It Ain't The Tool: Revisited
It started with an observation, like most great inventions. Motorcycle.com columnist and philosopher Fred Rau, in an editorial from 2005 made the point that what a rider rides is less important than how well he rides. It's something every sentient rider knows the first time he or she is passed by somebody on an older, slower, smaller, less-specialized or otherwise less-capable machine.
However, many riders simply choose to ignore this truth, seeing motorcycling as a journey of upwardly mobile consumption. They work their way "up" to the goal of owning whatever motorcycle their community sees as the most desirable rather than developing their own skills. Our motorcycle press feeds this attitude by making new equipment and motorcycle reviews the focus of their publications.
We here at MO admit to being as guilty of focusing on motorcycle reviews, with the concurrent hyping of those extra few horsepower and slight weight reductions every year when we do our latest shootout of one kind or another. The Maven tells us the bike reviews make the most money and our readers demand this bike be compared to that bike. How to escape the trap and find out which motorcycle will help the rider interested in motorcycling as a journey of learning and improvement rather than a life-long credit-stretching spending spree? How will we spread our message of moto-enlightenment? [26 mb WMV - 10 mins TRT]
Not to worry. We at MO have not joined some cult or rejected all material possessions to go live at Ashley's heavily guarded compound in the remote mountains of Western Thailand. Instead, we now have our annual "It Ain't the Tool" shootout, where we take three very disparate, yet distinctive motorcycles and have riders of different skill levels ride them on different sorts of paved roads to see what they prefer and why. "Dharma Bums" it's not, but it should be enlightening on some level; do you need the "best" machine to go fast and have fun on? Last year we took an Aprilia RSV 1000-a hardcore, Italian stallion of a big V-Twin racer with lights-a Suzuki V-Strom 1000 to represent a more practical approach to big V street riding and a lowly Kawasaki KLR 650 because it was lying around the garage and Ashley said we should use it. The big V-Strom came out on top for street riding, whether on smooth, high-speed sweepers or on tight, bumpy Latigo Canyon, as the RSV was too uncomfortable for all-day riding and the KLR was just too old and tired-feeling to unseat the heavier and slightly harder-to-ride V-Strom. Afterwards, Aprilia stopped returning our phone calls.
Things get more polished the second time around, and the Tool Shootout is no exception. For 2006, we have a mission, a well-planned route and three carefully selected motorcycles. The mission: find out which of three very different motorcycles is most appealing to four different riders. The bikes: a bare-bones standard, a V-Twin dual-sport/adventure tourer sort of thing, and the hottest four-cylinder middleweight sportbike on the market. The route would be hundreds of miles of freeways and twisty roads, from the interstate to twisty two-lane, from sea level to a dizzying mile-high.
The bikes: a bare-bones standard, a V-Twin dual-sport/adventure tourer sort of thing, and the hottest four-cylinder middleweight sportbike on the market.
Riding duties would be taken up by some of the usual crew-Managing Editor Pete Brissette and Senior Editor Gabe Ets-Hokin-along with seasoned motojournalist and aftermarket products PR flack Eric Putter and new reader/contributor Paul Bryant, winner of MO's Kawasaki Fantasy Racing Weekend Contest. At the end of the test, we would dyno the bikes (just because we have a DynoJet Dyno and a guy who knows how to use it), type up our observations and cast our votes. We would base our votes on the bike we would most like to put in our own garage, if we were spending our own money based on our personal needs as motorcyclists.
The winning bike would be the one with the most points, based on our time-worn MO system of four points for a first-place vote, two points for second and a consolation point for third choice. All votes are final and inflexible; the sacred rules of motojournalistic ethics do not allow us to change our minds once we have heard the other tester's choices (although the Editor can cast a tie-breaking vote).
So what did we find out? Is the hottest technology the way to go? Or is it the most simple, practical all-arounder? Or did the odd-duck 650 V-Strom take the cake home?
2006 Honda 599: When peanut butter and Wonder bread just isn't enough.
Honda's 599 is the benchmark for your basic standard motorcycle transportation and fun machine. That's probably why it's one of Europe's best-selling models. All of us on the test thought it would be a strong contender, as we had all ridden one and liked its balance, light feel, comfort, and entertaining motor and handling.
599 Tech Briefing
We went through a tech brief in our Intro article from last year as well as in our 2004 Budget Middleweights test, but here's some highlights , culled from Gabe's Intro story:
Introduced in Europe in 1998 as the 600 Hornet, the Honda 599 is actually made in Italy, along with scooters and other motorcycle models. It's been a big seller, a success belied by the simple nature of the bike's design.
At the heart of the 2006 599 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 (adjustable only for preload), and up front is a new inverted-fork front end. Wheels are shod with standard-sized sportbike rubber, a 120/70-17 in front and a 180/55-17 in back. Triple brake discs 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. The 599 is available from your local Honda dealer for just $18.31 cents a pound, less than fresh Maine lobster.
Honda went ahead and gussied up the looks a bit for 2006, and it looks great. There's a little bikini fairing covering the instruments and you even get glossy paint instead of the matte-finish Graphite from 2004 (Honda decided to skip the 2005 model year). The high-mount exhaust is fashionable, and with the plastic heat shield, takes nothing from functionality. The new digital speedo is easy-to-read and functional, as are the slightly buzzy, but wide-set mirrors. However, it's all very Honda-like; Eric said "it seems like an old friend before swinging a leg over it."
When you do get that leg over, you will find a small-feeling, mangageable and comfortable bike. "Great styling and ergonomics" says Pete, although he did note that "tall riders will probably complain of cramped quarters between the saddle and foot pegs." Gabe liked the basic layout too, although he noted the seat has a forward slope to it that angles the rider into the tank; this can be annoying over the long haul. However, the basic charm of a naked bike is how little of the bike is visible from the rider's perch, and that comes through strong on the 599.
Firing up the bike immediately shows its age. "Is that a choke lever? How quaint!" said Eric when it was his turn to ride. The carbureted motor takes a little more time to warm than the fuel-injected machines, but that's how they did it in the old days. Once warm, the motor feels a little slow-revving and buzzy, something to be expected from what is basically a slightly de-tuned CBR600F3 motor, which is in turn a slightly improved CBR600F2 motor from 1991. "Was my F2 this slow?" asked Eric. Actually it was slower; our 599 made 86.69 HP at about 8,300 RPM on our Motorcycle.com DynoJet Dyno; most F2s made somewhat less. However, the last CBR600F3 we dyno-tested in 1997 made 90 HP at 11,500 RPM; it is remarkable Honda's engineers were able to alter the powerband so much and only lose 3.3 HP.
If you do most of your riding around town or commuting, those few horsepower won't be missed that much, as the 599 has surprisingly adequate and useable midrange power. "Broad powerband" noted Paul, and Pete thought that "new riders may appreciate the somewhat docile power plant." Gabe agreed the motor was very well-suited to beginning riders; "it's perfectly carbureted and revs freely with enough oomph to get you around." It also makes nice sounds: Pete liked the "beautiful note" from "all 599 cubic centimeters singing in harmony with the exhaust."
However, if you're chasing some sportbike-mounted amigos, you will be on eBay in a second looking for a used F3 cylinder head and carbs (actually the bolt patterns for an F4 motor are said to match up). The "engine is kind of lifeless unless you wring its neck." noted Pete, and Gabe was saddened by the motor that "felt so good at the press intro, yet so buzzy and lifeless in this company." The motor's redline is over 10,000 RPM, yet the power checks out around 9,500. An F4i motor in this thing would be, by unanimous consensus, a great addition.
Still the motor is good enough, and that theme carries over in around-town performance and rider comfort. The easy-to-ride character and low seat make the 599 a perfect in-town and commuting tool, abetted by the quick, light steering and soft suspension to soak up bumps and ruts in the road. On the open road, the windblast is tolerable up to about 80 MPH; after that you are hanging on for dear life as your "Yale University Drinking Team" sweatshirt turns into a sail.
So you've endured 100 miles of interstate highway and you're ready for twisty roads. Gabe found the 599 to be a blast on the Intro ride last year; it is supremely fun and easy to ride on a twisty road, thanks to a light feel, wide bars, and good Michelin Pilot tires. The gearbox is "transparent" according to Pete, and Gabe and Paul both dragged the tired-yet-descriptive phrase "confidence-inspiring" out of their cliché lockers.However, compared to a bike like the R6 or even the V-Strom, the 599 is lacking in several areas. First, the brakes are "surprisingly powerful", according to Pete, but they are still old, and compared to the R6's incredible binders, feel it. They have a wooden feel and require a good deal more squeezing at high velocities than more modern calipers. Even the Suzuki's brakes-with similar twin-piston, sliding-pin calipers-somehow seem to work better.
The Honda also comes up short in the suspension department. All four testers noted "mushy suspension", and when suspension-savvy Eric got down on his aged knees to inspect the range of adjustment available on the rear shock, he found only a preload adjuster, even though Pete noted too much rebound damping (which means the shock will extend back too slowly), no doubt causing the wallow we noticed. It was set too soft when we bothered to check it on the second day of the test; we added two steps of preload (to the third position from soft) and noted a firmer ride at the expense of mild rear-wheel hopping. However, the front end is also too soft, and there is no way to adjust it aside from taking it apart and rebuilding it.
The bike's good comfort and stability around town come at a price, too: weight and a lack of ground clearance. Keeping up with an experienced rider on an R6 results in your toes dragging, even if you've pulled your feet up on the pegs. The steel frame and old-tech motor add a lot of weight where you don't want it, overwhelming that linkage-less suspension. "A little too much dive up front combined with a little too much rebound out back make for a slightly wish-washy and wallowing experience" on the 599, according to Pete.
That's a lot of negative stuff about the 599, but we really didn't hate it. Paul liked the bike enough to vote it first place, and Pete said it "shines...in rider accessibility". Gabe would have picked it but for its too-high sticker price: "this is a great $6,000 motorcycle, but at $7,399 there are too many better choices." The three areas this bike needs to improve-weak suspension and brakes, antiquated motor, and boutique pricing-are too glaring to let the basic all-around goodness beat the competition. Pete explained that "the $1,000 that separate the 599 from the 919 would be far too easy for most people to justify amortizing to get the bigger engine, stouter suspension, EFI and the four-piston opposed brakes." We hope Honda updates this bike with the F4i or 600RR motor and suspension while keeping the price the same (or cheaper!). Then they might have winner, but for now, they don't.