Oy vey, how things have changed in just 20 years. Though the Canon was still upon the Wing and His eye upon the light meter, in 1999 Bush II had not yet ascended to the throne, the Millennium and 9/11 had not yet occurred, and the Honda CBR600 was still one of the biggest-selling motorcycles in the world – even though the new F4 still wore carburetors and MO’s illustrious founder still wore the pants. Good times. Let us revisit the Las Vegas launch. Amen.
First Ride: 1999 Honda CBR600F4
Little, Yellow, Different
After months of waiting and a flurry of rumors and half-truths, Honda has finally introduced the latest version of the best-selling sport bike in the English-speaking world — the CBR600F4. For those of you who care only about raw numbers, dig in: 410 pounds wet, 98.9 hp at the rear wheel (ram air not factored in), 45.6 ft-lbs of torque, 24° rake, four-piston brakes, 48 miles per gallon on the highway. Everyone else should read on. This bike is about much more than numbers.To showcase the outright performance of the F4, Honda sprung for a day on the AMA course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a high-speed track with long sweepers, a second and third gear infield and a flat-out run on the banks that reaches speeds of up to 150 mph. Honda also brought along a few 1998 CBR600F3s for comparison.
“Head-to-head, the F4 retains the same character of the venerable F3, but it does just about everything better.”
It has more power, it weighs less, it comes equipped with better brakes and suspension, it’s quicker steering, less buzzy, has wider wheels and provides more feedback. This is not to say that the F3 was not a great motorcycle, it is just that the F4 surpasses the F3 in all measurable categories.
Our reactions to riding the stock rubber on the track were mixed. Initially, we couldn’t get enough heat in the tires to go fast enough to evaluate them.Eventually, we grew tired of riding slowly and when we began to throw the bike around enough to heat the Dunlop D207 street-compound tires (which are distinctly different from the D207GP race tires), we then found the chassis to be more than adequate.
But even with ill-equipped tires it handled great at the track, although one staffer, after spending the initial portion of the intro riding the F3, needed time to get used to the quicker-steering F4.
The F4’s new four-piston brakes are a big improvement over the two-piston units of the CBR600F3. Power and feel is exemplary, without a hint of fade. The brakes work well with the new aluminum Pro-Frame chassis, which is very stable while braking mid-corner. On the gas or off, if you need to change direction, the F4 responds without complaint.The transmission is extremely smooth, but it tends to seek neutral when shifting between first and second. That’s great if you’re waiting at a stoplight, but it is not particularly desirable when you’re entering a corner.
Overall, at the track we came to two conclusions: The F4 is a big improvement over the F3 and if you’re riding on a track, bring along a pair of real tires.American Honda gave us an F4 to ride home and, predictably, we ran into trouble.
Five miles north of the California border, we were pulled over for allegedly speeding while doing an impromptu top-gear roll-on that reached speeds legal counsel said we should refrain from mentioning in this story.
Even so, the Nevada State Trooper was impressed with the bike and accepted our lame defense that it wasn’t our fault, the motorcycle made us do it. He let us off with only a warning.For the trip back to LA, Honda equipped the F4 with a fresh set of tires and reset the suspension to stock. If you do buy this bike, we recommend you tighten up the setup before hitting your favorite back roads.
Compared to the track settings the stock suspension settings felt like a Cadillac El Dorado.
The point? Honda’s stock suspension offers excellent adjustment range, easily adaptable to be at home on the track or the boulevard.
While not exactly luxury car plushness, Honda kept intact the comfortable ergonomics that made the F3 such a popular street bike. Weather protection and wind management have been improved and we covered the entire distance back to LA comfortably.With the soft suspension setup, even LA’s notorious expansion joints couldn’t cause the F4 to buck. It is in these conditions that the ultra-soft carcass of the street D207s really shines.
Honda decreased reciprocating mass (pistons, rods, pins — parts that move in a straight line) and increased rotating mass (crankshaft and flywheels — things that spin) for better mid-range torque. (In a perfect engine, all the mass rotates, thus manufacturers try to keep the reciprocating weight as close to zero as possible.)
There is also another benefit to this: An average fuel economy of 48 mpg on the highway, which gives the F4 an approximate touring range of 220 miles. Even riding full-on in the twisties the F4 averaged 33 mpg. Not bad.Back home in the mountains and canyons, we discovered something that wasn’t so obvious on the track: At spirited street speeds the F4 is ridiculously easy to ride. Whether you ride with a lot of body lean or prefer aggressive counter-steering, the CBR600F4 will adapt to your style. It takes very little work to ride and it is very forgiving in case you encounter loose road surfaces or whenever you might need to make mid-corner adjustments. The F4 is a great street bike.
All the suspension settings — rebound, preload, compression — are easily accessible and everything can be adjusted with the tool kit Honda provides beneath the key-removable seat, first ever for a Honda CBR600 sport bike. We made adjustments in under five minutes on the side of the road. Everything was stiffened up one-half turn from stock and we set rear preload to three. The bike handled great on the back roads but was too stiff for the freeway. When we get the F4 for a longer test, we’ll try to figure out how to dial it in for both the freeway and in the tight stuff.
The Honda CBR600F4 is a motorcycle you can race at a national and cruise comfortably on the freeway with little more than a change in suspension and good set of tires. It certainly lived up to everyone’s expectations of being a great street bike that can haul ass around a racetrack as well. Of course, you know what this means: Another 600 shootout. Stay tuned.