the 2004 Fireblade Honda
have moved the goalposts in the Superbike handling stakes,
but the question is have they moved them so far as to be beyond
the reach of mere mortal riders? This is one awesome machine.
Anyone who's watched
a round of the MotoGP Championship in the last few years will
immediately be struck by the visual similarity between the
Fireblade and the RC211V racebike. But that's not the end
of it. Honda have also taken a lot of what they've learnt
from the track and put it into package with a headlight on
one end and a number plate on the other. The result is staggering.
Back in 1992
when Honda launched the FireBlade on an unsuspecting world,
it simply obliterated every other sportsbike on the road.
The concept of putting a high-output engine into a lightweight
compact chassis just blew everything else out there with a
sportsbike "label" into the weeds. However, the
sudden delivery of such large amounts of raw performance into
the hands of the unwary and unprepared meant that the 'Blade
soon acquired a bit of a "bad boy" reputation. Tales
of tank-slappers and wheelies were the order of the day, and
some of the blame could be placed on the unusual choice of
a 16 inch front wheel, which while it certainly speeded up
the turn-in, also made the front end a bit flighty. But the
FireBlade was always one of the most practical sportsbikes
around, and in the eleven years since its introduction the
'Blade has been been continuously refined and improved - although
some might say over-sanitised - until it had become a very
useful and practical supersportsbike.
But this year the times
have changed - and how!
With "only" 170bhp
on tap, the Fireblade certainly ranks amongst the most powerful
of the current crop of one-litre sportsbikes, and the way
that the new engine delivers all that power to the chassis
means that it can use every one of those horses. This is one
very fast motorbike. The new Fireblade will simply devour
roads, A-roads, B-roads, all roads, and it does it with an
aplomb and efficiency that's simply breathtaking. The 'Blade
has always been a fine handling bike, but for 2004 Honda have
moved things to a new and higher level. Turn in is instantaneous,
more like a 600 than a one-litre sportsbike, in fact at times
it feels more like a 250, it's that nimble. Pick a line -
any line, and the Fireblade will just hold it as though it's
on rails. Change your line mid-corner Sir? - no problem, the
new Fireblade settles instantly and you're through and away.
The chassis just seems to deliver grip, no matter what you
do to it or what you throw at it.
So how have they done it?
apart from the name and the engine layout, there's not much
else in common between this year's and last year's model.
Honda have given the bike an ultra-compact chassis by making
the engine more compact (and lighter) and stacking the gearbox
à la R1, which in turn has allowed them to lengthen
the swingarm. They've then used a version of their innovative
Unit Pro Link suspension that was developed
for the RC211V and was first seen on last year's CBR600RR.
This clever arrangement means that instead of the rear monoshock
being attached to the chassis, it's connected between the
swingarm and the bottom tie-bars. It certainly seems to work,
as at no time during the test did the back-end get at all
flustered, no matter what my right hand was doing to the twist
grip. The bike just digs in, stays flat and launches itself
to the vanishing point. While this is good news for the fast
road rider and track day demon, wheelie-kings will need to
look elsewhere for their kicks.
then there's the HESD, or Honda Electronic
Steering Damper. This black box sits on the steering
yoke and uses a vane moving moving in a sealed chamber to
pump oil from one side of the chamber to the other as the
bars are turned. But the clever bit is that the rate of flow
is controlled by the bike's ECU according to the bike's speed
and acceleration. This means that at low speeds and while
you're manoeuvering, there's no damping at all, but up the
pace and the damping comes in progressively and it starts
to operate in your favour.
But does it work?
Well, put it this way, I didn't even notice
it was there during the time the bike was on test, the front-end
never got out of shape no-matter how ham-fisted I tried to
be, and yet it was a doddle to nip through slow-moving traffic
and manoeuvre in car parks. So on that basis I have to assume
that it does!
on the theme of technology transfer from competition,
tucked below the minimalistic yet surprisingly effective screen,
is an instrument cluster that looks as though it's been stolen
from a racebike. Although it's dominated by a central analogue
rev-counter and surrounded by the usual idiot lights and electronic
malfunction indicators, it also sports a digital speedo, two
trips (plus odometer), a clock, a coolant temperature gauge
and a programmable shift light. As a bonus, for overseas travel
the speedo and trips can be set to read in kph and kilometres.
There's also an indicator for the Honda Ignition Security
System HISS, which uses a coded key and a
sensor around the lock barrel that prevents the bike from
being started except by using the two original keys. The system
can't be hot-wired, and even replacing the lock assembly won't
get the bike running. As a final deterrent, Honda have also
made it extremely difficult to replace the ECU on the Fireblade,
but the downside is that you will be in serious (read expensive)
trouble if you ever lose the keys of your new Fireblade!
However. none of this will prevent your pride
and joy being lifted into the back of a van and parts of your
bike subsequently appearing on a dodgy breaker's shelves.
the engine front, the capacity's been increased to
998cc by a small increase in stroke, and the internals have
got lighter and smaller, with clever coatings on the piston
skirts further reducing friction. To reduce the overall length
of the engine, the crankshaft, mainshaft, countershaft, and
balancer shaft have all been repositioned - even the starter
motor's been moved to aid "Mass Centralisation".
There's a new cylinder head configuration and new forged pistons,
and to reduce weight a magnesium sump pan and head cover,
thinner valve stems, and a new alternator with higher output
have been fitted. There's even a larger, lighter radiator
with an uprated fan to cope with the extra power output of
the engine, even under race, climatic, or traffic conditions.
Nearly every component in the engine has been made either
lighter or stronger (or both), and the result is an engine
that picks up from low revs very, very quickly indeed and
spins like a turbine.
To get the fuel/air mix into the engine at
the right time, the Fireblade now sports a dual-sequential
injection system that's driven by a much smarter and faster
ECU, and for the first time there's a servo-controlled "EXUP-like"
valve on the exhaust that helps the engine deliver seamless
power and torque from tickover to the 11,500 rpm red-line.
In practice, all these changes completely remove the "on/off"
fuelling and subsequent lurching of the bike when rolling
on and off the throttle on small throttle openings.
it comes to stopping, the Fireblade is now equipped
with Tokico radial four-pot calipers and a radial master cylinder.
When I collected the bike for this test it had just been fitted
with new pads all round, and they took a little time to bed
in. But they very quickly showed themselves to be more than
adequate for the rest of the bike's performance and gave plenty
of feel and progression to halt proceedings from highly illegal
speeds with only a couple of fingers on the lever. Having
said that, the brakes are not quite up to the Brembo standard.
So if the new Fireblade is that good, then
surely there must be a downside? And there is. It's comfort.
In practical terms, this
is perhaps the least user-friendly Fireblade that Honda have
produced. The high-set pegs give a very cramped riding position
and the low-set clip-ons are real wrist killers. Add to the
equation a seat that's a bit on the thin side and then couple
that to the firm suspension, and the whole experience becomes
a bit like a ride-through version of the Spanish Inquisition.
Anyone who can ride this bike for more than 100 miles without
taking a break has got to be a masochist, and the rest will
be booking an appointment with their chiropractor after 70.
However, the low screen does a surprisingly good job of protecting
the rider from the wind blast, and is an unexpected feature
on a bike that seems designed to cause so much pain in the
pursuit of pleasure.
also appear to have carried this "no gain, no pain"
philosophy through to the design of the pillion seat. While
sportsbikes have never been a first choice for passenger comfort,
the old 'Blade did a reasonable job under the circumstances.
On the new bike the pillion pad is small and hard, with only
a narrow strap to hold onto, and the pegs are set so high
that anyone with an inside leg measurement greater than 24
inches is going to give themselves a black eye with their
knee. Our bike also came with the replacement pillion cowl
which would deter even the most enthusiastic would-be pillion
passenger. For prospective purchasers this accessory would
seem to be a much better option, as it would also allow you
to remove the now unnecessary pillion pegs and could possibly
get you a reduction on your insurance as you'd be unable to
carry a passenger. The only downside would be the loss of
two of the four bungee hooks.
The Fireblade has also lost
all of that useful space below the pillion seat, as this is
now occupied by the underseat exhaust, which appears to be
this year's "must have" design feature. There's
just enough room left for the toolkit and the bike's handbook,
even though Honda claim that you can fit a U-lock in there
too, and the more ingenious may be able to squeeze in a small
duster as well. And although those long-armed fold-away mirrors
stay rock steady and blur-free at all speeds, the arms are
just not quite long enough, as 75% of the view is still occupied
by your elbows, no matter how hard you try to tuck your arms
into your body. I was also surprised at the poor finish quality
of some of the welding. Whilst the fabricated rear swingarm
is almost a work of art, some of the frame welding around
the headstock and the tank is seriously below-par for a top-of-the-range
sportsbike with a price tag of just under £9,000.
The upshot of all this technology
is a bike that just delivers performance. It's an old cliche
that the whole is greater that the sum of the parts, but it's
a cliche that could well be applied to the Fireblade. Honda
have packaged a lot of high-tech, race-developed parts together
into something that can best be described as pure unadulterated
sportsbike, but as a complete road-riding experience I'm not
convinced that it's really a step forward. In the process
of all this technology transfer, the Fireblade's lost that
all-round useability that made it famous, and traded it in
for cold, calculating efficiency and a level of performance
that few of us mere mortals will be able to tap into or exploit.