Okay, I have to confess, I like the standard/ naked bike. I always have. When I first noticed motorcycles at the late age of 17 my heart always beat faster at the sight of a naked bike over the then revolutionary plastic coated stuff. Of course, at age 17, just saying naked made my heart beat faster. But there's something about that raw, basic look - motor/ chassis/ wheels, that defined motorbike to me.
When years later Suzuki decided to take a serious shot at reinstating this style with their Bandit model, I was a happy man. Then when Kawasaki jumped in with their ZRX, followed soon after by Yamaha with their awesome FZ1 (an R1 for the real world as far as I'm concerned), I was in second heaven. Noticeably absent however was the Big H.
Europe was offered the 600 Hornet - a naked bike with the old CBR 600 motor in it, but unfortunately it never graced the Canadian shores. The 600 was well received, prompting Honda to take the next logical step and slap their old, but very competent, '98 Blade motor into an upgraded 600 Hornet chassis. The next, and best thing they did, is import it into Canada. Yayyy!
Honda describe the CB900F (it's not a Hornet here 'cause that's copyrighted) as a contemporary, NOT retro bike. Actually a Honda Canada rep coined the phrase "it's the washboard abs of motorcycling", trying to emphasise the muscular lines and "floating" motor (you can't see any mounts). Not exactly how I would choose to describe it, but the beautifully finished motor, high under-seat mufflers, and aggressive forward-lean styling certainly fit the bill.
Unlike the original '98 Blade, this motor's got fuel injection, a different head and a prodding with the retuning stick, to give more midrange at the expense of a tad over ten horses at the top. This takes the 900F away from the dizzying outputs of Yamaha's FZ1 (by about 20 horses), but in theory gives it more low down and midrange grunt. Honda is also quick to point out that they've been conscious of weight, at 194Kg, that's a whole 14Kg lighter than the FZ1, and a massive 26Kg lighter than the 1200 Bandit.
Getting my leg over ..
Getting on the CB900F after an hour's stint on the CB954RR and the first thing I noticed was the comfort. There's nothing like getting on a bike with a pre-numbed arse to really test its comfort levels. It was almost like having a massage in comparison to the RR's two-by-four. The riding position is also a much welcomed break, with a relatively tall seat (795mm) and lots of space for your limbs to rest in without getting all cramped up. Well, it's all good up until about the 130 Km/h mark, at which point the total lack of wind protection makes anything more than short, fast bursts more a test of endurance than a pleasure ride.
There is an optional fly screen, but not up to the European Hornet 600 standard, which apparently comes in two variants - with or without a small fairing. Although this is not so with the 900 yet, Honda Canada reckons it could be applied to the bigger brother as soon as 2003.
I was interested to see just how much pull this thing had at low revs. So many times the "retuned for lower end power" statement seems disappointingly far removed from the reality of the ride. Thankfully, even from a lowly 1,500 rpm, the 900F pulls well, with a linear steep laying on of the power, all the way to the 9,500rpm redline. Honda claim a 30% improvement on roll-on power (presumable over the motor in standard CBR900RR form), which they also claim will leave just about any sportbike for dead from a standing start!
What's interesting about the laying on of power is the audible feedback that you get in the process, and the 900F is designed with this in mind. Two air intakes are placed just in front of your knees, with the pair of mufflers completing the orchestra just behind you. Honda cite it as just another part of their "add character" plan, which is now all engineered by design rather than luck.
Another element of this new added character philosophy is to allow engine and chassis vibes to get back to the rider when the bike is being ridden hard, instead of isolating the rider. Then, in order to keep cruising a more relaxed endeavour, that feedback is cut off once you've exited the twisties and have to sit back for a long session on the highway.
And that's just what it does ... at least when ridden hard.
Get excited in the twisty, gnarley stuff and the 900F is always on the power, letting you know instinctively where you're at. However, kick it up into top gear for some 'smell the coffee' cruising and it didn't seem quite as smooth as we'd been promised. Not uncomfortable in any way, I just inevitably found myself periodically prodding the gear lever for a higher ratio, even though I was already in sixth.
Talking of prodding levers, the gearbox is very smooth. Smoother than the 954RR, thanks to the standard "smoother shifting" upgrade applied to all the new models this year.
Although the suspension is non-adjustable, with the rear shock mounting directly to the swingarm (no linkages), it works very well - and since I rarely (if ever) actually adjust adjustable suspension, that's fine by me. Honda claim that it's still a "full-on sports suspension", and as promised it never wavered on road or track. Actually on the track it was so sure footed I soon stopped thinking about braking, entry and exit points, fell into a groove and had a blast (and still a pretty fast one at that). So adjustments be damned!
The bike's got spine
One of the oddities of the new F is the steel box section, spine-type frame. It's based on the European 600 version, with thicker metal and an extra downtube to cope with the extra forces. It also utilises the motor as a stressed member and enables Honda to produce a bike with very little of the frame showing, enabling that "floating motor" look that they're all so proud about. The only downside that I could find is a distinct lack of storage space under the seat, thanks to that large spine.
The brakes too are taken off the '98 Blade. The pair of four-piston calipers up front give good feedback and a progressive feel (and most importantly are very capable at scrubbing off excess speed, especially on the track), while the single piston, sliding caliper at the back is a handy backup, yet weak enough to not lock up too easily.
One of the comments I saw on our beloved Soapbox when the CB900F was first announced was whether the passenger could expect third degree burns from the high pipes at the rear. Although I'm a lanky bastard, with my arse planted at the very back of the seat, my legs didn't come even close to the heat shield (pegs are forward enough). Admittedly, I'm probably not typical, but even if you did end up touching, there seems to be a sufficiently large gap between pipe and heat shield that should prevent too much heat transfer, although the real test will come in the summer when the inevitable 'girlfriend on the back with a skirt on' brigade hit the highways (cringe).
Again, I stress that I didn't have a whole lot of time with this bike, so I'm reluctant to make any great conclusions. As a fan of this style I'm keen to get some more road time and hopefully try a back to back with Yamaha's FZ1 (which would also seem like a good excuse to grab that bike once more).
On first impressions, the CB900F hits the mark. It's more aggressive than the FZ1, 1200 Bandit and ZRX1200, which all tend more towards the high speed cruising end of the spectrum, but then also (mainly thanks to small, but effective fairings) do that job much better.
Price-wise, at $10,999, the F is $500 more than the Bandit, $500 less than the ZRX and a significant $1000 less than the FZ1. Actually, come to think of it, if we're comparing between bikes, it's maybe closer to the Triumph Speed Triple (an aggressive little sod), but then that's another $3,500.
Hmmhh, what I need is a trip to California to give the new Speed Triple a go. Oh that'll be happening this Friday - See ya suckerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrsssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss! (Full report in a couple of weeks).
Some additional detailed shots ...