2003 HONDA CBR600RR Review
'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'.
The 600 supersport market is an important one to Honda and
it’s one they’ve dominated for years with their brilliant CBR600. The new
CBR600RR represents Honda’s ‘no more Mr Nice-Guy’ approach to the increasingly
aggressive supersport segment, but as Chris Moss found out when he rode the new
bike at Estoril recently, it may have grown some fangs but the CBR hasn’t
forgotten its manners.
Honda’s well-renowned CBR600 is one of the Japanese
giant’s most successful models ever. Since its launch way back in 1987 the
sporting middleweight has sold in huge numbers, captivating over 350,000 buyers
with its near perfect blend of sporting ability, excellent comfort and
It’s lost out a little to some rival manufacturers’ more
focussed offerings at times during its reign as one of the best sellers in the
class. But that’s simply because of Honda’s reluctance to build anything that
would compromise its famous all-rounder character. And even though the firm
launched a harder-edged version with the CBR 600 F Sport to join its more basic
F model in 2001, the ‘racier’ version wasn’t really different enough to tempt
buyers away from stuff like Yamaha’s R6, or Suzuki’s GSX-R 600. But there’s been
a significant change in the design philosophy for the next year, and the F model
will be joined by Honda’s sharpest CBR yet – the CBR600RR.
With its RCV Grand Prix bike-inspired style and
engineering, Honda seems at last to have a choice for both traditionalists and
hardened scratchers alike. However, as journalists discovered at the new bike’s
track launch at the Estoril GP track in Portugal, the RR is a quite a different
tool than you’d expect.
Ironically it was the poor weather, which greeted us all
as we landed at nearby Lisbon airport, and then continued for a while after
that, which helped to underline the RR’s surprisingly alternative character. As
with any launch, journalists will always have preconceptions of the bike they’re
about to test. And after riding at the wet and highly slippery Estoril track
just a few weeks ago, my perception of how the bike would suit the conditions,
was, in all honesty a bit negative.
The track is extremely risky to ride on when it’s
wet, and the thought of trying to manage what I thought would be a more of a
wild racer than a friendly road bike, wasn’t exactly making me feel at ease with
the idea of lapping the track. And when we all got to the circuit to find
absolutely zero improvement in the climatic conditions, I was worried I’d be
testing my lid and leathers much more than the bike!
Luckily, superstar and highly experienced
ex-Grand Prix racer, Ron Haslam took charge of affairs. He’d done a few test
laps on his own, and came back to warn us of the treachery that lay ahead,
emphasising just how crucial it was to take our time to avoid disaster. He
advised us to wait a while to see if things might improve, and that gave me a
chance to look at the new 600 in closer detail.
What a great looking bike the RR is. The RCV
influence is obvious, with its sleek and sexy shapes mimicking the race bike’s
very closely. The bodywork style, chunky-looking frame and swingarm, trick
underseat exhaust, and diminutive size make it one of the snazziest Japanese
sportsbikes on the market – and every inch a racer. But sitting on it thankfully
helped to dilute the impression of it being a tricky and uncompromising machine
to manage. And, though the new CBR is very compact, its riding position was a
lot less radical than I’d anticipated. I’m not saying it will rival a VFR800 for
comfort, but it won’t be as far behind as you’d think.
Some of the tallest testers mumbled on a bit
about it being a fraction too cramped to tuck in tidily, but I’d reckon anyone
under six-foot could consider longer trips without packing any pain-killers. The
riding position for those of a less gangly nature is relaxed enough, and the
fairing and screen seem big enough to fend off the worst of the elements.
A push down on the suspension also revealed a
surprising amount of plushness, but that was nothing compared to the real shock
of how agreeable the 600 was like to ride.
When we did finally get going, following Haslam’s
lines at a very slow pace, the way the Honda dealt with the conditions was
nothing short of amazing. I thought the current F model would have been a far
better choice for coping with the challenge, but within a single lap the RR
model revealed itself as an absolutely perfect tool for the job.
The most remarkable part of the bike at that
stage was its engine. Instead of a manic and peaky animal, which I’d thought
Honda must have been forced to build in order to get it to deliver its claimed
maximum of 115bhp, the all-new fuel-injected motor couldn’t have been more
flexible. Just like the riding position, the engine is much less focussed that
you’d expect. It’s a daft or docile as you want it to be. In fact, such was the
steady pace that Ron was setting, I selected top gear and rode lazily around on
the throttle for a couple of laps and was amazed at just how well the CBR coped.
Through Estoril’s very tight uphill chicane where
I’d guess none of us were going any faster than 20mph, the bike pulled cleanly
and smoothly without a single hiccup. All the way round the rest of the track
there was nothing less than a fluid and friendly drive whatever the rpm,
speaking volumes for the linear power delivery and glitch-free fuel-injection
set up. By comparison, the existing two bikes’ (CBR600F and Sport models)
relatively peakier delivery would have undoubtedly forced closer rev-counter
study and subsequent gear changing.
To be honest, when I considered the way the 600’s
engine was working, its superbly broad and smooth spread of power and torque
made me suspect the bike was not 600cc but actually something around 100cc
bigger. We’re definitely talking VFR style power delivery here. Brilliant.
Of course handling manners are just as crucial
when you’re trying to stay upright on a surface that Torvill and Dean would
struggle with. But again the surprises continued to unfold. Weighing only 169kgs
dry, and having the dimensions of something more akin to a 400 were definitely
helping matters. As were decent tyres and brakes. But the real ally to cornering
composure and faith in making it to the other side was the result of what Honda
call ‘mass centralisation.’
Packing as many parts into a small and
concentrated area near the front of the bike, including the rider who now sits
70mm further forward, helps to make the RR feel very light and responsive, and
the design of the frame and suspension give plenty of feedback. Overall the
Honda was a piece of cake to ride, despite the dreadful lack of grip offered by
the greasy circuit.
By the time we all came in and had a chance to
reflect on how well the bike had coped, there was little option other than to be
totally impressed by the new CBR. OK, we had still yet to put it through its
paces when and if the track was to dry out later, but the real surprise was just
how friendly the 600 can be. There’s no doubt the aim of the designers to retain
the famed user-friendly spirit, which has characterised the CBR right through
its 16-year history, has been met totally. And anyone worried by the idea, as I
myself was, that the RR might be too hard-edged and difficult for them, should
very much think again. Or better still, take a test ride. That’ll soon change
There are some shortcomings compared to the
previous standard-setter for civility, the CBR F model, but in the whole scheme
of things they’re quite minor. The seating arrangement for the pillion isn’t
quite as roomy or plush as it is on the F, and the underseat storage is
virtually non-existent thanks to the silencer being where the storage once
The tool kit has been ousted to behind the
fairing panel as there’s nowhere else to put it. Oh, and the riding position
isn’t quite as relaxed as the F’s. Overall though, there isn’t much that the RR
can’t do as well as the F. And when the track dried and we could ride a lot
harder, we discovered that there’s plenty it can do better – a hell of a lot
Slowly but surely as the dry line on the track
got wider and wider, the sportier side of the Honda showed its class and
composure. And though the pace eventually became much, much faster than it had
been earlier, the reliance and certainty of the bike stayed very firmly in
The handling which had proved both nimble and
manageable in the wet, turned out to be just as kind when the speeds rose, and
without a hint of instability. Even sudden direction changes couldn’t fluster
the CBR, and they could be made without doing much more than thinking about
them. It’s a bike that needs the very minimum effort to steer.
On longer corners where the power needed to be
fed in little by little, the tiny Honda stayed glued to its line perfectly. And
though the track is a lot smoother than many roads you can encounter, the very
planted feel of the bike throughout the lap at Estoril suggests you’ll still be
able to depend on it to stay calm and settled on all but the worst surfaced of
The accuracy and dependability offered by the
CBR’s chassis shouldn’t really raise too many eyebrows. Looking at one of the
bikes with its bodywork stripped off reveals a very serious looking frame. Its
main cast alloy twin spars might not appear to be that massive at first glance,
but with another two hangers dropping down from them on each side of the motor
to form a beefy alloy triangle, rigidity is clearly not in question. Neither is
the way the Hondas wheels track the road.
The quality of the suspension cannot be over-emphasised.
We did firm up both ends a little before riding harder, but only a few of the
hardest riders had to turn up the damping settings significantly. All agreed
that the influence of the adjusters was immediate and apparent, so there was a
setting within the range to suit everyone.
It’s hard to say whether the unique Unit Pro-Link
rear suspension, which has no link between the shock and the frame behind the
tank, is the main reason why the rear end feels superbly suspended. But the
system, which instead has the shock attached to a cross member behind the engine
via two tie-rods, is used fitted on the RCV Grand Prix bike and it worked well
enough there! Along with the big 45mm conventional forks the exceptional feel
and feedback given through the seat and bars is a massive boost to confidence.
They undoubtedly make life easier for the
Michelin Pilot Sport road tyres too, and the French-made rubber could be taken
right to the edge of its grip in complete confidence. The tucked-in exhaust and
smaller and narrower engine are designed to improve ground clearance, but
believe me, if you can scrape anything on this Honda you’re either very talented
or very brave. Or – more likely – you’re just about to crash!
Another part of the new CBR mix conspiring to
keep you feeling safe and confident are the brakes. Like the rest of the bike’s
chassis parts they can be relied upon to perform their duties without giving you
any scares. The four-piston Nissins, and 310mm twin discs provide a
Whether you’re just scrubbing off a few mph
mid-corner, or hauling the bike down from something like 145mph in just a couple
of hundred yards, the result is always the same - sharp, progressive, and highly
impressive deceleration, with enough feel to take you to the limit of the tyre
and hold it there. And that’s a good thing to know when you’re sampling the full
strength of the engine and the very healthy speeds that it can quickly generate!
We’d already found out how friendly and useable
the motor could be at lower rpm during the wet session, but the drier track also
showed us that although much more rpm and power could be used, the feeling of
security didn’t wane a jot.
There’s no doubt that the CBR is a flier when let
loose fully, but the superbly linear delivery of power does occasionally mask
its potency - until you look at the speedo and shock yourself. It’s quite simply
a case of more revs and more power, with the midrange grunt being the most
exceptional part of the output.
The four-cylinder mill revs out all the way to a
heady 15,000rpm, with a shift light blazing on the dash to nag you to click up
another cog of the surprisingly (for a Honda at least) slick and quick box. Then
the rev-limiter gives you a final nudge just a fraction of a moment later.
The engine is just another of the many things on
the new CBR that you can heap praise on. It’s an absolutely cracking bike to
both look at and ride – whatever the speed. And to be quite honest, just how
long Honda will stick to their plans to keep the old F model in the showrooms is
open to question. The old F might still have a few more marginally sensible
virtues, but overall the RR has relegated it significantly.
The F doesn’t handle anywhere near as well as RR,
its motor feels as though it’s on choke such is its comparatively flat
performance. And what grunt and oomph the F’s engine has, is produced in a much
narrower rpm range. I wouldn’t exactly call it peaky, but its spread isn’t a
patch on the RR’s. Styling-wise it looks like a bike your dad would buy, and its
dated appearance gives the impression it’s least five years older than the much
sexier new model.
Honda won’t commit to a price for the RR until
the New Year, but you’d expect Honda to set a price point that competes head on
with the new R6 and ZX-6R. The F version is likely to priced at just £500 less
than the RR, I’d expect only die-hard CBR fans would think that’s enough of a
discount to make them swing for what is now a sports-tourer.
The only slightly more focussed RR is without
question the very best CBR600 yet made, and I’d actually argue it’s one of the
finest Hondas ever. Very few bikes can match its versatility, refinement,
civility and high sporting credentials.
Only a back-to-back test with the other new 600s
will reveal whether the RR is the best of the bunch, but boy they’ll have to be
good to stand a chance of topping it. It’s that brilliant.
Words by Chris Moss and Glenn Le Santo