Five years ago, Honda decided to enter the "middleweight standard" market in Europe by slipping a softened-up version of the CBR600F3 motor into the frame of the budget-oriented Hornet 250 model. The resulting Hornet 600 became a huge sales success overseas, with Honda selling a gazillion of the reasonably priced bikes.
The middleweight Hornet's astounding popularity even gave rise to its own brand-specific racing series, the Hornet Cup.
Now Honda is looking to spread that enthusiasm stateside by bringing the Hornet--rechristened the 599--to the U.S. market. The new middleweight is aimed at a rapidly growing category currently dominated by Suzuki's SV650: the "bang for the buck" class.
The 599 only has a few changes from the tried-and-true Hornet platform. A redesigned fuel tank holds an additional liter of fuel (now 4.5 gallons), and the different shape repositions the rider 15mm forward for better weight distribution. The seat itself has been revamped for greater comfort, and suspension damping rates were firmed up for a more sporting attitude. The engine gets new tuning specs (with the California model utilizing a catalytic converter), and the single round headlight boasts a computer-designed, die-cast aluminum reflector with dual bulbs to improve lighting.
The aforementioned Hornet platform utilizes the 599cc inline-four cylinder from the CBR-F3, but employs smaller 34mm carbs (remember those?), longer intake tracts and extended exhaust head pipes to boost low and midrange power. The chassis is a steel mono-backbone frame that hangs the engine as a stressed member, with an aluminum swingarm out back. The 41mm conventional damping-rod fork and single shock are suitably bare-bones in design, with the fork lacking any adjustment and the shock having only spring preload adjustability. Rolling stock is decently sized, however, with 17-inchers in 3.5-inch width up front and 5.5-inch width out back, both shod with Michelin Pilot Road radials.
Braking duties are handled by twin 296mm discs grabbed by two-piston calipers in front, and a single 220mm disc with a single-piston caliper in the rear.
Our one-day exposure to the new 599 was spent in some of the many twisty canyon roads surrounding Los Angeles that we use for testing. Considering its budget oriented componentry, we were a bit apprehensive at first about flogging the little Honda through twisty pavement; but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the 599 can easily hold its own. Despite the nonadjustability of the suspension components, chassis and wheel control were excellent up to an eight-tenths pace (and we seriously doubt that any potential 599 buyers will approach that level), and handling overall was very agile (a short 55.9-inch wheelbase mates to a tight 25-degree steering-head angle), yet stable--a nice combination for this bike's intended audience. Acceleration from the CBR-F3-based engine was more than adequate, with good, usable power from 6000 rpm up to approximately 11,500 rpm, where the party starts to tail off, and the engine's smooth off-throttle response reminded us why we still like properly dialed-in carburetors.
High marks were also given for the brakes and tires. The 296mm discs and two-piston calipers provided enough power and feel to slow the 599 with ease and control, and the Michelin Pilot Road tires provided all the grip one could need, with very good ride quality.
We were quite impressed with Honda's new 599, and its concept of simplicity means the bike's performance can be had for only $7099. However, the 599 faces some stiff competition in the form of the $5899 Suzuki SV650 and the $6499 Yamaha FZ6. A "Bang for the Buck" comparison is surely looming over the horizon....
Suggested retail price: $7099
•Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC inline four
•Bore x stroke: 65 x 45.2mm
•Compression ratio: 12.0:1
•Induction: Four, 34mm flat-slide CV carburetors
•Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Michelin Pilot Road
•Rear tire: 180/55ZR-17 Michelin Pilot Road
•Rake/trail: 25 deg./3.9 in. (98mm)
•Wheelbase: 55.9 in. (1420mm)
•Seat height: 31.1 in. (790mm)
•Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal. (17L)
•Claimed dry weight: 401 lbs. (182kg)