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Honda CBR300R: First ride on Honda's latest mini-sport

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The 2015 Honda CBR300R is Honda's latest attempt to keep up with Kawasaki in the sporty-looking, entry-level motorcycle category. I got a chance to ride one around Palos Verdes, Calif., for a day and, in short, Honda has done it again.

This isn't the first time Honda and Kawasaki have gone through this cycle. The Kawasaki Ninja 250R was released in 2008 and it wasn't until 2011 that Honda released its challenger, the CBR250R. The two bikes were similar power-wise, but many of us journo-types felt the Honda had some sort of X factor, indiscernible from the spec sheet, that made it just plain work better. Kawasaki upped the stakes with the 2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300. With almost 10 extra ponies, it trounced the 250s. Here we are, two years later, and Honda is back in the game.

The bike

The most important upgrade to the new CBR300R is obviously its increased engine displacement. The engine is now 286cc, up from the 249cc of the CBR250R. That extra 37cc of displacement was created by lengthening the piston stroke 8mm, from 55mm to 63mm. For those of you keeping score at home, the baby CBR's thumper still falls 10cc short of the Kawi’s parallel twin.

Honda doesn't like to release horsepower and torque figures for bikes of this size, which is unsurprising given our tendency to look at spec sheets instead of listening to the butt dyno, but they do claim a 17 percent boost in horsepower. Motorcycle.com's 2013 Beginner Sportbike Shootout claimed the CBR250R put down 22.5 horsepower, so we can extrapolate the CBR300R makes around 26 horsepower. Consider that a best guess until someone actually straps this thing to a dyno.

Other than the engine, changes are actually pretty minimal. Honda claims to have revised the EFI tuning for improved throttle response "to handle the extra power." The optional ABS — a $500 upgrade — is now a two-channel brake system, which means it has separate sensors and valves for each wheel, instead of the connected system available on the 250R.

The seating position is slightly adjusted. At 30.7 inches, the seat is actually 0.2 inches taller than the outgoing model, but the seat is also narrower, which makes the reach to the ground extremely easy. The exhaust is also new and Honda claims its increased internal volume helps it perform better. More importantly, it just looks way nicer — which brings me to my next point.

Visually, the 2015 Honda CBR300R has gotten a complete makeover. Honda actually admits that the CBR250R took its styling cues from the VFR range, which just seems absurd. This new CBR300R is all CBR. It gets the same dual headlight setup, the front fairing wraps up and around the windscreen on the sides, and the side fairings scream sport bike. Side by side with the CBR500R, CBR600RR, and CBR1000RR, the Honda CBR300R looks like it belongs in the family. Even some of the new paint schemes have a much sportier vibe.

Testing the CBR300R

The ride Honda had planned for the day was a little lackluster. Most of these launches are designed to put the bike in its natural habitat to help us evaluate it through the lens of people who may be looking to purchase. For this day’s ride, we did about 40 miles total, which included zipping through town and then doing some runs for photos before we grabbed lunch and hit the freeway back to Honda HQ.

Through town, the CBR is a peach. Honda claims the increased displacement was aimed more at torque gains than horsepower, and the slightly beefed-up single leaves cars in its tracks off the line and makes passing much easier. It’s incredibly slender through the midsection, which makes putting a foot down when you have to stop suddenly about as easy as it gets. At 357 pounds (wet), the CBR also feels remarkably light between your legs.

With a wheelbase of 54.3 inches and 25.5 degrees of rake, the CBR300R is a very nimble motorcycle. That personality was apparent both around town and in the twisties. Changing direction becomes downright addicting. Unfortunately, the only real turns we really got to experience were the ones in the photo stops, which meant riding the same turn over and over and turning around a bunch, instead of getting to string together a nice long series. The CBR seemed determined to impress me, regardless, and took to the task of making me look cool in pictures like a professional. The first turn was a big horseshoe uphill turn with some nice camber, and even my first, somewhat tentative, pass through it instantly put a grin on my face. The CBR not only wants to lean over, it wants to pat you on the shoulder while you do so and tell you that it has your back.

The suspension is fairly budget, which is to be expected for an entry-level motorcycle. It still manages to do a really nice job, however, all things considered. The CBR300R comes with a 37mm front fork with 4.65 inches of travel, and a Pro-Link single shock in the rear, which has 4.07 inches of travel and allows for spring preload adjustments. Stock, the suspension is set up for the daily, entry-level rider, which means it's soft, but still provides accurate handling for the newbie rider.

Stopping power is provided by a single, 296mm disc up front with twin piston calipers, and a 220mm single disc in the rear. Initial bite is soft, which I suppose is probably better for newer riders, but left me grabbing deep into the lever when things got sporty. The rear brake really needed some effort to get it to bite, and I would have to recommend new riders pay a little more to get the ABS option.

Honda claims that the internal gear ratios are slightly longer than on the 250R, yet I still found myself wishing for taller gearing. I kept finding myself a gear or two higher than expected, and our brief stint down the freeway, back to HQ, put me a little higher in the rpm range than I would want to be for very long. Around town, or for the brief 25-mile jaunt up to Los Angeles, it would be fine, but I would look into changing a sprocket if I was going to go much farther. Despite being a thumper, the engine is surprisingly smooth until it gets into the high end of its 11,000 rpm range. Even at 8,000 or 9,000 rpm, the engine feels busy more than it feels vibey, thanks to the counterbalancer.

Honda CBR300R highlights

I’m a huge fan of this update by Big Red. I think the styling is spot on, and found myself at multiple times throughout the day coming back to how cool the bike looked as the other journalists on the launch rode by. For a bike that was already so popular, this wasn’t an area Honda needed to address, but I’m glad they did. In the matte black paint with the neon yellow stripes, this bike is quite a babe.

The biggest highlight for me is the handling. This new CBR felt even better while under the duress of some enthusiastic riding than its predecessor, and the slight power bump really helps you access that fun more easily. Our time in the twisties was far too brief, and left me wanting so much more. It also struck me just how fun this bike would be on a proper track. I know that racing classes are popping up all over for bikes in the 250 to 300cc range, and the idea of taking this new CBR, even in stock form, to a track day has me downright giddy.

Honda CBR300R lowlights

It’s difficult to be too critical of a budget bike built for newer riders. Part of me wishes the gearing were a little taller, but that’s more so that I could play around in them more. I appreciate most of the decisions that were made with the new rider in mind, even if I want the bike to be a twisties toy.

If I were to buy the bike, the first thing I would upgrade is the brakes. I would like to see a little more bite up front and more progression in the back. The suspension would need work, too, if I were really going to make the CBR300R a track toy, but the stock setup is more than fine for the street.

Lastly, part of me has to think this CBR300R will start cutting into the CBR500R sales. Yes, there are absolutely people whose criteria for a bike will push them toward one or the other, but the dividing line has to be really thin. The added displacement helps the baby CBR be just enough "real motorcycle" to make spending the extra money for the extra power harder to swallow. The good news is that it’s pretty hard to go wrong with either.

I will be interested in seeing whether the 2015 Honda CBR300R steals sales from the Kawasaki Ninja 300 or from the Honda CBR500R.

The competition

Watch out Kawasaki, Honda is coming for you. The Ninja makes more power (35 horsepower compared to the Honda’s projected 26), but the Honda inspires way more confidence. The Honda has the edge on weight (357 pounds vs. 379), price ($4,399 vs. $4,999) and, in my opinion, fun (lots vs. lots). Based on my impressions, in the limited time we had to ride it, the CBR is the winner both for the new rider and canyon carver alike, though I certainly don’t have room to argue with those who feel differently. As with the 250 versions of the Kawasaki and Honda, it’s hard to point to the determining factor on a sheet of paper. I just think the Honda feels better.

Conclusion

Honda takes this little rivalry with Kawasaki very seriously, and the new CBR300R is a big step in the right direction. The engine displacement bump keeps an already incredible package competitive, while the styling and focus toward serving new riders really make this a compelling motorcycle. The CBR500R would be a great option if you really need more power, but this new CBR300R is the best possible version of its predecessor. I can't wait to get a longer-term loaner so I can get suited up properly, go play in the mountains and really see what the newest and smallest CBR can do.

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