Then and Now: Honda CBR900RR 20th Anniversary | CBR Timeline

Tadao Baba’s mandate of light weight and user-friendly power still rings true — 20 years later.

Tadao Baba's mandate of light weight and user-friendly power still rings true—20 years later.Jorge Nunez

In the spring of 1992, Honda unveiled the motorcycle that would change the way we think about sportbikes: the CBR900RR. On the surface, and eyeing the component parts, it was nothing special: a garden-variety liquid-cooled inline four wrapped in a twin-spar aluminum frame. The CBR even had a bit of old tech in the form of a conventional front fork and 16-inch front wheel, whereas the competition had moved on to inverted forks and 17-inch hoops. No, it was all kind of ho-hum for the time. That is, until you saw how much it weighed.

Scaling in at 457 pounds with a full tank of fuel, the CBR was 75 pounds lighter than the next lightest liter-class machine at the time, the Yamaha FZR1000. The Suzuki GSX-R1100? 114 pounds heavier. Kawasaki ZX-11? 144 pounds heavier. The 900 was just four pounds heavier than Honda’s own middleweight at the time, the CBR600F2. Even today, the 900 would be considered light; the 2012 BMW S 1000 RR, winner of our last literbike comparison test, is two pounds heavier. Even the current CBR1000RR is just 12 pounds lighter than its 20-year-old counterpart.

Stripped of its bodywork, you can see the CBR900RR's simplistic nature. While trendy gadgets and acronym-named gizmos had been increasingly weighing down sportbikes in the eighties, the 900 was a refreshing change with no unnecessary parts.Courtesy of Honda

While the 900 was not stunningly powerful like the class-powerhouse ZX-11, it did make usable power that made it a favorite for real-world riding. Because it was originally intended to be a 750 and then enlarged to 893cc later in its development by lengthening the stroke, the motor produced strong midrange power. “Its long-stroke engine positively leaps off the low-end and delivers a powerhouse punch in the midrange that, when combined with the bike’s feathery weight, leaves most of the heavyweight competition reeling. In terms of real-world acceleration at real-world speeds, the hard-charging CBR9 has few equals.” That quote is from our road test of the ‘95 model, which — even though the engine was unchanged from its original form — was still more than a match for the open-class competition.

Behind the CBR was Large Project Leader Tadao Baba, who worked his way through Honda first in the machine shop, then as a test rider before moving on to the R&D department, a decidedly different path than the company’s typical engineering types (“The Father of the Sportbike,” July ‘12). The new model also represented another corporate shift for Honda: For the previous decade, V-4 machinery had been carrying the Honda wing in the sportbike category. A steady stream of Interceptors and VFR models had been the norm, while the RC30 and RC45 were to carry the flag in competition. Meanwhile, the inline-four models had steadily worked their way into sport-touring territory. Honda’s current liter-class sportbike at the time was the CBR1000F Hurricane — all 596 pounds of it — and it carried on as a sport-touring machine well into the ‘90s.

When our '98 turbo CBR got tangled up with a car, we built it into this beautiful full-blown project bike. A Mr. Turbo kit boosted horsepower to 172, while Eurobikes bodywork painted by Jim Tatone of Gerard Design provided the stunning looks.Jorge Nunez

One venue where the CBR had a rough time finding a home was in top-level racing. Superbike rules limited displacement to 750cc for four-cylinders, and the RC models were limited-quantity, expensive homologation specials; the 900, developed as a street bike first and foremost, was not the everyman’s superbike platform many had hoped for. Still, the 900 left its mark in AMA competition with three GTO Endurance championships and Formula Xtreme championships from ‘97 to ‘99. The CBR also featured prominently in the run-whatcha-brung Formula USA series and other open-displacement race series around the world.

Sport Rider was but a gleam in our publisher's eye at the time, but Motorcyclist named the CBR its Motorcycle of the Year and most significant bike of the (still young) decade. In the magazine's road test of the new bike, Nick Ienatsch — who would soon be the editor of SR — wrote, "In the CBR900RR, I've found a fantastically fun motorcycle that takes motorcycling a step beyond where it is now with pure function; what happens after that initial step is up to you, but the climb is worth the view."

We featured Mike Case's marathon CBR900RR at 100,000 miles (June '96) and again at 200,000 miles (June '99). The Honda was still running strong in '99 at 216,000 miles, but was looking decidedly second-hand.Jorge Nunez

Of course, the CBR900RR was on the cover of the very first issue of SR, along with the FZR, GSX-R and ZX as part of that issue’s open sportbike comparison test. This brought to light the first chink in the CBR’s lightweight armor: a flighty front end with vague handling. “On the gnarled back roads of central California, the CBR was noticeably more jittery than anything else,” we wrote, and this led to the Yamaha winning that comparison test, even though the Honda lapped a dominating .8 seconds faster than any of the others during our track day at Laguna Seca.

The 900 went largely unchanged for eight years, an eternity in sporbike terms but another indication of how important the light-weight premise proved to be. Its popularity during those years is easily judged by thumbing through back issues; the CBR is often on the cover, and even more often found inside as a project bike, custom bike, reader’s ride, racing feature or in some form of road test. Then Editor Ienatsch was part of the title-winning Two Brothers Racing and Erion Racing AMA GTO Endurance teams; in later years, current Editor Kunitsugu’s own ‘93 model was often the guinea pig for testing aftermarket products or demonstrating riding skills.

The original CBR900RR was winning races right up until it was replaced by the 929 in 2000. Kurtis Roberts won the 1999 AMA Formula Xtreme championship on an Erion Racing 900, and won again the following year on an Erion Racing 929.Jorge Nunez

The CBR900, and in its later forms the 929 and 954, just kept getting lighter and more powerful. The CBR954RR was the featherlight at 429 pounds fully fueled, but in ‘04 the CBR seemingly lost its way. Baba was no longer in charge. “Mass centralization” and “MotoGP technology” were the new buzzwords, and the CBR ballooned from the class lightweight to the heavyweight in the transition to a full 1000cc. Certainly, Honda was not alone and all the manufacturers struggled to keep weight in check when faced with ever-tightening emissions laws. Even in our ‘12 literbike comparison no four-cylinder could match the 954’s weight, and that’s 10 years on.

Still, in ‘08 the CBR returned to a focus on light weight and good, useable power — familiar ground at last. In fact, many of the comments from our tests of the original 893cc models would fit right in with descriptions of the current generation CBR, and vice-versa. “There’s definitely plenty to like about the big CBR, including a responsive engine with a solid midrange punch that launches off corners, and an agile-feeling chassis that lets you put it anywhere in a corner,” we wrote of the CBR1000RR in our ‘12 literbike comparison test. Sound familiar?

“The brief was to create a sportbike with total control that was easy to ride,” said Tadao Baba of the ‘92 CBR900RR. “This was my world, my ideal bike.” Twenty years on, the ‘12 CBR1000RR remains true to Baba’s original.

CBR TIMELINE

1993Jorge Nunez

[1993] The CBR900RR made it to the USA as a '93 model and was a huge leap in sportbike performance at the time. Our original test bike made approximately 114 horsepower and weighed just 457 pounds, a potent combination. Quarter-mile time was 10.48 seconds, and top speed was 160 mph. Motorcyclist called it, "A middleweight with the punch of a monster bike." The premiere issue of SR included an open-bike comparison test with this note about the CBR: "No production motorcycle, with the possible exception of the ZX-11, can provide the quality and quantity of giggles this little Honda can."

1995Courtesy of Honda

[1995] To address complaints regarding the 900's flighty handling, Honda upgraded the suspension components with recalibrated damping rates and new compression adjusters up front; a host of detail changes also included redesigned bodywork. Weight, horsepower, quarter-mile time and top speed were virtually unchanged from the original model. From our Feb. '95 road test: "All (our testers) felt the changes made a significant improvement and agreed that they could ride more quickly with the same margin for safety on the new machine."

1996Jorge Nunez

[1996] Just one year later, the CBR was again updated but this time with a goal of more street-oriented performance. To that end, revised ergonomics were more comfortable, and the chassis was made less stiff in some ways for an "optimum balance of rigidity." The suspension was again updated, and another round of detail changes was implemented to match the new chassis. The engine grew from 893cc to 919cc with a 1mm bore increase, with compression raised slightly. "The result takes Honda another step forward in the quest for the perfect big-bore sportbike," we wrote in our April '96 road test.

1998Jorge Nunez

[1998] Honda finally addressed the 900's vague handling and fit triple clamps with 5mm less offset to increase trail (a fix Kaz Yoshima had addressed long before with aftermarket clamps). A stiffer frame and swingarm also helped, as did a nine-pound weight reduction. Another round of detail changes saw more than 80 percent of the engine's parts redesigned and the engine more powerful, but horsepower, quarter-mile time and top-speed remained infuriatingly almost identical to the original numbers. "In short," wrote Associate Editor Peter Jones in his first ride article, "the bike is now a prince, supplying the confidence-inspiring fun that it had long promised."

2000Jorge Nunez

[2000] A complete revamp of the CBR saw an increase in displacement (and name) to 929cc along with fuel injection for the all-new short-stroke powerplant. The chassis was likewise all-new, using Honda's "pivotless" technology that had the swingarm pivoting in the crankcases and (finally) a 17-inch front wheel. Weight dropped by 14 pounds to 434 while horsepower finally rose to 122. From our June '00 road test: "Honda has basically answered the call, and stepped up to the plate with a successor to the venerable CBR900RR that puts the manufacturer right back in the thick of the battle for open-class sportbike supremacy."

2002Jorge Nunez

[2002] Another jump in displacement and name to 954cc came courtesy of a 1mm increase in bore. Higher compression, hotter cam timing, larger throttle bodies, and other tweaks to the engine increased horsepower to just over 130. The frame and swingarm were beefed up in some areas but weakened in others, and changes to the chassis dropped a further five pounds in weight. "Honda has created one of the sharpest, most maneuverable literbike rocketships to ever hit the pavement, while still retaining the user-friendliness of its predecessor," we raved in our June '02 road test.

2004Jorge Nunez

[2004] A complete redesign included another boost in displacement to 998cc via a longer stroke; a cassette-type transmission, the addition of shower-style fuel injectors and ram air intake were also among the engine upgrades. The chassis was designed with an emphasis on mass centralization, and featured Honda's electronic steering damper and new Unit Pro-Link rear suspension. Horsepower increased to 150, while top speed was 175 mph and quarter-mile time was 10.16 seconds; unfortunately weight went up by a whopping 37 pounds to 466 pounds wet, heavier than even the original 1992 model.

2006Jorge Nunez

[2006] While the CBR may have looked unchanged for '06, significant updates to the engine and chassis shed 15 pounds and added nine horsepower, while quarter-mile time dipped into the nine-second range. The engine received higher compression and hotter cams, while weight was cut from the frame, swingarm, exhaust system and more than 60 percent of the bike's individual components. "The 1000 is much more playful and entertaining to ride, and especially so if you've spent time on some of the other current literbikes," noted Senior Editor Trevitt in his first ride piece.

2008Courtesy of Honda

[2008] The all-new 1000 returned to the tenet of the original 900, with a further 11-pound weight reduction making the '08 model lightest in its class. Slightly more oversquare cylinder dimensions, larger titanium valves, a slipper clutch and a more compact design were among the engine updates, while the frame and swingarm were lighter and more rigid. Peak horsepower decreased slightly, although midrange was significantly improved; quarter-mile time dropped to 9.73 seconds. Trevitt again, in his May '08 first ride article: "The new CBR1000RR is an impressive piece, raising the bar for user-friendliness and handling in the class."

2012Jorge Nunez

[2012] Modest updates aimed at making the 1000 easer to ride included wheels, changes to the EFI and new suspension components in the form of Showa's Big Piston Fork and Balance-Free shock. Sharper styling and new LCD instruments were also included. Weight increased by five pounds, and most performance stats were unchanged. From our Sept. '12 literbike comparison test: "The Honda is refined in every sense of the word, with a composed feeling that immediately instills confidence in inexperienced and experienced riders alike.

Riding the CBR900RR Today

Then and now—Riding the CBR900RR today.Fran Kuhn

Bradley Adams
The paperwork for SR publisher Dave Sonsky's CBR900RR instantly ages the bike; the menacing Honda is roughly 20 years old, and has enough miles under its belt to warrant an eternal trip to the back of the garage or a designated page on Craigslist, where it would ultimately be replaced by something with that fresh-off-the-showroom-floor smell. But the CBR900RR is something special, and consequently deserves more than a slot in the corner of some dilapidated shed. It deserves to be ridden and ridden hard; this is the bike that set the standard for modern-day sportbikes after all.

Riding the CBR on a daily basis is even more evidence of why it’s better off on the road than tucked away in the garage; people still pay it the attention it deserves. We haven’t ridden a bike in recent months that turns more heads than Dave’s 900RR — not even a Ducati Panigale does the trick. And in the canyons, the bike has you convinced it’s no more than ten years young, which is a true testament to how advanced the design was for its time.

This is our publisher (and former Super Streetbike Editor—hence the chrome) Dave Sonsky's personal CBR, a '93 model that features some upgrades. The aftermarket support for the 900 was—and still is— quite strong, with many companies providing everything from ram air intake systems to big-bore kits to complete chassis assemblies.Fran Kuhn

Don’t let us fool you; the 900 is a much different animal than its modern-day equivalents. It feels rough around the edges, gruff and ready to throw a blow your way at a moment’s notice. The bike’s got an in-your-face attitude that makes riding it worthwhile; it doesn’t disappear underneath you like today’s utterly refined literbikes do, and it requires your attention at every second of the ride. Pay it the respect it deserves, and the bike will reward you with some of the most cherished miles you’ve ridden.

The chassis rewards the rider with bigger bronze than the rider that's smooth and precise with his inputs. Put simply, you have to ride the CBR900RR else it will ride you, and never was this more apparent than after a back-to-back ride on a current-model CBR. Even though the 900 is still lighter than some of today's track weapons, it feels heavier; more finicky fueling wise, and the fit and finish is a notch behind anything that's rolled off a Japanese manufacturer's assembly line in recent years. But with all this in mind, we still couldn't help but want to continue riding the bike. It may be twenty years old at this point, but it still manages to shock your system the way a true sportbike should, and that's something every enthusiast can appreciate. As for us, we're just glad Mr. Sonsky kept one close by. SR