Photos by Kevin Wing
Honda has long been responsible for getting new riders on two wheels, beginning with its small-displacement, inexpensive and reliable step-throughs in the 1960s. That trend was rekindled more recently with the introduction of the CBR125R in 2007, though many who bought and outgrew that bike had to look to other manufacturers, as Honda had nothing in its line up to bridge the gap between the eighth-litre CBR and its 600 cc sport bikes.
It was left to Kawasaki to capitalize on this influx of new riders looking to upgrade by offering the Ninja 250, which became a top seller as a result. In 2011 Honda finally brought in the CBR250R, bridging the displacement gap in its line up and offering it with optional ABS as an incentive.
In a master stroke, Kawasaki then bumped its Ninja 250 up to a 300, stealing the thunder from Honda’s new 250 and forcing them to play catch up and bump the CBR’s displacement to 286 cc. With Yamaha’s recent release of the 320 cc R3, the class has subsequently become super competitive, so a lot is riding on the new CBR300R.
Honda Canada extended an invitation to ride the new machine at Roebling Road Raceway, just outside Savannah Georgia. Being that I was still fresh from a track test of the new Yamaha R3, the timing couldn’t be better.
The list of things that are new on the CBR300R is not very long. The single-cylinder engine uses a longer stroke crankshaft, adding 8 mm of piston travel for a total of 63 mm, and the EFI has been remapped for crisper throttle response.
Power output is up by 17 percent. Honda’s European specs for the bike claim 30 hp and 20 lb-ft of peak torque compared to 26 hp and 17.6 lb-ft. for the 250. It also has a new CBR500R-inspired exhaust, which is claimed to produce a “throaty” exhaust note.
The fairing has a new nose, with twin CBR1000RR-like headlights, and a new seat and side covers improve reach to the ground. Chassis geometry is unchanged.
There, that wasn’t painful, was it? I told you the list of improvements wasn’t long, but the 250R was pretty good to start with.
Now, 17 percent more horsepower sounds like a huge improvement, though at these numbers it won’t pull your arms out of their sockets. Nonetheless, the CBR300R does feels stronger throughout the rev range than the 250R it replaces.
Where it really shines compared to the R3 I rode a week earlier is in low to midrange power. My seat-of-the pants dyno hinted that in a drag race off a traffic light, the CBR300R would probably pull away in the first two, maybe three gears, though the Yamaha has the big edge in top-end power (it’s a twin, displaces 321 cc and claims 40-ish hp after all). The Honda’s advantage is that its meatier midrange will make it easier to ride around town.
And it’s not that short on power anyway, as I saw 166 km/h tucked in and topped out in top gear on Roebling’s long front straight (I was topping out at 155 km/h here during the press launch of the CBR250R). Following another rider on an R3 during the Yamaha test, that R3 topped out at an indicated 184 km/h, with his rain suit adding some undesirable drag. Nonetheless, we can see the Yamaha has a power advantage.
One area where the Honda will be hard to beat is its handling when riding at the limit. Simply put, the CBR300R rides on rails. It is remarkably stable for such a small bike (and it’s not so small by the way, accommodating my six-foot frame quite comfortably), with light, neutral steering and excellent feedback.
With both bikes in stock trim, the CBR is better suited for track riding than the R3. Its stock suspension is surprisingly competent and firm enough for track riding, better suited for full attack mode than the Yamaha’s slightly under-damped setup. The bike just doesn’t budge even when at maximum lean. The only adjustment I made was to add two clicks of preload on the rear shock (it’s actually the only adjustment you can perform on either bike) for added cornering clearance.
All our test bikes were equipped with ABS. The CBR’s brake feel is better than on the R3, with more initial bite, a firmer lever, and less lever effort required for hard braking, though after I got accustomed to the bike, I was lapping the flowing racecourse without ever touching the brakes.
Just one downshift off the 160-km/h front straight slowed the bike enough for the fast right-hand sweeper, and the throttle was mostly pinned after that except for one right-hander where another downshift was all the bike needed to sweep through the corner.
One thing that really helped the Honda’s racetrack performance was its IRC tires. Although the name doesn’t carry the prestige of the Yamaha’s Michelin Pilot Streets, they provided near race-tire grip and maximum lean angles, whereas the Michelins gave up grip early, though predictably.
We had three bikes at our disposal on the day we tested the CBR300R, including the CBR500R and CBR650F. While the other bikes had their merits, even at a track-day pace, I spent most of the time on the 300; it was that much fun to ride.
With the R3 launch we compared it directly with the other three Japanese 250/300s, which is what we’re going to do here too. Since the R3 is only available in non-ABS form we’ve decided to show the non-ABS versions of the CBR and Ninja for fair comparison purposes (see below).
The lightweight sport bike class is heating up, with the larger-displacement CBR, the new Yamaha R3, the Kawasaki Ninja 300R (which I haven’t ridden in a while, so I’m antsy to get on that one, too), and the default cheater-bike in the class, the KTM RC390 (not shown). The Suzuki GW250F is stuck in the 250 class and is sporty only by the added fairing, falling behind in performance figures compared to the other three.
When you take ABS out of the equation, the Suzuki does win on price at $4,499 but the Honda is only $200 more at $4,699, going up to $5,199 with ABS. The Yamaha isn’t far behind at $4,999 (only available without ABS option), and the Ninja 300R comes in at $5,399 ($5,799 with ABS). KTM has yet to set a price for its 390, but expect it to be significantly higher than the Japanese competition.
Although the Honda’s spec sheet seems to place it out of contention in terms outright performance with the R3 and Ninja, I don’t think it’s that far off. Its (relatively) meaty midrange will be a boon on the street, where it counts, and its confidence-inspiring stability should bode well with beginners, while its capable racetrack handling should amuse even veteran racers.
Guess what folks; with all of these newcomers creating a new, highly demanded category, it may be time for a lightweight racetrack shootout. With race rubber to put all opponents on equal footing and transponders to record raw data, one thing will be certain regardless of the outcome: those who take part will have a blast. My name is at the top of the list.
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