First Ride: 2003 Honda ST1300

More power, less weight, better handling. What's not to Like? Don't ask...


Torrance, California, June 20, 2002 --Well, you didn't really think the long-awaited ST1300 was going to suck or anything did you? Of course not. It's a very nice motorcycle. Then again, there are parts of it which suck so why not begin with them? Really there's only one part and that's the windshield, but only if you go cheap and spring for the non-ABS, $12,999 version. It's a package deal: With ABS ($14,499) you get the electric, adjustable screen; without ABS you get the sad-excuse other one.

"Yo Bob," I axed Honda tech Bob on the intro, "is this as low as this windshield goes?"

"Yep, that one is all the way low," replies Bob."

More Powah!

Frankly I thought Bob was on the crack, but when I got home a few days later and disassembled some stuff, I found out he was right.

Even in the lowest position, the screen is too tall for 5'7" me, and too high also for 6'0" Calvin. It's buffety, we're always looking through the top edge of it (or peering `round the sides when cornering briskly), and the long and short of it is after you drop the $13K you'll be looking for somebody with a band saw to hack the thing down to size, at which point it'll look like a $13K bike somebody took a band saw to. (Okay, well, you could drill a couple more holes in it and slide it down that way more easily I suppose.)

In the course of the press ride I did manage to wangle an ABS/adjustable shield bike away from a print guy for one stint, and yes it was much better with the screen in the all-the-way-down position--but the non-ABS screen doesn't go as low as the electric one does. The point of all this, I suppose, is that Honda really, really wants you to buy the ABS model. Well, it's really good ABS at least.

Once past the windshield thing, the ST is a helluva bike too, as you'd expect after Honda took 12 years to update it. It's still a big "sport-tourer," but now sported up and fortified in the same way as the new Gold Wing was last year.

Naturally.

"A new high-output alternator is jammed in there. Enough to power just about anything you can carry on a motorcycle."

The liquid-cooled V-four has grown to 78 x 66mm, to 1261cc from 1084. Bigger valves pass more air; intakes grew from 27.5 to 31mm, exhausts from 23 to 27mm--and compression ratio is up 0.8 of a point, to 10.8:1. Pistons live now inside Honda's aluminum composite sleeves, which wear longer, weigh less, and transfer heat better than the old steel ones.

In this cut-away drawing you can see the throttle bodies, valves and other engine internals. You can't see the insides of the alternator in between the cylinders though. He's very shy.

To make room, the 360-degree crank sunk 20mm lower in the cases, where it lives with two counterbalancers--one driven at twice crank speed, the other off the first in the opposite direction. (Never knew the old ST needed them.) The crank passes power back to an eight-plate clutch, thence straight into the drive shaft, with the longitudinal engine layout eliminating the need to change the direction of rotation as all that torque makes its way to the rear wheel. Yet more dampers inside the transmission, clutch and driveshaft further reduce noise, vibration and lash.

Stuffed into the Vee between those banks of cylinders sits a bunch of Honda's PGM fuel injection equipment, using 36mm throttle bodies instead of those nasty old 34.5mm carburetors. As with the VFR, Honda says the new bike meets California Air Resources Board emissions requirements for 2008, which we can only assume means it is very, very clean. A new high-output alternator is jammed in there, too--660 watts should be enough to power just about anything you can carry on a motorcycle.

More Grace!

The reason for the new engine counterbalancers must be because the new bike uses its big V-four as a structural element, wrapping it in an aluminum diamond frame with triple-box spars and serious-looking architecture where it needs it, instead of hanging the engine from the previous steel frame. The engine package is two inches shorter overall (mostly due to the gearbox being 40mm shorter), and that allowed Honda to scoot it further forward, along with the rider, who moves 1.6 inches forward.

Rake is steeper, at 26 degrees, trail is down from 101 to 98mm--and wheelbase is a very significant 2.5 inches shorter compared to the ST11. All these things point toward a quicker-turning, lighter-handling ST. Other things pointing the way forward include 45mm fork tubes, carrying a front wheel Honda says is fully 2.6 pounds lighter than before, carrying 310mm stainless brake rotors/carriers 4.7 pounds lighter. That's a bunch of missing weight--and overall, Honda says the new ABS version is 22 pounds less than the ST1100 ABS.

Shut Up And Ride.

Ain't Exactly Small

It's still a big motorcycle: 700 pounds according to Erik's Certified Scales, which as it turns out, was right on the money with our FJR1300--620 pounds (right on the money for a truck scale being within 10 pounds).

Not only is the ST something like 80 pounds heftier than the FJR, the MO dyno has it making 17 peak horsepower less than the 1298cc FJR, and about nine less pound-feet of torque too. The V-four and inline FJR engines, apart from the difference in quantity of power, otherwise share very similar power curves.

When it comes to sporty sport-touring, the very dissimilar power-to-weight ratios between FJR and ST pretty much tell the story: the ST never feels like it needs more power, the FJR feels like a missile. A missile with an adjustable windshield. (If you do pop for the ABS bike, Honda says it's 13 pounds heavier.)

Alright already. After a fine Honda-sponsored bloat at the lovely El Encanto in way-too-ritzy Santa Barbara at which I did my best to keep my Cabernet flow minimal (ie, less than what the space shuttle consumes during lift-off), it was time, early next morning, to roar back down the freeway toward lovely Los Angeles. The hard bags are excellent, and probably as easy off-on as the BMW industry standard once you get acclimated (they're so integrated into the bike, and narrow, that we hardly ever take them off).

"Throw it in top gear, crank it up to between 80 and 90 mph, and fuggedabout it."

Some other people were moaning about the fuel injection being abrupt; maybe slightly so, but it seems more like in spite of the engineers' efforts, there remains a noticeable amount of lash in the ST's driveline, which riders sensitive to that type of thing won't care for. Both bike and flywheel are massive enough that it's not the sort of thing that will upset the chassis when you're intent on scraping footpegs, but it does make for the occasional lurchy gearshift.

Throw it in top gear, crank it up to between 80 and 90 mph, and fuggedabout it; ahhh, this is what bikes like the ST are meant to do, for about three hours at a stretch. The familiar V-four purr burbles almost imperceptibly through the grips, turning over around 4500 rpm in exchange for 85 or so mph, the LCD displaying air temperature, time o' day, and about five other things.

Looks like a 747 huh? The headlight adjuster is motorized, the LCD display next to the speedometer gives current fuel mileage, a fuel gauge, engine temp, air temp, time and, ah, other vital info.

No flashing red lights must mean everything's okay. The seat's adjustable: the middle position's about 32 inches high, and from there you can go up about half-an-inch or down the same amount. In any of them, it's a good seat, but in the lower one I have to look through the windscreen all the time.

BMW, ever since the original oilhead RS, has offered adjustable handlebars too, which would be nice on the ST. (For 5'7 me, the bars are a smidge too far forward.)

Why not make the bars adjustable, too, I asked a Japanese engineer?

"The shock out back is very nice, and equipped with the now ubiquitous remote preload adjuster you can crank with your paw on the fly."

Ahh, got to save something for next year. (The manufacturers always bring along engineers, encourage you to question them, and they never give you a straight answer. Americans very good straight men.)

For me then, not being able to jettison the windshield, which is causing a whiff of air pressure to recombine on my back, together with grips which could come back a half-inch, hey, call me thin-skinned, but my thumb crotches are getting sore.... (I used to get the same feeling on the old Gold Wing. No big deal for a couple hours at a time; by the end of the Iron Butt rally I needed muscle relaxers to undo the knot in my back.)

And while I'm ragging, how about the looks of what would normally be the upper triple clamp. Looks like you're getting ready to stuff some sort of robotic turkey every time you look down. Looks like it would've been easy to make the bars width-adjustable too. In spite of the twin engine counterbalancers, the bars are rubber-mounted.

The shock out back is very nice, and equipped with the now ubiquitous remote preload adjuster you can crank with your paw on the fly. The fork, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be one of Honda's better set-ups, or maybe it's just the fact that the upper edge of the windscreen keeps bouncing up and down right in my line of sight? A wee too much compression damping? Needs a bit more rebound damping? Bof `ems? Hard to say, and no adjusters to experiment with.

Over lumpy freeways--the sort of thing you expect motorcycles of this kind to pass over unnoticed--the ST feels every one and not in a particularly pleasant way really. (In Europe, the market for which this bike was primarily built and where most of its development took place, the autostradas, bahns, motorways, etc, tend to be smoother and the speeds higher.)

Nice padded passenger grabbers incorporate bag release levers. Bungee even more bindles to the rack out back.

Taking the high-speed detour through our favorite bean field back toward the Pacific uncovers, as suspected, that the ST works best at over 100 mph; up around 110 or so, everything falls more into place. The windscreen unblusters and the air pressure from the rear goes away, the big engine is in the meat of its power, the chassis is completely snubbed down but still steers nice and light in really fast sweepers and yes, man was meant to fly. Yup, we could see ourselves touring the Continent aboard the ST. Just maybe not this continent.

Over one of our tightest backroad loops, the new ST, just like the old one, can bundle itself along with amazing speed for a thing so large. Steering is quicker and lighter, as you'd expect, and the bike's fork seems better suited to sporting use than to touring.

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