It was like this: a 250 was an every-day run-around commuter, a 650 was a big powerful performance bike, and a 350 / 450 was a mid-size bike capable of a bit of everything. These days a 250 is seen as a commuter only; big performance bikes are now 1,000cc, and a 600 is now classed as mid-size. And as for a 400, well, who makes 400cc bikes? Well, Honda do. They make a nice little retro number called the CB400. The CB400 is obviously a retro; and as such, it pays tribute to the days when a Honda 400 really was a “super-four”, as the sticker still says on the side-cover. But it is much more than just a retro-bike. Being a 400cc machine puts it under the LAMS (Learner-Approved Motorcycle Scheme) classification; and that widens its buyer-appeal even further. What Honda have done here is produce a retro-style bike that also happens to be a great LAMS machine; but with a kind of dual-personality that makes it a good fit for riders from a wide variety of riding styles and experience. So it’s got quite a bit going for it; a fact that has been recognised by the buying public. When it was released here in 2008 it quickly became the biggest-selling naked bike in Australia. And at the time of writing (latest figures January to June 2010) it’s still at the top of the best-selling-naked tree. But before getting to the latest one, let’s get all sentimental and look back at the original. The CB400F of the 1970s had a 408cc motor developing about 28kW and weighed 170kg. By comparison, the new one produces about 10kW more power, but has a bit over 20kg more weight to drag around. The original CB400 wasn’t as powerful as the 2-strokes of the time, but, as one review put it, “What the CB400F engine lacked in power it made up for in refinement, being smoother, quieter and much more economical than the two-strokes. To help keep the engine in its power band, Honda employed a six-speed transmission – something of a rarity at the time.” Well, that description is still true of today’s version.
IN THE DRIVEWAY
I reckon it looks good. The styling, the colour scheme, the gold wheels, even the iconic twin-shocks, it’s all good, and takes you back to the 1970s; but in a nice way. And there’s enough obvious modern technology – like liquid-cooling for the engine, and alloy wheels – to leave you in no doubt that while its styling is retro, it is a modern motorcycle. Looking a bit closer at the components confirms the modernity and quality of its engineering. The shocks are Showa, the brakes are Nissin, and the engine comes with Honda’s variable valve-timing. Sitting on it, the bike feels small, but not cramped. Actually it’s pretty comfortable. The seat has been criticised for being hard, but strangely perhaps (because I’m fussy about seats!), I thought it was okay. It was firm, but not uncomfortable. The riding-position is fairly up-right with just a nice lean-forward to the bars. The bars are wide, giving good control. Up front there are a pair of very traditional looking analogue dials, comprising a speedo numbered to 180kph (actually graduated to 190) and a tacho going all the way to 15,000rpm, with the red-line at 13,000rpm. Not so traditional – but very welcome – are digital LCD panels that tell you the time, the fuel level and how far it’s traveled. And a bunch of the usual warning-lights. All controls are where you’d expect them to be and are light and easy to use. And that includes the clutch, throttle and brakes – all very light and easy. The mirrors are big square things, and they work well, remaining free of blurring.
OUT ON THE ROAD
First impression when it’s fired up is of how smooth and quiet it is. And it remains smooth, from idle right up to its stratospheric red-line. (Well, at least almost to its red-line, I didn’t quite get it that high). The sound changes though; at high revs there is a kind of throaty scream. The next impression, when taking off, is of how low-geared it is. You feel like changing up before you even get to the end of the driveway! Pull out onto the road, accelerate up through the gears, look down at the speedo and you’re still doing less than the 60kph city speed-limit. This is a very licence-friendly bike! You can give it some herbs, play with the gears, feel like you’re riding briskly, and still be well within the law! The only “problem”, if you can call it that, is that when you hit the high revs and the engine screams, you start feeling like a real hoon, even if you are still riding legally! 1st gear is so low that I found I was changing up almost as soon as I got it moving; especially when taking off at large intersections. You’re in 3rd gear before you get to 10 kph / 1,000rpm, which is what most big bikes do in 1st. Considering this, I thought I’d treat it like 1st and try taking off in 3rd. I was gentle with the clutch, letting it slip a bit as I took off, but the bike pulled away easily. In top it’s doing 5,000rpm at 80kph; 7,000rpm at 110kph. Okay, you know what I’m going to say, don’t you. I’m constantly going on about mid-size 4-cylinder bikes being under-geared, so I’ll be even more critical of this, right? Well, no; I reckon that, for the type of bike it is, Honda has got the gearing just right! Any higher and it would effect performance; and once you get used to the high revs – which you soon do, because it isn’t at all unpleasant – it’s still capable of highway cruising. At 110kph it almost feels relaxed; and it’ll sit on 120kph easily – albeit with the tacho on the high side of 7,500 – and still accelerate away. You see, the gearing works because of the nature of the engine. Being a small 4-cylinder with a high red-line, you might expect it to be bad news at low revs, but it isn’t; it’s remarkably flexible. It’ll pull away smoothly from 3,000rpm, or even 2,000rpm if you want it to. Give the throttle a good twist at these revs and there’s no coughing or snatching; all you get is some harsh vibes, but it still pulls away cleanly. At low revs it’s relatively docile; ideal for the beginner rider. But from about 8,000rpm it really flies! That must be when the valve-timing changes, because from that point on it feels much more responsive and powerful; like it’s suddenly found an extra 200cc. It’s a bit like a 2-stroke suddenly hitting the power-band; and it’s what gives the bike the dual-personality I mentioned at the start. You can ride it around at low revs, and it’s like Clarke Kent – mild-mannered and docile. But twist the throttle and get the revs up around the magic numbers and the bike suddenly throws its undies on the outside and goes into Superman mode – the engine screaming it’s throaty scream and unleashing the performance it’s really capable of. It was so good I had to give it a couple of other tests. In a few road-tests – like the Suzuki Bandit, Yamaha TDM900, Hyosung GT650 etc – I’ve mentioned a section of single-lane rural back-road that is just 500 metres long, with a 90-degree turn at each end. It’s interesting to turn onto it at slow speed, then give it the gun and “cruise” at speed before buttoning off at the end. The Bandit jumped to 145kph at about third distance before I eased off and cruised. The TDM saw 140kph, and a Suzuki GSX650 got to 130kph at less than half distance. So I tried the little Honda along there. The run always begins at slow speed and low revs, but with the Honda I thought I’d allow some concession for its small size, so had the engine in its mid-range when I turned in and gave it the gun. It responded by doing its Superman thing and showing 120kph at about third distance. Impressive! Next test; see how torquey it is. In the same area is a steep road that eventually leads to a farm. I remember going up this hill on my DT175 trail-bike and it wouldn’t pull anything higher than about 2nd-gear. On big bikes I’ve wound them up and sat in top gear at 110kph – limited only by the narrowness of the road and the blind right-angle corner at the top. So I gave the Honda a shot at it. It responded by easily pulling it in top gear at about 5,000rpm. Again, impressive! So the engine is a beauty! Sure, you’ve got to remember it’s only 400cc, so all this performance stuff is relative – a Fireblade it certainly ain’t! But it’s pleasant and tractable at low revs; and then, at high revs, it’s like it suddenly remembers it shares a showroom with the Fireblade and turns on some impressive go. The stopping bit is good too; the brakes feel quite powerful. ABS with a linked system is available as an option. The handling is good too, although I wasn’t quite throwing it around with gay abandon. (Well, I’m not gay and I certainly didn’t want to abandon it!). The steering is fairly quick, and being a light bike it doesn’t feel quite as well-planted on the road as a bigger bike, of course. It holds its line well and is superbly stable – at everything from feet-up walking-speed U-turns to high-speed cruising. I might’ve expected it to handle okay, but I wasn’t expecting anything too great from the ride. Yes, suspension is by Showa, but with that twin-shock rear-end I was expecting the ride to be fairly harsh. But it wasn’t. The little Honda actually rides quite well! Larger bumps make their presence felt with a reasonable thump, but in general it gives a surprisingly comfortable ride. And that was with the rear units at about mid-way on their preload adjustment. Both ends are adjustable for preload only. So there it is – Honda’s entry into the retro-styled LAMS market. And it is remarkably good! What impressed me was that it was better at just about everything than I expected it to be. I was chatting to one of the staff after the test and he made the comment that it was, “A very refined motorcycle”, and it is. And that’s why it’s so good; it goes about everything in a very refined and proficient way. About the only real criticism I have is the price. Like most Hondas, the price puts it at a bit of a disadvantage. For around the same sort of money you can get a Yamaha XJ6N, or Suzuki Gladius 650, for example. But the punters have obviously decided it’s worth the asking price, because it beats all others in sales. SNAPSHOT A retro-styled LAMS machine that is perfect for the beginner, but can also give more experienced riders a bit of fun too. For what it is, it’s remarkably good!
Engine: 4-cylinder, 399cc. Power: 39kW at 11,000rpm. Torque: 38Nm at 9,500rpm.
Fuel capacity: 18 litres.
Seat height: 770mm.
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 120 X 17, Rear: 160 X 17.
Brakes: Front: Twin 285mm discs. Rear: Single 235mm disc. (ABS Optional).
Price: $9,990 (+ ORC).
Just the paint is different. Where this one is blue, the new one is red. Or you can have white (with white wheels also). I’d go for the red one (with the gold wheels).
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