When you're caught up in this whole motorcycle touring business, it's really easy to get spoiled. After all, only a fortunate few are given the first crack at riding the latest models of such fine purpose-built mounts as the Gold Wing, Ultra Classic, Concourse, and Vulcan Nomad to name but four. That's great, and we truly enjoy having access to all of these rides - but where is it etched in stone that only the big boys are allowed to play in the street?
Earlier this year when discussing long-term rides with media coordinator Jon Seidel at American Honda, I have to admit I almost gave in to temptation. He dangled a carrot in front of me in the form of a '06 Gold Wing complete with navigation package and an 80-watt, six-speaker stereo. As hard as it was to turn down this tempting tourer, I stuck to my original plan and politely refused. As most of you know, around here at the RoadRUNNER offices we truly feel that 'It's not about the bike, it's about the ride.' This time out, I really wanted to put our motto to the test, and Jon was more than happy to help me out when I requested one of Honda's 599s.
For those not familiar with the 599, it's a naked bike (devoid of any fairings or body work) based around the very competent motor of the late-90's CBR600F3 repli-racer. It has handlebars as opposed to clip-ons and features an upright seating position not dissimilar to the popular standards of the '70s and the '80s. On paper, this barely 400lb bike looks like an absolute riot to ride, especially on the back roads, and back roads are what we do around here. Trust me, there are many accessory companies out there making fine luggage for just such a machine. And I'm sure I have a lot of company in the numbers of riders who feel that touring is about so much more than the size of the motor and the badge on the gas tank. After all, there's no law saying full fairings and a shaft drive are required to make a quality touring machine.
Engine and Transmission
Part of the fun of riding the 599 is the constant struggle of deciding which of this 599cc, liquid-cooled, sixteen valve, inline four's personalities to summon. There's a calm, quiet side to this mill that thrives below 6000rpm. It's the perfect companion for riding around town, in and out of the neighborhood, and through areas most often frequented by those ladies and gentlemen with badge numbers and sidearms. Another livelier character takes the stage above six grand. With the mere twist of the wrist, especially in lower gears, the four 34mm flat-slide CV carburetors pour on the juice, creating a howling banshee that slides perfectly into the role of ensuring swift freeway entries and dispatching poky motorists in even the shortest passing zones. Thanks to its CBR lineage, this motor likes the revs, making it a perfect candidate for spirited sprints across your favorite stretches of back road. Though it does like to be wound up, maybe a little too much at times, it shows very little of the buzziness in the handlebars often associated with the smaller, peaky fours. This is a nice trait, especially out on the open road. Whether riding two-up or loaded for the tour, the 599s strong motor never flinches under the extra burden.
A six-speed tranny spins the rear wheel compliments of a 525 O-ring chain. The gear ratios are generally well spaced, but do inspire quick shifts in first and second due to the rev-happy nature of the engine. But since when is rifling through the gears ever a bad thing? Shifting is smooth and slick, with my only beef being a bad tendency to grab false neutrals between fifth and sixth. Normally I'd attribute this to sloppy shifting, but it's been happening a little too consistently. Other than that one anomaly, which could very well be an issue with this particular bike, the power train is an absolute delight.
Chassis and Brakes
The first thing that hits me every time I toss a leg over the 599 is how pleasantly tiny this bike feels. While its wheelbase is nearly identical to its class competitors, there's a certain compactness that induces drooling at the mere thought of the nearest set of twisties. The stout, square-tube, mono-backbone steel frame (using the engine as a stressed member) and the lightweight aluminum swingarm provide remarkable stability through even the curviest sections of asphalt. The whole program doesn't shimmy a bit doing its thing, even with a passenger astride. The same can be said for the suspenders. The new inverted Honda Multi Action System (HMAS) fork packs 4.7 inches of travel and, though it is not adjustable, the factory settings felt spot-on for my 180lb frame. In fact, nearly everyone around here put the bike through its paces without a trace of complaint. The rear shock sports 5 inches of travel and does have seven settings of preload. Again, it performed quite well as delivered and only needed a click or two to compensate for the two-up tours.
In the braking department, the 599 keeps on rocking. The front binders are twin-pot units with sintered metal pads working on two rather beefy 296mm discs. On the rear, a single-piston caliper, also with sintered pads, squeezes a 220mm disc. While this set-up may not seem on par with the trick caliper set-ups seen on the sportier models, it does work incredibly well. Whether single or tour loaded, the brakes always felt progressive and solid, and never exhibited any sign of fade or weakness.
Accessories and Arrangements
The truly impressive feature of the 599 is just how comfortable it is. For those who think smaller bikes are not worthy of long rides, this little Honda has something for you. The stock seat surprises with its ability to go the distance, and even the pillion perch had my copilot, Kathy, shaking her head in disbelief. She had no problem going all day long on the back roads and she actually began to request the Honda for our weekend excursions. No complaints here. The good-sized 4.5-gallon fuel tank assures plenty of time to explore with its 130 to 150 mile range. And not to worry, if you begin to run low on fuel, the reserve indicator has an eye-catching way of letting you know. The large, easy-to-read LCD speedo and fuel level readout accompanies an analog tachometer in the instrument cluster housed behind a slick mini-cowl with a tinted fly screen. However, the absence of a center-stand seems a mixed blessing. While I do appreciate the weight savings, it makes lubing the chain a bit of a hassle, especially when out on the road.
About the Ride
On paper, the Honda 599 looks like a blast to ride, and that scrap of paper doesn't come close to doing this fine bike justice. No matter what type of riding you engage in, the 599 is more than capable of stepping up to the plate. For the commuter, the ability of this small, narrow, and exceedingly agile bike to zip in and out of traffic will not only make the ride to work more expedient, it'll have you grinning like the Cheshire Cat upon arrival. What a way to start the day! If you're just looking to tool around town and have a little fun on the weekends, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable mount. Even track days would be a hoot on the 599. For those interested in touring, a little effort and research should yield accessory luggage you'll like. Sure, you won't be riding in the lap of luxury the way it is on a touring rig or even a larger sport-touring ride - that's a given. But when the road gets small and twisty, turn around and wave bye-bye to your heavier compatriots, because you and your 599 are outta there. Plus, with a base entry fee of $ 7,399, you'll have a lot more change left over for cheeseburgers and Red Bulls than your pals on those high-dollar touring rigs.
The bottom line is that motorcycling is all about fun and the 599 is nothing but fun. It's inexpensive, reliable, comfortable, easy to ride, and remarkably versatile. I can't speak for you, but I don't need much more than that.
Sport Touring, Givi Style
When it comes to turning a mild-mannered naked bike, or any bike for that matter, into a superman of the open road, Givi USA has your phone booth. With a large selection of universal soft luggage to fit nearly any bike, they can have you ready to navigate the highways and byways in no time. For our 'project 599' they sent us a set of their T438 throw-over panniers (MSRP $ 159.95). These brand-new textile bags have the racy look of carbon fiber and boast the ability to expand from 21 to 27 liters, more than enough to carry a couple's duds for five days on the road. They also come with rain covers, just in case the weather tries to spoil the fun.
If you're traveling solo, the addition of the expandable T439 tail pack (MSRP $ 129.95) will add an extra 26-35 liters of capacity to your ride. Easily attached to the pillion, it comes in real handy for the camera, or any other item that requires quick access. It also serves well as a solo travel case should you choose to ride sans saddlebags.
The naked looks of the 599 are quite striking, but the lack of wind protection can be a bit tedious after several hours on the freeway. Givi can help here as well. Their A305 windscreen (MSRP $ 97.90) was designed specifically for the 599. Twelve inches tall by sixteen inches wide, it's easy to install with only a couple of basic tools. The addition of this quality screen adds a whole new dimension to the 599's tour-ability, punching enough of a hole in the wind to take much of the strain off the arms and head without sacrificing the 'wind in the face' appeal of the naked design.
The T440 magnetic tank bag is also available in the same style and should work perfectly with the 599's steel fuel tank.
+ Handling, brakes, fun factor
- Peaky engine, wind protection
Distributor American Honda Motor Company Inc.
Engine inline four, DOHC, 16 valve
Bore x Stroke 65x45.2mm
Carburetion four 34mm flat slide CV
Ignition computer-controlled digital with electronic advance
Frame mono-backbone steel
Front Suspension 41mm inverted fork, 4.7in (119mm) travel
Rear Suspension single shock, preload adjustable, 5in (127mm) travel
Rake/Trail25.5º/ 3.8in (96mm)
Brakes front/rear two 11.7in (296mm) discs, 2 piston calipers / one 8.7in disc (220mm), 1 piston caliper
Tires front/rear 120/70 ZR 17 / 180/55 ZR 17
Dry Weight 404lb (183kg)
Wheelbase 56.1in (1425mm)
Seat height 31.1in (790mm)
Fuel Capacity 4.5gal (17l)
Fuel Consumption 43 mpg (5.4l/100km)
MSRP $ 7,399