Honda has built hot Fireblades for 29 years now, but the flagship hero Honda wasn’t always top of the sales tree. We look at the ones that had to work hard for their sales supper.
When Honda released the 929cc version of the model designation that had carried the brand’s showroom-hero sports offering for almost a decade at the time, it should have known that the world was moving on, and litre bikes were to be what the discerning sports buyer wanted.
The 2000 model Fireblade had to tote a mighty load of expectation with a more limited capacity. It was fair of Honda though, to think it could weather the storm. After all, the buying public had always queued to get the latest Blade, why wouldn’t they this time?
There was a simple and very short answer to that question: R1.
Yamaha simply owned the big sports market in the late nineties and early noughties with its groundbreaking litre hottie and the Blade was always playing catch up. Not because it was a bad motorcycle, far from it. It was because it was underpowered compared to the Yam and looked a little old hat.
Sounds ridiculous, but Mr H had been caught with his pants around his ankles.
All that was a little unfair. You see, the message Honda was sending with the new Blade was one of aggression and sports prowess. This bike was sharper and more sports-oriented in just about every department when weighed against the previous offering, and it was indeed fast and competent.
Using the tried and true formula of a liquid-cooled, 16-valve, DOHC across the frame four-cylinder, the engine was good for 112kW at 11,500rpm and 103Nm at 9000rpm.
That represented a hefty 18kW more power over the previous model.
The bike had significantly steeper numbers than its predecessor as well, with a 1400mm wheelbase down from 1405mm, 23.7 degrees of rake versus 24, and trail down a millimetre from 95 to 94. It was also 10kg lighter at 170kg dry.
All this was contained in a semi-pivotless, twin spar aluminium frame.
There must have been a bit of money about at the time, because that Blade would have set you back $17,125 plus ORC when new.
Happy to climb up on its rear end and shimmy at the steering head, earlier Fireblades were considered, in a far less woke age, as ‘manbikes’.
This incarnation was given a 17-inch front wheel, which settled it in regard to front-end flightiness. In fact, many claim this model as the most benign Blade of them all.
Brakes were a highlight, the twin 330mm rotors and Nissin four-piston calipers offering performance as good as stopping power gets.
The 929 was Honda’s first road-going motorcycle to feature the now standard arrangement of upside-down forks and we were all agog at that. Very sexy.
In another first, this model got fuel-injection; which was a bit of a letdown in truth. Decidedly snatchy and harsh off the bottom, injection was still a bit of a black art at this stage of sports bike development.
Conrod failure has been known on examples that have been hard ridden and regularly revved very hard. Gearbox problems including jumping out of second gear under acceleration can be an issue.
It’s a mechanically noisy engine at standstill and this can put some people off. Camchain rattle is normal on this model.
Honda’s HISS immobiliser system was all-new. It became the benchmark for anti-theft setups, although the loss of a key is a very expensive proposition.
In 2002, in an effort to keep up with the rampant R1 and the new litre king, the Suzuki GSX-R1000, Honda upped the Blade’s capacity to 954cc and was madly running a campaign that suggested ‘outright speed or power figures don’t necessarily make for the most enjoyable riding experience’. Yeah right…
This was the model’s sixth incarnation and the last to be designed by famed Honda man Tadao Baba, the man who penned the ground-breaking first of the breed way back in 1992. Price was $17,690.
Honda bored each cylinder out another millimetre for that small but important 25cc increase in capacity. It was all about playing catch-up, but when combined with six per cent lighter pistons and other weight and friction reduction mods throughout the engine, improved responsiveness was the result. Power was now 115kW at 11,250rpm.
Some of the gain would also be down to the revised electronic engine management, with larger throttle bodies (40 to 42mm), new injectors and a re-programmed ECU, which improved the fuel-injection significantly over the 929.
All this attention to weight resulted in a two kilogram saving with the CBR954RR coming in at a pretty amazing 168kg dry.
To the eye, the new Blade took a much more aggressive stance, its angular styling and slimmer seat offering a more racebred and lighter appearance compared to earlier models.
The tank was situated lower and further forward, with more of the load carried lower down in a move that both improved mass centralisation for more competent handling and moved the rider further forward for better control when cornering.
Wheels came in for some revision, with more compact hubs and lighter spokes trimming 300 grams off the all-important unsprung weight. This represented weight that would otherwise have to be controlled by the suspension when encountering bumps. Except for minor revision of metering, the forks and brakes remained the same.
This version is well-known for its robust engine and many consider it the finest Blade ever. That’s a big call, and one wonders at it to some extent, but there can be little doubt that the refinements undertaken over the 929 made the 954 an infinitely better thing.
The original steering head bearings should have been replaced with a recall but not every owner of the Honda CBR900RR FireBlade bothered.
Honda simply hasn’t built a bad Fireblade and, disregarding the quite unwarranted hysteria around ‘the latest and greatest’, a good example of either of these will serve a rider well. They are getting older now, and this is the sort of age sector in which a purchaser needs to be careful.
These are sports bikes and they have often been thrashed pretty hard. Low kilometres, a good service history, a lengthy test ride (taking careful notice of the gearbox) and a very strict inspection are critical.
Get a good one, and you’ll be happy for quite some time. If you want a sports tool with the sort of reliability for which Honda is renowned, well go for it.
Our pick is the youngest 954 (2004). It’s really a better motorcycle than the 929, but you’ll pay more. Your choice.
It’s a bit like Groundhog Day, we’ve said this about Japanese offerings on a regular basis, Japanese across the frame fours are a well-known quantity and relatively easily serviced. Keep to the service recommendations, look for service books on a used purchase and the thing should serve you very well indeed.
A minor service (oil change, lube and checkover) should cost around $250; an intermediate service should cost around $500; while a major service (incl. valve check and parts) will cost around $800, but prices will vary from dealer to dealer.
Snag’s career in motoring journalism spans 29 years with stints at major bike mags Australian Road Rider, Motorcycle Trader and AMCN along with contributions to just about every other outlet worth a hill of beans. He was editor of Unique Cars magazine and hosts his legendary podcast ‘Snag Says’ when he gets off his date.