EXCLUSIVE: Honda CBR650R Launching Soon
- Feb 18, 2021
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Months of bubbling anticipation melt away as I click the Honda H'ness' velvety smooth gearbox into 1st and pull away from the glittery Bigwing dealership in Mumbai. These 45-odd swanky showrooms across the country are the ones privileged (or unfortunate) enough to be leading Honda’s assault on the goliath that is Royal Enfield and the mid-displacement modern classic segment that is its stronghold. Whether the CB350 is the right weapon for that assault is on the top of my agenda as I point her towards Pune and gun it.
A veil of disappointment descends as the mighty Honda falls flat, if only momentarily. The low rpm, off-idle grunt that its long stroke engine architecture promises on paper, is alarmingly absent. Once past the initial sluggishness, though, the 348.36cc motor comes into its own, and the needle begins to sweep briskly across the speedometer. A smooth shift into 2nd puts me back into the meat of the powerband. Another into 3rd, and before the gear is exhausted, the needle nudges past the 100kmph mark. As the VBox will later reveal, 3rd gear is good for a true 98kmph - not quite a ton, but still very tall indeed. Clicking into 4th reminds me that this is only a 21PS, 350cc single, as the H’ness lumbers its way to an indicated 120kph. 5th will take you to 125, and gravitational assistance will deliver the occasional 130, all while keeping the revs at decidedly comfortable levels.
It’s at these heady speeds that the H’ness reveals the first major chink in its armour, though. Confidence is already in short supply thanks to an unnaturally light and vague feeling front-end, when a set of closely-spaced sharp bumps send the handlebar one way and then the other, on repeat - a rather violent tank-slapper. A few kilometres later, the sphincter-clenching exercise repeats. Chastened, I accept the bike’s limitations and ease back down to a steady 100kmph cruise. At these speeds, the suspension hits its stride, dismissing road imperfections with aristocratic disdain - none of that wallowy, mushy vintage jazz going on here, the bike just dispatches with bumps and immediately regains composure. Excellent ride quality is one of the highlights of the H’ness.
As the last remnants of the city fade away to make way for genuine countryside highway, I brace for boredom. But it fails to arrive. Welcome company arrives instead, in the form of the CB’s wonderful soundtrack that is equal parts rumbling and thunderous; worthy of being immortalised on vinyl. Entertained, I decide to start going through the digital inset on the speedometer. Though compact, it manages to not only pack in a fair amount of information but also presents it in a pleasantly legible format. I only wish resetting the two trip meters didn’t involve the laborious step of stretching out to press buttons on the side of the cluster itself. Struck by the lethargy with which the fuel gauge drops, my feelings turn out to be justified when our highway fuel efficiency test throws up a number of 45.8kmpl. My time exploring the Honda’s instrumentation comes to an early end, because with no Bluetooth headset at my disposal, I can’t dive into any of the bike’s Bluetooth functionality.
Boredom fended off, another painfully frequent visitor that fails to arrive is discomfort. Sure, my neck wishes for a windscreen, but the neutral riding position and excellent seat keep the rest of my body absolutely content. One visitor that does arrive, and unannounced, at that, is wildlife. It’s at this point that I say a mental thank you, not only to the big guy in the sky, but also to Honda, for giving the H’ness competent Nissin braking hardware that’s good enough to haul this bike up from 100kmph in a swift 45.74m. And a well-calibrated dual-channel ABS to boot.
The highway continues but its straightness ends; its elevation rises but my speed is forced to fall. The H’ness does a fantastic job of masking its 181kg kerb weight, offering easy and neutral handling with minimal effort. But the lack of feedback from the front-end reminds me that discretion is the better part of valour. Still, the bike never feels ungainly or cumbersome, even around the tightest of hairpins. The only protest is from the engine, which, thanks to its tall gearing and flat bottom-end, frequently and vociferously demands 1st gear on these steep slopes.
Mountain climbed and subsequent highway exhausted, greenery makes way for swathes of concrete as the sun dips below the horizon and I enter the paradoxically teeming yet unapologetically laidback metropolis of Pune. Like the city, the H’ness has to come down a gear or two, and it begins to become a little more vocal about its demands for selecting the right cog. Fortunately, with such wide ratios on offer, the first 3 gears are good enough to cover nearly all urban scenarios, so while it is imperative to be in the right one at the right time, there isn’t a whole lot of shuffling up and down the ‘box involved either. As and when I do need to shift or slip the clutch through traffic, the absurdly light clutch action makes it an undemanding affair.
As the roads shrink around it, the CB seems to shrink too, always feeling absolutely manageable and effortlessly filtering through traffic like a mouse in a maze. I use the generous steering lock to manoeuvre the bike with precision and the reasonably low seat height to paddle myself along when required. Quite a doddle, and before I know it, the H’ness has shrugged off the evening rush hour and I’ve arrived at my destination.
The city stint highlights how even in this relatively sombre colour scheme, the H’ness manages to grab attention, never coming across as anonymous or mundane. My eagerness to ride this highly-anticipated machine robbed me of the opportunity to really look at it before jumping on board, so it’s now, in this lovely fading light, that I’m first admiring the beautiful form factor that Honda’s finest designers and engineers have to painstakingly carved out. The execution of the gorgeous AND brilliantly-performing round LED headlight is the very embodiment of the term ‘neo-retro’; there’s just the right amount of chrome to contrast the darker shades on the bodywork and engine casings, and it’s high quality chrome. Not a spec of rust or early wear in sight.
In summary, the gorgeous design is one of only two things that are really old-school about this bike, the other being the sonorous exhaust note. If you were to ride it wearing very good earplugs and block out the field of view containing the bike itself, the H’ness would feel like a thoroughly modern machine. Right from the nature of the engine to the way that this bike goes and stops and handles, it feels completely at home in January 2021. Some might argue that the CB350 lacks character. It isn’t one of those time machine motorcycles that teleports you to a bygone era. But it does feel good between your legs (cue the 5th grade jokes) and riding it brought me joy, and that’s character enough for me.
As a bike, it is still a fairly expensive buying proposition. Unless you have a Bluetooth headset or are hung up on dual-tone colour schemes, you can check out the lower DLX variant, but that still retails for Rs 1,86,500 (ex-showroom Delhi). A pretty sum. But if you do have your heart set on buying a classic looking motorcycle, and you’re not fussed about it feeling classic, it’s hard to do much better than the Honda H’ness CB350. Just start selling it in more showrooms, Honda!
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