In The Hunt
When exploring the details and riding characteristics of Honda’s new CBR1000RR during a day-ride with a Red Rider rep last week, I couldn’t help but think back to 1998 when Honda introduced a heavily revised CBR900RR.
The double-R CBR had set the standard in open-class sportbikes when the first 900RR was released in 1992, combining open-class levels of power in a middleweight package. Honda enjoyed five years of class supremacy, and the ’98 CBR was easily the best version yet. But on the horizon was Yamaha’s new YZF-R1, a bike that looked on paper like it had the goods to unseat the CBR as the class champ.
At the 1998 CBR’s press introduction I had a chance to ask the CBR’s father, Tadeo Baba, if he thought the upcoming R1 might redefine the class of bikes he helped sire. “If the R1 is a really good bike and can be controlled by the rider, maybe I’d think about changing my approach with the CBR,” he said prophetically.
Well, the R1 turned out to be an overdog that was also blessed with stunning good looks, demoting the excellent CBR to also-ran status. Honda followed with further variations of the CBR the 929 in 2000 and 954 in 2002 â€“ but it couldn’t keep pace with the R1 on the track, in beauty contests or in the sales charts.
All of which brings us to the 2004 CBR1000RR, the first open-class Honda sportbike since 1992 that the once-revered Baba-san didn’t have his hands in designing.
In what must be a bitter taste of irony, the CBR’s press kit touts the same features as Yamaha did when it unveiled its first R1 back in 1998: a long swingarm better for putting down literbike power, made possible by stacking the transmission gears into a tight triangle that results in a shorter engine. Honda says the new CBR’s swingarm is a significant 34mm longer than the 954RR’s, making up nearly 42% of its 1405mm (55.3-inch) wheelbase, the latter up 5mm for ’04.
Unlike the Yamaha which lays its 2004 R1 cylinders down at a 40-degree angle (increased from 30), Honda has used a more upright 28-degree cylinder angle to bring the mass of the engine closer to the front wheel for better chassis balance and traction. Yamaha’s inclined cylinder angle allows the frame spars to have a straight shot toward the swingarm pivot, making for a narrow midsection, while the Honda’s frame wraps around the engine and incorporates a large triangulated brace that doubles as a forward engine mount. Both design theories have their merit. Stripped of its clothes, the CBR looks remarkably similar to Valentino Rossi’s RC211V MotoGP machine, a bike that has won two consecutive championships.
Rather that start with a streetbike and turn it into a racer, Honda developed the CBR into a track tool before making it streetable. This photo shows the many similarities with the championship-winning RC211V MotoGP machine.
One feature not available on any Yamaha is Honda’s Unit Pro-Link rear suspension. First seen on the RC211V MotoGP bike and later on the 2003 CBR600RR, this clever design has the shock entirely contained within the swingarm instead of one end of it attached to a rearward part of the frame. This keeps rear suspension inputs inside the swingarm instead of spreading them to the chassis. Some claim that this design also assists in putting power to the ground. In comparison with the 954RR’s swingarm, Honda made the new one stiffer torsionally (bending) but endowed it with less lateral rigidity for better compliance and feedback when leaned over in the corners, the latest rendition of Honda’s tuned-flex concept. The Unit Pro-Link design also allowed engineers to have the rearward end of the large-ish 4.8-gallon fuel tank to extend downward. Mass centralization is aided by the low placement of the shock and fuel load, something Honda boasts about in the CBR’s press kit.
Just swinging a leg over the new RR is enough to convince a CBR9XX rider this is a whole new animal. While the series of CBR900s truly felt 600-sized, the 1000RR feels more substantial, kind of like a long RC51, and stretched out more than the new ZX-10R. Also substantial is the CBR’s weight, listed by Honda as a fairly hefty 396 lbs., even though the aluminum frame employs no less than three kinds of casting processes to balance strength against weight.
Though manufacturers’ claimed dry weights are a bit like asking a woman what she weighs in terms of accuracy, it’s worth noting that Kawasaki claims its ZX-10R scales in at just 375 lbs. dry, while Yamaha’s PR men say the R1 weighs just 379 lbs. You’ll remember from our 2003 Supersport-class shootout that the CBR600RR had to carry an extra 20-or-so pounds compared to the new ZX-6R and R6, and it seems like the CBR Thou might also have a weight penalty.
Firing up the CBR and getting underway, the CBR impresses with its excellent low-speed running. The fuel-injected 998cc motor pulls cleanly and deliberately from as low as 3000 rpm, and this 170-some horsepower mill seems almost docile while traveling surface streets to the freeway.
However, one on-ramp blast will let you know in a hurry this is one serious machine. There’s no real hit from the CBR’s spikeless powerband, as its power delivery feels almost Twin-like in that it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly fast until you look at triple digits staring back at you from the compact and easy to read instrument panel.
Honda says this is the longest swingarm in the open class. Unit Pro-Link design sourced from Rossi’s GP bike contains the shock entirely within the swingarm.
It was interesting to note the CBR’s reluctance to carry its front wheel. From all accounts, the RC211V shares the same quality, allowing a rider to put its prodigious power to the ground while other GP pilots are unable to apply full throttle as their front wheels paw at the air. Still, 80-mph, second-gear clutch wheelies are part of the CBR’s hooligan resume, if that’s what you’re into. We’re here to do the investigation for you.
While droning down the superslab, the ergos of the new RR remind you this is the most track-focused CBR yet. With clip-ons 1.8 inches lower than the CBR954, you won’t be State-hopping on the CBR without shaking out your wrists from time to time, but it’s actually not too uncomfortable. A shorter fuel tank puts the rider a bit closer to the bars, and that leads to a reduction in wrist pressure. The footpegs (higher and more rearward than the 954) will cramp legs over extended stints in the moderately comfy saddle. Wind hits a rider’s shoulders, head and knees, but the airflow around the rider is fairly smooth. Despite the engine’s counterbalancer, the bars buzz a bit, but the mirrors are actually halfway useful.
By the tenth canyon corner during our ride, the CBR gave the confidence to feel as if I could just set its inside mirror on the pavement. Lean-angle chasers are gonna like this one. The front tire digs in on initial turn-in, and soon after the rider gets that assuring feeling of both (excellent Pirelli Diablo Corsa) tires digging into the pavement equally. The addition of 5mm to the trail and wheelbase numbers combined with the mass centralization efforts have resulted in a bike that is wonderfully stable when banked over at acute angles. It makes a rider feel as if he could jump off mid-corner and the bike would still continue to track its apex with no less acuity.
For 2004, Honda has tuned out all the remaining nervousness that affected the previous CBR900s, and I know of one racer/journalist who will be happy about that. Roadracing World’s Chris Ulrich crashed a CBR954RR at its press intro after going into a headshake that knocked the front brake pads away from its rotors.
Most of the newfound stability is due to a rethink of chassis dynamics, but some credit must also go to four letters: HESD. The Honda Electronic Steering Damper is a high-tech, gee-whiz rotary damper Honda developed to calm headshake when and if it occurs.
Governed by the CBR’s electronic brain, a solenoid in the gizmo controls an oil pressure relief valve in the damper, giving no resistance at low speeds. When the ECU detects high speeds or fast acceleration (or both), flow is restricted to provide extra stability and security against dreaded headshake. It works as advertised: The CBR never wagged its bars and you’d never notice a damper was fitted by the way the steering responds fluidly at low speeds.
Despite the extensive use of light and exotic metals like titanium (exhaust), magnesium (sump, valve cover) and aluminum (frame, swingarm, engine), the CBR is the porkiest of the open-classers. Some blame must go to the innovative but burly swingarm design, as the CBR600RR is also the heaviest in its class.
Several miles into our carving of SoCal’s famous Angeles Crest I realized that I still hadn’t dipped my toe into the slick gearbox for awhile. “What gear am I in, anyway,” I asked myself. “Second? No, can’t be, I’ve been upward of The Ton already!”
Yep, that was second, all right. Run the tach up in first gear till the shift light is burning out your retinas and you’ll see the numbers 9-0 flash up as it sputters against its 11,650 rpm rev limiter. Taking the CBR to redline in low gear can get you arrested.
But graft on an XR50’s throttle restrictor and keep the revs below 6000 rpm and your grandmother could ride this 180-mph puppy. It has a powerband wider than a Bush budget deficit. The new RR has the same valve sizes as the 954 for high flow velocities and a strong midrange, but its valve stems are 0.5mm thinner for reduced weight. There is a bit of abruptness when reapplying throttle to the 44mm dual-stage throttle bodies, but it’s nothing that a careful right wrist can’t overcome.
The CBR’s front brake system is easily up to the task of slowing the CBR from speed, with latest-tech 4-piston, 4-pad radial-mount Tokico calipers biting on dual 310mm rotors. Their controllability was especially impressive considering their massive power, and using them isn’t as intimidating as expected thanks to their gradual initial bite. You’ll have to be more careful if fitting braided steel brake lines.
The suspension didn’t impress initially. The 43mm Showa front end was really responsive over pattering bumps, even if the front preload settings were a bit stiff for my weight. The Showa shock, however, would transmit too much force to this 98-pound weakling. Thankfully, the Showa components are fully adjustable and responsive to knob twiddling. Backing three steps off of the Showa shock’s ramped preload adjuster and taking a half-turn of rebound out improved the CBR’s road manners significantly.
Honda has used stacked transmission gears to dramatically shorten the CBR’s engine, allowing the use of the long swingarm that helps lever traction to the ground.
So how does the CBR rank against its rivals? Until we get all four of the open-classers together at the same time, it’s impossible to say for certain. The reigning king of the class Suzuki GSX-R1000 and the new Kawasaki ZX-10R are both likely lighter and quicker steering, but it’s hard to imagine either one of that duo is more confidence inspiring at high corner speeds. Yamaha’s new R1 also looks formidable, but we won’t get a chance to test it until Feb. 16.
So until we get the quartet together for what promises to be the most exciting open-class shootout ever, you’ll have to be content knowing the CBR1000RR is the most track-ready CBR Honda has ever built. It’s killa fast and very rider-friendly, a combination that’s going to be a formidable foe. Just ask American Honda Superbike pilot Ben Bostrom.
“I’m more enthused now than I’ve ever been,” said Bostrom in regards to the performance of his new 1000RR Superbike. “Every time I get on the bike, it makes me feel like a kid again. It makes me feel like I never road raced before and puts a smile back on my face.”
After five years of getting sand kicked in its face, the big CBR is ready to do some kicking of its own.
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