2021 Honda CBR600RR Review - First Ride

John Burns
by John Burns

Requiem for a Middleweight

I could’ve sworn Honda had discontinued the 600RR years ago, when I bumped into a pretty red, white, and blue 2021 model on the corporate website a few weeks ago. What? Colin Miller, our American Honda media rep, assures me that’s not the case, and that the bike’s been available in the US all along. Hmmm, wonder why I haven’t ridden one in such a long time?

2021 Honda CBR600RR

One man’s long-in-the-tooth is another man’s classic collectible. Since 600 sportbike development has basically ceased to be, the old CBR is both of those, and an e-ticket high-performance ride at the same time..

+ Highs

  • Chassis still feels cutting edge
  • 15,000 rpm is a lot; 410 lbs isn’t many
  • Classic premium Honda looks

– Sighs

  • Ergonomics that helped kill the class
  • No electronics except ABS and HESD
  • You’ll miss her when she’s gone

Soon enough I found myself riding up to Honda USA, Torrance, to swap the NC750X I’d been hoarding since October for a new 2021 CBR600RR. The NC looks nice enough. The red/white/blue CBR600RR ABS looks stunning, as well it should for $12,899, or about $3600 more than the NC. When the first RR got here in 2003, Honda bragged it was heavily influenced by its current RC211V MotoGP machine, and it looks the part. Oh dang, look who wrote the new CBR up in January of that year. Yours truly.

2003 Honda CBR600RR – Part One: On Paper

2003 CBR600RR Track Test by J.Schvetz

The other thing stunning about the CBR is its ergonomics. Maybe I’ve never ridden an RR until now? I have such fond memories of all the CBR600s, remembering them all as being really practical as well as sporty – but maybe the last one I rode was an F4? Wiki has a quote from Motorcyclist, describing the last CBR600F4i as “one golf club that acts like a whole bag.”

Honda changed that all up with the ‘03 RR in the midst of the sportbike race wars. Now that I think back on it, early 2003 was right when I went over to the dark side to be an advertising copywriter, so this must be my first CBR600RR ride. It’s hard to think I could’ve forgotten it.

Ergonomically incorrect

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t just gotten off the NC750X, but reaching out to the CBR’s clip-ons reminded me of another of my least favorite motorcycles – the current Yamaha R1. And when I went to place my feet on the footpegs I thought I might need a physical therapist. Rolling out of Door #8 at Honda, it’s one of those deals where your head is angled so low your neck can’t bend back over your shoulder to check traffic. At every intersection you hope the light will turn red so you can straighten up for a minute.

The blue and white are decals with just a light clearcoat I think, but the CBR still gets compliments from all kinds of people.

At the same time, the first use of Honda’s Pro-Link suspension serves up a firm but delicious ride you can appreciate immediately; ditto the Showa Big Piston Fork. It takes me right back to the good old days to be looking into an actual analog tachometer, front and center, that doesn’t turn red till 15,000 rpm. Quality switchgear and grips give RC30 and 45 flashbacks. Most of the power is up above 10,000 rpm, but even so there’s more than enough smooth, free-flowing juice to squirt along well ahead of traffic without even trying, probably because the curb weight is 410 pounds, making me nearly one-third of the total mass. This RR was also the first to use Honda’s Dual Stage Fuel Injection, with injectors in the top of the airbox as well as in the throttle bodies, also lifted directly from the RC211V. Updated over the years, it delivers power flawlessly and smoothly via two genuine throttle cables.

After about ten minutes, I’m so appreciating the sophistication and engineering of the thing I’ve almost forgotten my pain. (The older you get, the more important a good stretch is before any workout.) There’s no quickshifter but the gearbox is butter. Naturally, the RR was updated every two years since 2003, including a major overhaul in 2007 (Gabe rode it at Barber). In 2013, we got the Big Piston Fork, nice light 12-spoke wheels, and a little fine tuning – and that seems to be the bike Honda is still selling. American Honda, anyway, as the RR has slipped off the websites of most of the world due to its inability to meet their emissions requirements. It’s slightly confusing, as Honda did build an updated 2021 600RR, complete with TFT display and IMU for certain markets, but that bike isn’t this one.

All goes from I-want-my-NC750-back to it’s-all-coming-back-to-me-now! once we hit the on-ramp to the 405 and zot the little (!) four-cylinder up past 10,000 rpm. At about 80 mph, the wind pouring over the windshield lifts and supports you; 8000 rpm and 90 mph in the fast lane is just tongue-flicking the lower edge of the CBR’s happy envelope. There’s an electronic steering damper at work to keep things dead planted, and those high-end suspension units make the bike a taut, well-damped laser beam whose speed is limited only by one’s fear of a major moving violation.

Yes, the seat is thin but it’s a nice shape and your haunches are under you to lend support; the shape of the tank and carefully crafted aerodynamics all work together to provide a pretty sweet cruise – provided you can time-travel back to the era when cruise control was only found on heavy touring bikes. In wet climes you might miss modern traction control; in the dry West you probably won’t on a 600cc bike that doesn’t make monstrous torque. We do get electronically linked ABS.

In 2008, my last year in the advertising business due to economic circumstances beyond my control, the Honda won MO’s 2008 Supersport Shootout, which contained:

Supersports, or more commonly, 600s, are red-hot sellers. Editor Duke reported back from his time at the U.S. launch of the 2008 R6 that the tuning fork company claims “the 600cc segment makes up 51% of what Yamaha calls the Supersport market, a segment that is up in sales a huge 52% since 2001.” Yep, these things are pretty important.

Then, suddenly they weren’t important at all anymore.

2013 Honda CBR600RR – First Ride Street Impression

Hammer, Tongs…

Chrissy Rogers, a middle-aged white woman who normally doesn’t pay much attention to the motorcycles that come and go, complimented the CBR’s sleek looks as it sat in the garage. So did an athletic 20-something black guy at Starbucks in Azusa as Brasfield and I got our morning caffeine dose. The RR transported me there in record time squeezed into racy leathers and aerodynamic Arai Regent X, as well as back to those days when sportbikes were what it was all about, even if you were just riding to work. Where there were certain people you were eager to see. Love was in the air, things were booming along nicely… wha happened?

You’re hurting me

Thanks to those racy ergonomics, really tight twisty roads aren’t quite the CBR’s thing. With its narrow clip-on handlebars way down low, braking into tight corner after corner gets old fast. Instead of steering with the handlebars – which are only 18 inches thumb-to-thumb – it wants you to also steer with your body like a real racer, since it really was based on the RC211V (and updated along RC212 and then RC213 lines). You can’t just sit there like you’re on a naked bike and turn the handlebar. You have to participate.

There’s no quickshifter, but the gearbox is so sweet you rarely need the clutch to downshift into those corners if you time your tiny blip right. While the CBR always was less gutless down low than the competition, you do soon figure out that any use of the brakes requires a commensurate downshift, sometimes two. It’s fun and sounds great. Unlike some, a 600 rewards prowess. Keeping the tach needle (easier somehow to read than any TFT) above 7000 rpm is the goal, and when you do that, the CBR is a hyperactive hoot. The last one we dynoed made 44 lb-ft at 10,900, and just about 100 horses at 12,900. Yes, 1000cc sportbikes make more, but I can’t remember ever revving one to 12,000 rpm on Glendora Mountain Road.

Pretty sure our engine hasn’t changed since 2016. Shut it, 100 horsepower is plenty!

The Forgotten Files: 2016 Honda CBR600RR

Let’s not forget the lightness of the thing: Honda says (and we believe them) that we’re at 410 pounds, with 4.8 gallons of fuel aboard (which is carried mostly under the seat). That’s light, and makes the Big Piston fork and excellent ProLink rear suspension’s job that much easier. Only the stupid big bumps assault you. One finger’s all you need for serious decel thanks to an overkill front brake (what are Tokico calipers doing on a Honda?), and on any road open enough to let you rest a second, the front tire feel is sublime.

Excellent feel and one-finger power, the little CBR is a masterful trail braker. The adjuster at the bottom of the Big Piston Fork is for spring preload.

Receive your reward at the corner exits: We got no traction control but we have no monstrous torque either, so feel free to roll the throttle on early and all the way. Once the nose cone is pointed where you want it (don’t just sit there, use your body to steer), the bike’s advanced (in 2003) HESD (Honda Electronic Steering Damper!) assures that you home in on your target like a Ukrainian missile. No quickshifter no problem: Breathing the throttle the tiniest hair for 1/98 of a second slips the next gear in instantly. Bumpy, tight backroads are a bit of a workout if you’re old and out of shape, but just like real exercise it feels great when it’s over. You accomplished something.

On an actual smooth road…

Instead of a cow trail, the CBR suddenly makes real sense. Why not? It was built for the racetrack at a time when racing was important, and won six straight World Supersport Championships beginning in 2003. On smooth, flowing asphalt like the kind they just resurfaced Highway 39 with, you remember why supersports were such huge sellers for such a long time. Once you’re going fast enough for the airstream to support you (all I can hear is engine noise inside my nice Arai), the little CBR becomes a magic carpet. Those low clip-ons suddenly make sense, since being closer to the ground allows you to get to (almost) full lean that much quicker. And the narrowness of them makes it harder for you to make any sudden (stupid) moves, especially with that speed-sensitive steering damper. The whole machine feels carved from billet, just like the RC30 did but smaller.

Also just like it, the bike’s outstanding front-end feel allows you to tighten your line as needed; there’s always more lean available, and snoggling against the form-fitting gas tank in your leather onesie to smooth things along is one of sportbiking’s great pleasures. Now the ergonomics make perfect sense. Pain, what pain? Did I mention 410 lbs wet?

When the Honda finds its happy place, it’s as addictive as any literbike – moreso if you ask me. You get to make its engine scream the whole time, a thing it seems to like as much as you do. I contend that 100 horses at 13,000 rpm is superior to 100 at 8000 rpm, where you find yourself on the typical literbike. The lighter weight of the 600 makes itself felt more the faster you go, and the lighter crankshaft also makes the bike less resistant to changing direction. Pretty soon, your toes are scraping pavement even though they’re right under your ears. There’s a little chicken strip left on the right side of the front Dunlop Sportmax, none at all on the left.

You’re supposed to know what gear you’re in, not have to look up from the road to find out! Thanks to modern EFI, the CBR pulls cleanly from down around 3000 rpm in top gear when you’re trolling through town.

Sporty riding on the street is less about actual speed than the perception of it, and for me the CBR is tough to beat, maybe just because of the era I’m happily trapped in. The tachometer needle that goes way past 11, the switchgear, the lovely paint – all of it reminds me of the golden RC30/RC45 days – a time when Honda was sparing little expense in building very cool bikes, including this final 599 cc one for the masses. The undertail exhaust may be passe, but I’m sure there were very good reasons for it at the time that I’ve forgotten. Probably that the Ducati 916 had one, and that it made room for the tricky new Pro Link suspension. I still like it. This CBR is a perfectly preserved specimen from 20 years ago, trapped in amber. If you ever thought about collecting an RC, then thought again after looking at the prices, you might want to have a look at this soon-to-also-be dearly departed CBR. The USA is one of the last places on earth where you can still get one.

In this case a nice Akrapovic slip-on with carbon fiber cap wouldn’t be out of place.

The kids have moved on to Triumph Moto 2s and Aprilia RS660s and things. The Aprilia has cruise control, but makes about 10 horses less than the Honda and has a more disposable feel overall. The Yamaha R6 has left the building, the GSX-R is for commoners and actual racers interested in contingency money. The ZX-6R is okay. The new Yamaha R7 will be way less money (or will it?), but also way less performance. The Honda CB650R that finished next to last in last year’s Middleweight Naked Bike Shootout is a shadow on the cave wall that makes you wonder how it all went so horribly wrong?

The rest of the mass is all in the middle, including the 4.8 gallons of gas that’s mostly right on top of the stacked gearbox shafts, so just pipe down about the exhaust pipe.

On the other hand, the CBR is a one-trick pony. You can’t ride it down dirt roads to go camping. It doesn’t even like bumpy backroads much, it has no storage, and if you’re a one-motorcycle person it makes no sense. Unless you’re a sportbike person of a certain age who lives at the bottom of Angeles Crest or the Ronda Road. Or a limber, enlightened 25-year old maniac. You know who you are. I almost didn’t want to ride this CBR600RR at all when I first climbed on it. Now I feel 20 years younger and almost like making an attempt to get back in shape. Then again, maybe a nice cold Sapporo in the hot tub. Thank you, Soichiro. It was fantastic while it lasted. We will not see this CBR’s like again.

2021 Honda CBR600RR Specifications

MSRP$12,899 ($11,899 without ABS)
Engine Type599cc liquid-cooled inline-Four cylinder, DOHC, four valves per cylinder
Bore and Stroke67mm x 42.5mm
Compression Ratio12.2:1
Horsepower, measured, rear wheel99.7 hp @ 12,900 rpm
Torque, measured, rear wheel44.1 lb-ft @ 10,900 rpm
TransmissionClose-ratio 6-speed
Final DriveChain
Front Suspension41mm inverted Big Piston Fork with spring preload, rebound and compression damping adjustability
Rear SuspensionUnit Pro-Link HMAS single shock with spring preload, rebound and compression damping adjustability
Front BrakeDual radial-mounted four-piston calipers with full-floating 310mm discs
Rear BrakeSingle-caliper 220mm disc
Front Tire120/70-17
Rear Tire180/55-17
Rake/Trail23.5 deg/3.9 in
Wheelbase53.9 in.
Seat Height32.3 in.
Curb Weight (Claimed)410 lbs.
Fuel Capacity4.8 gal.
Warranty12 months, transferable, unlimited-mileage limited warranty; extended coverage available with a Honda Protection Plan.

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John Burns
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