Honda has put a bit of the angry original back into its updated, bigger bore yet more compact FireBlade. And we’ve taken it to the sunny south of France to see how it deals with life on the road and give us a first idea of how it compares to the superbike benchmark, Suzuki’s GSX-R1000.
Our only previous test of the new Blade has been on the track (see link, right). But the road is where most will spend the majority of their time.
It’s a testament to the abilities of both machines that neither feels a handful despite the chilly conditions. They both lay down smooth progressive power that allows the rear tyre to dig in for grip.
In tweaking more power it would have been easy for Honda to create a vicious powerband. Instead the engineers have worked hard at making it just as smooth as the other four-cylinder injected machines in their portfolio. However, like the rest of the Honda line-up the fuel injection is sharp.
If you so much as relax your grip on the throttle you’ll feel the power go, upsetting the balance of the bike.
Despite the new 954cc capacity the Blade’s still smaller than the GSX-R and you still feel the difference.
The Blade’s power builds smoothly, but it does exactly that - it builds. The bottom end gives you what you need to get away quickly but without too much drama. Around 5000 revs the front wheel goes light in first gear - just like the 2000-model did. But as you get up through the gears, you’ll notice there’s a definite sense of urgency that starts around the 6,500-7000rpm area. From then on, you decide how quickly the world goes by - simply make your demand at the throttle grip. It’s not a sudden lurch, or the sort of step-up created by the V-TEC system on Honda’s VFR, it’s more subtle than that. What you really notice is that things get going a lot more easily from there.
The bike is compact. There’s no long snout on it like you find with the Kawasaki ZX-9R (which is getting a pretty comprehensive under-the-skin revamp for 2002). The tank, once so massive right under your chin in 1992, is now more where you’d expect it. Like on a CBR6.
The designers have made a lot of room for the rider. The bars are low but not extreme. The seat doesn’t feel high, nor the pegs low, but there is a noticeably comfortable gap between your arse and your heels. The balance was just about spot on for me at 5 feet 9 inches - hands, feet, bum and knees were all comfy all day long. And that also means you’re not trying to snap your own neck to look ahead. Get on the motorway and you wouldn’t suffer on this.
This bike was on stock suspension settings. And frankly it felt too soft. That isn’t such a big problem as the suspension is fully adjustable and easy to work on, but riding it as it came, it wasn’t the most planted feel in the world in long, fast sweeping bends.
The original Blade, on a 16in front wheel, earned a reputation for getting a bit of a tank slap going if you accelerated hard out of a bumpy corner. This doesn’t feel like it’d get that bad, but it does allow itself a little waggle of the bars here and there just to let you know you’re playing with a powerful machine.
What was less welcome was how it coped with a bumpy road. To be fair, the road was one of the worst Tarmac surfaces I’ve ever ridden. It looked smooth enough and wasn’t cracked or broken, but to ride it felt like a cart track. With long straights it was easy to get big numbers on the easy-to-read digital speedo. But it wasn’t easy to stay in the seat. Despite feeling soft in fast corners, the suspension seemed to lack the suppleness to cope with the bumps. Perhaps the suspension was a few miles off working at its best.
The rate of turn is quick but not falling-down rapid. The grip from the BT010’s was fine, especially considering they had to contend with a lot of winter rubbish on top of the Tarmac. And with the temperature struggling into high single figures, they still managed to build up some heat.
The brakes are totally dependable with a good balance of initial bite, lack of fade and out-right power, combined with excellent feedback.
The Blade scores highly for practicality. It’s a doddle to manoeuvre in town. Then there’s the useful boot. The lights are powerful and give a good spread that makes it easy to keep the pace reasonable at night. The controls are light enough to stop you getting tired at the close of a long, hard day of riding.
So what would make you choose the GSX-R or the new FireBlade? It depends on what you’re looking for. In the simplest terms, if you’re a horsepower addict, you have to have the Suzuki. It’s damn near the same weight, makes 11bhp more and gives you a rush from almost anywhere in the rev range.
Image is another factor. The original FireBlade was bad, but nothing has come close to the heritage of the GSX-R. From the early 750s, attributed as starting the whole race rep class, to the latest models, these are hooligan machines.
The Honda is much more sensible. The Honda manages to combine a comfy riding position with a sporty one. It will keep you relaxed on the way there, let you rip the circuit up when you arrive, and then dawdle home at your own pace. The Suzuki folds your legs that bit tighter, meaning serious distance will also need regular breaks.
The Honda also makes the Suzuki feel big and long! At low speed it turns much more effortlessly than the GSX-R - though that may be down to the Suzuki’s steering damper.
At speed the tables are turned. The Suzuki feels totally stable where the Blade starts to get a little twitchy. But the twitchiness lets you know you’re travelling fast - the GSX-R needs to be into three figures before you really experience the speed.
And let’s not forget, Yamaha has made big changes to the R1 for 2002 and it’s promising the new machine will be more nimble than anything else out there. That won’t be launched until well into next month.
When we get all three together we’ll be able to tell you which is best. Until then, be sure that while the Blade still gives away power to the GSX-R1000, the fight is evenly balanced.
THERE’S MORE ON THIS IN MCN OUT ON JANUARY 9, 2002.
WE’LL BE ADDING EXCLUSIVE VIDEO OF THE BLADE AND GSX-R IN ACTION LATER THIS WEEK.