A bike named after the fastest ever spy plane of the Cold War is obviously going to be fast.
Not quite capable of matching the USAF Blackbird stealth fighter’s incredible 2,000mph perhaps, but Honda’s Blackbird is nevertheless a genuine 180mph plus roadgoing missile. It demands respect and real skill to get the best from it.
Yet underneath the swoopy bodywork, lies a typically understated Honda engine/chassis package. Four cylinders, DOHC, liquid cooled, 1137cc – it’s utterly conventional, but blindingly quick. Again, the twin spar frame, non adjustable USD forks and rising rate monoshock are all par for the course on modern superbikes, but the Blackbird has svelte, easy handling characteristics which let any rider play hard and tour too.
The flags along the top of the grandstand at Circuit Paul Ricard told their own story. Fluttering urgently in the strong wind, they pointed in precisely the wrong direction straight back down the French track’s famously long Mistral Straight. We were here to experience the awesome speed of Honda’s new CBR1100XX Super Blackbird, but there would be no memorable numbers today. The journalist who’d brought a radar gun in the hope of clocking 190mph didn’t even get it out of the bag.
Such emphasis on outrageous maximum velocities might seem excessive, but Honda’s logic is easy to understand. Speed sells superbikes. And there’s no doubt that the Super Blackbird named after an ultra-rapid Lockheed spy-plane of the 1970s has been designed specifically to shoot Kawasaki’s ZX-11, the world’s fastest roadster for the last five years, out of the sky as part of Honda’s avowed aim to dominate every sector of the two-wheeled market.
Not that the CBR1100XX was exactly escargot-like when, after a morning on the French roads, we finally took to the track. With my chin on the tank and my oversized body tucked-in as much as possible behind the Honda’s sleek fairing, the bike stormed to an indicated 175mph despite the headwind. Smaller, more streamlined riders saw 180mph on the clock, suggesting that the Super Blackbird really is motorcycling’s new straight-line king.
Aerodynamics is a particularly crucial factor in the CBR’s design, the bike’s bodywork having been shaped to give minimum frontal area and a drag coefficient that’s apparently lower even than that of Honda’s own NSR250 race-replica. Much of the reason for that is the fairing’s shark-like pointed nose, whose narrow width has been achieved by incorporating a piggy-back headlight. The main-beam unit sits above and behind the dip-beam.
The Blackbird might not look very Super in its dull grey paintwork (alternatives are dark red and black), but its conservative shape is dictated largely by air-flow. Intakes set high in the sides of the fairing (the ones beneath the headlight are for cooling) feed the bank of 42mm carbs and then the engine, whose 1137cc capacity comes from dimensions of 79 x 58mm. Its specification is utterly conventional: liquid-cooled, dohc and 16 valves, with cylinders angled forward at 22 degrees and the camchain at the end of the crank.
Camshaft actuation is by under-bucket shims, as on the CBR900RR; the valve angle is reduced slightly to 30 degrees, to give the bigger motor a more compact combustion chamber. As usual, much development work went into reducing internal weight and friction. Despite its extra capacity, the XX motor is considerably smaller and 22lb lighter than the more upright engine of Honda’s CBR1000F sports-tourer.
The Super Blackbird unit’s most novel feature is its inclusion of not one but two balancer shafts, which makes the engine smooth enough to be solidly mounted, increasing chassis rigidity by forming a stressed member of the aluminium twin-beam frame. (The CBR900RR, which has a single balancer, is rubber-mounted at the rear.) Throughout the powerplant the story is one of refinement rather than radical engineering, but the claimed peak output of 162bhp at 10,000rpm should stifle any yawns.
This mighty engine is the undoubted star of the movie, producing enough violent acceleration to tear your arms off and justify its XX certificate. The serious action starts at about 5000rpm, power building with phenomenal speed and smoothness as the tacho needle flicks towards the 10,800rpm redline through the lower gears. The headwind at Ricard meant the CBR was barely even pulling top gear, but in better conditions that rumoured 190mph figure looks more plausible than many a Hollywood finale.
At low revs the Honda was as sweet as an interval bag of popcorn, too, its fairly roomy, not-too-aggressive riding position combining with the reasonably low seat to make trickling through traffic easy. But the emphasis on top-end performance has inevitably robbed the XX of a certain amount of midrange. Cracking open the throttle at 75mph and 4000rpm in top revealed a slight lack of instant grunt that momentarily hindered autoroute overtaking. And although the six-speed gearbox didn’t miss a shift, it wasn’t the slickest I’ve ever used.
With a longish wheelbase and a dry weight of 491lb (22lb lighter than the ZZ-R1100 but 88lb heavier than the CBR900RR), the Super Blackbird was not designed for a racetrack. Inevitably it felt rather large, soft and unwieldy at Ricard, particularly when attempting rapid direction-changes through the circuit’s chicanes. And although ground clearance had been adequate on the road, at Ricard the Blackbird’s broad 17-inch Bridgestone Battlax radials gave enough grip to get the fairing dragging hard through right-handers.
Predictably the Blackbird was much more at home in its natural habitat, the fast, open roads of France. Straight-line stability was flawless, steering reasonably light, the overall feel one of effortless poise. The non-adjustable, 43mm front forks worked well, and the rebound-damping adjustable rear shock also gave a compliant and controlled ride. This bike would take you the length of France faster than the famous TGV high-speed train. The 5.8 US gallon gas tank should give a reasonable range, and the large dual-seat promised adequate comfort.
Braking incorporates the latest update of Honda’s Dual-CBS system (as seen on the CBR1000F and ST1100), which applies balanced force to the twin front and single rear discs, via triple three-piston calipers, when either the hand lever or foot pedal is activated. The CBR stopped rapidly, and I’d possibly have been glad of Dual-CBS in the wet or when carrying a pillion, but the system wasn’t totally convincing. Lever feel was slightly vague, and braking power seemed to fade fractionally after strong initial bite. More practice would doubtless have helped, but in most situations a good conventional set-up would give an experienced rider more power and control.
The Blackbird’s finish was to Honda’s normal high standard. Details include a clock and fuel gauge on the dashboard (there’s no reserve tap, so the gauge had better be accurate), luggage hooks and a well-placed nylon pillion grab-rail, plus wide, clear mirrors that cleverly incorporate the indicators. There’s also space under the seat for a U-lock. Even the mid-afternoon storm we rode through didn’t darken the sky enough to check Honda’s claim that the piggy-back headlight gives unprecedented illumination.
What I did discover is that the low screen, designed for maximum chin-on-the-tank performance, directs wind straight at a normally seated pilot’s head, generating an all-too-familiar loud turbulence at speed. Some facility for adjustment would be a major advantage. For long-distance trips, a glove-compartment in the fairing would be handy too. (A couple of bikes on the launch also suffered from jumping drive chains, possibly caused by incorrect adjustment.)
So the CBR1100XX has almost certainly replaced the ZX-11 as motorcycling’s high-speed champion. In most respects the Honda is a very good bike, its emphasis on top speed is probably sound marketing (unless politicians are tempted to intervene), and its price is likely to be competitive with the Kawasaki’s. All of which should ensure the Super Blackbird’s success, even if many owners rarely get the speedo needle much more than halfway round the dial. But maybe, in the search for big numbers, Honda missed the chance to raise the stakes with a slightly more practical roadburner.
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|Engine||Liquid-cooled transverse four|
|Claimed power (bhp)||162bhp at 10,000rpm|
|Front wheel||3.50 x 17in; cast aluminum|
|Rear wheel||5.50 x 17in; cast aluminum|
|Front suspension||43mm telescopic, 120mm (4.7in) travel|
|Rear suspension||Single damper, 120mm (4.7in) wheel travel, adjustments for preload and rebound damping|
|Front brake||2, three-piston Dual CBS linked calipers, 310mm discs|
|Rear brake||Three-piston Dual CBS linked caliper, 256mm disc|
|Fuel capacity||22 litres|