"What the...?" was my first reaction when Honda launched the CB350 "H'Ness" (pronounced Highness, for whatever reason). I thought Hero was the king of weird, soft, cuddly names for their bikes, but Honda's brand team is really letting their freak flag fly.
Some background: Royal Enfield is the obvious target here. I mean there's a red dot and everything. The storied Chennai-based, formerly British heritage motorcycle brand has been (by default) the king of the 'premium' motorcycle segment forever. 'Premium', at the time, was necessarily defined as 350cc motor capacity and above, since nobody else was playing in that market anyway. The Royal Enfield Bullet and it's variants and derivatives ruled the market, with the likes of KTM coming in later to take some sales away (but not from the same customer). This premium, high-margin segment is attractive to manufacturers, even in a volume market such as India.
Honda CB350. Image: Sumit Gaikwad/Overdrive
Honda has a solid chance at this space with the CB350. I'm going to avoid using the "H'Ness" moniker from here on, out of embarrassment. For India, the basic, single-cylinder 350cc thumper is a well-understood, loved, aspired-to style of motorcycle that has seen little change over 70-odd years. And while you may lament the opportunities lost in making something bigger, better, faster, more modern, better looking, Honda is betting on the traditionalist customer, that still wants to buy a Royal Enfield for that sense of occasion.
What is it?
Simply put, this is Honda's version of a 350cc Bullet, updated as required by 2020 regulations. Honda has a long history of CB motorcycles of varying displacements, ranging from the tiny 100cc to the monstrous 1000cc. The original CB350-Four used an inline four motor that sang the song of my people " that is, it made me stand up in attention and salute that glorious wail. The CB350 we get is quite different. It gets a single-cylinder, 348cc motor using an overhead cam like most modern engines do, that delivers 21hp and 30Nm of torque at 3000rpm. The is absolutely on the nose with the 350cc competition, but the numbers don't tell the real story.
I think it's a nice-looking motorcycle and would make a great platform for modifications. Image: Sumit Gaikwad/Overdrive
As expected of a bike meaning to take Royal Enfield's lunch, it's a traditional single downtube frame, the fuel tank takes centre stage, there are lozenge-shaped side panels, a flat seat and relatively large-diameter tyres " 19" in the front, and 18 in the rear. My initial impressions of the bike " in pictures and in metal " were that of disappointed resignation. However, riding it for a couple of days, my impressions have changed. I think it's a nice-looking motorcycle and would make a great platform for modifications.
Image: Sumit Gaikwad/Overdrive
Apart from the engine, you get modern conveniences such as an all-LED lighting package (headlight included) and Bluetooth connectivity to a Honda app that allows you to navigate and control some basic functions on your Android-based phone, using the D-pad buttons on the left handlebar. There's no iOS support just yet, which is a miss, because anecdotally, I understand that a lot of potential buyers are iPhone users. And that's about it. Everything else is what an eight-year-old would draw if you asked them to draw you a motorcycle. It's simple and doesn't mess with the formula.
Gearing is tall, letting you really pull the engine for what it's worth before slotting into the next cog. Image: Sumit Gaikwad/Overdrive
A word about tech
While the Android-based companion app was demonstrated for me, I did not have a chance to put it through it's paces because my daily-driver is an iOS device. From what I understood, the companion app is meant to stay open on one's phone, and can be navigated using the buttons near the left handlebar grip, once paired with the motorcycle's Bluetooth receiver. You can do things like call pre-set numbers and navigate to pre-set destinations or recent points of interest. Honda doesn't seem to have a proper mounting bracket available for the bike just yet, so you're on your own if you actually want to use these features. Based on what I've seen, I do not expect an iOS app to be forthcoming soon, and if it does, it will differ somewhat from the Android experience.
The Bluetooth-based pairing and app functionality is available on the "DLX Pro" variant of the CB350 that also gets a two-tone paint job. The rest remains common.
On the go: wow!
The motor seems to have very little vibration, and what is there, is tactile and pleasing. Image: Sumit Gaikwad/Overdrive
That really is the first word that comes out of a rider's mouth, as it did mine " wow! The CB350 floors you with the buttery smoothness of the ride. The motor seems to have very little vibration, and what is there, is tactile and pleasing. The 5-speed gearbox is a perfect match and just as smooth. I did not have a missed shift in three days of riding, whether I used my heel or toe to shift.
Being a fuel-injected BS6 motor, one might expect a lean, rough or somewhat anaemic motor, but none of these bear out. The motor pulls strongly no matter what you throw at it. The 30Nm peak torque is clearly spread nice and flat throughout the rev range, allowing you to lug the motor in a higher gear if you want to listen to that lovely thump. Gearing is tall, letting you really pull the engine for what it's worth before slotting into the next cog. Yet, the torque allows you to trundle along in the city without too much clutching. It really is a lovely motor.
We need to spend some time talking about the sound that the CB350 makes. Much is made about the "thump" of the big 350/500cc motors from Royal Enfield, and they took a lot of care to retain much of that in the recently-launched Meteor 350. And as much as I like the Meteor, I must confess that as far as the exhaust note is concerned, the CB350 hits it out of the stadium so far that the ball has landed a considerable distance off-shore and will require Navy divers to retrieve it. It has a sophisticated, bass-heavy thump with no attendant rattles, whistles or harshness. Just a steady, solid thump that assures you that the Honda is going to get you home. I've never been a particularly enthusiastic fan of the thump of a big single, but the Honda CB350 made me 'get' it.
In the city, the torque and silky-smooth delivery make you ride the big Honda like a much smaller bike. Image: Sumit Gaikwad/Overdrive
About 80 km/h is the sweet spot for the CB350, which is about par for the course. The difference is that the Honda remains smooth, and possibly gets smoother, at higher speeds. I saw the speedo needle go past 120 km/h at one stretch (private track, of course) and the bike made no complaint. I wouldn't want to cruise at 100 km/h on this motorcycle simply because there isn't enough grunt left to make quick overtakes. But you can definitely do it if you want. In the city, the torque and silky-smooth delivery make you ride the big Honda like a much smaller bike.
I saw the speedo needle go past 120 km/h at one stretch (private track, of course) and the bike made no complaint. Image: Sumit Gaikwad/Overdrive
In fact, I was unable to wrap my mind around the fact that this is a normal-sized 350cc motorcycle. It feels so much smaller while riding it, or even moving it around the parking space. The 800 mm seat height should be low enough for those of average height, and the bike belies its 181 kg weight. I find it harder to move my much-lighter KTM 390 Adventure around.
The suspension and brakes really round out this package. The brakes are not the sharpest to bite, but are very easy and progressive, making them comfortable to modulate and bring the bike to a safe halt. Dual-channel ABS is standard, and our city commute threw up nothing that needed it to activate. The Honda CB350 is softly-sprung. A friend described it as a "magic carpet ride", and I agree. City comfort is among the best I've experienced and were it a different format of motorcycle, I'd be happy jumping over speedbumps instead of slowing down for them. It makes for a great, comfortable commuter motorcycle. I'd go as far as to say I'd use one instead of an Activa scooter for chores; I actually did a grocery run with a backpack, and it was just so convenient and manageable.
I didn't push this around the corners at all, because I was unable to find confidence in the MRF tyres. Aggressive riders will also find the suspension too soft for sporty riding, so if you're that sort, get another bike.
But can you tour?
I would love to tour on the CB350, but would probably make some changes to the seat, and some accommodations for luggage and wind protection. Image: Sumit Gaikwad/Overdrive
Ergonomically, the CB350 feels suited for city commutes and perhaps the odd highway stint. You sit atop the bike, with an upright posture, hands outstretched to a narrow handlebar. Much like a classic Bullet, actually. It's comfortable and affords great visibility, but can be hairy if you encounter an unmarked speedbump or unexpected crater; you tend to get bounced out of the seat, despite the soft springs. The flat seat is soft, but that tends to cause hotspots on longer rides. I would love to tour on the CB350, but would probably make some changes to the seat, and some accommodations for luggage and wind protection. But these are all cheap, well-understood mods.
The CB350 comes with a generous 15l fuel tank, and our friends at Overdrive found it to deliver an efficiency of 40km/l combined, with almost 49km/l on the highway! That's an easy 400km before you hit reserve, if not more. This is far and away better than any of the competition.
So the short answer is: yes, you can tour on the CB350 with a few mods. You get a silky-smooth ride, great mileage and Honda's legendary reliability (or so we hope).
Buy this bike
I was deeply impressed by the Honda CB350. The smooth, easy ride just comes together as an engaging, rewarding ride. You feel like you're working for your endorphins, when in reality, you're working just enough for them. The motor, slick gearbox, good brakes, comfortable suspension and that lovely thump come together to make a bike that I'd be happy to own. I never thought I'd say that about a 350cc single, but here I am, unabashedly admitting that I love the Bullet " but the one made by Honda.
The Honda CB350 H'Ness starts at Rs 1,86,500 for the DLX and Rs 1,92,500 for the Pro, ex-showroom, Mumbai. You can only buy the motorcycle at Honda's premium "Big Wing" stores, however.
+ Smooth engine, gearbox
+ Comfortable suspension
+ Great sound
- Much smaller dealer network than other Hondas