WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. - Remember the CBR600F2/3/4? Honda’s middleweight sportbikes earned a solid reputation by combining competitive performance with daily-driver usability.
The mount was capable of everything from daily commuting to fun weekend riding to the occasional trackday. And it wasn’t just Honda, either, as bikes like the Yamaha YZF600R and Kawasaki ZX-6E offered similar all-around performance at reasonable price points.
But racing technology trickled down to the street, and sportbikes got more and more focused, as customers demanded the sharpest, most aggressive machines that money could buy. Soon, track-focused supersports like the YZF-R6 and CBR600RR completely replaced their more broadband siblings on dealership floors.
And although prices have remained remarkably stable for these new machines when adjusted for inflation (a 1999 CBR600F4 retailed for $7,899, or just over $10,900 in today’s money, making the $11,490 MSRP for a CBR600RR look quite reasonable), there’s no denying that the $11,000 to $12,000 MSRPs of a new 600cc supersport bike are out of reach for many young, new riders.
Therefore, to bring back both a do-anything middleweight sportbike and provide a high quality four-cylinder sports option for budget-minded riders, Honda has created the 2014 CBR650F.
The CBR650F is an all-new platform built from the ground-up in Honda’s Thai manufacturing facility. Compared to the standard approach of using a detuned sportbike engine, Honda developed the 649cc inline-four specifically for its new middleweight — the first four-pot Honda engine built in Thailand.
Honda’s engineers tuned the CBR650F powerplant to produce exceptional low-end torque for a middleweight four, with decent pulling power from as low as 4,000 rpm. This low-end flexibility makes the engine easy to manage for less experienced riders, while still providing the high-revving sound, feel and prestige of a four-cylinder compared to twin-cylinder options in the class. The EFI, clutch and transmission all do their jobs as expected from a Honda inline-four middleweight, too.
Holding the new engine is a compact twin-spar steel frame surrounded by high quality bodywork—again, differentiating it from traditional budget-minded middleweight sportbikes. Sportbike-spec wheels and tires mount simple, but very effective, brakes complete with optional ABS. And suspension parts, while rudimentary compared to the cutting-edge components found on a CBR600RR, are plush, balanced, and more than up to the job of commuting and modest sport riding. In particular, the linkage-less rear shock was underwhelming under a heavy rider at speed, but the basic damper-rod front fork offered surprisingly good feedback and wheel control.
In short, the CBR650F is directly channeling much of what made the CBR600F4 such a great all-around package. The 650 is smooth, easy to ride, handles well and looks like an aspirational product, not just a machine a rider is expected to own for a season before moving on.
Of course, Honda does describe the CBR650F as a “mid-sports” product, a machine that bridges the gap between entry-level bikes like the CBR500R and supersports like the CBR-RR. But although the CBR650F doesn’t offer the cutting edge performance that the CBR600F4 did in its day, the new bike retails for $8,499 ($8,999 with ABS), a price that significantly undercuts the F4’s MSRP in both current and 1999-value dollars.
The real question is how well the CBR650F will fair against the established “mid-sport” middleweight options in the market. Compared to the Kawasaki Ninja 650 and the Yamaha FZ6R, the CBR-F offers a significant boost in peak power, but will retail for $800 more than the Yamaha and a full $1000 more than a Ninja 650 ABS when similarly equipped.
Whether the Honda’s combination of torquey four-cylinder performance and classy styling win fans will quickly become apparent with the CBR650F hitting dealerships.