HINDSIGHT is a marvellous thing. How many times have you bought a bike – or any product for that matter – only to find a glaring fault become noticeable after a few months? Wouldn’t it be great if you really could " try before you buy " ? And I don’t mean take a bike round the block. I’m talking about covering a year’s worth of mileage on it before you part with your bucks.
Of course, some bikes have a reputation for being more reliable than others while a few have a reputation as being nothing short of bulletproof. Honda’s CBR600 is one of those bikes which is known for its legendary reliability, so we didn’t really expect too many problems when we decided to rack up an average year’s mileage in less than a week on the new CBR600F Sport.
Yep, you heard right. We decided the only way to test Honda’s famous reliability was to ride until the bike went pop or until we’d covered the same distance most riders cover in a year.
According to the dealers we spoke to, the average bike owner who doesn’t use his machine all year round covers between 3-5000 miles a year, so we decided to aim for 3000. That would mean riding 500 miles a day every day for six days. Because of press dates, we didn’t even have the luxury of a full week.
Though there’s little difference between the two versions of the latest CBR600, the F and the FS, or Sport, it does offer buyers a little more choice. They could opt for the stock bike at £6550 or choose the Sport at £6850.
For your extra cash, you actually lose some parts from the standard bike! The Sport ditches the pillion grabrail and centrestand – though it gains a black frame and a different swingarm. The frame has also been stiffened around the steering head and engine mounting points and the forks are coloured gold instead of plain grey.
Engine changes are minimal, but the Sport has valve springs which allow it to rev slightly higher than the F – a must in the high-revving world of Supersport racing. The engine management chip can also be removed on the S to allow race teams to adapt it to different circuits.
But there’s no hiding the fact that both bikes look unmistakably like Honda CBR600s. Some people will like that fact and others won’t. But few would argue these are the sharpest and best-looking CBRs ever. If the bike has been criticised for one thing it’s because of its bland looks. But then, not everyone wants angular, slashed bodywork and aggressive styling. The new models look sleeker without appearing outlandish. It’s a fine balance.
Slinging a leg over the CBR is like slipping into an old bathrobe. I realised we would become like old friends over the next few days as we racked up mile after mile together. It’s reassuring, comforting and a perfect fit. It would take a strangely shaped person to be at odds with the CBR’s ergonomics. No massive reach to the bars, no footpegs halfway up your back and no awkward shaped tank or seat. It’s obvious Japanese engineers and test riders have spent countless hours crafting and rearranging the riding position so that it’s the ideal compromise between sport and comfort. The hours weren’t wasted and I for one am glad about that because I was going to spend a large amount of the following week in that very position.
At 9.30am on Saturday morning, things didn’t look too good. A heavy frost had fallen and it was bitterly cold (30 to be precise). But if we were to rack up the intended mileage, there was no time to chicken out.
I wrapped up in more layers than I’ve ever done before and said goodbye to my warm, warm house. The CBR’s sharp twin headlights seemed to be looking at me as if I was crazy, but if the bike was reluctant to make its debut on the roads in this weather, it didn’t show it when I hit the ignition switch. The newly-injected CBR whined and whirred and started first time. No choke, no hassle.
Vapour from the exhaust clung in the frosty air as I revved the bike to get it up to temperature. Shiny new Michelin Pilot Sport tyres and frosty roads were never going to be a marriage made in heaven, but I promised myself I’d take it steady. I’d have to anyway to run the bike in. This was no time for heroics.
I clunked the still fairly tight gearbox down into first, eased the clutch out and felt my way ever so slowly through the ungritted roads of my housing estate to a main road, where conditions were slightly better. It was only then I realised I had no plan about where I was going. My brief had been just to rack up the miles on as many different kinds of roads as possible. I had a free rein, and to me that’s always the best way to treat a ride – just go where the road takes you and don’t worry about how long it will take to get back.
Under the conditions, it seemed safer to stick to a gritted dual-carriageway to let the bike settle in with no trauma. No sudden braking, no demands on the new tyres, just some solid miles at a steady pace. The CBR seemed to be delighted to be out of its crate and cruised along happily at 70mph. My only gripe so far was that the odometer was hidden behind the clutch cable, so you’ll probably find yourself bobbing your head to see it if you use it much.
But the digital speedo is clear enough – and every time you turn the ignition key it flashes up 160mph before starting an ultra-fast countdown to zero, making you feel like you’re on a launch pad getting ready for blast-off. Which you are.
After the 100-mile mark, I started to rev the CBR a bit higher but still held off from the 14,000rpm limiter. Like all Hondas, the new CBR doesn’t exactly sound earth-shattering, but there is a bit of a howl from the end can as you near the upper echelons of the rev range, especially as the baffles begin to blow out a bit.
As the sun melted the frost and the CBR had clocked up some miles, I ventured off the dual-carriageway on to a single-lane A-road. Apart from the track, this is where the CBR is most at home. It has enough smoothly delivered power to make for an exhilarating ride, but not so much that you can’t use it. It also boasts competent four-pot Nissin brakes which aren’t grabby (even in the frost!) and fully-adjustable suspension which, even on standard settings, is softly damped enough to eat up and spit out cat’s eyes, bumps and potholes without too much fuss.
There’s every chance you’d be quicker through twisty roads on this bike than on a full-bore superbike because the intimidation factor is largely removed and the bike just does what you want time after time. It may not be as track-focused as Yamaha’s R6 or Suzuki’s new GSX-R600 despite its Sport tag, but that only means it’s better suited to real roads and real world riders.
I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say the CBR600 is the Ford Escort of the bike world. It’s hugely reliable, with a unbreakable engine, controls " falling readily to hand " as the old cliché goes, and loads of spares kicking around because it’s so popular.
There are even little touches to make your riding more hassle-free. The 18-litre tank is good enough for a range of around 140 miles depending on how you ride. In these conditions, I wasn’t exactly asking the most of the CBR’s 599cc
in-line four-cylinder engine. But when you’re nearing the bottom of your fuel supply, a flashing digital display prepares you even before the petrol warning light comes on. It’s just the little things…
I took heed of the early warning sign and pulled over for fuel, for me as well as the bike. The CBR offers as much weather protection as most other sports bikes – like none. And that means I was freezing and in need of a hot coffee and a hand-dryer to warm my painful hands.
I told myself I would do another 100 miles and call it quits for the day. It was time for the next man to do his shift. You see, even in these freezing conditions, there was no shortage of MCN colleagues offering to do their bit to rack up miles on the Honda. Suddenly everyone had discovered long-lost aunties and uncles in Brighton or Doncaster. Fine by me. As I completed my first stint of 300 miles, I handed the keys over to MCN designer Mark Tucker. He said he had relatives in Brighton. I didn’t believe him, but I didn’t care because there was a hot bath and a single malt whisky waiting for me as soon as I handed the keys over. Bliss.
When Tucker arrived in the office the following morning, he had a few tales to tell. Taunted by workmates that he would only manage 50 miles because of the cold, he set out with a mission at 7.30pm and rode the 340 miles to Brighton and back overnight, returning at 6am! Good work fella!
The temperature all night was below zero, but the CBR never complained once. But it was now a toss-up as to who looked worse – Tucker or the bike. The 600 was caked in salt and grime, but there was no time to lose and it was handed over to MCN tester Kev Smith to continue its gruelling schedule.
Tucker, who has previously owned a Yamaha TZ125, a Yamaha XJ550 and a Ducati Monster, had never ridden a CBR before and was amazed by its usability and low-down drive. He said: " I’d ridden a friend’s Kawasaki ZX-6R and you had to slip the clutch and rev it hard low-down. The Honda pulls from nothing. "
Honda’s own PGM-F1 fuel injection system really does the business. Whereas it’s almost too sensitive on a twin like the SP-1, it works perfectly on the four-cylinder bike, making it as easy to ride round town as it is on fast
A-roads. Tucker rode through London and found the CBR incredibly
user-friendly away from traffic lights and through traffic. He was also impressed with the lack of a choke. He said: " It’s great not having to worry about how far the choke’s out and if it’s running too rich or if you’re going to stall it. "
The CBR600 is so refined that it’s hard to criticise it, but I had to agree with Tucker’s dig at the windscreen – it’s practically useless if you’re 6ft 1in like me, and a taller aftermarket screen is the first thing I would fit to the bike. Tucking in behind a screen is not only useful for a few extra mph on a track, but it also gives you a bit of shelter when you’re blatting up the M1 at 4am on a freezing night. CBR600 screen: Nil points.
After some much appreciated sleep in thermal pyjamas, I jumped (well, dragged myself) out of bed to meet Smith for my second stint. I’d learned the hard way after my first trip and added a few more layers of clothing. The ground was still covered
Smith had clocked 1012 miles in just over two days on a trip to his native Scotland, stopping at almost every service station on the way to warm up. He looked absolutely exhausted. The CBR looked filthy, but we wanted to see exactly what it would look like after the equivalent of a year’s mileage so we left it. By this point, I was beginning to think the only limiting factor in the CBR’s performance was the rider. I’d seen colleagues hand the bike back to me looking cold and exhausted, but the CBR was still warm as toast. In fact, even in the bitter cold, it tended to run a bit hot when it was at a standstill. Cleaning the radiator helped a bit, but as soon as the bike was moving, the temperature dropped back into the normal range anyway.
Since Smith had changed the oil and lubed and tightened the chain, all I had to do was jump on and decide where to go.
For my next stint, I decided to brave some B-roads, even though it was still very slippery. The things we do for you. On a dry summer’s day, these kind of quiet, twisty roads are often my favourite, especially on a 600 which is light enough and agile enough to take them in its stride. But it was crucial to see how well the CBR would cope in less than ideal conditions. I noticed that a pond beside the road was frozen over so it followed that the road temperature wasn’t much higher. Farmer’s muck was liberally strewn around adding to the " run the gauntlet " feel of the ride.
Needless to say, I rode extremely cautiously, but the Honda did its best to help me. Because the Nissin brakes are solid rather than jaw-dropping, I didn’t have to worry about locking them up whenever I came upon some horse poo, and with no glitchiness in the injected power delivery I didn’t need to have the throttle control of a demi-god. This kind of turf isn’t exactly what sports bikes were made for, but it’s good to know that if you have to take a detour (or you live on a farm!) your bike’s not going to throw up any nasty surprises – and the Honda doesn’t.
Another couple of hours had passed and I had to stop to thaw out again. As soon as I found a pub, I parked up and felt the rear tyre for heat. What a joke. I’ve felt warmer tyres in a showroom. Despite 230 miles of riding, it was stone cold, damp down the middle and salt-encrusted round the edges where in summer there would be shredded rubber. Still, because you’re not burrowing the rear into the Tarmac on the exit of every turn, the tyres last longer – these looked almost new, despite having more than 2000 miles on them.
To my eternal gratitude, the pub had a roaring fire and the best coffee this side of Italy. It spoke volumes for the conditions when the barmaid noted that even my money was cold when I handed it over!
The light was fading as I headed for base to hand the bike over to MCN
sub-editor Ceri Vines, who was planning to visit his girlfriend in Worcester (and show off the new bike, no doubt!). Setting off at 7pm in freezing fog, Vines was immediately unimpressed with the CBR’s headlight, but he later claimed it could have been hampered by all the crud being thrown up off other vehicles. Although he enjoyed his CBR experience, Vines remains a bigger fan of his 1997 Honda VFR750. He said: " The CBR felt small and slightly cramped in comparison and at 6ft I wouldn’t like to spend hours in the saddle. " Unlike me – being a fan of fruity end cans – Vines thought the sound of the CBR was awesome. But then, compared to the almost silent whine of a VFR, I suppose it is.
Returning late at night, Vines had racked up another couple of hundred miles on the Honda with no major traumas. Despite the dirt streaked all over the bodywork, the bike was still in great shape and eager for more.
Enter former MCN road tester Chris Moss. A big fan of huge mileage and long hauls, he really should have been a long-distance truck driver. Moss set off on Wednesday morning and had clocked up 300 miles by evening so the CBR’s digital odometer was now showing 2500 miles – more than many riders cover in a year.
Moss chose to test the bike on one of the busiest motorways in Britain and in the busiest city in Britain. After his trip down the M1 to London, followed by a return route including the M3 and A43, he had few gripes. He said: " The CBR gets left behind on the track by the GSX-R600 and R6, but unless you spend your life on track days the Honda is the most sensible buy. "
I have to agree. There’s that little bit more comfort and user-friendliness about the CBR, which makes it the ideal real-world bike.
Moss adjusted the chain on the Honda before setting out next morning to cover another 300 trouble-free miles. At lunchtime, it was my stint again and I was looking forward to it more than ever because the frost was finally lifting and there was a bit of heat in the early afternoon sun. It was fully run in and I was actually going to get to run it at a decent pace. Joy.
The CBR felt like an old friend and I was glad to get the keys back. The old girl was still intact, despite the thousands of miles my colleagues had travelled on treacherous roads. Well done one and all.
The first chance I got, I took the Honda to the red line at 14,000 rpm and was pleasantly surprised at how revvy the motor was. But you don’t have to rev it to go quick – there’s enough torque to suit a short-shifting style if that’s your thing.
As I picked up speed, I tried again to tuck in behind the wide, flat and tiny screen. Useless.
The gearbox is positive and doesn’t mind clutchless changes if you time it right, but on the downchange I noticed now and again that it didn’t want to take three consecutive shifts and I had to let the clutch out, lift my foot and start again.
Otherwise, it was a joy to ride on fast, open roads and it never once felt nervous even when accelerating over rough surfaces. The tyres, still amazingly intact despite the high mileage, offered little grip on the still wintry roads, but at least they worked as a team with the Honda’s suspension to let you know as soon as they were starting to slip.
I saw big numbers on the digital speedo, though you’d need the back straight at Snetterton to use it all.
Thinking about race tracks and the CBR led me to my one big criticism of the CBR F Sport concept. When I heard Honda was to take the unusual step of producing two versions of its famous CBR for 2001, I fully expected one to be like the normal, all-round road-going CBR of old and the other to be a completely track-focused race rep for Supersport race teams and track day addicts. A bit like Honda’s SP-1 Basic Racer, in fact.
I presumed Honda was aware of the threat posed by the GSX-R and R6 and would release a CBR Sport with lots more power than the standard bike, much less weight, full race bodywork, upgraded suspension etc. Instead, the differences between the two bikes is minimal and makes me wonder why Honda bothered.
A £300 price difference was never going to buy you much extra. It’s the price of an end can for goodness sake.
Anyway, that’s not a criticism of this bike, which was taking everything we could throw at it and gagging for more. The CBR deserves – nay, demands – respect for that.
Though I had been helped so much by my colleagues – thanks, boys – the honour of cracking the 3000-mile mark was mine. And this is what those last few miles were like…
The temperature gauge is reading 72 degrees.
I tilt my head to read the odometer and check I’ve got enough fuel to cover the last few miles of one of my favourite roads. Fine. Without the aid of the clutch, I snick the gear lever up into third and crack the throttle full open. The front goes light but doesn’t lift and I hold the twistgrip until the tacho needle spins around to 13,500rpm. The pipe howls and the wind blast forces me to tuck down and get as much protection from the small screen as possible.
The mad rush of wind still buffets my helmet as I hook fourth. I relax my arms over some bumps but there’s no need – the CBR behaves like the old gentleman of the road it is, despite not having a steering damper.
Approaching a roundabout, I blip the throttle down two gears, squeezing the front lever and dabbing the back for extra stability. I sit bolt upright to gain a clearer view of the roundabout and help with braking. OK, I’m playing at being a racer.
There’s nothing coming so I lay the bike over as far as I dare and flip-flop it through the roundabout, shifting my bodyweight as I change direction.
Next is my favourite bit of any ride – exiting a roundabout in second gear on to a long straight and gunning the bike up the box as hard as I can, staying just short of the limiter. One mile to go.
The traffic lights at the end of the straight force me to stop, but that gives me a chance to boot the CBR up through the box one more time. The front lifts a tad in first, still feels light through second then settles down and leads the way through third into top. As I reach sixth, the odometer signals mission accomplished. There are no fireworks or champagne corks as the 3000 comes up, but I’m delighted and relieved that I’ve done what I set out to do. The bike’s in one piece and I’ve got a hot bath waiting – as has the poor old CBR in the form of a valet.
RIDERS: Stuart Barker/
MILEAGE: 640 miles
CONDITIONS: Hard frost,
-2 to 4°C
TIME OF DAY: Morning/afternoon/night
RIDER: Kev Smith
CONDITIONS: Hard frost/occasional sunshine, 3 to 5°C
TIME OF DAY: Morning/afternoon/
RIDERS: Stuart Barker/
Hard frost, 3°C
TIME OF DAY: Morning/afternoon
RIDER: Chris Moss
TIME OF DAY: Morning/afternoon
RIDER: Stuart Barker
CONDITIONS: Mild frost/dry/occasional sunshine, 6°C
TIME OF DAY: Morning/afternoon
TOTAL MILEAGE: 3000