Test Ride: Honda CBR125

Words: Rob Harris Photos: Honda

I’m bouncing off the rev limiter of Honda’s brand new CBR at the end of the main straight at Miami’s Homestead race track. I’m in sixth gear and corner one is almost upon me.

I hit the first slight left at full speed and then roll off the throttle a tad and swing in hard on the sharp left of corner two, at almost full tilt – something that would be suicide on any other CBR.

Thing is, this isn’t any ordinary CBR, this is Honda Canada’s latest addition to the CBR family – the CBR125R. Max speed, oh, about 120 km/h. I kid you not, but don’t be fooled into thinking that Honda has hatched a plan to seize the rookie racer market. The rookie bit is right, but the racer is not …

OH MY GOD, THE BOOMERS ARE DYING!

Well, not yet, but the point is that they’re getting to that critical age when riding a motorcycle may no longer be a priority. In fact, motorcycle sales – after six years of steady growth – are starting to top out, a sign (Honda thinks) that the baby boomers are already opting out of motorcycling.

Will the CBR125R be the right bike to appeal to the new generation of budding motorcyclists?

This is a big deal for the industry, as the gap that’s going to be left by the sadly departed boomers isn’t currently being filled by anyone else. Oh dear.

Question is, who’s going to fill that gap and how is the industry going to get them to do so?

Well, Honda’s identified two potential customer types that could do just that;

1) The 1.6 million Canadians that they think could be persuaded to get onto two wheels, if only someone was to put the right package together to do just that.

2) The 21,000 people every year who actually go to the trouble of getting their motorcycle licence but fail to go on to the next step of actually buying a bike (and therefore are very likely to not get a bike at all).

It appears that most prospective motorcyclists are put off by a combination of the potential cost to get started (bike, equipment and insurance), the confusion of how best to get all this, and the lack of a cheap, suitable, and preferably cool-looking first bike.

The Joe Rocket gear.

This is where the CBR125R comes in. Small, light, easy to ride, cool looking (I think so anyway) and at a targeted cost of 3 – 3 1/2 thousand dollars, pretty cheap to boot (final price will be announced shortly).

But the bike, in Honda’s eyes, is only part of the solution, and they’ve upped the ante with a starter package that includes Joe Rocket mens/womens jacket, pants, boots and gloves (although the helmet is not included as they reckon that’s a much too personal preference item to put in a package), and the CBR125R with a 3-year warranty and roadside assistance. This is then financed at $149.00/month for three years.

The only missing part of the equation is insurance, but Honda says that they’re working with all the insurance companies to try and ensure that not only does the CBR get suitable cheap rates but doesn’t fall foul of anybody’s sportbike list, which faired sporty-looking bikes seem to do all too often.

The CBR125R will come in black, red and white.

It’s an interesting idea and it seems to be well thought out on behalf of Honda Canada, who are going so far as to train their dealerships accordingly and even set up ride days across Canada for aspiring riders to come out and try the CBR125R for themselves, as well as meet other newbies and be able to find out all about the world of motorcycling.

Of course, there are expected brand loyalties that will follow with this package, but still, Honda is taking a substantial risk; Will new riders want a 125? Would they want it all in a package? And if they do decide to go for it, will they stick with Honda after the three years or switch brands thereby leaving Honda with all the hard work and some other manufacturer reaping the final rewards?

I don’t know, but it’s good to see that one manufacturer is acting now to try and stem the potential hemorrhaging death of the industry as the once bountiful baby boomer finally shifts out of the world of motorcycles.

If it works, expect to see other manufacturers setting up similar schemes. If it doesn’t, then expect to see a lot fewer bikes on the road in the next few years.

OKAY, SERMON OVER, WHAT ABOUT THE DAMN BIKE?

125 cc of wrist tugging power.

I thought you’d never ask!

Introduced into Europe in 2004, and revamped for 2007 (with fuel injection) the CBR125R is currently the best selling model in the UK! Granted, there’s a bit of a captive audience as UK learner laws restrict 17 year olds to 125 cc bikes, but there’s still a goodly amount of choice.

The motor’s about as advanced as a 125 cc four stroke single can be, with liquid cooling, electronic fuel injection, six speed box, electric start and a catalytic converter to ensure that it meets the new Euro 3 and EPA emission standards. Okay, the two valve head with single overhead cam could be sportier, but maybe they’re saving that for a future makeover …

This all makes for an arm wrenching (well, a tug on yer wrists) 13.5 hp @ 10,000 rpm, which equates to a top speed of around 120 km/h (although this is very dependent on wind direction and the availability of large trucks to draft behind). It also equates to a very respectable 39 km/l (2.57 L/100km) and with a 10 litre fuel tank, you should be able to get 390 kms between fill ups … if you can psychologically do the time in the saddle as well.

Styling mimics the bigger 600/1000 CBRs.

In order to keep the costs down, the frame and swingarm are made from steel, and the front telescopic forks and monoshock rear are sans any adjustment. Fancy 17” six spoke wheels adorn the front and back, but don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll have a good choice of race rubber as they’re shod in rather skinny IRC tires (more on those later).

Brakes are both hydraulic/disc, with a 276 mm single disc and two piston caliper up front and a 220 mm disc and single piston caliper at the rear. CBR600/1000RR style lights give it a rather aggressive look, helped out by a similar paint job, which comes in red, black or white.

Honda claims a dry weight of under 120 Kg and a decent seat height of 776 mm (bit small for me but not dwarf-like). Oh, and did I mention that the riders seat comes off to reveal enough storage for something like a U-lock? Done.

TRACK READY?

“Does this bike make my body look too big?”

In order to launch the CBR125R to the Canadian public, Honda Canada brought a half dozen of them down to their annual press launch, this year in Miami Florida. They also brought down a gaggle of non-motorcycling journalists (fashion magazines and the like) so that they could get the word out to a few more of the 1.6 million potential customers.

While the fashion experts were introduced to their first riding experience in the parking area, the moto press were given the track for the day, which seemed rather generous … and maybe a tad optimistic. I mean, it’s a 125. Surely a couple of laps and a ride back to the hotel would suffice?

But Honda was insistent that although we might not be setting any lap records, we’ll be sure to have a hell of a blast.

Full race leathers seemed a little over the top for the job at hand, but them’s the rules and so, Canada’s motorcycling journos folded themselves up (the plus six footers anyway) and hit the track. Actually, I should say that although it’s a relatively small bike, it’s a lot more spacious than you might think. Still small for me, but definitely not unrideable.

Getting cornering right on the little CBR is a bit of a challenge. Well, initially for ‘arris anyway.

First gear is almost non-existent and the CBR winds up and demands second, then third, then forth, then fifth. Thankfully the gearbox is slick and the clutch super light, which is good, because you use them a lot. The power is slight but flows in a very predictable linearity before dropping off after 10,000 rpm. It’ll rev out to around 12,000 rpm, but you have to keep it between 7 and 10 if you want to have any chance of getting a good momentum going.

And momentum’s the name of the game with smaller bikes. Being cautious and scrubbing off speed coming into a corner will see you exit with a rather flat “brrrrrrraaaaaahhhhhhhh”. Down a gear … and another … and one more and yes, there’s the power. The CBR was being a stubborn sonofabitch to get right.

It was also taking me a while to get back into track mode. No riding since October and little track time in 2006 meant that I was being positively clumsy into corners, not helped by some rather quirky handling characteristics on behalf of the CBR.

Taking a wider line through corner four seemed like a good idea (at the time).

Being a rather light machine with skinny, and somewhat pointy tires, means that it has a tendency to drop into corners rather quickly and it has a bit of a twitchy edge to boot. It’s a characteristic that would be fine on the street, maybe even preferable, but on the track it’s another oddity to get your head around.

But then it’s also all part of the challenge, and what I was expecting as a cheery little ride around the track was becoming a bit of a challenge. I started to change my lines as the classic cutting the corner apex, saw me lose too much momentum. Slowly but surely I was getting it down, pushing it harder and faster through corners until …

Well, until it all went CMG.

GOING CMG

Confidence building, I thought I’d take the white one for a spin.

Corner four is a classic swooping right-hander with a short run off. Banked and tight, it was great when you got it right, plain old sad when you didn’t. I was trying a wider line away from the apex in a bid to keep momentum. This meant more lean and a tight exit and little room for error.

Coming into it I thought I’d got the line perfectly, knee out, and lean her over … and lean, and a little more. Trouble is, I wasn’t actually trying to lean it any more. Oh dear.

There’s a specific moment when you know it’s all gone CMG. Like a drunk who just lost his balance or a pedestrian who just slipped sideways on a patch of ice. You know it’s going squirrelly, question is, can you do anything about?

With hardly any run off, trying to straighten it up wasn’t an option and, err, while that thought just flashed through my mind, I was now down and listening to the sound of shame and embarrassment. Well done ‘Arris, you’re the first Canadian to crash the new CBR125R …

I remember being distinctly impatient with the time it was taking for machine and me to slide out. Likely a matter of five or six seconds, but time stretches like an elastic band, offering the mind plenty of time to contemplate how this misdemeanor will unravel.

The shameful return to the pits on the back of the trailer.

Finally hitting the grass is a welcome release as the spin and tumble phase unravels, and the elastic band snaps back to real time.

Feck.

I immediately sprang to my feet, much like the fallen drunk or pedestrian, trying to downplay what just happened in a desperate hope that it’ll somehow minimize the damage.

It must have worked somehow, as the CBR showed remarkably little damage. The fairing had somehow survived almost unscathed, there was some minor scuffing on the pipe and the right bar was bent. Too bent to ride back unfortunately, and so a trip in the trailer of shame was ordered.

Oh well, at least I got a standing ovation by my fellow journos and the Honda guys back at the pits, although it wasn’t for doing anything good.

That was it for day one (for me anyway).

TIRE OPTIONS

I’ll take the Pirellis please.

The CBR125R comes with IRC tires as standard. They’re very skinny and not yet available in North America (no other small bikes that they fit!). So Honda did a bit of research and found a pair of slightly fatter (and more rounded in cross-section) Pirellis. Half of the 125s came with stock IRC’s, half with the Pirellis.

The day after my, err, ‘incident’, I had the opportunity to try one with the Pirellis for a few laps. Not only do the Pirellis offer better grip, but they took out the tendency to drop into corners as well as provide a more linear action – something that most of the other journalists commented on too.

Honda will bring in the CBR with IRCs as stock, which are just fine for road use, but the extra surety provided by the Pirellis make them an obvious choice when it comes to replacement.

THE RIDE BACK

More comfortable than it may appear.

Day two was for the new CBR600RR (write up coming soon), but at the end of the day we got the chance to ride the 125 back to the hotel, about a 45-minute ride. Well, maybe an hour and half when you can’t take the freeway.

Here the CBR comes into it’s own. What would ordinarily be a hum-drum commute in rush hour traffic became an involved process. You have to work with the bike to get the speed required and that slender profile just begs to be squeezed through gaps.

The brakes are somewhat light but can be made to work with a harder squeeze and the pressing in of the rear. Despite having a balancer shaft, the motor does buzz somewhat but it’s a light buzz and I didn’t find it to be too intrusive.

It’s also quite comfortable. Despite it’s sporty look and low, narrow bars, you’re not doubled over (even me!), and the softish suspension absorbs irregularities well. If anything, it’s the hard seat that will get you first.

THE LAST WORD

There’s definitely a certain charm you get from riding something that requires more than a quick twist off the wrist or squeeze of a brake to get you from A to B. Okay, it might not be enough to convince anyone to go back down in capacity, but for someone starting out (especially in an urban location) a small capacity and very competent bike like the CBR125R is near ideal.

Back when I was a lad in England, I learnt to ride on my brother’s XL125R. I’m convinced that not only did it help to keep me alive through my mad teens, but it also taught me how to work a bike at its limits rather than my own. If Honda can make this idea work – and I really hope it does – then we might have the first step to not only getting a new generation into the sport, but doing it properly to boot.

The CBR125R will be available in May, with the new rider program being launched in April.


SPECIFICATIONS

Bike

Honda CBR125R

MSL

$TBA (expect mid 3K)

Displacement

125 cc

Engine type

2-valve, sohc single, liquid-cooled

Carburetion

Fuel Injection

Final drive

Six speed, chain drive

Tires, front

80/90-17 (IRC)

Tires, rear

100/80-17 (IRC)

Brakes, front

Single 276 mm disc with 2-piston caliper

Brakes, rear

Single 220 mm disc with 1-piston caliper

Seat height

776 mm (30.5″)

Wheelbase

1294 mm (50.9″)

Dry weight

118.9 Kg (262 lbs) (claimed)

Colours

Red, black, white

Warranty

36 months (with roadside assistance)


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