Church of MO - 1998 Honda CBR900RR Review

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

The CBR900RR was perhaps the most mental sportbike Honda had ever produced. First introduced in 1992, it boasted 893cc of inline-Four power in a package that weighed about the same as Honda’s CBR600F2 from the same era. The next-lightest open-class sportbike, Yamaha’s FZR1000, plunked about 75 extra pounds on the pavement.

The double-R epitomized what a power-to-weight ratio can mean to a sportbike, earning plaudits the world over for its enviable balance. But the use of a 16-inch front wheel, as was de regueur in Grand Prix racing, contributed to the RR’s notable flaw – instability. The steering geometry was simply too radical for the rest of the bike, particularly its scant 90mm of trail combined with its 16-inch tire.

But 1998 promised a more stable CBR-Nine, and I remember it well. It was the first press intro of my motojourno career, when I worked for Motorcyclist. Sampling the 1997 and ’98 RRs back to back around Las Vegas Motor Speedway proved the new geometry to be much preferable, and it seemed impossible – especially after riding with tacky slick rubber in the afternoon – that an open-class sportbike could get any better.

Then Kawasaki dropped a new ZX-9R on the scene, boasting reduced significantly poundage and added wattage from its motor. The CBR’s 115 rear-wheel ponies suddenly felt inadequate in the face of the ZX’s 133 horses. And a month later Yamaha nuked our brains with the mind-melting R1. Suddenly, the best-ever CBR became almost irrelevant in the minds of spec-sheet jockeys.

And yet, the CBR900RR was a finely balanced sporting machine, especially if the idea of first gears that stretch beyond 90 mph are kinda silly for a streetbike. Read below to see what had to say prior to sampling the ZX and R1.

1998 Honda CBR 900 RR

What Took You So Long?

By MO Staff, Dec. 02, 1997, Photography by Kevin Wing and American Honda

Light. Twitchy. Unsettled. Peaky. What do these words all have in common? They were frequently used to describe the last incarnation of Honda’s top-shelf sportbike, the CBR900RR. So when the 1998 specs came floating across our desk claiming more horsepower, less weight and more predictable handling for the new Fireblade, we were skeptical. And we wondered if it still had the 16-inch front wheel.

Well, yes, the 16-inch wheel is making a return, but that’s only the beginning. American Honda dragged us kicking and screaming (yeah, right) out to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, first for two days of Freddie Spencer’s High Performance Riding School and then for a full day of riding the new 900RR on the AMA Superbike track — high banks and all.

Although we were hesitant to believe it, the truth of the matter is the new CBR900RR rocks! A few seemingly inconsequential tweaks to engine and chassis have combined to make an animal of an entirely different stripe.

The two peskiest demons of the ’96-’97 versions of CBR900RR were its very flexible chassis and lightning-quick steering geometry. Some street riders disliked its twitchy steering, while racers didn’t care for the flex when railing through corners. Honda clearly hopes to make all parties happy with the new, 1998 setup.

About 17 percent less flex in the chassis as a whole (close to 40 percent in the new tapered swingarm) and a bit more trail makes for a planted-yet-flickable ride, enjoyed immensely by both sportbike-initiate Associate Editor Billy (cool-I-dragged-knee) Bartels and seasoned racer Editor-in-Chief Brent (I’ve-been-hanging-out-with-Higbee) Plummer, who turned the slowest and fastest laps, respectively, among the assembled journalists.

Here young Mr. Bartels illustrates just how much a confidence-inspiring mount like the '98 RR can change your riding. Kinda looks like Mick Doohan there, wouldn't you say?
All this chassis stiffening, coupled with an advanced aerodynamic upgrade, resulted in more pounds. So the engineers at Honda engaged in an aggressive weight-loss plan, shaving pounds off of everything from the engine to the new eight-plate clutch to the wafer-thin instrument panel. In the end Honda claims the machine is now seven pounds lighter than the 1997 model. Other enhancements include solid-lubed pistons, new, authoritative front brakes, and a larger, curved radiator.

Taming the beast

Five millimeters more trail means the fork tubes are 5mm closer to the frame (trail is the distance, measured on the ground, between the center of the front wheel and a line drawn out from the steering head that meets the ground in front of the wheel. Thus, moving the front wheel back adds trail).

This is good: Added trail has been a common modification made by racers to increase stability to previous years’ CBR900RRs. The lower triple clamps are now made of aluminum instead of steel and increase fork span 10mm, resulting in a 10 percent increase in rigidity.

Gear ratios have been widened up, reducing the amount of shifting needed during street riding — MO staffers tend to prefer wide-ratio five-speeds with decent midrange power, thus we liked the new ratios, especially since the motor has been made much smoother and more responsive.

Racers, however, will want the closer ratios offered last year.

Honda thoughtfully brought along several ’97 RRs for comparison. Hands down, the 1998 version spanks the old one. Leaving the garage, the first thing noticed is a crisper throttle response.

Throwing it at the curves and banks of the Las Vegas Speedway, you are greeted (depending on your style and skill level) by both an extremely light-feeling machine that pulls strongly off corner exits (for the recent race school grad) and a predictable mount that cleanly slides the rear out of aggressively attacked corners (the racer-type).

After riding the ’98 RR, our neophyte sport-rider gave the ’97 about four laps before returning and hopping back on a ’98. On sweepers, Bartels complained of tucking the front with the ’97 mount when he didn’t get on the gas quite soon enough. Boss-man Plummer didn’t even give it that many laps.

He still had fever dreams from our 9 Vs. 9 shootout, and complained that the ’97 900RR just didn’t hold a line like the ’98. While the old ‘Blade is arguably a quicker-turning bike, the ’98 features increased stability and forgiveness, allowing its pilot to slam it into corners without a worry. Besides, it’s silly to call any 400-pound bike ‘slow turning.’

All we can say is that with the 1998 CBR900RR, a little bit goes a long way. Congratulations Honda, but what took so long?

Look for the new CBR900RR and the other sportbike illuminati (GSX-R750, YZF-R1, ZX-9R and others ) in our ultimate sportbike challenge, coming in February to a browser near you.


Manufacturer: HondaModel: 1998 CBR900RR Price: 95.00Engine: Liquid cooled, inline four-cylinder DOHC; four valves per cylinder Compression ratio: 11.1:1 Bore and Stroke: 71 x 58mmDisplacement: 919 ccCarburetion: (4) 38mm flat slide CVTransmission: Close ratio 6-speedWheelbase: 55.1 in Seat Height: 32.2 in Fuel Capacity: 4.8 gal including .9 gal reserve Claimed Dry Weight: 396.8 lbs
Kevin Duke
Kevin Duke

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  • Jeremy Jeremy on Mar 31, 2014

    Nice! This was my first purchased new sport bike and I bought it in part to this article. Thank you guys.

  • DickRuble DickRuble on Apr 01, 2014

    Not sure what the purpose of bringing back these articles is. Perhaps, to remind us how much better the writing was and how more thorough the reviews were back then? It is worth noting that few if any comments were made back then about "the sound" of a motorcycle. Handling and engine prowess were what mattered. Nowadays discussion of "the sound" is 1/3 of the review. The feature list takes the remainder. I miss Plummer's articles.

    • See 2 previous
    • Billy Bartels Billy Bartels on Oct 26, 2015

      It seems like you're under the impression that my exile from sportbikes is voluntary.