PORTIMAO, PORTUGAL—It wasn’t long before I realized my conservative expectations of Honda’s all-new 2017 CBR1000RR were probably very wrong.
The exact moment happened about a couple of minutes after the first group of journalists had exited the pits and entered the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve’s notoriously technical layout. Being on the second group, I was nonchalantly waiting for my turn, eating cookies and socializing with the Honda staff in the garages. But then I heard something strange, a high-pitched, furious, shrieky, ear-piercing howl.
First I thought it must be that the lead riders are on racebikes, however unusual that would be. But the screeching continued as each of the completely stock CBR1000RR zoomed by. I left the cookie bar and headed to the trackside. This can’t be, I thought. I’d just heard those very same bikes leave the pit area in a modest Honda-like hum, and now it sounded like a World Superbike round was on.
But these are Hondas. Sensible, for meeting nice people, reasonable, Euro 4 compliant Hondas. What’s going on here??
Nothing during the prior evening’s Powerpoint presentation really hinted at this new generation CBR1000RR being anything more than the logical evolution of the bike introduced in 2008 and slightly updated in 2012. The frame, although a bit lighter and 10 per cent less stiff torsionally, is very similar. There’s thinner bodywork, a new titanium exhaust, magnesium covers, new wheels with five instead of six spokes, a new rear subframe, a new swingarm and a host of hollowed-out parts and lightened bolts that all contribute to the total — and impressive — reduction of 15 kg in weight.
Ride-by-wire throttle, a full suite of electronic aids using information gathered by an Inertial Measurement Unit and multiple rider modes are now standard; the profoundly revised engine (new pistons, crankshaft, conrods, camshaft, valves and cylinder head) now revs 750 rpm higher to 13,000 rpm; and there’s a new colour display instrumentation. One slide did show the power-to-weight ratio had been improved by 14 per cent, and there was even a comparison with the original 1992 CBR900RR, claiming that ratio is up 65 per cent on the 25th anniversary 2017 model.
The red, white and blue $23,999 SP version ($4,000 more than the base CBR1000RR in red and black or matte black) adds, among other goodies, a super trick Öhlins semi-active suspension and high-end Brembo calipers. It’s also one kg lighter, thanks to a lithium-ion battery and the world’s first titanium fuel tank on a production bike.
It all sounded quite clinical, with no mention whatsoever of any kind of a revolution, philosophy change or class leading this or that. So I thought we’d just be riding an improved CBR1000RR, and I expected nothing more than the type of accessible-and-competent-but-not-Earth-shattering litre-bike that Honda’s been offering for the past 15 years or so. Oh, how wrong I was, and that piercing exhaust music was only the first hint.
The new CBR1000RR is still a Honda in many ways. Fit and finish is flawless, and attention to detail is evident everywhere you look, even with the fairing completely off. Every point of contact and interaction between rider and machine feels refined and natural. The riding position is obviously sporty, but not extremely so for such a track-focused model. The clutch is light, gear shifts are buttery with or without the action of the excellent quick shifter (maybe the best in the business during downshifts) and, other than a very slight jerkiness in low gears in the most aggressive rider mode, throttle action is smooth and precise.
The new CBR1000RR is also very reminiscent of the previous generation when it comes to ease of use. The Autódromo Internacional do Algarve is a remarkably tough track with multiple fast blind turns that downright spook you until you learn the roller-coaster-type layout. Although I’d ridden there for the launch of the original 2009 BMW S1000RR, most of my first session felt like I’d never even seen the place before. I’d constantly enter corners way too fast and nowhere near the right line, which forced me to simultaneously brake hard and steer the CBR towards where it should have been in the first place.
During all these corrections, the astonishingly compact Honda (from some angles, it almost looks like a CBR500R) never, ever misbehaved nor felt overwhelmed. In fact, it helped by feeling completely natural and reacting in a totally instinctive and predictable manner to my sometimes —okay, often— clumsy inputs. It basically waited patiently for me to get my act together without ever complaining, which I appreciated very much.
Litre-bikes that “feel like a 600” are a myth. All of them are bigger, require much more effort to toss around at speed on a track, and just don’t have that feathery and agile 600 feel. I’d have to ride all the Thousands back to back at the same track to be absolutely sure of, but even without having done that, I’m pretty confident in saying the new CBR1000RR is the lightest and easiest to ride of its category, and also the most 600-like.
In terms of power, the new CBR1000RR is plain and simple in another league compared to the outgoing model; in back-to-back tests with the latest 190-200hp-ish models, the old bike almost felt like a 750. This new one’s a proper beast. My seat of the pants impression is that it’ll be very competitive with the YZF-R1 and ZX-10R in outright acceleration and maybe just a bit behind the über-fast S1000RR. The new GSX-R1000 is an unknown quantity for another week or so. Whatever the result ends up being in a direct comparison, the fact is the CBR1000RR has graduated to the major leagues and is now right up there with the fastest of litre-bikes.
This is just an anecdote, but I remember wheelieing that first 193 hp S1000RR after the hump at the beginning of the Autodromo’s front straight. We’re talking about 200 km/h and 4th gear. On my first lap on the new Honda, still not sure exactly how conservative or not it was, I thought I’d check if it, too, could get its front end airborne at that spot. Probably thinking it may not, right at the crest, I gently pulled on the bars to “help”. The CBR1000RR snapped straight up and stayed there until I let it fall down, all in front of the pit area where worried Honda staff looked on through the fence.
Over the course of the day, I would do several more monster wheelies at that spot (and others), not just in fourth but also in fifth. This wasn’t just for fun (though yes, it was lots of fun), but to experiment and understand Honda’s approach to wheelie control. In a nutshell, it depends on the rider mode selected: the system’s intervention varies from totally preventing the front wheel from lifting to allowing long and fast wheelies. I enjoyed having the choice to wheelie or not, rather than the bike deciding for me what is acceptable or not, and I appreciated the generally transparent and natural feel of the many actions from the electronic-aids package.
I did, however, notice some inconsistencies when wheelieing, which happened a lot on this hilly track, on this ultra-fast and ultra-light bike: the front would stay close to the ground on some laps, then come up way higher and more suddenly on others, at the same spot, making it tough to predict exactly what was going to happen the next time around. I also felt like the ABS and the rear-lift control occasionally intervened prematurely. But that’s about all that annoyed me about the new CBR1000RR. Some fiddling with the settings would have probably resulted in some improvements, but there are so many possibilities we would have needed at least another track day to sample them all. The rest, from engine torque and brakes to stability and suspension action, is absolutely first class.
As far as street manners are concerned, I can’t go in depth as we only rode the new CBR on the track. I did do a couple of slow laps to see what the bike felt like in more everyday use, though. First, those living in a quiet street need not worry, the CBR’s howling exhaust note is reserved for mid to high revs at full throttle. So in regular use, it’s as neighbour-friendly as any other Honda, and also as rider-friendly: the electronics can be set to limit power, smooth out throttle response and prevent unwanted wheelies.
In terms of ergonomics, the typically poor level of comfort offered by pure sportbikes can be expected on the CBR. However, torque is very strong at low and especially mid revs, there’s a cool and practical quick-shifter and the suspension isn’t overly stiff, so it will probably be livable in real-life conditions on the street.
Speaking of suspension, the SP’s semi-active Öhlins shock and fork turned out to be quite impressive. Equipped with racing slicks (the base CBR1000RR remained on stock tires), the SP allowed more aggressive corner exits, more aggressive lean angles, and higher speeds through turns. I was surprised not to feel a huge difference in suspension performance, which says a lot about the quality of the base model’s shock and forks. For me, the biggest advantage of the Öhlins was their ease of adjustability – changes were as simple as entering a new setting on the colour display. And the little time we had for playing around with those adjustments demonstrated how the entire behaviour of the bike could be changed and fine-tuned. Very impressive stuff.
Actually, that’s exactly the adjective I was left with after the test: impressive. I talked with various engineers and project leaders during the launch and one short conversation stood out. Kyoichi Yoshii, the chief engineer and project mentor (he’s been deeply involved with previous CBRs), met me right after my first sessions and asked me about my first thoughts.
Helmet still on and breathing heavily, I mumbled and thought out loud. I mentioned how surprised I was that this wasn’t the reserved machine I was expecting. He replied that the 2017 CBR1000RR was the first of a new breed of Hondas designed to provide “more excitement”. No exaggeration there.