There are three things to say about the CBR600. It has consistently been
the best seller in its class since it appeared three years ago. We voted the 88
model best of the group in a four bike shootout last May. The 89 version has
been given a 10% power increase. Everything else is mere detail, although it
is the detail which makes the Honda such a well-balanced bike, the blend of
engine, comfort, handling and brakes is perfect for all occasions . . . from the
race-track through long-distance touring, right down to everyday riding to work.
The only criticisms to come out of this test were of the tyres and the tank
size. The CBR comes with Dunlop K505s or Bridgestones as original equipment.
Last year we sang the Dunlops' praises. This year we found that the Bridgestone
Excedras were no good in the wet and not much better in the dry.
Strange, as other recent Bridgestone designs have been very good.
The only thing wrong with the tank is that it doesn't hold enough petrol. Or
hold it for long enough. It usually managed 120-odd on the main tank, and
reserve only took it 20 miles if you were lucky. On the occasion that I wasn't
lucky we found that we could only squeeze 15 litres into the allegedly
16.5-litre tank. The missing 1.5 litres would have given it a useful 15 miles
extra range but what it really needs is another 4 or 5 litres. With such a
bulbously sculpted tank it would be easy to fit in that much without it even
showing, just by making it half an inch bigger in all directions.
At £3999, the price has gone up by 11% which, I suppose, isn't bad allowing
for a bit of inflation and the 10% power increase. It now compares to the GPX at
£3899 and the GSX at £3299, plus of course the all-new and so far untested FZR
which will be £3995.
Yamaha have been a bit slow off the mark in this country with their
nice-looking FZR. The Spanish magazine Motociclismo tested one against
the CBR and found that the Yamaha was Imph slower, although it recorded better
lap times around a race track. The German magazine PS also tested the
two; they said that the Yamaha gave about 5bhp less than the Honda, although it
went 1.5mph faster in their test.
Last year the Honda was slightly down on power compared to the Kawasaki and
the Suzuki. It didn't show up too much in the performance tests (in fact the CBR
managed to go slightly faster than the Suzuki) but it was l-2bhp down all
through the rev range. This year, Honda have obviously worked hard to rectify
that situation and have put 6-8mph on to the CBR's top speed, taking it over
Last year we also praised its ergonomics, saying that all the controls
worked". . . ridiculously well over a huge range of bumps and speeds", while the
motor's power delivery was "nice and explosive". Rupert summed it up by saying
he would want to keep it for many miles and couldn't see how anybody could be
disappointed with it. None of that has changed (except Rupert is currently
negotiating for a Transalp; the first recorded evidence that the slaughter of
whales can cause brain damage in another specy).
We reckoned that the 88 was resting on its laurels, but was still the bike to
beat. And although the Kawasaki was slightly faster, the CBR was still the best
overall package. Given the 89 level of performance it is going to be quite a lot
harder to beat.
Ours topped 140 in a fairly stiff sidewind but the power increase is not
restricted to the top end. Apart from a large hiccup at 5500 which was
more noticeable on the dyno than it was on the road — the CBR has a stack more
power and torque everywhere in its long rev range. On the road, the engine is
one of the bike's nicest features. Smooth and instant, the response is crisp and
the exhaust note has just a trace of the howl that used to mark Honda's
four-stroke racers. Maybe it is no coincidence that the dip in the torque curve
just happens to be where the noise test is conducted.
On the face of it, Honda haven't had to do that much to get the power
increase. They have raised the compression slightly, and have probably got
better combustion because the ignition unit is also different. The connecting
rods are new, which probably means lighter or stronger. Or both. Lighter would
mean less power wasted in moving bits of engine around. The carburettors are
bigger but only by half a millimetre. This on its own wouldn't account for
too much, but it is probably the result of more extensive modifications to make
the carbs flow more air.
And the engine certainly does flow more air, they haven't got the extra power
by making it rev further; if anything, the rev range is a few hundred rpm
shorter than it was on the earlier engines.
Honda have also changed the cams but it is not what you'd expect; they have
made the duration a few degrees shorter on the new engine. My guess is
that they've increased the air flow and have altered the cam timing to improve
the trapping efficiency of the engine, to cram more air in — and keep it in
at all speeds. This, plus the increase in compression, would give higher
pressures and a shorter burn time, so they would need a different advance curve
and possibly a more powerful ignition system.
The earlier engines seemed to be intake-restricted; Leon Moss got one up to
85bhp (but without the strong midrange of the 89 model) just by working on the
air filter and carbs, plus a race exhaust, and that proved good enough to nudge
Other engine changes include stronger clutch springs (well, different
clutch springs, but I don't suppose they've made them weaker) and an "improved"
fuel pump. So they can empty the titchy tank even faster?
The dip in the torque curve at 5500 feels like an early peak when you're
cruising along gently. There is no spluttering or hesitation but you sense the
load dropping off and shift up. This coincides with 70mph in top and simply
feels like a natural, relaxed cruising speed. Of course, ease it up past 6000
and the motor takes off again, screaming up to the places where it makes real
power. But it at least gives the choice; instead of having a clearly-defined
power band, it gives you the option of using the soft, woolly, low-speed
delivery or letting it rev and feeling the hard edge of the 80 horsepower motor.
This dual role is matched by the chassis which is comfortable in its riding
position and suspension yet still precise in its steering and handling. Last
year, the CBR felt taut and often seemed too hard, especially at low speeds.
This year, for no apparent changes, except the tyres, it seemed softer and more
comfortable. Possibly the tyres made a better match with the suspension. The
steering and handling were limited mainly by the tyre's grip. Both front and
rear were too easy to move about, wet or dry but especially in the wet
would follow ridges and lines and generally gave bad sensations without actually
breaking away into lurid slides. The grip and the feel weren't good by any
standards, but they were particularly poor in comparison to the current
generation of sports compound tyres. Knowing what is available and how
well the CBR responds to it made this set-up seem unecessarily inferior.
It's a serious omission on Honda's part but not one that is entirely of their
making, at least as far as the UK is concerned. Dunlop are not the most
efficient company at distributing their goods and Honda UK simply didn't have
any Dunlops to fit. Perhaps Honda Japan should follow Suzuki and Yamaha and
specify Michelin, Pirelli and Metzeler as OEM. I'd include Avon, especially for
the CBR, but have you tried to buy any?
The only chassis changes for 89 are the colours and the brakes, not counting
a modified sidestand cutout switch and warning light, despite the fact that
Honda's rubber strip outshone all other devices for preventing take-off without
retracting the sidestand.
New hues are red/white/blue, black/red and white/red, using some of the most
intense colours available on standard machinery. Regardless of the styling
effect they are worthwhile for the attention they attract. Hardened doyens of
the second and third lanes would pull over even though they could see there was
a lorry in the slow lane only half a mile ahead. Well, some of them did anyway,
and it seemed like significantly more than the average. Although it didn't
prevent one little pervert from pulling out of a side turning after I had
started hooting to warn him not to.
Which brings us to the subject of the Honda's brakes, the final items to be
altered from last year. This year, the calipers have larger piston sizes and so
does the front master cylinder. The result seems to be as powerful as before but
the lever action is lighter, with a shade more travel. The brake lever still has
the span adjuster but where last year's brake needed four fingers all the time,
this year's only needs two for normal braking and all four when loonies throw
themselves in front of you or when you want to outbrake Geoff Johnson into the
Given decent tyres it is hard to fault the CBR; in its third year of
development it is a reliable, well-tried unit which is equally good at relaxed
touring and high speed scratching. For sheer rideability, I still prefer the
sports-bias of the KR-1 or the performance of the GSX-R750J; but the extra
midrange of the 600 and its everyday practicality make a strong argument for it
against a sports lightweight. Its price makes an equally strong defence against
the 750s and, on the road, the difference in performance isn't that great. Of
the 600s, it looks like it will stay at the head of the class as the best
all-round package, the one to beat.