Honda doesn’t do quirky on its sportsbikes without a very good reason. Niall puts Honda's new superbike through its paces
When the Blade was first launched in 1992, original designer Baba-san’s philosophy was to build an uncomplicated motorcycle with sharp handling and a good power to weight ratio. Recently the other three Japanese manufacturers have introduced the likes of traction control, variable intake systems and a choice of engine maps, but Honda has chosen to keep things simple by revisiting and improving on their original concept. Its main focus has been on weight loss, mass centralisation and cleaner contours, which now transfer into a stubby look for the fairing and a very slim feel once on board. All sports bikes seem to be shrinking and the Fireblade is no exception as it appears (especially from the front), to be morphing into a CBR 125 both in size and looks.
All the bikes on the launch were shod in the conservative Candy Glory Red, which to me says ‘sensible and touring’ so it would be my least favorite colour. The other options are Graphite Black and Winning Red (isn’t that a bit premature), but my choice would only be the stunning Pearl White.
The minimalist front and rear looks blend well with the chunky middle section, which now houses a four-into-one exhaust exiting under the engine. The silencer is cleverly disguised to look like the belly pan, which is fine, but the Microns and Scorpions of this world will have to work hard on this when it comes to making good looking aftermarket product. The race bike with a factory exhaust on display looked fine but it had a fairing fitted with an odd full-length bottom cowl.
Incidentally, the HRC kitted race version will be available to customers from February and can include a 23% power increase from standard. Up top the new design dash might not be as cute as the Yamaha R1 but the big analogue tacho and digital Speedo does a more than adequate job.
At last November’s NEC show I asked quite a few visitors to our stand what they thought of the new Blade as this was the first time it had been shown in public in the UK. I found a very mixed reaction. The die hard Honda fans couldn’t wait to get their hands on one where as other potential buyers were undecided as some didn’t like the colours, stubby looks or even the new plastic tank badge. One Geordie couple I met said he had seriously considered the 2008 model but after his wife tried the pillion seat (her rump was of ample size) said it was way too small.
Heading out the pit lane at the Losail circuit in Qatar and my first impression was once again the Blade had a pretty perfect riding position with everything in just the right place, at least it was for my 11 stone, 5’8” frame. Next to grab my attention was the all-new engine, which has a much more raspy sound and feel than before down to lighter and longer pistons, shorter titanium valves and larger intakes and air box.
So out onto the track and this was when I really began to get excited. The reason for my excitement was that not two months ago I shared a beer with Neil Hodgson, who is about to embark on another season in the American AMA Championship on the new Fireblade. Neil had recently been doing some back to back comparisons with standard ‘07 and ‘08 CBRs and had told me the difference was astounding. Since that moment I had it in my head that the new bike had taken a huge leap forward and I would be blown away with a Fireblade that had just raised the bar for 1000cc sports bikes. Unfortunately the weeks of anticipation must have manifested into some unrealistic expectation because after just half a lap it was clear that while I was on board a very capable motorcycle, the word ‘special’ just wasn’t popping into my mind.
Let me explain. As with the outgoing model, power delivery is very linear but the motor now has a 5bhp increase plus an extra 500rpm taking the shift light and redline to 13,000rpm. Journos that had recently been to Losail on the 2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R launch said the Kawasaki pulled your arms off compared to the Blade, which makes sense as Kawasaki is claiming a maximum power output of 200bhp (with ram air.) This certainly wasn’t my experience with the new Fireblade as there is never any rush of power. However there is also no lack of top speed as I saw 175mph on my speedo - before Ron Haslam trumped me with 185mph on his! I can only put this down to better aerodynamics on the old side burns. Talking about the motor I feel I have to emphasize the word linear as there is no hesitation or flat spot in the power delivery, no matter of where you are with revs or gears. It feels like an electric turbine from 2,000 to 13,000rpm but the new gearbox didn’t seem to have the normal Honda slickness when shifting as I had to roll the throttle more than normal when doing clutch less changes. The cassette-type box on the old model has been dropped to reduce both cost and bulk. Let’s face it, none of us ever really needed to change gearbox ratios for the Sunday run up the Cat and Fiddle, but slickness is still needed Honda.
Back on the positives and the new two stage ‘assisted’ slipper clutch has to be the best I’ve tested so far. The light lever feel and smooth slipper action means you get just the right amount of engine braking at every corner, the result being rear end hopping and juddering is totally eliminated. As for on the road, unless you happen to backshift from 80mph to 1st gear by mistake, you’ll never know you own one.
The Losail circuit is flat, fast and flowing with around six high-speed direction changes and three multi apex corners. From memory the last model Blade that I rode here two years ago worked well but the latest one is much more nimble and easier to ride. Changing direction and stopping now involves much less physical effort and I felt a lot less tired considering the hot conditions were pretty much identical to my last trip. Overall the handling was noticeably sharper over the whole lap and there is even a tad more protection with a higher screen.
The harder I pushed the better the bike began to feel, but I have to say this Losail circuit isn’t the best for rider feedback. Being built in the middle of a desert it is totally featureless and should you wander a foot off-line grip is significantly reduced due to a fine dusting of sand. During the morning sessions we used standard Bridgestone BT015s, which did nothing untoward but gave very little feel at the front end. This vague front-end feeling improved as the track warmed up, but as this happened the rear became more inclined to spin-up exiting slower corners. Initially it started at maximum angle, just as I cracked the throttle back open, and although controllable continued to spin until I changed up. All good fun, but without all-important forward motion should you be chasing a lap time.
Unlike the other Japanese manufacturers Honda has chosen to keep suspension adjustments simple so only provide spring pre-load, compression and rebound front rather than add low and high-speed compression adjustment. Honda’s suspensions settings were quite specific for the Losail circuit but as a general rule of thumb, for track riding I would increase pre-load, compression and rebound mid way between the standard and maximum settings.
For the afternoon sessions Bridgestone BT002s were fitted and even on the first lap out I could feel the bike wanted to turn in quicker and then went on to stay planted through all of the same turns that I had rear end problems with earlier. I could still get the rear to break traction, but it would immediately hook up again as I got on to a fatter part of the tyre. I asked Leon Haslam, Cal Crutchlow and Jonny Rea and they all agreed with me and said once lapping fast in a rhythm, tyre movement was very minimal. To go to the next level I reckon another step stiffer with the suspension would help, as with more grip came more weight transfer, although mostly under acceleration. The other side-effect of better grip is more angle and the usual Honda foot peg hero blobs were touching down at every opportunity.
Honda are now onto the second generation of their electronic steering damper which is now lighter and out of sight under the tank. I didn’t suffer any tank slappers but headshake wasn’t totally eliminated as I had a few wobbly moments while changing direction under acceleration, not great but hard to really fault.
One thing I couldn’t fault, however, is the stopping power as the new lighter mono-bloc calipers are fantastic. They stayed consistent in the boiling conditions and were most impressive at the end of the long start finish straight where I was braking from 175mph to the next 50mph right hander with two fingers and plenty more in reserve. Excellent.
In summary I have to say Honda has achieved its target of improving performance and handling without the use of any high tech gismos or gimmicks. I have no doubt success beckons on the race track, however a thick cheque book will be required as HRC kit parts don’t come cheap. As for the showroom model, bland is perhaps too strong a word but once again Honda has chosen to build a 1,000cc sports bike that does everything it says on the box. Unfortunately that also means it has no real edge. The ‘back to basics’ approach is admirable but I’d like Honda to make its flagship superbike more exciting using the considerable resources they have available. If we can’t have a wild power rush then maybe we do need some fancy electronics to sex things up. The 1992 Blade was a fantastic ground-breaking bike but in 2008 customers want performance, handling, looks and also technology. Honda claims its new Blade will appeal to everyone but with no real wow factor we will have to wait and see.
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