The CBR 954RR is the fastest, nimblest and best FireBlade yet and the last of the true 900cc Honda fours that dominated the world market for a decade, writes CARtoday.com correspondent Brett Hamilton.

It all started with the 1998 launch of the Yamaha YZF-R1, which knocked the Honda FireBlade off the top spot of the motorcycling world. At first, it sparked the revamped 2000 model featuring fuel injection, USD forks, improved chassis configuration, enhanced brakes and variable exhaust valve timing.


Yet, even with major improvements, the FireBlade had lost its sharpness. Then there were rumours of a litre FireBlade, inspired by Honda's GP racer, the RC211V, and the recently launched CBR 600RR. And now, it is all ending with the CBR 954 FireBlade… The last of the true 900cc Honda fours that dominated the world market for a decade.


In 2004, Honda will be introducing an all-new CBR FireBlade, housing a litre motor and sporting the styling of the RC211V, much like the current 600RR. And so, we revisit the CBR 900RR FireBlade to contemplate its position in motorcycle history and to see why Honda is scrapping it for a litre bike.


When the brainchild of Tadao Baba, the original CBR 900RR FireBlade, was launched in 1992 it revolutionised the industry. The '92 Blade was launched at a time when bikes were shockingly bad and Super Sports were good only for straight-line speeding. To say the least, the Blade rewrote every rule in the book. On styling alone, the competition, the likes of the Kawasaki ZXR750L and Yamaha YFZ750R, paled in comparison. On the road, the 'Blade's excellent handling and power ensured that, apart from updated forks, only minor changes were made until 1996, when the capacity swelled to 918,5cc.


However, the resurgence of the litre class with the introduction of the YFZ-R1, Aprilia RSV Mille, and the growing popularity of the Ducati along with the 2001 launch of the Suzuki GSX-R1000, made the reliable, go-between nature of the modern 'Blade unpopular with modern motorcyclists. The final up-date of the range was the 954cc 'Blade, the last of the original 'Blades.


Ironically, the superb versatility of the FireBlade led to its downfall. The FireBlade was good at everything but did not excel in any particular department and the 2003 Fireblade is, in certain respects, the same.


Once you get on board, the comfortable and familiar seating position is undeniably FireBlade. It is a sweet match between a sports tourer and a racing machine. As a sportsbike, the 'Blade could easily be utilised for long-distance riding. It is just as comfortable during high speed blasting as it is chugging through in-town traffic. Despite the relatively extreme ergonomic characteristics of the 'Blade, it is easy to flick through tight spaces and nip through small gaps. This is in part due to the smooth throttle response. The previous models had flawed fuel injection systems, making the throttle jerky, unresponsive and unpleasant from the pick up, but much work had been done to remedy this typically Honda problem.


The throttle bodies have been increased in size from 40 mm to 42 mm, which gives the new 'Blade a smoother throttle response. The fuel injection mapping has also been uprated, enabling the extra fuel to be burned with increased efficiency. Usually, these types of changes would go unnoticed but for minor technical readouts on laptops, but 'Blade truly shows its better characteristics on the road. The improvements are palpable and makes the 'Blade a better and more obedient motorcycle compared to the previous 929cc model.


Compared to the redesigned CBR 600RR, launched earlier this year, the 'Blade seems sluggish and large. With a top speed of 280 km/h and power figures of 95 kW at 11 250 r/min, the 'Blade could hardly be described as slow, but still, it does not seem crisp. Where the 2002 CBR 600 could disguise these problems, it is a good idea for Honda to convert their 'Blade to the RC211V mimic-machine in 2004. It worked for the 600 and it needs to work for the FireBlade. The power delivery is smooth and picks up well from the bottom ranges. It is perfectly clear that the FireBlade has kept its daily usability in that the 'Blade could literally do anything that is asked. It is equally at home on the track as on the road.


The basic chassis remains similar to that of the 2002 model. The rear damper's upper mount has been redesigned, making it possible to adjust the riding height without affecting other settings such as suspension travel, much like the Ducati system used on the Multistrada. The steering head casting has been reinforced for increased rigidity along with lighter rear castings that support the frame rail mounts for the slimmer seat unit. These changes are those that most riders would never realise and, to be honest, do not care about. Moving swiftly on…


And that is what makes the 'Blade an absolute pleasure to ride. Despite not being as crisp as other, more recent, Hondas, it is still a breeze for the 'Blade to get a move on. Gentle bends turn into full-blown corners and the scraping pegs grind in anticipation of the next right-hander. Not quite as large as the Blackbird, not quite as revvy as the 600RR and not quite as booming as the SP-2, the 'Blade is definitely distinct. The oscillations out of the corners are just a little over the top and the shaking handles keep shacking that fraction of a second longer that it should.


After a long straight, the rear gently bops and weaves under hard braking, offering the exact amount of grip to blast into the corner. The feel from the twin 330 mm discs up front and the single 220 mm disc at the rear is excellent. A gentle squeeze of the lever is enough to send the forks diving without fear of lock-ups.


Honda has always struggled to perfect the power distribution on most of their models. Earlier 'Blade models lacked mid-range and the ultra-modern 600RR, promising so much in this department, delivered very little. This 'Blade offers definite improvements, but there is still a giant flat spot right where and when it matters, when trying to blast out of corners. Somehow, I doubt if the 2004 'Blade would fair any better.


Still, the stable mid-corner nature of the current 'Blade enables the braver riders to keep speeds higher than they would on the Suzuki or Yamaha, effectively evening the scores. Maybe. Still, the 43 mm, USD, telescopic forks are very effective in communication with the rider and equally impressive at soaking up bumps. The rear rising-rate monoshock was fine, but the recently developed RC211V-inspired linkage-system as used on the 600RR has made it obsolete. The feel offered is just not enough compared to that of the RR. Everybody now knows that Honda can produce better components.


So, is the FireBlade ready to be replaced? Should a decade of history be chucked out the window to make way for the GP-inspired next generation? Should sentiment stand in the way of progress?


First, it should be noted that the FireBlade would not be totally scrapped in such a controversial manner as the Ducati 916/996/998. However, for a decade, the FireBlade dominated the market as a 900cc legend and to conform to competitive pressures from Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki, which is also launching a 1000cc ZX, are Honda’s top brass are throwing themselves on their own swords, so to speak.


2004 will see the launch of a 1000cc Honda superbike, inspired by the RC 211V and brimming with the latest components fashioned on the track. Sad hearts would soon be replaced by gleaming smiles, as the Honda faithful realised that newer is better. It worked for the 600 and it must work for the FireBlade. Meanwhile, the true 'Blades have earned their position in history and the CBR 954RR FireBlade will be a worthy final 900 FireBlade. It is the fastest, nimblest and best FireBlade yet.

Original article from Car