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Tech Specs

Honda Fireblade

998cc dohc in-line 4-cylinder liquid cooled 4 valves per cylinder. Fuel injection with dual-sequential throttle valves. Catalyst. 6-speed stacked cassette gearbox, hydraulically operated multi-plate wet clutch.

170bhp @ 11,250rpm
115Nm @ 8,500rpm

Diamond aluminium composite twin-spar beam frame. 43mm usd cartridge forks with preload, compression and rebound adjustment. Rear rising rate monoshock Unit Pro-Link with preload, compression and rebound adjustment. Twin front 310mm discs with 4-pot radial calipers and radial master cylinder, single rear 220mm disc with 2-pot caliper.

/70 ZR17 front
190/50 ZR17 rear

Length: 2025mm
Wheelbase: 1410mm
Seat height: 820mm
Dry weight: 179kg
Fuel capacity: 18litres

Price: £8,799




Words and pics by Dick Henneman

click for a larger imageWith 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?

click for a larger imageWell, 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.

click for a larger imageAnd 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!

click for a larger imageCarrying 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.

On 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.

click for a larger imageWhen 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.

click for a larger imageHonda 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.


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