2009 CBR600RR C-ABS – First Ride

January 27, 2009
Steve Atlas
Steve Atlas
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Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas is the new blood at MotoUSA. Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

From the East it Comes

The ABS system frees your mind to concentrate on other things in adverse conditions.
I bet you cringe when you see riding like this in the rain. I used to. Believe it or not, the new Honda C-ABS CBR600RR actually made this fun.

The winds of the East have blown the American way and I’ve been converted by the righteous belly of Buddah. Well, not totally, but last Friday sure opened my eyes to a safety feature that I’m sure more and more sportbikes will soon be equipped with. What am I talking about? While I can’t believe I’m even saying this, I’m talking about ABS (Anti-Lock Brake Systems) on a motorcycle – and for the first time in my life I actually have something nice to say about the set up.

Leave it to Honda to be the first kids on the block with the all-new C-ABS linked braking system, one which doesn’t hamper aggressive riding nearly as much as the other systems on the market, including some previous versions found on Honda’s own motorcycles.

I was, without a doubt, one of the world’s leaders of the anti-ABS movement. In fact, in some ways I still am. I don’t like them on any car I’ve ever owned or driven, and I still don’t. But even more so, I despised them on all motorcycles with a passion. Why? Well, even though I may sound pompous for saying this, I’m part of the one-percent of people able to exploit a sportbike’s braking performance beyond that of an ABS system, thus I considered them as a hindrance to the beloved fun-factor and a deterrent for fast lap times.

In the dry I like to back it in and mess around with the occasional stoppie from time to time, which this system totally eliminates. And frankly, in the dry I can brake with more accuracy and quicker than an ABS system (a fact my score sheets from several tests can attest to). Honda also published the same tests for the European market (they wouldn’t “officially” show us in the lawyer-ridden U.S.) and their professional rider was able to elapse that of the ABS system, but only just slightly. Plus, the ability to slide a motorcycle on corner-entry can be used to pre-steer or square-up a given corner. This all comes with years of practice and racing, something which ABS isn’t quite ready for just yet.

Wet and wild at HPCC.
HPCC played host to the C-ABS intro and presented an array of challenges.

Maybe growing up on dirt bikes and time spent battling the hordes on AMA road racing circuits have me locked in my ways, but I’ve always preferred to be in total control of the brakes. In a way, ABS leaves me feeling vulnerable, as if I’m only a passenger once the situation arises in which the system takes over. And in all reality, this is true. Once ABS is engaged the vehicle is going to stop only as quickly as the ABS system will allow it. There’s nothing you can do to get it stopped any faster. The key to this equation rests solely on how good the ABS system works as a whole. And, believe it or not, what I sampled at Honda HQ changed my mind enough that I am now a believer.

Honda’s C-ABS linked braking system is what changed my mind. It is now an option on both the CBR600RR and CBR1000RR for ’09 in limited numbers in the States. In Europe they expect it to be a bigger seller and may soon even be mandated by laws overseas. We sampled it on a 600RR at Honda’s top-secret HPCC proving grounds in the middle of the Mojave Desert in Southern California and I think Honda ordered some intervention from the man above, because it rained the entire time, something that happens about once every three years in those parts. But it provided an ideal environment in which to test the new system.

The Tech Side of Things…

Full bike system diagram
The inner working of the full system as it sits in the ’09 Honda CBR600RR C-ABS. Notice how much is centralized around the CG of the machine.

Honda’s ABS system has been in development for multiple years in Japan and here in the U.S., so you can imagine it isn’t the simplest thing in the world to explain. Because it’s being employed on a sport motorcycle, which makes weight a major issue, their old hydraulic system had to be abandoned in favor of an electronically-controlled unit. Where a traditional system utilizes a pressure control valve, a delay valve, three-piston floating calipers, parallel brake lines and a front fork-mounted secondary master cylinder, this new electronic setup eliminates the pressure control and delay valves as well as the secondary master cylinder, and uses a standard caliper design. This greatly reduces weight, but this system still adds about 20 pounds to the CBR, most of which remains centered around the motorcycle’s CG. It’s all about mass centralization people.

For each wheel the C-ABS features a hydroelectronic valve unit which contains a stroke simulator designed to relay the feel of a traditional brake system back to the rider. This is done by routing the brake fluid through a two-piece rubber cushion system that is less resistant early in the stroke and more as the lever is pulled harder. Because the system no longer directly connects the rider to the brakes, this is put in place to provide feel and feedback. Inside each of these units are two sensors that detect rider input pressure on the brake lever/pedal and relay the data to the ECM. (There are two sensors as a safety precaution in case one malfunctions, at which time the system will default back into a traditional braking system and a warning light on the dash will light up.)

THe full C-ABS system weights in at a mere 20 pounds.
The full C-ABS System weighs only 20 pounds.

The ECM deciphers the signals and sends them to the front and rear EPUs (Electronic Power Unit). Within each EPU is a motorized gear-driven ball screw that applies pressure against a piston to produce hydraulic braking pressure that is then transferred to the respective brake caliper. Still with me? When ABS mode is engaged, the ECM reacts to changes in wheel speed, detected from front- and rear-mounted wheel speed sensors, to rapidly decrease and increase braking pressure in an effort to maintain traction at the threshold of wheel lockup. Because the ECM is capable of hundreds of calculations and changes every second, the system is designed to work nearly seamlessly, with no vibration or detection through the lever/pedal whatsoever.

Control Unit breakdown 1
Diagram of the hydroelectronic valve. One is needed for each brake system.

Also incorporated is their linked braking system, which Honda has used for some time now, but has totally updated for these sporting applications. Where the old system used to the link the two brakes almost instantly when either brake was applied, the new one only does so when lockup is detected. If the bike is ridden in a traditional manner within its limits, it will feel as if there is no linking of the system at all. It is not until one of the wheels is just about to break traction that the system links the two brake units together to help the rider stop faster, with more control.

As mentioned above, this whole system is electronic, and the first of its kind on any production motorcycle. The reason for it being elecronic? To save weight. Though to counteract some of the 20-odd pounds it does add, the 600 Double-R gets the new mono-block Nissin calipers from the CBR1000RR. A redesigned shock was needed in which they change the placement of the remote reservoir was need to accommodate the mounting of the rear ECU unit under the seat, and slightly larger side fairings are now in place to cover the front ECU unit. On the 1000RR a higher-capacity alternator with updated oil-cooling and a larger battery are needed to support the system, while the rear under-fender is enlarged to accommodate the bigger battery and a new, larger left-side engine cover is in place to hide the rear EPU. Everything else stays exactly the same.

EPU Control Unit
Honda’s C-ABS EPU unit.

Bikes are being shipped to the dealers as you read this and should be available in a matter of weeks (Sometime in February 2009). As I said earlier, Honda is only bringing in a small number of C-ABS machines in an effort to gauge how the American market responds. Retail for the 600RR C-ABS will be $10,799, while the 1000RR will run $12,999. Both will be available in red only.

All very interesting techie info, but let’s get back to the good stuff…

It is, without a doubt, the best ABS system on any motorcycle or car yours truly has ever sampled. And considering the list of machines I’ve tested in my tenure on the job, this is quite impressive.

We started off on the quite dangerous 4.5-mile road course, which is a true testing facility. It’s far more akin to a mashing of public roads into what resembles a racetrack than a ture race circuit of any kind. Giant jump-like bumps at the apex of 80-mph corners, 20-foot wide sealer patches, tar stripes from edge to edge and massive hills with painted lines throughout are the norm, thus riding in the rain quickly raised one’s blood pressure in a hurry. It’s designed to put cars, trucks and motorcycles to the test and it does exactly that. Only problem? It’s 10-times more dangerous in the rain as all the variations in pavement make grip levels extremely inconsistent.

Hard on the brakes in the wet with total control.
Grab and handful of both brakes in any conditions and the C-ABS will control the rest. It take awhile before a trained brain will allow one to do so.

After those first scary laps it was off to the skid pad for a few passes to get acclimated with the C-ABS system in a controlled environment. My my firmly-shut eyes began to open, following which I bit the bullet and headed back out on the road course. This is where it all really came together, mading me a believer. I was instantly more at ease while riding as I suddenly no longer had to worry about crashing on the brakes, in turn relieving one of the most stressful elements of riding in the rain. I knew if I got in deep all I had to do was keep it on the racetrack and the ABS would keep me on two wheels. And it did. I was braking like it was dry, hammering on the binders at the end of the half-mile, 160mph front straight with vigor and aggression – no problem. This allowed my mind to concentrate on corner speed and throttle modulation with much more focus and made riding in the rain quite fun. Never thought I would say this, but I actually had a really good time riding around a dangerous test track in the rain, staying out right up until I was booted off at 5 p.m.

I must say, it really changed my mind about ABS. My days of doing less than smart things on public roads disappeared when I found the racetrack and because of this I would take the ABS unit as a canyon carver or daily commuter in a heartbeat. The additional level of safety it potentially provides in less-than-ideal road conditions is awesome. Be it sand, gravel, water – you name it, this system will make street riding much safer. As would it in the rain at the racetrack; it’s no coincidence Honda is homologating both bikes for competition in the AMA/DMG Series next season. Watch out when it rains people as anyone on one of these motorcycles will surely have an advantage.

Let me tell you why. Where the upper percentile of riders will always be better at stopping in the dry, as they are in tune with levels of adhesion and the ability to slide the bike some becomes an advantage, in the rain, unless you are literally Valentino Rossi (remember that amazing Suzuka win in the rain?), riding to that same limit in the wet is extremely unfeasible. The level of wet grip is so low and the wheels are so quick to lock up that it’s nearly impossible for a human to brake perfectly in the rain on a consistent basis. On the new Honda system, however, it is possible to do so – every time.

The new CBR with ABS is a potent weapon in the wet.
It’s almost impossible to tell this bike is equipped with ABS. The system is very small and Honda has tucked it away quite nicely.

This same concept can be applied in the dry, and for those street guys and occasional trackday riders who aren’t able to exploit every last ounce of braking without getting in trouble, this bike will do wonders for your riding, and in turn make the roads and racetracks much safer. You can literally slam on the binders – front, rear or both – with every last ounce of your might and the machine stops with the precision of a doctor’s scalpel every time. All the rider needs to do is steer the bike in the correct direction.

Where it might create an issue, and this is the same thing ABS has done with automobiles, is to make riders/drivers dependent upon it. If one only learns on a motorcycle in which you can simply slam on the brakes and it will essentially take care of the rest, how will he/she do when it comes time to ride something without a crutch? That’s the question. Either they will be extremely cautious and slow, due to not knowing the limits of adhesion, or they will not know what to do and end up on their head.

A lot of car drivers are guilty of never really knowing how to brake properly, thus when they first start riding it creates a big hurdle to overcome. Hopefully people will realize this and take it easy when a new situation arises. Though, much like the car market, the writing is on the wall. More than likely all motorcycles will be equipped with ABS in the years to come per some yet-to-be-seen form of government regulation. That’s my conspiracy theory anyway. And while I’m torn on government regulations as a whole, there’s no doubt it will save lives.

Riding in the rain and actually having fun!
ABS freed our mind to think about more important things – namely not crashing on the extremely slick 4.5-mile road course.

Picture this for a munuite: You’re cruising to the office, late and need to get there in a hurry. Thank goodness you’re on a motorcycle and can split lanes (at least here in California). As you weave in and out of traffic thoughts of how mad your mad boss is going to be that you are late for the third time this week run though your head. Then, next thing you know, an oblivious woman who is putting on makeup while text messaging makes a wide-swinging left turn right in front of you without so much as a glance over her shoulder. Your instantaneous reactions are all you have at this point. And the first reaction for most is to slam violently on both brakes as quickly as possible. It’s what most of today’s drivers have learned growing up with ABS-equipped cars their whole lives. But on a non-ABS motorcycle the consequences can be disastrous. Until now that included every purebred sportbike on the market. Thankfully Honda has came out with a system to aid people in situations like this while still maintaining the sporting abilities of the machine – all of this for only $1000 more than the standard model!

Two years ago Honda’s President Mr. Fukui promised that by 2010 all Honda motorcycles will be available with ABS as an option. Well done Fukui-san and Amen to the Big Red Machine for putting their money where their mouth is and progressing motorcycle safety.

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