Honda released the new NC700X motorcycle in February 2012. In roughly the first week after its announcement, the NC700X brought in orders for 1,500 units—over 40% of its annual sales target—making it an unusual hit for a so-called "big" bike. Its brother models, the NC700S and the Integra, which share the same engine, frame, suspension, and other parts, were announced the following April, sparking a strong interest in the series.
One hallmark of the New Mid Concept Series (or New Mid Series) (see note 1), as the series was named, is that it boasts a high fuel economy while also falling in the sport-touring crossover category of motorcycles (see note 2). Made for enjoying everyday riding speeds, the series sacrifices high maximum output and engine speed for a best-in-class fuel efficiency of 41.5 km/L (NC700S, tested at a constant speed of 60 km/h on a flat surface), a performance that even trumps motorcycles in the 400 cc class.
The associate in charge of development of the New Mid Series was Masanori Aoki, Senior Researcher at Honda R&D's Motorcycle R&D Center. When the father of this smash hit was asked what led to the creation of a large crossover with revolutionary fuel economy, his response was quite unexpected.
"When I was appointed LPL (short for "large project leader," the title given to development project leaders at Honda) my assignment wasn't fuel economy. It was to make a large bike with a significantly lower price that would attract more customers." Although Aoki had had such experience many times before, to be put in charge of developing a new model is an engineer's dream. As he grew excited over being appointed the LPL, however, he found himself perplexed by the new assignment.
"Reducing the sales price doesn't mean simply cutting profits in the hope of selling more," said Aoki. "We needed to cut costs to reduce the sales price, all while maintaining product quality. So we set a cost reduction target of 30% from existing models. I've rarely heard of an assignment to develop a new model 'but cut the price,' but I understood the company's intention. So I thought, if someone's going to have to open the door to revive a market that's shrinking year-by-year, okay, it's going to be me."
According to data from the Japan Automotive Manufacturers Association, sales of motorcycles over 250 cc in Japan peaked in 1985 at about 146,000 units, tumbling to some 50,000 units in 2008 and 25,000 units in 2010. As sales volume declines manufacturing cost per unit increases, pushing up prices. Higher prices discourage users from buying new models, further depressing sales volume and creating a vicious circle. To break this vicious circle and bring users back, Honda needed to develop a motorcycle with a groundbreakingly low price. That was when Aoki was singled out for the job.
But cutting costs by as much as 30% is anything but easy. In fact, two of Aoki's predecessors tried and left the project unsuccessful. "It's not like Honda has been making motorcycles without considering cost. On the contrary, it's made very determined efforts to save a single yen. So to suggest cutting costs by another 30% on top of that was unthinkable," said Aoki. Another problem that troubled Aoki and the rest of the project team was imagining the final style of the bike. "Cost reduction is just a question of method. As developers, there's no way to make a bike without having a visual objective in mind." The only parameters the team had were to develop a large motorcycle that would fall in the mid-size class (600 cc to 750 cc) and had an attractively low price.
First they went about brainstorming and gathering ideas about how to achieve their biggest challenge, the 30% cost reduction—rethink materials and surface finishing, reduce part count, revise production methods, and so forth. Meanwhile days and then weeks passed and they still had no clear vision for the motorcycle they were making. Then Aoki had an idea. "I got it. Let's go riding in Hokkaido."
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