Honda CBR1100XX and VTR1000F Impressions

The CBR1100XX and VTR1000F Firestorm are two very significant new models for Honda. The VTR1000 is Honda's stab at producing a V-twin sportbike for the masses, while the CBR1100XX was designed to be the fastest street legal production motorcycle.

Honda Canada graciously invited Editor Rob and myself down to Daytona Beach in March for several days of riding on a range of Honda motorcycles. On the drive back we stopped in Savannah, Georgia, for half a day at the Roebling Road racetrack to get some track impressions of the new CBR and VTR.

Honda VTR1000F Firestorm

As soon as I sat on the VTR, it felt great. The bars aren't too low or too high, and the tank is not as massively wide as a CBR900's tank is. The windscreen is low and the half fairing is compact and narrow. Both the clutch and brake levers are adjustable. The bike feels slim and narrow, unlike most four cylinder sportbikes. Upon first ride, the VTR reveals its marvelous flexibility; The motor feels like it has a very linear power curve, and at the same time it has awesome low end torque. This impression of power is not an illusion, either. The way the front wheel lifts off the ground on power alone in first, and again after an aggressive shift into second, will confirm that. Roll on the gas in high gear at low revs in town and you'll immediately notice the thing tugging on your arms as it accelerates away in a barrage of low pitched, low frequency thumping. Not the wheezing, flatulent sound most Harley Davidsons make, but a muted thumping sound that feels like there's some real compression and airflow taking place.

Pinning the throttle and revving out the VTR through the gearbox produces a visceral growl as the V-twin redlines and grabs the next gear. This is accompanied with a total lack of vibration or buzziness, the motor doesn't seem to be stressed much even when tapped out at its 9500rpm redline. This combined with its lack of real vibration or buzzing had me looking at the tach more often than I usually would when running through the gears on Roebling Road's long half-mile straight. Revving the VTR past its 8500rpm power peak failed to find the rev limiter, and past 9000 the power drops off enough that going any further is pointless anyway. Carburetion is very good once the motor is fully warmed, and the gearbox is slick. First and second engage with a clunk, but I never missed a shift, the lever isn't notchy and full throttle YSR-style powershifting is easy.

The motor's tractability makes the bike fun to ride at any speed and throttle opening, unlike most inline fours which have me looking for excuses to rev the living shit out of them after extended slow riding. Rolling on the gas at 1500-2000rpm in high gear results in strong pickup. From 4000 to 9000 rpm is where usable the sport riding power is; rolling on the throttle while exiting a corner anywhere in that range gives authoritative acceleration, especially so at lower speeds. I found the whole of Roebling Road's back section could be taken in fourth gear.

This very broad power band is in perfect harmony with the neutral, light handling the VTR offers. It flicks in to any corner effortlessly, but not once in 400km of street and track riding did it ever display any trace of tankslapping, wobbling, or any other form of instability related to chassis geometry, quite unlike the frantic CBR900. Something I immediately noticed when riding the VTR was that the fork didn't have the awesome firm control of the CBR900. However, both front ends share the same very powerful Nissin brakes. The centre of gravity of the bike felt low, as the VTR did not lift the rear wheel readily under abrupt low speed braking. This also helps explain the bike's excellent maneuverability. The only handling problem I picked up was at Roebling Road. Both ends of the bike started feeling greasy once I started getting my kneeslider on the ground, a quirk almost certainly due to overheated tires. This was likely since the bikes at the track had been ridden hard all morning before us OMG guys showed up in the afternooon (that's pecking order that is - Ed). Although this wasn't the bike's fault, it did not inspire confidence, and I didn't ride as fast as I had wanted to as a result.

The VTR must be one of the most comfortable bikes I've ridden. Even during an extended highway ride to Orlando, I never thought about seat comfort or how much weight was on my wrists. I have a feeling that the development rider for the VTR shared my height and build (do you mean there's somebody else out there only 2 feet tall, weighing in at a blubbery 300Kg? - Ed).

The VTR can also be a willing freeway bike, it will cruise along at 160km/h at a relaxed 5300rpm. It also has mirrors that work and that stay completely clear at any road or engine speed. Like some of the other Hondas, the VTR has a very powerful high and low beam. The Firestorm's unique side mounted radiators somehow manage to completely isolate the rider from radiated engine heat. Twin fans keep the big twin running in the first half of the temperature gauge, even in Daytona Beach traffic jams.

The VTR's user friendly handling and motor make for a bike that approaches the CBR600F3's legendary versatility. It's a very well sorted high performance street bike that does many things well. The VTR also possesses excellent build quality, and just plain feels like everything has been given thorough research and development. Unlike most revvy four cylinder sportbikes, the VTR is a pleasure to ride at just about any speed in any environment, and is a very satisfying, characterful, and usable motorcycle.

Honda CBR1100XX

My first impression of the CBR1100XX was how narrow the tank is compared to the CBR900RR. There's a long reach to the low clip ons, and the windscreen is lower than normal as well. For comfort a big seat with lots of fore and aft space is provided. Like the VTR, the XX also has those great adjustable clutch and brake levers. The gearbox is also similar to the VTR. It's loud at low speed, but never misses shifts and is up to any kind of powershifting you care to engage in. Unlike the VTR, the XX has a fuel gauge (accurate!) and clock to satisfy the long distance sport touring crowd it is aimed at.

Now to the part you've all been waiting for. How fast is the new CBR1100XX? Answer: the ultimate tool to smolder your speed sensors into ashes is the XX: It pulls soooo hard over 7000rpm that it utterly annihilates any prior conception of acceleration.

The motor has the expected big bore torque and power in the low end, although not as much as a Bandit 1200. That's OK, it's motor is biased towards top end, and once over 7000rpm, the XX really hauls ass all the way into the rev limiter at 12000. It never lets up, and even at very high speed, it just pulls through its tall gears with impressive ease, its formidable horsepower nonchalantly shoveling buckets of air out of way. There's ample low end power to pass rural traffic safely, but it's a real kick to downshift four gears and blur the scenery; the XX reaches over 200km/h with amazing ease, even with a passenger. No other motorcycle I have ever ridden felt as unaffected by a passenger's extra weight under wide open acceleration. Riding back from Orlando with my girlfriend on the back (with her heavy backpack), the XX would easily accelerate to over 260km/h, and not show signs of approaching terminal velocity!

What's really impressive though, is the fact that the XX's power (dyno tests I've read say it's making a little over 140 rear wheel horsepower) isn't violent or unusable; in fact the power delivery is smooth and civilized. Apart from a lovely snarl from the airbox in the midrange, all noise from the motor is squelched too. Full throttle on the XX through the gears on the highway has you feeling pure acceleration and wind noise, unlike the VTR which accelerates with its characterful V-twin drone.

Acceleration through first gear is tricky; under wide open throttle the front end either gets extremely light, tankslapping gently as the front wheel skips along the ground, or lifts completely if a passenger is being carried. The gentle slapping of the front end (and anoyed rear passenger - did the threat of no sex actually solve that problem ?- Ed) under full acceleration over bumps is the closest the XX gets to instability, and is nothing to worry about.

The rest of the time the big weight and long wheelbase coupled to effective front and rear suspensions (just as well, the fork is unadjustable) give the XX a great feeling of solidity and confidence when leaned over mid corner. It's big and ponderous, and you really feel that when flicking into corners fast and slow, but its not a tank; the steering is sharp and feels as though the front end geometry is really quite aggressive.

No one, including myself, noticed the linked brakes much. The rear brake pedal felt quite strong, but even in fairly enthusiastic riding, no one had anything to say about the brakes, apart from that when used together, they were well up to taming the XX's massive speed potential.

Unsurprisingly, the XX makes a fantastic highway bike, the motor turns at 3500rpm at 100km/h. I rode it from Daytona Beach to Georgia comfortably. The combination of long legged gearing, utterly smooth and silent motor, huge tank range, effective mirrors, a good seat, and low bars make it work really well when you're cruising along at 130+km/h. The low bars are painful under 120km/h though, and quite a bit of engine heat is emitted by the fairing on to your legs.

 Crappy photo taken by a drunk man in a van

My girlfriend Ivana liked the XX's passenger accommodations. She found the seat comfortable, but hated the high mounted twin mufflers, one of which she burned her leg on when she was stepping off the bike. Oddly, this XX's passenger pegs were noticeably misaligned.

This is one of the few motorcycles that I would consider taking on a cross country ride with a passenger. It is comfy for both, has great fuel range, and both its straight line and handling performance are excellent two-up. The low screen doesn't provide much protection during ultra high speed cruising, and should be changed for something with a different shape if that's what you're into. I also got the feeling the bike was designed around people who were bigger than my five foot seven, for I found more than enough room in just about any ergonomic direction.

The CBR1100XX is a sophisticated motorcycle; one which impresses with its remarkable poise and manners that deal with 140 horsepower so well. For ultra long distance at ultra high speed, the XX is more than qualified.

Piero Zambotti

© 1997 Canadian Motorcycle Guide