Honda's Bulldog 400 concept: The tough small-capacity tourer for the masses

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Honda's Bulldog is billed in the company's press material as a "Lovable Touring Partner" - it makes lots of sense with its low seat height and practical layout for many uses (Photo: Stephen Clemenger/Gizmag.com)

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Honda displayed a new and very practical small-capacity adventure bike named the Bulldog last week at the 42nd Tokyo Motorcycle Show in Japan, using its recently adopted modular engineering concept to adapt the CB500 into its most practical form yet. If this bike does appear outside Japan, it will almost certainly be in 500 cc form, and it makes a lot of sense as a workhorse for the masses, let alone an adventure tourer capable of going long distances in dealer-sparse environments.

Honda's CB500 has been with us for just a few short years and unlike the Honda of old, which made a brand new specifically-designed part for every bit of every motorcycle, Honda these days is rationalizing its parts inventory and, wherever possible, using parts from other motorcycles in the range to up the volume and reduce costs. The modular engineering concept goes one step further and Honda is now using many motors and major components across groups of motorcycles, the twin-cylinder CB500 range being a prime example.

The CB500 uses a 471 cc liquid-cooled parallel-twin motor producing 54 hp as its base, and it is already available in naked CB500F, sports CB500R and adventure CB500X guises in most areas of the world, and in 400 cc capacity in Japan where a tiered licensing system makes bikes less than 400 cc significantly cheaper to ride – the smaller capacity is achieved by reducing the stroke from 66.8 mm to 56.6 mm and the power output of the 400 version hasn't suffered that much at 47 hp.

They may look different but the (from top left clockwise) Bulldog, CB500F, CB500R and CB500X share engines, frames and swing-arms, cleverly adapting the bike to different uses and enabling costs to be kept way down for very economical motorcycling

This 47 hp, 400 cc twin-cylinder powerplant is the engine used in the Bulldog, and it was designed as a flexible motor with useful power throughout the rev spectrum, and with a range of low friction technologies in order to achieve outstanding fuel economy. The claimed fuel efficiency figures of 39.7 km/l (93.4 mpg) is 28 percent better than the claimed figures for the four cylinder CB400 which sits alongside it in Japanese showrooms.

The recently induced global oil price decline may have reduced the pain at the fuel pump, but having fun on something that runs 93 miles on each gallon of gas is a reward in itself for thinking folk.

The Bulldog is a radical departure from large-capacity adventure bikes which require the inside-leg measurements of an NBA basketballer to get both feet on the ground. Instead, the twin-cylinder 400 has been cleverly engineered to have a low center–of–gravity, thanks primarily to using the standard CB500 frame and 15-inch tires so that the seat height has been reduced to just 730 mm in order to cater to the 75 percent of the world's population below 172 cm in height. It's a wonder someone didn't think of it before really.

Sensible may not be the adjective you wish applied to your girlfriend's shoes, but if you're halfway between Ulaanbaatar and Ulaangom and your Bulldog is rendered unrideable, it's a quality you'll appreciate.

The Honda CB500X adventure bike might well spawn an even more practical adventure bike beloved in countries where practical motorcycles are a necessity.

The Bulldog concept is sensible in that it shares the same engine, frame and swing-arm as the other top-selling CB500 models so getting replacement parts won't require you to pay a sizeable airfreight bill and spend a week in a yurt. It's sensible in that you'll go twice as far on a gallon of gas than those who are riding exotic adventure bikes of double or more the capacity, costing three times as much to buy and breaking down three times as often. It's sensible in that when it tips over (which it will, many times), you don't need to summon two or more persons to get it upright again. It's sensible in that you are not Tony Cairoli, and don't have the balance of a cat enabling you to ride slippery, rutted tracks feet-up with ease, and like the 99 percent of people who ride dirt bikes, you need to paddle your way through the difficult bits and that sensible seat height alone will see you sending blessings to Honda for its wisdom.

Weight is the enemy of nearly everything motorcyclists hold dear, and a frugal approach to fuel economy (half as much petrol to carry), motor, frame and chassis will lead to a generally more jolly time. One final note on Honda's PGM-F1 fuel injection system. The system has been under development for many years now, and is deeply loved in Asia where the economy afforded by the Honda fuel injection is actually commonly discussed. I have met many people who have traded in their scooter of another marque to buy a Honda based solely on the decreased running costs others have reported. Word-of-mouth grass-roots marketing may be rare in the modern world of me-too products but it is still the most powerful if your product has the ability to generate it.

These liberal lashings of (un)common sense as an adventure bike apply in so many other areas of the Bulldog that it might well see the homely little CB500 sibling become a cult machine for those with a practical, sensible bent or with a limited budget. That such a ground-breaking machine is actually a thinly veiled adaptation of a standard model speaks highly of Honda's design foresight.

Instead of a big shiny enamel-painted tank and lots of bits waiting to be damaged the first time the bike topples over in a carpark or an asphalt road (where the vast majority of adventure bikes spend the vast, vast majority of their time), the Bulldog has replaceable panels on the tank, and crash bars covering the engine and headlights.

The crash bars are standard fare for adventurer bikes but tank panels on a small capacity bike are a first. They're not really tank panels on one side, but the lid to a storage box in the left side of the tank (see images above). Just the same, replaceable tank panels might make the cost of ownership more affordable, not to mention a convenient anchor point for a range of ingenious attachments just waiting to be invented.

The Bulldog's purpose is emblazoned in large lettering on the muffler guard which reads "tough dog for your trip" and presumably Honda has built the bike with the Asian touring marketplace in mind.

While the Bulldog was developed as a touring bike, I suspect it's biggest potential marketplace might not be so much in the field of leisure motorcycles, but as a practical workhorse capable of carrying far more than its maker had ever planned – the rear carrier, mounting points on the sides of the fuel tank and headlight carrier rack will make it an ideal pinch hitter for many tasks across Asia where the scooter is currently doing double duty as the family car.

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