Monday, 22 September 2014

Ride review: Honda CBF600SA

Honda CBF600SA
It occurred to me today that with all the bike reviews I've written (something I really like doing because it inherently means riding different motorbikes) I've never taken the time to review the one I know best –– my own.

The CBF600SA is no longer part of Honda's lineup, having been available from 2004-2013, but they are damned durable machines and as such will be floating around in the used market for quite some time. Midway through its run –– in 2007 –– the model received a handful of relatively unnoticeable updates with the major difference being the engine. Mine is a 2005 model, running on a detuned engine from the venerable CB600F Hornet. From 2007, the CBF600 carried a detuned CBR600RR engine.

In both cases, the Honda CBF600SA is an interminable workhorse, producing 76 hp and about 43 ft.-lb. of torque. Those are decent enough numbers. As I've said many times before: in reality, that level of power is all you need.

However, maximum horsepower is achieved at 10,500 rpm, which means you will almost certainly never actually experience all 76 of the Honda's horses. Things get way too vibey and wheezy before that. Maximum torque is reportedly found at 8,000 rpm, which is right about where things get ridiculous. You'll find life easier when pushing the engine less. 

I'm not one to care much about numbers, though. I'm the sort of guy who often focuses on intangibles. And the narrative of what the CBF600SA is can be encapsulated, I think, in two personal experiences:

1) My brother owns, but very rarely rides, a Honda CBR1000RR –– arguably one of the greatest sportbikes ever made. However, the reason he rarely takes the bike out, he told me, is that he has yet to figure out how to ride it without suffering so many accidental wheelies.
"What do you do to keep that front wheel from coming up so much?" he asked.
"That has never ever happened to me," I said. "I'm not entirely sure I could wheelie if I wanted to."

2) I rode to Scotland and back not too long ago, putting more than 1,000 miles on the odometer. More recently, I clocked up roughly 600 miles on a jaunt to Yorkshire. I've also done long runs to West Sussex, North Wales, the Midlands, the West Country, West Wales and dozens of other places you've likely never heard of if you're reading this in the United States. In all that riding, in all those thousands of miles, I have not had a problem with the bike.

Maintenance is relatively easy.
So, the story of the CBF600SA is of a machine that is lacking in character but that will take you wherever you want to go, as far as you want to go, whenever you want to go, and never let you down.

That's more or less what Honda intended. Never released in the cruiser-focused U.S. market, the model was dually aimed at newish riders and no-frills-needing commuters. It doesn't do wheelies but its 19-litre tank (5 US gallons) will carry you some 220 miles before the fuel light comes on. It is a legitimate "big bike," with all the weight and mass that entails, whilst remaining smooth and forgiving of mistakes. Almost to a fault.

Of course, the CBF600SA was/has been my first big bike and I chose it in part because I had learned to ride on a naked version of it: the uninspiringly named CBF600N. So, it was an issue of choosing the devil I knew. I knew how it responded to certain situations; I knew I could spend a decent amount of time in its saddle.

Theoretically, that saddle is adjustable to three different heights, but long-legged dudes like me (I'm 6 foot 1) will find the highest setting hard to achieve. The seat's not-at-all-easy-to-access bolts aren't long enough; you'll need to find different bolts to make it work. And once you do, you'll find the aesthetics of the bike negatively affected, with the ugly bottom seams of the tank suddenly visible. Because I care about how things look and I'm too lazy to go hunting for different bolts, I live with the standard middle setting.

Also adjustable is the bike's windscreen. Again, there are three different positions, but in this case making changes is far easier. After experimenting with different heights I settled on the highest position, which puts wind at about face-shield level for me.

Honda used to label the CBF600SA as a sport tourer, which is a stretch in one sense of the category if not both. But I suppose if they'd labeled it truthfully as a two-wheeled mule it might not have sold well. 

On the sport end of things, the bike doesn't churn out nearly the horsepower of the bikes from which it gets its proverbial Adam's rib. Also no longer on the lineup, the CB600F Hornet in its heyday gave 100 bhp; the CBR600RR pushes closer to 120 bhp.  So, the CBF600SA is a distance from where it could be and, as I said, wringing all 76 horses from it is a hell of a challenge.

Loaded with gear in Scotland.
Meanwhile, although it handles like a dream when compared to something like a Victory Jackpot, the Honda is not as flickable as many other bikes I've ridden and strikes me as unnecessarily top heavy. It is not awful, but simply not as good as it could probably be. 

However, lamenting its lethargy on twisty roads is probably missing the point. This bike was always targeted newbies and commuters. And back when I first got it –– when I was a newbie, often overcome with nerves at the mere fact of being on a bike –– it had all the power I could possibly want. I mean, hell, the thing can go 140 mph! (a)

In situations more familiar to newbies and commuters –– obeying the speed limit, straight lines, slow-speed manoeuvres, filtering, etc. –– the CBF600SA performs admirably. And to that end, it better supports the "tourer" side of Honda's definition. The liquid-cooled inline-four engine can happily drone on and on and on, easily cruising at or above motorway speeds without complaints or surprises. On long hauls I tend to peg it at 75-80 mph, which puts the rev counter at or below 6,000 (depending on wind resistance), and a safe distance from the high-rev vibration I mentioned. Passing at motorway speed comes easily, with a generous twist of throttle springing you past that texting driver or out of the way of that lane-changing National Express bus. 

Perhaps in part because it weighs 225 kg (500 lbs.), the CBF600SA is rock solid at those speeds. The half fairing helps, too, of course, keeping wind off your upper body. If you lean forward and lay your chest on the tank, peering through the windscreen, you find a decent-sized pocket of undisturbed air to hide in when riding home from Bristol in 1º C (33º F) weather. Though you will look a bit silly when doing so, because the natural seating position of the CBF600SA is upright –– again, more "tourer" than "sport."

Add heated grips and the Honda's touring credentials are bolstered a little further. Additionally, it takes soft luggage well, has a number of places to hook bungee cords, and possesses a passenger seat that is sized for an actual human being. 

"I have plenty of room there," my wife told me. "A few inches between your bum and my... you know... and then a few more inches behind. So, I can move around a little."

There is equally a good amount of space on the seat for a rider to move around. Which is fortunate because the seat is not the most comfortable for long hauls. My wife can last roughly 50 miles before she starts to get antsy and needs a break; I can manage about double that. I sometimes think, because of its size, durability and fuel efficiency, the CBF600SA might be a good machine on which to attempt a Saddle Sore 1000 ride. However, I will definitely need to find a seating solution first. 

It's not sexy, but it helps me feel free.
On the go, moving through the bike's six gears is simple enough. First is a little short for my liking and pushing it too hard can result in second being hard to find. This is really only an issue, though, when you have gotten into a pissing match with a guy in a Ford KA and are launching from a stop light to prove to him how much more manly you are. Yes, you'll beat him across the intersection but thereafter watch him wheeze past as you are forced to bring the revs down to wiggle out of neutral.

Shifting can also be less than silky when the bike is very hot.

The brakes, though, are always good. Two discs up front mean stops can be delivered easily with just two fingers on the lever. And the otherwise-unobtrusive ABS has been damned useful in the handful of times it has deployed. So useful, in fact, that I will not consider buying any motorcycle without it.

Motorcycle suspension is still something of a dark art to me, so I can't really say much beyond the fact that the CBF600SA has an adjustable rear suspension that I've never felt the need to adjust. It's handled all the situations I've put it in, and deals with the third-world state of British roads decently well.

"Decent" is a word that could be used over and over when describing the CBF600SA. "Well-mannered" is another superlative that comes to mind. Especially when talking about the bike's sound. Push the engine way, way too hard and you can get it to sound a bit like a tortured robotic cat, but during normal operating conditions the exhaust note is far more like a low-powered vacuum cleaner being used in an adjacent room. At motorway speeds I cannot hear it at all.

The immature side of me laments this, but I have to admit there are some solid benefits. Firstly, I don't need my own engine noise to remind me that I'm moving. And with the CBF600SA running so quietly I can hear instead the engines and sometimes even tires of other road users, giving me a greater sense of awareness. Loud pipes do not save lives; knowing what the hell is going on around you does. Secondly, the Honda's quiet engine means I have never had a single complaint from the senior citizen couple whose bedroom window is right next to the shed where I park my bike. 

Overall, the Honda CBF600SA is sort of the motorcycling equivalent of Europe. No, not the continent but the 80s hair rock band. Do you know anyone who owns a Europe CD? Yeah, me neither. Yet all of us can rock out to "Final Countdown" if needs must. Are Europe's riffs as good as AC/DC's? Nope. Do they have the depth of Metallica? No, sir. But they do the job. You can still air guitar, and you won't run the risk of upsetting your mom.

My first bike and me
I find it slightly difficult to understand why anyone ever bought a new one, but when purchased second-hand these machines are incredibly good value for money. Service intervals are every 4,000 miles and much of the work can be done yourself with a little bit of patience and a Haynes manual –– even if you are something of a mechanical moron like me.

In the end, the Honda CBF600SA is a pretty good motorcycle. It's a dependable all-rounder that may start to bore you after a year or so, but will simultaneously raise your standards as you look for your next machine. Good for commuting, well suited to new or returning riders, and passable as a light-duty practical tourer. It's pretty good. And depending on your experience/demands/finances, it might be good enough for you. Just don't expect it to necessarily set your heart on fire.

Though, having now written this review I feel inclined to take it out for a ride.

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(a) So they say. I can't verify that personally, as I don't have the cajones to go that fast.

16 comments:

  1. Sounds like a versatile bike. I have a couple of Hondas, a 2000 Magna and an '08 ST1300. I did my first visit to Europe this past summer. Loved Ireland and can't wait to return to do it, as well as the rest of the UK on a bike.

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  2. Having sold my Katana a few months ago, I'm trying to decide between a used Speed Triple and a new CBR650F for my next bike. Very different machines, of course, and on any given ride I'd absolutely prefer to be on an S3. But the question is not just which bike to ride, but which bike to own, and that's where the Honda comes into its own - cheaper to run, cheaper to insure, more comfortable on long trips, likely to be more reliable and easier to fix when something does break. These are the boring, accountant-y reasons we have to pay mind to when spending our own money.

    There is perhaps one advantage that the Kat had and that I suspect the Honda will have over faster, rowdier bikes - the ability to use the engine fully, to take it to the redline in 3rd and even 4th while overtaking RV convoys on country roads. Making an I4 scream will always be fun.

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  3. Recently i've realised that my Honda CX500 is the most comfortable bike I will probably own. After using my Kawasaki GPZ 500 again for a few months, and getting pains at the left of my lower back after just 10 miles of motorway riding, coming back to my CX is so lovely. No wonder I could do 400 motorway miles as a courier.

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    1. Hey, I rented a Honda CB650F this last weekend and wrote a comparison report between it and the CB500X. Email me if you want to read it....burnalot@gmail.com

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  4. To change the seat height you need to also change the height of the bolt holes, 2 more bolts are either side of the battery if memory serves me correctly to then raise (or lower) the thread to hold the back of the rider seat in place.

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  5. Chris brings up a really good point about bikes, that I will twist into my own version;

    It's like a wild horse.
    Sure, it's an adrenaline producing thrill to ride a horse that has not yet been broken in.
    But do you really want to ride a horse that will buck you off, every time you ride it?
    Do I really want a machine that I have to fight to keep the front wheel on the ground?
    Or like what I rented last weekend: The Honda CB650F:
    A bike that the back tyre is constantly squeeling underneath you,
    due to the INSANE amount of torque?
    It's a balance between adrenaline-inducing vs. SAFETY.
    And you CAN absolutely get BOTH in one, neat package. It's called the Honda CB500X !
    Cheers mate, well written! Shawn

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  6. This was a pretty awesome review, btw. :)

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  7. Nice review,thanks.

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  8. Seeing the photo of your bike in the sun brought back memories of taking my CBF600SA down through France and Spain in June this year2015, mpg was 70+ I did buy a air hawk to get around the bump numbing seat, now looking forwards to 2016 and riding it across the Pyrenees

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  9. I should reiceve my cbf some time next week !!
    Looking at your luggage , what panniers did you get and any verdicts ??
    thanks

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    1. The panniers you see in the photos in this post are Viking AXE Saddlebags. I've reviewed them on my site. The short review is that they're OK, but I think you can find better. Ultimately, I ended up buying the official Honda hard panniers for this bike. They were very good quality and worth the money. If you don't feel like paying as much, Shad and Givi make good hard panniers, as well.

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  10. Great review. Just one thing: at a specific speed, in a specific gear, the rpm has nothing to do with wind resistance. As long as you maintain contact with the road, the ratio is fixed. Thanks for the review!

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  11. Thanks for a great article and review. Just taking my test and seen a good one of these laying around for little money. I think it could be perfect to get me going.

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  12. Just purchased a CBF600SA. Thanks very much for the very good Review.

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  13. It was this review that brought me to your blog. I have the CBF125 and love it and I'm very soon about to complete MOD 1&2 and will be looking to thereafter get my first 'big bike'. My local Honda dealer has a cracking 2007 CBF600 with 12k on the clock, and going for a good price. Before I decided if it was the bike for me I read a few reviews, including yours, and I'm happy to say that I've since put a deposit down on it and now got MOD 1&2 booked in for the near future!

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