Honda gives the Fireblade a new edge
If you were expecting Honda to completely revise the incredible CBR1000RR Fireblade for the 20th anniversary of the model, you're going to be disappointed.
Only about 30 per cent of the newest blade is new, but it's still far from becoming a grandpa's axe in the manner of most Australian-made cars, some of which have used the same doors and basic architecture for more than two decades now. Far from it, the Fireblade is still the same ultra-sharp ride, and still a 1000cc sportsbike segment leader in three key areas – handling in low-speed corners, rider ergonomics, and suspension compliance.
Perhaps the way people will view the latest iteration of the sportiest Honda will be determined by whether they judge their jugs of beer to be either half-full or half-empty.
Certainly the Fireblade lacks the trendiest new feature of the sportsbike arena – traction control – and this oversight will create a few howls of derision within the ranks of the half-empty crowd. Meanwhile, the half-full folk can point out a simple fact about the Honda that it remains the most user-friendly litre-sized two-wheeled missile in existence, both in terms of its levels of on-road comfort and the ease with which any rider can extract its performance.
Other 1000cc sportsbikes possess traction control because they would be vicious sphincter-puckering rides without it. The blade is so sublime and benign, that its riders arguably don't require electronic assistance.
Perhaps Honda should revive the spirit of the famous "you meet the nicest people on a Honda" campaign by revising the historic slogan to "you meet the nicest bikes in a Honda showroom".
However, niceness can be both a blessing and a curse, and in our increasingly digital instant-gratification world, the lack of electronic intervention in the power delivery of the blade will seem a glaring omission to some.
Certainly, there has been no reluctance on the part of Honda to provide traction control in the past, as the ST1100 tourer of the late 20th century was the first bike to ever receive it. However, touring bikes are operated in totally different riding environments and conditions to sports machines. The Fireblade is unlikely to be ridden in inclement weather by riders putting the 1000th kilometre of the day under their belts, their senses dulled by road fatigue. Instead, it is more likely to be used in sunnier climes either in short sharp road rides or quick 20-lap bursts at a trackday, the eyes of the pilot at the handlebars wide with concentration and totally focused, the tactile sensations they feel through their fingers, butt, and feet searching for every skerrick of traction in the road/track surface.
Given that a sportsbike is always likely to be ridden in a state of high concentration over short periods, Honda's proposition that it doesn't require traction control if the basic mechanical elements of the bike are well-sorted is quite a persuasive one. That argument gathers new strength when you compare the price and build quality of the blade with those of its TC-equipped competition. At $22,485, the Honda is five bucks cheaper than the only other TC-less sportsbike on the New Zealand market, Suzuki's GSX-R1000, yet exhibits a level of build integrity that makes it look worth at least 10 grand more.
Meanwhile the two TC-equipped Japanese sporting fours, the Yamaha R1 and Kawasaki ZX-10R, are positioned quite a bit further up the market at $24,529 and $26,495 respectively. To me, the sexiness of traction control starts to wilt a little once you realise that you have got to pay four grand more for it in some instances.
So it makes complete sense to the inner Scotsman within me that Honda chose to build a 1000cc sportsbike that doesn't need it. Some of this is due to the slightly softer mid-range performance of the blade in comparison with the other three Japanese sportsbikes mentioned, particularly the hard-hitting R1. To really spin up the back tyre of the Fireblade you need to wind the engine up to five-figure revs in a low gear first, and the smooth and consistent throttle response of the 175bhp engine makes it easy to dial in the human equivalent of the Honda's missing electronics. At the rear tyre/tarmac interface, Honda's innovative new rear suspension for the 20th anniversary model also helps the considerable power of the CBR-Thou find traction, particularly over bumpy surfaces.
The new twin-tube rear shock co-developed by long-time racing partners Showa and Honda is matched by the Japanese suspension specialist's signature big piston 43mm inverted front forks also shared with the Suzuki and Kawasaki 1000s. However, the latter find their best set-up in Fireblade form, and the CBR tracks over bumps with more compliance, perhaps because the forks have less unsprung mass to control. For the new lighter, more rigid alloy wheels are one of the 20th anniversary bike's crowning features, along with the new MotoGP-inspired instrument display.
Twenty years young, the blade is just as frisky as ever, and remains one of the best 1000cc sportsbikes to ride on the road.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 999.8cc liquid-cooled dohc 16-valve inline four, stoked by electronic fuel injection to develop 130.7kW (175bhp) at 12,000rpm and 112Nm at 8500rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed sequential gearbox, chain final drive.
Frame: Cast alloy twin-spar frame and cast alloy rear swingarm; 43mm inverted fully adjustable front forks, fully adjustable rear monoshock.
Hot: Honda upgrades 30 per cent of the totemic Fireblade with new suspension, wheels, bodywork and instruments; the other 70 per cent wasn't broken.
Not: New upper front fairing design might be viewed as a Ducati 1198 rip-off; MotoGP instruments won't suit everyone's tastes.