There aren't many manufacturers who can offer cars with a palpable, actual racing heritage in their consumer products. But when you swing a leg over the 2020 Honda CBR1000RR, you go all-in on that history.
Honda's a weird company, when you think about it. It builds everything from base-spec Fits to Civic Type Rs to the Acura NSX hypercar, plus generators, lawnmowers, dirt and tarmac motorcycles and everything in between. It builds engines for IndyCar and Formula 1.
And while most would think Honda baked in its MotoGP efforts into the CBR1000RR’s lithe, sharp fairings, compact dimensions and impressive engineering—and sure, it does—when you start this superbike, it feels more evocative of the glory days of F1 than anything on two wheels.
Call it wishful thinking, or growing up watching Formula 1 rather than MotoGP, but once you’re out on the open road, throttle pinned, there’s this sense that when Honda ended production of the RA100-E 3.5-liter V-10 used in the 1990 McLaren MP4/5B racer, the engine design wasn’t shelved or left to rot in some nondescript junkyard. Rather, Honda’s motorcycle department swiped the blueprints, locked a handful of bike engineers away in a remote Japanese laboratory, and waited three decades for them to emerge with the CBR1000RR.
That's wishful thinking, of course. But it's how it felt to me. And that character makes the CBR1000RR the most elegant of racetrack weapons.
The 2020 Honda CBR1000RR, By the Numbers
- Base Price: $16,499
- Powertrain: 998cc liquid-cooled inline 4-cylinder | 6-speed sequential manual| rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 189 horsepower @ 13,000 rpm
- Torque: 84 pound-feet of torque @ 11,000 rpm
- 0-60 MPH: >3-seconds
- Fuel Capacity: 4.3 gallons
- Curb Weight: 428 pounds
- Quick Take: A knife-edged motorcycle with a personality you'd expect from a Formula 1 racer.
The Right Kind Of Weapon
Strip away the aerodynamic fairings, the titanium gas tank, the headlight, the inlets and wing planes, then pull the tires, electronics, chain, suspension and aluminum frame. You’re left with a liquid-cooled, flat-plane crank, 998cc inline four-cylinder engine that’ll, given the chance, slice through tungsten.
And though I’d love to say my dreamy delusions of Japanese engineers toiling away near a blazing hot forge, beating the metal into the correct proportions, shedding the F1 engine’s impurities for last 30 years was the truth, the engine’s design is actually an evolution of Honda’s prior CBR1000RR engines.
In its current guise, the liter-bike engine produces 189 horsepower and 84 pound-feet of torque, which is enough to dust just about every supercar on the road.
A six-speed sequential manual transmission coupled to a chain-driven rear wheel puts the power to the road, while an optional slipper clutch means that like the best race cars, no-lift shifting is available. Honda’s engineering throughout the rest of the superbike is equally war-ready.
An adjustable Showa suspension at the front and rear means setups can be dialed in for personal preference or to specific tracks. Together, dual Tokico drilled rotors, each with a four-piston caliper at the front, and a single rotor, dual-piston caliper at the back halt the CBR1000RR’s momentum. Honda’s trick ABS system balances braking performance mid-turn, leading to more rider control and improved safety.
The aluminum frame and wheels, composite fairings and titanium 4.3-gallon fuel tank ensure that even when loaded up with liquids, the CBR1000RR only weighs a scant 428 pounds. Add a medium-sized rider, or even a heavier rider like yours truly at 215 pounds, and you can see Honda wasn’t mucking around, throwing any type of steel it wanted into the fire, hoping its blade would come out as expected and ready for a fight.
On the Road
Off out to find some winding roads around Los Angeles, the CBR1000RR delivers its historical connection mostly through its 15,000 RPM sonic signature. Under load, the engine sings a tune that’ll curl your toes and make you believe you’re riding something built for competition, not just riding. You’ll upshift until you cross over to highway speeds (and then some), then slam on the brakes, goosing the throttle upon downshift, just to rail on it again and hear the pitch-perfect wail of the cross-plane engine.
There’s limitless pull everywhere in the rev range, too. At the bottom of the gear, the middle, or at the top, even if it's technically the wrong one, all you do is twist the throttle and power emanates from the engine, propelling you forward in unending speed.
Other superbikes like to intervene slightly in your ride, changing the character of the electronics, handling, engine and traction control. It’s as if there’s a give and take between rider and motorcycle, an equal partnership. Not so with the Honda, as the CBR1000RR cedes control over its systems to you and you alone. And that’s both great and slightly terrifying.
With every muscle contraction, shift in weight, head turn and minute throttle change, the motorcycle moves underneath you with lightning-bolt eagerness. It doesn’t fall into the same trap as other “telepathic” descriptors, but the CBR1000RR is a wildly addictive weapon.
Mid-corner, you feel like a hero even if your knee isn’t scrapping the pavement. There’s so much potential energy in this motorcycle that you’ll get close, though, even if you’re not the most experienced rider. Pulling the CBR1000RR up out of the corner, the throttle opening with each passing pebble, spontaneous hoots and fevered hollers spout from your lips as you rocket forward.
Total control comes at a cost, though, as if or when you screw up, everything is on you.
Better illustrating the potential for a screw up was a near miss during one ride as a car decided to cross a few lanes of traffic in front of me, necessitating a stomach-churning halt. A sharp, heavy grab of the CBR1000RR’s front brakes meant the rear of the motorcycle lifted into the air momentarily—you’ll forever remember the pressure it took to endo. But like even Honda's finest F1 efforts, everything isn’t perfect.
Riders of a larger stature will quickly find that this motorcycle isn’t designed for them. The compact dimensions of the motorcycle, its raked front end, clip-on handlebars mounted low and sharply angled toward the rider, and the footpegs pulled up close to your hindquarters make the CBR1000RR uncomfortable for anything but a short ride or some track day heroics. Medium to small riders—say, six feet and below—will definitely be able to last longer and get more out of it.
There’s also the issue of the electronics package. Easily read are your speeds and RPMs on the five-inch TFT display, but everything else is harder to understand as each seems to progressively get smaller than the previous readout. Making selections on the fly was even more difficult as it isn't readily apparent that you've selected one option or another through the bike's toggle.
After a deep dive on YouTube to better understand the display and what the modes meant in relation to the bike’s traction, wheelie, stability and power level controls did, for most of my ride, I kept everything turned to its lowest levels and didn’t fiddle with it again. You can get creative with each setting, customizing the setup to your whims, but from an interface perspective, it’s complicated. Thankfully, that’s where the CBR1000RR’s faults end. Commanding $16,949, it's priced pretty competitively in the superbike spectrum.
Yamada Jirokichi, the last headmaster of Kashima Shinden Jikishinkage-ryu, a traditional martial art focused on swordsmanship, once said, “Sword and mind must be united. Technique by itself is insufficient, and spirit alone is not enough.”
The same is true here. If you have the will to unite your mind with the CBR1000RR—and the will to wield it properly—you won’t be disappointed.
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