $30,000+ Rune parked next to it had lots and lots of steel-braided brake lines. Even at $7,399, Honda pinches pennies.
At freeway speeds, the little bike cruises along very agreeably. At 80 MPH the almost invisible flyscreen deflects enough wind to make the ride tolerable, and the motor is just a little bit buzzy in sixth gear with 6,000 RPM on the tachometer. The bike responds nicely when I call on it to pass slower traffic, and I feel almost confident lane-splitting behind Doug Toland and the motorjournalist known as Duke Danger at completely insane speeds.
After fighting traffic for what seems like hours, we are in the native habitat of the Southern Californian Motojournalist, the winding canyon roads in the Malibu Mountains. John kept mentioning the bike's "fun factor", so I put it to the test.
The 599 loves bumpy, twisty roads. The wide bars and upright position make it easier to ride motocross-style, and I give up hanging off like a roadracer after I realize it's probably slowing me down.
Just grip the tank with your knees, weight the inside peg a bit, shove on the bars and wheee! Suddenly the pegs are near-scraping, the horizon is tilted, and you're going through turns as fast as you would on anything.
The two-piston brake calipers are adequate, if not sensational, and the front end lets you feel the well-damped wheel as it tracks over the bumps, ruts, divots, whoops and chuckholes that posh Malibu residents put up with. I wonder if they had Martha Stewart come and drive an overloaded cement mixer up and down the canyons to give their roads a fashionable "distressed" look.
The only place the 599 lets you down is with the rear shock. The steel swingarm overwhelms the linkage-less rear suspender and bounces the back wheel off the ground over big bumps, sapping a bit of confidence. It's not ideal, especially when you consider the CBRs from which the 599 descended had a linkage almost 20 years ago.
For a premium-priced middleweight standard, I'd expect to see a linkage and adjustable suspension from a company like Honda. However, the bike is light enough and easy enough to handle that only a crybaby like me really seems to care.
After lunch, we rocket back down the 405 freeway, flying in between 33 1/3 RPM traffic at 78 RPM. As I chase a champion roadracer thrugh the 405's permanent trafficjam much faster than I usually ride between stopped and slow traffic, I realize the brilliance of the 599. After just a few hours and less than 100 miles, I feel like I've been riding it for years.
That's what's great about the little Italian-Japanese (or is it Japanese-Italian?) machine. Even with simple, low-tech components and much less power than the top-of-the-line 600s, the 599 feels instantly familiar, giving you confidence and lots of grins. If I owned one, I wouldn't change a thing.
Everybody who rides the bike loves it, but for $7,399 I think this Honda is about 20% overpriced. It just doesn't offer the sophistication, performance or slick components that a motorcycle over $7,000 should. That doesn't mean the lucky few thousand Americans that buy this bike in 2006 are getting ripped off, just that they appreciate the features andP1010017 styling the bike offers. The 2006 facelift did give it some useful features and added to the fun factor and good handling. But until the 599 is priced the way a bike in this class should be priced, it will be relegated to Honda's cult closet with the Hawk and CB-1.
** Specs Provided By Honda **
|Engine Type:||599cc liquid-cooled inline four-cylinder|
|Bore and Stroke:||65mm x 45.2mm|
|Valve Train:||DOHC; four valves per cylinder|
|Carburetion:||Four 34mm slanted flat-slide CV|
|Ignition:||Computer-controlled digital with electronic advance|
|Final Drive:||#525 O-ring-sealed chain|
|Front:||41mm inverted fork; 4.7 inches travel|
|Rear:||Single shock with seven-position spring preload adjustability; 5.0 inches travel|
|Front:||Dual full-floating 296mm discs with twin-piston calipers|
|Rear:||Single 220mm disc with single-piston caliper|
|Rake (Caster Angle):||25.5°|
|Trail:||96mm (3.8 inches)|
|Seat Height:||31.1 inches|
|Dry Weight:||404 pounds|
|Fuel Capacity:||4.5 gallons|
|Meets current CARB and EPA standards.|
California version differs slightly due to emissions equipment.