Test Ride: Honda Sabre

Words: Rob Harris/Larry Tate/Scot Magnish

INTRODUCTION – by Larry Tate

First, some context. The trend these days in the cruiser world (which holds more than half of total street bike sales in Canada) is to the “power cruiser”. It seems that many purchasers are finally figuring out that it’s all very well to look good in the showroom or the driveway, but if a bike can’t deliver some performance to back up its looks, its overall utility is right up there with a vegetarian diet (hey, I resent that flesh boy – ‘arris) or a preference for “Lite” beer.

Honda has always been in the performance cruiser game as well as the “look good, feel good” cruiser game, and the firm’s new Sabre is sort of an interesting bridge between those two worlds. The V4 Magna and the mighty Valkyrie are proof enough that Honda understands building performance, while the Spirit, , Shadow, ACE, and Aero (among others) show that the styling thing is alive and well, too.

Dual pin Sabre crank (left) and single pin Aero crank (right)

The Sabre is basically a variant on the Shadow line-up, using the staggered crank-pin version of the 45 degree VT1100 V-twin engine to give a perfect primary balance of a 90 degree v-twin. This allows the engine to rev by an additional 1000 rpm to provide about eight useful horsepower more than the single crank pin Aero, for example. Other changes to the Sabre version include shorter gearing (more acceleration), different pipes (which for the first time, give a standard Honda cruiser an excellent V-twin rumble), and some carburettor and ignition changes to match the more freely-flowing exhaust. The riding position is also different, with lower bars – still fairly wide, but with less rise and pullback.


Larry Tate

Photo credit: John Florey/Honda Canada

To my taste, riding the Sabre provides more fun than any of Honda’s other V-twin cruisers, by a mile. It’s not as fast as a Magna or Valkyrie, of course, but the retuned engine provides excellent low-to-midrange acceleration (welcome to the real world of streets and traffic), and it’ll still pull the bike to more than 170 km/h (we had the chance to do some racetrack time with it – you know, professional riders, closed course conditions, etc.).

The same experience showed that the Sabre is a pretty stable platform. You can easily grind away half the big billet footpegs (ahem) with nary a worry about the bike getting excited. About the only thing negative I’d say about the dynamics are that if you roll off the throttle in a fast turn you’re bound to provoke an unsettling weave – mind you, we’re talking extreme conditions here, nothing like the Sabre will likely ever encounter on the streets – and that it seems unusually sensitive to strong sidewinds. Perhaps it’s the attractive nearly-solid billet-looking wheels, but the front end moved around too much for my comfort when caught by a gust of wind.

I’d prefer the pegs about a foot and a half back, but at least they are pegs rather than floorboards, and the shifter doesn’t have one of those hideous heel/toe extension bits. Up to maybe 90 km/h the seating position isn’t bad, but I had to jam my feet on the pegs and brace my bum in the seat to hang on…not ideal.

Still, I think it’s the best Honda V-twin cruiser to date, by a long way. I’d still take a Magna (or better yet, a Valkyrie) for my taste, but I can see the Sabre carving a nice niche of its own.


Scot Magnish

Photo credit: Larry Tate

You could call it a cut above the rest. The Sabre’s 1100cc engine revs higher, shifts lower and handles better than the rest of the Shadow family – all without giving up anything in the looks department. You wouldn’t notice the bike has slightly shorter forks than the ACE, for instance – or that it’s handlebars are virtually flat compared to the rest of the Shadow line-up.

There’s no missing the Sabre’s improved performance, however, especially if you’re given the opportunity to ride the bikes back-to-back. The Sabre’s v-twin revs an extra 1,000 rpms above the one in the ACE/Aero, in combination with lower gearing is the Sabre’s edge; it’s faster, torquier and smoother as a result.

On the track, the bike was stable, comfortable and remarkably nimble for a cruiser. On the street it was downright fun to ride.

All the engineering in the world can’t make up for the fact that it only has two cylinders, however – and anyone who remembers the original Sabres has a right to be a little disappointed. You can trace the current VFR’s ancestry back to the original Interceptor and the 2000 Magna still shares a je ne ce quoi with it’s great grandfather.

It’s name might suggest it’s still part of the family, too – but the resurrected Sabre has nothing in common with these motorcycles. As a V-four sport-tourer, the original Sabre failed to catch on and only time will tell whether it will have better luck resurrected as a v-twin hot-rod.

Given the current quest for performance among the cruiser set, I’m inclined to think it will – and the price is definitely right. Besides, it it’s true performance you’re after, you ought to be looking at a different type of blade, so to speak …


Editor ‘arris

Photo credit: John Florey/Honda Canada

I really don’t like the single pinned crank version found in the ACE’s and Aero’s. 1100cc and they had the pulling power of a moped with the spark plug removed. It didn’t make sense. The whole world was seemingly in love with big engines and no power. Had I found myself in the Twilight Zone? No, I was in the mid nineties, living in North America and it was the start of the cruiser phenomenon. Thankfully a new Millennium (okay technically one year off, but no one seems to care about that fact anyway) seems to be finally redressing that sin against all that is two wheels with a new found need for PERFORMANCE to go with the looks. That’s what Honda are betting on anyway, and I’ll happily back that idea.

So enter (or re-enter) the Sabre. A name more associated with v-four brute power, slabby eighties styling and chocolate cams (no no, not the chocolate cams!), than a mildly tuned v-twin, curvy drag strip styling and … well non-edible cams. I assume that Honda were looking to carry over the power association, or maybe they’ve simply run out of names.

But enough mindless intro style babble, what about the bike? When Honda slipped a couple of Sabres into the pit line up along side the new Blade and the RC51, I thought it was a joke, and a sick one at that. Then I thought how funny it would be to watch some poor fellow journalist ride the thing around the track. Then I found out that it was me first. Ah, just because I crashed the F3 last year, haven’t they heard of forgive and forget?

Photo credit: John Florey/Honda Canada

With the thought of a few slow practice laps before the more track orientated bikes I hopped on and let her loose out of the pits. Hmmhh, I bit of a kick there. Throttle response was actually rather keen, the motor had a good chunk of torque low down, and acceleration through the box was really quite usable.

After a couple of laps I had my feet contorted onto the rear pegs, the throttle cranked and my left hand strategically placed in front of my face to slice through the wind, baby. It looked ridiculous, got me to a max speed of 170 Km/h at the end of the straight, but was kinda fun. The chassis was also relatively respectable. Leisurely flicks from one turn to the next didn’t anger it any and allowed for lurid peg scrapping with ease (as Larry mentioned, no boards, which are the work of the Devil and known Steve Bond killers).

Photo credit: John Florey/Honda Canada

The only time it did show weakness was during the second day when the wind was right up there at mark 7 on the gusty scale. A strong side wind (very noticeable while turning onto the long straight) caused the whole bike to flex and weave in corners, making keeping a line entertaining, especially as Blades and RCs buzzed by with mere inches to spare. Whether this would be a factor on the road would be doubtful but still probably better than most other cruisers presently available.

I found the seating position to be relatively good, but then I only rode it for short bursts, so it’s hard to judge. The bars are low, the pegs are a tad far forward, but the seat has a neat rise up to the passengers pad which helps support the lower back. On the straight at 100Km/h with a very strong headwind I wasn’t impressed, but then I’m a firm believer in a screen on any cruiser and that’s that.

The pipe gives a rather pleasing drone and the occasional bang on deceleration, which goes well with the style of the bike (well the drone anyway). Some vibration is present in the pegs at low rpm, but at a low enough frequency so as to be not intrusive.

All in all a rather pleasant surprise. I think the Sabre has an overall attractive style that doesn’t try and hark back to some mythical period of motorcycling gone by, instead melding classic cruiser with a more modern flair. It also has some power to boot, although it’s still quite a way from the Magna and Valkyrie definition of power cruiser. The chassis also has some weak areas but whether they would ever come to light in normal street riding is questionable. Overall it’s renewing my faith in the Honda VT series, it’s just a shame that it’s taken so long to get there.


CREDITS DUE ….

More of Master Tate’s comments on the Sabre and on the rest of Honda’s 2000 line-up will soon be available in Inside Motorcycles. If you want to know more about Inside Motorcycles or would like to get a subscription you can contact them at 416-962-7223 or email to [email protected].

Mr Magnish publishes a regular column in the Toronto Sunday Sun called Rider Source, which is also published on CMG Online by permission from the author. Scot will be writing more on the new Hondas in upcoming editions of the Sunday Sun. You can reach Scot by e-mail or by mailing him at the Toronto Sun, 333 King St. E., Toronto, Ont. M5A 3X5.

Editor ‘arris doesn’t do much at all but what he does he does here … unless it’s somewhere else and then it’s by kind permission of himself to whoever, whenever applicable …. which is rare but happens. You can’t buy a subscription or contact him. You can give him money though.

Bike

Honda Sabre VT1100C2

MSL

$11,399.00

Displacement

1099 cc

Engine type

Liquid-cooled OHV four-stroke 45 degree V-twin

Carburetion

2 x 36 mm CV carbs

Final drive

Five-speed, shaft final drive

Tires, front

120/90-18

Tires, rear

170/80-15

Brakes, front

single 316 mm disc with two-piston caliper

Brakes, rear

single 276 mm disc

Seat height

690 mm (27.2″)

Wheelbase

1640 mm (64.6″)

Dry weight

260.5 kg (573.2 lbs) (claimed)

Canadian colours

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