Honda R&D has a vehicle test facility in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost region, called the Takasu Proving Ground. It hosts a comprehensive range of test surfaces, including everything from an oval track, which is similar to a racing circuit, to roads that simulate suburban driving in Europe. Aoki brought here mid-size motorcycles from around the world.
"I wanted everyone on the team to think again about what mid-size motorcycle customers really need. To do that we brought all kinds of motorcycles to the proving ground and just rode them around and around."
During the day the team took turns riding different motorcycles. Come nighttime they would gather at a local pub and lose track of time talking about them. After a while, they started to realize something. "Our conclusion was that all you really need to enjoy a motorcycle is performance that you'll use day in and day out," recalled Aoki. "If prices are high because of the added cost of achieving performance at higher engine speeds that you rarely use, then getting rid of that would leave behind only what's necessary. You'd have a bike that's satisfying in terms of both price and performance."
Actually, this was something they had already felt before. But in the world of product development, where new models are evaluated based on whether they do better than previous generations, higher numerical performance becomes the ultimate goal. This project, however, required a shift in thinking. Instead of more horsepower or higher speeds, the team would have to identify what makes for such qualities as a "comfortable ride" and "easy to operate." To do that, they would have to identify not the types of performance that are seldom used on city streets but those that are actually needed to enjoy everyday riding. Now they were on to something.
When the team reached a consensus, one team member, Researcher Takanori Osuka, proposed an idea: "So we're going to make a mid-size bike that is easy to buy, that you'll ride often, and that you can enjoy riding all day—basically a tool that fits your body. If that's the case, I'd say instead of horsepower and engine speed, we need fuel efficiency." Indeed, Aoki was also silently envisioning a fuel-efficient bike.
"A successful project needs a goal to be number one in something. No one gets excited when you tell them to aim for second," said Aoki, laughing. "So when we thought, 'Okay, what's our number one?' we had decided for ourselves that we would aim for the most fuel-efficient bike."
And so the team had set their own target: to beat the competition on fuel efficiency. "We were all having a great time when we decided at the pub that instead of aiming for some measured percentage increase in efficiency we'd make it shockingly more efficient, so when customers go to get gas they'd realize, 'Really? I've only used this much?!'" said Aoki.
The retreat in Hokkaido yielded big results. Now that the team had a clearer picture of their final goal, work back at the R&D Center started with bringing that picture to life.
Attaining supremacy on fuel economy depended on what kind of engine they would develop. However, Chief Researcher Masaaki Negoro, who was in charge of engine development, had mixed feelings.
"We all decided in Hokkaido that we would aim for number one in fuel efficiency. But to be honest, being an engineer, I don't want to give up on power and speed either."
Negoro got to work developing engines while still hesitant about facing the unknown. "I started off trying to determine what engine type would be most appropriate."
In the weeks that followed, Negoro experimented with building and testing prototypes of various kinds of engines. This marked the first time Honda would be developing a large crossover bike that would be not only fuel-efficient but shockingly fuel-efficient. Still, didn't Honda have some of the most innovative fuel technologies for small motorcycles in the world, most prominent among which was the Super Cub motorcycle, which boasted world-leading fuel efficiency among vehicles with a mass-produced engine? And didn't Honda also have fuel-efficient automobile technologies that remained competitive in the race toward ever more efficient cars?
One day, Negoro fixated on something one of his colleagues said at a pub. "Split the Fit's engine in half and it becomes a straight two-cylinder 670 cc engine. Just use that." Such an engine, of course, would not be functional in a motorcycle without some modification. The colleague who said it was joking, but Negoro decided to try it out. "The engines in compact cars, which are under particularly intense competition in the area of fuel economy, are exactly the same size as engines in large motorcycles," said Negoro. "Half of the Fit's engine would be the perfect size for the mid-class motorcycle we were developing. And the Fit is one of the most fuel-efficient compact cars out there. So we decided, let's use the Fit's engine as a model for integrating fuel-economy know-how from Honda automobiles. This was an interesting challenge from an engineering perspective."
Compared to all the large motorcycles Negoro had developed before, which had specifications for reaching maximum efficiency at speeds over 10,000 rpm, with the new model, Negoro had to pursue the greatest possible efficiency in the low speed range from idle to 6,000 rpm. To do so, he set about building engine prototypes that borrowed engine technologies from the Fit. An idea that started out as a joke set the stage for a straight two-cylinder 670 cc engine—the same as half of the Fit's engine. It was an engine one would only find at Honda, one that blended automobile with motorcycle technologies.
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