Here's what certain riders of the beveled toe think they
know: Nothing could better transform the moderately talented mortal into a
backroad tiger than a genuine racing machine. Here's what factory engineers
know: Genuine racers are for those few gifted pilots who can survive on the
thin line of forgiveness. Therein lies the great irony of the repli-racer:
The more it approaches the real thing, the less forgiving it
becomes, and the greater the likelihood its normal mortal rider will find
himself beveled head to toe. Solution: Build a motorcycle that looks exactly
like a genuine racer, but doesn't cross the line between racetrack precision
and street forgiveness. The NS400R is convincing evidence that Honda knows
precisely where to draw this line.
As Honda's first attempt at cashing in on Freddie Spencer's
Grand Prix success with the NS500 two-stroke triple, the NS400R had to be true
to the original—from its aluminum frame, triple-cylinder engine, multi-piece
composite wheels and swoopy glasswork right down to its Rothmans decals.
Generally, repli-racers designed for the street with an aspiring eye toward
the racetrack (such as Yamaha's FZ750) differ from those originating on the
track and later civilized for the street. Street bikes improve when stripped
to racetrack essentials, but race bikes forfeit their delicate balance when
saddled with street hardware. The NS400 forfeits nothing; it encourages the
novice rider to stretch his limits while at the same time never compromising
the speed and precision demanded by the bevel boys.
On the Kerker dyno, our German-spec NS registered usable power
from 5000 rpm to a screaming 52-bhp, 9500-rpm peak. At the strip, it posted an
astonishing 12.2-second, 111-mph run—1.3 seconds quicker than Yamaha's RZ350,
and nearly five miles per hourfaster than Kawasaki's splendid ZX600R Ninja.
Furthermore, Honda's NS400 has a smoother power delivery than most four-stroke
repli-racers sold throughout Japan and Europe—including Honda's clever CBR400
Rev bike. Take that, ring-ding haters.
How can a two-stroke racer-transplant possess such
accommodating manners without losing its sting? First, the NS400 shares a
fundamental design concept with the NS500 racer— which stresses cornering
speed and handling ease over peak power—and this approach applies directly to
the street. Second, the success of the NS500 concept lies more with its simple
design philosophy than with its specific layout, allowing Honda engineers to
drastically alter the NS400's layout and still remain true to the racer's
The V-three racer—disposing two-cylinders atop the crankcases,
a single forward pot 112 degrees downward, and three carbs in the vee channels
its upper expansion chambers under the seat and out the tailpiece. This
arrangement leaves no surplus space below the tank and seat for electrical
components and the support systems needed to get the NS400R on the street.
Honda could have made space by stretching the NS400 at the waist, but the
NS500 philosophy mandates low and narrow dimensions. Instead, Honda engineers
shuffled and compacted the Vee: with one cylinder on top and two down below,
the NS400's upper expansion chamber winds outside the rear subframe to make
space for a battery and automatic oil-injection system. In addition, the NS400
disposes its cylinders at 90 degrees for perfect primary balance (the NS500
uses a counterbalancer) and employs rubber engine mounts to isolate secondary
The NS400's engine layout also ensures space for two ATAC
systems, located beneath the lower cowling on the front two cylinders.
Although the NS250 and 500 racer also use this system of electronically
controlled exhaust chambers, which allows engineers to tune for top end
without strangling torque at low engine speeds, the NS400's ATAC valves slam
shut at a lower rpm: 7200, to be specific. Even without the spec-sheet, you'd
have to be numb all over not to know when ATAC does its stuff. The NS has
plenty of fizz downstairs, but at 6500 rpm things begin to bubble, and by 7200
the NS is in full froth.
Forget about relative engine comparisons: when the NS is on
the pipe, only a backdrop of liter-plus sporting hardware—pumping out twice
the two-stroke's horsepower—provides an adequate perch from which, to view the
NS's remarkable performance. With a super-tall, close-ratio gearbox that knits
third through sixth together in short 500-rpm hops, the screamer hits 130 mph,
catching the last two gears well beyond the 100-mph mark. On long sweeping
backroads, where big bikes normally play their horsepower trump, the NS
absolutely clings to Suzuki GS 1150s and Kawasaki 900 Ninjas— even the
crucible of 90-mph apex-to-apex acceleration can't shake it loose.
There is something especially demoralizing about flogging your
Superbike down an ultra-fast road—tires squealing, belly-sparks flying, your
entire body apucker—and being passed on the outside by an NS400R looking
absurdly composed. Don't push your luck: Unless you ride a Kawasaki 900 Ninja,
Yamaha FZ750 or FJ1100, we recommend you smile and wave bye-bye when the NS
streaks past. The close-coupled NS can seemingly tilt over only a few degrees
and still rip through corners. It's a classic case of long versus short
wheel-base: The longer the wheelbase, the more a motorcycle must lean to
maintain a given cornering speed. At 53 inches between axles, the NS400 is
over five inches shorter than the Yamaha FZ750, nearly three inches shorter
than the Honda VF500 Interceptor. Tire size underscores the difference: the
NS's skinny skins offer no hint of its astounding cornering speeds.
On tight backroads, a rider can square off corners, using the
trajectory of a ricocheting bullet, because the NS responds to the slightest
steering input now, but without the twitchiness of the smaller NS250R.
Never once did the 400 shake the bars in premeditation of a real blur-and-snap
routine. With its short wheelbase, 415-pound wet weight, forward-biased mass,
and 16-inch-front/17-inch-rear wheel combination, the NS400 needs nothing
steeper than 27 degrees of rake.
In contests of speed, the NS asks only that the rider keep the
engine spinning in its 3500-rpm powerband, a task made easier by the gearbox's
well-matched ratios. Beyond that, anything goes—hang-off, sit up and steer
with muscle—the NS has no preference for riding styles. Its suspension
provides both a comfortable ride and precise high-speed control, its chassis
runs true at triple-digit velocity, and its ergonomics are wonderfully suited
to backroad foolery—compact, without being cramped. Even our six-footers found
the NS's seating accommodations more comfortable than the 600 Ninja's—high
praise for a Honda repli-racer that positions your hands at the same level as
Complaints? Improved fairing ducting would preclude singed
neck hairs, the throttle return spring is much too stiff, and we're perplexed
by the NS's tire selection. Perhaps the combination of a triangulated front
and round-profile rear works well in Germany (the land for which this
particular NS400 was built), but the front tire hurt braking performance.
Sure, it already stops harder than most riders can imagine, but even the
bevel-boys know that more traction, whether you're trying to go fast or slow
down, is better than less.
Sound like we're reaching for gripes? It should: the NS400R
reflects the influence of Honda's NS500 racer throughout, yet behaves like a
two-stroke version of the VF500 Interceptor. The bevel-boys would never
believe that such racetrack precision could be so successfully harnessed to
forgiveness and versatility, but then they'll never know. Trying to sneak a
streQtable NS into the U.S. may be a crime, but we think the real crime is
that Honda can't offer the NS400R here in the States. ■