First Ride: 2002 Honda CBR600F

Since the dawn of time - well, since the dawn of modern sports 600s - the CBR600 has sat there on or near the top of the pile, like a very old and wise stegosaurus that's beaten off the velociraptors and sits there, gently chewing the cud

For 2002 we've even got a choice of CBR600 in the F-model and Sport model. The F-model is a bit softer, a bit more comfortable, a bit more podgier round the midriff. The Sport is a little leaner with stiffer suspension, the engine more amenable to race tuning without actually being tuned very much. Of the two, it's the F-model that sells. The Sport version (£300 more) doesn't really register on the sales richter scale. Read into that what you will.

As such, every time you ride  a CBR600 you come off it thinking 'ah, forgotten how good they are. Good, but bland.' Except this time I got off after a few laps at Cadwell spewing. For the first time ever, I didn't get on with the CBR600. It felt too soft in the corners, it didn't like going round the corners in the first place, the engine was weak and the brakes were poo. Er, help! It's a CBR600. It can't be bad. Niall, what's going on?

"As usual, I like it." Ah, thought so. Just me going mad. "Although it did feel a bit soft everywhere, which surprised me. CBR600s have been the same for about 15 years now, always good, always fast, but I was less keen on this example than normal. Felt like a faster version of the Triumph, I felt, like the TT but with more revs and more horspower. I think the chassis was a bit soft, which didn't feel so bad in isolation, but when you got on the Kawasaki or GSX-R, it didn't feel so sharp."

So it's not just me. I called the chaps at Honda UK and they weren't aware of any directive to make the F-bike softer and more of a sports-tourer - thus leaving the S-bike to be an all-out sportster - so I can only surmise that the competition have caught the stegosaur napping and 'ad him for supper. Certainly, the GSX-R600 and Kawasaki 636 are better bikes on the day. "Even after we took off the hero blobs we were still skating around on the footpegs everywhere, and that was down to the soft suspension sitting down in the corners," says Niall. "The ride position felt a bit wrong for a sportsbike, and the pegs were too forward. To be fair to Honda, they now have the CBR600 Sport available as a separate model, and if you're talking about absolute track performance, that's the one to go for." Certainly, any performance deficiences real or imagined were exacerbated by the IMPOSSIBLY dull Death Blue(tm) paintjob. Didn't matter how much sun you pointed at our CBR, it swallowed it up and spat it out in a veil of shadow.

Out on the road, the CBR makes loads of sense. By far the most comfortable, the Honda also exudes a solidity and build quality that the other bikes can only dream of. It's higher-geared than the rest and the power and torque curves are flatter (but no more powerful) than the rest, so riding the CBR is about half as frenetic as riding, say, the Yamaha R6. This makes for a completely different riding experience, and of all the bikes here the Honda is the easiest to ride fast. You just larrup along at whatever speed you chose, and the CBR does all the work for you. Basically, if you'd just jumped the aforementioned R6 and onto a CBR, you'd far die of shock at just how simple the whole process was.

Back at Cadwell with Niall Mac. "I had brake fade on the Honda. After eight laps the lever was coming back to the bar, which isn't what you really want on a trackday." So what's happened to the mighty CBR, then, Macca? "I think the competition has gotten better, to be honest. The CBR has been the benchmark for so long that now the others are getting closer and even over-hauling it. The whole package looked like a normal road bike, didn't look or feel sporty."

On the road, the CBR was as comfortable and as efficient as ever, but without the character or rasp that the new 636 Kawasaki punts out by the bucketload. On the track, the Honda was easily outgunned by the GSX-R. Maybe Honda's evergreen CBR is finally starting to show its age...

Honda CBR600F Specs

Production date: 2002
Price new: £6900
Engine capacity: 599cc
Power: 99bhp @ 12,400rpm
Torque: 43lb/ft @ 10,200rpm   
Weight: 169kg
Seat height: 810mm   
Top speed: 158mph