First Ride: 2004 Honda 599 Motorcycle

Big Red slugs one into the (not so) cheap seats. By Marc Cook

How long have we wondered when someone, anyone, would launch a true competitor to Suzuki's SV650? (Right after we and Suzuki realized how much of a hit the SV was, actually.) For five years now, Suzuki's had the category -- a reasonably sporty and inexpensive middleweight with a big grin factor and a modicum of character -- all to itself.

Now the field is starting to fill, first with Yamaha's new FZ6 and now with Honda's 599. Europhiles will recognize the bike as the Hornet 600 sold overseas. The Euro Hornet was substantially revamped for 2003 -- wider rims and bigger tires as well as more fuel capacity (now 4.5 gallons), all to a bike that's been scoring regularly since its '98 introduction. For us, the Hornet changes only in its name and new-found U.S. availibility.

In the 599, Honda has kept the tried-and-true CBR600F3-based engine. It features minor changes such as milder cams, smaller intake ports and reworked ignition timing. What's more, the 599 breathes through 34mm carburetors (down from 36mm mixers on the F3), making it one of the few new bikes without fuel injection. California models will have an exhaust catalyzer in the pipe leading up to the single muffler.

There are few changes for the engine, and even fewer for the chassis. Keeping to Hornet practice, the 599 uses a box-section steel spine frame with the engine as a stressed member. Low-budget suspension hangs from each end -- a 41mm damping-rod fork (not the superior cartridge style) with no adjustments up front, and a preload-adjustable-only shock behind. The front brakes are twin-piston, sliding-pin calipers squeezing 296mm discs. Conventional cast wheels carry 120/70-17 and 180/55-17 tires. (On the bikes we tried, they were the excellent Michelin Pilot Road sport-touring buns.) Claimed dry weight is 401 pounds.

By the end of the press kit, it's obvious that there's nothing special in the 599's specifications. Indeed, it looks a lot less than promising -- a two-generation-old 600cc wheezer bolted to what must be a heavy frame with conservative steering geometry, and last year's suspension and brakes. Man, would someone shoot the accountants?

But maybe Honda has merely staged a grand object lesson on how you can't write a riding impression from the specifications because, in the flesh and on the road, the 599 so grandly exceeds expectations that you could accuse the company of sandbagging. Yes, it's that good.

Let's start with power. Those of you too young to remember the F3 probably don't appreciate how it whipped up on the 600 class. That engine, in the 599, is nearly perfect, with creamy throttle response, good low-end and a fine midrange surge, plus a howly personality that begs to be given the business. It's hard to tell without direct comparisons, but it feels just as strong in the lower two-thirds of the rev band as the new FZ6, and probably only slightly down on peak thrust; you quickly realize that seeking the last 2000 rpm does little for forward progress. Shifting is great, gearing just fine -- all is right with the world.

If the engine is a pleasant surprise, the chassis is literally something else. Again, on paper it looks mundane, but the 599 steers and tracks with such clarity and poise that any rider's enthusiasm and confidence will skyrocket. As on the 919, you'll start setting down the extra-long peg feelers sooner than you expect, in part because they're low and in part because you're quickly going fast on this little devil. All this is aided by a comfortable, compact riding position that, in the great tradition of cool nakeds, affords an excellent view of the road and promotes a relaxed grip on the bar. If this were a pure sportbike we'd ding the 599 for having softly calibrated and cheap-feeling suspension, but if part of the bike's assignment is to befriend shorties and newbies, we'll find the heart to cut it some slack. It's to the chassis' credit that even as the wheels struggle to stay connected with bumpy roads, the bike itself goes where you ask.

No doubt about it: Honda stepped up to the plate and swung hard with the 599. But it threw on its batting helmet with two strikes already on the board thanks to the 599's price -- $7099. With the 919 just $900 up the ladder, the FZ6 $600 below and the magical SV more than $1000 cheaper, the 599 seems substantially, um, overvalued. The 599 is not the most practical of the breed, with little wind protection save for the cool, multielement reflector headlight, while the FZ6 comes with a half-fairing, plus fuel injection, a centerstand and a trick aluminum frame.

The 599 definitely pegs the perky meter, but it's not the wild-eyed Hooligan-in-training that is an SV650. Whether the next pitch results in a strike out or a triple remains to be seen.

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