All Abuzz Part I – The CB900F, 919, Hornet 900

p1010141Sibling bikes; comparing them is a lot like comparing white wine to red. They both may come from the same vineyard, they may even come in the same shape of bottle, but really that’s about as far as it goes. Right, fine, no point in doing it then – or is there? In the real world, people are making this choice; 599 (Hornet 600) or CB900F (919/Hornet 900), Apples or Oranges, Atkins or South Beach, we’d be almost criminally negligent if we didn’t weigh in with our thoughts. Speaking of criminal, lets start with the sibling that’s done more time on the roads of North America – the hooligan 919…

I have a friend. More of a drinking buddy, acquaintance, and part-time nemesis, actually. We don’t go out often because every time we do, rules get bent, something gets broken, and I’m not entirely sure where I’ll wake up – all of which tends to be hard on my social fibre. In short he’s a hooligan, not a full time one but one of occasional weekend opportunity. The Honda CB900F is a lot like this friend… on Prozac.

Don’t get me wrong the CB900F is fun, but despite the marketing it’s not a full-time hooligan. Instead of being bred for a life of delinquency, the CB900F in reality is a bike with an identity crisis, and who can blame it? Depending on when and where you go looking for one, it’s been called the Hornet, the 919, and the CB900F – it’s run more name change advertisements in the back of the local paper than a drag queen with MPD. So to make our lives easier and save some typing, let’s just go by it’s current North American name, the 919, and get to the more important bit. Where does the recipe for hooliganism go wrong?

It’s not the engine. The lump is old-tech for a sport bike, being lifted from the 1999 Fireblade 900 and re-tuned for more mid-range. For once, thankfully, re-tuned does not mean that a cut-rate veterinarian has neutered a perfectly good power plant. The engine has pull from just about anywhere in its range over 3000 RPM, a beautiful, strong, thrumming, relaxed, meaty pull, developing around 96hp at 9000RPM with a peak 62ft-lbs of torque at 7700. There’s power, ready and waiting, easy to get at, and you can feel it. The linear pull is intoxicating in its smooth availability; in the parkade, the street, the highway and even the freeway if you brave the buffeting. The joy is only diminished a bit by a vaguely jerky throttle response from start in first – the 04’s updated injection maps may sort that. Countering that, you’d be the princess who found the pea if you can find a rough spot in the rest of this plant’s range. Somehow though it’s lacking a bit of spice, maybe the cayenne. This might be a good thing because the suspension wrapping this meaty engine filling just isn’t up to anything really zesty.

When zest is required, say when chasing down your errant cameraman blazing along on a CBR600RR, one hand on the throttle and the other madly snapping pictures of you backward through the local twisties, the suspension just isn’t up to the job. It’s an underwhelming fit for the bike; the front 43mm cartridge fork and a rear single shock which offers tool-adjustable preload only, an active discouragement of tinkering and tuning for those too lazy to pop the seat off and dislodge the tool kit – namely me. As a quick note though, the ’04 model carries forks with adjustable preload and compression damping – a good step in the right direction as we found the ‘02’s suspenders are soft and plush, or in other words fine at legal speeds. If you’re really feeling a bit extra-legal however, the square-tube mono-backbone frame, aluminum swingarm, and stock suspension end up adding to the excitement with a bit of a hoola dance through the corners. The chassis just doesn’t seem to be up to what the engine can muster when the bike is really pushed hard, hell-bent for leather hard, scary hard, actually harder than we’ve pushed most of the bikes reviewed – which actually means the suspension is pretty well sorted for daily use.

At more civilized speeds the bike is impeccably behaved and solid, and that might be the key to unraveling the 919’s mental state. It is a streetfighter with the soul of a commuter like the Nighthawk. But the bike is not quite true to that lineage either, except for wind protection, it’s been given a miss entirely; a flyscreen would be a boon to the design. Running the stock 919 up to about 120kph you’ll be all right, a little beyond that – you’ll enjoy it for a while. Much beyond that however, and you might well feel you have a passenger relentlessly beating you about the head with a three day old French baguette.

There are other impracticalities that a commuter would take issue with. The 919 lacks a center stand, sorely missed for ongoing chain maintenance. A lesser issue is the kickstand, which is difficult to deploy with the nub being right under the peg, luckily the bike is well balanced. The mirrors? We never succeeded in adjusting them to give anything but a lovely view of anything but our wind-buffeted elbows. In heavy rush hour traffic the first gear is too tall; the bike refuses to crawl with the rest of the blockage, indeed it almost goads you into immoral commuting acts like lane splitting (damn you Californians!). Or if that is too anti-social, you’ll spend a lot of time working the evil-firm clutch; it has been postulated that Popeye owned one of these in his younger years. So, not a ruffian, and not a work-a-day ad executive, the 919’s identity crisis continues…

Just because the 919 hasn’t decided what it wants to be when it grows up doesn’t mean it’s not a solid offering. For one the ergonomics are great; a comfortable, relaxing position gives you a commanding view of the road. The upright seating position also gives you great leverage against the wide bars, which, with the 919’s balanced 485 lbs (approximate wet weight) and very neutral handling, give it a light handling feel. The twin four-pistoned 296mm disks up front and single one-pistoned 240mm disk in rear give smooth and effective braking, though the rear can feel a bit uncertain and hop a bit on rough pavement in emergency stops without a bit of extra care. The engine must be revisited for a moment simply because the power is just so smoothly and easily delivered, as a bonus it’s mated to a very positively shifting transmission. In short the ease of the 919 riding is great, you just have to realize that you won’t be chasing down the uber-sport set.

So, in the end what is the 919, hooligan or commuter? Well neither really, the bike’s recipe is a bit like biting into a taco, and finding the salsa’s been left out; it’s not unpleasant, indeed it’s pretty tasty, but there’s just something missing – the kick, without which the bike is just a bit pedestrian. So revel in the good stuff, the meaty goodness of the engine, tasty tomato braking and the sharp jack cheese of the looks. However if you were to buy some aftermarket salsa you could really heat things up…

Next the 599 – the 919’s little brother shows up its sibling in ways we never expected. Read On…

Or skip to the chase and find out which we’d choose, the 599 or 919, judgement is served… with a nice dessert wine.

Test Bike Provided By:
Carter Motorsports Coquitlam
#11-1300 Woolridge St.
Coquitlam, B.C.
Phone: (604) 519-0000
Fax: (604) 519-0008

New: $10,999.00 CND MSRP
Demo: ‘03 $9999.00 CND


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