Riding the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP, A Review

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When you talk about the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP, the conversation starts with several predictable openers.

First, there is the name, which is like some sort of crazy Gilbert & Sullivan routine about majors who are generals or some other thing. The term “Triple R” was floated at our launch, and I hope it catches on – I’m starting to get a TMJ disorder from saying the full name from Honda.

Then, there is the incredible duration of time that has passed since Honda last debuted a truly new sport bike model (the year was 2008, for those keeping count). For comparison, it took J. K. Rowling less time to make the entire Harry Potter movie franchise than Honda could come out with a proper new Fireblade.

Throw in a quick repartee about the addition of winglets on modern superbikes, and you have your basic bike night bro-dude conversation about the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP all figured out.

The conversation should turn around a different narrative though – one that focuses on how Honda has come back to the superbike market with an absolute beast of an offering.

If you don’t mind, I would like to have that conversation about the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP with you now, as this machine is not only a landmark for the Japanese brand, but also now the new reference point in the superbike segment.

That New, New

On the technical side of the Honda CBR1000RR-R, there is a great deal to tell, as the motorcycle is an all-new machine from the minds at Big Red.

Before we get into the nitty gritty from the spec-sheet, there is an important philosophical discussion to have about the CBR1000RR-R. This is a bike built for the race track first, and the road second.

This is a reversal on how Honda has portrayed its CBR lineup since its inception, and that means the 2021 model is a rather large departure for the brand.

With that focus in mind then, we can begin to understand the lengths that Honda has gone to in order to produce a superbike that will become the new benchmark in the class (as it surely already has).

These changes start in the CBR1000RR-R’s 999cc inline-four motor, which features a MotoGP-derived 81mm bore that is sizably larger than the 76mm bore size from the previous generation engine.

Using the same forged aluminum pistons that are found on the Honda RC213V-S MotoGP replica, Honda has also incorporated titanium connecting rods, finger-follower rocker arms, and a diamond like coating (DLC) on the cam lobes (a first for a production motorcycle) – all in the name of moar power.

In European spec, all of these features culminate in a jaw-dropping 214hp (160 kW) peak horsepower figure, with peak torque coming in at 83 lbs•ft (113 Nm).

However for the United States, we get the Diet Coke version, with the horsepower reduced to 186hp, along with a lower rev limit, thanks to EPA noise requirements (the culprit being engine noise, particularly from the bike’s intake system).

Honda is certainly not the only motorcycle brand forced to detune its superbike creations for the American market, though it is perhaps the manufacturer being the most up-front about that reality with American customers. That’s something to think about…

Moving around the engine, we find Honda’s new twin-spar aluminum “diamond frame” chassis, which is said to have increased vertical and torsional rigidity (18% and 9%, respectively), while horizontal rigidity has been reduced by 11%.

The swingarm is longer than before (+30.5mm), and comprised of aluminum that has been stamped to 18 different thicknesses in order to tune the flexibility just right for mechanical grip and rider feedback.

Honda says that swinagm horizontal rigidity has been reduced by 15%, while vertical rigidity remains the same as the previous generation.

On the Fireblade SP model, suspension comes from Öhlins and is semi-active.

This is the new NPX electronic suspension from the Swedish brand, which I get into the workings of later in this review, but it is rapidly become the new go-to piece in the superbike segment.

The one aspect that I truly enjoy about the NPX system is that it breaks the suspension operation down into understandable characteristics, rather than just crew chief shorthand. Öhlins calls this “objective based tuning” or “OBTi”.

Objective based tuning means that the regular motorcycle enthusiasts can now make changes to their suspension settings based purely on what they want the motorcycle to do better, rather than having to leverage a complex understanding of compression and rebound damping dynamics.

It’s a game-changer, in this regard, though I have my reservations about the system as a whole, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Moving further down the 43mm fork tubes, we see that Honda is using the Stylema calipers from Brembo, which differ from the M50 caliper mostly in minimal weight savings and in heat dissipation.

The bigger change to Honda’s brake package is tougher to spot visually, but the 330mm dual discs at the front boast a larger diameter, at a thickness of 5mm.

Of course there is a six-axis IMU powering the electronics, which means that the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP benefits from cornering ABS that comes with two levels of intervention (ABS can also be disabled).

The rest of the electronics suite is what you would expect from a modern superbike with an IMU. There are five power modes (via ride-by-wire), nine traction control levels (plus off), three engine braking levels, and three wheelie control levels (which can be disabled as well).

Interestingly, while the slip-rate control changes with the traction control levels, it is not a separate selectable setting, as we have seen on some other bikes.

Lastly on the electronics front, the Fireblade SP comes with launch control, an electronic steering damper, and a 5″ TFT dash.

Of course, a full tech briefing on the 2021 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP wouldn’t be complete unless we talked about the addition of winglets to Honda’s flagship model.

Honda approached this design with the hopes of keeping the front profile of the CBR1000RR-R as aerodynamic as possible (the new Fireblade SP boasts the lowest coefficient of friction – 0.270 – in the superbike class, by the way).

To that end, Honda’s engineers came up with the winglet pods that we see on each side of the side fairing, and the downforce created is said to be the same as what was generated by the 2018 Honda RC213V MotoGP race bike.

To be fair though, the winglets seem mostly to be a response by Honda to make sure that nothing was left off the table when making the CBR1000RR-R for market. By this rider’s measure, their performance gains are minimal in reality.

Worth the Wait

It seems trite to say, but my first impression of the Honda CBR1000RR-R when I climbed aboard it was that this wasn’t anything at all like its predecessor. This is a critique that cuts both ways.

Flicking over and through the faux Corkscrew that is Turn 5 at Thunderhill, it was obvious that Honda has traded in the nimble and light CBR1000RR for the now heavier and moderately more cumbersome CBR1000RR-R.

The added weight is noticeable in the roll rate of the machine, especially through this technical section of the track, but it is not overwhelmingly poor in performance.

It does highlight though one of the few unforgivable missteps on the Fireblade SP though: the cast aluminum wheels. One has to wonder if lighter wheels would help the performance drop here (especially since the older SP bike has them), and one really has to wonder why on a $28,500 machine forged aluminum wheels were not used.

The fact is that the Triple R isn’t the über-flickable Double R, and we can think of a few other machines in this category that would struggle even more (I’m looking at you, Aprilia RSV4).

If you are looking for other negative trade-offs to the old machine, then I have to stop you right here, as the CBR1000RR-R outpaces its predecessor in just about every other way.

The first true highlight is the motor, which has a broad and linear power curve when it is above 7,000 rpm.

With 186hp on tap in the US market, the CBR1000RR-R isn’t quite a rocket ship, but it doesn’t suffer from the massive power deficiencies found on the previous generation machine.

You will want to keep the steam building above the 7,000 rpm mark, as there isn’t much go-juice below it, but on the race track, the rev range gives you more than enough room to play with, which is more than the BMW S1000RR in US-spec can say.

The exhaust note, courtesy of Akrapovic, is raspy and fun, though it takes a while to pick out where you are in relation to the redline from just the sound and feel of the bike. Such is the paradox of smooth torque curves.

Once you do reach your shift point though, Honda again shows the refinements brought to the CBR1000RR-R lineup. The gearbox is silky smooth, and the up/down quickshifter perfectly compliments its operation.

This is a large departure from the CBR1000RR, which was prone to false neutrals, and exhibited a quickshifter that often couldn’t be trusted. Editor’s note: fair point to Honda, the Double R bikes we had at this press launch were leaps better than the units given to us for testing a few years ago.

In fact, the whole electronics package of the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP is heads and shoulders better than the previous generation. For starters, it actually works. 

The traction control system isn’t nearly as rough and abrupt as before, and instead you hardly notice its interventions on corner exit when you are ham-fisted and sliding for glory (as it should be).

The controls are far more intuitive as well, and easily adjustable while at speed on the machine. I cannot express how impressed I was with the gains that Honda has made on this front from the previous generation superbike, with one caveat.

The engine braking control was the only system I found to be not perfect, and it would show its deficiencies going into the very fast entry that is Turn 1 at Thunderhill.

Coming down the front straight, banging from 4th to 2nd gear, and tipping into the first turn, you can feel the calibration of the engine braking control at its highest setting driving the bike forward.

The first time I felt it, I thought I had hit a false neutral in the gear-shifting process, because the bike had no drag…and almost felt like it was accelerating slightly.

Checking up, confirming a positive gear engagement, adjusting a setting, and giving it a few more goes, it was obvious that the EBC was to blame for this unnerving sensation.

It is a subtle issue, and certainly far from being a dealbreaker, but also a curious one, as it is the first time I have seen it on a modern superbike.

That being said, I still think the engineers at Honda have done a masterclass job of salvaging what was easily the worst electronics package in the liter-bike segment, and they have now turned it into one of the better ones on the superbike market.

The dash is clear to read, the controls are intuitive, and engine braking aside, the rider aids can be depended upon to work as advertised. I do wish there was an independent slide control setting, however.

Moving from electrons to the hard bits, it is difficult to find too much fault as well.

The CBR1000RR-R Fireblade is a true Honda – it feels planted and steady, even as you push it harder and harder. While you do lose some nimbleness to the previous generation, the new Fireblade SP is stable on its side, and generates sizable amount of mechanical grip.

The Brembo Stylema calipers work as you would expect – they stop good, and handle heat quite well, which was good news for us in our 95º weather.

Pirelli Supercorsa SP tires come stock in the US market, and provide loads of grip as well, while lasting suitably for the day. With a little conservation and management, you can probably get two tracks day out of set before relegating them to street-only duty.

And overall, the fit and finish of the bike is quite high – as you would expect from a Honda product.

Oddly enough, I spent most of my time on the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP focusing on the machine’s semi-active Öhlins NPX suspension.

This is the new generation of electronic suspension from Öhlins, and it is worth talking about a little bit more, as it has the ability to fundamentally change the way the bike feels.

I have another story coming out soon that explores this idea in more detail, but as it pertains to the Fireblade SP, I was actually more impressed with the units than I have been on bikes from other manufacturers.

The suspension comes with three manual modes and three automatic modes for the Fireblade SP’s damping settings.

Within those settings, Öhlins breaks them down into five criteria for the track mode: front stiffness, rear stiffness, braking behavior, cornering behavior, and acceleration behavior.

This means that riders are adjusting the compression and rebound damping in terms that a human understands, not just an engineer, which is a welcomed shift in the motorcycle industry, as these suspension pieces are incredibly important to how the bike feels underneath the rider.

This can be explained easily by putting the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP into any one of the automatic modes, where the preset and adaptive settings can radically change how the bike feels from the manual setup, and often the automatic modes create a situation where the bike feels like a different machine from corner to corner on the race track.

And here is where Honda deserves some credit, because on other superbikes with this suspension package, the automatic mode is an automatic “no thank you” from this rider – it kills the riding experience and creates a motorcycle that seems unsuited  and unpredictable for track riding at speed.

Honda’s calibration seems a bit more thought out, however.

I would still suggest that A-level riders will want to keep things in the manual space, but Honda’s use of the Öhlins NPX suspension is at least suitable for slower track riders, and of course it shines on the street, which is where electronic suspension is most beneficial.

For those who want to know, dialing in preload is easy, and done with a single wrench, the old-fashioned way.

I am still not convinced that electronic suspension is worth the added cost, complexity, and weight when it comes to a superbike application, but it is at least good to see that the technology is progressing to be more relevant in this space, as is shown here.

Had the base model CBR1000RR-R come to the US, I would perhaps be making arguments for its purchase over the SP, but alas that is not the case for our market.

Yeah, But Would You Buy It?

By all accounts, the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP is good. Really good. We had to wait a long time for a new liter bike from Big Red, but the duration was worth the result.

Honda’s race track focus for the CBR1000RR-R is obvious in the bike’s behavior and layout, and this means that the major deficiencies from the previous generation model have been tackled and overcome.

Let’s cut to the chase, the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP is the best inline-four superbike on the market. It’s powerful, nimble, and sophisticated. And while it’s a bit subjective to say so, it looks pretty good too.

It is not a perfect machine, however.

The Honda CBR1000RR-R comes with a class-leading 214hp in peak power (though that will be 186hp for the US market), but that power comes with the trade-off of the machine being a workout to handle around a race track.

The previous generation CBR1000RR was easily the best handling superbike on the market, and could be ridden all day long, but the CBR1000RR-R loses that advantage.

The sacrifice isn’t a large one, but you definitely come back from a session on the new Fireblade sweating harder than on the older bike.

Part of this is due to the fact that the riding position is much more aggressive, and designed with horse jockey riders in mind.

For the bigger riders in the crowd, changes to rearsets will be necessary for owners who are over six feet in stature, and I wouldn’t mind exploring changes to the bars and seat, in order to make a full tuck more comfortable.

These complaints are trivial though, and the truth is that there is really only one major flaw when it comes to the 2021 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP – its price.

The $28,500 MSRP in the American market is a tough pill to swallow, and it puts the CBR1000RR-R SP pretty much at the top of the price list for available superbikes in the United States.

Does the performance match the cost though? Not in this rider’s opinion…but I have an asterisks here as well, which will require a little unpacking, so bear with me.

The new Fireblade SP takes Honda well into European price territory, and that is a tipping point that is going to leave many riders looking at other brands instead of the CBR1000RR-R.

Riding back-to-back with the previous CBR1000RR, I kept waiting for the CBR1000RR-R to show me what I was getting for the extra “R” in the name.

And, while the Triple R is hands down an improvement on the outgoing SP, the performance gap between the two isn’t $8,500 worth.

But, perhaps this is the reality we live in now.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that this next decade is going to be nothing like the last. The booming years of the early 2000’s are gone now. Sport bike sales struggle, and gone are the days where OEMs could unleash a new model on us every two years.

From that perspective, perhaps the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP is a canary in the cave, and as I look at the most recent superbike models released by other brands, I see the same trend occurring on their price tags.

There is a new vogue on performance and exclusivity, and as such it shouldn’t surprise us to see that the last three superbikes to debut on the market at this trim level have been closer to $30,000 than $20,000, and in comparison to those machines, you do begin to see a performance increase with the CBR1000RR-R that is more in line with the added cost on the price tag.

The new reality is that if you want the pinnacle of what the sport has to offer, this is the new cost to entry.

The superbike segment long ago entered the realm of diminishing performance returns, and we live in an age of Peak Superbike, to steal a concept from geologist M. King Hubbert.

If you can swallow that reality, well then, Honda sits at the top, and they have the bike for you.