Today the company makes everything from lawn mowers to jet planes, but Honda started as a motorcycle company, and founder Soichiro Honda was, first and foremost, a motorcycle enthusiast. The bespectacled Mr. Honda, so reserved in regular life, loved nothing more than blowing minds with outrageous machines like the screaming six-cylinder RC166 racer from the '60s, the mass-production tour de force CB750, or futuristic V-4 Interceptors that revolutionized sportbikes in the mid-'80s.
Honda's motorcycles were always thrilling, but none was finer than the 1992 NR750. With its jewel-like, 32-valve, oval-piston V-4, titanium connecting rods, side-mounted radiators, carbon-fiber bodywork, upside-down fork, and other assorted exotica, the $50K price seemed reasonable. At a time when BMW was still a buttoned-down touring-bike maker and Ducati had only recently adopted liquid cooling, Honda was the ultimate arbiter of motorcycle technology. If you were a performance enthusiast, you were a Honda enthusiast too.
Fast-forward two decades and the Honda narrative couldn't be more changed. Performance seems like an afterthought. The core CBRs have soldiered on with little more than minor changes for more than six seasons. With the exception of beginner-oriented bikes like the CBR250R and various CB500s—and the adorable Grom!—Honda can't be called the clear market leader in any category, not even touring.
This isn't for lack of trying. Honda is spending cubic dollars developing new product—it's just that these new designs are all but unrecognizable to conventional motorcycle enthusiasts like us. Honda's NM4 (NM for "new motorcycle," in contrast to the NR's "new racer" designation) is a perfect example, a Strangelovian scooter-motorcycle hybrid with an automatic transmission and a friggin' backrest! This on the heels of the future-bagger CTX700 and CTX1300—more bizarro big-wheeled scooters—and the über-commuter NC700X, Honda's current impression of an "adventure" bike. Tune in, Tokyo…
Where's the brave company that introduced us to mass centralization with the awesome 1992 CBR900RR? The Honda that ruled WSBK racing with ultra-trick homologation specials like the RC30 and RC45 then beat Ducati at its own game with the mega-twin RC51? Not to mention unforgettable cult bikes like the CB400F Super Sport, CB-1, Hawk GT, Transalp, GB500, and many, many more?
In the shout-logic of America's favorite Oprah-endorsed pop-psychologist, Dr. Phil, "It's not about you!" Honda simply isn't building bikes for us anymore. Faced with ever-increasing pressure regarding emissions, economy, and resource scarcity, Honda is shifting focus from performance to practicality. At the same time it's shifting focus from Western markets to predominantly Asian markets where two-thirds of the world's population—and the bulk of future consumer demand—is centered. Raised on scooters and riding in congested urban environs that look nothing like where we ride, the machines are evolving to suit their tastes, not ours.
I imagine a group of young Honda designers in a hostess club down some darkened Tokyo alley, swigging sake, high-fiving each other, shouting, "We nailed it!" There's probably a 17-year-old manga enthusiast in Jakarta or Singapore downloading an NM4 background image on his smartphone right now. Meanwhile, we sit here wondering why the CBR1000RR still doesn't have traction control and why the 600 makes less horsepower than it did in 2007. WTH, Honda?
It's not a pleasant thought, the idea of being phased out, left behind, retired into irrelevance while one of our most-loved manufacturers moves on to more lucrative spaces. Hopefully, this isn't permanent. Hopefully, these brave new experiments in transportation will capture a new cohort of two-wheeled enthusiasts and cut a new path from scooters to NM4s to premium sportbikes, tourers, and cruisers. Hopefully, the long-rumored, road-going version of the RC213V MotoGP racer will finally appear as a "halo" product to draw new buyers to CB500s—or maybe the supercharged four-cylinder concept leaked in this month's Up To Speed section will surface and make us forget the NM4 for good. We're not ready to give up on Honda yet.