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Common Tread

The 2021 Honda CBR600RR and the premature death notice of the 600 Supersport class

Aug 19, 2020

News of a new Honda CBR600RR for 2021 reached even me, deep in my COVID bunker. Once again, it reminded me that four years ago, I boldly predicted not just the demise of the CBR600RR model, but of the entire 600 class.

I admit I got that one wrong. Nonethheless, after watching Honda’s teaser video and considering some of the few facts we do know already about the 2021 CBR, such as the fact that it won't be sold in the major markets of Europe or the United States, my response is still, “Wait, wut?..”

Why update a model that is only sold in a few markets and doesn’t appear to be selling well even in those countries? Its raison d’être seems to be homologation for the World Supersport Championship and the many national and regional Supersport championships (e.g., MotoAmerica), but it's not at the front of any of those racing series. Why wouldn't Honda do the easy thing and put the CBR600RR out of its misery?

Presumably Big Red will elucidate its strategy when it officially unveils the new machine at the end of this week. But since Common Tread didn’t fire me when I got that earlier “death of the 600” story wrong and it’s fun to speculate, permit me to do so.

2021 Honda CBR600RR
2021 Honda CBR600RR. Honda photo.

Why update a model sold in just a few regions?

Honda’s worldwide website lists 13 “Global Models” that are sold in every market. They range from the Gold Wing to the Super Cub via the Africa Twin, but the only pure sport bike among them is the CBR1000RR. Every other Honda model — and there are dozens and dozens of them, produced at 33 plants in 22 countries — are “Local Models.” Over 150 national and regional distribution subsidiaries pick and choose which of those models they’ll carry.

When I first predicted the outright demise of CBR600RR in 2016, it was because Honda decided it would be too expensive to make a slow-selling, decade-old design conform to Euro 4 emissions standards. Honda basically let the EU ban the sale of CBR600RRs effective January 2017.

Using Honda’s directory of distributor sites, I virtually circled the globe looking for places that still sell the CBR600RR. I learned that many countries that aren’t in the EU — beginning with Honda’s home market of Japan — have also dropped it. Is it sold in Korea? Nope. Indonesia? Nope. Malaysia, India, Brazil, Russia? None of them sell it.

The only places I could find that do still sell it are the United States, Australia and Hong Kong. (Full disclosure: I didn’t visit all 150-plus subsidiary websites, most of which are published in languages I don’t read, often in alphabets I can’t even identify.)

I checked a 2020 CBR600RR in one U.S. dealer’s inventory, to determine whether it was actually a ’20 model or a holdover from some earlier year. The VIN began with “JH” indicating that it was one of the Honda models actually made in Japan. (American Honda’s Jon Seidel confirmed by email that they’re made in Honda’s Kumamoto factory.) The VIN I looked up had a K in the 10th digit position, indicating that it was in fact made earlier this year. So I presume Honda’s been manufacturing them more or less continually, albeit in reduced numbers.

Honda CBR600RR teaser
Honda has begun teasing the 2021 CBR600RR. Details are coming later this week. Honda photo.

Seidel also confirmed to me that the 2021 CBR600RR is not coming to the U.S. market. So why is Honda bothering to build it?

What we know, what I speculate

People who’ve parsed the few photos and bit of video released to tease the new model have concluded that the changes are mostly bodywork and electronics. The frame and cycle parts appear identical and Honda’s stuck with the now-dated undertail exhaust. The presence of ride modes (seen on the large TFT dash in the video) suggest the bike will now have an IMU. Five or 10 years ago, the IMU and dash would have been expensive bragging points, but now Honda’s engineers are just pulling them from the CBR1000RR’s parts bin. Those would be affordable changes for a model sold in limited numbers.

But those numbers seem extremely limited. In the UK, experienced motorcycle journalists say that the new bike will not conform to Euro 5 standards, and thus will not be sold in the UK or EU. It will, we hear, now meet the old Euro 4 standard, which will allow Honda to sell it in its home market of Japan for another two years. (Japan will move to a Euro 5 equivalent standard in late 2022, which will again render it obsolete.)

Unless... it’s going to reenter the European (and by extension, global) market by meeting Euro 5 requirements. The Italian racing-and-sport bike site GPOne dug into this possibility and was unable to confirm or deny it. So, I suppose this has to be considered a possibility, although it’s a slim one.

Without going too deep into the engineering, it’s hard to meet Euro 5 standards with a high-revving, inline-four middleweight, because to make competitive power, they need lots of valve overlap. That’s to say there’s quite a long period in which both inlet and exhaust valves are open at the same time. That’s not necessarily “dirty” up near the redline, but the testing regime includes a lot of low-rpm time where such engines pump out quite a bit of unburnt fuel.

To make it meet Euro 5, Honda would probably have to give it variable valve timing and a bigger catalytic converter, which would be prohibitively expensive.

Miguel Duhamel racing a Honda CBR600 in Supersport
Today, Honda is not strong in production-based racing but at one time the CBR600 dominated its classes. Miguel Duhamel won five AMA Supersport titles on Hondas. Honda photo.

Is this a homologation special for the Supersport class?

If Honda wants to be competitive in World Supersport, it would take a lot more than the new electronics we expect, based on what we've seen so far.

At the World Championship level, all Supersport machines must use the same Mectronic MKE7 ECU. So, if the rest of the 2021 CBR600RR is functionally identical, there’s really no chance that it will challenge the Yamaha R6’s hegemony over there.

I think that if Honda was building a real homologation special, we’d see a visible differences in assemblies like the fork, brakes, swingarm, and wheels. Those aren’t evidenced in the teasers. I suppose there could be differences under the skin, such as larger throttle bodies, titanium connecting rods and valves, new pistons, etc. Those kinds of updates would make the new bike pretty expensive, and would really only make sense to me if Honda was planning to really invest in Supersport competition both at world, regional and national levels.

I emailed MotoAmerica's Chuck Aksland to ask whether a motorcycle homologated in Japan but not sold in the United States would be legal in the U.S. series. He replied that, in general, MotoAmerica would allow any motorcycle approved by the FIM. Tantalizing, but American Honda then told me there was “no way” they’d sell onesies and twosies for racing only, so we won’t see it here.

It doesn't add up as a serious effort to put the Honda at the front of Supersport grids, and it would take a serious effort. There is currently no Honda in the top 15 in the standings in World Supersport and no rider is competing full-time in the MotoAmerica Supersport series on a Honda.

Winglets are the new “Bold New Graphics”

So the 2021 CBR600RR isn't likely to be the kind of serious race bike Honda needs to be competitive in the class again, but at least it has “MotoGP-inspired” winglets that look racy. I reached out to three people with a lot of MotoGP technical knowledge to ask whether the small winglets on the new CBR could possibly be effective or are winglets the new “Bold New Graphics”? The most generous answer I got back was, “The winglets on the CBR600RR look like they are 90 percent Bold New Graphics and 10 percent might-be-useful-when-racing.”

If the 2021 CBR600RR is just a reskin of the previous model with new electronics and it changes nothing in the Supersport racing class, that doesn't mean it won't be a good motorcycle. The addition of an IMU, enabling really modern ABS and traction control, would make it a better and safer road bike. It's kind of a shame that American Honda isn’t going to offer it here.

The last time I rode a CBR600RR, I loved it as both a practical street ride and a potential track day mount. It didn’t matter to me whether it offered the last two percent of performance needed to win against the Yamaha R6 on a race track. It was still eminently capable of shred-your-license shenanigans.

If I'm wrong about all this and the new bike’s a real homologation special, with a bunch of trick components under the skin, or if somehow Honda is really going to make the new CBR600RR meet Euro 5 regs, then we may see a renewal of the battle for middleweight sport bike supremacy that was once among the hardest fought segments in motorcycling.

Right now, the only thing I can really be sure of is that my four-year-old prediction of the death of 600s is still premature. It will be at least another couple of years before I can finally say “I told you so.”