Yamaha Fazer and Honda Hornet: head-to-head

Published: 25 November 2001

Not many boxing matches are as one-sided as the punch-fest a few days ago when Brit hero Lennox Lewis made Hasim Rahman eat canvas in fine style.

This fight certainly seems a lot more evenly-balanced – the new Hornet 900 against the slightly more established Fazer 1000. Both are across-the-frame Japanese fours, both punch in the heavyweight division, both have big sports motors in more relaxed frames.

Sure, there are differences.

The Fazer offers the rider some protection in the form of a half-fairing, while the Hornet eschews any kind of defence against the elements. Then there’s the price. With an RRP of £7799, the Fazer isn’t far short of the R1 that donated the motor at the heart of the bike’s appeal. The price is currently " under review " , according to Yamaha, and you could expect it to drop by £500 to £7299 (see separate story on page 27), which may be just as well given that the Hornet currently undercuts it by more than £1800, at £5995.

Then there’s knowing exactly who belongs in this fight in the first place. With boundaries blurring all the time, it’s difficult to decide. But there is one pretty simple way we can decide on this. It isn’t price, it isn’t power. It’s all down to heritage.

Sure, a Suzuki 1200 Bandit takes a modified GSX-R1100 motor and plops it into a chassis like this. And the Kawasaki ZRX1200 does a similar trick with a version of the mighty ZZ-R1100 powerplant. But there is a crucial difference.

Unlike those donor bikes, the R1 is unquestionably still at the leading edge of sports bike development and technology. Honda’s FireBlade is widely credited as the bike that created the litre-class sports bike as we know it today. And though it’s maybe not as finely focused as before, it, too, remains a bike at the forefront of design. These are not bikes of legend, bikes that are maybe slightly past it compared to the latest in the range. These are IT.

If Suzuki gives us a Bandit 1000 with a GSX-R1000 engine, then we’d be in business, similarly with a ZX-9R-engined ZRX from Kawasaki. Until then it’s just the Honda and the Yamaha. But will one turn out to be a Lewis, the other a Rahman? Let’s get ready to rumble.

Sadly, neither is up to much when it comes to the rumbling stakes. It’s no surprise in the increasingly sterile world we live in that these bikes are unable to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end just by starting the motor. As owners of the R1 and Blade know, the first thing you want to do with either is sling an aftermarket pipe its way. When a machine looks even slightly menacing, it needs the mouth to go with the trousers.

So what about the looks? Before we even thumb the starter, let’s take a step back and have a good, long look. A bike like this should do something for you, and clearly these do – but only for some people. A straw poll of passers-by in the office car park proved deeply inconclusive. Some berated the Honda’s dull grey colourscheme (ahem, that’s iron nail silver metallic, actually), while others loved its simplicity.

Opinions on the Fazer were similarly split. " Is it missing the bellypan? " wasn’t an uncommon comment about the half-fairing, which does stop rather abruptly. On the other hand, the metallic blue was universally appreciated.

What everybody seemed to enjoy was the flagrant display of naked metal, with big, big engines fully exposed. It has to be said, however, that other bikes have done this better. Neither has managed to make the radiator look anything other than in the way, while there’s a mass of wiring and piping that could be better routed or hidden. It makes them look like faired bikes missing their fairings.

From the seat none of that is visible, so after a quick bit of banter with the unfortunates who had to go and work indoors it’s time to get out on the roads. And instantly they don’t seem so unlucky. They get a temperature-controlled environment. Out here it’s a bit parky.

Riding the Hornet first, it’s hard not to peer at the half-fairing on the Fazer with eyes a distinctly envious shade of green.

Our first time in the seat of the Hornet a few weeks ago gave the impression it was one of those naked bikes that doesn’t offer a whole heap of protection. Second time around things weren’t looking much different.

The clocks are well placed from a convenient-to-read point of view. But from a doing-anything-at-all-to-deflect-the-wind standpoint they could hardly be worse, short of mounting them on the tank. The headlight sits down below them, so there’s nothing for it but to sit proud in the saddle and let the world know you’re a real biker who can stand a bit of wind blast. And then get off and whimper as the hand-dryer in the garage loos directs hot air down the chest of your leathers. However, a screen is sure to be part of Honda’s planned range of official extras. Just pray it’s done with some sympathy for the original design.

Meanwhile, over on Fazer island, things are not as peachy as you might imagine from the seat of the Hornet.

Jump on the Yamaha’s seat after a stint on fast A-roads with the Honda and you’re expecting to be wrapped in the quilt-like still air of a tourer. Be prepared to be surprised. That half-fairing sits a long way ahead of you and the screen is actually rather low. The combined effect seems to be that wind can pour over the top of it and tumble down behind it. So you get the wind in your chest. It isn’t as severe as the Hornet, but it isn’t the cosseted idyll I’d been looking forward to. At this time of year, you’ll be wanting a jacket over your leathers on either machine.

But back to the Hornet. As we head through villages and towns and along A-roads, it becomes clear it’s more at home in some situations than others. Sure, you could tour on this or indeed any two-wheeler if the fancy took you, but it seems like you’d be missing the point.

Traffic. Give this bike traffic. Give it narrow roads, give it busy places and aggravation and give it every other kind of grief and watch it enjoy itself. The Hornet settles you down when things aren’t going just as you wanted.

The engine is perhaps at the heart of it. First time out on the Hornet 900, I confess I was disappointed. OK, we all knew this wasn’t the latest incarnation of the FireBlade engine, but the 1998 919cc unit, though Honda has seen fit to add fuel injection to what was a carburated model. Frankly, I expected to be slightly scared by it. And I wasn’t.

The engine has been detuned to smooth things out and lop off some top end in the quest for more mid-range grunt. So where is it? Off the bottom this doesn’t feel a whole heap different to the Hornet 600 – not a comment you’d expect to make when you know how wild the Blade is compared to the CBR600 which donates its engine to the Hornet 600.

But there is a smooth, rising crescent of power that takes you time to really understand. Smoothness has deprived the bike of the sort of kick that says: " Hey, watch out, I’m a litre of pure muscle, me " . But it is there.

Roll the throttle on hard at 5000rpm in first, let the front come up and hang there. Hang on, isn’t that just like a Blade? Yup, and when you realise that you suddenly have a lot more fun with the engine.

Honda makes no bones about the fact that this bike is aimed at cities. It might seem strange to have such a big engine for a city bike, but the Hornet offers you that extra bit to really deal with traffic. And gaps in traffic. Squirting past queues of slow-moving cars is laughably easy. There’s no need to fear as you roll on the power – thanks to that smoothness – yet equally no reason to doubt you’ll make it in time.

Bridging the gap from one huddle of cars to the next lets you have some fun, too. There’s enough acceleration to keep up with all but the hardest-ridden sports bikes, though if you’ve got the room to really explore 12-month ban territory, the wind blast will probably make you give up before the bike calls it a day.

It’s just as entertaining on the twisty bits. The extreme stumpiness, which makes it a doddle to U-turn in city streets, also makes it a cinch to hustle along at a good pace on back lanes. The wide bars mean you can tip in as fast as you dare, and the suspension copes pretty well with the potholes and dried dung that infest these roads.

Then there’s the rubber. Not so many years ago Michelin Hi-Sports would have been tip-top kit for a full-on race replica. Now the TX15 and TX25 versions the Fazer sports don’t mean much alongside the virtually slick Pilot Races. It’s not clear whether these will be fitted for the UK (this bike was originally destined for the world launch in Portugal), but it is clear they still stick to Tarmac as well as they used to. The set-up gives a lot of confidence, despite its basic nature, and that again may be down to Honda’s intended use.

The kind of person who rides in town a lot probably doesn’t carry passengers often, needs softish suspension to deal with potholes and kerbs and maybe doesn’t need to run to huge expense. But he still wants a respectable turn of speed when the opportunity arises. Hence the Hornet as you see it.

But the moment you ease yourself into the Yamaha’s seat, you suddenly understand the difference in price. It’s hard to put your finger on it immediately, but it is definitely there.

Yamaha has stopped short of calling the Fazer a premium product. Maybe it should just take a leaf out of the Stella book and sell it as " reassuringly expensive " , because that’s what it is. It makes you feel everything has been given that bit of extra attention. Look over the bike, or the spec sheet, and you realise it has – like fully-adjustable suspension where the Hornet is limited to pre-load only.

This is the bike you’d choose if you were going to make a habit of long trips. It’s hard to explain without sounding like putting the boot into the Hornet, but there is a real step up in quality from the Honda to the Yamaha – there’s a statement you won’t hear very often.

One thing that’s easy to note is the difference in size. The Yamaha feels bigger, longer, more solid, though thankfully that doesn’t translate into feeling heavier.

In comparison, the Hornet feels almost toy-like. The seat seems lower, the bars closer, the whole experience more immediate. The Fazer stretches you out, gives you room to do some miles.

And the engine will make those miles comfortable. There are no vibrations, no intrusions to interfere with your riding pleasure. The Hornet (appropriately, perhaps) buzzes through the left footpeg above 5000rpm, enough to make your pinkies go numb.

With the Fazer there’s just straight drive. It feels smoother and revs more freely. Gearing may also be different, as it won top gear roll-ons with ease, driving effortlessly ahead and staying there as the Honda wound itself up into the real meat of its power. Yet it also felt more relaxed at high speeds and didn’t seem to be working as hard on open roads.

In the twisties, the tables are turned against it. Either bike could lead and the other stay comfortably in its tracks on the lanes, but the Fazer doesn’t feel quite so at home here. That bigger feeling goes against it when you’re trying to hustle it along. While the Hornet was a nimble bundle of fun, the Yamaha felt more serious, as if it demanded a more sensible approach. Strange, for a bike endowed with the ultimate nutter engine.

But the engine still lets you see the fun side. Try the same roll-on trick in first, get the same front-wheel-in-the-air result. If anything, it’s even easier with the Fazer, though it didn’t seem as natural doing it. It’s that sensible half-fairing again.

The suspension is not only fully-adjustable, it feels plusher than its rival. There’s a degree of control to the movement that the Hornet can’t match. Where the Honda feels a little bouncy over the bumps, the Yamaha seems to squash them away. Side by side, it’s clear the Yamaha has the better bouncy parts.

But is there a real winner in the big fight? Like many boxing matches, this one could be a real surprise for buyers. You might go out with one bike in mind and end up with the other on your drive. Home ground will count for a lot. Try a U-turn in a tight city road on the Fazer and you’ll be paddling it back and forth. Try a long motorway run on the Hornet and you’ll suffer for the vibey footpeg and lack of fairing.

Until we see what Yamaha can do with the price, it’s safe to assume those of us who have to watch the pounds will opt for the Honda. And you won’t be disappointed, at least not when you’ve had a longer play. That motor still has a lot to offer despite the retune. Honda might want to rethink the " iron nail " colour option, though.