2012 Honda CBR1000RR First Ride Review

Bucking The Trend: After four years in the doldrums, the ever-consistent CBR1000RR is revived for 2012 with a laundry list of updates—hold for TC

More -rigid 12-spoke cast aluminum wheels replace last year's three-spoke hoops. Despite their lighter appearance, the wheels are actually heavier. The 2012 model is two pounds heavier than its predecessor.
The Honda’s new instrumentation is one of the most easy-to-read LCD units we have yet used, with plenty of contrast to easily make sense of the numbers and a screen that eliminates glare. And voila, a gear indicator!
The Balance-Free shock uses the same twin-tube technology as the Ohlins TTX shock: a valve-free piston works inside the shock’s inner tube and damping force is generated as oil flows in only one direction through damping valves that are placed separate from each other. Adjusters have been positioned for easy access.
It’s easy to discern the BPF front end from a cartridge-type fork, with the rebound and compression adjusters on the BPF’s fork cap. We were impressed with the feedback from the Honda’s new setup and found it to be much more compliant than the ’11 model’s standard fork.
Preload adjustment is made at the bottom of the fork leg on all BPFs. Important to note is that, for our track stint, each bike was dialed in with settings recommended by Honda's Jeff Tigert and Jake Zemke.
A new, more pointed front fairing replaces the blasé front fairing Honda had used since ’08. Beneath the cowl is a chin spoiler that Honda has incorporated to reduce aerodynamic lift at high speeds.
The 2012 Honda CBR1000RR: No traction control, wheelie control or variable riding modes — and we like it.
The dual radial-mount four-piston calipers biting on 320mm discs go unchanged. The brake’s initial bite is unimpressive, but power ramps up through the pull. New layered fairings give the bike a more aggressive look and Honda reps claim they create a large air pocket around the rider for improved aerodynamics. We didn’t notice a difference.

Parents have a canny way of teaching right from wrong, and within their arsenal of lines capable of ending an argument is this gem: “If your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you jump too?” Most teens respond with some snide remark along the lines of “It depends on how high the bridge is,” knowing that, no matter how clever their response, they’ve been trumped. Lesson learned. Parents win. Point being, just because everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon, doesn’t mean you should as well. Honda drives this point home for 2012 too, with the introduction of its devoid-of-traction-control CBR1000RR. For the time being, the traction control bandwagon will simply have to go on without Big Red.

Evolution Over Revolution
Honda last overhauled the CBR1000RR back in '08, giving it a new frame, reworked engine, slipper clutch and more. In the subsequent years, the bike would finish towards the top of nearly every test it entered (although neither the '08 model, nor its successors, ever won a Sport Rider literbike shootout, despite always being a top contender for the crown). Why is this important you ask when we have more important issues to deal with? Say, the new 2012 model? It's important because, quite frankly, much of what made the previous generation CBR so great has simply been carried over to the '12 model. The frame/swingarm combination is identical, for instance. The engine has gone untouched (sorry to those hoping for BMW-crushing power in '12), as have the other features garnered back in '08, including the slipper clutch, Pro-Link rear suspension and Ignition Interrupt Control System, which Honda incorporated to smoothen the off/on throttle transition.

The 2012 model may share a shocking number of similarities with its predecessor, and it may be without traction control, but don’t hang your head in defeat just yet, Honda aficionados. There’s hope yet for Big Red, and that comes in the form of new Showa suspension, EFI updates, styling refinements and newly designed cast aluminum wheels. We’ve already covered the aforementioned changes in minute detail (Late Braking, January ’12), but a closer look at each revision gives a better indication of the 2012 model’s capabilities.

Heading the list of changes for 2012 is the Showa BPF (Big Piston Fork), which replaces the ’11 model’s 43mm cartridge-type fork. Unless you’ve been living in a bubble, you’re likely already familiar with BPFs, but in brief, the setup uses a drastically larger piston compared to a cartridge fork and a larger surface area to reduce damping pressure. BPFs have been used on Kawasaki and Suzuki models for a few years now (with great success in terms of feedback and performance under braking), but this marks the first time Honda has used the technology on a production bike.

Bigger news is the Showa Balance-Free shock, which uses similar twin-tube technology as the Öhlins TTX unit that has become de rigueur in racing (Honda claims this is an industry-first for a production motorcycle, and that’s true for the most part, but remember upgraded Ducati and Triumph models like the 675R come from the factory equipped with a TTX shock). What sets the Balance-Free shock apart from a standard unit is the valve-free piston, which works within the shock’s inner tube. Damping force is generated as oil flows in only one direction through damping valves that are placed within the shock body but separate from each other. What Showa—and Honda—look to achieve from using the Balance-Free shock is more consistent damping characteristics and reduced lag between the compression and rebound stroke caused by cavitation within the shock. The decreased pressure required by the shock also reduces stiction.

Refer back to our 2010 literbike comparison (“Europe Invades”, June ’10) and it’s easy to presume the untouched CBR’s engine will produce somewhere around 149 horsepower and 77 foot-pounds of torque, which is admirable, just not inspiring when compared to the Kawasaki ZX-10R and BMW S 1000 RR. Honda reps don’t sugar coat the facts, but are quick to reiterate the importance of how that power is put to the ground. And even quicker to point out the CBR’s new ECU and EFI settings, which have been optimized to provide a smoother off/on throttle transition at small throttle openings. Fuel efficiency has benefited from the EFI changes as well.

The Honda’s new LCD instrumentation will tell you how you’re doing on the fuel mileage front and, quite frankly, provides more information than you’ll know what to do with. Across the top is a horizontal tachometer readout that can be programmed to work in four different ways. Above the readout is a set of programmable shift lights, and beneath you’ll find the speedometer, gear position indicator (!), odometer, coolant temperature and select warning lamps. A lap timer feature is also included and is activated using the starter button.

More-rigid 12-spoke cast aluminum wheels further catapult the CBR into the modern era, but while they look the part, Honda reps admit they are actually heavier than the ’11 model’s three-spoke hoops. Which brings us to another important point: the 2012 CBR1000RR is actually two pounds heavier than the 2011 model (441 pounds versus 439 pounds). It’s not a drastic jump, but worth noting considering the ‘08 model has always been touted as a featherweight in the ever-competitive literbike class.

Matched to the chic new wheels is a set of layered fairings and a new front cowl—sayonara blasé front faring of years past, we won’t miss you! As for the layered fairings, they complete the Honda’s more modern look, plus the Men in Red claim they create a large air pocket around the rider and draw air through the cooling system. The tail section has been cleaned up, plus an integrated chin spoiler has been fitted to the nose for reduced aerodynamic lift at high speeds. Put simply, you’d have to be crazy not to appreciate the refinements Honda has made to the CBR in terms of styling.

The rest of the Honda goes status quo for 2012, hold for the C-ABS model, which has its braking system recalibrated to provide less pressure to the front calipers when the rear brake is applied. Honda claims the change was made to better suit more aggressive riding on the track and street.

Apples to Apples
The changes to the 2012 Honda CBR1000RR seem minimalistic at first, but like our parents (also) taught us, never judge a book by its cover. Point in mind, we headed to Infineon Raceway in Northern California, site of the CBR press launch, to see what the laundry list of changes added up to. Infineon Raceway has long been a stop on the AMA Pro Road Racing circuit, and is hands down one of the most physically demanding tracks the series visits, with minimal straights, blind rises and a cherry on top. What makes the track such a challenge, however, also makes it a great place to test the new suspension components and the overall handling of Honda's new package.

Typical Northern California weather delayed the first session, and it wasn’t until the fog cleared that the U.S.-spec Dunlop D211 GP-A race tires (the bike will ship to the States with either Bridgestone S20 or Dunlop Q2 tires) were taken off the tire warmers that had coddled them all morning. The ambient—and track—temperature eventually rose, and consequently our comfort level did as well, allowing us to get more aggressive with the bike. Aggressive riding doesn’t faze the new CBR though, which is one of the most composed, compliant bikes we’ve ridden in some time.

What makes the 2012 1000RR better than its predecessor (and we can assert this since Honda had a handful of ’11 models at the launch to compare) is the new Showa BPF, which keeps the bike completely poised when hard on the brakes. Entering the second-gear turn seven we noticed the biggest difference: compared to the ’11 model, we were able to brake both deeper and harder. The new Honda doesn’t hiccup under the increased load either, and feels more composed than its predecessor, whose rear end moves around entering equally tight corners. Bump absorption mid-corner is worth noting too, and we noticed this in the famed Carousel (turn six), a large-radius downhill left-hand corner that’s made more challenging by ripples in the pavement. In contrast to the superb feel of the BPF, the cartridge-type fork of the ’11 model feels harsh and provides less feedback to the rider.

Equally as favorable is the new Showa Balance-Free shock, although the difference between it and the standard shock is not as easy to discern at speed. Where we noticed the biggest difference is cresting Infineon’s many rises, over which the 2011 CBR would unload and unsettle in its transition from compression to rebound. Feel from the rear of the new bike is more linear over the same crests, which allows the bike to drive off the corners better. Honda also claims the Balance-Free shock provides more rear tire grip, although we weren’t able to spin the rear much on either the 2011 or 2012 model thanks to the sticky Dunlop D211 GP-A tires.

The changes to the fuel injection settings are minimal, claims Honda, but the change is drastic on the track. This is especially the case in a tight chicane, where you have to transition from right to left and pick up the throttle all in one fluid motion without upsetting the chassis or compromising grip. It’s not to say the Honda of yesteryear was abrupt, in fact we’ve always raved about the smooth transition from off throttle to on. It’s just that, with the 2012 model, it literally feels like the twist grip is connected to the rear wheel.

There’s much more for Honda to be proud of, and the one thing that sticks out is the new LCD instrumentation; it could be the best we’ve used on a production bike to date. What makes the unit stand out from that of the Ducati or Kawasaki ZX-10R unit (which is a slightly different setup, of course) is the screen and high level of contrast that makes visibility a nonissue no matter where the sun is. And not only does the gauge look drastically better than the analog unit of yesteryear, but it finally has a gear position indicator. It’s a small addition no doubt, but we’ve been waiting (impatiently) for the indicator these past few years!

Even with its improved suspension and trick new LCD dash working well for us on the track, we still can’t help but wonder how much the Honda would benefit from a bump in top-end power? Midrange power is clearly not a concern, and there is still gobs of it anywhere past 6000 rpm, but the bike begins to peter out past the 12,000 rpm mark. On a tight track like Infineon, the lack of top-end power doesn’t hurt the CBR, but get the bike on a faster circuit, and the BMW or Kawasaki will simply walk circles around it down the front straight.

A Mixed Bag of Tricks
That midrange power is, however, what has long made the Honda an excellent performer on the street, which is where we spent the remainder of our time with the bike. Unfortunately, the street ride was affected by wet weather, which left us testing the the C-ABS model's reworked ABS package more than anything. The calibration on the '12 model is most noticeable when using the rear brake by itself. Because less pressure is applied to the front calipers when the rear brake is applied, however, we actually noticed the 2011 model comes to a stop much quicker than the 2012 model during a rear-pedal-only panic stop. It's worth noting though that the new CBR comes to a stop in a more controlled manner during said stops. Feel at the lever is still on the numb side.

The Balance-Free shock and BPF front end turn the CBR into an even more pleasant street bike, with above-par bump absorption qualities that make the bike much more compliant and comfortable over any stretch of road. The fuel injection changes are welcomed too, providing near seamless throttle transitions, and there’s only a small amount of driveline lash.

Neither on the track, nor on the street did we feel the layered bodywork “create a large air pocket” around us, but that’s not to say that the bike doesn’t benefit from its makeover—it’s a damn good looking machine, in either the Red, Black or sure-to-be-popular White/Blue/Red color. And thanks to formidable ergonomics, a relatively buzz-free engine and usable mirrors, the CBR1000RR is equally as comfortable on the street as it is on the track.

More Like Apples to Oranges
Honda's goal with the 2012 CBR1000RR wasn't to give it gobs of power, more electronic aids (traction control) or variable power modes. The manufacturer's goal was simply to improve the handling; to make the bike easier to ride and consequently easier to go quicker on. After a full day on a demanding track like Infineon, and a half day on the street, it's clear that Big Red has accomplished its goals. Kudos to Honda then for not jumping on the traction control bandwagon, but instead working with an already proven package and making it work that much better.

The 2012 CBR1000RR will be available by the time you read this, and at $13,800 (add $1000 for ABS), it’s only $400 more than last year’s model—an insignificant bump if you ask us. Stay tuned as we gather the clan and see if the Honda has what it takes to keep up with the new Yamaha, Suzuki, BMW and Ducati.