In more euphoric economic times, the 600-class sport bikes were getting significant upgrades every two years. But consumer tastes have shifted away from the race replicas and both manufacturers and buyers are more cautious these days. The pace of innovation has slowed, but that doesn't mean the bikes are slow.
Today's test case is the Honda CBR600RR. CBRs have been a benchmark since the 600 class was invented. So, how does the 2015 version measure up?
Nothing has changed on the 2015 Honda CBR since the 2013 update, other than the color schemes. This year, Honda adds an all-black option (standard model) to the emblematic Honda red (ABS model), and has nixed the beautiful red-white-and-blue HRC scheme.
The heart of the bike is a 599 cc DOHC inline-four engine. Denso 12-hole injectors and dual-stage fuel injection (DSFI) feed 40 mm throttle bodies. Power figures have been reported at 98.8 horsepower at 12,510 rpm and 44 foot-pounds of torque at 10,150 rpm by Cycle World.
A 41 mm inverted big-piston fork handles bumps at the front. Rebound and compression damping are located on the fork caps for easy adjustability. Preload is also adjustable, with adjustments made at the bottom of the fork with an Allen wrench. At the rear, Honda’s Unit Pro-Link HMAS single shock provides preload, rebound and compression damping adjustability with 5.1 inches of travel.
Mounted on the 12-spoke cast aluminum wheels are dual, full-floating, 310 mm discs with radial-mount, four-piston calipers at the front and a single 220mm disc at the rear.
Topped off with all the fluids, the CBR weighs 410 pounds (add 24 pounds for the C-ABS model). Honda offers the standard model at an MSRP of $11,490 and the ABS model costs an additional $1,000 for the peace of mind of having fool-proof braking. We tested the ABS version.
Testing the CBR600RR
I lived with the Honda CBR600RR C-ABS for just over a month. I had plenty of time to tinker with suspension settings, ride in the canyons, and commute daily, putting more than 1,700 miles on the new bike. I wanted to visit a track with the bike, but with winter being the off season for track days, availability and weather were uncooperative.
During my first ride on the bike, I was getting way too much feedback and the bike never felt planted or sure-footed. At 170 pounds (before adding gear), I needed to add some preload in order for the bike to handle like a true sport bike. Once set up, I felt confident enough to take the bike out for some canyon runs.
I should mention that the preload step collar for the rear shock is inconveniently flush with the bottom of the swing arm, thus making adjustment nearly impossible with a flat spanner wrench.
Once I had the suspension adjusted, the first thing I did was to head out to the twisties to assess what the bike was engineered for: speed and lean angle. This time, I decided to take a 120-mile loop from the quiet roads through Castaic to the Angeles Crest Highway and back.
Turn-in was effortless and faster than my 2008 Honda CBR1000RR. With the suspension a little more dialed, it was quite natural to hit every corner with my knee dragging right over the sweet spot. The foot pegs on the stock rear sets provide plenty of grip and didn’t drag easily. Feeling planted on the bike helped me greatly when flicking the 600 from side to side quickly through each successive turn.
The Honda really forces you to work on staying in the powerband and maintaining smooth throttle control. If you’re too low in the rev range, the CBR has very little get-up-and-go, which means I was often staying a gear lower and really had to fine-tune my throttle inputs. The throttle can be twitchy when initially opening it from a closed position, and this is most noticeable in first and second gears. This does upset the suspension, so a smooth throttle hand in the lower gears is essential.
Commuting on the Honda CBR600RR has its ups and downs. The bike is comfortable to ride, considering it is, after all, a sport bike. A slightly more relaxed geometry, compared to the Yamaha YZF-R6, makes the ergos a little more city-friendly and similar to the Suzuki GSX-R600R that I rode last year. The bike pulls well, as long as you keep the engine above 7,000 rpms. This 600 is one of those bikes you need to drop a gear to really take off on the highway from a steady-throttle cruise.
Needing to keep the motor spinning that high made around-town riding difficult at times, because I found myself having to ride in a different gear than I would normally choose. Finding maintenance throttle in first and second gear is also a bit challenging.
The suspension worked well for urban duty. You can’t really expect a true sport bike to soak up every city bump, but the overall ride isn’t completely rigid, like that of the Ducati Panigales and Aprilia RSV4s of the world. Out of the box, the bike is set up pretty soft, which would be better for the commuting rider. I found, however, that the stock suspension setup did not translate to a bike that handles well in the canyons. If you plan to do some spirited riding or track days, you will definitely want to enlist the help of your local suspension tuner, if you aren’t accustomed to doing it on your own.
Fuel mileage varied slightly, depending on whether I was doing reasonably paced (slightly speeding) commuting or spirited canyon runs (really speeding). Overall, I averaged right around the 36 mpg mark and between 126 to 150 miles on a full tank before I was frantically looking for a gas station.
We never recommend a 600 cc sport bike as a first bike for a new rider, but if you are going to ignore our good advice and buy one anyway, I would suggest the Honda over a Kawasaki Ninja or Yamaha R6. As much as I tried, I could not get the front to lift more than a couple of inches in any gear coming out of a turn. This means that, combined with a very effective HESD steering damper, unexpected tank slappers are nearly eliminated. The only time I was able to raise the front was clutching wheelies in first gear on a full tank of gas, or the occasional second-gear clutch on a lighter tank.
I didn’t get a chance to hit the track with the bike, but I would have loved to. As much as I mention the lack of response on the bottom end, let's face it, on the track you are always hauling the mail at high revs. The performance in both handling and power on faster canyon roads, like the Crest, was superb, so that should translate well to the track. I am looking forward to seeing what a non-switchable ABS bike is like on the track for heavy braking compared to a switchable system, like my BMW S 1000 RR track bike.
C-ABS: A closer look
One aspect of the bike that blew my mind was the Combined ABS (C-ABS) braking system. I never really paid much attention to sport bike ABS options because I take all my bikes to the track and prefer a non-ABS system for better feel. The Honda’s brake-by-wire system utilizes the ECU and servomotors to apply brake fluid pressure to both front and rear brakes. After reviewing Honda’s online presentation of the system, I decided to test this thoroughly in real-world riding environments.
The C-ABS system is nearly flawless in providing lever feedback. There is no pulsing sensation as the system intervenes. The only feedback you receive is being able to hear the system clicking away and a slight undulation in speed as the system releases and reapplies braking force and balances brake fluid pressure front to rear.
While you can very briefly raise the rear wheel under heavy front braking, it’s impossible to lock up the rear. Believe me, I tried to simulate a panic rear-brake lock-up while at lean to see how far the system would let me pitch the bike sideways at 50 mph. I was truly impressed by how controlled the system kept the bike.
The application of both brakes by the servomotors allows for a new riding style when commuting, as well. I adjusted my riding style by covering the rear lever instead of trying to constantly cover the front brake lever with a single finger while modulating the throttle and filtering through heavy traffic. Since the C-ABS automatically applies the front brake when the system detects rear-wheel lock-up, I could just slam on the rear brake and let the servomotors do their job, applying braking both front and rear. Slamming on the rear is not the perfect, end-all solution for escaping a sticky situation, but I believe it does aid critical reaction times.
The rear brake can still be used normally, too. If you push on the rear brake pedal, the system does not begin applying front brake pressure until the rear starts to lock up, so if you want to drag the rear brake a little, such as in a low-speed maneuver, the Honda will still let you, despite its linked brakes.
The C-ABS system is only activated when the bike is on and initially reaches a speed over four mph. The system will stay activated until the bike is turned off. When the bike is off or has not reached the minimum speed, the braking system works like a manual system that any standard bike would have.
When you first grab the levers while the system is in manual mode, there is not as much pressure at the calipers, so it has a very spongy feel. This caused a few panic pumps when lifting the bike off the side stand on an uphill slope, because the bike began to walk away and I felt like there was nothing at the brakes. The same situation occurred when I was unloading the bike off my truck. Thank goodness for the old dirt biker trick of leaving the bike in gear and using the clutch lever as a fail-safe.
Another advantage of Honda's system, compared to most others, is that no extra weight is added to the wheels. Less unsprung weight is always a goal on high-performance bikes, and only the sensors are located on the wheels. The motor and electronics can be placed near the center of the bike.
The C-ABS System is flawless. I loved that I felt no clicking or pulsing in either brake lever when the system intervened. I expect most track-day enthusiasts will still more than likely go with the standard model, but if you are the street warrior, braving the variables, you should seriously consider the C-ABS model.
Despite being a lightweight class bike, the ergonomics don’t feel cramped. I found the CBR600RR to be just as roomy as my older CBR1000RR and with better wind management, to boot.
Although a slipper clutch would be a nice touch, especially on the track, the electronics have near flawless engine braking. I tried to slide the bike into corners but never encountered any dry hopping from the rear wheel. There may be tire chirps if you are abrupt with the clutch in the lower gears, however, so be smooth like butter.
One more intangible benefit: the Honda CBR600 line has a reputation for reliability and long life that goes way back. I only had this bike for a month, but some of its predecessors have traveled over 200,000 miles.
As a twisty road enthusiast, I found the power delivery lacking. Overall, the out-of-the-box package is a bit boring and underpowered. Few riders leave their bikes completely stock, and if I owned the CBR600RR, aftermarket goodies would be mandatory. I would invest in shorter gearing and exhaust and fuel management changes to bring the bike to life.
With the bike’s ergos giving a roomier feel for the rider, I guess something had to give. Forget about sticking your mittens under the wind screen to adjust the cluster display. There is just no room and no way to see what you're doing safely when on the move. While this is not the most important thing, I always forget to reset the trip meter at the gas station, and have to do it on the fly. Also, with the under-tail exhaust, don’t even think about storing anything in the tail section. It barely accommodates the owner’s manual and tool kit.
Only Kawaski and Honda offer an ABS model of their supersport bikes, both for a $1,000 increase in price, so the Ninja is the only direct comparison to the CBR600RR C-ABS. For the purposes of further comparison, we'll use the base models of the 600 cc sport bikes from the Japanese big four.
At $11,199, Suzuki’s 600 has always been highly regarded for both road and track. It is the most comfortable 600, but the brakes’ soft feel have hindered its reputation as a complete package. The GSX-R600 is only bested by Kawasaki’s 636 cc motor in horsepower and torque.
The Kawasaki ZX-6R, having the highest price tag at $11,699, has the best seat and stock suspension setup for the road. You will have to choose between a good setup for the street or for the track, however. With its displacement advantage, the Kawasaki also makes the most power of these four.
Yamaha’s R6 is the most economical option at $10,990, but is the most uncomfortable for riders looking for treks instead of apexes. Track and race purists swoon over the R6, and it is most prevalent in the Southern California canyons. Other than its overly aggressive stance, soft mid-range power is the main chink in Yamaha’s armor.
With the second-highest price point at $11,490, the Honda sells on refinement and engineering reputation. The CBR weighs the least, and may be the best all-around package, but the most skilled and demanding riders may find that the Honda’s virtues come in a slightly watered-down performance package. The CBR600RR finds itself at the bottom of the barrel regarding horsepower among the four.
In the end, I'm still ambivalent about the Honda CBR600RR. I love the innovation of the C-ABS system for the street, but it would be nice to be able to turn it off for the track. In stock form, the Honda is a forgiving ride for those who are still developing their skills, and I suspect it has heaps of potential for more experienced riders who want to step up the performance with aftermarket goodies.
Aesthetics are a matter of personal preference, but the look of the CBR has always been one of my favorites among the 600s.
The decision ultimately comes down to the consumer deciding which option best meets his or her needs. The CBR600RR C-ABS isn't the sharpest tool for the expert-level track-day addict, but it is a balanced and refined package with an innovative braking system that could save your hide on the street. What's your priority?