First ride: 2017 Honda CBR650F & CB650F review

Honda CBR650F 2017

If you think the sports middleweight is finished, think again...

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.

LED headlights now complement LED tail lights, and the CB650F has a new riding position from flatter, lower bars – around 13mm down on the previous CB650F. It’s an aggressive, front-end-centric riding position for what’s supposed to be a mild-mannered middleweight.

The CBR650F continues with clip-ons above the top yoke – and a pretty skinny, hollowed-out top yoke it is too. The CBR’s riding position is pure sport-tourer; very old-style VFR800. The bars are higher, narrower and way more comfy than the new Ducati SuperSport. But, again, it’s a comfy sportsbike with room to move; just like CBR600s used to be before they got the RR tagged on the end.

The CBR650F also gets some cosmetic changes; smaller side panel scoops show off more of the engine, and bronze-coloured engine cases and covers also highlight the motor.

So what do they go like? Both motors are old-school fast; you rant their cocks off to get them spinning and going fast. They’re hugely more thrashable than either the MT-07, Z650 or SV650 – those bikes are twins and, while they all exhibit a different kind of riding pleasure (including, in the MT-07’s case, a distinct preference for wheelies), none of them will sound or feel quite as nutso as a 650F having its throttle wrung like a stoat’s neck.

Both bikes’ handling is a cut above, too – steering is fabulously rapid, and both sling from side to side like Moto3 machines. The Showa suspension has its limits – charging hard into turns has the forks giving up and handing over responsibility to the brakes’ ABS system. But the 650’s dynamic balance is spot-on and, importantly, they’re easily controllable. But the absurdly shite Dunlop Sportmaxes don’t do the Hondas any favours at all; they’re like being in welder’s gloves when you’re trying to thread a needle. Wearing them out would be the biggest favour you could do either of the 650s.

Both CB’s lack a decent level of equipment – no gear position indicator, the clocks are dull and the weeny screen is unadjustable. But, overall, the Honda 650s are cracking bikes and give lie to the idea the sports 600 class is finished. It’s not; what’s finished is our patience with cramped race replicas. With the CB and CBR650F, it feels a bit like Honda have reset the button on the class and gone back to power and performance levels of the early 1990s – and the riding comfort, too.

Now that’s what I call progress.