Of course, the CBR1000RR's granddaddy was one of the most revolutionary bikes ever. The CBR900RR of 1993 didn't just "rewrite the rulebook," it pretty much became the rulebook. For five years, until Yamaha hit back with its mighty R1, the CBR900RR was untouchable. Its lightness and strong 893cc and 919cc engines blew the lardy competition into the weeds.
But by the end of the 1990s the other Japanese firms had caught onto the CBR's tricks. After the 1998 Yamaha R1 debuted, the sublime 2001 Suzuki GSX-R1000 was introduced. Even Kawasaki gave Honda something to think about in 2004 with the wild ZX-10R.
To keep pace, Honda crept up in capacity; first with the CBR929RR, then the 954 (still the lightest big CBR ever), and added fuel injection and radical chassis design. But it wasn't until 2004 that Honda came up with a proper literbike contender.
The CBR1000RR, as it was imaginatively dubbed, was launched in Phoenix, Arizona. The bike looked amazing with clear echoes of the CBR600RR launched a year earlier, and Honda was quick to make the associations with its V5 MotoGP bike, the RCV211V.
The rear shock setup, sharp bodywork and underseat exhaust all had a passing resemblance to Valentino Rossi's 2003 championship-winning bike, but the figures on paper pointed to a much less earth-shattering track tool. Simply put, the new CBR was a bit too heavy and short on outright power. At 394 pounds, it had gained almost 25 pounds over the 954, while peak power was up to a claimed 170 HP at the crank (21 HP more than the 954). A 170 HP motorcycle will never be dull, but the CBR had given away an edge to the opposition with that extra weight. And while it made a fine road bike, it couldn't really cut it in the red-hot literbike battleground.
In the end, Kawasaki's ZX-10R was crazier, Suzuki's GSX-R1000 more capable and Yamaha's R1 classier.
Most of us, if we're honest, expected little from the second-generation 2008 CBR1000RR. Honda seemed to have lost its way. While the CBR600RR was a fine bike, the rest of its range was becoming rather forgettable.
But the new CBR was impossible to neglect, if only because of its damned ugly looks. We're used to it now, but the snub-nosed fairing was a real shock at first; if this new bike went how it looked, the opposition had nothing to worry about. However, as you got past the pig-ugly face and scanned the tech specs, it all looked more promising. Sexy monoblock front calipers, a fancy slipper clutch and a more compact, more powerful engine, together with a second-generation electronic steering damper and underslung muffler design all underlined the fact this was a brand new bike.
Honda, along with the other Japanese firms, began messing with the weight figures, quoting a "wet" and "curb" weight rather than the "dry" weight previously used. Neither bore any real relation to what the bikes actually weighed when you rode them, but the change made it hard to compare the new model with the old. Honda said the new bike lost weight over the original CBR1000RR, but not much. Similarly, a shorter-stroke motor revved higher and made an extra 5 HP peak power-not a huge increase.
But it all worked-and then some. The new CBR went up against some very stiff competition, and came out on top, thanks to a much more refined handling package, storming brakes, and strong, yet controllable power. Finally, a decade and a half after the first CBR, Honda was back.
If there's one thing that subtly shows off Honda's technological might, it's the firm's modern fuel injection systems. Whereas the other companies like Suzuki and Kawasaki all use clever, lateral fixes like dual throttle valves, and Yamaha and BMW have NASA-spec, ride-by-wire systems, Honda just uses a simple, old-school cable-operated throttle valve and plain injectors. Ironically, it's this simpler setup that shows Honda is king when it comes to fueling setups. Because the Big H has the time, expertise and sheer investment muscle to properly map and finesse the fueling in its PGM-DSFI (Programmed Dual Sequential Fuel Injection) systems, it doesn't need to bother with the workarounds used by its competitors.
The CBR1000RR has creamy-smooth fueling, with nothing more than two injectors per cylinder, and a lot of development miles under its belt.
At last, Honda had a full-bore liter bike to take on the Yamaha R1 and Suzuki GSX-R1000. The engine was totally redesigned: cassette gearbox, more compact layout, tougher pistons and conrods, and sweet details like a magnesium sump.
Sadly, it had saddled the headbanger 170 HP motor with a rather plump chassis. The good stuff included an electronically-controlled steering damper, which increased the stiffness of the damper according to how crazy you were riding. This meant easy handling at slow speeds, with no tankslapper worries once you turned the wick up. You also got radial-mount brake calipers and 310mm discs, but at 393 pounds dry, the 1000RR was the wrong side of light.
Honda realized it needed to sharpen up, so the CBR got a stack of minor tweaks. A new titanium exhaust helped cut overall weight by 7 pounds, the front brake discs grew by 10mm and the rear sprocket gained two teeth to give more acceleration. Wheelbase was shortened by 10mm thanks to a shorter swingarm, and the bodywork got sharper too. It all helped, but wasn't the ground-up revamp needed to get the Honda back on top.
An all-new design, with a shorter stroke and 1mm bigger bore, separate cylinder block and crankcase, and new cylinder head. The transmission got a slipper clutch for smoother downchanges and the fuel injection system was smarter than ever. Honda also claimed to have a basic "spin control" system, which allegedly reduced engine power if the crankshaft speed increased too sharply. However, it was far from the proper traction control system used by BMW and Ducati on their later machines.
Honda further developed its cast aluminum frame tech, saving more weight, while the underslung exhaust system helped centralize more mass, aiding agility. Brakes were sexy monoblock calipers and the HESD electronic steering damper was smaller, lighter and hidden under the tank cover.
No real change to the heart of the CBR1000RR, but Honda did release a version with its fancy new C-ABS antilock brakes. The biggest penalty is the extra weight; at 22 pounds it's not a trivial increase, but the C-ABS bike costs more too. However, the system itself is a winner, giving genuine supersport braking performance on the track, while simultaneously providing the safety net of anti-lock braking for the street.
Honda's been big on safety for a long time. And while we might question the notion of a "safe" 170 HP motorcycle, we're happy to hear about smart new technologies that might save us a few unintended spills-especially if they don't get in the way of either outright fun or performance.
Anti-lock brakes on bikes used to be as welcome as cat puke in your boots. Heavy, clunky systems that would let the brakes off if the front wheel hopped over a bump, they were often annoying, occasionally plain dangerous, and only really kept genuine novices and brain-donors any safer. Most riders, most of the time, would stop more quickly and safely on their own.
But the systems of the past five years have been getting much better. BMW's led the way, but Honda's C-ABS was the first setup we've used on track that really doesn't interfere with control. It's better in a couple of fundamental ways: first, it uses very fast-acting "screwjack" type actuators, which lets the system build up pressure quickly after a release. Secondly, the system has been designed with supersport performance in mind, and deals intelligently with situations common on track; when the rear wheel comes off the ground, the system reduces the front braking effort a little to drop the back end down again.
But the main strength of the C-ABS comes from its extensive development cycle. Honda's spent a long time fine-tuning the system, in a similar fashion to the mapping on its fuel injection systems. The result is a software package that gives superb braking performance on road or track, yet still incorporates the safety net and stability benefits of ABS.
We love the Repsol-painted 2009 version of the bike, and one of those with C-ABS would be our choice for the perfect streetbike thanks to its midrange power delivery as well as anti-lock brakes for extra confidence in wet weather.