This is surely one of the classic sporting motorcycles of the 1990s. From its introduction back in 1992, the ’Blade re-defined the concept of a lightweight, sharp-handling 160mph missile, becoming an overnight sales success across Europe.
Established as a flagship sports bike for Honda, the world´s number one bike maker gradually evolved the Fireblade into a faster, smoother and more comfortable machine. It´ll never rival a Gold Wing for luggage carrying capacity, but the late 1990s Fireblade can make a decent solo tourer. If you like touring that fast of course.
The success of the Fireblade means that Honda have continually improved it, making the Y2K model a stunning mix of fuel injected performance, dynamite braking and fluid, predictable handling.
When you consider that Hondas last major revision of the Blade, two years ago, produced improvements of just 2bhp and 3kg over the previous model, the degree by which the R1s arrival has raised the super-sports stakes is clear. And much more than just the figures have changed. This latest CBR holds a much-modified engine in a completely new frame, and for the first time incorporates fuel-injection, an exhaust valve, upside-down forks and a 17-inch front wheel. It is by far the most comprehensively updated FireBlade yet.
“Our main aim was to improve overall performance and give a light feeling”, says Tadao Baba, chief project engineer of the original and all subsequent FireBlades. Baba retains his long-held belief that reduced weight is every bit as important as increased power.” It was the need to keep down weight”, he says, “that fixed the new bikes capacity at 929cc, rather than the more obvious litre. To increase the capacity more would have made the engine heavier. With this capacity we have good performance, and also a good balance of power and weight.”
That the revamped FireBlade should be pretty special was no surprise, as this bikes vital statistics alone are enough to prove just how serious Honda is about recapturing that unofficial (and very subjective) crown from Yamahas R1. This latest CBR kicks out 150bhp and weighs 170kg, making it fully 22bhp more powerful and 10kg lighter than last year’s model and, more importantly, giving it a spec-sheet advantage of 2bhp and 5kg over the arch-rival R1.
The FireBlade left it late to prove that it was back on the pace. Before the last of my five sessions of thrashing round the revamped Estoril circuit, a mechanic made a slight adjustment just one turn of his T-bar socket to reduce spring preload in the Hondas front forks. As I headed out onto the track for the last time, I was still not totally convinced by the new FireBlade. This fifth and latest version of the once all-conquering sportster had felt good, very good; but not quite as sharp as I had expected. Its engine had been awesome, its braking fierce. But to start with the suspension had been too soft for my 14-stone weight, and my attempts to improve the Blades stability by increasing both preload and damping had made the steering a bit slow and unresponsive. But that last tweak of the forks had done the trick.
The Honda carved effortlessly through the Portuguese circuit’s twists and turns in that final session, its front end distinctly improved, the whole bike feeling brilliantly agile yet very stable. This new FireBlade was clearly not just notably better than its predecessor, but good enough to make a serious challenge for the title of world’s top sports bike once again. That the revamped FireBlade should be pretty special was no surprise, as this bikes vital statistics alone are enough to prove just how serious Honda is about recapturing that unofficial (and very subjective) crown from Yamahas R1.
The 16-valve, liquid-cooled motors new capacity was achieved by using shorter-stroke dimensions of 74 x 54mm (compared to the previous 918cc units 71 x 58mm), which allowed larger valves. Reshaped, forged pistons weigh no more than the previous cast ones despite their larger diameter. A narrower valve angle, more compact combustion chamber and slightly increased compression ratio (11.3:1 from 11:1) also contribute to the increased power, while lighter, more hollowed-out camshafts quicken the engines response. Intake and exhaust systems are also thoroughly revamped, with a digital fuel-injection system replacing the previous Keihin carbs. Inside the new airbox there is an electronically operated valve (called H-VIX, for Honda Variable Intake/Exhaust Control System, in case you were interested), which opens as the revs rise to increase the volume of air reaching the injection system. The exhaust system also gains a valve in its collector box, similar to Yamahas EXUP valve, which opens and closes depending on engine speed to provide optimum flow at low and high revs.
Like the latest R1 the new Blade uses titanium in its exhaust system. But unlike the Yamaha, with its flashy blue silencer, the Honda’s exotic alloy is hidden away in the downpipes and muffler internals, while the outside of the can is conventional aluminium. That just about sums-up the FireBlade designer’s conservative approach to styling. True, the bike looks different from above, thanks to its slimmed-down tailpiece and fuel tank. (The tank retains its full 18 litre capacity by extending down further at its rear, which also helps lower the bikes centre of gravity.) The triple-lens headlamp is nicely shaped, too. But overall the Blades rather anonymous look hardly matches it’s outrageous performance. The Honda’s new chassis front end also looks unexceptional, though it’s a departure for the FireBlade. For the first time the front wheel is a 17-incher like all the rest, essentially to allow a wider choice of tyres. And the CBR also becomes the first Honda roadster with upside-down forks. On the previous models we used conventional forks because they were lighter, explains Baba. But the technology of upside-down forks has improved, and these are now lighter and also stiffer.
There is nothing conventional about the Blades frame design, which is a variant of Hondas pivotless layout, as used by the VTR1000 and others. The large main aluminium beams are 30 per cent more rigid than their predecessors. As with previous pivotless designs, the frame is designed to permit a controlled amount of flex near the centre of gravity, as Hondas chassis engineers say this gives a better handling feel than a totally rigid frame. The new swing-arm pivots at the rear of the engine, supported by a separate cast aluminium subframe. This runs underneath the front of the swing-arm, and bolts the swing-arm spindle more firmly to the motor. The more compact engine sits slightly further forward, for improved weight distribution. Its crankshaft is 20mm closer to the swing-arm pivot, which allows the swing-arm to be longer although the wheelbase is reduced by 5mm to 1400mm.
From the slimmer but slightly taller seat it’s the detail differences that you notice first. A new instrument console with digital speedo sits beneath the low screen, above Hondas HISS anti-theft ignition lock. There is less of a stretch across the new tank to the unchanged handlebars, which momentarily made me think the 900RR felt more like a CBR600F at a standstill. But just a few moments out on the track proved that this bike moves like no middleweight on Earth. The first few laps were potentially dicey, because the Estoril circuit has several tricky sequences of bends, and recent reconstruction work had left the surface very dusty off the racing line. But the FireBlades light, easy handling combined with a very smooth fuel-injection response to make the bike wonderfully easy to ride, and it whooshed effortlessly forward without a hint of complaint even when I found myself a gear too high in an unfamiliar bend.
The Blade certainly has a broad spread of torque, even if its motor doesn’t quite have the sheer cubic capacity of its closest rival. Racetracks are not the best place to evaluate roll-on performance. But in the pit-lane the Honda had pulled away with a typically smooth feel almost from idling speed in the lower gears. And on the circuit it responded to a sub-5000rpm tweak of the throttle in top by accelerating crisply and hard, storming forward with no real step as the revs rose towards the 11,500rpm redline. It felt mighty strong at the top end, too, especially on the main Estoril straight, which is half a mile long, slightly downhill and preceded by a thrillingly long, fast right-hand curve. Just about the bit of each lap was to come tonking out of there with my head jammed behind the low screen and the throttle on the stop, flick up into fourth, fifth past the pits, then just hit top for a couple of seconds before hauling on the brakes, treading down four times through the excellent gearbox and peeling into the next tight right-hander.
The best I saw on the big digital speedo was 161mph, although the bike was still accelerating and a couple of more aerodynamic (or perhaps just braver) pilots claimed to have registered 165mph before their nerve ran out. The front brakes could always be relied on absolutely. The blend of four-piston Nissin calipers and larger, fully 330mm discs gave heaps of power and just the right amount of feel, and worked as well at the end of the day as at the start. Ironically, though predictably on such a light bike, the brakes power was responsible for some of the Hondas initial handling problems.
Once my confidence in the track surface increased, braking ultra-hard into some bends was enough to make the CBR (whose suspension had been firmed-up slightly for track use by Honda’s Japanese technicians) stand on its nose with inevitable loss of stability. Lighter riders than me also found the Hondas rear end initially too soft for track riding, giving a rather squidgy feel especially when having to climb from one side of the bike to the other in the slow-speed chicane. Adding a little shock preload and rebound damping made a big difference. Suddenly the CBR could make the most of its generous ground clearance (only the footrests hero pegs and, sadly, the toes of my new boots touched down), and the impressive grip of its Michelin Pilots, the rear of which is a 190-section tyre on a six-inch rim. Firming-up the front end in similar fashion also helped reduce the fork dive and rear-wheel lift under braking, but at the expense of steering feel.
Now the CBR, whose steering geometry is unchanged from last year (at 23.45 degrees of rake, 97mm of trail), was a little less keen to tip into a bend. I consciously had to steer it and hold it down in the turn, instead of the Honda seeming almost to know its own way. With the winter sun sinking fast and only one track session left, I was confident that there was more to come from the FireBlade, but unsure that I’d have time to find it. Fortunately, that last suspension change did the trick. With a little less extra fork preload the bike steered more easily and was happier to hold its line through the bends. The final session, with the bike working near-perfectly on this excellent, almost deserted circuit, was fantastic fun. All this suspension tuning would not have been a big issue on the road, where most FireBlade riders will spend most of their time and where the standard settings will doubtless work well for almost everyone.
For street riding the CBRs sophistication, reasonable comfort, familiarity and impressive reliability record over the years will count for much. Although it backs up its new statistics with fearsome performance, the FireBlade has a slightly more rounded, less aggressive feel than the rival R1 (which costs £100 more than the Blades £8495). For some riders that will give the Honda an advantage.
If forced to choose between the two I’d be tempted to go for the Yamaha, as much for its racier looks and feel than for any possible tiny edge that I suspect it might have in midrange performance and on-the-limit handling. But I’d want to get the two bikes together, preferably on road and track, before signing a cheque. Because that final ride convinced me that this latest FireBlade is fast enough, agile enough and good enough in every area to take the battle right to the wire.
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|ENGINE||Liquid-cooled transverse four, cc 929|
|CLAIMED POWER (BHP||150bhp|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||43mm upside-down fork, 120mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping Rear suspension One Pro-Link damper, 135mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping.|
|FRONT BRAKE||2, four-piston Nissin calipers, 330mm discs Rear brake Nissin caliper, 220mm disc.|
|FRONT WHEEL||3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium Rear wheel 6.00 x 17in; cast aluminium.|