"Damn! This thing feels like a freakin' 750!"
The thought flashed on my internal screen while ripping through Barber Motorsports Park's back-straight chicane during the '07 Honda CBR600RR press launch last November, the rear Dunlop tracing a mild darkie as I exited hard on the gas, the tach needle wavering right up next to the red zone
The idea registered again a few weeks later on a desolate back road north of Los Angeles. The way the new CBR leapt past 100 mph on its way to about a buck-thirty had me squeezing the tank with my knees to keep from being blown off the back.
What's funny is that exact thought had crossed my mind 20 years earlier about another CBR600-the very first CBR600, in fact. Talk about a dfjf vu moment.
It was late '86, and I was at Honda's Tochigi test facility for the launch of the just-announced '87 CBR600F, or 600 Hurricane as it would be called in the U.S. The 2.4-mile test oval was wet, but grip was reasonable because the banking (43 degrees in the highest lane) allowed no-lean cornering at well above 100 mph. I figured I could uncork the thing and see if what Honda had been telling us was true-that the 600 Hurricane was "the fastest, most advanced machine in its class."
A minute later, after shrieking down the nearly mile-long back straight with the CBR's inline-four tearing to redline, I had my answer: Honda wasn't pulling any wool here. Its new 600 was a rocket. We'd get a testbike of our own a few months later, and after thrashing it in every conceivable way, knew the CBR had rewritten the rules on what it took to be a showroom, street and track phenom.
What's amazing is that, 20 years later, Honda seems to have repeated the feat with its lighter, smaller and sexier third-generation '07 CBR600RR. It's early days for sure, and plenty of testing of other bikes remains-especially Kawasaki's similarly all-new ZX-6R (see this issue's First Ride). But after flogging the new CBR these last few weeks, it's obvious the bike has nudged the 600-class bar a rung or two higher, once again altering what a modern middleweight sportbike must be and do to dominate.
Say what you will about 600s, they're an almost perfect blend of power, weight and flickability. They're also a key category for the OEMs, comprising nearly half of sportbike sales in the U.S., with three of the four Japanese makers reporting their best-selling single model in '06 was a 600cc sportbike. Give this little fact-bomb a toss the next time your buddies pooh-pooh 600s. Those of us who ride them regularly-especially at the racetrack-know the magic they offer.
The CBR's magic has helped Honda grab a sizeable chunk of the middleweight market since '87. Honda says it has sold approximately 200,000 CBR600s here in the last 20 years (and about 400,000 world-wide). That's an average of 10,000 CBRs per year, a number larger than the total yearly U.S. sales of some European and Asian makers. The bike's arrival in '87 was certainly fortuitous for Honda; the U.S. market began tanking that year, the dollar losing major ground against the yen the year prior. Having a big seller like the CBR helped blunt the effects of generally slow sales.
That first-generation Hurricane led the way in areas other than sales, including dragstrip E.T. (11.38 sec. @ 117.9 mph, a record that'd stand for years), top speed (141 mph), rear-wheel horsepower (70 bhp), wet weight (450 lbs.), racetrack lap times, broadband capability and magazine shootout victories. The CBR led in other ways, too: Its full-coverage bodywork broke new ground stylistically, but more importantly it lowered production costs. By not having to surface-finish a load of chassis and engine bits, Honda was able to keep the retail price low-just $3698-and put yen into engine and chassis technology, where it mattered. The CBR's 17-inch front and rear wheels provided an early glimpse into sportbiking's future as well. Simply put, the first CBR600 was the class of the class.