As an owner of what is widely acknowledged to be the best road going Litre sports bike, all be it a 2006 vintage (the boring years), it would seem there is only one bike on the market today that can be seen to be an upgrade; I give you the 2012 Fireblade. (I also put the caveat that it is in every way better than the RSV-4 :p well ok apart from the noise )
Looks as ever are subjective but to me the mild facelift with the restyled headlights has added some welcome aggression to the otherwise mild mannered countenance of the pug nosed bike. There are little other changes to the aesthetics and the new bike will otherwise be all too easily confused with the bike first introduced in 2008. I guess they had the Porsche design team in during the initial stages who talked about evolution not revolution, I mean look at the last 4 generations of 911 as to how to ensure continuity of form. Again no bad thing as like the Porsche the bike is a well thought out grown up design, some say a little “safe” but still fresh after all these years.
The other design change is in the new all digital clocks, gone is the analogue rev counter and in it’s place is a digital Lcd screen showing revs as across the top in an bar with speed, temperature, odometer and trip functions as normal. The big addition here is the gear indicator, something not before seen on the big Honda. Overall the clocks work well and are easy to read and have all the basic information needed. They do however look very much as they have been built to a price, and not a high one at that. There is not the quality of the Ducati or even Aprilia digital dashes and I hate to say there is a slight cheap Casio watch feel to the graphics. This is a shame as this is the main visual that riders have of the bikes they are riding and it would have been nice if they had at least a little more of a quality appearance.
The big news about this bike is the big piston forks (BPF) at the front and the twin tube shock at the rear, both are quality bits of kit. The front forks are well known from their use in the GSX-R1000 K9 and ZX-6R 09 where they have won much praise. The shock is new to this market as a production spec item, it is similar to the Ohlin TTX36 after market shock and is supposed to improve damping consistency in hard (track) use and provide more traction on corner exits. Both offer the full range of damping adjustment as is to be expected these days, though I always wonder how often these are ever adjusted by the majority of non track riders.
How does it ride? That is the main and most important question. I was able to get an hour on the bike from my friendly local Honda dealer. The thing about the Fireblade and what identifies it as the road bike standard is the smoothness of delivery, both in terms of throttle pick up off the bottom and the quality of the suspension. Pulling away the bike picks up off small revs and pulls into traffic with ease. There is an urgency in the pick up that shows the game has moved on from my 06 bike but that power increase is easily modulated buy the immaculate fuelling on small throttle openings. The ride is so smooth and pillow soft, it cossets the ride without removing feedback. The bike tells you what it is up to without shouting it at you and making you nervous.
The route I took was a nice mix of narrow bumpy B roads a bit of nice flowing A road and a bit of duel carriageway to round it off. The overall impression of the performance is one of linearity, the power comes in low down in the rev range and it just builds in a straight line all the way to 12k revs. There are no major dips or jumps in power, it is precise and easily measured out by the nicely connected throttle. Pick up out the corners, even off closed throttle was nice and progressive, there is more power lower down than my 06 Blade and that at first made me think the fuelling was off. With a couple of miles under my belt it soon became obvious that the bike was just a bit more urgent but just as smooth. This urgency is something that is apparent all the way to the top with the bike pulling in every gear with more drive than my 06.
To counteract this overall pace the brakes on this non ABS bike were progressive powerful and very effective. Not quite the brick wall stopping power of monoblock Brembos but certainly powerful enough for the road riding Blade. I did try a couple of hard stops and on the first attempt almost lost the ability to ever have children thanks to a slidy seat and not bracing hard enough with my legs. Part of that may be down to the way the BPF seem to delay the dive that normal forks show when braking hard, you seem to go forward with the G force before the dive transfers the weight your wrists. The Blade turns easily into corners with little input and whilst maybe not as quick to turn as the shortly RSV4 it is more than capable of maintaining pace through a series of bends.
This ability to maintain pace is in part due to the magic carpet ride offered by the rear shock. It is still a sports bike with firm suspension that will unseat you if the road is sufficiently B quality, but the way it is able to mask all the harsh high frequency road imperfections is amazing. It really does provide you with a ride smooth enough to tour on. I would be very interested to see how it feels on track with more drive applied out of turns. At road pace it is difficult to great a feel for any finer details of the damping except to say it works well with the forks and feels all of a piece.
My overall feeling was of a bike that was easy to ride, easy to ride well and easy to ride fast. I was quicker over my little route than I have been on my own bike and this was without trying, the bike just had that much extra pace and handling that would leave older blades trying to see which way the new one went. The licence is very much at risk. The only trouble is that as an accessible road bike it may be too well rounded, it could be seen to be too easy, maybe lacking a little character or not having something unique about it. It may not have the noise of the RSV-4, the power of the BMW, the torque of the RC8 or the electronics that have begun to appear on many bikes. It does however have a sense of cohesive ability, all the elements of the bike fit with each other and work to the same level. This allows you to get on and in a way forget about the bike and just focus on the ride. There is something very pure in that.