Honda CBR 600 RR

Honda's entry in the big-selling supersport 600 class was in considerable need of an update as, compared with Yamaha's track-oriented, sleekly styled R6 in particular, it seemed heavy and even a little old-fashioned. So Honda has updated it. The 2007 model has a new frame, engine and bodywork, and only the suspension is shared with its predecessor. It's worth making an effort in this class, too. Worldwide, this is the best-selling motorcycle category, and in sports-minded Britain it's stronger still, despite shrinking a little in recent times.

Like many other classes, this is one which sells on the image of performance as much as its real-world usefulness. And why not? If it gives an owner pleasure, there's nothing to condemn as far as I'm concerned.

The new CBR compares very well indeed in outright performance, as we discovered at the fabulous Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama, USA. The newly constructed circuit draped among the rolling, wooded hills is one of the finest I've ridden for its technical blend of swoops, curves and blind summits, and I have no doubt that the enjoyment was enhanced by the ability of the Honda.

Both motor and chassis played a big role in helping me learn an unfamiliar and complex track. The engine develops a little more peak horsepower than before, with 118bhp available at 13,500rpm, but much more important is a substantial increase in output in the 7,000-10,000rpm range. Come out of a turn in too high a ratio and the '07 CBR will muscle back into the meat of its powerband with an easy, linear drive that leaves the old version standing and an R6 gasping for breath.

The throttle control at track speeds was flawless too, with no hint of stutter or sharpness, just precise obedience, although trickling back into the pitlane I detected a hint of the uncertainty at low revs and slight throttle openings reminiscent of the older machines. We'll ride it again on public roads when it comes to the UK and report back, but even if this trait is still there, quite clearly the new CBR's motor is going to be significantly better on the roads than before, as the biggest power gains are in the rev zones you use rather than read about.

The chassis is equally affable to the ham-fisted, as I found when diving into a corner too fast (I'll blame the track's deceptive downhill braking areas) - even leaned over hard and still trailing some tentative front brake, the bike will pull on to a tighter line and get you back to the inside kerb. Ridden properly it changes direction with far more agility than before - if the one-litre sports bikes are starting to feel like 600s, the CBR's handling is more akin to a 250 in the way it flits this way and that at the merest hint of a turn.

Don't think for a moment that this comes with instability, though. The bike is supremely stable in the most testing circumstances, including a flat-out, fourth-gear crest with my knee slider still skimming the ground, where I'm sure an R6 would have its bars fluttering and many older 600s would be plain unmanageable. The CBR barely shrugged, which in part is due to the electronically controlled steering damper. You don't notice its action directly (as it should be), although it only applies a damping action to the steering above about 60mph - below that it opens a valve and the damping is switched off. It works well on the track and if anything, the benefits on bumpy British roads will be greater, keeping the bike responsive at lower speeds but stable when riding faster.

There are two main thrusts behind this dynamic ability. The first is a continuation of a policy of centralising the mass, where as much weight as possible is pulled into the heart of the bike to minimise its inertial moment and help it turn more quickly. The fairing, for example, has been pulled back and lightened (giving a stubby look reminiscent of Honda's MotoGP racers), the high-level underseat silencer now has its internals made from titanium, and so on. The second is making the bike yet more compact, starting with the engine, which Honda claims is the smallest in the class. It certainly seems tiny, and has allowed the chassis designers to lose just over 0.75in from the wheelbase while at the same time fitting a slightly longer swingarm (which improves stability). The motor is also 4.4lb lighter than before, a big slice of the total 17.6lb mass which has been shed over the 2006 model.

Acceleration is improved, of course, and so is braking, which is taken care of by the now obligatory four-piston, radially mounted calipers on inverted forks, although the feedback is better than the norm.

Overall, though, the specification falls a little shy of some rivals - there's no fly-by-wire trickery, for example. A slipper clutch would be even more useful, curing the rear-wheel judder I was experiencing under hard braking for a second gear left-hander. Honda's World Superbike rider James Toseland was on hand to show me how to deal with it by feathering the clutch lever as I slowed, but sadly there's no hotline to the 2006 WSB championship runner-up for CBR owners. Honda says a slipper clutch is low on its list of priorities, so it seems road performance is still more important, despite all the spin about the bike's prowess on the track.

Road riders will appreciate the 0.4in higher handlebars and a seat that's 0.6in farther back than before, both of which improve comfort without affecting track use. The bike is slightly more spacious than its predecessor, too, but can still feel less so for taller riders because the screen lip cuts across the instruments, obscuring the digital speed read-out as well as the upper reaches of the tacho. An aftermarket screen might cure the problem, but 6'3" isn't freakishly tall, is it? The fuel tank holds four gallons so the range should be reasonable, although that's something else we couldn't test, and some Hondas can get very thirsty. That's another thing that we'll let you know about later.

The CBR also lacks an interesting sound. Where the Suzuki GSX-R600 growls and wails like an infuriated demon, the Honda's generic four-cylinder signature does little to stir the soul. Against that, it looks aggressive and purposefully minimalist - Toseland pointed out how difficult it will be to incorporate sponsors' stickers with such a dearth of bodywork, but that's never going to bother me.

No doubt the '07 machine is going to be as strong in racing as the previous models, which have taken the World Supersport Championship every year since 2002. But the changes have also enhanced its everyday ability, which will quietly satisfy anyone buying it for its competition image then riding it mainly on normal roads. Actually that's most 600 supersport customers.

Honda CBR 600 RR [tech/spec]

Price/availability: £7,700 (approx) on the road. On sale February.

Engine/transmission: 599cc, four-cylinder four-stroke with 16 valves; 118bhp at 13,500rpm, 49lb ft of torque at 11,250rpm. Six-speed gearbox, chain final drive.

Performance: top speed 160mph (est), average fuel consumption n/a.

We like: Engine, style, agility and stability, finish.

We don't like: Bland sound, screen position, lack of slipper clutch.

Alternatives: Yamaha R6, £7,400. Kawasaki ZX-6R, £7,145. Suzuki GSX-R600, £6,799. Triumph Daytona 675, £7,199.