“How many axes does the IMU use?…And who makes it? Bosch?” asked a journalist during our press launch briefing for the new Honda Monkey. That journalist was yours truly. I am that guy at the Monkey launch.
To be fair, my curiosity was mostly personal. After all, one of the cheapest motorcycles in Honda’s arsenal comes available with IMU-assisted ABS, while more than a few of Big Red’s full-on sport bikes in the lineup do not…how weird is that? Please tell me more, Honda.
But, the question strikes a larger tone when it comes to bikes like the Honda Monkey: the tech specs don’t really matter. No one cares. The appropriate measuring stick for a bike like the Honda Monkey isn’t an objective one that is found on spec-sheets and lap times, which is a tough pill to swallow for a detail-oriented motorcycle journalist.
To that end, I am not sure if the Honda Monkey is a good motorcycle. But more importantly, I am not sure that it matters. Let me explain.
How I Stopped Worrying, And Learned to Love the Grom
Before we can get down to talking about the Honda Monkey, we need to talk about the Honda Grom. The Grom begets the Monkey, and the two machines share so much overlap, that talking about one is really like talking about the other.
More importantly, the Grom sets the tone for the Monkey, and shows us that how we would normally review a motorcycle needs to be thrown straight out the window when it comes to these mini-motos.
Like the Monkey, I am not all that sure that the Honda Grom is a “good” motorcycle. I do know one thing though, the Honda Grom is the best-selling motorcycle for American Honda, and in five short years, the unassuming Grom has sold over 40,000 units in the USA alone.
There are legions of fans for the Grom, tuners and parts-makers abound, and there is seemingly an unending supply of small-bore bleeding enthusiasts, all who support this awkwardly sized motorcycle. This popularity has led us to today, with the debut of the Honda Monkey in the United States, and soon the Honda Super Cub as well.
When the Honda Grom was first announced, no one knew to make of it. Even the name “Grom” was weird, and a nod to surfer/skater slang that only a few recognized. The Grom was too small, too underpowered, too impractical…and we all wanted one. The Honda Grom sold out almost instantaneously.
Understand for a minute, there isn’t a single part on the Honda Grom that cannot be improved upon. The suspension is under-sprung, the motor is under-powered, the ergonomics are under-sized – and all of that matters exactly 0% to Grom buyers. In fact, those might be selling points, because the aftermarket scene for the Honda Grom is ripe.
To illustrate this point, throughout the entire Honda Monkey press launch, I had to listen to small-bore enthusiasts talk about the THOUSANDS of dollars they have sunk into their horrible $3,000 motorcycles. The rational part of me was losing my mind, and that is when I stopped worrying, and learned to love the Grom.
The part that really mattered in those conversations wasn’t the ludicrous money being spent to “fix” these imperfect motorcycles, but instead it was the enthusiasm that these owners had for their pint-sized motos.
There is an x-factor that attracts us to the Honda Grom – some sort of unsuspecting devil that sits on our shoulder, that screams at us to cut loose, have fun, and live our best life.
There is something outrageously fun about riding a slow motorcycle fast. There is something enticing about an affordable platform that screams for you to customize it and make it yours. There is something completely disarming about a motorcycle whose handlebar barely comes up to your hip when you are standing next to it. The Honda Grom is all these things, and that is why it is a success.
Simply put, the Honda Grom made motorcycles fun again. It is not a rational kind of fun that can be quantified in a roundabout manner through a spec-sheet of horsepower, dry weights, and electronic rider aids.
Instead, it is a more pure form of fun – the type of fun that makes you giggle in your helmet. It is the mojo that the motorcycle industry lost long ago, but now found, distilled back into two-wheel form, and sold at your local motorcycle dealership with a crack-cocaine level of enthusiasm.
The Honda Monkey builds on that same notion, and takes it another direction…back in time, where it all started, and you could find the nicest people on a Honda.
A Story About Two Generations, And a Monkey
Interestingly enough, long before the Honda Grom caught the motorcycle industry by surprise, there were Honda’s monkey bikes. The Z-series of motorcycle from Honda in the 1960s are the building blocks for the new Honda Monkey, and that is where Honda has pulled from for its inspiration on the Monkey’s retro-styled design.
A bike with two generations in mind, the Honda Monkey firstly appeals to the older generation, who remember the monkey bikes of yore, and yearn to be that kid again. These are nostalgia bikes for a generation that feels like motorcycles have left them behind. As one colleague joked, Honda found a way to sell one last motorcycle to the outgoing baby boomer generation.
The Honda Monkey speaks to a younger generation as well – those who are taking a simpler approach to personal transportation, and looking to the past to define their future. We call them hipsters and millennials, and I have quipped the phrase “post-authentic” a number of times, but…I also call them future motorcyclists.
Not everyone wants a Grom, and that is how the Monkey and Super Cub fit into Honda’s “miniMoto” lineup. All of these machines are powered by Big Red’s 125cc two-valve engine, which is perfect for low-speed urban riding, but they offer something slightly different from each other, in terms of form factor and lifestyle.
The ultimate grocery-getter, the perfect pit bike, or the ideal second/third/fourth motorcycle in the garage, the Honda Monkey fits the bill for all these pursuits. It speaks to the rider that has a connection to motorcycling’s vintage past, while promising the two-wheeled fun that is required when offering a motorcycle in the American market.
More than what this motorcycle is, it is important to understand what the Honda Monkey is not. This is not a machine that competes against bikes like the Honda CB300R, Kawasaki Z400, KTM 390 Duke, et al. No one should be considering the Monkey as a replacement for the small-displacement street bikes that have been fueling the motorcycle industry as of late. Instead, this is something completely different. This is an entirely different small-bore movement.
Truthfully, I see the Honda Monkey as competition for bicycles, or maybe more specifically e-bikes, which in turn have become competition for cars in big urban centers. As such, I see the Honda Monkey as the machine that you ride across town, not the machine that you ride to get out of town, especially when you want to do it in style.
Taking to the streets of Santa Catalina Island – the happy breeding ground of 15 mph speed limit signs – the Honda Monkey is perfectly at home. With eight motorcycle journalists on the city streets of Avalon, we were certainly the talk of the town…but I am not certain it was “us” so much as it was the bike that was turning heads.
This is where we get into the impossible-to-quantify element of product lust.
Riding through town, and into the hills that surround Avalon (the major city on Santa Catalina island), the Monkey was at home. It is hard to describe the enjoyment the motorcycle brings to a rider, without stating it bluntly, but its attributes certainly help tell the tale.
For example, it is possible to do circles in a standard roadway lane, as the turning radius is very tight. The ground clearance is pretty good, though you will start hearing the sound of metal on asphalt during spirited laps at a roundabout.
In the off-chance that you tip over, the Honda Monkey is easy to pick up. In fact, the lack of weight does a great deal to disarm the rider from any sort of two-wheeled intimidation. Straddling the bike, pushing it around, and leaning it over while stationary are all fairly effortless tasks that build confidence on your control of the machine. For new riders, this is going to be a key characteristic for the Honda Monkey.
Talking with my colleagues at our breaks and food stops, the excitement over the Monkey was high. Smiles were easily spotted, and tomfoolery abounded. If you want to gauge how a moto-journalist likes a motorcycle, count the photo stops before wheelies, rear-wheel slides, and general hooning become commonplace. For the Honda Monkey, I think the duration was the first stop sign.
The fun isn’t contained solely to who is on the seat, however. On many occasions, older two-wheeled enthusiasts stopped us to ask if this was “the new Monkey” that was coming out, obviously knowing about the motorcycle. But, we had just as many non-motorcyclists stop to ask us about this “adorable machine,” as a woman who easily could have been my grandmother called it.
As veteran motorcyclists, it is easy to lose the trees from the forest when it comes to our two-wheeled pursuits. As such, it is easy to forget the perception that motorcycles hold with non-riders, a perception that is rarely positive.
Bikes like the Honda Monkey remind us that we need to bridge this gap, and offer an olive brand that shows that motorcycles don’t need to be the murdercycles our mothers warned us about.
Bike like the Honda Monkey are our industry’s best gateway drug to hooking a new generation on riding motorcycles. This is our generations “nicest people” moment, and it doesn’t surprise me that it is once again Honda that is leading the charge.
The Tech Specs, Just So I Can Sleep at Night
Four gears of furry, our riding saw us barely get above 45 mph on the roads of Santa Catalina Island, though I have some confidence that 65 mph could been seen on speedometer. Getting to that speed takes some time with the 8hp that is on tap, however.
As you would expect, the wheelbase on the Honda Monkey is extremely short – 46.5 inches, to be precise. While the motor is the same one found in the Honda Grom, much of the chassis is different. The front end of the Honda Monkey is its own, as is the rear swingarm with its dual shocks.
The brakes are the same however, and still induce ample dive from the super-soft upside down front forks. Metal pieces abound on the Honda Monkey, which account for its weight increase over the Grom, most notably the 1.5-gallon steel fuel tank.
Whisper quiet, it is easy to have a Honda Monkey sneak up on you. While I expect many Monkey owners will be looking for more sound and power with aftermarket exhausts, I also foresee a strong contingency who will keep their exhausts stock, in an effort to enjoy the ability to converse with their Monkey pack at stops and at speed.
Interestingly enough, the Honda Monkey has optional ABS brakes, which feature the use of an inertial measurement unit (IMU). This feature comes on the red model only, and it operates only on the front wheel, not the rear. Using the same six-axis IMU hardware that is found on the Honda CBR1000RR superbike, the Bosch system is surprisingly robust, but cannot be turned off or set to different intervention levels.
If you are wondering why Honda makes ABS available only on the red colored models, this is because of the complexities of supply chain management. The 30-second explanation for this is that Honda plans on selling more red bikes than yellow ones in the USA, which means that it is only cost effective to put ABS on the larger batch volume of red machines.
Shod in 12″ road-biased dual-sport tires from Vee Rubber, the Honda Monkey isn’t a trail bike, per se, but it does enjoy shortcuts across dirt roads, alleys, sand drifts, and other obstacles of opportunity. The first gear is tall enough to power you up steep inclines, even if your dad bod is tanking the power-to-weight ratio for the 232 lbs machine.
With LED turn signals at all four corners, as well as an LED headlight and tail light, Honda has made some modern touches to this vintage feeling motorcycle. The dash features are minimal: two tripmeters, an odometer, and a digital fuel gauge that never seems to move on the 134 mpg machine.
At startup, the LCD dash on the Honda Monkey gives you wink, as if to say “come on big boy, give’r some gas!” The dude abides.
Yeah, But Would You Buy It?
All of what I have said so far makes the Honda Monkey an interesting motorcycle to evaluate. There isn’t a single aspect of this bike that couldn’t do without an improvement. The brakes are stiff and weak, the suspension is under-sprung, and the motor is under-powered.
But again, none of this really matters. Like the Grom, the Monkey dares you not to have a good time on it, and you will lose that bet every time you swing a leg over this unassuming motorcycle.
The build quality is surprisingly good for the price point, and most of the bike is metal, not plastic. The dash is basic, but easy to read. The basics are there, in just about every sense, but nothing more than that…and that’s the point.
From an actual riding experience, the only thing I lament is the clutch actuation, which has absolutely no feel, and leaves the rider unable to modulate the lever accurately. Somewhere in the mix of stiffer clutch springs, more flywheel mass, or an adjustable clutch lever position resides the solution – something surely the aftermarket can handle.
It does feel like a miss that the Honda Monkey is a solo ride, with no accommodations for a passenger, which is a point of differentiation with the two-up capable Honda Grom.
I call this choice a miss because the Monkey screams for its two-wheeled fun to be shared with a friend, but to Honda this seems to mean that your friend should get their on Monkey, which I guess is good for sales.
Interestingly too, it is surprising that Honda doesn’t offer the Monkey in an automatic transmission. Big Red loves putting DCT and other automatic transmissions on a host of other motorcycles, but has seemingly left that option out for the one bike that might actually better with an auto-engaging clutch.
I say this because the only thing keeping the Honda Monkey from being ready for the non-endemic masses is the requirement to know how to operate a clutch lever.
The Honda Monkey might be the most unassuming motorcycle on the market, but it still requires some level of skill from its rider. In terms of making groms into motorcyclists (do you see what I did there?), the Monkey lacks this important lure.
It is also curious to me that Honda is content to let the aftermarket customize the Honda Monkey to perfection. As it also did with the Grom, Honda is not bringing a bevy of customizable parts to market for the Monkey. The only item worth even a mention is a chrome luggage rack.
Beyond these minor complaints, the Honda Monkey delivers as advertised. It is fun to ride, and it encourages you to stop taking life so seriously, to get in touch with your inner child, and to just go out and ride.
Pricing starts at $3,999 for the base model (red and yellow), $4,199 for the ABS model (red only), and the bikes should be arriving at dealerships as you read this.
If you don’t have a motorcycle in your life that puts a smile on your face every time you swing a leg over it, well…then you might need a Honda Monkey in your garage.
Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a Honda Monkey, and that is close enough.
Photos: Kevin Wing Photography