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Honda CBR 600RR
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 user-friendly manners.
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 your mind.
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 lived.
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 better.
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 place.
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 public roads.
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 near-faultless arrangement.
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