Photography by Simon Hargreaves
Dear Diary... well, that was good day’s mix of motorways, A-roads and spearing back and forth across the Brecon Beacons in South Wales on Yamaha’s Tracer 700 and Honda’s NC750X DCT. But Jimmy and I are relieved we’ve made it to the Lone Wolf Campsite, near Neath, and pitched our tents before nightfall. It’s a bit creepy, out here under trees in the back-of-beyond woods – feels like we’re in a 1980s horror movie. Keep expecting a gang of gap-toothed yokels to loom out of the murk wielding sinister farming weapons: ‘You not from around here, bach?’. But so far the only company is the gurgling of a nearby river. I think it’s laughing at us.
We’re not sure who had the idea to go three-day camping in the wilds of Wales on the Tracer and NC750X, but I’m guessing they thought it’d be funny to add a ‘rule’ that we had to live off only the supplies the bikes can carry – I mean, seriously; all our food and drink as well as toiletries, clothing, cooking gear and camping kit? Apparently we’re allowed to buy petrol for the bikes.
It made for interesting bike-loading – Jimmy says strapping all his caboodle onto the Yam was easy; plenty of bungee points and room for his tent, sleeping bag, food, packets of Supernoodles and seven litres of water. It’s a touring-spec Tracer, with over £1000’s worth of extras bolted on: soft panniers, adjustable tall screen, heated grips, various crash bungs, 12v DC socket, mesh radiator cover and a rear rack. It brings the Yam up from £6999 to £8234, £800 more than the DCT-equipped Honda, at £7427. The non-DCT NC750X is £6749.
The NC750X isn’t so simple to load. At first it looks purpose-built for a spot of self-sufficient touring – the dummy fuel tank flips up to reveal a big bellyful of storage area. Ideal for my cameras, because it’s waterproof, and I can see how it’d be seriously handy for day-to-day commuting, shopping, or stowing a change of work clothes. Quick access to the battery too, behind a plastic plate, to wire in a USB charger.
But things go south when I realise the upshot of having storage where the tank should be means the tank is actually under the seat, with a filler cap under the flip-up pillion seat – which means my roll-bag, tent and throwovers all have to come off in a great landslide of luggage every time the Honda demands filling at the pump. To make matters more inconvenient, the NC’s numberplate hanger and tail have no obvious bungee points (the back end is a sealed undertray) – so unless the NC’s 745cc parallel twin, derived from half a car engine, is spectacularly frugal, it’ll mean frequent fuel-stop hassle from its 14-litre tank. The Tracer is blessed with a more conventional 17-litres, and a filler cap where it should be. The only thing I’ll have to take off the Yamaha’s tank to refuel is my stomach.
Anyway, so we set off, brimming with unleaded and the naive hope of a pair of camping ingénues, heading down the A605 and onto the A14/M40/M42/M5/M50 schlep to south Wales. I stick with the NC750X for a while. The Honda’s clocks have a funky tacho, made up of coloured blocks; yellow, orange, red, violet, blue and green. They’re pastel, like something out of Miami Vice in the ’80s. Cool. You can select what you want the colours to represent: which gear you’re in, how efficiently you’re using the throttle, etc. It’s mildly diverting for a few miles.
The Honda’s clocks remind Si of Miami Vice…
And the NC’s riding position is comfy enough at first – but after half an hour my legs need stretching. And the tiddly screen works well; at a super-smooth, vibe-free 80mph (a mere 4000rpm in top, which hardly feels like it’s trying) wind blast isn’t a problem. And the mirrors are wide enough to see 100% behind and 0% elbows, which is better than the Yamaha and would be great... if the Honda had enough puff to actually overtake anything. Because although the engine is smooth, calm and deadly quiet, it’s also deceptively, tediously slow and a far from charismatic motor. 54bhp is what a CB500 made in 1992 and that was fun because the engine revved a bit. The NC doesn’t accelerate so much as evolve velocity, and drops dead at 6500rpm – which is definitely not fun when you’re stranded mid-overtake, flailing at a non-existent lever looking for another gear. Ah, yes, Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission...
Yamaha clocks are a little less colourful
Contrary to intuition, DCT takes some getting used to. You’d think it would be easier than using a gearbox: that’s the point. But once you get over the surprise of not having a reassuring lever under your left foot, you then have to remember not to worry when you come up to a roundabout and the clutch lever has also gone missing – and then work out how to pre-load the engine to pull away more briskly than just opening the throttle (you rev the motor up and hold it back on the rear brake).
And that’s after you’ve got your head round the handbrake. Yes, there’s a button-released handbrake lever on the left bar, which runs a cable all through the bike to a separate caliper on the rear disc – all because you can’t park the Honda in gear.
The whole thing is a lot of extra weight and complication and, while I can see a reason for not having gears on a scooter, or even a large capacity tourer, cruiser or even adventure bike, fitting an auto box to a 54bhp commuter has me scratching the place where most people’s brains are.
No tank? Filler is under the pillion seat
I toggle the DCT settings: there’s normal Drive mode; sluggish at best; and three levels of S mode which feel much the same and stretch the definition of ‘Sport’ to presumably include competitive sleeping. There’s also a Manual mode, which uses finger and thumb paddles on the left bar to shift gears – I remember it thus: finger’s up, thumb’s down (no pun intended; maybe it’s Honda’s little joke). I’ve used DCT before, on a VFR1200, which had more than enough performance to make it a fun thing, blasting about banging the bike up and down its transmission by the power of digits.
But there’s not a great deal of fun to be found in the NC. It operates with a mirthless enthusiasm, born of cold necessity and convenience and bereft of passion. It’s a motorcycle as a tool; an implement for a task, rather than an instrument for a performance. You can’t play it, and you can’t play on it. No-one ever bought a motorbike because it was dull – but clearly people have different definitions of excitement.
We stop for a refuel – yes, the Honda hits reserve first, at 140 miles. It has two and a half litres left in the tank, so in theory it has another 30 miles in it; 170 miles full to empty. The Yam is doing 58mpg and has over five and a half litres remaining – good for another 70 miles; 210 miles full to empty.
We have a brew – no Starbucks or Costa for us; sitting in the car park using a gas stove to heat a saucepan of water. I take over the Tracer for the next motorway stint.
And, comparatively, it’s a different world. As soon as I get on the Tracer, the weight vanishes – not mine, sadly. The Yam is noticeably lighter than the Honda and it feels it between the knees. Stir up the same 689cc parallel twin as the MT-07 and, despite giving away over 50cc to the Honda, the 74bhp Tracer is instantly perkier, more alive, fresher and more exciting. It makes the same claimed torque as the Honda, but revs to 9000rpm (hence the extra power).
Now this is an engine you fall for straightaway; it’s a fire-cracker of a thing, all punchy enthusiasm and romping delight. First, whump, second, whump, third, whump – the bike boogies off down the road while the Honda rider is still searching for the right button to press. It’s a conspicuously electrifying, stimulating bike, and makes you wonder why the NC is so much more attractive out there in the real world where people buy motorbikes in exchange for hard-earned cash.
Up at cruising speed – 5500rpm at 80mph – the Yam’s motor is busier than the Honda, but vibes aren’t intrusive. The steering is a lot less active, though, the Tracer is much more refined. It has a flagship aura; way more impressive and imposing than it should be for the price. It’s a lot of motorcycle – admittedly mostly plastic – for your money.
The riding position is almost adventure bike; sat back, feet forward, arms not much above hip height. The tall screen is noisy but effective, the heated grips are... heated... and the motor has plenty of juice in it. Why stop at Wales? We could just keep going.
But eventually we arrive at Brecon Beacons and, after the motorway monotony (we’re always riding against the clock; it’s not fair!) a quick rip across the Beacons is just what we need.
Neither bike is renowned as a scratcher’s delight – what the Honda lacks in poke it makes up for in ground clearance; the Tracer’s soft suspension and low pegs aggravate the tarmac. But the Yam has less weight to lug about, more power to do it, more braking to stop it – and, with Michelin Pilot Road 4s fitted compared to the Honda’s Bridgestone BingoWings, more grip; point to point, the Tracer leaves the NC750X far behind.
We eventually wind our way towards the campsite, skirting malignant rainclouds clumped like brooding arguments over the steep valley hillsides. By the time we find the entrance to the site, dusk is fast-approaching – a quick ride down a few trails show neither bike, regardless of the ‘X’ in NC750X, is equipped to deal with muddy woodland paths. A bit of slipping and sliding, and we park up in a clearing; just enough room to pitch a couple of tents, park two bikes and fire up another brew before night arrives.
As the saucepan boils, I ask Jimmy for his verdict on the two bikes.
“What’s good about the Honda. Oh my god. I like the blue, the blue is nice,” he laughs. “I’m struggling here. The clocks are okay – I like the colours... but then I’m semi colour-blind so it doesn’t mean a great deal.
“Seriously, it’s okay, but nothing’s as good as the Yamaha. Riding position-wise, you sit quite high on the bike, over it, but the seat’s too narrow and I find it uncomfortable. If you compare the seat height to the Yamaha (it’s 5mm lower) and the ground clearance (it’s 25mm higher), it means the Honda’s seat to peg distance must be smaller – so your legs are more cramped.
“Handling is acceptable, again until you compare it the Yamaha. Ride quality is decent, the springs aren’t as soft as the Tracer, steering is light – but on the motorways the NC wanders constantly in sidewinds, and you’re always correcting the bars. It’s not worrying, just annoying. And at low speed it’s awful turning round in the road; it’s heavy (with DCT, the NC weighs 230kg to the Yamaha’s 196kg) and it’s got nowhere near as much steering lock as the Tracer – and because of the DCT, it’s really, really hard to ride it comfortably below-walking pace. It’s limiting and frustrating. And it’s not all that nice filtering through traffic, either, without having a clutch.
“The Yamaha – nothing gets in the way of the riding experience. Not one thing niggles. It just works. It’s really well balanced, so manoeuvring at low speed; any speed; is perfect. The comfort is better – you sit in the bike, well behind the fairing. The suspension is a bit on the soft side and maybe if you could complain about anything it’s the limited ground clearance, but the suspension is a mile away from the pogo sticks of the base MT-07, which is much less impressive. The Tracer is such a more sophisticated machine it’s hard to believe they’re basically the same platform.
“But most of all, for this category and price point of bikes, the Tracer is actually exciting as well as very, very versatile – and that must make it a more attractive package. The accessories are great but with all this stuff it’s only a few hundred quid more than the Honda. There’s no hesitation in my mind.”
As the rain starts to pound into canvas and turns the pitch to muddy chaos – which it’ll continue to do with unrelenting scorn for the next two days – Jimmy and I retire to our tents for the night.
Verdict: If a novice rider stepped off a CB125F and walked into a Honda dealer where a salesman said, “Here, try this NC – it’s a 750; quite a big engine; and it’s got DCT, which means basically you don’t have to change gear, which is a Honda technology no-one else has – and it’s also got paddle shifts, if you want, like a Ferrari...”... you can imagine the rider might well come back from a test impressed. Especially if they’re in the habit of needing somewhere convenient to store their shopping; on that level, the Tracer’s leaky canvas panniers are sadly wanting.
But if he or she then went for a spin on a Tracer 700, I cannot for the life of me understand how they’d come back and choose the Honda. The Yamaha is such a vibrant burst of colour; it’s more entertaining to ride, comfier, faster, looks nicer, handles better, has an air of quality and feels like a middleweight flagship despite the relatively budget price tag.
Honda NC750X DCT
Engine: 745cc liquid-cooled parallel twin
Power (claimed): 54bhp @ 6250rpm
Torque (claimed): 50 lb-ft @ 4750rpm
Transmission: 6 speed, chain final drive
Frame: steel tube
Suspension: (F) 41mm forks; (R): Monoshock, preload only
Brakes: (F) 320mm disc with two-piston caliper, ABS; (R) 240mm disc with two-piston caliper, ABS
Tyres: (F) 120/70 ZR17 Bridgestone Battle Wing; (R) 160/60 ZR17 Bridgestone Battle Wing
Seat height: 830mm
Kerb weight: 230kg
Fuel capacity: 14.1 litres
Yamaha Tracer 700
Price: £8234 (with touring extras; base is £6999)
Engine: 689cc liquid-cooled parallel twin
Power (claimed): 74bhp @ 9000rpm
Torque (claimed): 50 lb-ft @ 6500rpm
Transmission: 6 speed, chain final drive
Frame: steel tube
Suspension: (F) 41mm forks; (R): Monoshock, preload only
Brakes: (F) 2 x 282mm discs with four-piston calipers, ABS; (R) 245mm disc with single-piston caliper, ABS
Tyres: (F) 120/70 ZR17 Bridgestone Battle Wing; (R) 180/55 ZR17 Michelin Pilot Road 4
Seat height: 835mm
Kerb weight: 196kg
Fuel capacity: 17 litres