The 1992 CBR900RR revolutionized big displacement sportbikes. Twenty-five years later, Honda returns to its roots with an all-new CBR1000RR.
Stirring New Breed
It wasn’t long before I realized my conservative expectations of Honda’s new CBR1000RR were off. The exact moment was in Portugal shortly after the first group of motorcycle writers had exited the pits and entered Autódromo Internacional do Algarve’s notoriously technical layout. Being in the second group, I was nonchalantly waiting for my turn, eating cookies and socializing with Honda staff in the garages. But then I heard something strange: a high-pitched, furious, shrieking, ear-piercing howl. First I thought it must be that the lead riders are on racebikes, however unusual that would be. But the screeching continued as each completely stock 2017 CBR1000RR zoomed by. I left the cookie bar and headed trackside.
This can’t be, I thought. These are sensible, for meeting nice people, reasonable, Euro 4 compliant Hondas. I had just heard those very same bikes leave the pit area in a modest hum and now it sounded like a Word Superbike round was on. What’s going on here?
Nothing during the prior evening’s powerpoint presentation really hinted at this new generation CBR1000RR being anything more than the logical evolution of the bike introduced in 2008 and slightly updated in 2012.
The frame is very similar, although a bit lighter and with 10 per cent less torsional stiffness. The bodywork is thinner and there’s a new titanium exhaust. Magnesium covers, new wheels with five rather than six spokes, a new rear subframe, new swingarm and a host of hollowed out parts and lightened bolts all contribute to a very impressive 15-kilo weight reduction. Ride-by-wire throttle, a full suite of electronic aids using information gathered by an Inertial Measurment Unit and multiple rider modes are now standard. Inside the profoundly revised engine are new pistons, connecting rods and crankshaft, as well as a new camshaft and new valves. The cylinder head is also new and the mill now revs to 13,000—750 rpm higher than its predecessor—and riders can observe tachometer readings on the new colour display instrumentation.
During this new model’s technical presentation we learned that power-to-weight has been improved by a factory-spec 14 per cent. Honda made a comparison with the original 1992 CBR900RR noting that the power-to-weight ratio is up 65 per cent on this 25th anniversary model.
The $23,999 SP version ($4,000 more than the base CBR1000RR) adds, among other goodies, super trick Öhlins semi-active suspension and high-end Brembo calipers. It’s also one kilo lighter thanks to a lithium-ion battery and the world’s first titanium fuel tank on a production bike.
It all sounded very clinical with no mention whatsoever of a revolution, philosophy change or class leading this or that. So I thought we’d just be riding an improved CBR1000RR and I expected nothing more than the type of accessible-and-competent-but-not-earth-shattering litre-bike Honda’s offered for the past dozen years or so. Oh, how wrong I was, and that piercing exhaust music was only the first hint.
The new CBR1000RR is still a Honda in many ways. Fit and finish is flawless, attention to detail is evident everywhere, even with the fairing completely off. Every point of contact and every interaction between rider and machine feels refined and natural. The riding position is obviously sporty, but not extremely so for such a track-focused model. The clutch is light; gear shifts are buttery with or without the action of the excellent quick shifter (one of the best in the business during downshifts) and other than a very slight jerkiness in low gears in the most aggressive rider mode, throttle action is smooth and precise.
The bike is also very reminiscent of the previous generation when it comes to ease of use. The venue selected for the new CBR-RR’s introduction is remarkably tough with multiple fast blind turns that are downright spooky until you get acclimated to the roller-coaster type layout. Although I had ridden here once before during the launch of the original 2009 BMW S1000RR, much of my first session felt as though I’d never even seen the place before. I’d constantly enter corners much too fast and nowhere near the right line, which forced me to simultaneously brake hard and steer the CBR toward where it should have been in the first place.
During all these corrections, the astonishingly compact Honda (from some angles, it looks almost like a CBR500R) never misbehaved nor seemed overwhelmed. Instead it consistently responded in a completely natural and instinctive way despite any clumsy inputs from me. Basically, it just waited patiently for me to get my act together without ever complaining, which I appreciated very much.
Litre-bikes that “feel like a 600” are a myth. All of them are bigger, require much more effort to toss around at speed on a track and just don’t have that feathery and agile 600 feel. I’d have to ride all the Thousands back to back at the same track to be absolutely sure of it, but even without having done that, I’m pretty confident in saying the new CBR1000RR is the lightest and easiest to ride of its category, the most 600-like.
In terms of power, the new CBR1000RR is plain and simple in another league compared to the outgoing bike, which during back-to-back tests I made with the latest 190-200 hp-ish models, almost felt like a 750. This one’s a proper beast. My seat of the pants impression is that it will be very competitive with the YZF-R1, ZX-10R and GSX-R1000 in outright acceleration and maybe just a bit behind the über-fast S1000RR. Whatever the result ends up being in a direct comparison, the fact is the CBR1000RR has graduated to the major leagues and is now right up there with the fastest of litre bikes.
This is just anecdotal, but I remember very well the first 193-hp S1000RR and how its front wheel lofted after the hump at the beginning of the Autodromo’s front straight. We’re talking about 200 kmh and fourth gear. During my first lap aboard the new Honda—still not sure exactly how conservative it was—I thought I’d see if it too, could get its front end airborne at that spot. Probably thinking it may not, right at the crest, I gently pulled on the bars to “help” it. The CBR1000RR snapped straight up and stayed there until I let it come back down, all in front of the pit area where worried Honda staff looked on through the fence. Over the course of the day, I would do several more monster wheelies at that spot and others, not just in fourth but also in fifth and not just for fun, but also to experiment and understand what Honda’s approach was to wheelie control.
In a nutshell, it depends on the rider mode selected and the system’s intervention varies from preventing the front wheel from lifting altogether to allowing long and fast wheelies. I enjoyed having the choice to wheelie or not rather than the bike deciding what is acceptable and I appreciated the generally transparent and natural feel of the many actions from the electronic aids package. I did, however, notice some inconsistencies during wheelies, which happened a lot on this hilly track and on this ultra-fast, ultra-light bike. The front would stay close to the ground on some laps, then come up way higher and more suddenly on others, at the same spot, making it tough to predict exactly what was going to happen the next time around. I also felt like the ABS and the rear-lift control would occasionally and prematurely intervene.
But that’s about all that annoyed me about the new CBR1000RR, and some fiddling with the settings would have likely resulted in some improvements, though there are so many possibilities I would have needed another track day to sample them all. The rest, from engine torque and braking to stability and suspension action, is absolutely first class.
Speaking of suspension, the SP’s semi-active Öhlins shock and fork are also quite impressive. Equipped with racing slicks (the base CBR1000RR was fitted with stock tires), the SP allowed more aggressive corner exits and lean angles, and higher speeds through turns. I was surprised to not feel a huge difference in suspension performance, which says a lot about the base model’s shock and fork quality.
In my view, the chief advantage of the Öhlins is their ease of adjustability as changes are as simple as entering a new setting on the colour display. Though I had little time to experiment with those adjustments it was clear that the entire behaviour of the bike could be changed and fine-tuned. Impressive!
Which is precisely the adjective I was left with after the test: impressive. I spoke with various engineers and project leaders during the launch with one brief conversation being especially memorable. And that was with Kyoichi Yoshii, the chief engineer and project mentor (he has been deeply involved with previous CBRs), who asked for my thoughts following my first sessions. With helmet still on and breathing heavily, I mumbled and thought out loud. I mentioned how surprised I was, and that this wasn’t at all the reserved machine I was expecting. He replied that the 2017 CBR1000RR was the first of a new breed of Hondas designed to provide “more excitement.”
No exaggeration there.
by Bertrand Gahel