Test Ride: Honda CBR600F4

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Words: Rob Harris

F4 features new ram air ducts, taking the air from high pressure points in the front fairing.Pic: Honda

Picture this – Toronto, Canada – early January. There’s half a meter of snow on the ground, it’s well below freezing and it’s time to ride some bikes! Well not here, but in Savannah, Georgia, for the annual Honda Canada press launch. The land where summer never really stops, where you can eat anything you want (as long as it’s deep fried …. with grits – eerch), and the home of Roebling Road Race Track.

Yes, it was time to dust off those leathers, clean last years bugs off the helmet and throw a leg over the latest ’99 Hondas.

Honda’s big sport bike for ’99 is the CBR600F4 . After years of dominating the 600 market with three generations of 600F’s, things started to look a bit more competitive for the big H last year when Kawasaki introduced their all new ZX6R.

With a very similar feel to the F3, the ZX6 suddenly seemed to have tapped into the F’s near perfect formula and arguably had even attained the edge. 1998 also saw another leap in sportbike performance with Yamaha’s all new R1. A 1000cc inline four with all the specs of a 600 but with the power of a 1000. 1999 promised the R6 (a 600cc version), and the stage was set for a new 600 supremacy battle.

Oh dear, oh dear. Editor ‘arris and one slightly ‘used’ F3Pic: Nick Smirniw

So it was with no great surprise that Honda announced their all new CBR600F4, as Yamaha announced their all new R6. On paper, Yamaha look to have the specification advantage. Here though, comes some dispute from the Honda camp who emphasise the difference between real life and claimed figures. 110hp for the F4 verses 120hp for the R6.

Of course, there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics. Having read a few 600 shoot outs in other magazines, rear wheel dyno figures give the R6 only 2 extra horses on the F4, both coming it at just under the 100 mark (where do all these horses go? Are the internal losses between the crank and the rear wheel that bad?). Unfortunately, claimed figures do have a way of selling bikes. For me, the true test of a motorcycles abilities lie with the actual ride.

 

The F4 is an all new bike compared to the F3. Aluminum alloy beam frame (a standard on current sport bikes) replaces the dated steel tube frame of the F3. Just about everything in the engine has been either lightened and/or improved, and then there’s the addition of a serious ram air system (forcing more air in, thanks to air scoops at the front of the bike, combined with more fuel to give more power). Total weight saving over the F3 is an impressive 16Kg.

Skid marks coming out of corner three tell the tale. Rear tire mark followed by front dashes show that the F3 was going sideways, then on its side, then a long slide … shite!Pic: Rob Harris

The new chassis, now with swingarm pivoting directly off the rear of the engine (a la VFR800), has a much more secure feel when banking low and hard into a corner over the F3. The drop in weight also giving superior flick ability as you pull it over from one corner to the next. Stopping power has also had a make over in the right direction, with the two 4 piston calipers up front, lifted directly off the CBR900RR.

Maybe a compelling merit of the F4 is that I didn’t crash it. I did crash the F3 – cold tires apparently (and just when I was starting to trust them). As most of the other journalists left for the day at 3pm, I figured that I’d stay and get some time on the Roebling Road race track while it was relatively clear. Besides, I still hadn’t got my head around exactly how to articulate the F3/F4 changes.

The F3 was waiting in the pits, two F4’s were still on the track and the course was still available for another two hours. Scot Magnish (Toronto Sun) rightly pointed out that it’s after 3pm that the crashes occur. True, riders get tired but still think that their skill levels are good, if not even better. A bit of a recipe for disaster really. However, whereas everybody else had been at the track since 9am, I hadn’t arrived until 11. So for me it was really only 1am – makes sense???

As I accelerated out of the pits and rapidly approached corner one, I figured that I should take it a bit easy for

Hondas Nuno DeCosta offers his sympathy.Pic: Larry Tate

the first lap, just to refresh myself with the anomalies of the Roebling Road track.

Smoothly around corner one, accelerate, brake, left into corner two, up and then swing right into corner three. As I lifted out of three, I opened up the throttle and thought about how to get my perfect line for the upcoming corner four….

The next thing I knew I was going sideways. “What? But … how?” CRUNCH! And the F3 was now down on its right hand side.

Nooooooooooooo … no … not this, not now. I was still holding on to the bike as if I could still right it. “Let go. Let go”. I didn’t want to be sliding at 120km/h with a 169kg bike for company. I released and pushed, and saw the F3 slide off ahead of me in a shower of sparks and burning metal.

And I thought that I was being the dogs bollocks! ‘arris taking the F4 into a corner at Roebling Road (pre F3 crash).Pic: Honda Photographer

Kinda had me baffled for a while as I slid down the track on my back, observing just how peaceful the motionless blue sky above me appeared. Bit deceitful really. I remember thinking “I’m not going that fast now, maybe I should try getting up”. I found out to my cost that this is not a good idea when you’re still sliding at 100Km/h, as it tends to put you into a high speed roll, which, although exhilarating, loses some of the serenity of the skyward view.

Also, trying to keep your arms and legs tucked in is a bit futile when you’re being centrifuged at that speed. A good tip somebody told me afterwards is at the point where you think it’s time to stand up, count to ten, slowly. Then get up. Chances are you’ve probably actually stopped by then. Odd phenomenon really.

With that, my elbow was a tad scuffed, my ego was somewhat battered, Honda’s Nuno DeCosta didn’t seem very happy, and my F3/F4 track testing time was over.

So, in conclusion has Honda reinvented the CBR600 enough to win the upcoming 600 battle? By keeping all the charm of the F3 (even the riding position is identical), yet upgrading all the essentials, namely chassis, engine and brakes, I think they’ve achieved what was required, with maybe a little extra to spare. Simply put, if you liked the F3, then unquestionably you’ll love the F4. Now where’s that R6?

SPECIFICATIONS:

Bike

Honda CBR600F4

MSL

$10,799 (Canadian)

Displacement

599cc

Engine Type

Inline four, liquid-cooled four stroke

Carburetion

Four, 36.5mm, downdraft, flatslide, CV

Ignition system

Computer controlled with 3 dimensional mapping

Final Drive

six-speed, chain drive

Tires, front

120/70 ZR-17

Tires, rear

180/55 ZR-17

Brakes, front

Dual 296mm floating discs with four piston calipers

Brakes, rear

Single 220mm discs with single piston caliper

Seat height

810mm

Wheelbase

1,389mm

Dry weight

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