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Honda CBR600RR C-ABS launch test review

Honda’s mostly-under-the-skin revised CBR600RR has one very significant addition for 2009 - an ABS braking system. But can ABS really sit comfortably on a supersport bike?

Click to read: Honda CBR600RR owners reviews, Honda CBR600RR specs and to see the Honda CBR600RR image gallery.

It’s already two years ago since we first laid eyes on the current version of the CBR600RR. By Honda tradition, this means we’re due an upgrade to their popular supersport bike. Normally we’re given a mild facelift, to guarantee the preservation of the value of the outgoing model. So we are treated to different colours, and two very subtle changes to the lines of the fairing. And that’s it for the styling queues. To be honest, it still looks fresh after two years of service, even if the under seat muffler is becoming a bit ‘old school’.

Thumbs up for Honda for treating us to nice colours though, because there’s no dull one, even if the green looks a bit Kawasaki and the white-blue limited edition (only available in the non-ABS version) has a glorious ‘80s edge to it. Under the skin there has been some serious work conducted, but for spectacular news, the ’09 CBR600RR is the wrong place to be.

Thanks to an improved midrange, the new CBR should fire out of corners faster and improve usability on your daily blast to work. Chassis-wise, the monobloc calipers - identical to the ones on the ‘Blade – are the only thing that are new. The frame and suspension remain exactly the same as before. Do you feel disappointed by this lack of innovations? Don’t stop reading. Because the big news is the ABS option now available.

ABS might be a three letter abbreviation that shines by its very absence in the great dictionary of motorsports at the moment, but it’ll soon be written in there. In capital letters. Before the CBR, I - and every sportsbike rider with me – considered ABS as inadequate and totally unnecessary. This test will soon prove me wrong.

First of all, there’s a guy called Andrew Pitt. The reigning world Supersport champion did a couple of laps on the new CBR and when he came in a Honda engineer asked him what he thought about the new ABS. His answer: “What ABS?” Says it all. Honda has accomplished their goal to develop the ultimate ABS. Not to make Pitt and Rea do quicker lap times, but to increase safety on sportsbikes, without letting the sporty potential of the bike suffer.

When I first got word of Honda equipping their supersports with ABS, I had more than a few questions. Will it not increase braking distances? What about the extra weight? And most of all, what about the fun? Will the ABS not cut in too soon, thereby killing the adrenaline rush that comes with riding a bike? “You’ll get an answer to all of these questions when you actually ride it,” is how the Honda representative tried to comfort me.

To add strength to his words, they actually transformed the parking lot of the track into one giant ABS proving ground. The first braking strip on normal, dry tarmac, the second one totally soaked and the third one covered in a nice little layer of sand. Great. Gassing a CBR to over 100 mph to then braking with all you’ve got on a strip of sand is something I’ve been trying to avoid for years. And now I have to. I tighten the chin strap of my helmet and seriously regret signing that responsibility waiver five minutes ago.

The nice warm asphalt of the first brake area in combination with the hot Bridgestone BT-015 appears to be an exceptional situation for a first fierce brake attempt. With the throttle halfway to the stop in third gear, I yank the brake lever with full force. The result is a CBR that sheds speed fast, yet remains perfectly stable during the process. Was that it then? Convinced that my brain has beaten my courage in the quest to brake as hard as I intended, I decide to give it another shot. This time with some serious over acting, Jim Carey style.

The result is the same, but I noticed that the bike automatically engaged the rear brake, without me tapping on the pedal, making the bike even more stable. Magic? No, a first sign of the intelligence of the new C-ABS. The dynamic weight transfer during heavy braking normally results in excessive nose diving of the front, with the rear threatening to lose contact with the road. So you can only add a very limited amount of braking force to the rear tyre and in addition to that, it also has problems staying in line with the front.

The ‘C’ (for Combined) makes sure that when a huge amount of force is applied on the front brake the rear brake is also set to work. The system does what you would ideally do yourself, shortly tapping the rear brake, but in a fraction of the time your brain would need. That lightning fast actuation is what makes the bike so stable, while the rear is doing all the added braking it can manage. Nice, but not really relevant to testing an anti lock brake system.

So off I go to the soaking wet area. Under normal circumstances, you would apply the front brake gently in combination with as much rear brake as possible without locking the rear wheel. Above all, trying to avoid locking and losing the front. All this knowledge I leave behind me when I run up to the strip, praying that the bloody thing will do what it’s supposed to as I hammer down on the front brake. But the inevitable (tarmac) slap in the face doesn’t happen and the bike just slows down.

Do the same with a normal ABS bike and you’d be treated to a whole lot of rattling, vibrating and a substantially longer braking distance. Without ABS you would be on the floor, watching your bike skidding in front of you. But you don’t get either with the C-ABS. It feels as if you’ve been injected with a syringe of Rossi skill, because you’ve just completed the perfect brake manoeuvre. With maximum confidence I head for the mini desert. If the result on the other brake areas is impressive, on the sand it’s no less than divine. It really is that good.

Sportsbikes are not designed to ride in a straight line, so I head off to the track. As a little warm up, Jonathan Rea gives me a guided five lap tour. With a set of preheated Bridgestone BT-003 racing tyres around the three spoke rims, the initial pace already makes me break a sweat. For this first session, I’m trusted with a CBR600RR with its C-ABS disengaged by the Honda engineers (it’s not something you can do yourself since Honda doesn’t see the point).

Why don’t they just let us ride the non ABS version? Let’s just say the 9 extra kilograms over the standard bike has something to do with it. On top of that, the system had to be reprogrammed to suit the higher rear race tyre that was fitted for the track test. Also not a customer possibility, for now at least. By spring this extra will be available, again stressing that Honda are serious about entering it in the world of motorsports.

Session two and the C-ABS is engaged. I’m ready, so are the scrubbed in Bridgestones and the track temperature has mounted to a comfortable 30°. An ideal racing environment, but not really where you need ABS to come to the rescue. I can’t recall the last time that I locked the front, and now I’m supposed to force this to happen? Fortunately, again the system shows its surprisingly efficient side. The Losail track has a couple of corners that need heavy braking and downshifting, normally resulting in some light fishtailing of the rear. But forget about fishtailing or backing it in, it simply doesn’t happen. The bike remains stable, the geometry doesn’t change as dramatically, hence the bike steers more precisely and neutrally when trailing the brakes into the corner.

Leaving the electronics aside, the new monobloc brakes are very good and initial bite is sweet. It takes me until the third session before I dare to surrender myself totally to the electronics and brake later and harder than I normally would. It’s hard to tell if the ABS actually comes to the rescue, but just knowing that it will if necessary gives me a huge confident boost. I’m a fast group track day rider, but no racer. Safe to say though, that for mere mortals like me, the system is not only working between the alloy beams of the frame, but also between the ears.

Luckily, the extra weight is mostly packed around the C of G, making it hardly noticeable, especially with no standard bike in the same continent to compare it to. The extra power between 6,000 and 10,000rpm compensates for the extra weight, so the new CBR is not slower than the old one. On a fast track as this, you only use these kinds of low revs exiting the two slow corners, but you can feel that the Honda is (still) very strong and linear through the rev range. Above 13,500rpm most of the fireworks have exploded, but revving it above 14 grand helps to get you right in the strongest area for the next gear.

The new CBR is, just like the current model, a very easy bike to ride. The changes are anything but major, but the ABS aside, the monobloc calipers are the most important improvement. Whoever opts for the about £800 more expensive C-ABS version will get a 9kg heavier CBR that is equipped with an absolutely stunning safety device. Whether we should be happy about this new development is another question.With each new piece of technology added, the PlayStation feeling of riding a bike is getting frighteningly close…

Honda CBR600RR ABS Specifications

Price: £9,055
Engine: Liquid cooled, 16 valve, inline four, 599cc
Power: 118bhp @ 13,500rpm
Torque: 47ft.lb @ 11,250rpm
Front suspension: 41mm USD fork, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: 310mm discs, four piston calipers
Rear Brake: Single 220mm disc, two piston caliper
Dry weight: 184kg (est)
Seat height: 820mm
Fuel capacity: 18 litres
Top speed: 165mph
Colours: Blue/White/Red, Blue/Blue, Black/Red