2007 Honda CBR 600 - Honda Bikes

Then And Now

By Mitch Boehm, Photography by Dexter Ford, Jeff Karr, Kevin Wing

"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.

When Honda launched the CBR600 project in late '84, Large Project Leader (LPL) Satoshi Ishikawa's goals were simple yet ambitious: to produce the lightest, most powerful and best-performing 600 ever on the track and street. Not much has changed, as that's basically the mission statement adopted by LPL Norikazu Maeda for the '07 CBR600RR. Although the bike is entirely new, the design doesn't stem totally from clean-sheet engineering. Honda says the bike was developed in parallel with the 800cc RC212V MotoGP racer being built to replace the 990cc RC211V for the 2007 season. Some critical numbers bear this out: The CBR's 53.8-inch wheelbase, for instance, is nearly an inch shorter than the '06 RR's. Weight was pared everywhere-nearly 4 pounds from the engine and another 13 or so from the chassis. Honda says the bike is 20 pounds lighter than the '06 RR, and our scales agree, putting the '07 bike's wet weight at 412-19 pounds lighter than the '06 model.

The CBR's new inline-four anchored much of the shrinkage. It's not only lighter than before, but also shorter by more than an inch thanks to even tighter spacing between the crank, output shaft and countershaft. This allowed the frame-and, thusly, wheelbase-to be shorter, which helped minimize the bike's overall size. Chassis geometry is radical, with 23.7 degrees of rake (vs. 24 degrees for the '06 bike) buffered by a 2.7mm increase in trail for stability.

These days, top-shelf sportbikes get tweaked every two years, but it wasn't always so. Throughout the '80s and '90s, new-model gaps were typically four years, which meant the original '87 Hurricane would be redesigned for '91. Work on the second-generation CBR began in early '89, about the time I moved from Motorcyclist to American Honda's product-planning department. Hurricane LPL Ishikawa would lead the development of the new bike, known internally as MV9, but which we also called the F2, an alphanumeric that would become its official name: CBR600F2.

I found Honda's development process plenty fascinating, if sometimes overly political. For a sportbike nut like myself, it was the ultimate behind-the-scenes fantasy trip. Work on the F2 began with meetings between U.S. and Japan staff to discuss the concept in detail and view various design sketches. What would the bike look like? How much power would it need? How light could it be? Later came meetings to view photos of clay mock-ups based on our choice of styling direction, or to hear how much power the prototype engine was making. A couple months later I spied an early F2 prototype running at Tochigi. Even painted black, the proto looked meaner and swoopier than the blocky first-generation bike, and from what I was hearing from the team, it was way faster. Seeing and hearing a motorcycle that had existed on a designer's sketch pad only a year earlier was hugely thrilling, even if I'd had only a tiny hand in its makeup.

The thrill returned a few months later during final prototype testing, where staffers Dirk Vandenberg, Joe Boyd and I joined with the Japan R&D team to determine the F2's final suspension settings. (Tragically, Vandenberg and Boyd would be killed during CBR600F4 testing in 1998.) We tested the bike extensively in Southern California on roads we knew magazine testers would use to evaluate it. Our motto was simple: Make it work for the magazines and sales success will follow.

The results were spectacular. The F2 wasn't just a far better sportbike than the original Hurricane, its overall balance and flexibility outdid its competition by a fair margin. Here's how Motorcyclist summed things up in its March 1991 comparison: "The CBR600F2 wins not because it was the best in every category, but because it struck a balance no other bike could achieve. Few motorcycles have the ability to do as much as well as the latest CBR." Dealers couldn't get enough F2s, even at $4998.

An interesting dichotomy was emerging at the time, something we at Honda called "the two-pronged middleweight strategy." Kawasaki employed it in '91 by offering two 600s: the '87-spec Ninja 600 and a newer ZX-6. Suzuki would join in shortly thereafter with the soft-edged Katana and narrowly focused GSX-R600. Honda, conversely, felt strongly it could build one bike that would bridge the gap between all-around street flexibility and the racetrack capability that would let it win races and magazine shootouts. Internally we called our way the F-concept (as opposed to the R-concept, meaning Race Replica). Part of this approach was simple pragmatism, as building, selling and supporting two 600s was expensive. The other part was pure moxie; R&D chieftains said on several occasions, "We will build one bike that will beat the competition everywhere!" That attitude would eventually change as the category became more sharply focused, but not for years. There were plenty of F-spec 600s left in Honda.

The next iteration of the CBR600-the F3-came in '95, an evolutionary change rather than a complete redesign. I was back at Motorcyclist by then, and figured the F3 might not have enough punch to counter the stiff competition that had emerged in the F2's wake. Honda's F3 print ad recognized this, saying, "When does it stop looking like last year's CBR? The second you turn the key." True, there were important upgrades, but the F2's steel perimeter frame and basic engine design remained.

"Personally, I would like to design a CBR600RR using an aluminum frame," F3 project leader Satoru Horiike told us at the F3's launch. "Our research, however, said such a bike's sharper edge and higher price would narrow the bike's appeal."

In the end, the F3 stayed atop the 600-class pile, if only by a whisker. The ZX-6R made 7 more horsepower and weighed 13 pounds less, but snatchy carburetion and wonky suspension relegated it to runner-up status in our comparison test.

Horiike got his chance to design a CBR with an aluminum frame in '99, but the F4 that resulted retained its F-spec designation and do-everything attitude despite a radical new engine and chassis. "It just doesn't make any economic or production sense for us to build more than one 600," Honda's Gary Christopher told us. But by making the F4 more streetbike than racebike (Miguel Duhamel's Supersport victories on a factory F4 notwithstanding), Honda left itself vulnerable. Yamaha took the two-pronged approach to the next level, offering three 600s in '99: the budget-friendly FZR600, the do-everything YZF600R and the track-savvy YZF-R6, which hammered everything else flat with big horsepower and kick-ass racetrack performance.

None of that would change two years later when Honda blessed the F4 with fuel-injection. Yamaha's package deal-headed by an even better R6-still ruled the roost. Honda's one-bike approach-or unwillingness to build a true race-replica as its only 600-had finally run out of gas.

All of which made the introduction of the '03 CBR600RR, along with the news that the F4i would remain in the lineup, easy to understand. End result? Despite being 30 pounds heavier than the R6 (and GSX-R600 and ZX-6R), the hard-edged, rack-like RR jumped back into the performance fray by winning our shootout. For '05, Honda tweaked the bike heavily and put it on a strict diet, and ultimate performance jumped yet again.

What's really shocking, however, is how much better the '07 CBR is on both street and track. The bike impressed every scribe I spoke to at the Barber intro, but it wasn't until I rode an '06 version that same afternoon that I attained True Believer status. The new CBR was noticeably better in every way, from fuel-injection crispness to midrange lunge to top-end power to suspension action to braking power to transitional quickness. Honda test guru Doug Toland (who replaced me at Honda) says the new bike is a full second per lap quicker on the track. I'd say the gap is more like 2 seconds. Either way, the difference is night and day. Amazing.

More amazing, perhaps, is the fact that the new CBR delivers much more long-haul comfort than you'd expect. With 10mm higher bars and recontoured foam in the seat, this tiny, MotoGP-inspired, track-serious, 15,000-rpm back-road weapon is actually a decent sporty-tourer for those under 6 feet tall. It'll get 40 mpg all day long, provide crystal-clear views in its mirrors, ride smoothly on even the most pockmarked tarmac, and route a relatively calm windblast at your upper torso. Yes, the engine is buzzy between 6000 and 8000 revs, and the limited seat-to-peg distance means those with inseams over 29 inches will get cramped knees. But if you can handle the bends, the new CBR is more accommodating than you'd think for that 600-mile weekend.

What we've got, then, is a truly vicious racetrack and back-road weapon supported by what might be the best ergonomic package ever provided on a full-on, race-replica motorcycle. Sounds suspiciously like the CBR platform is getting back to its all-around, do-everything roots - which means there's a good chance we'll be celebrating the CBR nameplate in another 20 years. I just hope I'm able to ride the thing, as the Beatles sang, "When I'm 64.".

CBR600s Through The Years
From F To RR, And Everything In BetweenWith so many CBR600s sold here in the last 20 years, chances are you or someone you know has owned one. And with eight AMA Supersport championships and 83 AMA Supersport race wins to its credit (double its nearest competitor), you've probably seen one win at the track. Here's a quick sampler.

1987 Honda Hurricane 600

MSRP $3698
Type l-c inline-four
Valve arrangement Dohc, 16v
Bore x stroke 63.0mm x 48.0mm
Displacement 598cc
Compression ratio 11:1
Transmission 6-speed
Final drive Chain
Weight (wet) 450 lb. (204kg)
Weight (tank empty) 419 lb. (190kg)
Rake 26.0 deg.
Trail 4.09 in. (104mm)
Wheelbase 55.5 in. (1410mm)
Seat height 30.4 in. (772mm)
Fuel capacity 5.2 gal. (20L)
Brake, F 2-piston calipers,
276mm discs  
Brake, R 2-piston caliper, 218mm disc
Tire, F 110/80V-17 Bridgestone
Tire, R 130/80V-17 Bridgestone
Front 37mm fork, adjustable via air pressure
Rear single shock, adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping
Corrected 1/4-mile* 11.38 sec. @ 117.9 mph
0-60 mph 3.30 sec.
0-100 mph NA
Fuel mileage  
(low/high/average) 37/45/41
*Performance with test-session weather conditions corrected to sea-level standard conditions (59 degrees F, 29.92 in. of mercury).

2007 Honda CBR600rr

MSRP $9499
Type l-c inline-four
Valve arrangement DOHC, 16v
Bore x stroke 67.0mm x 42.5mm
Displacement 599cc
Compression ratio 12.2:1
Transmission 6-speed
Final drive Chain
Weight (wet) 412 lb. (187kg)
Weight (tank empty) 383 lb. (174kg)
Rake 23.7 deg.
Trail 3.85 in. (98mm)
Wheelbase 53.8 in. (1367mm)
Seat height 32.3 in. (820mm)
Fuel capacity 4.8 gal. (18L)
Brake, F 4-piston radial-mount calipers, 310mm discs
Brake, R 2-piston caliper, 220mm disc
Tire, F 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Qualifier
Tire, R 180/55ZR-17 Dunlop Qualifier
Front 41mm inverted cartridge fork, adjustable for spring preload, rebound and compression damping
Rear Single shock, adjustable for spring preload, rebound and compression damping
Corrected 1/4-mile* 10.57 sec. @ 131.02 mph
0-60 mph 3.07 sec.
0-100 mph 6.37 sec.
Fuel mileage
(low/high/average) 37/42/40
*Performance with test-session weather conditions corrected to sea-level standard conditions (59 degrees F, 29.92 in. of mercury).

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