Motorcycle Road Test: 2004 Honda CBR1000RR

Is this motorcycle the most powerful, most sophisticated superbike ever?

  • Perfectly linear power
  • Steering damper disappears at slow speeds
  • Most ridable literbike ever
  • Me-too styling: almost indistinguishable from the 600
  • Drivetrain clunks roil the reverie
  • 20 pounds too heavy, but you may never notice
2004 Honda Cbr1000rr Side View
Details, details... Perfectly linear power Steering damper disappears at slow speeds

When Honda rolled the now legendary RC211V MotoGP motorcycle onto its first grid back in 2002, we all knew we were seeing something audacious, original and unprecedented. What we didn't know was just how ridiculously dominant it would turn out to be. Now, two straight world championships later, the message has floated up through the murk of the crystal ball: Honda didn't just go off in its own odd direction, as it has so many times before. It went in the right direction.

We've said this before, but it's time to say it again. Never before in the history of man's pursuit of speed, technical achievement and sheer adrenaline production has so much performance been available for so little. Automotive obsessives rave on about the performance of Formula 1 cars—but the difference between the multimillion-dollar racers they worship and the machines they drive is like the difference between Pamela Anderson and Louie Anderson.

We motorcyclists have no such problem. In the CBR1000RR we can have the cutting-edge chassis design that set MotoGP racing on its collective ear—not to mention almost three quarters of the power young Dr. Rossi used to blitzkrieg the competition. We can get it with a simply amazing level of ridability and civility—and for less than the price of a stripper Honda Civic. Talk about bang for your buck.

The key to the CBR1000RR, as with the RC211V that inspired it, is in harnessing the awesome power of a modern superbike—making it more accessible, more predictable, more day-in, day-out usable. The key is not the engine, the frame, the longer swingarm or the centralized mass. It's not the Unit Pro-Link rear suspension, not the radial-mount brakes, not the two-stage fuel injection. It's all of that working together. To paraphrase a certain retired politician: It's the package, stupid.

After years of making great open-class streetbikes (the CBR900RR, CBR929RR and CBR954RR) that could also be used as racebikes, Honda reversed course for '04, making the CBR1000RR an all-out racebike that could also be used on the street. The reason is simple: People didn't want a great streetbike—they wanted the nastiest, fastest, least-compromised rocket they could lay their sweaty carbon-fiber gloves on. So Honda, yet again, relearned the one simple rule of selling motorcycles to Americans: We don't buy motorcycles for sensible reasons. We buy them for crazy, passionate, emotional reasons—or we don't buy them at all.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the racetrack. Honda's commitment to win in the Superbike wars ran head-on into an emerging truth on the racetrack—sheer power is not enough to get you to the podium. It takes everything you've got, in every area of technology, all added together in a carefully blended, perfectly harmonized, artfully constructed symphony. A symphony conducted—and in large part written—by the rider.

Consider the dyno trace of this CBR laid over the curve of last year's superbike king, the awe-inspiring Suzuki GSX-R1000. The Main Number, of course, is peak horsepower, and true to its design brief the Honda comes out on top here: 153.5 for the CBR versus an embarrassing 152.1 for the now-deposed GSX-R. Do you think Honda's engineers had a GSX-R or two to play with when they developed the CBR engine?

Elsewhere in the torque curve the two are essentially identical—until you look between 4000 and 5500 rpm. Here, the Suzuki romps, with as much as a 12.1-horsepower advantage. But after its impressive burst of low-end power the Suzuki's urge drops off just as precipitously, actually losing five horses between 5000 and 5500 rpm. The Honda makes less power than the Suzuki here for a few hundred rpm. But the CBR's power delivery is much smoother, more linear—and much more trustworthy, especially when leaned over in a dirty, bumpy corner. Or on the last laps in the life of a shredded MotoGP rear tire.

The CBR has the most peak power, but is it the quickest? We'll have a more definitive answer when we can test all the contenders on the same day. But for now, the CBR gets through the quarter-mile traps a couple tenths behind the best GSX-R1000 and YZF-R1 times we've run. Our CBR had an abrupt clutch that made it problematic to launch; it either wanted to spin its Pirelli Diablo to smoke or stand up like a dancing bear. That and the Honda's 20-something pounds of extra weight conspired to keep it stuck at 10.24 seconds, with a 140.09-mph terminal speed. The Honda's kinder, gentler torque curve also hurt it in the 60-80-mph top-gear roll-on; its best was 3.07 seconds, but we've seen GSX-R1000s and YZF-R1s run consistent 2.7s. Dominant power? Not really. Usable, predictable power? Oh, yes.

The early buzz about the RC211V focused, quite naturally, on its thoroughly unconventional V-five engine. But what's hard to accomplish is getting all that horsepower to the asphalt and doing it in a way that keeps the tires—and the rider's brain—from frying in the attempt. The RC211V was remarkable as much for its innovative chassis layout, centralized mass and exceptionally long swingarm as for its radical powerplant. We've spent two years marveling at what Honda hath wrought on the racetrack. And now, in the CBR1000RR, we get to feel it for ourselves—and do it on the way to the Quickie Mart.

A quick technology review for those few who missed Herr Boehm's racetrack-based first ride piece in our April '04 issue. The CBR uses an all-new, highly compact inline-four engine, with its crank and transmission shafts triangulated to shorten its overall length. The shorter, narrow-bore, more upright engine makes room for a longer swingarm, which minimizes the suspension-stiffening effects of chain torque under power and also reduces the forces contributed by swingarm angularity. Translation: The short-engine/long-swingarm design makes the chassis less sensitive to changes in throttle, power output and traction, giving the rider a more stable, more predictable platform—especially when driving out of a corner at the limit. It also puts more mass over the front wheel for better turn-in with the power off and enhanced steering at corner exits with the power on. Making the engine and fuel tank shorter also allowed the designers to shove the rider forward, increasing comfort and front-end bite even more.

Centralizing the machine's mass makes it more responsive—and more dynamically stable—at the same time. Concentrating the big, heavy lumps—the engine, transmission, fuel and rider—in the middle makes it easier to change direction on cue. But bumps, slides, wheelies and other disturbances will inevitably try to deflect the bike from its intended line. Concentrated mass gives the tires effectively longer lever arms to quickly correct deviations without generating excess angular momentum that can result in a reactive oscillation—a wobble. Light but exceedingly stiff frame, fork and brake designs, working with carefully tuned suspension pieces and an innovative, speed-sensitive, electronically tuned steering damper, make the CBR rider's job a lot easier. At least in theory, that is.

Boehm reported on the CBR's racetrack performance last month, but here's a summary: highly responsive, low-speed flickability wedded to rock-solid high-speed stability. Impressive feel and grip, especially when cornering at serious lean angles. All-around, a very usable, confidence-inspiring package, able to put down the power early in turns, and with enough top-end horsepower to make serious lap times. Scary fast? No. Fast fast? Uh huh.

But how does it work out here in the real world, you ask? Pretty gosh-darn swell, as it turns out. The riding position is quite a bit more radical than the CBR954RR's, for example, with its clip-ons more than two inches lower and its pegs a bit higher and more rearward. But the stance still leaves you with your weight balanced on your feet, not your wrists, and you're able to move back and forth and side to side more easily than on, say, an '03 Yamaha YZF-R1.

Control feel is typically Honda: light, smooth and impressively harmonized. The engine revs quickly and is smoother than a GSX-R1000's. It's built for the track, but that didn't stop Honda from making it a highly refined streetbike in the bargain. At lower speeds the biggest CBR feels refreshingly light and nimble, almost 600ish. Although the CBR outweighs its Suzuki and Yamaha literbike competition by a good 20 pounds, you'd never know it from the saddle: its electronic steering damper stays out of the picture at lower velocities, letting the steep frame geometry and concentrated mass do their responsiveness thing. Suspension action is amazing. Firm low-speed compression and well-controlled rebound damping keep the chassis utterly stable over bumps and in hard acceleration and braking, without the high damper-speed harshness that usually intrudes when the bumps get sharp. Bumps and holes that would make you cringe on less refined race replicas float under the Honda without drama.

Softness, slop and imprecision are the prices we usually pay for this kind of suspension compliance, but the CBR feels like a solid billet of unobtanium; amazingly rigid, but able to quell almost any unwanted motion seemingly before it gets started. The result is gratifyingly quick response, arm in arm with ever-growing confidence. A quick twist at the bar levers the CBR over into turns with impeccable grace, and spot-on steering geometry lets you trail-brake in with only minimal brake-induced stand-up. The brakes themselves are wonderful; low effort, excellent initial bite and seemingly bottomless reserves of power. And the incredibly stable chassis encourages you to trust these lovely binders like a carrier pilot trusts his arrestor hook.

Most literbikes come into their own on faster roads and wide-open racetracks, but the CBR is equally impressive on slow, snotty switchbacks—the kind of terrain that usually makes you wish for the upright stance and added handlebar leverage of a naked bike. The linear, happily predictable power lets you dial up exactly what you need when you need it, and the stiff yet beautifully damped chassis lets you throw your weight around without unwanted wiggles or wobbles.

Let's see. The most peak power in the class. A smooth, highly refined engine with wonderfully linear response. A precedent-shattering chassis that makes good riders feel great and great riders feel omnipotent. Some of the best suspension and braking performance we've ever experienced. A riding position that's great in the twisties and on the racetrack, and mostly livable in town. And a pedigree that includes winning every MotoGP championship ever contested. Can it really be that good? Yeah, it can. Yamaha? Kawasaki? Suzuki? Let's see what you've got.

OFF THE RECORD

Boehm
Age: 41
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 225 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.

One of the most difficult things to get right when developing an all-new sportbike—especially one designed to get around a racetrack more quickly than its competition—is its suspension settings. Get 'em too taut and, while the bike may work fine on a smooth circuit, its ride is likely to be jarring and harsh on-road. Leave 'em too compliant and the bike loses the high-speed, hard-braking chassis composure it needs to cut quick laps. All of which means the Honda development folks, both here and in Japan, deserve big-time kudos for their work on the CBR1000RR's legs. Honestly, I've not ridden an open-class sportbike that combines such bolted-to-the-road stability and composure with this level of daily ride compliance. Class-leading horsepower and the bike's truckload of MotoGP technology just sweeten the deal. Yeah, yeah, it's 20-some pounds heavier than the GSX-R1000—and, most likely, the new YZF-R1 and ZX-10R. But I don't care. It's a streetbike, and if power-to-weight were all that were important, we'd all be riding Y2K Turbine bikes. If your ego demands you only be seen riding the lightest open-classer of 2004, you'll miss out on one of the neatest sportbike experiences since the mighty CB750 first arrived on U.S. soil.

—Mitch Boehm

Ford
Age: 50
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 235 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.

When Honda set out to build the RC211V, the bike that inspired the CBR, it knew it'd be dealing with 240 freakin' horsepower. So, unlike its competition, Honda concentrated on making it as ridable as possible.

If you watch MotoGP, you've watched Dr. Rossi shadow his challenger du jour until the last few laps—and then walk away like Russell Crowe fleeing the paparazzi. Rossi can go as fast as anybody, and do it with the crucial reserves of tire, bike and brainpower that let him turn it up whenever he wants. I just reread Alan Cathcart's ride review of the RC211V. And everything he said about the racer applies to the CBR. He said it was so ridable, so well-integrated, so refined that he could find nothing to criticize.

Literbikes are hard to ride. I remember Kevin Schwantz telling me he'd rather ride the GSX-R750 at Willow—because the GSX-R1000 intimidates him. And Eddie Lawson telling me there might be a few people who can ride an R1 to its potential on the street—but that he wasn't one of them. Now I don't feel so bad.

The CBR1000RR is the ultimate expression of high-speed democracy. It brings power to the people, in a package that lets us use more of it, more of the time, than ever before.

—Dexter Ford

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