Kawasaki's 1998 ZX-9R boasted a motor that, quite simply, left the 900RR breathing exhaust fumes. Honda is not used to seeing their machines as also-rans, but in today's ultra-competitive sportbike market, a return to the top doesn't take place with a twitch of the nose or a blink of the eyes.
The landscape has changed so much that Honda can no longer flex their considerable public relations muscles and declare victory by a marketing edict. No, in the 21st Century, dominance must be earned.
Latest and Greatest from Honda: The CBR929RR. (At least until we ride the RC51.) It has taken two years for Honda to fire back (that's about a decade in sportbike years), and they're pretty confident about the fruits of their labor. Underscoring the high stakes and increased competition, Honda's marketing department shifted into sixth gear and before anyone in the two-wheeled press swung a leather-clad leg over the seat of the all-new CBR929RR, Honda was hailing it as the "lightest, best-handling and most responsive open-class production sportbike in the world."
The new-from-the-ground-up CBR929RR is the bike that Honda hopes will carry them to the "pole position" in much the same way the original 900 did back in '92. As such, Honda claims the new 929 "exposes ordinary sportbikes for what they have just become. Ordinary." Sounds like Honda's talkin' the talk but can they walk the walk? That's why we were here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: To find out whether or not the CBR929RR's has enough go to match show.
The new 929 incorporates a number of features that, for its $9,999 price tag, make it a remarkable motorcycle. The bike bristles with advanced bits and pieces everywhere that make this motorcycle a force to be reckoned with, even while parked on the side stand. For example, there are not only bits but literally blocks of titanium and magnesium used to help Honda achieve their goal of making the new CBR the "must-have motorcycle of the new millennium."
"The new 929 incorporates a number of features that, for its $9,999 price tag, make it a remarkable motorcycle."
Just about every engine internal, from camshafts to the crankshafts, lost weight in an effort to prove that indeed, "Light Does Make Right." So what makes the 929 a "must-have?" First, we should ask a question that must be on the minds of many prospective buyers: Why not bore the 929 into a full 1000cc so it's not starting off with a displacement disadvantage? Honda felt the added displacement would make the motor taller and heavier, thereby upsetting the bike's balance, handling and performance, factors that are every bit as important as a impressive dyno chart graph.
According to the Honda mantra, smaller means lighter and, as Large Project Leader Tadao Baba said, "It means that light weight is the right way." Light weight was clearly Honda's number one design priority.
When Honda first introduced their CBR900RR in the spring of 1992, it set new standards for open-class sportbikes. At a claimed 408 pounds dry, not only was the bike 80 pounds lighter than its closest competitor, it was two pounds lighter than the CBR600F2. Honda has pushed the "Light Makes Right" philosophy throughout the CBR900 series' existence with numerous weight-saving, suspension improvements and an increase in displacement that saw the 1999 900RR measuring in at 918cc and about 400 pounds dry.
This combination, at least in America's large-displacement AMA Pro Racing class, has produced stunning results: After winning the AMA's GTO Endurance title by taking five out of twelve rounds in 1993, CBR900s went on to dominate the new Formula Extreme class. See if any of these names sound familiar: Pegram, Stroud, Barnes, Toland (who now works for American Honda in Product Development and PR), Bostrom, Nobles, Hayden, Roberts. All these racers made names for themselves aboard the 900RR, and the trickle-down effect was obvious. Even people who could never in their wildest dreams hope to exploit the bike's full potential felt the need to park one in their garage.
For much of the 1990s, Honda's CBR900RR, along with the Suzuki GSX-R750, was the large-displacement sportbike of choice. Honda claims the new 929cc engine (last year's displacement was 918cc) produces more than 150 hp at 11,500 rpm (22% more ponies), 76 ft-lbs. of torque (up 17%) and weighs in at 379 pounds dry (the 900RR weighed 397). This not only gives the CBR929 a higher horsepower-per-liter rating than any other bike in its class -- approximately 160 hp/1000cc -- but it also weighs less than the Yamaha R1's 385 pound claimed dry weight.
The new motor is fed fuel and oxygen via 40mm throttle-bodies that, with injectors spraying fuel at a rate of 50 psi, should combine with the electronic digital ignition in an effort to provide immediate throttle response in any gear. The injection system features an auto-enrichening circuit that eliminates the need for a manual choke. Part of this induction tract includes a gargantuan ten-liter airbox (last year's was 7.4 liters) and a narrow, 25-degree included valve angle (13-degree intake, 12-degree exhaust) that provides a direct path for the air/fuel mixture into the aluminum composite cylinder sleeves.
The motor is now more over-square with a 74 x 54mm bore and stroke. Combined with an 11.3:1 compression ratio, the new engine is able to rev a safe 500 rpm higher. The new crankshaft is 12% lighter and the new pistons, also weighing 12% less, are now forged instead of cast. Even the camshafts lost weight -- a significant 1.4 pounds for both. Reducing rotating and reciprocating mass provided the added revs and also made the engine faster spinning through the powerband, thus improving the throttle response.
The HTEV (Honda Titanium Exhaust Valve) is routed in the exhaust system and is designed to increase low- and mid-range power without creating more pollutants. The HTEV allows the CBR929 to become CARB 2004 compliant, the first open-class sportbike to meet these standards.
In addition to the Variable Intake/Exhaust Management System (HVIX) -- a flapper valve in the airbox that maintains a constant velocity, variable-volume flow of air to the FI system -- the CBR929RR also features the debut of Honda's HTEV, or Honda Titanium Exhaust Valve, which is similar in theory to the EXUP system found on Yamaha's R1. At engine speeds of less than 7,500 rpm, a specially designed exhaust valve acts as a 360-degree exhaust collector to help boost low- and mid-range power.
In the upper levels of the powerband it turns into a 180-degree collector in an effort to achieve maximum power output while retaining a high-degree of efficiency and rideability. The unit is machined out of titanium and is, all by itself, a beautiful work of craftsmanship.
Sticky, Stiff Stuff Or: 16.5-inch Wheels R.I.P. Just because Honda mentions phrases like "engine also acts as a stressed member of the chassis," "pivotless frame" and "tuned-flex design" in the same breath, don't fret about upsetting the chassis by fitting sticky race-tires on the new 929. (Remember Honda's warnings about the VTR chassis?). This motorcycle was made for sticky tires, hence Michelin's awesome Pilot Sport radials wrapping around new 17-inch rims (Hurrah!) as stock equipment.
The all-new engine also acts as a stressed member of the chassis, and the all-new, twin-spar aluminum frame features a pivotless frame design that Honda has used on the VTR1000 Super Hawk and the VFR800 Interceptor. The frame itself is totally a new, twin-spar, triple-box-section extruded aluminum unit welded to large castings at the steering head and rear suspension mounting point.
The swingarm mounts directly to the back of the engine cases. The powerful 929 engine created the need for a massive cast aluminum bracket below and between the swingarm pivots in order to increase chassis rigidity. All this is supposed to offer an "exceptionally light, tuned-flex design," that offers excellent rider feedback.
A cast aluminum bracket below and between swingarm pivots allowed Honda to use pivotless technology on an inline four-cylinder machine while at the same time decreasing weight and increasing overall frame rigidity.
Even though the new frame weighs 2.3-pounds less, with the engine bolted in place it is now 13% stiffer. And, because of the motor's shorter crankcases (front to rear), the motor is now situated farther forward in the frame to place more weight on the front wheel. This allowed engineers to utilize knowledge garnered from 500 GP racing and run a 21mm longer swingarm to improve suspension action.
The whole package is suspended by fully-adjustable Showa units both front and rear. The rear mono-shock utilizes Honda's Pro Link® linkage with a revised ratio, and the shock body now features a piggy-back reservoir that weighs 12.5-ounces less than previous remote-reservoir unit. Inverted telescopic front forks are a first for an open-class Honda street bike. The rear shock supplies 135mm of up and down wheel travel and mates with the 110mm of travel provided by the new forks.
Inverted front forks -- the first on a Honda open-class sportbike. The new 43mm Showas weight 2.6 pounds less than the 900RR's. Even better, a 17-inch wheel is found in between. Woo-Hoo!
The brakes check in with two 330mm disks up front (20mm larger) and utilize aluminum pin fasteners that save 4.5-ounces of unsprung mass. One 220mm disk resides on the rear. The rotors mount on new 17-inch rims with a 0.5-inch wider rim out back holding tight to a 190/70-17 tire. A standard 120/70-17 tire mounted to the front. The rotors are squeezed by a four-piston caliper up front and a single-piston unit out back.
With so many performance-oriented changes, don't think Honda left the 929 looking plain-wrapped, either. The all-new bodywork features a three-headlight, side-by-side design, a narrow-profile fuel tank (still retaining a 4.8 gallon capacity) and a one-piece tail section wrapped around a removable rear subframe.
Track Day: The Las Vegas Motor Speedway
As small drops of rain fell on our car en route to the track, we envisioned cool two-wheeled drifts followed by not-so-cool airborne antics straight into a concrete wall then two months of rehab while being fed strained peas intravenously. Will the sun come out? We'd pay down to our last dollar for just a few hours of sunshine to allow a decent surface on which to thrash Honda's latest and greatest.
About one hour later, the sun broke through the clouds and, despite chilly temps that hovered in the low-fifties, we were ready to ride. But, wait! There were 20-something riders and only seven 929s. This meant that three groups of riders would venture onto the track for only 30-minutes at a time with an hour of downtime between each session. Yuck. Even the two, one-year-old CBR900s Honda brought along for back-to-back comparisons in our downtime could only satiate so much nervous energy.
Once we watched the first group proceed onto the Las Vegas Speedway's tarmac (we were in the second group), all we could do was compartmentalize our frustrations and, instead, wait on the pit wall, drooling. When our turn came we didn't hesitate, and after only a handful of warm-up laps, we put our heads down and set about the business of turning in fast laps, taking note of what the new Honda did beneath us.
In the morning sessions, the stock Michelin Pilot Sports let us grind away fairly easily at the short footpeg feelers. For the afternoon session Honda removed the footpeg feelers and shod the 929 with the stickier Pilot Race tires and soon the fastest began to grind away at the footpegs themselves. This 929 stayed planted even while leaned extremely far over.
"The new 929 accelerates smoothly out of the bend and onto the next straightaway as cleanly as any bike we've ever ridden."
Erion Racing's Josh Hayes, who was on hand after completing a photo shoot a day earlier, told us that he ground down the left-side clutch cover through turn five at Laguna Seca with nothing other than a set of race slicks mounted on a stock bike. Josh is a nice kid and he may be embellishing a bit for the team, but after we achieved incredible lean angles even our cynical selves thought that it's possible Josh Hayes wasn't exaggerating.
No matter what, the new bike, it turns out, is very well sorted. The motor feels super smooth and the throttle response is, perhaps, the best we've ever experienced on a fuel-injected bike. Where many fuel-injected bikes -- and a few poorly carbureted ones -- transition roughly when opening the throttle mid-corner, causing the chassis to become unsettled, the new 929 accelerates smoothly out of the bend and onto the next straightaway as cleanly as any bike we've ever ridden. No muss, no fuss.
Coming off the corners it felt as though the Honda might not have quite as much power as the R1, but it does rev rather nicely and the extra power is appreciated on corner exits and down the straights.
We couldn't discern any real hit or peak in the powerband -- just a well spread out band of power readily available whenever we twisted the throttle. The smooth motor is very easy to control and never surprises you with a wicked hit when you least expect it. Then again, a little bit of that unpredictable character is what makes so many hyper-bikes fun to ride.
The 929 is so smooth and well-behaved that some might think it's too refined. This is a common, although picky enthusiast-press compliant about Honda sportbikes in general. A little bit of character wouldn't be bad, would it? Of course not. Just remember that a few sportbike journalists are frustrated racers with healthy egos, and it's often a testosterone thing -- who can tame the wild beast. This isn't to say that the criticism isn't necessarily valid. Just keep in mind the critics.
Needless to say, because of the high speeds we carried down the straights, we uncovered the 929's only significant flaw: the front brakes. They lack initial bite and don't start really slowing things down until well into the travel. We prefer something a bit more linear where two-percent more pressure equals two-percent more friction on the rotors. That's not the case here. Still, this is not to say the brakes are weak; they are not, although the rear brake was useless since while hard-braking into the corner it barely touched the track surface, if at all. The best approach was to just use a healthy amount of front brake and downshift smoothly into the next lower gear to minimize chassis pitch and keep things settled before bending the bike into the now not-quite-so-rapidly approaching turn.
While in the corner the new 929's chassis proved remarkably solid. After one particularly long straightaway, there was a tight second-gear left with a few bumps at the exit and, to compound things, the track fell away from the bike, providing an off-camber challenge to negotiate as well. The Showas sucked up the irregularities and the chassis never lost its composure.
The 929 stayed well-planted and, after opening up the throttle through the exit, when the rear wheel drifted, it did so completely in control. The 929 was very predictable, never once gave us a reason to make a mess inside our leathers.
The gearbox was smooth-shifting and allowed the flexibility to keep the motor singing where it made the most power. The gearing is excellent with no gaps, and we never missed a cog during either up or downshifts despite a few frenzied moments that were due to our lack of talent more than any shortcoming on the bike.
Taken as a complete package, Honda did their homework with the CBR929RR. They've made a motorcycle that feels, upon first impression, like a machine that sets the bar pretty high. But has the 929 set the bar higher than its competition?
Without back-to-back comparisons with the other open-classers, we can't yet say for certain whether or not this new CBR929RR will surpass the likes of the Kawasaki's ZX-9R, the Yamaha YZF-R1, or even the Ducati 996, which is often thrown into the liter-bike wars despite it's V-Twin disadvantage. Heck, we're not even sure if any of the aforementioned motorcycles surpasses Honda's new RC51.
What we can say with certainty, however, is that the new Honda CBR929RR is a well-designed and manufactured motorcycle, one that seems to meet all Honda's design goals. It'll be a close match, for sure; but there's no doubt that the new CBR929 will be in the hunt for top honors up to the very end.