2003 Honda ST1300 Motorcycle Test

A major sport-touring step-up motorcycle that's missing only the roof

You've got to wonder about life within motorcycle companies that also make cars. (Or should that be car companies that also make bikes?) Do the cage-builders peer over the cubicle walls, flash drawings of the next greatest four-wheel thing, and suggest to the bike guys, "Hey, why don't you try this?" Do they chat in the latte line about design theologies, or trade horror stories about clay mockups gone wrong?

In the companies we know that build two- and four-wheelers, the divisions are so far apart they might be as well be competitors. But if you didn't know that, after an hour poking, prodding and riding the new ST1300, you might see bits of a Civic here and an RSX there, and figure that the car and bike designers have taken too many ski vacations together.

This melding of car and bike styling--extending from the enormous care given to aerodynamic development to the integration of components--is totally intentional in the new ST1300. This is, if you'll pardon mixmastering of cultural icons, like a good European sedan--a vehicle for covering distance, for putting a five-state vacation inside of 10 days' paid leave. Its buyers expect sophistication and elan but will not sacrifice function and comfort. In the last 12 years, Honda has discovered ST1100 owners are a persnickety lot.


CHEERS AND JEERS
Engine8Powerful, semisoul-less
Drivetrain8Stout clutch, slick five-speed
Handling8Hefty, but doesn't feel it
Braking8Improved LBS backed by super ABS
Ride8Soft not mushy, could be more compliant
Ergonomics9Roomy riding position; excellent aero
Features9Comes complete, but no top box?
Refinement10Big score on smoothness and civility
Value8Edging into BMW land
Fun Factor8Best bike when getting there is the goal
verdict: Dramatically improved ST does not abandon the
faithful but may not lure Interceptor owners just yet.


Honda understands the demands of ST1100 buyers and the importance of getting this model makeover right. Facing similar challenges and constraints such as the Gold Wing redesign--as in, how do you improve a popular, nearly iconic model without ruining its success?--Honda engineers set down a few basic goals for the ST1300. It needed to be faster and sportier than the outgoing ST1100--the revitalized GL came uncomfortably close to the old ST's performance profile--without giving up the strengths that made the ST1100 a solid seller for 12 years. It had to be modern and stylish, yet familiar. It had to have new features and technologies, but not be much more expensive.

In this quest to recast the ST, Honda left nothing to chance, no components of consequence in the shared-bits bin. The engine shares the old version's longitudinal, 360-degree crankshaft layout--both paired piston sets rise and fall together and the crank runs fore and aft--as well as the 90-degree angle in the Vee. But the similarities to the old ST11 end there. The new engine features shallower combustion chambers filled with larger valves that put a tighter squeeze on the fuel/air mixture (compression is up to 10.8:1 from 10.0:1), plus a host of complementary changes to improve breathing. The valvetrain is driven by chains instead of the old ST's belt, and in conjunction with a 40mm-shorter five-speed, cassette-type transmission reduces total length by 50mm. What's more, despite the displacement increase from 1084cc to 1261cc--new 78mm pistons slide down 66mm worth of electroplated bore--the ST1300 carries its crank lower in the cases, further easing the center of mass toward the pavement. Finally, the air-cooled alternator in the crotch of the Vee has been uprated to 660 watts, so all you Widder-toting travelers can turn it up to parboil without draining the battery.

Nothing we see on the specs page nor anything shown to us in the neat-o cutaway drawings quite explains how this engine got so much beefier than the previous ST's. (Steroids? Midnights spent at 24 Hour Fitness?) Perched regally upon our SuperFlow dyno, the ST13 pounded out 114.3 rear-wheel horsepower and 85.3 foot-pounds of torque, which is a massive jump from the last ST1100 we had chained to the dyno, which produced a thin-wristed 87.0 hp and 72.2 foot-pounds. Crucially, the ST13 puts the ball on the same green as the 126.2-hp/88.5-foot-pound Yamaha FJR1300.

Don't think for a moment that Honda twisted the V-four into a raucous, menacing prime mover. The ST11's muted, near-silent delivery remains, as does the flat exhaust note and annoyingly omnipresent primary-drive gear whine. With the ST13, that singsong is joined by the whisper of gear-driven counterbalancers in the lower crankcase. Vibration is thus reduced to nearly zero, allowing the engine to be solidly mounted in its new aluminum frame. In keeping with its mission, the ST1300's plant is enticing rather than exhilarating, majestic more than manly. To be fair, the engine's seamless, understated delivery seems dull only in the company of the sportier FJR. Ridden next to an ST11, the new bike's vigor quickly overcomes any complaints about the its buttery, reserved presence.

In updating the ST, Honda slapped on its now-customary PGM-FI electronic fuel injection, stuffed the exhaust pipes full of catalytic converters, and combined the injection and ignition boxes and maps for improved efficiency. Contradicting early press-kit info, the bike uses eight-hole injectors--not the 12-orifice models originally described--but works fine just the same. It's got a bit of the sharp on/off throttle transition that seems to afflict a lot of new Hondas, but the bike/engine mass help mask this more so than in, say, a CBR600. The injection system feeds a cute trip computer that can show you instantaneous and average fuel consumption and, when you're down to the reserve portion of the 7.7-gallon tank, it'll calculate your remaining fuel and range. It's a bit conservative on the range figure, but close enough to make it a welcome tool for the long-distance tourist.


Honda draped these new duds atop an entirely new chassis, sporting among the key changes dramatically more aggressive steering geometry...

A new engine was expected for the next-generation ST, but few predicted the fresh alloy frame, or its effects on geometry and weight. The last first: Our ABS-equipped ST1300 stands proud at 723 pounds wet, three fewer than the '96 ST11 ABS/TCS bike we tried. That's a bit off of Honda's claimed 22-pound weight savings, but it's likely the latest ST11's were heavier than our '96. Still, the ST13 is close enough to the FJR1300--it's 641 pounds wet, with the bags installed--to say that Honda can let the ST out of Jenny Craig and buy it a new wardrobe.

Which is exactly what the company did. If the ST1100 didn't age terribly well over 12 years of production--show us a bike that would--the makeover more than brings the ST up to date. Sure, it's sleek. Sure, it's swoopy. (Sure, that frowning taillight is ugly.) But function pervades the form. Air management is among the best we've seen, as there's a sizeable still-air pocket for the rider and passenger, and sufficient range of positions on the electrically motivated shield to suit everyone from Iggy Pop to Shaquille O'Neal. You get less helmet buzz with the shield down than on the FJR, but much more back-pushing with the screen all the way up. In between, you'll probably find happiness. Your fists hide behind the fairing, protected in part by the big, clear, utterly wonderful rearview mirrors. Your backside rests upon a multiadjustable seat that in one sitting undoes all the ass-bashing served by every CBR954RR and 600F4i in the fleet; it's really, really nice--firm, supportive, properly shaped.

Honda draped these new duds atop an entirely new chassis, sporting among the key changes dramatically more aggressive steering geometry--26.0 degrees of rake, down from 27.3, with all of 98mm of trail--and a 64mm-shorter wheelbase. Still in place are 18-inch-front and 17-inch-rear wheels--the aft hoop scores a larger, 170-section tire--but they've been trimmed and filed for weight savings, reduced inertia and improved steering feel. All good changes, all entirely successful. With plenty of leverage over the contact patch thanks to those cast-alloy tillers, the ST13 makes haste with your countersteering inputs like a much smaller motorcycle. Armed with softly-sprung (but firmly damped) suspension and sufficient cornering clearance, the ST provides the aggressive rider with a hooting good time on the secondary route into town without exacting a penalty in ride comfort or stability. It's a good balance, if a bit on the touring side for our preferences. (A touch less compression damping would be nice, too.)

In the last ST, Honda fitted ABS, linked brakes and traction control. Two of the three are still with us--TCS left town on the squishy end of the accountant's pencil--and in the 1300 the linked brakes get an overhaul. Previously, the lever at the bar operated two of three front pistons and the single center rear, with the rear pedal working the remaining pistons. Now the pedal works only the center pistons front and rear, and the proportioning valve has been recalibrated to provide a bit more front-brake bias. Although improved, the system feels artificial to some of our riders, even if there's no debating LBS's value on slippery pavement, particularly with Honda's superb ABS backing it up.

Honda has no misconceptions about where the ST1300 fits into its own lineup--the sport-touring ST is a clear stepping stone from the sport-tourer Interceptor to the motio largo Gold Wing. Everything about it--weight, size, cost--would get dinged in the crossfire of a VFR/GL shootout. Denizens of the sporty side of sport-touring will wonder if the ST1300 is too automotive, too slicked-down and polished to be an entertaining motorcycle. Gold Wing guys will wonder where the dang tail trunk went. (It's not an option.) Riders naturally snared into this part of the sport-touring net will breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Honda did all the right things (read: didn't screw it up), buy an ST1300 with all the goodies and ride it up the driveway and into the garage next to the Acura. All will be right with the world. For another 12 years, anyway.

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