Year 2000 Honda RC-51 Street Ride

... but can it go 55?


Los Angeles, April 4, 2000 -- There may not have been a better venue for which to display the peg-scraping prowess of Honda's new RC-51 super-twin than at the Laguna Seca International Raceway. Honda's design team made race track dominance a priority and allowed the new CBR 929 RR to take the role of the more street-oriented sibling.

Irregardless of how phenomenal the RC-51's track manners may be, the majority will end up in the garages of enthusiasts who aren't necessarily racers. After all, even though the 929 looks poised to be a better all-around street bike, who doesn't want to wake up Sunday mornings and pretend they're Nicky and Colin?

In a remarkably short period of time we've seen Honda take the RC-51 from crate-to-race-track and, in its AMA debut, finish in second place at Daytona by mere tenths of a second after 200 miles of racing.

Then, just this past weekend, Colin Edwards rode his RC-51 (VTR1000SP) to a first and a second place finish in the bikes WSBK debut at Kyalami. Granted, some of the credit goes to the riders, but even Suzuki, with their talented riders, could only muster one podium finish after one year on the AMA Superbike circuit with their TL 1000R V-twin. Honda has, so far, landed on the podium three times in three races.

When a manufacturer infuses a motorcycle with the sort of characteristics that allow it to be such a force on race tracks, the bike in question is often a uncompromising pain-in-the-ass on the road, particularly for everyday use. Hondas are regarded generally as motorcycles that work well on both the track and street, but when they talked of racetrack domination with such focus, we began to worry about whether or not the new RC-51 would be any good on the street.

White Lines and Road Signs

To get the bad stuff out of the way, we feel that the RC-51 is not the visually stunning masterpiece we hoped for. Yes, it looks racy and every picture we see of it makes us drool, but in person it just doesn't look as sexy. The Ducati 748, for instance, evokes deep emotions even while it sits on its side stand and, when parked next to the RC-51, it leaves the Honda looking, well, a bit more generic.

Fortunately, when we rode the bike, it was sexy again. The RC-51 feels significantly more high-dollar than its $9,999 USD price tag would suggest. From the moment you pull in the clutch and click into the first of six gears, you feel the refinement that has gone into every piece of this machine.

Immediately after receiving our RC-51, the bike was taken for a brief ride to warm it up and then placed on our Dynojet model 250 dyno. Sure, looks and racetrack performance count, but the first question we are usually asked is "how fast will she go?"

"Our test bike made 123.5 hp and 72.8 ft-lbs of torque at the rear wheel and will wheelie into the triple digits if you have the cojones to twist the throttle wide-open and keep it pinned."

On the track, the power of this twin made its way to the ground smoothly and seamlessly while providing just enough of the vibes common to V-twin motors to keep things in character without too much harshness. On the road, the vibes are thick below 5,500 rpm, but we accepted the vibes as part of the V-twin experience, at least as long as they didn't get too severe. Once the revs climbed above 6,300 rpm, however, the motor spun so smoothly that we wondered if Honda added a counterbalancer.

On the freeway, sixth gear feels like an overdrive since it keeps the revs so low, and we often rode in fifth gear unless cruising around 75 mph. When shifting between the gears, the transmission surprised us. Many big twins have a tendency to shift with a clunk and, although there is a bit of a thud when shifting from first to second, the change of gears was positive and smooth. Clutch operation is also smooth and it feels like it can withstand a lot of abuse.

The only negative comment about the gearbox was clutch chatter while pulling away from a stop on one particularly cold morning. However, once the bike was warmed to a proper operating temperature, the clatter disappeared.

The spacing of the transmission that worked so well on the track (taller first and fourth gears compared to the VTR 996 Superhawk) worked equally as well on the street. Our main concern was that the taller first gear would necessitate slipping the clutch to pull away cleanly from a stop, but this proved to be an unwarranted concern since the RC-51 has so much power down low.

On tight back roads, where we expected the tall first gear to be a problem, we actually preferred this setup to the traditionally shorter first gear. Instead of having to decide between a too short first gear and a too tall second gear, the RC-51's first gear was perfect for tight bends.

If you're used to riding a high-revving inline four, this bike might take a bit of getting used to because of the lower revs and the prodigious amounts of torque which find their way to the rear Dunlop. Where a rider on a four-cylinder bike would have to keep the revs up to get a good drive out of a corner, an RC-51 pilot has far less to worry about, and a twist of the throttle anywhere above 5,000 rpm will be rewarded with brisk acceleration all the way to redline.

Though the dyno chart doesn't really represent it, we felt a noticeable "hit" in the power at around 6,300 rpm which, in an otherwise flat power curve, adds a little bit of personality. The motor revs freely and pulls extremely hard by the time the rev-limiter impedes forward progress.

In freeway mode, the RC-51 shows its displeasure with highway droning though suspension that is sprung too stiffly for street duty. Still, where most stiffly-sprung suspensions tend to be rather harsh, this Honda's front and rear Showas take most of the sharp pain out of the pounding. The ride is stiff, but not bone-jarring like so many other race replicas, the Ducati 996 and 748 in particular.

Faster than a Speeding Ticket?

"What a great bike ... gawd, I suck." This was common refrain heard after riding the RC-51. When you ride this motorcycle it's as much a showcase for the bike's abilities as it is a way to confirm that you completely lack riding talent. This is not to say that the RC-51 is not fun to ride: It couldn't be any more fun (though we are dying to install a Jardine exhaust system like the HRC race bikes.). It's just that when you ride a bike that is so capable but you still find yourself going slow, there is nobody to blame but yourself.

"The Honda RC-51 V-twin is a race bike first and foremost ."

While the RC-51 can be ridden on the street in relative comfort, we wouldn't recommend this bike if you plan on having a one-bike garage unless you live on your favorite bit of twisty tarmac. Honda's new 929 is a much better choice for an all-around street bike, and if you need that V-twin feel, there's always the good old 996 VTR Superhawk.

The Honda RC-51 V-twin is a race bike first and foremost and it makes no bones letting you know it. If that's what you're in the market for, there are few better choices. Even when the more expensive Aprilia RSV Mille and Ducati 996 are thrown into the V-twin mix, we expect Honda's latest attempt at world dominance to rise to the top. The new RC-51 is that good -- at any price.

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