Wheelies are not cool. We only shot this pic to show you the 599 has four exhaust pipes, despite the feel of its V-Twin-like grunt.
Suzuki’s SV650, introduced in 1999, quickly became the surprise hit of the year, having the elusive mix of qualities that appeal to both newbies and experienced riders. With its good looks, punchy V-Twin motor and light aluminum frame, the SV is a whole lotta bike for a sub-$6000 price tag.
American Honda could only look on with envy and frustration. Envy because Honda has a well-deserved reputation for building rider-friendly machines like the SV, and frustration because Honda Europe was already selling the wildly successful Hornet 600 introduced one year before the fun Suzuki.
The Euro Hornet combined the motor from the 1994-98 CBR600F3 with the frame and styling from the Japanese-market Hornet 250. The result was a sporty, stylish and practical bike desirable to a wide cross-section of riders. More than 100,000 people brought the little Hornet into their garages, and it was the best-selling bike in Europe in 2001 and 2002.
For 2003, Honda upgraded the Hornet with revised damping rates in its suspension, more aggressive ergonomics, wider wheels (from the F4’s parts bin) and a slightly larger gas tank. American Honda could no longer watch Suzuki dominate this category, so the Hornet is finally coming to these shores. (However, don’t go to your dealer asking for the distinctive Hornet name because the bike is regrettably renamed the bland 599 moniker for the U.S. market, as the company did when it imported the 900 Hornet and called it the 919.)
The addition of the 599 gives Honda a three-bike salvo in the 600cc sportbike class. The $8599 CBR600RR introduced in 2003 heads the lineup, followed by the $8199 CBR600F4i that gets a more comfortable one-piece seat for 2004. The 599 lists for $7099.
Honda reps allowed the press to sample the new machine before it hit the showrooms this November, offering up a one-day ride that encompassed city streets, freeway running and canyon strafing the hills around Malibu, CA. It was a good representation of the kind of roadwork the 599 will be called upon to do.
First impression is that the baby Hornet feels nicely stubby once aboard, as befitting its 250cc roots, and the rider sits close to the front wheel in a slightly aggressive forward cant. The sculpted fuel tank is not only attractive, it also allows a rider’s knees to cozy in to the fuel tank scallops, making the 599 also feel thin between the legs. Its narrow seat, 31.1 inches above the pavement, is good for short legs but not fat asses. Fit and finish is typical Honda, which is to say quite good, and the high-mount exhaust canister that slinks under the right side of the seat is a nice touch for a so-called budget bike. California models come equipped with a catalyzer.
The old F3 was around before fuel injection became popular, and the 599 follows its lead, necessitating choke-assisted starts. Most of the modifications to the engine center around punching up bottom-end power. Its quartet of 34mm carbs is 2mm smaller than the F3’s for better midrange squirt, aided by narrower intake ports and revised cam timing. Honda claims a 95-horsepower peak at 12,000 rpm and 46 lb.-ft. at 9500 rpm. Honda usually takes its power readings at the countershaft, so we expect perhaps 88 ponies at the rear wheel.
That number isn’t going to impress those who consider the 105 horsepower of the current top-rung 600s such as the 599’s brother, the CBR600RR, a necessity. But, from first-butt experience, I can tell you Honda has built one terrific street engine. There is decent tug from as low as 4000 rpm, ramping up for a stronger pull at 6000, especially low engine speeds for a 600cc four-cylinder.
The canyons above Malibu are just as we like ‘em: twisty, gnarly and swooping, with plenty of elevation changes. In this environment, a torquey Twin often delivers a better quality of power than a more top-end-heavy Multi. You’d have to tell that to the 599, however, because the little motor can make impressive time even with the revs low.
To illustrate the surprising grunt of the motor, I spent the first 30 minutes of horizon tilting before I even took the analog rev counter into five digits. And with a former World Endurance champion leading the way, in the form of Honda R&D guy Doug Toland, we definitely weren’t hanging about! Once spun up properly, there is a substantial hit at 10,000 rpm, though it really was more fun to keep the revs low and just whack the throttle open once past a turn’s apex.
Speaking of apexes, the Hornet, er, 599, has quite an appetite for them. With a 25.0-degree rake and 98mm of trail, the 599 doesn’t have particularly aggressive steering geometry, making it turn heavier than expected. But its wide tubular handlebar and low weight (401-lbs., dry, claimed) allow it to be chucked into corners like a racquetball.
In an effort to keep its cost reasonable, the 599 arrives with a few low-spec components, some working better than others. Twin-piston, single-action calipers won’t get much ‘spect at the local Gixxer hangout, but they do a better than expected job at slowing the Hornet, even from supra-legal speeds.
The most obvious flaw in the 599 is its suspension that is sourced from the bargain bin. The 41mm damping-rod fork actually has its damping rates well chosen, for lighter riders at least. But the rear suspension, with a single shock working without a linkage, gets overwhelmed on mid-corner bumps and on repeating freeway slabs. Preload is the only adjustment, and it needs more rebound damping for heavier and/or faster riders.
Disappointing, too, is the 599’s abruptness when re-applying throttle. Typically a condition seen most often from fuel-injected bikes (ZX-9R owners, save your breath), the carbureted 599 is also afflicted. The old tricks of dragging the rear brake or sliding the clutch makes the transition back into the throttle smoother. The 6-speed transmission is slick and low-effort, although I did catch a false neutral during the one-two shift just like my old CBR-F2.
Normally we don’t like to take up much space telling you about headlights, but Honda claims its new lamp that uses a die-cast aluminum reflector and new H11 bulbs throws 70% more coverage on low beam. We rode only during the day, so we’ll have to reserve judgment.
Honda reps say the 599 should appeal to the naked bike buyer who values versatility, whether it’s a younger rider who can only afford relatively cheap insurance (no expensive plastic to replace) or an older guy who wants something sportier than an all-too-predictable cruiser. These people are going to love the 599, as it offers Honda’s renowned reliability and a Mazda Miata-like hunger for a good thrashing.
Yes Kevin is a hooligan. But he is so nice you just have to forgive him for he knows not what he does.
The 599 can be a riot on the right roads and offers heaps of versatility. What is doesn’t have is the most horsepower (Yamaha FZ6), the most torque (SV650) or the most exclusivity (Triumph Speed 4). And at a price $600 higher than the FZ6 and Triumph and a whopping $1200 more than the naked SV, Honda’s 599 is in for a real battle on the showrooms.
It’s a shame that a fun and capable bike like the 599 might end up falling victim to an MSRP that is seen as too high. The definitive verdict on the 599 won’t be known until we throw its competitors at it, but it’s our early opinion that the 599’s biggest obstacle to success might be its price tag.