Looking to treat yourself to a new literbike? There’s a mighty number of options out there: BMW’s S1000RR is the wildest thing on two wheels, with Kawasaki’s latest ZX-10R right on its tail. Suzuki’s cranked up the spec on the GSX-R1000 for this year, and even Yamaha’s R1 is festooned with upgrades like a new traction control system. There’s a Honda too, of course. The big CBR is twenty years old this year, and has a fancy new set of bodywork and some new suspension and wheels to celebrate. Spoiling the party a little though is the motor it had four years ago with the same power, putting the CBR low on most performance fans’ list for 2012. That’s a shame, because the CBR (in its original 900RR form) was the bike that really invented the liter superbike class we know and love today. That’s to say, full-bore, 1000cc-level engines pushing along a lightweight chassis with top-spec running gear.
Back in 1992 (it didn’t reach America until ‘93) just before the CBR900RR launched, you were stuck with heavyweight dinosaurs like the Kawasaki ZX-11, Yamaha FZR1000R and Suzuki GSX-R1100. They were considered awesome at the time, with their wild 125 HP (at the crank, on a good day) power outputs. What nobody mentioned was their excessive weight (the 1992 GSX-R1100 weighed 449 pounds, dry), and the fact they handled a little like shopping carts. Back then, “good handling” was left to the smaller classes. Nothing over 750cc was seriously expected to get through a corner at any speed without the rider catching a glimpse of the Grim Reaper whittlin’ his scythe. Things have changed, and the liter class bikes are now likely to handle nearly as well as the 600s. But without the CBR900RR things might be different.
When Honda started out on this path it actually went with a traditional 750cc capacity. Loosely based around the crankcases of the obscure 1987 CBR750 Hurricane, Honda designer Tadao Baba built up a smart-looking supersport bike with minimal weight as a key factor. Honda already had two 750 sportbikes though – the VFR750F and the exotic, race-ready VFR750R RC30. So rather than steal sales from those with another good-but-boring three-quarter liter machine, Baba-san boosted the capacity. Not by a full 250cc though, just 143cc, taking the motor out to 893cc. The result was genius. Lighter than the 750s, but with more power and a heap more grunt, the CBR900RR was an instant hit.
124 HP Torque:
65 lb/ft Weight:
The original CBR was stylish enough, but Honda still tweaked the looks for 1995. The major difference was a set of trendy fox-eye headlights, while the forks and gearbox were also improved. The speedo used an electronic drive from the gearbox sprocket and the engine cam cover switched from aluminum to magnesium. Minor stuff, but then the bike didn’t need much more.
126 HP Torque:
65 lb/ft Weight:
If It Ain’t Broke…
Three years into the CBR900’s life, and the competition still had nothing to offer. Suzuki’s GSX-R1100 was on its death bed, killed by morbid obesity, while Yamaha’s FZR1000 had been wheeled into the clinic for a last-chance makeover into the YZF1000R Thunderace. Kawasaki had made the best effort, bumping its ZX-7R up into the 900cc class with the ZX-9R. But the big K hadn’t managed to drop weight, and the ZX-9R was 70 pounds on the wrong side of the scale.
Honda tightened the screw anyways. It found another 25cc from a 1 mm overbore, taking the capacity up to 918cc, and shed a couple of pounds from the weight, down to 405 pounds. Good numbers, although the changes also calmed the CBR down a little, with smoother power delivery and a more stable chassis.
Power: 128 HP Torque: 67 lb/ft Weight: 405 pounds
Time stands still for no man, and it’s the same for bikes. Even game-changers like the CBR grow old eventually and get knocked off their perch. Five years after the 900RR launch, Yamaha’s R1 had beaten Honda at its own game with a lighter, more powerful package of awesomeness. Most folks expected Honda to come out fighting, with a new ‘super-CBR’ to take on the R1. Surely Baba-san and the might of HRC had something incredible waiting in the wings?
Sadly, it seemed not. The 1998 model was improved all around, with chassis and engine mods making it an even more perfect version of the old bike. But the R1 was fighting with a full 999cc as well as an all-new chassis approach. It was torquier, sharper, meaner, and made the CBR look just a little bit old and tired.
Power: 130 HP Torque: 67 lb/ft Weight: 397 pounds