Without traction control and down on power, can the 2012 Honda CBR1000RR still compete?

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It’s easy to feel a bit sorry for liter bikes as 2011 slowly becomes 2012. They’ve reached some sort of pinnacle — without exception the entire class is now so impossibly fast that the bikes have become distinguished not by power or handling, but by the efficacy of electronic rider aids. Even while technology progresses exponentially, model cycles are stretching longer and longer and cash-strapped buyers are increasingly hanging on to perfectly good, five-year old motorcycles rather than upgrading every two years. Into that mess enters the 2012 Honda CBR1000RR, a minor facelift of a model originally introduced four years ago. A bike that’s not only down on power compared to every single one of its competitors, but lacking any sort of traction control, much less wheelie control, launch control or any other whizz-bang rider aid too.

Photos: Brian J Nelson

What makes a Fireblade a Fireblade?

First off, I should probably admit that I’m something of a Fireblade fanboy. A ’94 Foxeye was my first superbike back when I was 21 or 22 and I’ve recently been annoying Grant and Sean with talk of buying a ’92 and making it into something special, but still appropriate for the period.

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That original 1992 CBR900RR incepted a line of evolution that’s led to the insane liter bikes of today. In the decade preceding its launch, two-wheeled performance had already undergone something of a renaissance. The 1984 Kawasaki GPZ900R made a crazy, for the time, amount of power — 115bhp — allowing it to become the first stock motorcycle to ever exceed 150mph. In addition to the liter bike, another class of motorcycle was also created — the 600. They could go around corners. Bikes like the GPZ600R made about 75bhp. But, the two traits, performance and handling, weren’t able to totally coexist until Tadao Baba had the radical idea of putting a 122bhp engine into a bike the size and weight of a 600. Thus the modern performance motorcycle was invented.

Over the following decade or so, as first Yamaha, then Suzuki and Kawasaki caught up, the defining character of the ‘Blade became less about big power and lots of handling and more about making the increasingly massive performance massively accessible. The Honda was the friendly face of the fastest motorcycles the world had ever seen. It wouldn’t throw you out of the seat over bumps, it wouldn’t tank slap you into oblivion and it was thoughtful enough to provide a warning before it would pitch you over into a highside; all on the way to faster lap times and more expensive speeding tickets.

This isn’t the first time that the CBR has faced an on-paper performance deficit either. After six years of liter class domination, the ’98 CBR900RR came over all sports tourer which, coinciding with the R1 debut, suddenly wasn’t good enough. The first complete overhaul of the theme, the 2000 CBR929RR wasn’t able to catch up on power. By 2002, it wasn’t just the R1 that the 954 had to worry about, the much faster GSX-R1000 had entered the scene too. Complete with RC211V-influenced styling, the 2004 CBR1000RR fought back with an all-new engine putting out 172bhp. The current model was more or less on par, on paper until BMW entered the fray with 193bhp, traction control and ABS. It out user friendlenessed even the Honda, doing so with even more performance.

Despite regular forays into bench racing failure, the CBR has proved an enormous sales success. Nearly 500,000 have been sold worldwide since it was introduced 20 years ago.

What’re the changes between ’11 and ’12?

Looks: A new fairing brings angularity and stretches the visual proportions horizontally. The old model faced some criticism from ultra-conservative bikers for its organic lines, blunt nose and the strong vertical emphasis of its side fairing. The squarish new headlights should silence critics, but we’re not quite as big of fans of the now-somewhat-generic looks. Offsetting that, however, are clean, graphic-free color choices (all black!) and a tri-color HRC version. Honda’s always look good in red, white and blue.

Forks: The 2012 model adopts Showa’s fashionable Big Piston Forks, which are capable of more precise damping control than traditional designs.

Read more about BPFs here.

Shock: This is the big deal on the new model. Showa, ever one for a catchy name, dubs its new design a “Balance Free Rear Cushion.” Yeah, that only makes sense if you get extremely nerdy, so suffice it to say that it’s essentially identical to the fanciest aftermarket shock you can buy, the Ohlins TTX36. Damping is relocated outside of the shock body, eliminating traditional designs’ tendency to cavitate the damping oil during rapid transitions from extension to compression. This increases control as the shock extends and compresses, boosting feel, grip and eliminating the tendency for traction loss while accelerating hard over bumpy surfaces.

Read more about that shock here.

Fueling: Honda says it’s smoothed out the transition from closed to open throttle. The old model could be a little jerky when you first rolled on the power in a corner.

Brakes: Minor pad and other changes are supposed to make the brakes a little more progressive feeling, but the big difference is a shift in bias on models equipped with the optional C-ABS. Now, on those models, hitting the rear brake pedal results in less application of the front brake, allowing racers to use it to control power delivery at massive lean angles. It’s a change derived from Honda’s race program, which has been using C-ABS Blades for races like the Suzuka 8-hour.

Wheels: Trad three-spokes out, sexy 12-spokes in. They’re supposed to “provide more consistent rigidity,” and they might, but this is mostly for looks.

Instruments: Dual analog dials are ditched for a fancy LCD setup with a vertical bar tach and all sorts of info like gear position, programmable shift lights and a lap timer.

Is the new bike appreciably better?

You know what? It totally is. Surprisingly so. Hopping off the ’11 and onto the ’12 and heading back onto the track at Infineon, the new bike initially feels more compliantly damped both front and rear. But, that compliance doesn’t contribute to softness.

Front suspension geometry is unchanged, so steering effort and speed are identical, but the new CBR inspires more confidence by more intimately conveying what the front tire is doing. I was able to brake harder, trail them later into corners and, overall, carry more speed everywhere because my brain was hardwired to the front tire’s contact patch. Other applications of the BPFs have been less successful — on the GSX-R1000, for instance, they’re curiously vague — this is the first time I’ve been a total believer. The 2012 CBR1000RR now has some of the best front end feel out there, no matter if your forks are black, gold or whatever.

And if you think the forks are a big upgrade, wait till you get to the shock. Again, it initially feels like you’re heading out on track with soft, road-oriented settings. But roll on the throttle leaned way over in a corner and two pretty incredible things happen. First, the rear tire’s contact with the road suddenly becomes one of your core senses. See, smell, touch, hear, CBR1000RR rear tire. Second, even as your confidence skyrockets with that connection, the shock begins to find incredible amounts of grip. We were on Dunlop Qualifier II road tires, but even ham-fisted throttle applications would just dig that rear tire in and drive the bike out of the corner.

That potential for abrupt throttle inputs is nearly eliminated though. Thanks to the revised fueling, you can now roll it on nice and easy without that initial jerk. All three upgrades together take a very fast, very friendly motorcycle and make it almost impossibly smooth. Who needs traction control when simple components can give you this much control?

The new clocks are visually dominated by the massive tachometer. It’s really easy to see where you are in the rev range at a glance now. The shift lights are less effective, but luckily there’s now a softer over-rev, so there’s plenty of time to catch another gear when you realize you’re out of revs.

Do the upgrades make a difference on the road too?

Riding through the hills north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the roads were slick with a rain storm that passed the night before. But even unable to ride fast, Marin County’s bumpy back roads were enough to highlight improved suspension compliance and control.

The same attributes that make the Showa forks and shock so much better on the track, make them better on the road too. Where the ’11 model was kicking my butt out of the seat and being vague, the ’12 was totally smooth and delivered excellent feel. That’s a huge bonus in conditions like these, just like on the track, feel informs your decision making and boosts confidence, creating better, faster, safer riding. You can put down the power out of a wet corner with newfound confidence too, that intimate connection between throttle and tire remains, even crawling along in the wet.

I already have a 2008-2011 CBR, do I need to upgrade?

Probably not. If you’re the kind of proficient, intelligent rider that would benefit from the upgrades Honda’s made, then you likely go out and upgrade the suspension, fit better pads and probably a Power Commander the second you buy a bike anyways. That’s basically what Honda’s done with the new model, there’s nothing here you can’t achieve with a low four-figure investment and the tools you have in your garage.

Do combined brakes and ABS really belong on a liter bike?

On the track, I found the C-ABS-equipped new model to have slightly softer lever feel than the regular bike, but we’re talking incrementally softer. Not a problem. On the road, in the wet, C-ABS boosted my confidence braking hard on sketchy surfaces. So with no downsides other than a price increase ($1k), yes C-ABS is worth having if you plan on any road riding.

How does the new CBR compare to other liter bikes?

It’s slower. There, we said it. In a class defined by power-to-weight ratios, the Honda’s 175bhp and 199kg (wet) has it lagging behind every superbike competitor, aside from the 180bhp R1 due to the latter’s 206kg weight. Not much slower, but numbers like these are what liter bikes traditionally sell on.

Unlike every other competitor aside from the Suzuki GSX-R1000, it also lacks traction control. Nevermind the wheelie control and launch control of bikes like the Aprilia RSV4 R APRC and Ducati 1199 Panigale. With electronics winning races, that’s now an important differentiator in the minds of everyday riders. With performance exceeding common ability, traction control and other aids are now an important differentiator in terms of speed and safety too.

Other superbikes also have ABS, it’s now standard on the BMW S1000RR and optional on the 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R, but both those also have standard traction control.

But, with the exception of much more expensive rivals like the Aprilia RSV4 Factory and that hot new Ducati, the Honda has better suspension. Hell, it has a better shock than that fancy Aprilia, which makes do with a non-TTX Ohlins.

So, even with less power and without all the electronics, can it compete?

Do you buy a new bike to engage in a numbers-based pissing contest or do you buy a bike to ride it fast? Out of the box, the Honda is a better tool for fast riding than any of its Japanese competitors. It’s just as easy to ride as the BMW, has higher-quality suspension with greater feel than it too, but lacks both the German’s shear speed and fancy electronics. The problem is, forks and a shock would elevate any of those bikes to the Honda’s handling level and they’ve all got more power.

What Honda has done is take an already very accessible, very fast, very fun package and fit some really, really nice suspension to make it even more accessible, even faster and even more fun. By any standards, even without electronic aids, this is an extremely fast, extremely smooth, imminently exploitable superbike. This is the best Fireblade yet, even if it’s no longer revolutionizing motorcycle performance.

  • Art

    Great job on this article and hopefully we see journalism like this help acheive better bikes…whether faster or not.

  • DoctorNine

    We have reached a plateau, where more power is not the answer to all questions. This is a strange new world. And all the engineers are perplexed about what subsequent dimension will yield sales success.

    • T Diver

      I think the dimension is a better economy. People will buy something new (no matter how little the improvements may be from previous model) provided they can afford it.

  • Mike

    I dunno, that guy in the 900RR video sounds pretty stoked about it.

    • Kevin

      I was waiting for him to tell me that Guitar Center was having a SALE SALE SALE… or to come check out the bike on SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY…

  • Thomas

    does anyone know if ill be able to swap a shock out of a 12 into my 08? Im guessing ill be able to get a wrecked bike one cheaper than a new ttx soon.

  • knanthrup

    Well told. It’s probably worth mentioning that although peak power of the ’08+ blade is the least of the league, it actually has more midrange than most all of it’s I-4 competitors, and this is where it counts in the real world. It’s just a guess, but I think this will be the generation of Honda that lags a bit, whereas the next varation will be setting the bar again. Just like the ’08 did not that many years ago.

  • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

    Beautiful lead photo. That is the perfect shade of red.

  • filly-fuzz

    I think last years looked waaaaaay better

    • Roman

      I like the ’08 version too, but the HRC colors are pure sex.

  • dux [87 CBR600, 95 XR600R]

    What’s the gas mileage like?

    • Sean Smith

      You don’t buy a literbike for the gas mileage. Depending on your aggressiveness, figure 20-40mpg.

    • Jeromy

      It’s not miles per gallon that matters, rather Smiles per gallon.

  • http://krtong.com KR Tong

    Terrific photography and a terrific read. I can’t tell if that country road is Bolinas/Fairfax rd by Alpine Lake or not, but god is that area fun.

  • Scott-jay

    High quality brakes/suspension/chassis out-of-the box!
    Good readin’, Wes.

  • RocketSled

    It’s a swell review and all, but you didn’t mention the Pillion’s design for, well, tender bits.

    • http://www.twitter.com/wessilerfanclub a hipster (’75 CB750 SS, ’10 Bonneville…….obviously)

      yes he did. He said its a sport bike.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Sorry, didn’t have a vagina available that day.

      • Kevin

        Yeah, never one around when you need it.

  • http://www.faster-faster.com fasterfaster

    I’m incredibly excited to see an OEM focusing on chassis and throttle response above spec sheet racing. It’s a major risk for Honda to take on their flagship and I really really hope the market rewards them. I don’t think it will, unfortunately, in a marketplace dominated by spec-sheet posers (not the die-hards on internet forums, but the yahoos who actually buy most new sportbikes), but maybe it will drive other MFGs to spec better suspension out of the box.

    • Noah

      Maybe it will become known as the gentlemans’ rocketship.

      • The other Joe

        I think BMW already owns that title.

    • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

      I used to think the same about manufacturers who bring out new bikes with obvious focus on handling and less about adding more horsepower.

      BUT – it’s all just marketing spin… I’m sure Honda would have built a brand new mega-power rocketship engine if they’d had the money, but that’s what it comes down to…

      I remember the GSX-R1000 that one year was actually heavier than the previous years model, Suzuki said it was to aid stability, balance, handling etc. But I mean come on, really?? I think Yamaha said the same about the R1 at some stage in the last 3-4 years as well… marketing spin at it’s finest.

      Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe that the new CBR will be a fantastic bike. I just don’t believe that a manufacturer is honestly more about handling over power (they want it all, and who wouldn’t). They’re just trying to do the best they can in tough times, and good on them.

  • nwdothage

    I wish more motorcycle adverts were still that awesome. No leaked spy shots or viral crap. Just a company being proud of a bitchin bike.

  • TuffGong

    It was nice to hear the old “Ride Red”…..

  • http://greatjoballweek.blogspot.com/ Case

    Great article. It answers my questions about the bike and addresses the weakness: no factory tc. I’m still more than a bit chapped about no factory tc because I can buy outstanding suspension parts over the counter. I would prefer for Honda to install a top flight tc system at the factory, because I can’t.

    Red/white/blue colors look fantastic. Glad they finally made it to the states.

    • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

      If you really want to, just add a Bazzaz Z-Fi with TC and quickshift. Plus a nice smooth custom fuel map. That’s what I did – keep me happy with my K6 Gixxer for a while yet!

  • Skank NYCFastest

    Still compete? That all depends on where it’s competing.
    On the roads we ride the CBR1000RR is a joke. The 2011 ZX10R and S1000RR toy with it.
    Midrange HP dont need shit when youre above 9000 PRM all day/night long. But you know this already.

    • gsx750f

      Maybe it’s the fact that I can do it legally here in Germany, but I somehow find going Vmax on a highway or similar pretty unimpressive.
      I do it from time to time, but all it does is eat up gas like crazy, and makes it easier for cagers to kill you.
      With my current bike Vmax is about 145mph, but I’m pretty sure even going 180+mph in a mostly straight line would get old pretty soon.
      Of course you need some ability to be able to handle a bike at fast speeds, but IMO skills really start to matter when corners are involved. And if the Blade handles that better than the Ninja or the S1000RR, that would be much more important to me than the top speed.

      • Skank NYCFastest

        Yes, mostly straight. Well depending on the roads and terrain “we” were given like I stated above, the CBR is not hanging. I own both, both with suspension upgrades. Both bikes handle very good and on them sections where its not mostly straight and you lean to the side at 170+mph and come out on the gas you will notice that extra 25HP. But for the price of the CBR why not get a ZX that comes with TC,ABS and 25 extra HP for a few dollars more? Best bang for the buck, IMO.

        • gsx750f

          You have a good point there. I don’t think I personally could make that much use of the extra 25hp, but TC would be a nice extra for sure.

          • Skank NYCFastest

            I usually do make good points but most people like to read in between the lines. Lol.

            • Archer

              An endorsement for the Kawasaki from a member of your crew is enough to make me raid my 401K and pay cash on the barrelhead… for the Honda. Right. Effin’. Now.

              • Skank NYCFastest

                I glad we have that influence on you. Maybe I should tell you how great the Honda is and you wont have to touch your nest egg.

  • gsx750f

    Great review, thanks a lot!
    I’m interested in the performance of the ABS. Did the ABS ever engage in your test-rides, and was it noticeable (apart from the LED)?
    I’m curious about how usable the ABS (which cannot be disabled) is in the dry.
    I know that Honda put a lot of effort into making the ABS race-ready, but I would imagine it still could make you miss your braking marker if it’s activated by some small bump you would normally just ignore.
    I would love to have ABS for the street, but somehow I would feel better if it was possible to disable it for the track.
    Apparently the winner of the German Superbike Championship 2010 used a Fireblade with C-ABS:
    http://www.honda.co.za/main.aspx?ID=650

    But I read somewhere that he allegedly had 2 bikes without, and 1 with ABS, which he only used in the wet. Don’t know if that’s true though.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Yeah, they’ve been using it on their factory endurance team. On a dry track, it’ll never engage, so you just have a little safety net to fall back on in case you hit debris or it’s damp or whatever.

      It’s not crappy old ABS of old that you can feel pulsing and cycling, it just works really well now, seamlessly.

      • Gene

        Hm, I kinda like having ABS pulse, or at least put on a light. I consider it “you failed at braking and the computer had to save your ass” feedback.

  • http://www.damiengaudet.blogspot.com damien

    I would have a tough time choosing between the red, black, and honda livery…all look so good. I still think this is one of the better looking offerings.

  • Peter88

    The new bike looks awesome. I’ve got an ’04 with 55,000 miles on it. At my current skill level I’m better off thoroughly learning how to adjust my bike’s suspension, getting myself in shape and completing a performance riding school, instead of buying a 2012 model. I should’ve done this already but I’m a relatively new rider and probably older than our resident curmudgeon Thom. BTW, you’re awesome Thom. You have become part of the HFL experience.

  • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

    Trust Honda to keep making bikes that are easy to ride fast… great article. I hope that they keep heading that way (easy to ride fast) with the CBR. Then again I chose a Gixxer because it had that bit of ‘character’. Always a tough decision. But what a decision to have! Haha!

  • http://www.facebook.com/travis.mckenna3 Travis McKenna

    I just got a new 2012 cbr1000rr fireblade and I love it. Can’t wait for spring so I can put some miles on it.