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.
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.
We featured Mike Case’s marathon...
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.
Stripped of its bodywork,...
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.
The original CBR900RR was...
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.
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.”
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.
When our ‘98 turbo CBR got...
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.
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 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.