Tale of two scooters

Mahindra adds two new scooters to its portfolio. Ajay Joyson brings you an exclusive first impression

 

If you ask a common biker about Mahindra, he might have heard of the brand but in all probability, he would have no clue about its qualities or value. He may have read the name a zillion times in his rear view mirror, but would not be acquainted with the brand or its heritage. However, that is all set to change. After acquiring the erstwhile ailing Kinetic Motors, Mahindra two-wheelers has certainly gained momentum by launching two new models in the market called the Rodeo and the Duro.

If you are looking to flaunt you ride, then the Rodeo is the obvious choice. Though largely based on the Flyte, the new scooter has some interesting styling cues that make it stand apart. A front mudguard, a slightly revised front end and new turn indicators differentiate the Rodeo from the Flyte. Apart from this, the rear grab handle, the colour scheme and snazzy decals are also new. However, what really makes the Rodeo unique is its fantastic digital instrumentation display. Apart from the usual speedo and fuel gauges, it also offers a tachometer (the only production scooter in India to have this), a trip meter, an acceleration indicator and a clock. What bemused us is the option to change the colour of the scoot’s LCD backlight – green, blue, orange, red – you name it and at the press of a button the backlight can be changed to match the colour of your shoes, fingernails or hair. Mahindra has also given the Rodeo a 12 Volt power socket for charging your mobile phone or other electric devices on the go. Features don’t end just there as the scooter also gets a side stand warning buzzer as well as an illuminated underseat storage area.

The Rodeo has the Flyte’s novel front fuelling system which has indeed found quite a following. It retains the smart mirrors that fold inwards in the event of an impact resulting in almost no damage – a feature earlier seen on the Flyte. The four-in-one antitheft key by which one can start the engine, open the fuel filler cover, engage the handle lock and secure the keyhole with a magnetic key lock also finds its way into the Rodeo. This scooter is powered by the same 125cc engine that does its duty on the Flyte. The engine feels silky smooth to rev and the power and torque figures at 8bhp and 9Nm are quite respectable for its class. The rest of the underpinnings remain identical to the Flyte and the new model is quite able-bodied in the ride and handling department, if not exceptional. The ergonomics, fit-finish and overall quality are also satisfactory.

The Duro, on the other hand, is strikingly similar in looks to the old Kinetic Nova. But that’s where the familiarity ends because underneath the innovative body is a completely new engine. Additionally, unlike general comprehension, the basic frame of the Duro also differs from the older Nova. The new scooter gets the same 125cc SYM engine found in both, the Flyte as well as the Rodeo, producing 8bhp and 9Nm of torque. At 1290mm, the Duro has one of the longest wheelbases among Indian scooters. This along with wide 3.5inch rubbers gives the scoot good stability and road holding capabilities. The saddle is also comfortable for two average sized adults. Although the legroom is ample, on our short first ride, we found the riding position to be a little bit of a concern for tall riders as the handle tends to come in contact with the rider’s knee especially when negotiating U-turns. Compared to the Rodeo, the Duro has fewer goodies up its sleeve since it is conceived as a no-nonsense scooter for the masses. Although it comes with a conventional underseat fuel tank, the storage space is very generous and even large helmets fit in easily with space to spare! The rest of the scoot is pretty basic. The instrument cluster that houses a speedo, a fuel gauge and the standard array of telltale lights is simple and legible.
The manufacturer has played the pricing game competitively for both the scooters thus ensuring that they have mass appeal. The Duro is priced at Rs 38,299 (ex-showroom, Pune) which is very compelling for a 125cc scooter. The swankier Rodeo retails for Rs 41,299 (ex-showroom, Pune) which is also quite appealing. Mahindra vehicles have always been applauded for their robustness and vigour and these traits find their way into their newest offerings as well.

Karizma ZMR~The King Returns!

A heavy dose of cosmetic as well as engine updates mark the birth of the new Karizma ZMR. Bunny Punia gives it the stick to see if the bike has been worth the wait
Bunny Punia, Photography Sanjay Raikar

The previous night had been very interesting with a live band and an open bar taking care of a select few journalists who had been flown in for an exclusive first ride of the new Karizma. No matter how much I pestered the Hero Honda guys to divulge some dope on the new bike, it was futile. It was half past six in the morning the next day when I was about to finish my second cup of hot tea in order to awaken my half sleepy brain that I happened to hear a rather familiar exhaust note. Minutes later, the first look of one of the most awaited upgrade in the Indian two-wheeler industry more than livened up the lazy bum in me. A full body kit, exciting graphics and tweaks here and there – the wait for the new Karizma, or the ZMR as the company puts it, seemed worth it.

The sharply designed front headlamp looks great and seems to have been inspired by the Suzuki GSX-R and the Triumph Sprint. The slot for the pilot lamps is swept back giving a sporty look. The black visor is probably the biggest on any Indian bike and the fairing mounted rear view mirrors not only look good, but as I found out on the ride, serve their purpose well. The same air-intakes on either side of the lamp and the “oil-cooled” stickers hinted at a more powerful engine. Side on, the indicators are integrated into the panels like the current bike and the fairing ends near the brake lever like commonly seen aftermarket jobs. The difference here, however, is the quality – the plastics seem durable with an up market fit and finish. The side panels are the same with a slight bulging rear and the new split grab rail along with the striking LED tail lamp assembly give the rear a pleasing look.

 


The spoilsport here is the skinny rear tyre. This will be the first modification most owners will end up doing, I reckon. With a rather muscular and big fairing, fitting a wider, say 120mm rear tyre would have added more muscle to the overall look in my opinion. You can’t help but notice the rear disc brake and the GRS equipped rear shock absorbers. The changes don’t stop here. Swing a leg over the bike and once seated in the comfortable well padded seat, you will notice the forged aluminum clip-ons. As with Hero Honda, the execution is superb but what really strikes you is the complete digital display unit. A la Hunk styled chromed counter in the middle serves as a tachometer with a display for speed (ourtesy the contact less magnetic sensor, the speedometer is very accurate) on the left, fuel in the middle and trip meter and a real time fuel economy display on the right. There is also a programmable welcome display which can be altered as per the owner’s requirement. Want to impress your girl? You can get her name to be displayed each time the ignition is switched on!

Thumb the starter and the engine fires into life. The Karizma has always been a smooth operator and with Honda’s famed PGM-FI finding its way in here, the 223cc engine feels a touch more refined. Yes the engine capacity remains the same, however, there are a lot of changes to the motor. The idle air control valve ensures automatic stabilization of rpm over all terrain (a boost for tourers), the FI unit eliminates the need for a choke and the twelve Orific injector nozzles ensure a highly atomized air-fuel mixture for better combustion and efficiency. All this along with other high tech features in addition to a slight retuning sees the maximum power go up marginally to 17.6bhp or 17.84PS at the same rpm. The maximum torque remains the same though. These figures might be disappointing for those seeking more juice from the Karizma. The ECU unit also has six sensors for various functions including intake air temperature, oxygen sensor, etc.

The Karizma’s motor has always been in a relatively soft state of tune. This one too feels the same. The throttle response isn’t very sharp or jerky, the way it gains speeds in any gear is seamless and the engine seems to be barely bothered even when pushed near the redline. The slight increase in power can hardly be felt and this is reflected in the performance figures that I managed. A 4.9 second 0-60km/h timing with me on board is more or less the same as the previous bike’s 4.7 second timing with a 70kg rider. What has changed though is the way the bike reaches high speeds and its ability to maintain the same for prolonged distances. The icing on the cake comes in the form of better efficiency and we won’t be surprised if the ZMR manages 45kmpl in the city with ease. This bike remains a stunter’s delight – wheelies, stoppies and rolling burnouts – it delivers when given the stick as is evident from the pictures on these pages.

The handling remains as sweet as ever, though in the wake of increased competition, the front seems a tad too soft for serious riding around the twisties or on the track. However, the suspension shines when ridden on broken roads and the bike’s ability to dismiss such patches with ease is hard to match by the competition even today. The rear now gets the GRS suspension from the Hunk and is a step in the right direction. The rear disc brake, a Nissin unit, works well and the feedback is great. The front tyre has been made slightly wider (80mm against the older 70mm) and the ZMR runs on tubeless tyres. The bike now sports a louder dual horn for keeping away heavy traffic on the highway.

With all these changes in place, we expect a premium of around Rs 15,000 to Rs 18,000 over the current Karizma that will continue to sell alongside the ZMR. This will make the bike close to a lakh on the road. Perhaps the enthusiasts who have been waiting for something powerful might not feel the price tag to be well justified. Nonetheless, visually and technologically, the ZMR is a huge step forward. The list of standard features is impressive too.

Watch out for an exhaustive road test in our next issue. Visit www.youtube.com/bikeindia for videos of the ZMR.

A day out with the Falcon

Bunny Punia takes the Suzuki Hayabusa on a date with eighteen other superbikes in New Delhi

 

Having grown up spending weekends chasing superbike groups in Delhi, it was always a dream for me to ride along with them someday. Being good friends with the founder of one of India’s biggest superbike groups also meant that it wasn’t long before I would be riding neck to neck with the finest superbikes that grace our Indian roads.

I was visiting my hometown Delhi for a weekend last month when suddenly the idea of realizing my childhood dream popped up. I have ridden various superbikes (both the legal as well as the grey market ones) but I have never had the opportunity to ride in a group of big bikes. All it took was a call to Suzuki and they were more than happy to arrange the big momma of all bikes – the Suzuki Hayabusa GSX-R1300 for me.

After a quick photo-op, we all started back for Delhi but the group soon broke up which also allowed me to spend more time with the big ‘Busa, appreciate its finer points and indulge in high speed touring whenever the road allowed. I also took a detour to meet a few more biking fellows of xBhp with a Yamaha MT-01, Kawasaki 636 Ninja and Honda 954RR for company. But as expected, the mighty Suzuki stood out. The world’s fastest production machine has an aura that none of the other bikes can match. The two days I spent with this legendary bike have to be one of the most enjoyable biking moments of my life.

If you are in Delhi, you can catch a glimpse of the GODS almost every Sunday at 6 am, next to the Shiv Murti pump on the Gurgaon highway

1734 kilometers in a day

Akshay “Iron Butt” Kaushal rides more than 1000 miles to complete the SaddleSore ride.
Story: Mihir Gadre Photos: Akshay Kaushal

Akshay Kaushal has become one of the only two Indians to have been featured on the Iron Butt Association’s website for completing the SaddleSore ride. On the 29th of October 2008, Akshay, who works as a journalist with the Times Group, embarked on the endurance ride on his Bajaj Pulsar 180 DTSi finally covering a total of 1,734 kilometers in less than 24 hours. He started his ride from Ahmedabad (Gujarat) continuing on to Udaipur, Jaipur (Rajasthan) and Gurgaon (Haryana) before returning to Ahmedabad to participate in the SaddleSore 1000.

In a bid to identify the world’s toughest riders, the Iron Butt Association of Chicago, Illinois, USA certifies individuals who dare to achieve this extremely difficult feat of riding 1000 miles astride a bike in under 24 hours. The SaddleSore 1000 is conducted under very strict guidelines set forth by the Iron Butt Association. The rules state that a rider should complete 1000 miles in less than 24 hours with an error margin of five percent for the odometer which takes the total distance to 1050 miles i.e. around 1700km. The rider has to retain the fuel receipts paid using a credit card from the start to the end point and submit them as proof. He is not allowed to travel on the same road more than twice and he should have a witness at the start point as well as the destination.

Akshay’s achievement is even more special given that 1000 miles on Indian roads on an Indian bike is at least twice as difficult as doing the same distance on smooth European motorways or American freeways astride a big cruiser. Our hearty congratulations to him for having achieving this feat

 

Big brother

TVS has upped the performance ante of the Apache with a new 180cc variant. Amit Chhangani gives the new bike the BI treatment
Photography: Sanjay Raikar

 

TVS’s test track at Hosur is as simple to learn as that except for the two rather uneven troughs – one in the middle of the long arc and another at the left hander exit. Perfect to appreciate one of the two most significant changes incorporated in the new Apache RTR 180 as compared to its predecessor.

The new bike’s wheelbase is longer than the 160 by a good 40mm, making it substantially more stable and confidence inspiring than its earlier iteration when leaned over. In its newest avatar the RTR feels more stable and planted both in a straight line as well as around bends. Both the bumps on the track, which made us cautious during the first few laps, were taken in its stride with disdain. I managed to ride the 180 and the 160 RTRs on the track back-to-back and the difference in the handling characteristics was clearly perceptible. Not that the older RTR felt scary around the bumps, but the new bike augments the feeling of confidence and makes you push harder without any worries.

Another, more obvious improvement is the bigger capacity engine. The new 177.4cc mill is a bored out variation of the 160cc mill and has a longer stroke too. With 62.5mm bore and 57.8mm stroke, the new engine still remains an oversquare, screamer unit but not so much so
as the 160. Power is up by 1.9PS to 17.3PS and the new engine produces 2.4 more units of twisting force at 15.5Nm. Peak power is produced at 8500rpm similar to RTR 160, though the peak torque is now produced at 6500 revs, 500 more than the carburetted variant of the bike’s smaller capacity version.

The increased power and torque makes itself very palpable especially while accelerating hard from a standstill. However, the new bike somehow doesn’t feel as free-revving as its predecessor. Down the straight on the test track, before braking, the 180 showed a speed of 120km/h on the digital display while the 160 was marginally slower at 118km/h. Tech boffins at TVS admitted that they have not worked towards increasing the top speed of the bike but to increase it’s low and midrange grunt as well as in-gear acceleration times. We must mention that the new RTR doesn’t have a rev limiter. Rev the bike hard in neutral or in the first gear and the tacho needle keeps swinging to the 12,000rpm limit on the tacho. That’s good news as the absence of a limiter hints at introduction of performance kits for the bike by the company in the near future. Hooligans rejoice!

Technically, worth a mention are the newly developed TVS Srichakra tubeless tyres both upfront as well as at the rear. The new tyres are wider (90/90 x 17-inch front and 110/80 x 17-inch rear) which are much lighter than the tubed tyres. The fact, along with the incorporation of a lighter crank employed in the engine, means that the overall weight of the bike remains unchanged. Other technical changes include a 270mm petal disc at the front and a 200mm petal disc at the rear as standard equipment. Carburetion duties have been handed over to the Mikuni BS-29 carburettor. There isn’t a FI version available for this bike and we don’t see one coming in the near future.

On the visual front, the 180 adorns a new graphic scheme to distinguish itself from its smaller siblings with ‘RTR’ emblazoned boldly on the tank scoops. The front forks and the gas reservoirs for the rear shocks are now painted in a new golden shade and the clip-ons have a new RTR 180 emblem at the centre. Other cosmetic upgrades include a new slim, superbike style, trident shaped mud flap under the rear fender. It can be replaced by the conventional mud flap. The rear-set footpegs for the rider as well as the pillion come in two forms. You may either have a racing style naked metallic set or get them covered with a rubber cover for better cushioning. The tacho dial for the new bike is painted in a sporty white shade as against the black-grey-white theme for the 160 FI.

The new bike feels more planted and has got more grunt, more grip and more poise. The prices have not been announced yet, but we expect the new bike to be priced a tad cheaper than the RTR 160 FI priced at rupees 74 grand. The new TVS 180 looks like a potent contender in the Indian performance bike arena.

 

A new beginning

Bunny Punia spends a Sunday morning astride a rather different kind of bike

 

It’s quite rare for me to be in my home town, New Delhi for more than a day and that too on a weekend. I love spending time with my family, lazing around in the house and playing with my little niece. But last month, I simply couldn’t resist a test ride on my kind of bike.

Off-roading hasn’t really caught on amongst the biking enthusiasts in the country. It is more or less limited to the national championships that often take place in South India. Ashish from Adventure Wheels, however, thinks there is a small but important and as yet unexplored market out there for these leisure bikes. Apart from bikes, he is also importing an ATV with an engine as big as 550cc! But let’s talk about the bikes for now. The spot chosen by Ashish for riding and photographing the two bikes he got along (in a small tempo mind you) was great. I had to follow his car for close to an hour, but in the end, we
were around 30km from the Delhi border on the base of the Aravali mountains near Sohna.

I started the morning’s ride on the smaller 150cc bike which frankly did disappoint me initially. An extra large rear sprocket meant gearing was too short and before I knew it, I was in the fifth within a matter of seconds! However, it was a dirt bike and with the right kind of suspension, this little number was ready for anything. Powered by a 12.4bhp mill, it had enough grunt for most types of off-roading stints. The bigger 250cc bike was, however, the reason I was here. Even for a 6 footer like me, swinging a leg over it was difficult. Both my toes hardly touched the ground. Nonetheless within minutes, I found myself literally flying over pebbles and rocks at good speeds. This damn thing really had the dexterity to ride over nasty off-road sections at 45-50km/h! Even while riding on broken tarmac, with the digital speedometer showing 80-85km/h, the superb suspension setup chewed and spat any and everything that came its way. Dumping the clutch over undulations saw the front wheel go up easily.

The 250cc bike’s liquid cooled motor develops an impressive 24bhp of power and is mated to a six-speed ‘box. There is more than adequate power for even serious hill climbing and flat out, the bike manages around 110km/h. The acceleration through the gears is impressive and the grunty exhaust note sounds great. Ashish is importing this bike from Taiwan and selling it for around Rs 3 lakh. Yes, it sounds a lot but since they are imported as CBU units, a hefty sum has to be paid for custom duties. For those who wish to spend less, the 150cc offering makes great sense. Retailing for around Rs 1.2 lakh, it won’t make a huge dent in your pocket too. For more, log onto www.adventurewheels.co.in

The liquid cooled engine felt punchy and had no signs of fatigue even after being pushed hard for a good 30 minutes

A claimed output of 24bhp means lifting the front was rather easy

Ashish is working hard on making these bikes road legal. But getting things cleared from ARAI can be tough and time consuming

Prince of zeal

A crown (the bike’s new visor) not withstanding, Bunny Punia thinks the new FZS is the last word in fun biking in India
Photography: Bunny Punia, Martin Alva, Munish Shekhawat

 

In India, two-wheeler manufacturers have different ways of promoting their products. While some rely solely on their product virtues or advertisements, others make sure the bonding between the owners and their bikes play an important role. For Yamaha, things are a little different. It is not every day that you see senior management personnel of a two-wheeler manufacturer ride with the media guys during a launch or a ride function – be it aboard the YZF-R15 at the Sriperumbudur racetrack or astride the FZ-16 during its launch in Goa.

The road to success for Yamaha in India has been hard but in the last year or so, a strong upward movement in sales charts has shown that the company’s efforts have begun to yield results. In March 2009, Yamaha sold 14,558 units (with the FZ series making up for more than 50 percent of the sales) which was a whopping 45 percent increase over the same month last year. With volumes on the rise each month, Yamaha has become the fastest growing two-wheeler manufacturer in India. Continuing with the success of the R15 and FZ-16, the Japanese firm decided to pimp up the latter with a few cosmetic touches and hence was born the FZS that you see across these four pages.

A first proper look at the FZS combined with experiencing the fun element that this bike comes attached with was the agenda behind Yamaha taking a few select journos for a trip to North India at a small hill station based around a lake, Nainital, some 300 odd km from Delhi. After an awfully slow and grueling twelve hour bus journey (at the end of it, all of us thought biking up would have been a better option), the setting for the open air, overlooking the lake cocktail-cum-presentation dinner helped combat the fatigue (and frustration). Plus we had the new incarnations of the FZ-16 for company with a couple of FZs with aftermarket add-ons. Nainital was chilly and while we sipped liquor and warmed our hands around the burning coal, the presentation by Sanjay Tripathi gave us a fair idea of what lay in store for us the next day.

The morning session saw us riding around the hill station on sticky tarmac, enjoying the amazing flickable nature of the bike. Though we were on roads between 5000-6500 feet above mean sea level, which meant the slightly thinner air robbed the engine of some power, the bike’s fantastic midrange torque made up for it and the 35km odd loop was covered in just half an hour. Most of us wanted a break from our hectic daily routine and loved riding on such roads. How could we restrain ourselves from making the bike dance on one wheel as well?

The afternoon riding session, however, was longer (and faster) with some of us staying right at the tail of the leading bike ridden by a Yamaha rider. The destination was Corbett National Park around 110km away. Yes we were scarily fast, but the adrenaline rush made sure the right wrist was wrung open, making full use of the bike’s capabilities (and the tyres too). Traffic was sparse and the occasional speed breakers were of course negotiated with ease. The day’s ride saw one media guy taking a spill and well, the incident did bring us back to reality and we backed off a little from the throttle. The evening saw us riding onto the dry riverbed for some fantastic photo opportunities with some of us riding on the pegs, jumping over typical, huge white riverbed stones. This was where I kept the FZ-16 and FZS side by side to compare the differences. The cosmetic changes are few – a sharper headlamp, a new visor, new colour schemes and alloy wheel strips, et al – but they help in giving the bike a completely new character which in my opinion easily makes the FZS the best looking bike in India. The changes do make the bike dearer by a couple of grand but the boffins at Yamaha are confident about the positive sales of their product.

Media rides like these are vital. An opportunity for a close interaction with the top guys as well as the factory riders helps to shed light on various aspects of the bike and its development. I have ridden the FZ-16 extensively in Pune but the route chosen by Yamaha riders had a lot of variations including superb sticky twisties, dry riverbeds, small stream crossings etc. Riding the FZ-S over all these terrains enlightened us about a lot more aspects as well. For instance, the next day, while riding deep into the Park, we came across numerous 15-20 feet long shallow humps which were entered at close to triple digit speeds and exiting them saw both wheels at least a foot off the road. Landing back didn’t weave the bike at all. Stability, flickability and a torquey engine – I have always loved the FZ and this small interaction with the new FZS impressed me further. Small capacity bikes can be fun too.

The new visor not only looks cool, but also helps deflect some amount of air from the riders chest. Seen in the background is the Ramganga river

A big thanks to the Yamaha factory riders (with Morita San in the center) for all the hard work they put in to plan this ride

Sanjay Tripathi has been the face of Yamaha India for most of us journos, and we have always found him riding enthusia-stically along with us on all the media rides

Vee4 is back

Roland whacks the throttle on the latest generartion of V4 litre class power available for the street. Behold the Aprilia RSV4!
Photography: Milagro

 

The first session had been horrible, but this was fantastic fun. The rain was coming down quite hard now, and the slippery Misano track had already seen three crashes this morning. But as the RSV4 tipped smoothly into the turns, drove through with a guttural V4 growl, and then catapulted towards the next bend with a stirring howl, the speed and poise of Aprilia’s new challenger was thrilling despite the conditions.

This was the upmarket Factory version of the Italian firm’s new super-sports flagship, and the name was well deserved. The production RSV4 was managing — with its looks, its agility, its suspension control and sheer power — to give a flavour of the works V4 on which Max Biaggi has shaken up the established players in the first weeks of the World Superbike season.

It shouldn’t really have been a surprise to anyone that Aprilia would be so competitive so quickly on the track, or that the 183PS production RSV4 would be mighty good to ride. After all, the Noale firm is part of the Piaggio Group that is Europe’s biggest bike firm. More than three years and 25 million euros have been invested in this project, after starting with a blank sheet of paper.

“Our goal was clear,” Piaggio’s director of motorcycle engineering Romano Albesiano had said last night. “We wanted to build the fastest motorcycle on the racetrack, for use on track and road. There were no limitations; no constraints. We were free to choose the engine layout and the chassis. We wanted to make the most compact super-sports bike ever built, and we did it in a unique way: by combining the work of two teams, the engineers of the R&D department and the race department.”

Aprilia’s history also pointed to the RSV4 making an immediate impact. Back in 1998 the original RSV Mille V-twin, the firm’s first ever superbike, was a fine roadster although it never turned World Superbike race wins into a championship victory. This new bike’s links to the V-twin include its trio of headlights and aluminium beam frame layout. But this all-new V4 is very different; lower and more compact, as well as more stylish.

The dozen RSV4s poking from Misano pit garages had cut through the early morning gloom. Miguel Galluzzi, creator of Ducati’s Monster and now head of Piaggio’s design team, has given the V4 a unique and aggressive look. The sharp lines of the cut-down fairing and sculpted tailpiece are reflected in the upswept black silencer. The aluminium frame spars are smooth and polished. Classy, typical Factory-spec touches include Öhlins suspension, Brembo radial Monoblocs and forged Marchesini wheels.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about the view from the rider’s seat, which is quite low and slim (although luxurious compared to the razor-blade that a pillion gets to sit on). Clip-on bars bolt to 43mm forks whose gold-and-blue tops jut through the cast top yoke. A low screen gives a view of the digital display. But there was definitely something special about the way the motor came to life with a raw, raspy V4 sound through the four-into-one exhaust, revving urgently as I blipped the throttle.

Being tall I was glad to find that despite the bike’s compact dimensions it didn’t feel cramped. But I wasn’t glad about the weather. Aprilia had gambled by holding the launch in north-eastern Italy, and had been rewarded by rain. The standard Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP tyres had been replaced by softer still racing wets, but I still didn’t enjoy relearning the slippery circuit, especially after one guy had crashed on the opening lap.


 

Miguel Galluzzi,
Director of Piaggio Group Style Centre

“I joined Aprilia in September 2006 and in my first week we started talking about this bike. The engine was already on the test bench. To start such an important project with a clean sheet of paper was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“But this was also a very difficult project because the RSV4 is very small, which gives extra problems for a designer. Size was the priority: the bike is nimble, the form is the function. Next priority was to make it distinctive — to create the face and the tail. When you see it coming it’s an Aprilia; when it’s going away it’s an Aprilia.

“It was a conscious decision to keep the bodywork to a minimum, to let people see the engine and the frame. We thought there would be a lot of heat coming to the rider but when we tested the bike we found the hot air goes away. We spent quite a lot of time in the wind tunnel, but not too much because you can get confused by it.

“The hardest part was the exhaust. Designing something that looks good with the necessary volume is a big problem. We tried maybe 150 different solutions: with one silencer, two, high, low, all over the place. When we got the look we started working on the sound — getting that metallic note when the valve opens up…

“This is a good time at Aprilia. Everyone here has the passion for motorcycling. We have a budget, and the right way of working. This engine will lead to other exciting bikes. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The bike was not to blame for that. To suit the conditions Aprilia’s technicians had suggested setting the three-way injection map to the S for Sports position, the middle of the three. This is easily done, using the starter button while the motor is running. The T for Track setting gives max power in all gears; S smooths delivery and cuts max output in the lower three ratios; and R for Road flattens the torque curve and limits output to 142PS at all times.

With the Sport setting selected the V4 was fabulously flexible and sweet-revving. The close-ratio box’s first gear is tall, so I was splashing round the tighter bends with the revs dropping below 5000rpm. Yet the Aprilia picked up sweetly as I cautiously opened the ride-by-wire throttle. The engine note was initially gravelly; a touch of vibration briefly came through the footrests… then the sound rose in pitch and the motor smoothed as the bike stormed down the straight, kicking harder at about 8000rpm and hurtling towards the next turn.

On the wet track I was happy to leave the engine in S mode for almost all my three sessions. A brief test of the Road setting was enough to suggest that its gentler delivery might be useful occasionally. There was certainly not enough grip to allow any advantage from the Track setting’s full power in the lower gears, so I left that for another day.

Even in the dry there would have been no room at Misano to get close to the Aprilia’s near-300km/h top speed, but the bike was into fifth in the generally sweet-shifting box, and still pulling hard (no time to glance down at the digital speedo) on the main straight. That’s despite it having to cut through the wind and rain with my unaerodynamic body increasing the bike’s tiny frontal area despite my efforts to hide behind the low screen. The RSV4 certainly felt seriously fast; just how fast it is remains to be seen.

Full analysis of its handling ability will also have to wait, because the track didn’t dry out. It’s ironic that the RSV4 has the most comprehensively adjustable chassis ever seen on a production streetbike — giving the option to change steering geometry, ride height, swing-arm pivot point and even engine position — but the weather meant that I didn’t adjust even its suspension.

Instead I was happy that the front and rear Öhlins units were reasonably soft and very well damped, and gave good feedback in conjunction with the super-soft Pirellis. Misano’s relatively recent change to run anti-clockwise has resulted in a couple of tricky, decreasing-radius right-hand turns that put emphasis on front-end grip. So it was just as well that the RSV4 steered with a light and neutral feel that made direction changes easy.

I hadn’t expected to enjoy splashing round in the wet, even so. But during my second session the bike felt so precise, controllable and sweet-handling that I was having a great time despite the rain. I was cornering faster, leaving my braking later — glad that the Brembo Monoblocs gave plenty of feel, as well as stopping power — and winding on the gas earlier and harder out of the turns.

Then I had a biggish rear-end slide exiting the same second-gear left-hander that had seen a Greek rider high-side in the previous session. Clearly even this most rider-friendly and poised of bikes could easily exceed its limits. By mid-afternoon seven riders had crashed. Our final session was cancelled amid fears that Aprilia would run out of bikes for the following day.

So the RSVR Factory’s debut ended inconclusively, and the V4 still has work to do to show that it can be as competitive a production bike as its works-racer variant has shown it can be in World Superbikes. Perhaps Aprilia will give the Factory traction control, to compete with Ducati’s similarly priced 1198S, after introducing the cheaper RSV4-R model (with Showa springs, cast wheels and probably a simpler, non-adjustable frame) that is expected in about six months’ time.

Despite the weather and the crashes, though, the Factory had done enough to suggest that Aprilia’s second major assault on the open-class superbike market will be even more successful than the first. The competition is hotter than ever this year. But the RSV4 was mighty good in the rain, and will surely be better still in the dry. The superbike world has a very serious new challenger.


 

CHASSIS
The chassis is comprehensively adjustable and allows the rider to change steering geometry, ride height, swingarm pivot point and engine position

ELECTRONICS
The tachometer red lines a notch higher than 14K revs while the large display provides a wealth of information with features like a lap timer, speedo etc. The throttle is mated to a fly-by-wire technology for monstrous performance

ENGINE
The 999.6cc 65° V-four cylinder engine uses a ride-by-wire multimap technology which takes engine management to practically infinite possibilities for further development. A sophisticated electronic injection system with two injectors and adjustable height ducts aid futher performance gain

RSV4 Tech
This bike represents the start of an important new family for Aprilia, who threw huge resources into developing an engine that will eventually power naked and sports-touring models, as well as a base-model R version of the RSV4. The firm’s aim to create the “missing link between track and road” led them to use engineers from both R&D and race teams, and to run sophisticated computer programmes to analyse potential lap times of numerous engine layouts — including V-twin, triple and transverse four — before opting for a dohc V4.

An eight-valve V4 with cylinders at 65 degrees was eventually chosen as the best compromise between engine power — for which a larger angle allows more space for intakes — size and vibration level. “We chose the configuration with optimum performance and mass distribution,” said Piaggio’s bike engineering chief Romano Albesiano. “We wanted to keep the same weight distribution as the RSV V-twin, but make it smaller. The V4 is narrower and produces less vibration than an in-line four, so the higher development and manufacturing costs were worthwhile.”

The 999cc engine’s dimensions of 78 x 52.3mm match those of Yamaha’s latest R1, the most oversquare of Japan’s inline fours. Camshaft drive is by lateral chain to the intake cam, then gear to the exhaust cam, allowing very compact cylinder heads. Titanium is used for the valves; magnesium for the engine covers. A single balancer shaft minimises vibration. The transmission incorporates a six-speed cassette gearbox and wet, mechanical slipper clutch.

Breathing is highly sophisticated, featuring variable length intake ducts and ride-by-wire throttle control. The Weber-Marelli injection system incorporates two injectors per cylinder: one located downstream of the throttle valve for optimum low-rev response; the other in the airbox to boost fuel atomisation for maximum high-rev power. Peak output is a claimed 183PS at 12,500rpm. Pressing the starter button toggles between the maximum output T (Track) mode; S (Sport) which smooths output and limits torque in the first three gears; and R (Road) which gives a 142PS limit in all gears.

Aprilia’s road and race heritage demanded a polished, twin-spar aluminium frame. The RSV4’s is welded from cast and pressed sections, weighs 10.1kg, and is fine-tuned for optimum stiffness, giving 39 per cent more torsional rigidity than the RSV V-twin’s equivalent, but less rigidity elsewhere. The matching aluminium swing-arm weighs 5.1kg and is stiffer than its predecessor in every respect. Most of the 17 litres of fuel lives under the seat, for improved weight distribution.

The RSV4’s key chassis feature is a level of adjustability unprecedented in a production bike. Removable steering head inserts can alter the headstock position and alter rake and trail from the standard settings of 24.5 degrees and 105mm. Rear end height can be adjusted via the swing-arm pivot as well as shock length. Even the engine has alternative mounting points.

This adjustability is largely for the benefit of Aprilia’s Superbike race team, and springs from the race department’s close collaboration in the RSV4’s design. “Some targets such as power, weight and handling were clear to both the R&D department and the racing engineers, but the potential for chassis adjustment was a demand of the racing department,” says veteran RSV engineer Mariano Fioravanzo. “The adjustable frame was more complicated and expensive, and we discussed it a lot. But in the end the racing department got what they wanted.”

The Factory model’s cycle parts match the frame’s quality. The 43mm usd forks, piggy-back shock and steering damper are all by Öhlins. Forged wheels are a kilogramme lighter than those of the Factory V-twin, let alone cast alternatives. Brembo’s radial Monobloc calipers bite purpose-designed 320mm discs. Carbon-fibre mudguards and sidepanels contribute to a claimed weight of 179kg without oil or battery.

 

Just got better

Phenomenally fast, better looking, easier to ride – but that’s simply not enough…

By Michael Neeves

Suzuki’s new GSX-R1000 K9 is a big improvement over the old K7/K8 model, but it’s not the giant leap forward we expected. It’s much more a case of evolution than revolution for the new Gixer, despite it having its most radical overhaul since it was introduced in 2001.

As well as looking similar to the old K7/K8, retaining the two-exhaust design, it’s pretty close in character too. It has the same ‘sit-in’ riding position and the same torrent of power when you twist the throttle. After a day riding it around the twisty Almeria circuit in southern Spain it’s clear it has new- found agility and friendliness the old bike lacked.

Compared to some of its competition, the GSX-R is not as razor-sharp in and out of the corners and it’s still missing that intoxicating mix of grunt and light weight that made the old K5/K6 the sensation it was at the time. With things like extra soundproofing and the ever-bigger catalysts Suzuki have to run nowadays to get through Euro 3 laws, it seems the glory days of the waif-like K5 are gone forever.

Another sign that it’s now 2009 and not 2005, is the price. The new bike is the most expensive GSX-R1000 ever, costing £9800 (Rs. 7 lakh approx) when it hits showrooms at the end of March. Gixxers have always been at the most affordable end of the 1000cc market, but it’s now nearly the dearest, just after the new R1.

Thankfully the new GSX-R1000 motor isn’t as angry as before, thanks to a mass overhaul (see following pages) to smooth out the rough edges. Although power and torque remain the same, a claimed 185bhp isn’t to be sniffed at. It’s still an obscene amount, but it’s easier to use than before.

Power is smoother all the way through the rev range and there’s grunt oozing from every engine bolt, despite having a shorter stroke engine than before. All this gives you the confidence to twist the throttle further. But don’t worry, the GSX-R1000 hasn’t gone all soft. The K9 still retains that spine-tingling, evil bark when you blip the throttle and it wants to wheelie at every opportunity coming out of corners. The K9 isn’t as flabby as the old K7, either. That went a bit ‘90s GSX-R1100’, compared to the lightweight K5 model that went before. With its 5kg reduction in overall weight combined with the smoother power delivery, the K9 is now much easier to muscle around a track.

Last year we did our 1000s group test here at Almeria. The K8 GSX-R1000 finished up
two seconds behind the slightly more powerful ZX-10R and the significantly less powerful FireBlade, the overall winner of our test. It was only a fraction behind the R1, though. The Suzuki’s bulk and lack of agility (you could even feel the weight getting it off the sidestand) compared to the competition was the main reason it lagged behind. This is a technically demanding track dominated by constant throttle, high radius corners and flip-flop chicanes, so you need a bike which is light on its feet. What I do remember is that it flew down the long sixth-gear back straight like a guided missile, as it would with a true 169bhp at the rear wheel.


I’m sure the K9 would make a dent in those two seconds if we were to run the test again. It still has the power and speed and it’s even easier to get that throttle open now, but it still lacks the agility of the Blade and ZX-10R. And of course now it has the grunty new R1 to think about, too.

Except for the straight, the whole of Almeria can be taken in second gear, so you have to ride the big Suzuki like some hyper-speed twist-and-go moped for most of the lap.

For corner after corner, you dive in towards the apex and the K9’s slipper clutch eliminates most of the engine braking, so you get a nice smooth, balanced corner entry as you dial in more and more lean.

Getting settled into a turn, which seems to last forever, at full lean and holding a steady throttle is easy, thanks to the fuel injection’s smooth and predictable response.

As the corner opens up, gently feed on the power, stand the bike up, feel for grip through the rear tyre and squirt it. With the taps open the K9 rockets to the next corner, front wheel skimming the tarmac and bum forced back into the seat hump, leaving you hanging on by your fingernails. This is every inch a mad, bad, howling GSX-R1000, make no mistake.

Despite its shorter stroke engine, it’s still packed with enough grunt to let you take corners a gear taller than you need, and it’ll still fly out the other side pretty sharpish.

The only thing that stops us from really uncorking the full fury of the K9 at Almeria is the standard road-going Bridgestone BT-016 rubber. The engine wants to play, but it’s a lot to ask of an all-purpose sports tyre to be ragged senseless all day, with only a break for lunch. They do a great job of hanging on, they warm up fast, grip well and are predictable, but you really have to be careful with your right wrist with all that oomph to play with.

On stickier Michelin Power One rubber I rode the K9 on the following day at Cartagena, it turns sharper and you can explore more of the chassis and engine. The two big things to happen to the chassis are the new longer swingarm and the Showa Big Piston forks (see following pages), which replace the old
Kayaba units. Let’s start with the Blade-esque short engine/long swingarm combo.

Asked for by Suzuki’s racers around the world the new longer ‘banana’ style swingarm improves rear tyre grip and predictability. Given the power on tap and the relative low grip of the road tyres in track conditions, you’ve got to say the idea has worked, because it’s only when the rear tyre gets very worn that it starts to slide. When it does it’s with warning and gradual.

I say slide, move a bit is probably more accurate, compared to what Sylvan Guintoli was doing when he was out on track with us. Suzuki’s new BSB signing and ex-MotoGP god was laying the most obscene, thick black lines around the track, and in places you’d never think you’d be on the throttle, let alone at full powersliding fury! He’s going to be a star this year.

Just like the FireBlade, which runs a similar long swingarm, you have to watch it when pulling a wheelie, something that’s de rigueur for GSX-R1000 owners. The front wheel comes up gradually as normal, then when it’s at about chest height it suddenly goes ‘whoosh’, and tries to loop. If you’re ready for it fine, if you’re not you might wake up with a crowd around you.

So, job done there with the swingarm, then but the new forks take more getting used to. They offer a lot of resistance when you ease off or brake, and they only really seem to work at their best when you’re really pushing hard.

For the first few riding sessions at Almeria I didn’t like them, they felt too stiff and made the bike feel heavy and slow steering. They also made my wrists sore by the end of the day. But after a while you realise that the harder you push the better they feel and the more you can judge what the front tyre is doing.

First impressions of the K9’s handling weren’t good when I first climbed on, it felt clumsy, slow-steering and slightly unstable on the rear going into corners. A lot of this was down to set-up.

Once I’d got up to speed and used to pushing the front end harder to make the forks work and give me feel, it was better. I also added some more preload (on John Reynold’s advice) to the rear shock to speed up the steering. By the end of the day I finally started to have some serious fun. On sticky tyres the K9 is even better.

Brakes are an improvement but they still have the same GSX-R trait of feeling a bit mushy at the lever and liable to fade on hard use.

There’s no denying the K9 is a superb motorcycle. Suzuki have been fanatical about weight saving and balance and all these tweaks to make it lighter and grippier will no doubt pay dividends for the race teams who use the road bike as the basis of their Superbike or Superstock racers. Die hard GSX-R fans will still go all gooey over its evil exhaust note, searing top-end rush and slider-shredding cornering ability.

But there’s something missing and I can’t put my finger on it. I wasn’t left giggling, or open-mouthed after each riding session, like I should have been. It’s exciting, there’s no doubt about that, it’s still a wild 180mph superbike, after all.

But maybe with all the changes I was expecting a lightweight, snarling GSX-R1000 K5 MkII? Maybe it feels and looks too much like the old K7/K8 despite all its changes? Maybe it’s still too bulky? Maybe it’s just that Honda and Yamaha have moved the game on so much with the Fireblade and R1.

This is the best-ever time to buy a superbike. They might be edging towards £10k (Rs. 7-lakh approx), but they’re at such a high level, have so much power and are so packed full of technology it’s insane. The trick nowadays isn’t to find more power, it’s to harness the incredible bhp on offer.

The Suzuki ticks all these boxes, it’s better than the old K7/K8. But for me, it’s not different enough to really get me salivating.

Expert views

John Reynolds,

Ex-BSB champ and Suzuki test rider

“It’s a totally different chassis on the K9 from the K7. We’ve got a setting now where the bike works really well on the race track, and with a couple of turns of preload off the rear shock and a bit off the front end you’ve got a bike that’s wonderful for the road as well.

“Suzuki have taken all the feedback from the riders in WSB and all the people who’ve been riding the K7 and K8 and worked out what’s needed is more grip on the back end. The way the geometry of the chassis is now, it’s really focused towards racing bikes more than anything else.”

 

Sylvain Guintoli,

Crescent Suzuki BSB Team racer

“It was an interesting experience riding the K9 today because I’ve never tried a road bike before. I was really surprised. I always thought road bikes on the track would be heavy and soft, but the K9 is good fun and fast.

“We tried the K9 in Calafat a few weeks ago, but it didn’t have all the evolution parts on at that point.

“Now we will ride the K9 full-spec superbike in a test this week, so we can find out exactly what it’s like.

“ I’m looking forward to BSB, because we’ve done this test in Calafat and its gone really well and the team are really nice guys to be around and really good fun.”

David Taylor,

Suzuki GB Sales and Marketing Director

“With the K9, we’re trying to maintain Suzuki’s position of producing the top-selling bike over 125cc.

“The racing side of Suzuki has brought the bike to a pinnacle with the front fork design and mass that’s been taken out of the bike.

“We’re critically interested in how this year turns out with all the new stuff that’s going on in WSB and BSB, and all the Japanese manufacturers face an interesting challenge this year. I think we’ve timed it right with what we’ve got.”

 


Under the skin of the GSX-R1000

1. Engine
More compact and lighter than before, this is Suzuki’s first major-league engine redesign in the GSX-R1000’s history. The K9 has a shorter engine, by 59mm front-to-back, which lets the bike run a 33mm longer swingarm to help rear tyre grip. The overall length of the GSX-R1000 is still 2045mm.

The new motor has a bigger bore and a shorter stroke to give more power at high rpm, but it still has the longest stroke of all the Japanese 1000s. A long stroke equals grunt. This more ‘over-square’ engine layout will give race teams more scope for tuning and raising revs safely. The redline is set at 13,750rpm.

There’s more power up top, but Suzuki claims more low and midrange torque, too, thanks to new camshafts, a reshaped combustion chamber and a hike in compression ratio from 12.5:1 to 12.8:1.

A new two-piece crankcase design and a lightweight crank accounts for most of the engine’s 670g weight loss. The crank has a more efficient lubrication system. Titanium inlet valves are up from 30mm to 31mm and exhaust valves up from 24 to 25mm. Double valve springs replace single ones for better control at high revs. By stacking the primary and secondary gears and moving the clutch and crankshaft forward Suzuki has been able to make the engine shorter. The rear sprocket is down one tooth from 43 to 42.

The throttle bodies are now 10mm shorter, with 12-hole fuel injectors providing a finer spray for improved combustion. Inlet trumpets are now different heights to improve midrange and high rpm efficiency.

There’s still a slipper clutch, but it’s now cable instead of hydraulically operated.

The swoopy exhausts have titanium headers and servo-controlled butterfly valves to maximize power through the rev range. The system is 400g lighter than before.

2. Chassis
The new K9 weighs 5kg less than the old bike. The twin-spar aluminium frame is now shorter (from 645.8mm to 615mm) and comes in five welded-together sections. There’s also a cool ‘banana’ swingarm in cast aluminium, which lets the exhausts tuck in closer to the bike and is 500g lighter than before. The wheelbase is 1405mm – 10mm shorter than the K7/K8. Footrests are three-way adjustable, as is the gearlever. The new, removable cast aluminium subframe is lighter, too.

3. Suspension
Showa replaces Kayaba for the new K9. New 43mm Showa Big Piston Forks (BPF) are now fitted to the GSX-R1000 for the first time. They have just one 39.6mm internal piston per fork leg controlling rebound and compression damping instead of two. They run a lower pressure than conventional forks, so there’s less change of oil cavitation. Springs are at the bottom of the forks and are submerged in oil. This simpler set-up is 720g lighter than conventional forks. Both compression and rebound damping screw adjusters are on the top of each fork leg and preload is at the bottom.

The new Kayaba rear shock (500g lighter) is fully adjustable, including high and low speed compression damping, and works through a new suspension linkage (200g lighter). The speed-sensitive steering damper is 45g lighter.

4. Brakes and wheels
New forged aluminium Tokico one-piece radial calipers are more rigid and 250g each lighter than the old two-speed items. These are bolted to new-style carriers. Different sized pistons are used on the leading and trailing ends of the calipers for even pad wear. The radial-pump master cylinder diameter is down from 19 to 17mm for better feel through the lever. Cast aluminium wheels are 420g lighter.

5. Bodywork
The new fairing has a narrower lower section for better aerodynamics and a wider top to improve wind protection. SRAD (Suzuki Ram-Air Direct) intakes, which cut into the new headlight, have new internal louvres and are moved closer to the centre of the bike to take advantage of the higher air pressure there. A new slimline tail section has clear lens indicators and comes with a clip-in single seat unit. The new fuel tank retains its capacity of 17.5 litres.

6. Instruments
New clocks feature a gear position and power mode indicator, a bar graph showing how bright the clocks are and a lap timer, triggered by a button on the right bar.

On the road

Michael Neeves rode the K9 from the launch in Almeria to Cartagena, the venue for our upcoming 1000s group test. The route took in twisty mountain roads and motorway.

“If you’re coming from a K7/K8 GSX-R1000, the riding position will be immediately familiar. The seat is comfortable, you sit low and the bars are relatively high, so it’s OK to do distance on.

“There’s still good grunt at low revs, though you can’t be completely lazy. Purr along in high gear at normal speeds and you need to stir the gearbox to overtake cars.

“The Big Piston Forks still feel stiff through the twisties, but on normal roads they suck up the bumps beautifully giving very good ride quality.

“The K9 is more fun on the road than on track. You can clutch up big power wheelies at a ton. There’s an excess of power to play with, making the K9 the dog’s on the road!”

 

Evolution of the gsx-r1000

K1/K2: 988cc (73 x 59mm)•168kg (dry)

K3/K4: 988cc (73 x 59mm)•168kg (dry)

K5/K6: 998.6cc (73.4 x 59mm)•166kg (dry)

K7/8: 999cc (73.4 x 59mm)•172kg (dry)

K9: 999cc (74.5 x 57.3mm)•203kg (wet)

 

Honda CBR600RR ABS2009

Honda’s next generation ABS system graces its ‘09 CBR600RR not only as a safety aid but as a performance enhancement as well
Words Roland Brown Photography Honda

Three laps into my first ever test of an ABS-equipped super-sports bike, and it’s a weird feeling to be charging down the Losail circuit’s pit straight at over 230km/h, leaving my braking later… later… later… then grabbing the CBR600RR’s lever far harder than normal without a care in the world. Instead of folding its front wheel and spitting me off, the Honda simply sheds speed at a rate every bit as fierce as I managed on a non ABS-equipped CBR half an hour ago.

The bike feels reassuringly normal as it buries its front Bridgestone into the track, too, with none of the pulsing through the lever generated by conventional ABS systems. Perhaps there’s a little less fork dive than I might have expected. And the Honda stays remarkably stable as I brake and tip it into the tight right-hand bend, gently easing my grip on the lever as I approach the apex. That’s because I’m actually releasing both brakes: the ABS is contributing a touch of rear disc without even being asked.

If that scenario sounds almost like science fiction, I’d have said the same thing before riding the latest CBR600RR on its track launch in Qatar. Even braking hard on sand without a twitch of front tyre or heart rate, during yesterday’s test on the circuit’s car-park, didn’t prepare me for how effective — and how normal — Honda’s new anti-lock system would feel at speed on the track.

Honda is billing its Electronic Combined ABS, available as an option on both the 2009-model CBR600RR and Fireblade, as the world’s first anti-lock brake system for super-sports bikes. It’s certainly that, as well as the first “brake-by-wire” system that operates front and rear brakes electronically rather than mechanically. More importantly, it’s the first anti-lock system that is almost undetectable in use, and which has the ability to be a performance aid, even for fast and experienced riders.

The 2009 CBR600RR ABS now gets Tokico callipers from its elder sibling, the CBR Fireblade

New ECU now decides how these conventional callipers behave when you pull the lever

Essentially this production-ready system is a more refined version of the prototype that Honda unveiled on a CBR600RR in August 2008. It works in a totally different way to conventional ABS set-ups, with their linked hydraulics. Instead, it centres on an ECU that monitors pressure in the brake lines, as well as the deceleration of both wheels. The ABS software decides how much pressure to apply to each brake, in order to maximise both stopping power and stability.

Unlike Honda’s previous Combined ABS, this system does not require special calipers. (The only difference is their gold instead of black finish.) It does add weight, though: 10kg for the CBR600RR and 11kg for the Fireblade, the difference explained by the fact that although the components are almost identical, they were harder to package on the larger-engined bike. Equally inevitably it also adds cost: roughly €1000, so more than conventional systems.


 

Some of the system’s benefits quickly became clear in the first day’s test at the Losail car-park, where we got to try both bikes’ stopping abilities on dry tarmac, wet tarmac and a thin coating of sand, in a dummy panic-brake from about 80km/h. Even the dry test was an eye-opener, as the Hondas stopped hard and skid-free, with none of the normal lever-pulsing (the software just doesn’t work that way). Both were stable, too, although the Fireblade’s rear end moved around slightly, without ever threatening to develop into a stoppie.

Grabbing a handful of front brake on a wet or sandy surface was even more impressive. The ABS seemed to slow the CBRs — using both brakes, whether the handlebar lever, foot pedal or both were operated — significantly harder than other ABS-equipped bikes I’ve tested in similar circumstances. The Hondas’ relatively light weight was doubtless part of the reason for that. But so too was the system’s sophistication, including a sensor that reacts in six milliseconds — four times faster than the VFR800F’s equivalent.

That test was very promising but it was next day on the circuit that revealed what a leap Honda has made. I began on the CBR600RR, which has gained a few non braking-related tweaks for 2009, as well as having its front calipers upgraded to Fireblade-style monoblocks. Revised pistons, cylinder head and exhaust silencer contribute to a slight torque increase between 8000 and 12,000rpm. Peak output remains 120bhp at 13,500rpm.

The console now includes an ABS malfunction warning light amongst other instrumentation

The Combined ABS system works upto four times faster than the one that was introduced on the VFR800F

The titanium exhaust also has reshaped downpipes and a new Fireblade-style power valve, and is slightly lighter. Along with the new calipers, that helps reduce kerb weight slightly — to a claimed 184kg for the non-ABS model. The reshaped fairing lower is claimed to smooth air flow and thus aid stability, though the change is possibly more to do with hiding ABS parts. Clear, oval indicators and new graphics also freshen up the look.

Those Tokico monoblock calipers are the most significant addition, and helped ensure that even the non ABS-equipped CBR that I rode first was seriously well braked. It was quick and sweet-handling, too, as was to be expected, screaming to its 15,000rpm redline through the gears, and carving through Losail’s succession of fast right-handers with typical poise and control, aided by the grip of Bridgestone’s race-compound BT003 rubber.

It’s hard to know whether its new brake allowed the CBR to stop notably harder than its predecessor, but it certainly shed speed mightily rapidly at the end of that pit straight, and with plenty of feel at the lever. Honda’s new world Supersport champion Andrew Pitt, who’d just finished back-to-back testing with his old bike, thought the new calipers’ main benefit was improved steering response due to theirreduced weight.

Before riding the CBR I’d expected the difference between standard and ABS-equipped bikes to be much more obvious, so I was amazed to find the new system not just working but doing so in a totally unobtrusive way. I could come flying towards a turn, then squeeze the handlebar lever either as hard as I would normally, or purposely hard enough to lock a typical front wheel. In either case, the bike’s response was identical: hard, smooth, controllable stopping.

Andrew Pitt
2008 World Supersport champion
“I’m really impressed with the ABS. I thought riding round a circuit it would feel very different to a normal bike. But it doesn’t.

The ABS makes the bike much more stable into a turn, thanks to the back brake — I’m getting the benefit of braking without actually using it. You can trail brake quite a bit: if you’re going to just miss the apex of a turn, you can touch the brake lever and it adds bit of rear brake to help you turn in.

Before I tried ABS I’d have said there was no need for it, but now I’m quite convinced it has a future in racing. Especially in the rain. It does take away something from the rider; in that way it’s just like traction control. But it’s a clever system that will stop a lot of crashes.”

Feel through the lever was normal, as was the bike’s response as I eased off the brake into the turn. (Braking too hard into the bend would cause a crash in the normal way.) But the Honda’s advantage was not simply that it prevented the wheels from locking, because the ABS system’s ECU also works to keep the bike as stable as possible by distributing braking force through both front and rear wheels, when either the handlebar lever or foot pedal is operated.

Like many riders (including some professional racers) I never use the rear brake on a racetrack, due its relatively small benefit compared to the front, the risk of locking the rear wheel, and the difficulty of dividing my concentration between front and rear. But when I squeezed the Honda’s handlebar lever, the ABS computer sneakily and efficiently added a small but significant (and lock-free, of course) bit of rear brake that reduced the bike’s fork dive, and helped keep it notably stable on the way into the turns.

Less welcome was the fact that because the CBR didn’t dip at the front as much as normal under braking, it needed a touch more steering input to make it change direction into the turns. Reducing the forks’ compression damping slightly could probably have sorted this, given a bit more time for fine-tuning. The system’s other disadvantage, apart from cost, is the 10kg weight penalty. But the extra kilos are located very centrally, and I couldn’t detect any detrimental effect on the handling.

In case this all sounds too positive, the test did have one flaw: the ABS we all tested in Qatar wasn’t the standard system, but had been modified slightly to allow for the soft-compound Bridgestone BT003 tyres. Like some other sticky tyres, these are slightly wider than the BT015s (or Dunlop Qualifiers) with which the CBRs will come as standard. This effects the way the ABS works.


 

Honda therefore fitted the testbikes with slightly modified ABS ECUs, similar to the programmable ECU that will be available as an accessory. “It is possible to use the standard ECU with race-compound tyres, but the ABS performance is not 100 per cent,” said engineer and test rider Tetsuya Kudoh. “It’s maybe 95 per cent — the ABS might activate slightly earlier.”

Given that most riders serious enough to use these bikes on a racetrack will want to fit sticky rubber, that is surely a distinct disadvantage. After all, someone who has just paid extra for ABS won’t be happy about having to spend more on a kit ECU. Honda doesn’t offer the option of disconnecting the ABS, either, although simply unplugging one of its wires would disable it and leave the standard brake system in place. (Some riders might prefer to do this for track days anyway.)

That is presumably what Honda had done to the Fireblades we rode immediately after lunch, though they wouldn’t confirm this. The format was the same as with the 600RR, so before riding the ABS-equipped Blade we had a session on a bike with the anti-lock deactivated. The Fireblade is unchanged for 2009 apart from new, clear oval-shaped rear indicators and minor bodywork revisions to cover the ABS parts. Predictably enough, the Repsol-liveried bike ripped round the circuit with the blend of smooth power, grunt, agility and stopping power that won so many comparison tests last year.

Back out for the second session with ABS reconnected, the system was every bit as impressive as it had been on the smaller CBR. The Fireblade still braked eye-poppingly hard, and it was an eerie feeling to sit up at the end of the straights and squeeze the lever, knowing that there was no chance of locking up the front wheel. Once again the stability provided by the ECU-triggered rear disc was useful, though the Blade’s rear tyre still waved around slightly under very hard braking. There was a bit more weight transfer with the Fireblade than with the lighter 600RR. Although the ABS-equipped Blade needed slightly more steering input than the normal model, this was less pronounced than with the smaller CBR.

By the end of my second session I was leaving my braking slightly later than I had been on the non-ABS Blade, though this was possibly because I’d had more laps in which to fine-tune my markers as the bike catapulted down the Losail straights. Honda racers Andrew Pitt, Jonathan Rea and Leon Haslam reckoned they were braking at almost exactly the same place as on the standard bike. So did Martin Bauer, who won last year’s German Superbike championship on a Fireblade, and will defend his title on an ABS-equipped model this season if the regulations allow it.

“I think it will be possible to use the ABS, although the other manufacturers will be against it,” says Bauer. “Its performance will be very close to a non ABS bike, maybe half a second per lap slower in ideal conditions. But it would be very good in the wet, and you could find the limit very fast on the first lap. Over a whole race distance it might be faster because you would be less likely to make mistakes.”

Whether it’s a good idea to allow ABS in racing is another matter, and one that rule-makers in Germany and elsewhere will soon be discussing. Like traction control, anti-lock brakes remove a significant element of skill, and are likely to be resisted by many who prefer to see the rider in full control. The reduced opportunity for outbraking, once everyone is using similar ABS systems, could make for dull racing — though riding the ABS-equipped CBRs round Losail certainly wasn’t boring.

There are also those who won’t want ABS on the road, either because they prefer to be in full control, or because they believe the system will be a disadvantage in some circumstances. That was certainly true of previous ABS systems — but not, I think, of this one. Honda admits that a good rider can narrowly outbrake even this system after two or three attempts, on a dry surface. But an average rider’s braking distance is longer, even after several tries. And even the best riders take longer when the road is wet or gritty.

More importantly, on the road you don’t get a second chance. Honda’s technically brilliant invention worked better than I thought possible on the Losail circuit, without detracting from the thrill of caning the firm’s fastest super-sports bikes. But it’s on motorways, high streets and twisty back-roads that the system will show its worth, when it prevents a skid or allows a rider to avoid a hazard they would otherwise have hit. Whether or not you like the idea of anti-lock brakes, the verdict is clear: with the arrival of electronic Combined ABS, superbike safety has taken a significant step forward.