Phil West checking out the new CB1100

Phil West checking out the new CB1100

 

Does The CB1100 Tick The Boxes?

By Phil West -

First rides & tests

 06 February 2013 19:00

It’s been a long time coming – in every sense of the expression – but the CB1100 might, just MIGHT, have made that wait worthwhile.

Six years after the prototype was first unveiled at the 2007 Tokyo Show and a further three since a domestic market version went on sale in Japan in 2010, the Euro-spec version of the CB1100, a bike which attempts to rekindle the classic riding experience of Honda’s historic air-cooled fours from the ‘60s and ‘70s, yet cossett with all the quality, ease of use and peace of mind of a modern machine, is finally arriving in UK dealers at the end of next month.

That’s a lot of years and a whole hatful of influences. But there’s really only one question that needs answering: has it been worth the wait? Or, to put it another way: if you put the corporate puff, rose-tinted nostalgia and long drawn out hype to one side, you’re pretty much left with a bike that, on paper at least, has the performance of Yam 900 Diversion for the price of an FZ1 and are we at all right to get excited about that? Our first ride, through the glamous city streets of Valencia before an afternoon of carvery and cruising along the scenic switchbacks near the Serra d’Espada aimed to find out…

A few seconds with the CB1100 is all it takes to convince you’re in the presence of a gloriously classy, beautifully detailed and designed machine. Forget budget Zephyrs or basic Bonnies, Honda’s homage wants for nothing and is littered with neat touches. On a pragmatic level: it has a mainstand as standard, span adjustable levers on both sides, ABS and quality mirrors, clocks and more. And if you want posh, how about that luxo chrome filler cap, the gloriously recreated ‘crystal’ tailight or chunky yet beautifully crafted cast and machined alloy footrest hangers? And if all that kind of thing takes you spiritually back to the ‘60s or ‘70s or bikes of your youth – and it did me, even though my era is more early ‘80s – then that’s entirely deliberate.

But let’s get one thing straight from the off: The CB1100 is NOT a replica, nor even a reboot, of the now near-mythical 1969 CB750K0 – the bike that turned world motorcycling on its head and propelled Honda to a dominance it still holds today. Instead it’s a machine which draws on the style of a number of classic Honda fours (such as the CB400/4, CB900F and CB550/4, although, admittedly, the original CB750K0 has the strongest influence of all) with the intention being to recreate the overall character of bikes from the era, not one bike in particular.

That’s why, although the exquisite taillight and green clock dials are unashamedly robbed from the CB750K0; the 4:1 pipe harks back instead to the 1975 CB400F while the DOHC engine and Comstar-inspired wheels cast a nod in the direction of 1979’s CB750F.

It’s all executed brilliantly, too. The finish is glorious, the attention to detail superb. The side stand, for example, sits in just the right place, is easily located with your toe and clicks down effortlessly. In short, though brand new, the CB11 has all the hallmarks of refinement and maturity of a second or even third generation machine. It’s easy to see where those long years of development have gone…

First box ticked, then…

A-straddle the saddle (can I say that? And if so, why haven’t I said it before?) the CB gets better yet. Though with a taller seat and bars than the original Japan/Australia version (Europeans are taller than Australians, apparently), the CB11 has still been designed as a manageable, unintimidating machine – and Honda’s certainly succeeded. ‘1100cc four’ may sound daunting but the CB’s perch is relatively slim and low, the whole bike impressivly narrow and not overlong, the leverage provided by the wide bars ample and the weight, on the whole, carried low.

The result is bigger and longer than a Bonnie, admittedly, but natural and unintimidating, as required. Think more 750-900 class but with an old school-style low, narrow seat and high bars and you’ll start to get the picture.

Naturally enough, the view ahead is ‘old school’, too, deliberately so. It’s the first time in years I’ve been aboard a bike with a view of round, chrome mirrors (which you half expect to have ‘Hondastyle’ embossed on them) and twin, green dials – and even then it was a classic (I rode an original CB750K0 back in 1990, I remember).

And the CB’s the first bike I can remember in years fitted with chrome, one-piece, tubular handlebars (who needs tapered this or anodized that?) which has not been some kind of cheap commuter or a Harley. But you know what? It all makes me feel good and brings a smile to my fizzog and it’s that, I guess, which Honda’s banking on.

All of which would render the CB litle more than an expensive ornament if it wasn’t for how it went, too – and it’s this: Cream bloody cheese.

I can’t think of any more direct way of putting it. That first ‘set-off’ was as easy and natural and intuitive as on any bike I can remember. The combination of easy, upright managability, Honda refinement, novice-friendly driveability and smoothly predictable drive from all-new four renders riding the CB as easy as pie: there’s no need for fistfulls of revs, no nuances from the light if a little ‘new-sticky’ transmission, no wobbles or awkwardness from its planted but light-steering gait leaving your only concern being which way to go.

Honda like to give the impression the CB is something of a torque monster – but it’s not, not like the old GSX1400 or, say, VMax at any rate. That could catch newbies out. But what it is – easy, purringly smooth and with such a consistency in its delivery you could use its power ‘curve’ as a set square – is just as impressive. It doesn’t matter whether that old fashioned tacho needle is pointing at two or eight on that green dial, the CB is always utterly smooth and predictable.

All of which makes city riding a doddle. With a creamy, ripply turbine under your right wrist, I could concentrate instead on ducking and diving through Valencia’s congestion as we headed out of town. The riding position is completely natural and perfect roadster style – Honda has clearly spent time on the ergonomics. Feet and hands fall naturally to their respective pegs and grips, nothing gets in the way or annoys. It all makes the CB very easy and intuitive to ride.

Better yet, those wide-ish chrome bars combined with the skinny, 18-inch front wheel adds up to ultra-light, dainty even steering perfect for flicking between the white SEATs in between checking out your retro reflection in shop windows. Don’t get me wrong: the CB is no city scratcher like a KTM 690 Duke, it’s too mellow and mature for that. Nor is it a crisp, punchy, cutting edge performer. The VFR1200 Honda escort bike riding with us seemed like something from Tron next the retro Honda. But what the CB11 is, around town at least, is idiot-proof easy, effective enough to be a valid city commuter and yet one with enough style and charisma to make a bog stock Bonnie look like something from a Christmas cracker.

As the city appartment blocks and graffiti-strewn bridges made way for the orange groves and rolling hills of inland Spain I could at last fully open up the CB11 and see if it was anything more than a commuter or poseur machine.

But I needn’t have worried. Sure, with just 80bhp on tap and no peaks or piques in its power delivery, it’s straight-line potential is never exactly exciting or thrilling. Nor, in these noise-strangled times, is there any cacophany from its cans. But it’s pleasing enough, makes decent enough progress and is never as dull as the equivilent in a water-jacket would be. But surely the first thing buyers will do is, like Harley owners, fit some loud pipes. A Marshall 4:1 (which you can still get) suddenly sounds very tempting indeed…

Handling-wise, in a straight-line the CB’s perfectly, comfortably adequate too, with a plush, planted ride that more than compensates for the prolonged windblast inevitable on this kind of bike. Gentle corner carving is as easy as everything else. The steering secure, the brakes crisp and reassuring. And only when you wind up the wick fully does that 18-inch front wheel/skinny tyre and spinly-looking frame leave you feeling a little on tippy toes, find you having to muscle it a little through switchbacks (like you do most roadsters truth be told) and wonder if there’s a (very) slight hinge in the middle of that old school tubular steel frame.

In truth, however, the more the miles whooshed by, the more I got used to the CB, the less I cared and the more I simply had a blast. Pushed hard, yes, it becomes a little boingy (though there was plenty of preload yet to be wound in), a little vague. But at the real world speeds the CB’s capable of (80-90mph scratching), never worringly so and I’m sure few owners will ride it as hard. And, yes, retro roadsters can handle better and be more involving. Ducati’s late lamented Sport Classics proved that. But on the whole, and for what it’s for, I reckon it’s enough.

There’s no arguing that Honda has succeeded in producing what it set out to do. The CB11 is a beautiful recreation of an aircooled inline four; it’s easy to handle and novice friendly and it has fantastic detailing inspired by bikes of old.

Honda also hope the CB’ll be a ‘keeper’ – ie a machine owners hold onto for years, perhaps modifying or personalising along the way. And I think they’re correct about that, too. It’s a beautiful ornament I can see owners gazing at in the garages for years to come and, besides, it’s hardly going to go out of date, after all.

In all of those respects, and for its easy riding experiences and, I think, reasonable value, I can see many style or classic-conscious buyers who maybe want something bigger, slicker or different than a Bonnie or Harley being very happy with a CB. I can also see those who like the idea of a true classic, but want the reliability and peace of mind a new Honda can provide, being happy with it too.

But I have two slight doubts. First, and this is a personal one, I wish the CB1100 had been a more faithful recreation of one particular bike – either the SOHC CB750K0 or the DOHC CB750F. That way I could have relived my youth more closely and been more tempted to create a Freddie Spencer replica or its like. As it is, beautiful engine aside, I find it a bit of a mish mash and find aspects like the deliberately small (14.6litre) tank, done to reveal the engine more fully, annoying.

And second, and I’m still a little dumbfounded by it, I don’t quite buy this ‘recreating character of old’ bit. Don’t get me wrong: Honda has done a fantastic job with the CB1100. But don’t think that means, aesthetics aside, it’s a machine bristling with character. It isn’t. If you want a truly invigorating retro riding experience Ducati, Triumph, Guzzi and even BMW do it far better. But then that’s because they all had far more character than Honda’s CB750 in the first place. The original CB750 was never designed as a characterful machine – it was one with performance, reliability and value instead and there’s only so much character you can wring out of that…