Honda CBR1000RR vs. Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R vs. Suzuki GSX-R1000 vs. Yamaha YZF-R1 | The Big Four's Big Four

Class of 2012 Part I

By Ari Henning, Photography by Joe Neric, Adam Campbell

Best Lap: 1:54.13

Honda CBR1000RR

Honda certainly thinks so, which is why engineers didn’t feel the need to add traction control or make any major changes to the model for its 20th anniversary. Updates include new wheels and suspension, a restyled fairing, a new digital dash and a few fueling tweaks. Aside from that it’s the same bike, although emissions requirements and associated equipment have robbed it of 3.5 bhp and 2 lb.-ft. of torque and added 5 lbs. compared to the last example we tested.

Even so, the CBR feels lightest and most powerful on the street, earning high praise from all of our testers. Compact and narrow between your knees, it looks downright diminutive next to the chunky Yamaha. The Honda’s smaller size finds you up on top of the bike rather than down in it, which is excellent for attacking corners and a characteristic that made it the favorite of our smaller testers. The CBR makes the most peak torque, spreads it on thickest and boasts more midrange horsepower than the others. Combine that with shorter final gearing and the Honda feels significantly more powerful than its competitors at low rpm, making it more fun to ride on the street and rabid on the racetrack.

Fueling is precise and smooth at higher revs and larger throttle openings, but we noticed some abruptness at lower engine speeds and smaller throttle openings, despite injection adjustments intended to address just that. Shifting isn’t as clean as on the Yamaha or Suzuki, but the extra midrange grunt means you don’t have to shift as often.

The Honda has the plushest seat, but its high, non-adjustable footpegs cramped our taller testers’ legs and a pronounced buzz in the pegs and grips annoyed all of us on our street ride. The CBR’s compact size is a benefit while sport riding, but that small fairing provides the least wind protection, resulting in buffeting on the freeway. If you’re tall and your commute entails a lot of superslab, the Honda might not be the best option. If you’re shorter, it may be the perfect fit.

The CBR’s celebratory 20th anniversary color combination is attractive and helps distinguish the bike from earlier models, but we were disappointed to find that the red and blue graphics are stickers rather than paint. Initial impressions of the Honda’s new LCD dash were good—it looks modern compared to the GSX-R's and R1's displays—but the more we rode the bike, the less we liked the new setup. It catches a lot of glare and is difficult to read in sunlight, and the small, dim shift lights are essentially useless.

And on the track, the Honda’s robust midrange made it the quickest to spin the rear tire, keeping everyone on their toes and causing one TC-reliant tester to back off. If you could manage the wheelspin, the CBR got incredible drive off of corners, but riding the bike at that level proved mentally and physically exhausting. Below race pace, the Honda was actually the easiest to ride due to its 600-like handling and linear literbike power. The back end felt lower than we remember—perhaps due to the new Balance-Free rear suspension—and the “captured” shock has no provision for ride-height adjustment. Even so, the CBR had the lightest steering and felt unshakably stable, with the best front-to-rear suspension balance. Support from the new Showa Big Piston Fork was superb and enabled hard, late braking, but the Tokico brakes faded as our test progressed, resulting in inconsistent performance during our timed sessions. Even with that handicap, the Honda clicked off the second-quickest lap time, proving it’s still competent and relevant.

Honda’s time-tested design makes the CBR1000RR the most transparent bike here, but familiarity breeds contempt. It’s got fresh styling and the new suspension certainly improves performance, but in four years Honda has only taken a small step forward, whereas Kawasaki and Yamaha have made huge strides. The CBR1000RR is still a contender, but it’s no class king.

Matt Samples

BEST LAP: 1:55.61, Honda CBR1000RR | AGE: 36 | HEIGHT: 6’2” | WEIGHT: 205 lbs. | INSEAM: 34 in.

OFF THE RECORD
Everyone dug the big Ninja, but its peaky power and awkward looks scared me! The GSX-R is as fun as ever to ride and worked really well at the track, but we all agreed that it’s overdue for a redo. C’mon, Suzuki! The R1 is character-rich and seriously stylish, but I couldn’t live with that engine heat and it was pretty disappointing at the track. It’s heavy and isn’t particularly powerful. Fresh looks and that same great engine made the CBR my favorite. It was the easiest of this litter to turn-in, letting me tighten up my line anywhere, and the new Balance-Free suspension provided superb rear-end feel driving off turns. Who needs traction control when a bike is this good?

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