THEY say time flies when you’re having fun. In that case, we must really have been enjoying the Honda FireBlade because it doesn’t seem possible that the bike, through various guises, is 10 years old.
At the launch of the original, a different cliché was on everyone’s lips. The Blade was " the bike that re-writes the rulebook. " The expression was trotted out with tedious regularity – but it was true. And it wasn’t just the litre-class sports category that it had transformed, but Honda’s image, too. The paragons of sensible had given us a bike that screamed evil intentions, and we were grateful.
But over the years it seems Honda just couldn’t help but make the Blade a little more sensible. While first Yamaha with the R1 and then Suzuki with its GSX-R1000 took up the challenge of building the ultimate sports machine, Honda seemed to head farther into all-rounder territory.
Honda hasn’t re-written the rulebook again. But it has put a bit of the angry original back into the bike – like an extra 15cc over the 2001 model, which equates to an extra 2bhp at the rear wheel.
Reluctant to try and properly test a claimed 149bhp of fuel-injected litre-class machine in England’s cold, wet winter climate, we’ve followed the birds and migrated south across Europe for the world’s first test of the bike on ordinary Tarmac.
To find… cold, wet and even icy roads everywhere we go. Not encouraging. But we have to persevere. This is the first chance anyone in the world has had to test the new Blade on the roads, away from the perfect track conditions of Estoril where it was launched a few weeks ago.
In Portugal, we said that more people would find it easier to ride the well-mannered Blade fast on the track. But what most of us want to know is how the new Blade performs on rutted Tarmac with white lines, cat’s eyes, overbanding, potholes… you get the picture.
France offers all this, but we hoped we’d get the weather, too. Just as we’re wishing we’d stayed at home, we sight the Holy Grail of biking near Marseilles – clear blue skies and sunshine. Hallelujah! However, things aren’t quite as promising on the ground. The roads have had a liberal dosing of salt, which has left a thick coating of dust, with the result that brutal treatment of the throttle lets the tyre spin. It’s a testament to the Blade’s abilities that it still lays down smooth, progressive power that allows the rear tyre to dig in for grip.
We’ve also brought a GSX-R1000 along, not to test them back-to-back – with the Blade giving away 11bhp to the Suzuki we all know the result already – but to give us a comparison in real-world conditions.
In tweaking more performance from a lightweight bike, it would have been easy for Honda to create a four-stroke engine with two-stroke character – a vicious powerband that makes twisting the throttle more of a problem than a benefit to most riders. Instead, the engineers have worked hard at making the engine just as smooth as the other fours in the Honda line-up.
However, as with its stablemates, the fuel injection is sharp. Back off even a fraction and it reacts. Get back on the power and instantly it chimes back in. Most of the time that’s not a problem as the Blade likes to be ridden hard. Charge hard out of corners and the injection delivers cleanly from tickover to red line. Shut the throttle as you reach for the brakes and there’s no delay – the power’s off. Blip the throttle for fast, neat downchanges and again the injectors squirt and stop as required.
But on the steep, twisty roads we find that on-off nature is more of a liability. Spot a hazard and if you relax your grip on the throttle you’ll feel the power go, upsetting the balance of the bike. It’s not an " Oh my God, I’m going down " sort of feeling, but it does make the bike feel like it’s losing its way.
It’s clear that the bulk of the new 954cc engine’s power lives higher up the rev range. The bottom end gives you what you need to get away quickly, but without too much drama. At around 5000rpm, the front wheel goes light in first gear – just like the 2000 model did.
But at 6500-7000rpm a definite sense of urgency sets in. From now 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. You just notice that things get going a lot more easily and the motor starts to make the kind of grunt you expect from a high-performance motorcycle.
That smooth, low-down power combined with the poke higher in the rev range means you get the best of both worlds. When you’re plodding through a sleepy French village with slimy cobbled streets under your tyres and a van full of baguettes in front of you, you don’t need 150bhp and screaming revs. You need the ability to drive from low revs. The Blade happily does that with no shudders, no lurches.
Conversely, you don’t want that 1978 Citroën 2CV in front of you when the roads get a bit tastier. That’s when you snick down a couple, hit the magic number and fly. The howl from the stock pipe is surprisingly decent, too – this is the sort of sound we should have been getting from the Japanese instead of the pathetic farts they’ve given us in recent years. That said, it’s hard to imagine many 2002-model FireBlades making it to 2003 without an aftermarket pipe.
The Blade may be compact, but it’s far from cramped. The tank, so massive right under your chin in 1992, is now more where you’d expect it. The bars are low but not extreme, the seat doesn’t feel high, nor the pegs low, but there is a comfortable gap between your arse and your heels, so the fuel should run out before you have to resort to sticking your leg into the breeze to get the blood circulating again.
Wind protection is decent, too. You still might find motorway riding a pain in the neck if you’ve just jumped off a tourer. But if you tuck in, the protection improves, with surprisingly little loss of comfort.
The pegs are certainly low enough to scrape on a twisty road or track day, but for most riders in most situations on the road it just won’t be an issue – though that doesn’t mean you won’t see them equipped with rearsets. People may buy Blades primarily for the road, but they’re also among the most popular choices on any track day.
This bike is one of the actual machines that was at the launch in Estoril. In the Portuguese sunshine there were mechanics on hand to make adjustments as the riders requested. Now the bike has been re-set to stock suspension settings and, frankly, it feels too soft for my 14st weight. It doesn’t have the most planted feel in the world in long, fast, sweeping bends.
However, it’s all fully adjustable and easy to work on. After a bit of twiddling at the side of the road, I discover that one click more pre-load, a click less rebound damping and another click of extra compression damping improves things no end.
However, even when I’ve sorted the suspension out, the bike isn’t exactly sedate – but that’s no bad thing. That extra capacity and slight increase in power restores a bit of the bike’s " bad boy " feel. The original model, on a 16in front wheel, earned a reputation for getting a bit of a tankslap if you accelerated hard out of a bumpy corner. This doesn’t feel like it would get that bad, but it does allow itself the occasional waggle of the bars just to let you know you’re playing with something powerful.
It’s actually quite satisfying – as if you’ve pushed the bike hard enough to be getting close to the limits. Of course you haven’t, but it’s good to get some feedback to tell you you’re taking liberties.
What’s less welcome is how it copes with a bumpy road. To be fair, we’re on one of the worst Tarmac surfaces I’ve ever ridden. It looks smooth enough and isn’t cracked or broken, but it feels like a cart track to ride on. Long straights make it easy to get big numbers on the easy-to-read digital speedo, but not so easy to stay in the seat. Despite feeling soft in fast corners, the springs seem to lack the suppleness to cope with the bumps.
However, the Honda has lost none of the handling prowess it acquired with the 2000 model, the first to wear a 17in front wheel. This latest version tips in exactly as much as you ask it to. It doesn’t try to force you right over on your knee as soon as you get off vertical, but allows you to make adjustments as you go. The handling is neutral to the point where you can go in too hot, pick up and then re-attack hard when you realise it was OK the first time after all.
But while the chassis doesn’t punish such faffing about, the injectors will. If you accompany your rough cornering with rough throttle control you’ll get an unpleasant ride.
The specially-designed Bridgestone BT012 tyres suit the bike well, too. The rate of turn is quick, but not falling-down rapid. They offer great grip in a variety of conditions – perfect for an " all-round " sports bike like the Blade – and are especially good in the wet. I’m certainly glad they’re fitted as I try and contend with all this winter rubbish on top of the Tarmac. And with the temperature struggling into high single figures, they still manage to build up some heat to add a dash of confidence to your riding. We’ve all felt that nervousness in cold weather when it can be difficult to to convince yourself to push hard in case the tyres let go, but I don’t feel the need to tip-toe around corners here.
The brakes are also totally dependable, with a good balance of initial bite, lack of fade and outright power, combined with excellent feedback. The forks cope well with the weight transfer and help you to feel the front tyre grip. The rear brake initially feels wooden and weak – but a few hard stabs of the lever scrub in the new pads and have them offering wheel-locking power at will.
The 2002 Blade may have acquired an extra dose of attitude, but you’d be hard pressed to notice from the outside. We stop at a café for a jambon sandwich and a shot of espresso and I stand in the doorway for a few minutes, looking at it while I chomp.
It does look aggressive, in a slimline, angular kind of way, but there’s definitely no hint of the huge, brutal-looking tank and Urban Tiger paintscheme of old. If anything, it looks like its little brother, the CBR600 – even down to the same shade of red paint. It’s ironic, really, that while for years we asked Honda for a 600 that looked like a Blade, it has given us the reverse.
Get in the seat and you almost have to get off again and peer at the FireBlade logo to make sure. The bike is so compact it really does feel closer than ever to the 600 class. You could sneak one of these into a Supersport race – though the performance off the line would give the game away immediately.
Like later Blades, this one still scores highly for practicality. For a start, the 600-class feel makes it a doddle to manoeuvre in town. U-turns are not the wobbly foot-paddling nightmare they can be on other bikes.
Then there’s the boot. The lock position has changed – it’s now in-board, above the rider’s seat, rather than on the back as before – but the space under the pillion seat is still useful. You can get a spare visor in there – though we couldn’t cram our waterproofs in. A box of smokes and a can of Coke would be a doddle – and most of the time who needs more than that?
There are some other neat touches. Honda has effectively bought and fitted your aftermarket accessories for you by adding a hugger and a plastic undertray. That not only tidies up the look of the rear end, but means an end to clumps of mud and grit collecting under the seat unit and around the rear shock. Which means more time riding, not cleaning.
The digital fuel gauge is showing an average of 28mpg, but you’d get more than that during normal riding in the UK. The roads we chose were full of first-second-third gear blasts and hard braking. In such conditions any bike would be thirsty, and the first injected FireBlades weren’t noted for economy.
When the sun dips below the horizon, signalling the end of play and the start of the trip home, the Blade continues to earn friends. The lights are powerful and give a good spread that makes it easy to keep the pace up at night, while the controls are light enough to stop you getting a dose of clutch-finger cramp at the close of a long, hard day.
Crossing the continent has revealed that two things are causing a big stir. Harry Potter is one, the launch of the euro is the other. With the changes to the FireBlade, Honda could be making just as big a commotion in the biking world. But we’ll have to wait a while yet. Yamaha has made big changes to the R1 for 2002 and it’s promising it will be more nimble than anything else out there. That won’t be launched until well into February, when we’ll put it, the GSX-R and the FireBlade together. It’s going to take some serious head-to-head riding to separate those three.
Have you got a pristine FireBlade of any age? We’re looking for mint examples of every model Blade since its introduction in 1992 for an MCN feature. If you can spare a day for a photo-shoot and would like your bike to be in MCN, contact us now. Pictures of the bike may help your case. Even if you don’t have a Blade now, you could still get into print by telling us your greatest, funniest Blade story. Write to: FireBlade Feature, MCN, Media House, Lynch Wood, Peterborough, Cambs PE2 6EA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org