Test Ride: Honda 599

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Every January Honda Canada step up to the plate and invite all the major Canadian motorcycle journalists down south to check out their latest and greatest, in a mixture of track and road conditions. Unfortunately, this kind of approach (inviting all the journalists, giving us more than a day to ride the bikes and making sure that all we had to do was concentrate on the bikes) is rare, so kudos to Honda for making the effort.

But enough back-slapping, we were in Las Vegas to get a first ride on the new CBR1000RR, 599 and VT750. In usual CMG style, we’ve split this into two features. This week we’re taking a look at the 599, with a thorough inspection of the CBR1000RR the following week. And the VT750? Sadly due to the special needs of a certain editor, time was going to be so limited that I decided not to bother. Maybe we’ll be able to get it for a more complete test in the summer.

For now, let’s get to it with the 599 …


More fun on the track than the RRs?

It was all a bit nerve racking. My brain was full of trail-braking, apex cutting, and desperately trying not to crash one of only two CBR1000RRs, the official punishment for which was to be stuck with a VLX600 for the rest of the launch. That was harsh, and with every crash-free lap on the new 1000RR I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I got on the new 599, relaxed, and lapped in what must have been close to the same times – if not faster. It wasn’t just that a 599 incident might not warrant the VLX600 plight, but more the friendliness of the machine. It was familiar, relaxed, easy to use and, well, fun.

LA LA LA LAS VEGAS

The day before, a gaggle of Canadian journalists had reluctantly left our icy tundric home for the warm, sun-bleached land of Nevada and the 2004 Honda Canada press launch of the new CBR1000RR, 599 and VT750. Arriving at the Lake Las Vegas Hilton, I had time for a quick 30 minutes of shut-eye and a shower before the introductory meeting and the tech run down of each bike.

 

The 599 is Honda’s latest derivation of the European-only Hornet 600, which has been around for quite a while without ever making it to North American shores until now. Although Suzuki pioneered the mid-range naked/standard class in Canada some time ago with their Bandit 600, it has taken a while for the other big players to jump in, with Honda and Yamaha (FZ6) waiting till 2004 to do so.

Probably the most interesting part of the talk (apart from the food spread) was how Honda saw the 599 fitting into the Canadian market. The target rider is either new or female (or both), and may also be someone coming back into the sport and so likely more mature. As such the design brief was to make it a fun and easy ride, with everyday usability, yet still interesting enough to generate enthusiasm in the owner. Oh, and it had to be cheap .. err, I mean economical.

Since the bike was designed in Italy (where it is the best-selling bike), extra emphasis was placed on making the frontal view most distinct. Someone at Honda reckons that when people muster up a bike’s image in their head they either pull up a side view (North Americans) or a front view (Europeans). This explains the funky split headlight, with two separate bulbs and a unique wedge-shaped lens.

ON THE ROAD

The 599 uses the old carbureted CBR600F3 motor and it likes to be thrashed. There’s little to no power below the 2,750rpm mark (making for easy stalling at take-off), after which it climbs steadily to 5,000rpm, where it gets the proverbial arse kicking all the way to about 12,000rpm.

On its way up, there are some minor power jumps at 7 and 9 thousand, until the party finally ends at the13,000rpm redline – 1,000rpm above the max power point of 95hp.

In fact, it helps to be somewhat dominatrix-like because the 599 works best when it’s being thrashed and screaming below you. Although initially it might sound like shrieks of protest, the 599 loves it and begs for more. Taking it to the limit will see a top speed of 220km/h* (@10,500rpm), although the fairingless bike requires a good old fashioned feet on the rear pegs and chin on the tank position to get to there.

Happy up to 130.

In the standard upright (with slight forward lean) position I reckon that you could hold a steady 130km/h without too much trouble, as the combination of headlight shape and clock location help to push the air up away from the torso. Although it still hits you squarely in the face, it’s a non-turbulent flow – even as the speed increases … along with neck pressure of course.

All-round friendliness is further confirmed by the slickest gearbox this side of Venus. You just have to think change and it’s there. In fact I stopped using the clutch for upshifts altogether.

The carbs require choke usage to warm up, but once there, carburetion is smooth and glitch free. They’re 2mm down on the F3’s, with slightly narrower intakes to ensure more midrange instead of pure top-end power.

It gets chilly in the mountains around Las Vegas.

The only downside I found was some high frequency vibration between 4 1/2 and 6 1/2 thou, which didn’t gnaw at me for my relatively short ride, but could prove to be a pain to some, especially since this occurs between the 100 and 140 km/h zone in top. It’s also noticeably more prevalent on the rear pegs, maybe because they have less vibe-isolating rubber on them (apparently even the tank and seat have some vibration isolation). Talking of the rear, the high pipe (ala 919) never gets more than warm thanks to a well designed heat shield. There’s also a conventional style passenger grab rail at the very back, to ensure that you keep them there as you’re doing clutchless changes and thrashing it like a boy that’s been bad, sooo bad.

Although I was surprised to be able to fit my lanky legs comfortably into the tank cutaways, I did find the peg to seat distance a tad on the tight side – although using the rear pegs did help to prevent leg seizure. It’s not helped by the deeply cut seat, which is a bit hard, although the sculpting does help to spread the load and it took a lot longer than I expected to get to that arse squirming soreness. Still, a couple more inches of foam would probably solve both complaints in one go – so longer-legged buyers may want to check into aftermarket seat options.

The square section steel spine frame does an excellent job at keeping everything under control, combined with competent suspension. Even though the front forks are non-adjustable, they are set-up well, although the rear had some pogo-like tendency when pushed hard – especially on the track. Nothing horrible, but it would tend to get upset at the back if you hit any bumps with speed. Backing off the pre-load on the following road day seemed to help, but then we never got to test it under the track conditions again.

win piston sliding calipers grab a pair of 296mm discs up front and provide excellent feedback with progressive braking. So much so that it’s an easy bike to stoppie and even practice those rolling stoppies. The rear doesn’t give great feedback, but it does help retard things without being too sensitive and locking up at the merest hint of pressure.

IN CONCLUSION

Honda have priced the 599 at $8,999.00. That’s the same as Yamaha’s new FZ6 and Kawasaki’s new Z750, and $300 up on Suzuki’s aging Bandit. Although the 599 claims the lowest weight and seat height in this class, it also comes without any wind protection and loses out in the power stakes to the Yamaha FZ6 and the bigger Kawasaki Z750. Still, it’s in the ballpark, unlike in the US, where they seem to have priced it $700 more than the rest – much to the annoyance of most journalists.

All of a sudden the consumer has a big choice and the 599 is well placed in the group. Although it seems to hit the design requirements bang on, I’d hazard a guess that the final sales divisions will be decided by the buyer’s personal styling preference, as there’s little else to divide the pot.

Personally, I really like the 599, but then I felt the same about the 919 until I got it for a longer spin where it somehow lacked the splendor of the initial launch test. Interestingly, the 919 has so far failed to get anywhere close to its desired sales figures, which may be a bad omen for nakeds in North America. However, this could be due to its lower capacity and lack of any wind protection compared to its one litre plus competition. The 600 market may be more forgiving to this class, as it appeals a lot more to the entry, re-entry and female markets.

Although Honda say that they may bring in a bikini-faired 599 at some point, for now they’re sticking with their stripped-naked philosophy. At 40lbs lighter than the 919 and with an all-round predictable and reassuring character, the 599 hits its target market with much greater accuracy. It just remains to be seen how important some sort of fairing is to the Canadian consumer.

*Tested at our secret CMG track facility, etc, etc.

Bike

Honda 599

MSL

$8,999.00

Displacement

599 cc

Engine type

Inline dohc four, liquid cooled

Carburetion

4 x 32mm CV flat-sides

Final drive

Six speed, chain drive

Tires, front

120/70 ZR17

Tires, rear

180/55 ZR17

Brakes, front

Dual 298 mm discs with 2 piston calipers

Brakes, rear

Single 220 mm disc with 1 piston caliper

Seat height

790 mm (31.1″)

Wheelbase

1420 mm (55.9″)

Dry weight

182 Kg (401 lbs) (claimed)

Canadian colours

Black, Yellow

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