2009 Honda CBR600RR-ABS - It Really Works!

Honda's Electronic Combined ABS Could Revolutionize Sportbikes

By: Roland Brown, Ari Henning, Photography by Giuseppe Gori, Honda

It's a weird feeling to charge down a straightaway in excess of 150 mph, wait till the last second and then grab a handful of brakes without a care in the world. Instead of folding its front wheel and spitting me off, the Honda CBR600RR-ABS simply sheds speed, at a rate every bit as fierce as I'd managed on a non-ABS-equipped example a half-hour ago.

The Honda feels reassuringly normal as it buries its front Bridgestone into Qatar's Losail racetrack, exhibiting none of the lever pulse that's become synonymous with ABS systems. The bike stays remarkably stable as I trail-brake into the tight right-hand bend, gently easing my grip on the lever as I approach the apex. That's because I'm actually releasing both brakes--the sophisticated electronics are contributing a touch of rear disc without even being asked.

If that scenario sounds like science fiction, I'd have said the same thing before riding the latest CBR at its world press launch in Qatar. Honda is billing its Electronic Combined ABS--available as an option on both the 2009 CBR600RR and CBR1000RR--as the world's first anti-lock brake system for supersport bikes. It's certainly that, as well as the first "brake-by-wire" system that operates the front and rear brakes electronically rather than mechanically. More importantly, it's the first anti-lock system that is almost undetectable in use, and which has the ability to be a performance aid even for fast and experienced riders.

Unlike Honda's previous Combined ABS, this system does not require special calipers, although the ABS model's are identifiable by their gold color. It does add weight, though: 22 pounds for the 600 and 24 for the 1000, the latter's extra weight due to the difficulty of packaging the components on the larger-engined bike. Equally inevitable is the additional cost: a grand over the 600's $9799 and the 1000's $11,999 base prices.

That's a chunk of change, but its value became immediately evident during the first day's testing in the Losail parking lot, where the faithful Honda reps instructed us to simulate panic braking from 50 mph on dry, then wet, then sand-strewn pavement. The tests were eye-opening, as the CBR stopped hard and skid-free, with no discernable electronic intrusion, although the system was most certainly working hard to maintain traction. Honda's latest ABS reacts in six milliseconds--four times faster than the previous VFR800F's system--allowing the system to work seamlessly and covertly to help the rider maintain control.

The parking-lot test was promising, but we were eager to see what the system could do on the racetrack. The new Tokico four-piston monoblock calipers and a claimed weight of 410 pounds wet ensured that the non ABS-equipped CBR600RR I rode first was capable of shedding speed as quickly as it gained it. It was fast, too, thanks to a few engine tweaks aimed at improving midrange power, screaming to its 15,000-rpm redline. And it was sweet-handling, carving through Losail's succession of fast right-handers with typical poise and control.

I expected the difference between the standard and ABS-equipped bikes to be much more obvious, so I was amazed to find the new system not just working, but doing so in a totally unobtrusive way. I could come flying toward a turn, then squeeze the handlebar lever either as hard as I would normally, or purposely hard enough to lock a typical front wheel. In either case, the bike's response was identical: hard, smooth, controlled stopping. On the racetrack and the street, the benefit is clear: The system applies maximum braking force to both the front and rear wheels to provide the quickest and safest deceleration possible.

Like many riders--and the majority of professional racers--I never use the rear brake on the track; its benefit is negligible compared to the difficulty of dividing one's attention between front and rear. But when I squeezed the Honda's lever, the ABS computer sneakily and efficiently added a small but beneficial bit of rear brake, helping to reduce fork dive and keeping the chassis notably more stable on the way into turns.

Less welcome was the fact that because the CBR didn't dip at the front as much as normal, it needed a touch more steering input to make it change direction. Reducing the fork's compression damping slightly might have remedied this, given more time for fine-tuning. The system's other disadvantage, apart from cost, is the aforementioned weight penalty. But the ABS parts are located centrally, and I couldn't detect any detrimental effect on handling.

In case this all sounds too positive, the test did have one flaw: The ABS we tested in Qatar had a modified electronic control module, similar to the programmable units Honda will offer to racers. Engineer and test rider Tetuya Kudoh said this was necessary because the race-compound Bridgestone BT003 tires we rode on are wider than the standard-equipment BT015s for which the stock ECM is programmed. "It is possible to use the standard ECM with race-compound tires, but the ABS performance is not 100 percent," he said. "It's maybe 95 percent--the ABS might activate slightly earlier."

Given that most serious riders who intend to use these bikes on a racetrack will want to fit sticky rubber, that is surely a disadvantage. After all, someone who has just paid extra for ABS won't be happy about having to spend more on a kit ECU. Honda doesn't offer the option of disconnecting the ABS, either; although simply unplugging one of its wires would disable the fail-safe solenoids, leaving you with traditional brakes.

Racers Andrew Pitt, Jonathan Rea and Leon Haslam were present at the Losail test, and reckoned they were braking at almost exactly the same place on the ABS-equipped machine as on the standard one. So did Martin Bauer, who won last year's German Superbike Championship on a CBR1000RR, and will defend his title on an ABS-equipped model this season if the regulations allow it. His opinion is that it will be a big advantage in the wet: "Its performance will be very close to a non-ABS bike, maybe half a second per lap slower in ideal conditions. But it would be very good in the wet, and you could find the limit very fast on the first lap. Over a whole race distance it might be faster because you would be less likely to make mistakes."

There are those who won't want ABS on the road, either because they prefer to be in full control or because they believe the system will be a disadvantage in some circumstances. That was certainly true of previous ABS systems--but not of this one. Honda admits that an expert rider can narrowly outbrake even this system after two or three attempts on a dry surface. But an average rider's braking distance is longer, even after several tries. And even the best riders take longer when the road is wet or gritty.

More importantly, on the road you don't get a second chance. Honda's technically brilliant invention worked better than I thought possible, without detracting from the thrill. But it's on freeways, city streets and twisty backroads that the system will show its worth, when it prevents a skid or allows a rider to avoid a hazard he would otherwise have hit. Whether or not you like the idea of anti-lock brakes, the verdict is clear: With the arrival of Electronic Combined ABS, sportbike safety has taken a significant step forward.

Hard Parts
Better braking through technology

The CBR600RR's 16-valve inline-four produces more torque between 4000 and 10,000 rpm than it did last year, while still maintaining a peak output of 120 bhp at 13,500 revs. Increased midrange comes courtesy of a redesigned exhaust system with enhanced crossover tubes and an exhaust valve (as on the CBR1000RR) that regulates back-pressure for maximum power. Two Denso injectors per cylinder spray their combustibles into a bank of 40mm throttle bodies, which lead into intake ports with a shot-peen finish for optimized atomization.

Showa components are standard equipment, an inverted 41mm fork with 4.7 inches of fully adjustable travel holding up the front and Honda's Unit Pro-Link suspension anchoring the rear. Based on the MotoGP championship-winning RC211V, the rear end features a cast-aluminum gull-wing swingarm controlled by a single shock whose upper mount is contained within the swingarm. This reduces negative suspension energy from being transmitted to the frame and improves stability when driving out of corners.

The '09 CBR's Hollow Fine Die-Cast frame sheds more than a pound through the use of astonishingly thin 2.5mm walls. Frame spars are tuned to specific rigidities to enhance handling and feedback, although rake, trail and wheelbase remain the same. Honda's electronic steering damper hides under the plastic tank skin and works to maintain stability at high speeds. Use of the Unit Pro-Link swingarm allows the 4.8-gallon fuel tank to be shifted back and down, helping to centralize mass. Bodywork is restyled slightly to conceal the bike's electronic paraphernalia.

Honda's Electronic Combined ABS is a step above the rest, offering controlled braking at the threshold of wheel lock-up. At low input pressures, the system is inactive and hydraulic force travels directly from the vertical-piston master cylinder to the new lightweight Tokico four-piston monobock calipers. Electric Control Modules (ECM) connected to the front and rear brake hoses measure pressure input and feed data to the system's dedicated ECU. When high pressure is applied to the lever, the ECU goes to work scrutinizing sensor data from the wheels and brake lines hundreds of times per second to direct pressure and determine if intervention is necessary. When traction loss is imminent, the ECU signals the corresponding wheel's Electronic Pressure Unit (EPU). Responding in just .006 of a second (about the speed of a honey bee's wings), the EPU's motor-driven ball screw acts on a modulating piston to adjust braking force and maintain traction. A stroke simulator inside each ECM creates artificial pressure at the lever, so feel is consistent and uninterrupted.

Tech Spec

Honda's class-leading 600cc supersport is endowed with
electronically controlled linked ABS.
The rest of the middleweights from the Land of The Rising
Sun: Kawasaki ZX-6R, Suzuki GSX-R600 and Yamaha YZF-R6.
Price $10,799 ($9799 without ABS)
Engine type l-c inline-four
Valve train DOHC, 16v
Displacement 599cc
Bore x stroke 67.0 x 42.5mm
Compression 12.2:1
Fuel system EFI
Clutch Wet, multi-plate
Transmission 6-speed
Claimed horsepower 120 bhp @ 13,500 rpm
Claimed torque NA
Frame Aluminum twin-spar
Front suspension 41mm Showa inverted cartridge fork with
adjustable spring preload, compression and
rebound damping
Rear suspension Single Showa shock with adjustable spring
preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake Dual Tokico radial-mount four-piston monoblock
calipers, 310 mm discs, optional ABS
Rear brake Single Tokico two-piston caliper, 220mm disc,
optional ABS
Front tire 120/70-ZR17 Bridgestone BT015
Rear tire 180/55-ZR17 Bridgestone BT015
Rake/trail 23.5/3.9 in.
Seat height 32.3 in.
Wheelbase 53.8 in.
Fuel Capacity 4.8 gal.
Claimed dry weight 403 lbs. (381 lbs. without ABS)
Colors Red/Black, Black/Bright Green Metallic, Metallic
Black, Phoenix, Pearl White/Pearl Blue/Red
Available Now
Warranty 12 mo./unlimited mi.

American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
P.O. Box 2200
Torrance, CA 90509

Verdict 4.5 stars out of 5
Class-leading performance, further improved through brake-by-wire technology.

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