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.
Power: 124 HP Torque: 65 lb/ft Weight: 407 pounds
** 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.
Power: 126 HP Torque: 65 lb/ft Weight: 407 pounds
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
** The R1 wasn’t going anywhere, and though Honda didn’t know it, Suzuki’s GSX-R1000 was coming down the line too. The CBR clearly had to transform itself into a full-bore 1000cc superbike. Just…not yet. The old engine layout was laid to rest, with a new 74mm bore and shorter 54mm stroke giving a 929cc capacity and a claimed 146 HP. Fuel injection appeared for the first time too, and the exhaust gained a flapper-style header-pipe valve. On the chassis, the front wheel changed from the crazy old 16-incher to a “proper” 17-inch rim, and the fork was a USD design. The frame used Honda’s then-fashionable pivotless layout, with the swingarm mounted to the engine crankcases. The results were impressive. The fueling was a little jerky, but the sheer performance made up for that. It looked hot too, and while the GSX-R and R1 were the stars of the new millennium, the CBR was close to the top again.
Power: 146 HP Torque: 72 lb/ft Weight: 374 pounds
Last of the Originals
Honda had a full CBR1000RR almost ready to go, but there was one more bite of the CBR900RR cherry left. And what a tasty bite it was. It’s only in retrospect that we really appreciate it though, beguiled as we were at the time by the R1 and the GSX-R. The 954 was basically a time-marking tweak of the 929, but all the ch anges were for the better. The best part was the weight loss. Thanks to new titanium exhaust parts, the CBR954RR was, and remains, the lightest big CBR ever, at under 370 pounds. The capacity increase came from a 1mm overbore, and power went up by four to 150 HP. The fuel injection worked better, the handling was slicker, and it was a superb package. And don’t forget its sinister styling of course. The tenth anniversary CBR is a genuine classic – if you have a nice one, keep it!
Power: 155 HP Torque: 77 lb/ft Weight: 369.6 pounds
** Honda at last came up with the liter superbike goods for 2004. Like the CBR600RR of a year earlier, the new CBR aimed to bask in the glory of Honda’s mighty RC211V MotoGP bike. Sadly, that didn’t extend to fitting a 220 HP, V5 engine. The engine was new though, as well as the chassis, the bodywork—you get the picture. On the tech side, there was a snazzy new electronic steering damper and the fuel injection used two injectors per cylinder. The engine had a more compact stacked design, pushing the gearbox shafts up into a triangular layout, while the chassis was based on a new cast aluminum frame. There were radial-mount front brake calipers, USD forks and MotoGP-derived Unit Pro-Link rear suspension. Thrust was up to 160 HP, but the weight also went up by 25 pounds over the CBR954RR.
Power: 160 HP Torque: 85 lb/ft Weight: 394 pounds
Honda had tweaked the 1000RR in 2006, shaving a few pounds here and there with different brake discs and adding a few peak power ponies. But the CBR was a ways off the competition and needed some heavy improvements. Enter the 2008 update – a damned ugly (from the front) machine, but with a solid performance package underneath. Everything was new: a bigger bore, short-stroke 999cc engine with titanium valves, a slipper clutch and a lightweight, cast aluminum frame. The underseat silencer was dumped in favor of an underslung pipe/catalyst box, with a tiny side-exit silencer, and the motor moved up to accommodate the new exhaust system. Power was up in the midrange and weight was possibly down a little. We say “possibly” because Honda switched to curb weights with this model, so it’s hard to compare like with like. Whatever the numbers, the 2008 bike was the real deal and back on par with the competition. there are similarities between the rendering and the actual machine, but the controversial front end is where they greatly differ.
Power: 165 HP Torque: 84 lb/ft Weight: 435 pounds (wet)
20 Years Young **
The world is a very different place from what it was in 1992. Financial crises, first in Japan then in the rest of the world, means there’s fewer dollars for folks to buy flashy new literbikes, and less money for firms like Honda to come up with astounding updates every two years. The accountants took over at Honda a long time ago, and while it can make billions selling scooters in Asia, superbike development has seemingly moved to the back burner. Which goes some way to explain the 2012 CBR1000RR. Where the competition has moved on in terms of power and technology, Honda’s stuck with the same basic bike. The front forks are now Big Piston items (first seen on the 2009 Kawasaki ZX-6R), the dash is new, and the bodywork is much sharper. Of course, 165 horsepower is still a lot of steam. And for most road riders, the CBR’s civilized manners make it a strong contender. But when the same (or less) cash will get you a bike with traction control and other electronic rider aids (as well as a heap more power) it’s easy to see why some might pass on the Honda.
The original CBR came at things from a new angle. The “less is more” school of thought proved successful. Rather than entering a spiral of more power meaning more weight, as on the ZX-11 and the like, Honda thought smarter and revolutionized the superbike world. Since then, the competition caught onto its plans, and surpassed the CBR in many ways. More seriously, Honda looks less likely to come up with another new angle. Yamaha is experimenting with cross-plane crankshaft layouts, BMW has pioneered race-ready traction control and electronic suspension adjustment, and Ducati offers built-in datalogging. Honda, meanwhile, has only recently managed to build a gear position indicator into the CBR’s dash. On the other hand, the latest CBR handles perfectly, goes like hell, and has a purity and heritage the others can’t touch. And that may be just what you’re looking for.
Power: 165 HP Torque: 84 lb/ft Weight: 441 pounds (wet)