2011 Honda Sabre Review

A big dose of blue from Big Red


After filtering to the front of traffic, I come to a stop and wait for the light to turn green. I flick the shifter into neutral and rest my hands patiently in my lap. Meanwhile, a lady crosses the road. Her age was difficult to decipher but she could have easily been old enough to be my mother. Maybe even my grandmother. As she crossed, the bright blue menacing figure of my Honda Sabre caught her eye. She paused as she approached, looked me up and down and said, “Nice bike.” I nodded and she continued on her way. “You really do meet the nicest people on a Honda,” I thought.

Why do I bring this up? Because if Honda’s intention with the pro-street-styled Sabre was to intimidate, then it would seem as if it missed the mark. However, there’s no denying that the Sabre — now with a color-matched frame for 2011 — is hard not to look at. Together with all the blue, the presence of chrome hits your eyes like a one-two punch. The centerpiece, of course, being the 1312cc, 52-degree, liquid-cooled V-Twin at the heart of it all. Honda fans may be familiar with this engine as it’s the same unit that powers the slightly more aggressively styled Fury.

2011 Honda Sabre

Family Ties

The Sabre is part of a trio of Honda Customs which also includes the Stateline and Interstate, all of which share the same engine. While the Stateline is the muscle-cruiser of the bunch and the Interstate the tourer, think of the Sabre as the boulevard bruiser. Its minimalist styling, 33-degree rake, long wheelbase, 21-inch front wheel and low ride height all add a bit of personality that, during our testing, attracted attention wherever we went. Although, amongst our testers, that attention wasn’t always flattering. With its plastic fenders, body panels and various chrome-plated plastic engine covers, T-Rod noted the “plasticized look” makes it feel like an “industrial-sized toy purchased from the 99-cent store.”

Plastic aside, we all agreed that the Sabre’s flowing lines are attractive. Another thing we noticed was a lack of branding on the motorcycle. Nowhere on the (beautifully formed) fuel tank do we see any clue as to what kind of steed this is. The only giveaways are small Honda logos on the body panels just below the seat and a sticker on the rear fender, cleverly placed on top of the paint’s clear coat so those who prefer the stealth look can easily remove it.

2011 Honda Sabre

Other styling cues we liked include the integration of the shaft drive into the swingarm design. If we didn’t know better, we’d be looking all over trying to figure out how the power reached the ground. Also, the placement of the speedometer high atop the fuel tank in its chrome nacelle delivers a clutter-free and classy view from the cockpit.

On the Prowl

2011 Honda Sabre

Saddling up on the Sabre, a couple things stand out: unless you’re abnormally short, you won’t have any problem reaching the ground. With the seat a scant 26.9 inches off the ground, planting both feet firmly on terra firma won’t be a concern for the vast majority of riders. The other thing we noticed is just how far away the front tire feels from the rider’s perspective. Indeed, the 70.0-inch wheelbase and 33-degree rake definitely inspire leisurely strolls as opposed to spirited runs, and when first getting acquainted with the Sabre, adjusting to the slow steering and long wheelbase took some getting used to.

What didn’t take any getting used to is the lovely sounding, 1312cc, 52-degree V-Twin. At idle it rumbles with a distinct note that just feels right when riding a cruiser. “The Sabre’s exhaust system sounds appropriately burly, emitting a baritone bark that could fool many into thinking it’s a Harley,” says Kevin. The best part is that, while it sounds great from the rider’s perspective, it isn’t overly offensive to the innocent bystander. What is offensive is the airbox cover that juts out ever so slightly past our liking. All our test riders bumped our knees against it during our time with the bike.

Otherwise, forward propulsion feels pretty stout from the Twin — to the tune of 71.2 ft.-lbs at 3200 rpm. However, rowing through the five-speed gearbox is necessary to keep the Sabre in its sweet spot, as horsepower, all 53.9 of it, peaks at just at 4200 rpm before flattening off prior to its low 5100-rpm rev limit. Thankfully, the transmission shifts with typical Honda smoothness.

As part of the pro-street look, the Sabre’s controls are far forward from the centerline of the bike, placing the rider in the “hunched over” position typical of many cruisers. However, most of our staffers didn’t have a problem with the forward reach to the bars and pegs. It felt a bit too stretched out for my tastes, but not unbearably so.

2011 Honda Sabre

Despite the fact that a bike like this is better off ridden slowly — you know, to attract attention — the Sabre actually cruises fairly well at highway speeds. Without any sort of wind protection, the seating position can create a sail out of the rider, but that effect is minimal while traveling 80 mph on the Sabre. The saddle cradles the rider to prevent the wind from scooting them back, while the headlight and relatively high-arching fuel tank do a decent job of deflecting the wind.

Slowing the Sabre is a large 336mm disc mated to a twin-piston caliper. It’s a tall order expecting a single disc to stop a 659-pound motorcycle, but the unit here does a respectable job of it. Kevin felt as though they could have clamped down a little harder, but then again, “One doesn’t buy a bike like this for awesome front brakes,” he noted. Ask the rear 296mm disc and single-piston caliper to help out and the Sabre comes to a stop rather quickly.

Oddly, we found the levers of the Sabre to be too thin. While otherwise judged as being normal on any other category of motorcycle, “Cruiser motorcycles don’t feel right without robust levers,” stomped T-Rod in his notes.

2011 Honda Sabre

Suspenders consist of a 41mm conventional fork in front and a cleverly hidden shock in the rear. And while sufficient enough for general cruising duty, the modest suspension travel in the rear (3.9 inches) wasn’t quite enough to soak up harsh bumps. With the skinny, 90-series front tire, one might think the Sabre follows every groove on the road. Thankfully, that’s not the case, though occasionally larger ruts would attract the front tire’s attention. A simple tug on the bars gets it back on track.

Just for kicks, we decided to ride the Sabre completely out of its element and headed for the twisties. With such low ground clearance, hard parts scrape the floor at moderate lean angles, though it’s not worse than typical cruisers. Turn-in is rather slow, as we’ve alluded to with the long wheelbase, but once leaned over it’s quite stable on its side. That is, of course, until encountering any kind of road imperfection. The front damper-rod fork is “unsophisticated and sometimes harsh over bigger bumps,” says Kevin, while again, the short-travel rear suspension is quick to bottom-out. But really, if you’re looking at the Sabre with sportbike aspirations in mind, then perhaps you need to reevaluate.

American Style... From Japan

Besides the lack of suspension travel, we only have a few minor gripes. First, as useful as the mirrors are on the Sabre, they look dated and clash with the overall flow of the bike. Surely Honda can design more aggressive and appropriate mirrors to complement the rest of this high-style machine. Similarly, the turnsignal lenses also appear like they were pulled from a bucket of lenses purchased during the Reagan administration. The customizer might scoff at the fact that much of the Sabre is plastic, and that the fuel tank seam isn’t rolled over, but Honda’s banking that the majority of buyers looking at the Sabre won’t care. Besides, the plastic helps it meet the $11,899 price point.

“In terms of shapes, the Sabre is absolutely beautiful,” Duke comments. “But its plastic fenders and plasti-chrome brightwork diminish its appeal to hardcore bikers.”

2011 Honda Sabre

Despite the abundance of plastic, our contact at Honda tells us that sales of the Sabre (and by extension, the Fury) are “strong,” which is more than can be said about recent sportbike sales numbers.

We think that, as a styling exercise, the Sabre hits all the right buttons, leading Pete to note that it “appears far costlier than it is” and that non-enthusiasts would think it came straight from a bike-building reality-TV show.

Available only in Ultra Blue Metallic, the Sabre is a fine choice for someone craving the custom look without the custom price.

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