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.

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.

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