Still sublime after all this time
Four years is a long time in the sportsbike world, but that's the period Honda has left its successful CBR600RR unchanged, apart from subtle annual revisions to its presentation.
The only new thing about the 2012 version is the attractive red/ white/black livery of the test bike, and that's just fine with me. This most compact four-cylinder CBR has not only secured more race victories than any other supersports machine, it has also consistently topped the sales charts for its class in sportsbike- crazy markets like Britain. Honda has had the wisdom not to mess with the success of a popular product, and as a result of this restraint the $18,395 CBR600RR is now the most affordable Japanese 600cc sportsbike in a highly competitive sector of the market.
Since the CBR's last major makeover in 2008, other manufacturers have heavily revised their supersports machines, notably Kawasaki, Suzuki and Triumph. The latter three brands are now clawing back their investment in further product development by pricing their 600cc-675cc sportsbikes in $18,990 territory. Yamaha's more highly-strung R6 is as unchanged as the Honda, but it too asks a higher price at $18,799. Yet it's fair to say that the CBR600RR still sets the standards for the class, and remains the bike against which all new entries to the finely-focused niche category must be judged. Which just shows how good that 2008 upgrade to the CBR600RR was, given that the sportsbike sector has always been a proving ground for new bike technologies.
Honda has managed to future-proof the CBR600 by paying keen attention to the details. The bike gets all the basics like suspension set up, throttle-mapping, brake-tuning and so on, spot-on right from the moment it comes out of the delivery box. It's one of the few sportsbikes you can simply chuck your leg over and ride, and not feel the inclination to change or adjust something. Former Ford product guru, Richard Parry-Jones, once famously said that he only signed a car off as ready for production if it put a smile on his face within 50 metres of driving it.
Parry-Jones would love the CBR600RR. The first grin of delight comes the first time you direct it into a corner, and the smile just grows wider upon further acquaintance. By ride's end, you will be mimicking Jack Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker.
All sportsbikes, no matter what make or model, perform best when ridden hard. Speed is their reason for being, and their systems are designed to operate at their optimum level at higher velocities. For me, what cuts the truly great sportsbikes out from the rest of the herd is how they manage to retain their rider appeal when ridden within the more constrained environment of the road. Any sportsbike can blitz around the track to provide powerful demonstrations of its deep dynamic envelope. However, few can deliver a highly enjoyable riding experience when reined in by the need to conform to social and legal orders. What makes the CBR600RR such a great bike is it combines all the usual track-ready abilities within a package that is still road-friendly.
Take the riding position, which provided much relief to this tester's well-lived in body after last week when testing the Yamaha R1. Although still folding its rider into the classic head-down/bum-up stance, the CBR somehow does it without demanding the flexibility of a yoga exponent first. The arms and wrists can relax completely, leaving the knees and thighs to grip the bike tightly during moments of great longitudinal g-force. It does not have the adjustable footpeg positions of some of its competitors, but nor does it need to as the pegs were placed perfectly from the start.
However, it is the suspension quality that truly defines the CBR as something special. The bike does not wait until illegal speeds to begin absorbing road imperfections, the ride at lower speeds feeling just as well sorted as that at go-directly-to-jail times. The steering also displays the same consistency of performance over a wide range of speeds, thanks to the Honda's trick speed-sensitive electronic steering damper, which relaxes its resistance completely at slower cornering velocities. Reduced mass, a short wheelbase, a high centre of gravity and sharp steering geometry all combine to great effect in the handling dynamics of the Honda, to the point that the initial C in the model nomenclature could stand for carver.
Perhaps what I like most about this bike, is that Honda hasn't changed it, apart from a better-looking paint scheme.
There's something complete and classical about the entire package that is the 2012 CBR600RR, to the point where it's worthy of a Billy Joel-penned anthem.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 599cc liquid-cooled dohc 16-valve inline four, stoked by electronic fuel injection to develop 88.1kW (120bhp) at 13,500rpm and 66Nm at 11,250rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed sequential gearbox, chain final drive.
Frame: Twin-spar alloy frame with alloy rear swingarm, 41mm fully-adjustable inverted front forks and fully adjustable rear monoshock.
Price: $18,395 (Sports ABS- equipped version: $19,495).
Hot: Well-sorted in every detail, the CBR600RR is the best buy of the 600cc sportsbike class; new paint scheme enhances MotoGP-inspired looks.
Not: Some competitors generate more torque at more accessible engine speeds, ABS option more expensive than most.