Over the last few months I’ve ridden most of this year’s new supersport machines, all of which are loaded with all kinds of electronic riding aids, with traction control being almost de rigueur now.
In fact, it’s become such an integral part of the supersport class that it would be easier to list the open supersport machines that don’t have traction control than those that do. There are only two: The Suzuki GSX-R1000 and the Honda CBR1000RR.
This begs the question: Is a litre-bike that doesn’t have traction control still relevant today? I got the chance to ride 2015 Honda CBR1000RR, as well as the higher-spec CBR1000RR SP recently at Roebling Road Raceway, just outside Savannah, Georgia.
The last upgrade the CBR1000RR received was in 2012, and even then it was a mild revision of the existing model, namely new colours, a slipper clutch, a Showa BPF and optional combined ABS. And this was at a time when Aprilia, BMW, Ducati and Kawasaki had already introduced traction control on their litre supersports.
With some bikes in the class now surpassing the 200-horsepower threshold, traction control has become a necessity. Honda hasn’t yet jumped on electronic management bandwagon. In fact, the latest SP version relies solely on the rider to control grip at both wheels because it’s not even available with ABS (it’s standard on the CBR1000RR).
However, it does come with fully adjustable Öhlins suspension, Brembo radial front calipers, and the engine has a new cylinder head and exhaust, and is factory blueprinted by matching connecting rods and pistons for optimal engine balance. It also has a taller screen, a more aggressive track-oriented riding position, and comes with factory-installed Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SC tires.
After spending a considerable amount of time on open-class sportbikes I have deduced (by the seat of my pants) that bikes claiming around 180 hp are moderately easy to manage without traction control, as long as the hand at the throttle is relatively experienced. Bikes making upwards of 190 hp, on the other hand, absolutely need electronic intervention.
European specs put the biggest CBR at 178 hp at the crankshaft, which although not too shabby, lets you get away with riding the CBR1000RR hard (mostly) without incident. And it has a very smooth power delivery to boot. That said, even the CBR would benefit from traction control, as I discovered while following a special guest of Honda Canada at this event, current Canadian Superbike champion Jodi Christie.
Christie was handed the job of scrubbing in new tires, graciously relieving us journo types of this tedious task, and it was during one of his tire-scrubbing stints that I caught up with him for a couple of laps. As he picked up the pace, I followed.
Roebling Road is a smooth racecourse, with long, flowing turns that reward a smooth throttle hand. It was while trying to keep pace with Christie as he exited the fast, right-hand Turn 1 that I grabbed an ambitious handful of throttle and broke the rear tire loose.
The bike started sliding sideways, but fortunately experience has taught me not to overreact, so I just rolled off the throttle enough to allow the wheels to get back in line. Needless to say, traction control would have intervened at that moment and I wouldn’t have even been aware of it.
I was on stock tires, but thought that if Christie could push them that far, then so could I. It was only after we both pulled into the pits that I realised Christie was scrubbing in a set of racing slicks.
Despite the limitations imposed by the lack of TC, the CBR is very easy to get immediately comfortable on. One trait most of Honda’s recent sport bikes exhibit is unwavering stability, and the CBR1000RR is no exception. It handles like it’s on rails, all the while being very easy to steer. Front-end feedback is very communicative, making it easy to correct a line, or fan the brakes mid-turn if you get in too hot.
It is a confidence-inspiring machine, and a great deal of that confidence derives from the fact that it doesn’t terrify you with a threatening blast of acceleration as the revs build, but rather has a very linear climb to redline making it easy to manage at a fast pace. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fast—very fast—but it just doesn’t have the violent top-end rush found on the latest crop of updated supersport machines.
Brakes on both the standard bike and on the Brembo-equipped SP model are easily manageable, with solid feedback and a very little noticeable fade. The SP has a firmer lever and more direct response, and the absence of ABS wasn’t really an issue on the track.
Spending a day riding an open-class supersport machine on the track is hard work, but the Honda makes the job a bit less strenuous due to its very linear power delivery and rock-solid handling. The CBR1000RR pulls hard, but not explosively hard, and it’s easy to manage at speed.
While some of the more powerful bikes would have me slumped over the handlebar like a wet rag after four or five sessions, the CBR allowed me to get a day of lapping in without passing out from exhaustion.
Yes, the CBR1000RR is now outclassed, though you can’t blame Honda for falling behind in this highly contested class; the company has been quite busy over the last few years pumping out an impressive number of new models that are more likely to attract everyday riders than those just interested in cutting fast lap times.
This doesn’t mean the CBR should be counted out as a proper supersport machine because, despite its lack of technological advancements, it still has its merits, beginning with its $15,999 price tag.
This is only undercut by the Suzuki GSX-R1000, by a considerable $1,000. The rest of the inline fours, whether from Germany or Japan, all include advanced electronics, costing between $1,300 and $3,000 more.
But then there’s the SP model. At $19,999 it’s costlier than the stated competition, and it’s very hard to justify the expense, especially when the new R1 — which has all the electronics, as well as the trick TFT instrument cluster and the more-fun-than-a-barrel-of-bonobos slide control — costs $1,000 less.
The SP is only really justifiable if you have a tendency to scour the high-performance aftermarket catalogues for those Öhlins and Brembos; in that case the SP will save you a few bucks on these items and some elbow grease too.
The bargain of the bunch — and it’s also quite exclusive — is the Aprilia RSV4-R, which has ABS and traction control, and actually lists at the same price as the Honda. Good luck finding one though, as the Italian company has a sporadic dealer presence in Canada and shows no sign on growing its Canadian presence.
You can bet that when the CBR1000RR does get its much-needed upgrade, it will probably get a boost in power, and knowing Honda, its electronics will probably surpass the competition. Though as we’ve seen with the others, the price will likely follow suit.
Pricing/gizmo comparison (all in class)
- $14,999 Suzuki GSX-R1000 – no ABS, no traction control
- $15,995 Aprilia RSV4-R – standard ABS and traction control
- $15,999 Honda CBR1000RR – standard ABS, no traction control
- $17,299 Kawasaki ZX10R – standard ABS and traction control
- $17,950 BMW S1000RR – standard ABS and traction control
- $18,999 Yamaha R1 – standard ABS and traction control
- $19,999 Honda CBR1000RR SP – no ABS, no traction control
Specification comparison (three main competitors – lowest pricing)
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