by Glenn LeSanto

The CBR 929RR Evolves

The Honda CBR 929RR is already something of a legend in motorcycling terms. First introduced in February 1992 it set a new benchmark in the sportsbike market. It took the evolution of the sports motorcycle, started by Kawasaki on the GPZ900R and continued by Suzuki with the GSX-R series and Yamaha with the FZR1000, to a whole new dimension. Those bikes had to some extent redefined sports motorcycling, with more power and less weight, but the 929 leaped ahead of them. It wasn’t just evolution, it was revolution.

I remember riding the first RR, the thing was a little rocket. It was small, light and very fast. It was also very exciting to ride with its slightly unruly manners. It didn’t handle badly, and it wasn’t an effort to ride in the way that the old style universal Japanese motorcycles (UJM) had been, but it sure took some commitment to handle the fierce power and the rather floppy feel of the front end. To be fair, on the original Fireblade much of its front-end problems stemmed from the fact that the front tire spent so little time in full contact with the pavement that it was just bound to shake its head a bit. And many owners found that a little expert twiddling with suspension setup or a steering damper cured the wildness completely. As Honda evolved the model, things calmed down significantly, maybe too much for some owners who actually liked the wild ‘just-released-from-the-lunatic-ward’ manners.

Released for the 2000 season, the latest incarnation of this revered machine, the 929 Fireblade, is supposed to take the old gun up a few more steps. Enough hoped Honda, to regain the ground that they lost to Yamaha and the superb R1. But did the package of suspension tweaks, frame alterations and fuel injection, which essentially made the 929 an all-new version of the CBR, do enough? There’s only one way to find out, ride it.

The 929RR taken in isolation would be a very satisfying sportbike. It has loads of power, more than ever before, and top-notch handling. I noticed a little tendency to shake its head when exiting fast corners (on the road where the surface tends to be poorer) and at times this got bad enough to force me to back off the throttle just a little to avoid disaster. You wouldn’t notice this behavior unless you were demanding the 929’s all, but then why buy a sportbike if you don’t intend to explore the limits of its performance? I’d have liked to have tried the bike on different tires as I’m not a huge fan of the stock Bridgstones. They have plenty of grip, as do most tires nowadays, but they’re not, in my opinion, as stable at the ragged edge as the Michelins or Dunlops of the same class.

The brakes on the 929RR are brilliant, and the front fork copes with them well, never bottoming out even when used really hard. Whatever speed you’re braking down from the front end stays planted and continues to soak up road irregularities. This is the reason why bikes don’t have ‘funny’ or alternative front ends nowadays. Technicians have made telescopics work so well there’s no need to replace them anymore. The Honda’s front fork is great for the street, although my recent ride on the new Suzuki GSX-R1000K has shown me that there’s better still available. No doubt Honda noted this and we’ll see similar trick coated tubes on the much-rumored next-generation CBR that might just make an appearance at Milan’s big show in Fall. At the rear there’s an equally good brake and a pretty good shock, too. These modern sportbikes really do have plenty enough in the handling and stopping department for the average rider.

The Honda does lose out on power to its competition. Even the GSX-R750 that I rode the week after I had the 929 felt more powerful, with only a little less torque, which surprised me for a bike that gave away nearly 200cc. The Suzuki also seemed to have the edge on top speed, although I didn’t have a chance to speed trap the Honda and Suzuki to compare them scientifically.

Hop off the Blade and onto the R1 and you’ll see that the Yam has the edge on all-round power. It has more throttle response lower down and needs fewer revs to get it going. The Honda needs more use of the gearbox to keep it boiling, the Suzuki GSX-R 750 a bit more again, but the new game GSX-R1000 sets a whole new standard in the ‘power-anywhere-anytime.’ So Honda will have to do their homework if it wants to keep up with Suzuki.

One area where Honda has always been ahead is in quality of finish. The Honda’s a very well put together motorcycle and there’s no history of problems with the 929, although the early ones, the CBR900 RR-N did get a bit of a reputation in the UK for flaky finishing. The RR-P version, launched in November '92 (in the UK) seemed to have addressed that problem. The latest RR is well thought out, it’s comfortable for a sportbike, verging on being a useful touring motorcycle. The bars are low enough for sports riding at your local racetrack and yet high enough to make road riding a reasonable proposition even for long distances. I rode the 929RR for 250 miles, which included 15 miles in heavy London traffic, without cursing its ergonomics too much. That’s no mean feat for a bike that can scratch with the best.

Faults? This is a difficult subject. Bikes are just so good nowadays that finding fault always verges on nit-picking. And often you can only fault one bike by comparing it with a rival bike that’s just that little bit better. I have to sound off about the reserve capacity though. On one ride out on the 929 I noticed the fuel warning light while pretty deep in the countryside, and some way from the nearest filling station. But I’m used to being able to get up to 40 miles out of the reserve tank on my own Yamaha Thunderace, so I expected more than the 10 miles it took the 929 to dump me, absolutely out of gas, on a country road late one evening. And can someone tell me why four bikers rode past without stopping, while two car drivers pulled up, one with a can full of gas to rescue me? What happened to the old days when stopping at the side of the road on a motorcycle was as good a way as any to make new biker buddies?

The CBR isn’t without warts, worst of which is the nervous feel of the front end, which isn’t absolutely right. Exiting fast bends on the throttle the bars would flap, much like on the early 900RR. I had to constantly roll off the throttle to stop the thing heading for the bushes. As long as you metered the throttle, and kept your weight well over the front end, it wasn’t a problem, but it could catch the unwary, or inexperienced, rider out. It needs a steering damper at the very least, and reworked forks wouldn’t go amiss.

So why should you buy a 929RR when the magazines are all saying that the Suzuki is top of the sportbike tree, and the R1 is probably in second spot?

Well, first reason would be you like your bikes with Honda on the tank, because you like the security that gives you. They make them well at Honda and they always look after you if you should have a problem. Or maybe you want to be different? Who’d have thought you’d be able to say that about a 929? From 1992 to the late Nineties when the R1 started to dominate sportsbike sales, the CBR was a bike you’d be sure to see whenever you took a ride out to any biker hang out, and in numbers. Nowadays the 929 version is actually somewhat scarce compared to the hordes of R1s and the ever-increasing bands of GSX-R1Ks roaming the roads.

Honda knows they have been aced by the R1 and the GSX-R. And that’s a situation you can be sure they won’t allow to continue for too long. There’s sure to be a host of designers and engineers working away on their Cad-Cam machines as I write this, developing the next version of the legendary CBR to come and grind the upstarts into the racetrack curbing.