First Ride: 2004 Honda Valkyrie
By Art Friedman.
Honda's Valkyrie Rune astonishes us in a number of ways and on many levels.
After you look at the Valkyrie Rune up close and see the degree of detail and the quality of finish, it's kind of shocking that this utterly unique 1800 flat six will sell for only $27,000 (with chromed wheels). It's amazing that a huge company like Honda ever took the Rune past the concept-vehicle stage, that it took the time (6 years) and effort to build a limited-production piece of rolling art. The fact that it being built on an assembly line in Ohio takes us aback. It's remarkable that Honda let its designers stray this far out of their usual boxes, and that the designers could spread their wings and fly so perfectly when they were released from those boxes. We were surprised to learn that those designers -- who dreamt of the Rune, who drew it, shaped it and championed every curve and angle through the processes leading to production -- were mostly Americans.
And finally we are dazzled by the engineers who took this vision of the Genuine Honda Custom and managed to turn it into production reality, to make it function to Honda's considerable standards without compromising away the designers' sensational vision.
After all, it's not rare for an artist to draw a pulse-accelerating design for a vehicle. And there is a small legion of custom builders who can take that vision and hammer it into rolling reality with varying degrees of success. But if you tell that builder that you want that machine to be comfortable, handle well, and be as dependable and consistent as a production bike, he'll probably have to resort to insulting your manhood, because... well, it ain't going to happen. And don't even bring up DOT lighting, mufflers, and emissions equipment or a few dozen other equipment regulations unless you want to get chased out of his shop with a 20-pound hammer.
Sure, Honda's designers knew that it had to be street legal, that that the concept that turned into the T2 concept vehicle (which made the rounds at shows in 2000 and 2001) would need street lighting, real mufflers and other equipment to meet myriad regulations. And no doubt they knew that Honda has standards that go well beyond "good enough" that it tests every vehicle to meet. But they didn't have to figure out just how that was going to happen. It did have to happen, however, because Honda was not going to manufacture and sell the bike until it did. As you might imagine, this created some conflicts.
Function Follows Form
The example most often cited by both sides of the issue is the Rune's radiator. The designers found a radiator that looked right and fit the space they wanted to fill. The engineers found that radiator moved about 20% of the BTUs they needed it to handle. The engineers would have rearranged the surrounding parts, reshaped the front fender and stuffed a great big radiator in there. But the designers weren't going for that. Shapes and part placement were critical to this motorcycle. In the end, the engineers had to come up with this very efficient radiator that has compound curves that pleased the designers and met Honda's tough standards for cooling. That scenario was repeated for almost every part of the motorcycle. In virtually every case, the designers got their way and the engineers came up with technology to satisfy the vision and Honda's technical and functional requirements.
Though we are impressed that Honda's various motorcycle-creation divisions could meld such disparate requirements, we weren't surprised to confirm that they had when we rode the bike. Though its size and radical styling scream that it should be a handful, we knew that Honda wasn't going to manufacture a bike that was intimidating to ride. You will need a thick wallet to pilot a Valkyrie Rune, but an average riding portfolio will be sufficient.
Come Ride with Me
Drop into the saddle -- and we do mean drop, the saddle is way down there -- and the front end seems to be way out ahead of you. But some of that is an illusion because the trailing link fork's legs are out ahead of the front axle. The headlight, which stretches way forward, amplifies the impression. The handlebar sweeps back and requires you to bend forward slightly. Honda will ship two different handlebars with the bike, one which pulls back an additional two inches and lets you sit a bit more upright. We tried and like both.
Reach under the left rear of the tank and turn on the security-coded
key. If you had engaged the fork lock with the little finger lever just
above the ignition lock, the lever will snap back into place and out of
sight to unlock the steering. From under a chrome hood atop the front
of the 6.2-gallon seamless fuel tank, an adjustable-backlight white-digits-on-blue-background
LCD blinks speed and fuel quantity. Ahead of it on the handlebar clamp,
a row of warning lights under another low chrome hood sits close to your
line of sight.
Now You're Torquing
The starter button, like all the handlebar switches, their housings and the grips, is chrome. Thumb it, and the engine awakens to six individual fuel-injector bodies. Here you get your first assurance about the Rune's rideability. Blipping the throttle gets smooth, quick response and the potent six-cylinder growl not too different from a Valkyrie 1500 or Gold Wing from the intake and exhaust. The clutch pulls in easily, and a light, short stroke of the toe snicks the gearbox quietly into first.
Power is right there. You don't need much more than idle to feed the
clutch out and pull away positively. The power from the massive 1832cc
Gold Wing engine just flows from idle. A dyno might reveal some unevenness,
but we couldn't feel it. Just roll the throttle on, and the Rune accelerates
with no driveline snatch, pinging or flat spots. We ran it down to 17
mph in top gear and snapped the throttle open. The engine just built power,
gaining speed without a shudder. That, folks, is torque.
Honda chose the flat-six engine design for its maximum cruisers because the design is unique to and identified with Honda. But it also makes more of the kind of power that cruisers are supposed to deliver with less drama than any V-twin. Shifting is smooth and positive, and the clutch and gearbox require little effort to operate. Our only complaint about the drive train is that during open-close-open transitions, the throttle responds abruptly, which is exacerbated by a bit of last in the drive line. A simple way to minimize this is to upshift a gear.
But your first time out on the Rune, you probably won't be thinking as much about the engine as about manhandling the mass of that hulking machine beneath you. Yeah, you can tell it's a super-sized cruiser at very low speeds, especially if you are making a tight turn, such as hanging a U on a narrow road. We performed that maneuver several dozen times for photos and never felt completely comfortable, though the controllable engine makes that part of the task easy. Short-legged riders may appreciate the 27.2-inch saddle height in such situations.
Honda has some magic it works on big motorcycles, though, and by the
time you are going about 5 mph, that mass just seems to melt away. You
are still aware of the length (the wheelbase is 68.9 inches), but the
bike no longer feels unwieldy. Something has happened to the 770 pounds
the Valkyrie is purported to pack (before fluids). Steering is light and
precise, and you can make direction changes with impressive speed. Snap
a lane change or swerve around an errant chunk of tire tumbling down the
highway, and the Valkyrie Rune responds like a much smaller bike yet feels
completely settled while doing it. If the pavement is smooth, the Rune
corners impressively. It is steady, tracks where you want it to go and
sits up little if you get on the brakes. Cornering clearance is about
average or slightly better than a typical big cruiser, with the "curb
feelers" in the footpegs touching down well before anything solid.
A big bump will unsettle it slightly and maybe cause it to drag, but it
regains its composure quickly.
If you are expecting some weirdness from the trailing-link front suspension, you'll still be waiting when you climb off after riding the Rune. We had nothing but kudos for the front fork, which was compliant, comfortable and controlled over all the examples of bad road we pointed it at during our day on the bike. This is despite the fact that the front end, like the rear, has just 3.9 inches of travel. The single-damper rear suspension with its one-sided swingarm also offer a respectable ride, but it was not quite as plush as the front and lacked the control -- particularly in terms of rebound damping -- of the fork.
You have lots of acreage on that big saddle, in part because there was no attempt to leave any room for a passenger. How much of it you can use with depend on your size and which handlebar you choose. Average-sized riders weren't really comfortable sliding rearward against the saddle's back unless they had the more pulled-back bar. Because the engine's cylinder banks prevent any sort of forward-mount footrests, the pegs are much more rearward than most cruisers'. Though bending your legs so sharply might be tiresome for some riders, we like it because it makes it easier to put some weight on your legs.
Vibration simply is not an issue with Honda's ultra-smooth flat sixes, and the Valkyrie Rune is no exception. We always wonder about billet grips and footpegs, but the rubber inserts in the chromed items on the Valkyrie Rune mean that you can grip the bar or rest your feet without slippage. Overall comfort is impressive, something we didn't fully expect from a motorcycle that is so obviously built for style.
Excellent brakes complete the functional package. Good feel and progression mated with plenty of power give the Rune stopping performance to match its mass and muscle. It uses Honda's Combined Braking System, as on the VTX1800s, which we haven't been too fond of, but we had no complaints about it on the Rune. We suspect that we prefer it with more wheelbase.
For many buyers and envious admirers, the primary appeal of the Rune will lie in its appearance. You have to look pretty hard to find anything that falls short of the standards of finish that you'd expect to find on a $35,000 custom motorcycle, and many pieces that fit, work or mesh with the rest of the bike better than any custom. All the painted parts -- in double-clearcoat black, blue or the maroon color seen on the much-photographed first prototype -- display the depth and smoothness that you expect from a high-end custom. The chrome is excellent (if you want chrome wheels, add $2500 to the $24,499 suggested base price), and the bike is completed with components like stainless brake hoses and cables. A few warning stickers remind you that this is indeed a real production machine, from a company with lots of lawyers.
Though we tend to be skeptical of bikes with such steep price tags, we all agree that the Valkyrie Rune justifies its price. The problem, of course, is getting one. You might still be able to find a dealer who hasn't contracted for the one allotted to him or you might find someone who is willing to sell the one he has reserved for a premium. Honda will only say that there will be at least one per dealer and won't comment (and may not have decided) if any more will be produced -- ever -- after that. The last bike Honda built on such a limited scale, the NR750 sportbike, had one production run and was gone. However, it was not built in America, either.
Because we are always riding new and seemingly always better bikes, it's
rare to come across a model that will make us envy its owners. The Valkyrie
Rune is such a machine.
ENGINE AND DRIVETRAIN
Questions or comments about the Rune or our coverage? Drop an email to Art.Friedman@primedia.com.