First Ride: 2003 Honda Hornet CB600F

After the new CBR600RR, the Hornet 600 could be the most important bike Honda bring into the UK this year. And they've just revamped it. Has Honda got it right?

Click to read: Honda Hornet CB600F owners reviews, Honda Hornet CB600F specs and to see the Honda Hornet CB600F image gallery.

CAN'T SAY I'VE been testing many bikes recently having spent the last few years polishing the arse of a business suit. Still I reckon that qualifies me perfectly to bring you fresh impressions of a new model Hornet 600, the bike that has launched a thousand biking careers and no doubt revived as many.
The Hornet was launched in 1998 and since then has sold a significant 9,000 units in the UK. Compare that with the perennial class-leading Honda CBR600F which has done 17,500 units over the same period.

The beauty of the Hornet for Honda is that it's tapped into that new/born again biker market by providing an exciting bike which doesn't scare its rider or wind up the the wife (as in: "you're not having one of those it looks dangerous, etc"). On the contrary, many wives/women have been buying them too, thanks to a low seat height and a power delivery that raises an eyebrow but not quite a front wheel.

Cocking a leg over the Hornet in Sicily for the first time did feel a bit odd - like the tyres were flat or I'd grown another few inches in the night (that got the wife's attention...). The seat is low. That said, half an hour later, it felt entirely normal and the riding position natural and comfortable. At 5ft 11in, I'm not sure however, if I looked a bit gawky on it, but hey, who cares about that?

But to the shorter-arsed among us seat height is literally the first hurdle. If you can't touch the floor your confidence is undermined before you've even hit the starter. So Honda has doubled its potential market by the simple expedient of building the bike nearer to the deck. Er, genius.

And perhaps even more cleverly, in the UK Honda instigated the Hornet Cup, a novice race class which added some real capital to the sporting credentials of the bike. And besides that, the bike sells because it's good. So sensibly, the 2003 Hornet hasn't been altered radically, but a few niggles have been addressed and a few improvements made. Having said that, the changes read more like a 10,000 mile service report than a model revision. I'll keep it brief if you promise to stay with me.

The tank and seat cowl are slightly altered to give it more aggressive lines and to allow a needed extra litre of gas to be squeezed into the tank. The exhaust is a new stainless 4-2-1 which lowers emissions and looks snazzier. The engine itself has been improved in its combustion efficiency, for example - it says here - the intake ports feature a slightly narrower shape that improves transient linearity. Which is fine for everyone except Buddhists. Honda say the most significant change to the engine is in the carbs (oh come on, nearly there) which feature er, a solenoid or something. Anyway, the sum effect is to make it pick up a bit quicker and delay the arrival of the next Ice Age by a couple of minutes.

Ah - you'll like this. The headlight now lights up 70% more road than the previous model. This is thanks to a computer-designed free-form multi-reflector interior surface and some brighter bulbs. Top! This means you can go 70% faster in the dark, which is always a good thing.

Honda CB600F Hornet first ride

One real moan thrown at the old model was about the suspension which was deemed soft by everyone but Kate Moss. They've stiffened the springs and revised the damping rates front and rear to accommodate the more normal sized among us and those who enjoy a 'spirited' ride. One or two of the porkier journalists on the launch were still moaning, though I thought the suspension worked well over the interesting and sometimes challenging topography of the Sicilian roads where we tested the bike.
Now these are all essential little tweaks to keep a model selling shed-loads for another few years and we can be thankful for that. And if you already own a Hornet, those tweaks are probably quite significant but not so much that you need to trade in for a new one. But just enough to make you feel slightly crap about your bike.

As already described, it's not a big bike and certainly isn't intimidating in any way. The motor takes its time to get interesting, the real power coming in way up the rev range. That said, it's always willing to go, if you're prepared to diddle the gear lever once or twice. So you can ride it in two modes, or build up to the hard action scene at your own pace. And it'll perform the hard action scene quite readily, the whole experience being heightened by the wind blasting in your mush. That's something which discourages prolonged high-speed hooning, so if your regular riding life involves some fast motorway, or a summer holiday at the end of an autoroute, perhaps you might want to re-think. Or buy the half-faired version.

A day on the twisting Sicilian roads was great fun, the only thing to spoil it was er, the Sicilian roads which had been freshly polished just before we arrived. We were sliding all over the place. The following day's experience on the CB1300 was fine, so I'd point at the tyres, Michelin Macadams, as being less capable than the bigger bike's Bridgestones  in this environment. We rode all kinds of roads from twisty country lanes to motorways to clogged streets. The Hornet does it all well as long as it's in short measure. We went for it on occasion, the sporty nature of the bike showing it to be a quick steerer which could hold a tight line and even tighten on that if you wanted. There was no hint of instability, showing the suspension improvements to be worthwhile. A small whinge I'd make is that the slightly more 'forward' riding position which the new bike has, lodged me in place and buggered up my racer-style posturing as I tried to move my weight around. It wasn't my only whinge.

Rather impolitely I brought up the delicate subject of vibration with Mr Hara, Naked Series Project Leader (oh c'mon, grow up).

Hara-san directed me, quite legitimately, to the intended use of the bike which is mainly commuting, town work and the odd Sunday morning blast in the countryside. The vibration is noticeable at 8000+rpm - and very noticeable as it gets you right in the 'nads and er, inner thighs. I didn't go into such detail with Mr Hara as a matter of respect, but personally I found this rather ticklish in an irritating way. I can't speak for others and it would be crass of me to suggest this and not the low seat height has had anything to do with the Hornet's sales success with the other gender. But if you see someone holding a Hornet at a steady 70mph on the motorway in third gear, well, odds-on it's a bird. Anyway simply ripping up and down through the revs and not holding it steady at 8000+rpm disguises such 'unpleasant' traits, as indicated by Mr Hara. Fair do's.

The day's riding ended with an hour's mad trickle (mad trickle?) through Palermo's gridlocked and even more highly-buffed streets back to our poorly located but superbly appointed hotel. The Hornet's brilliant in heavy traffic - responsive, manoeuvrable and always first away from the lights.

The bottom line is, Honda has done the right thing and the Hornet is slightly better than ever. If it ain't broke, don't fix it - just give it a 10,000 mile service.

1998 Honda launch CBR600F-powered naked bike, the Hornet. Built in Italy. Slow to c atch on but soon becomes big seller, with 60,000 sold in last three years in Europe.


Suzuki Bandit GSF600 £4,099 is a price that's pretty hard for the Hornet to compete with. That said it loses to the Hornet in sophistication and performance.

Yamaha Fazer 600 £5099 makes it a toss-up on price though it has the old model Hornet marginally beaten on performance.

Ducati Monster 620 £5,000. Italian twin alternative to the fours. Not the same performance, but has a certain style

2003 Honda Hornet Specifications

Price new £5069
Engine capacity 600cc
Power 95bhp@12,000rpm
Torque 47lb.ft@9500rpm   
Weight 178kg   
Fuel capacity 17L
Top speed 135mph