1996 Honda Magna Review  

Outside Reviews/Opinions:  

My Story
When I graduated from college (2nd time) and was a little more settled (and could afford it), I decided to get a motorcycle.  I had wanted one since I was a kid, now I didn't have any more excuses.  I had never ridden and didn't have any friends that did, so my option was to take a riders course.  I loved it, and was set to get a 250cc figuring it had enough zip for around town.  Luckily, anyone who had ever owned a motorcycle quickly talked me out of that.  Get a starter bike, yes, but not one that small.

General Information
Unfortunately, this must be addressed.  I'm tired of hearing, "but it's not a Harley!"  I think the big custom Harley's without the hard saddle bags, are beautiful.  They are also pretty good for long, straight highway rides, although I would still prefer a water-cooled, higher-reliability Asian bike if this was the route I wanted to go.   If self-perceived image and Show Bike/"Curb Appeal" are your main concern, Harley is the bike for you.  I also think (PERSONAL OPINION) they're overpriced and underpowered, and knowing a few people that own them I also know they still have much more maintenance problems than Asian bikes.  Plus, they're very expensive starter bikes and, while the resale is high  in raw dollars, the buying price is so high that percentage wise, they depreciate just like every other bike....sometimes faster (ever notice that everyone got a "great deal" on their Harley?). 

They are good for boomers who can't convince their doctors to prescribe them Viagra yet, or Southern-Baptist dentists that want to pretend they're outlaws on Friday night (can't stay out late on Saturday night; they're deacons on Sunday morning).  As the CEO himself has said in many interviews, "You're not just buying the bike, you're buying the image."  I just want a motorcycle; I don't need to pay extra for an identity.  Expressing your uniqueness and individuality by purchasing the motorcycle that television told you everyone else gets to show their uniqueness and individuality (must....follow....advertisement's....orders....) seems pretty dumb.  Still, there's something to it because there's millions of "unique snowflakes" expressing their individuality by looking alike on a Harley. If you really want one, get one--but not for those reasons.

I was looking for a good all-around midsize starter bike.  One I could commute comfortably to work, but also take for weekend cruises around the area.  If I liked riding, a long-range cruiser would come later.  Reading up on bikes, I noticed that everyone thinks their bike is the best.  Still, by reading objectively I was led to the Honda Magna.  Review after review talked about the surprise that it it wasn't the absolute best power or handling, but unlike most bikes it wasn't a matter of having to trade off one for the other.  The Manga wasn't the absolute best at either, but it did both very well.
• Power:  The monster oversized bikes are great for highway travel, but you have to muscle them around the fun curves--a bike isn't supposed to be work!
• Easy handling:  Usually reserved for smaller, lighter bikes that don't have much power, especially for a passenger and long rides.

A friend clued me into the Motorcycle Auction held in Dallas.  It's the cheapest way I know to get a bike.  No warrantee, but many of the bikes have less than 500 miles on them, and most have less than 2,000 miles.  I was bidding on several bikes, but really wanted the Honda Magna.  A combination of smaller engine, but deceptively powerful due to the Honda reliable, proven v4 engine.  A sit-down bike that wasn't too big (I could still push-start it in a pinch) and still had maneuverability, but was more powerful than it looked.

Factor in the MSRP or NADA prices, and the Magna looks very good.  Some bikes are over $10,000 with 45 horsepower--I want to ride my bike, not just putt-putt somewhere or tow it on a trailer so I can show it off! Even Honda salesmen will steer you towards the Shadow series or the new VTX series.  Test ride a Magna, then decide.

Engine Performance
The v4 is the secret.  It's a 16-valve, double-overhead-cam, naturally balanced machine (does not require a chunk of metal to counterbalance).  It has a broad torque range over a long RPM range, allowing for great high-end power.  There are dyno's of 85 hp at the wheel in this 750cc bike, and Dave Dodge Racing Products sells aftermarket parts to get it well over 100 RWHP.  Typical for a fully stock bike is 82 RWHP at 46-50 ft lbs.  There's a little mid-range power drop (5500 RPM area), but that was taken care of with a carb jet/shim kit.  The graph shows a dyno of a fresh off the line, stock 97 Magna vs. the Honda VFR750 sport bike that was the standard to beat for many years.  If they look close, it's because it's almost the exact same engine--the Magna is a a rocket engine in a cruiser frame.  

The Magna engine came directly from the previous generation VFR750 sport-bike, sacrificing some of the top-end (9,750-11,250) torque/HP to give it more torque in the 0-6,000 RPM range.  Yes, it's a cruiser but it'll pull away from some of the sport bikes/crotch rockets.  The 85 hp output puts its performance far past all but a couple super-muscle cruisers, such as the Honda VTX (which has 1800 cc's and costs almost twice as much as the Magna) and the Harley VRod (which is well over $20k for the waiting list).  The Magna will out accelerate them both in the quarter-mile, but obviously the larger engine will eventually let them catch up.  Of course, that's racing straight.  Once the road starts to curve, the Magna leaves those heavy boats--I mean bikes--behind.

You ever see the old cartoon of the New York Taxicab family that has a son that goes wrong and turns into a hot rod?  At the end he gets wrecks, but the dad is proud as can be because he goes back to the plain, drab taxicab frame.  Just before the cartoon closes, he shows his secret--he's in the taxicab body, but he kept the hot rod engine under the hood.  That's the Magna--the playful little taxicab with the surprise.

The Magna has a split personality.  The engine generates good torque down low (2000 RPMs--it's weakest point) and is comfortable cruising at 2500 RPM.  Nothing horrible, but nothing to brag about.  But it redlines at 9,750--while spitting out gobs of torque.  You can ride it either way, the fuel sipper or the rocket ship (with the obvious trade off in gas mileage).  This means the Magna delivers strong acceleration even in the upper gears.  When accelerating at 2500 RPM in 5th gear, downshifting is optional.  Acceleration here won't snap your neck, but if you're doing 5000 RPM in 5th, you don't have to downshift to pass that car.  And at high RPM's, you can be in 3rd gear at 65 mph, twist the throttle and take off.  As an example of the power/torque, here are the recommended shift points from the owners manual:

Shifting Up                     Shifting Down
1st to 2nd:  12 mph             5th to 4th:  22 mph  (1,500 RPM)
2nd to 3rd:  19 mph             4th to 3rd:  16 mph
3rd to 4th:  25 mph
4th to 5th:  31 mph (2,100 RPM)

The range on 5th gear, per the manual and the max RPM, is 22 mph to 145 mph.  That's seriously broad range.

To give perspective, the other dyno information came off the web for a 1994 Harley Big Twin 1340.  It produces more torque than the Magna at 2000 RPM, but Harley torque drops fast.  The Harley can cruise at a nice, low RPM without a problem --especially important for an air cooled bike.  Just don't expect to accelerate too fast, or pass anything without downshifting.  It's all about trade-offs.

For two bikes that make the same peak torque, the one which makes it at the higher RPM can stay in the lower gears longer and therefore go faster.  This number is represented by power over time (usually measured as ft-lbs per second), or horsepower.  Even though the Magna is smaller and blows the Harley away on  HP, this doesn't necessarily mean it's better, just different.   Pick a nice cruising speed of 70 mph/5th gear and you'll see how they compare  (all numbers approximates):
Bike    RPM    Torque    HP
Harley  3000   62 ft-lb  36   Same HP, more torque (lower RPM, probably better MPG)
Magna   4800   43 ft-lb  38   
Comparing the Harley and the Magna, it's all a matter of what you want--long range, straight, highway cruising at low RPM/good mileage, or sacrifice a little mileage for a huge boost in power and more maneuverability.   I like the extra fun, and in the city I enjoy blowing past the "big boys" who think more displacement  means faster bike.

Magna Handling
The bike has excellent handling.  1800cc cruisers with good seats, floorboards, and forward controls are the most comfortable bike you can get on the highway, but steering them on twisty-roads is like steering a 70 MPH log down a stream.  When you hit windy turns, it's work.  I learned the hard way when riding a muscle cruiser that you're the one that needs the muscles.  When I rode a fully-loaded Yamaha Royal Star on the best biker roads--twisty two-lane highways--with my woman on back, I actually had to ride at or below the posted speed limit on the tighter turns, and was muscling the bike around the corner. We tried the same route later on the Magna and it was a much easier ride.   I spend most of my time in the city dodging traffic, side streets, or on the the small highways; I'm not up for long interstate rides often.  As a result, a more maneuverable bike is better for me.  While the Magna is comfortable on the highway (and more so if you put in the floor boards and forward controls), the Magna dances around corners more like a sport bike.  It weights 505 lbs, but handles like a bike weighing much less due to the low center of gravity that makes it handle with a light touch.  You won't have to think about countersteering when leaning into big curves, and low speed maneuvering is effortless.

The front fork dives a little too much for my taste under hard braking (partially due to the longer rake), but even with a passenger and a "splat stop" where she slammed into me, I've never bottomed them out.  Since I don't brake like that very often, it doesn't really bother me.  Still, new Progressive springs are only about $65 and I'm considering it.  (Changing the oil is 3/4 of the work of changing the springs, I've been told, and I might as well go all the way).  The rear shocks are good; I ride at preset 2 (of 5 total) around town.  With my woman on back we're fine with it set on 3, and a full load for the weekend (saddle bags, sissy bar backpack) we moved to preload 4 (of 5 total settings) without incident.  We're average height, fit people (5'7" and 170, 5'4" and she'd kill me), a larger couple with a full load might want stouter rear shocks to avoid bottoming out.  (Of course, that statement is true for most bikes.)

I wish dealers would get together and come up with a real-world range test.  "Iowa, flat road, 75 degF, 60 mph, 350 miles per tank."  Again, the Magna has a split personality.  If you highway cruise slow at 3500-4000 rpm (51-58 mph) you will easily get around 50-52 mpg, and peak as high as 56 mpg..  If slap on a windshield and full load of sissy bar bags and saddle bags, then you run her like a rocket ship (85 mph from Arkansas to Dallas), you'll get around 32 mpg.  Still, it's good mileage for a rocket.  I average around 45 mpg.

There's a 3.6 gallon tank (including the 0.8 reserve), but due to the flattened shape the most I've ever put in is 3.4 when I've run it near empty.  To fill it up that far takes a lot of patience as you squeeze in a few drops, wait for the filler neck to drain, and repeat over and over.  My city commute driving gets me about 110 miles until I flip over, then another 30 after that.  I ran out of gas once and know not to go past 30 miles on the reserve, although I have pushed it for 35 (5th gear, highway, 55 mph).

Bike Noise
The stock bike is very quiet.  The wind noise drowned out the quiet engine noise completely, and I knew an aftermarket warning device (read:  louder exhaust) was in order.  Cars need to know I'm there.  There's also a neat harmonic that sets in around 5500 RPM on a stock bike, and around 5000 on a rejetted bike.  It a pleasant tone hums up and down at about 1 cycle per second.  There's no vibration, just the pleasant mechanical humming noise.  I don't know if that's just my bike, or all of them.  Update:  After owning the bike for several years....I'm tired of the noise and with the flashing headlight and bright yellow coor, combined with attention to what blind spots I'm in, I'm not so concerned any more.  I'm going to stick with the stock pipes in the future.  Noise is for the guys who need to compensate for something.

In the 1996 model, I still get the ticking noise from the cam that was supposed to be fixed by 1995 with a new oil hole in the engine.  It occurs very sporadically, at low idle speeds (<1200 RPM), and never when you bring the bike to the dealer.  If you lean it to the right, it increases, if you lean left it goes away.  In hot months, I switch to full synthetic and/or light weight oil and it's not a problem.  Regular oil with a touch of Lucas oil stabilizer (the stuff that makes oil crawl up the gears) also eliminated the noise; note that Lucas says they're OK for wet clutches.

There are aftermarket pipes for various prices, and a $6 fix you can find on the web to remove the baffles from your stock mufflers.  It doesn't sound as nice as a new set of Vance and Hines, but it's a lot cheaper.

I hate when people rate this without telling about them.  A 5'2" 110 lb person does not have the same needs as a 6'4" 275 lb person…yet you seldom know what the reviewer is.  As I said earlier, we're average height, fit people.  I'm 5'7" and 170, a good chuck of it muscle with a belly growing  little more every year (visible when I'm not sucking it in).  She's 5'4" and fit herself.

The Magna is a sit-upright bike, with my arms my arms slightly bent and almost straight in front of me.  There is no wrist pressure, and I often drive one-handed.  If I were a little taller, my hands arms would angle down a little more which would be nicer.  I occasionally get a little numb-hand on long rides, like when I ride my mountain-bike for an hour or so without flexing my fingers.  Being a little shorter, I'd also like the handlebars to come back about 2 more inches (there are new handlebars and risers to fix that.  Hand vibration is non-existent.  My legs sit at 90° on the stock pegs.

Wind is a little tough in the winter, as with most bikes.  If you're doing any touring, get a windshield (again, same for all bikes).

The stock seat is a little wide, and I don't have a problem with how soft it is.  However,  A lot of surfing on different review / owner pages has led me to this general (not absolute) conclusion:

Problems / Areas for Improvement
I mentioned the great things above, but every bike has it's weaknesses.  You obviously can't have single bike with the power of a 1300cc sport bike, the low-end acceleration of a 800cc sport bike, the comfort of a huge muscle-cruiser, and the maneuverability of a 650cc small cruiser/600cc sport bike, with a 20 gallon gas tank and 60 mpg, all in one bike.  Plus, improvements all cost money, raising the price.  The Magna is a great bike for the price ($7,500 MSRP), but a bad bike at $12,000.

To make this clear:  EVERY bike has areas where it could be built better.  Otherwise there wouldn't be any aftermarket. (This must explain the huge Harley aftermarket....)  Likewise, not everyone is the same height/weight/build, so the bikes can be customized to fit people better.  Here's some spots that I, a 5' 7" person at 165 lbs think could be better.

Fuel Tank:  Number one area for improvement on everyone's list is the fuel tank.  The air filter sits under the tank, making it smaller than it appears.  Still, the 3.6 gallon tank (including the 0.8 reserve) could very easily be designed with a different slope and wider back-side that would bring it to 4.5 gallons.  If you run at high RPM's, you're going to be switching to reserve around 85-90 miles.  (Some people have put Harley or Valkyrie 6.3 gallon tanks on the Magna) Around town (driving casually), I get about 140, sometimes 150 miles per tank, meaning a mid-week fill-up.  Not the bike for you if you plan on a lot of long tours, but fine for occasional long trips.  On long trips I drive a little slower and don't mind a break every two hours, but would really just like a bigger tank.  

Suspension:  Thicker fork oil and/or tighter springs.  The current "soft ride" is fine for just around town, but overall a set of stiffer springs (like Progressive Springs) will give a bitter ride, and stop the nose-diving on a fast brake job.

Brakes:  Rear--Replace the rear drum with a disc brake.  I just like disks better.  Front:  I am a cautious driver and don't have a problem with the front brakes, but some people want more stopping power with dual front discs.  (Note:  The 900RR front suspension is almost a direct swap and will give you dual front brakes).

Tires:  The stock Dunlop tires provide good grip and decent mileage, but everyone I know with any Honda cruiser switches to Metzler.  I have a Metzler 88 on the front (much better performance, never catches in grooves like the Dunlop did), and Dunlop tour tire on the rear that works good.  Honda should redesign the rims--they gave it enough power to break 140 mph off the showroom floor, but there aren't many V rated tires for a 15" rear wheel.  A 17 x 4.5 inch rear rim would fix that.  Not that I drive that fast.

Very minor complaints:  Most are common to all bikes.  Pick the foot pegs up slightly higher, say a half-inch.  This is a racing cruiser!  Faster, low-leaning tight turns scrape them.  OK,  you do have to push it real deep to hit them, but I've done it racing around tight, looped corners.  The front end is stable, but it's always nice to have a stock fork brace to help stabilize it (it's just a few bucks for Honda, or aftermarket available).  Also missing are the temp and oil pressure gauge (again, these are missing on almost all cruisers).  Also help with the passenger position.  The rear passenger foot pegs are mounted narrow and to the back, making long rides uncomfortable even with a new seat.  One company, Cyclistic, makes excellent foot peg extenders that move them down and out a little, making a huge difference for the passenger. Combine that with an aftermarket seat and it's a great passenger ride.

Extremely petty complaints:  The headlight housing should be about ˝" longer to allow for the in-line headlight blinker.  I had to clip wires in install the control box in the housing instead, and it's pretty tight in there.  I saw one person mention the neutral/turn signal/high beam lights are bright for easy reading during the day, but very bright at night.  They don't bother me.  The gauge back lights, again like most bikes, are a little dim at dusk.  They are, however, perfect at night with streetlights, and are a little bright at night in the middle of nowhere.  Not many bikes with an auto-dimmer.

I've listed a lot of things, but don't let it turn you off.  Every bike has some problems, and some of what I listed is the same on all bikes (auto-dimming gauge lights), and what works for one person isn't perfect for the next.  When it comes to comfort, even on the same bike what works small, light person will be different than what works for a large, heavy person.   

Aside:  When can we expect Honda to fix these problems? Here's a clue:  Honda took 13 years to introduce a completely redesigned Gold Wing, and 12 years to redesign the ST1100 sport tourer first introduced in 1990.  The 3rd Gen Magna was introduced in 1994.  Expect a redesign in 2006 or 2007....if the ever persistent rumors of getting rid of it aren't true.  2004 Update:  Honda stopped making the v4 Magna cruiser and the opposed 6 cylinder Valkyrie.  "Everyone wants a v-twin, like a Harley" is their reasoning.  Some of us prefer real power over fake noise.  Unfortunately, sales are the final call and the Manga, Valkyrie, and some of the Shadows are out, and the big, inefficient, good for running to the corner for beer and showing off VTX's are in.

Miscellaneous Notes
Both the 1-2 or N-1 shift are a bit clunky, but the other shifts were very smooth.  The lighter weight/gearing means a little jerkiness if you just drop off the gas at low speeds (rev/release over and over), like all small-mid-weight bikes.  The clutch is very smooth, without any trace of jerk or grabbiness.  The transmission ratios spaced well to try and balance racing and cruising.  Since this is meant to be a cruiser, a little more widely spaced would be better.

My suggestion is to re-gear them all a little.  I can cruise at 65 mph at 4500 RPM, well outside the fuel-miser 3000 RPM zone.  Re-gearing the whole thing would be nice to bring 75 mph touring RPM's into a more fuel efficient range, and coupled with a 5 gallon fuel tank would make this a true cruiser.  (Assume 70 MPH in 6th gear yields 45 MPG times a 5 gallon tank = 225 miles).  For example, bring 5th gear down to 0.8, making a primary ratio of 1.6, final of 2.4, and a total gear ratio of 3.72.  This  would have you doing 3500 RPM at 68.7 MPH...good speed, and fuel efficient.  In reality, at 3500 RPM in 5th gear you're only doing 51 mph.  And of course, for people who want highway travel over of-the-mark speed, they do sell aftermarket gears.

Overall Value
This is an awesome bike for the money, as noted not just by me, but in the motorcycle magazine reviews above.  The MSRP of the Magna has been $7499 for several years now.  Because it's inexpensive, you can afford a few customizing to fix some of the above gripes (get a windshield and if you plan to tour a lot, a new seat.  ) It's much less expensive than a plain, high center of gravity 1800cc VTX.  ($12,500…. and after that, you will still need to do some accessorizing there, too)