Nov 6, 2013

MOTORCYCLE REVIEW: 2011 Honda VT1300CT Custom Interstate

All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

My last cruiser review ended with a fiery blast from the manufacturer's marketing manager and a promise that we'd never review another Hyosung. You'd think something would be learned from that, but sadly no. This review started out with a note from Sev asking, "Care to step outside your comfort zone and ride and review a 2011 HONDA Gold Wing Interstate 1800?" My comfort zone is probably bigger than Sev thinks. I volunteered. A couple of days later, he emailed "Wing has flown away. Wanna do a 1300cc Honda cruiser instead?" 

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LEFT: The big motor and small radiator, plus the floorboard that crippled a Geezer..

I'd already promised my wife a a short western Minnesota vacation on a Goldwing, I had to hope for a decent passenger seat and some luggage. When I picked up the VT1300CT, that fantasy blew away with the Goldwing. The Interstate's 22-liter leather-wrapped saddlebags are nice, but small. The passenger perch (not big enough to be called a seat) easily bottoms against the rear fender and left my wife clinging to me like a terrified kitten for the few miles that she tolerated the Interstate. The VT's almost-4" of  suspension travel and the odd seat gives the passenger too much familiarity with the deteriorating state of Minnesota's road maintenance. The fact that the passenger is sitting at least 6" above the rider makes the passenger's stability particularly critical. The slightest passenger weight shift has substantial leverage on the bike's balance. We immediately terminated the two-up plans. [MMM now owes my wife a motorcycle vacation trip. She's waiting by the phone for your call, Sev.

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RIGHT: The Custom Interstate at the beach.

Outside of passenger accommodations, Honda knows how to build a bike for the cruiser  market. The fit and finish are retro-excellent. Our review bike wore a handsome "dark red metallic" paint job (a macho-black option is available) and at least 100 pounds of flawless and robust chromed parts. The bike's design is coordinated and artistic. The lines of the saddlebags flow into the seat and the tank. The all-chrome forks flow blend into the windshield's brackets and from there to the handlebars and mirrors. Even the shadows cast by these parts seem to be part of the overall design.

Without a map and nothing more than a desire to ride at a variety of speeds and in an assortment of situations, I left the friendly folks at Belle Plaine Motorsports and headed north on MN169 until I found an interesting looking county road going east. From there to home, I rode the Custom Interstate on everything from winding farm roads to rush hour freeway traffic. With 4 miles on the odometer, I set out to see if a cruiser could win me over. 200 miles later, the verdict was in.

Why the motorcycle media calls this a "mid-sized cruiser" escapes me. 1300cc's is exactly twice the displacement of my touring motorcycle's power plant (DL-650). The general feeling of massiveness (712 pounds wet) is complemented by the generous chrome bits, huge engine casings and wide seat, 104" long end-to-end dimensions (74" wheelbase), and 1 1/4" diameter (tapered to 1" at the grips), 35" wide pull-back bars that give the impression of being mounted on the back of a Texas long horn steer. I'm finally riding enough iron to trip stop light sensors.

The brakes are strong and smooth, which is a nice surprise for a cruiser. The rear brake petal position is a little awkward, because it's way forward and more like a car pedal than a motorcycle control. The partial-dogleg levers are not adjustable, but they are designed for normal hands while having an oversized look. However, when you have to stop suddenly, it becomes really obvious how much momentum you are affecting. Honda made an obvious trade-off between strong brakes and the likelihood that a rider might not be able to safely use really powerful brakes. Putting this bike into a slide would be catastrophic. I suspect the extra bucks for the ABS version of the Interstate would be a good investment.

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LEFT: The dramatic difference between the VT1300's seat height and my two bikes: DL650 & WR250X.

The riding position is classic American feet-forward and the wide engine and seat and floorboards put considerable bow in your legs, most of your weight on your tailbone, and anchors the rider in a fairly comfortable but fixed position. The seat and bars combine into a moderately aggressive riding posture. While moving the bike around in the garage is serious work, the Interstate is fairly maneuverable on the highway. The floorboards were tough for me to get used to, since my size-11 boots fit between the toe-heel shifter with almost no space at either the heel or toe. The shifter was particularly in the way when starting out, getting my left foot on to the board without an accidental downshift was mostly a matter of luck. The right side offers the option of using the back of the floorboard for the ball of your foot, but my heel was in contact with one of the chromed transmission cases and I worried about wearing a patch in the shine. When those Minnesota highway crevices appeared, I could only lift my butt off of the seat with arm power. The limited leg movement reduces the rider's ability to maneuver the bike or to aggressively use the brakes.

The "Interstate" name implies that this Custom is meant for long hauls. I'm unconvinced, although the motor and chassis are certainly up to the job. I'd be more inclined to call the VT1300CT an "intercity motorcycle." Stints of more than 50 miles or one hour left me with severe pain in my low back and arthritic hip joints (my hips are disintegrating like a sand castle in a hurricane). I might do a couple of 200 mile days in a row before going into traction, but I wouldn't consider a cross country trip in this riding position. For example, the ride to Duluth would require a couple of rest and recovery stops.

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LEFT: A rider's shaky view at 70mph. Literally, road signs were unreadable due to the shield-generated turbulence.

The windshield is a source of both protection and aggravation. At speeds below 60mph, the rider is nicely protected from bugs, road debris, wind and rain, and it's sort of quiet back there. There is very little vibration through the rubber-mounted pull-back bars and the mirrors are steady. (The view from the mirrors is awesome, the best I've ever experienced on a motorcycle.) I hardly noticed either road or motor signals at the floorboards. However, at freeway speeds there is substantial turbulence behind the windshield and even with my new aerodynamic Shoei X-twelve the resulting head-shake prevented me from reading most road signs.

The fuel-injected 1312cc big-twin motor pulls from reasonably low rpm. Power is tractable, but not not nearly as strong as I expected from 1300cc's. The exhaust note is deep and macho and louder than I'd expected. Third gear provides decent horsepower for passing at 55mph and you can can even leave a stoplight in third with careful clutch use. Fifth gear is, apparently, overdrive as fourth is the 60-75 gear of choice. The final ratio gets the motor on edge the torque curve at about 75mph. The transmission was fairly smooth, considering the long linkage mechanism. It's a little clunky sounding, but never missed a gear unless I bumped the heel shifter. Aggressively positive shifting and accelerating provides the smoothest response from the power train.

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The tank mounted console is vintage-simple, but useful. The idiot lights are bright and well identified. The digital section contains the option of displaying one of two trip odometers, the total mileage odometer, or a clock. The select/reset button is a waterproof switch mounted at top left of the dial. You do have to look down to read the speedo, which I think is a marginally safe idea.

At the end of my 2nd day with the Interstate, I took the bike to one of the state's MSF training ranges. I quickly found that, without a lot of practice, I wouldn't pass my own class on one of these monsters. Tight space maneuvers are difficult, partially due to the fact that the low rpm power isn't delivered all that smoothly. Once under way, the bike is fairly maneuverable, but U-turns are gigantic. Several of the program's second gear exercises can only be done in first gear. Ground clearance is an issue any time you try to turn the Interstate quickly. I had to abort the turning exercises when I found that I couldn't keep the floorboards from touching pavement on every turn.

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LEFT: Lining up with the real thing at Bob's Java Hut.

For my last excursion on the Interstate, I decided to actually cruise the bike. I went west on I694, stumbling into a several mile-long traffic jam. Stop-and-go traffic for a few miles pointed out the fact that Honda's engineers used a combination of water and air-cooling in the motor's design. The radiator is tiny in relation to the engine size, but the cylinders are finned. On a hot day in slow-moving traffic, count on a lot of engine heat in the rider's position. I put in about 40 miles in two hours, due to traffic and whatnot and that felt like a long day of riding. This is a lot of iron to wrestle through city traffic. When I stopped at Bob's Java Hut for coffee and a photo-op, I discovered that parking the big dude took a little more planning than I'm used to as I nearly backed into a big cruiser and gave the Harley owner chrome palpitations. You have to allow for the major lean from that long sidestand. Who knew? 

The Interstate looks fairly serviceable, since most of the engine is exposed and the rest can be attacked when the seat and tank are removed. You can get to the battery and air filter without any tools, so Honda skipped the usual crappy Japanese tool kit altogether. I'm not fond of this thinking, but their theory is probably that the kind of rider the VTX attracts will be unlikely to do his or her own maintenance. There is some unused storage space behind the plastic under the seat, so you could assemble and store your own toolkit without cluttering the bike's artistic design.

According to industry data, Honda has sold about 90,000 VTX and VT cruisers, since the VTX model arrived in the US in 2003. This has provided the company with a well-sorted power plant and a lot of information for satisfying this portion of the their market. If you're man enough to call this a "mid-sized cruiser" and this is your kind of ride, Honda's reputation for quality and reliability would be a good reason to consider the Custom Interstate.

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Model Id

VT1300CT Custom Interstate

MSRP

$12,849

Engine Type

1312cc liquid-cooled 52° V-twin

Bore And Stroke

89.5mm x 104.3mm

Induction

PGM-FI with automatic enrichment circuit, one 38mm throttle body

Ignition

Digital with 3-D mapping, two spark plugs per cylinder

Compression Ratio

9.2:1

Valve Train

SOHC; three valves per cylinder

Transmission

Five-speed

Final Drive

Shaft

Front Suspension

41mm fork; 4.0 inches travel

Rear Suspension

Single shock; 3.9 inches travel

Front Brake

Single 336mm disc with twin-piston caliper

Rear Brake

296mm disc with single-piston caliper

Front Tire

140/80-17

Rear Tire

170/80-15

Wheelbase

70.3 inches

Seat Height

26.8 inches

Curb Weight

712 pounds (wet and ready to ride.)

Rake

33° (Caster Angle)

Trail

118.0mm (4.6 inches)

Fuel Capacity

4.4 gallons

Emissions

Meets current EPA standards. California version meets current California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards and may differ slightly due to emissions equipment.

Warranty

One year limited warranty, transferable, unlimited-mileage

Available Colors

Black, Dark Red Metallic

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