Simple, but wonderfully capable naked bikes like the Triumph Street Triple and Yamaha MT-07 offer huge kicks for little money. They’re proof you don’t need big power and the latest electronic trickery to have fun. But can Honda’s new CB650F fight its way to the top of this popular class?
Honda’s new CB650F isn’t just another Japanese middleweight naked. Nor is it simply the replacement for the Hornet. It’s much more than that.
Built in Honda’s Thai factory, the CB is designed to tempt new riders onto two wheels and to bring riders who’ve had time away back into our lovely world of motorcycling.
Costing £6399, the 86bhp inline four-cylinder CB has a new engine, chassis and lots of funky styling and attention-to-detail, like petal-shaped front discs, a multi-function dash (lacking a gear position indicator and temperature gauge) and a gorgeous Honda 400/4-style exhaust.
The new Honda goes right up against two of MCN’s favourites: Yamaha’s new MT-07 and the evergreen Triumph Street Triple ABS.
Yamaha’s parallel twin costs just £5199 and is more fun than it has any right to be for the price while the £7349 Triumph triple, as we all know by now, is a class act. Both will scratch, commute, stunt and so long as you don’t ride at silly speeds, can handle long distances, too.
To find out if the Honda is as complete as its rivals, we’re having an adventure on all three on a long, balmy June day. We’ll start early-doors at MCN HQ in Peterborough and begin by deliberately getting caught in rush-hour traffic to see how the Honda would handle a daily commute. A blast up the A1(M) will test its motorway manners, then the fun really begins with a scythe through B-roads to Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground where we’ll ride their handling circuit, test straight-line and braking performance and finish off with some skids and wheelies. But first some gridlock.
As you’d expect from Honda, the CB650F is as non-threatening as a bike could ever be. It’s smooth, easy to ride and nimble enough to slide effortlessly past bunched-up cars, vans and lorries. The seat is low, controls smooth, brakes progressive and it has the most generous legroom of the bunch. It’s best for the daily commute and like the frugal Yamaha, once you’ve brimmed it the gauge never seems to move.
Power is snatchy from a closed throttle, but you soon get used to it and oddly, the engine sounds like a diesel until you get going, when the noise morphs back into creamy inline four-ness. There must be a flap inside the airbox for emissions, or engine braking control causing the racket and the noise drives me up the wall after a while.
It never bothers fellow tester Jon, Urry, but he does have mixed thoughts about the Triumph: “There’s lovely low-down grunt, the pegs are low, the controls are light, especially the clutch and the bars aren’t too wide to get through traffic. But there’s a bit of slop in the throttle and there isn’t much steering lock. The mirrors are annoying and point too far down. You’d have to turn the mirror assembly around the bar to get them in the right position, but then the levers would be pointing too far up.”
5ft 6in Bruce Dunn finds the Yamaha as easy as the Honda around town. “It has a bit of a snatchy throttle,” he notices. “But it’s manageable and well-balanced at low speeds, and I can get both feet flat on the floor.”
Grinding motorway miles
With rush-hour behind us we head for the motorway. None of the bikes have great wind protection and even the Triumph’s £149.99 official accessory screen does little to appease neck muscles. Unless you’re built like Geoff Capes (ask your dad, younger readers) going any more than 85mph for prolonged periods is exhausting, but at least it helps keep your licence.
John is 6ft 2in and sits up higher in the elements than most. He says: “The Triumph’s fly screen does nothing, it’s just decoration. But the gear position indicator is handy, the bike is comfy and I can get my knees inside the sculpted tank. There’s a slight buzz from the engine, but it’s not intrusive.”
The Yamaha’s throttle is smoother at speed, as Bruce remarks: “The power delivery is good away from a closed throttle, the riding position is comfy and the wind protection is OK, but 70-80mph is the ideal speed for it. The engine is 100% damped and vibe-free.”
Just as it was in town, the Honda is the most at home obediently munching motorway miles. It’s friendly, comfortable and doesn’t have a rough bone in its body. But now, with a good few miles under our belts, it’s safe to say the CB650F is a bit on the bland side.
Although we’re now tucking into our chicken strips, the Honda remains strangely uninspiring. Free from dips, peaks or powerbands the inline four is unremarkable, but can still get a lick-on. You have to rev it hard for best results and if you’re lazy with the gears the Trumpet and the Yam disappear off.
It’s heavy, too, but despite that it handles reassuringly well. I rode a CB650F around Donington a few weeks ago and for a bike not designed for the track, it’s safe, stable and predictable. It’s more of the same on the road and if you were to get shot of its OE D222 Dunlops and fit something sportier, it would be a competent little scratcher.
Jon agrees: “It feels like a proper bike. Everything’s familiar and there are no quirks, but you have to go looking for fun from the Honda engine. It does everything well, but there’s no thrill, wheelies or laughs, especially compared to the MT-07 and Street Triple.”
It might not have the best straight-line performance and runs out of puff sooner than the others, but don’t be fooled by the Yamaha. With naff-all weight for the punchy parallel twin to push along, it’ll wheelie out of third- gear corners at low rpm and the engine is so silent at tickover you’d swear it cuts out at junctions, like one of those silly fuel-saving cars.
The MT-07 is physically small and has bouncy budget suspension. But the chassis is balanced and you can feel what each end is doing, so you can push surprisingly hard. It has the strongest brake set-up too, so you can brake impossibly late into corners. It’s as much fun as you’re ever going to have for five grand on two wheels and its Bridgestone BT-23 sports touring tyres have loads of summer and winter grip.
But king of the B-road scratchers is the Triumph. In fact, it’s better than most bikes in this environment, full stop. It has just the right amount of power, a natural riding position and the chassis is based on the all-conquering Daytona 675 supersport bike, so it handles impeccably. It’s the fastest and does 0-60mph in just 2.74 seconds.
Combining the fun of the Yamaha with performance to rival the Honda’s, the Triumph is the perfect package, but it’s not head and shoulders better than the rest of the middleweight class in the way it used to be.
This is MCN’s tried-and-tested playground. A two-mile long runway lets you squeeze the last ounce of speed out of any bike and its handling track’s grippy surface is like a cheese-grater to knee-sliders.
The Triumph is the quickest, but takes the longest to stop. The Yamaha is the most asthmatic, but has the best brakes, and the Honda is in the middle.
Through the corners the Triumph is the most confidence-inspiring, thanks to its balanced chassis, controlled suspension and Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres. It’s closely followed by the surprisingly-composed Honda and trailing behind is the Yamaha, which moves around on its soft suspension.
But when it comes to the utterly irrelevant pursuit of mucking about the Yamaha is the surprise stunt package. With no ABS to stop play, you can back-it-in like a supermoto and it’ll wheeile forever, thanks to the balance of the chassis and the punch and friendly nature of its twin-cylinder engine. The Triumph is a wheeile monster, too, but is slightly trickier, while the Honda hasn’t got the oomph to clutch up in anything other than first gear.
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