WAAAAAAAAA... the tacho’s LED bars have completed a full sweep of the left-hand instrument pod, from just over nothing to 11,500rpm, like stringing out an infinitely long piece of chewing gum. Blimey, this motor likes to rev – and there’s no discernible step in power or shape to the torque curve. It just goes. I’m not even sure there is a torque curve; it’s like opening the throttle on a bungee cord.
Smooth yet frantic, outwardly calm but fizzing inside like a shaken bottle of pop, the re-worked 2017 Honda CB650F zaps forward and chews into another Spanish mountain bend, jinking with supernatural steering agility to avoid wandering cyclists, scrabbling into hairpins with the front ABS chattering, generally over-taxing the Showa suspension and squeezing grip from the Thai Dunlops that, truth be told, isn’t really there. For a mid-priced, A2 licence-compatible middleweight, the CB650F doesn’t half like to be ridden like a goon – and it can do it too. And do it exceptionally well.
With all the fuss surrounding the demise of the supersports 600 class – no more CBR600RRs, Suzuki GSX-R600s, Kawasaki ZX-6Rs or Triumph Daytona 675s, and only the heaviest, least powerful, least torquey and most expensive Yamaha R6 ever remaining – you’d be forgiven for assuming no-one wants sporty middleweights any more.
But that’s daft of course; there are plenty of Kawasaki Ninja 650s, Suzuki SV650s and Yamaha MT-07s being sold, not to mention a wealth of Honda CB500s and NC750s.
So it depends on the definition of ‘sporty’ – because it’s the ‘premium race replica’ bit of the middleweight market no-one’s bothered about. They’re too small, cramped, intense and expensive; the traditional idea of a balls-out 600cc sports bike as a step in a motorcycling ‘career’ evaporated when post credit-crunch prices went through the roof, our roads fell apart, and adventure bikes started making 160bhp and handling like sportsbikes – only comfier.
But the manufacturers aren’t daft, and no-one worth talking to ever bought a bike because it was dull. So, obviously, the Japanese have ditched the super-fast, expensive race-rep 600s and, instead, re-located manufacturing somewhere cheaper, like Thailand, de-engineered the bikes down to a keener price-point, aimed them at new riders with A2-licence compatibility, and are hoping no-one remembers how good the previous generation of 600s really were.
And that’s where Honda’s CBR650F and CB650F came in. Introduced in 2014, 650Fs were a ground-up re-write of the previous year’s outgoing CB600 Hornet and CBR600F – new engine, new frame, new styling, new everything. They even had a new country of origin; they were indeed built in Thailand, not Japan.
The CB and CBR650F’s standard, high-revving inline four motor, basic steel-frame, conventionally suspended and braked package contained nothing new or exciting. Honda simply gathered the expertise gained over nearly 30 years building liquid-cooled, 16-valve middleweight fours, and squeezed the cost out.
This year, facing renewed competition from the likes of Kawasaki’s new Z650 parallel twin and Yamaha’s MT-07 (both £6099), and Suzuki’s SV650 (£5699), the CB (£6599) and CBR650F (£7399) get a round of minor improvements. The motor gets four more horsepower from revised, larger intakes and exhaust mods, and remapping – up to 90bhp at 11,000rpm and 47 lb/ft at 8000rpm. The headers are still sideswept, slashed in the style of Honda’s classic CB400/4 of the late 70s. More performance comes from shorter gearing from second to fifth – which gives the CB and CBR a sharper, punchier power delivery, increasing thrust at the rear wheel at the expense of a few more gear changes to keep the motor on the boil; personally, I can live with that. The gearbox is neat and tidy anyway, and it adds to the CB and CBR’s performance-orientated, rev-happy impression.
The suspension has also been updated, with Showa’s new Dual Bending Valve system as first seen on the NC750X last year – it’s basically a two-way rebound and compression valve that allows damping oil to move back and forth rather than a one-way shim stack forcing oil in a circular path. Showa claim more linear damping performance, but if it isn’t also cheaper to make I’ll eat my damper rod. The rear Showa shock is still cantilevered directly from the swingarm, just like CB and CBR600s of yore.