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2002 Honda 919: MD Ride Review

We provided an extensive preview of the 2002 Honda 919 naked bike when it was first introduced to the press in early October, 2001. Take a look at that article for studio photos, some technical details, and for notes regarding chassis and frame construction.

Less than a decade ago, a large contingent of American riders was longing for a standard-style motorcycle with a large, modern engine, together with a modern chassis, suspension and brakes. When Suzuki announced the Bandit 1200, many of these riders rejoiced, and imagined this new “super standard” would create the same sensations they felt when they were younger, and riding the Japanese standards available in the late 70s and early 80s — enhanced by modern technology.

The “naked bike” category caught on quickly in Europe, and the fever is catching on here in the United States, as well. Kawasaki followed Suzuki’s lead and introduced the ZRX1100 a couple of years later (now beefed up to the ZRX1200 — the model currently available from Kawasaki), while Yamaha brought along its thoroughly modern R1-engined FZ1 last year. All of a sudden, the naked bike category in the United States was alive and thriving with new model choices.

If anything was missing from these bikes, it was the simplicity, light weight and small size of the standards of the past. Only the Bandit was available without any fairing, whatsoever. All of these bikes were quite heavy (the lightest being Yamaha’s FZ1 at 458 pounds). The Kawasaki has a relatively low seat height, and feels relatively compact, but it is the heaviest of all the machines at a claimed 492 pounds dry.

Honda may have come to the modern, naked bike party here in the United States rather late, but it has plenty of history and experience in the category.


Honda Hornet 600 (Europe Only)

Voted Bike of the 20th Century by our readers, rather overwhelmingly, the 1969 Honda CB750K changed the course of motorcycle design and remains, for many enthusiasts, the most significant “standard” motorcycle ever introduced. Take a look at our Bike of the Century – Part Two article for further thoughts on this ground breaking machine.

Honda didn’t stop there, of course, developing other significant naked machines over the years. Development did stop in the United States, for a time, while Europe received the modern Hornet 600 and X11.

Along comes the 2002 Honda 919 (the Hornet 900 in Europe). With a fuel injected version of Honda’s last-generation CBR900RR engine, a square tube, steel backbone frame (see our preview article for a picture), no fairing, and a claimed dry weight of just 427 pounds, Honda has delivered a naked bike that, on paper, takes a different approach to performance than its Japanese competition.

Sitting on the 919 for the first time, you notice how small it seems. The seat height isn’t all that short (shorter than sportbikes, probably), but the bike just seems small. The lack of a fairing creates this sensation, but the front end of the bike seems even closer than it does on Suzuki’s SV650, for example. Rocking the bike side-to-side, it feels fairly light, as well.

At a claimed 427 pounds, the 919 is roughly 30 pounds lighter than the Yamaha FZ1 (which, in turn, is significantly lighter than both the Bandit and the ZRX). Once moving, the 919 is even more agile than you would expect. It feels as if it is 50 to 100 pounds lighter than the other Japanese standards mentioned.

Indeed, initially, I felt as if the 919 changed directions too quickly, and would be unstable at high speeds. I picked the bike up from Honda at the same time I dropped off the 2002 Interceptor test bike. Pulling out onto a side street behind Honda’s headquarters, the 919 accelerated much harder than the Interceptor at low and mid-range rpms. It pulled very strongly, but very smoothly. I immediately sensed the fuel injection was carefully dialed, and that the motor was almost “electric” — strong, but no “hit” anywhere.

The wide bars and the relatively aggressive steering geometry made the bike seem almost nervous by comparison with the Interceptor. Just a couple of miles later, however, I was cruising on the freeway at a pretty good pace, and the bike was rock solid. My concerns about nervous handling at higher speeds were completely unfounded.

While on the freeway, it was fun to play with the throttle. The torquey engine pull in top gear provided satisfying acceleration and passing power. At lower speeds, in lower gears, the acceleration is very strong in the mid-range. Only the ZRX1200 feels significantly stronger in the mid-range, and the big Kawasaki is carrying an additional 70 pounds, or so.

Later, through the twisty stuff, the 919 really started to shine. The bike definitely changes directions quickly and decisively, but holds its line well through sweeping corners. Feedback from the front tire was quite good for this category, and I found myself thinking about a Moto Guzzi V11 Sport I rode years ago with a somewhat similar steel backbone frame design. That bike provided excellent feedback from the road, as well. “Steel is real”, as they say in the bicycling world — the resonance of a steel frame, and, consequently, road feedback, is frequently better appreciated and understood by the rider.

The other Japanese standards have steel frames, as well, but the Honda 919 seems to combine significantly lighter weight with significantly stiffer construction. A stiffer frame can actually make a bike feel lighter, because its direction changes can be quicker and more decisive. We discussed this concept to some extent in the review of the 2002 Honda Interceptor. The Interceptor gained weight this year, but has a significantly stiffer frame and, in many respects, feels lighter than last year’s machine (take a look at our Interceptor review Part One and Part Two).

Front brake feel and power was also very good for this class. All of the Japanese naked bikes have twin discs and multi-piston calipers up front, and the Honda binders are not necessarily the best in the class (both the FZ1 and the ZRX1200 have outstanding front brakes), but they are nevertheless very good and stopping distances will reflect the lighter weight of the machine.

The performance of the rear brake did not really stand out one way or the other. My riding style involves application of very light pedal pressure on the rear brake when riding aggressively into turns or coming to a stop, relying primarily on the front brake lever. The 919 rear brake performs just fine under these circumstances.

Honda transmissions are not always the silkiest, but they tend to shift positively. The 919 shares these traits. No missed shifts in several hundred miles of riding. Gear spacing is good, with strong acceleration available through the gears — no overly large gaps.

Suspension is non-adjustable, except for spring preload in the rear. The fork seems dialed in pretty well, however, and Honda has frequently struck a good balance with non-adjustable forks (the Interceptor comes to mind). The shock, on the other hand, is only adequate. The rear wheel tends to stay in contact with the ground, but sharp bumps can cause some rear wheel hop (probably related to rebound damping, more than compression). Nevertheless, for most riders, the stock suspension is fine. Riders looking to push the bike hard might consider a replacement shock.

The ergomonics are excellent. The upright, almost dirt bike-style seating position is comfortable and feels intuitive quickly. Clutch and brake lever placing seems fine, and the tank narrows nicely where you place your knees.

Honda seems to have figured out that firmer seats provide more comfort over the long hall (Corbin figured this out before anyone did). The 919 has a well-shaped, firm seat that allows the rider to move around a bit. Longer rides did not prove uncomfortable.

Discomfort comes from wind blast, as it will on any naked bike ridden at speed over a significant distance. That wind blast, however, is what a naked bike is all about. In any event, as it did with the X11 in Europe, Honda seems to have made some effort to provide a bit of wind protection with the design of the headlight and instrument cluster. A nice, fly screen (smaller than a bikini fairing) would help tremendously, without taking away from the naked look.

The 919 has a remarkably bright single-beam headlight. This results, undoubtedly from the size of the multi-reflector lens, and its perfectly round shape.

From our perspective, the 919 looks cool, too. The underseat mufflers, and the totally uncluttered view of the engine, give the bike a simple, purposeful and powerful look.

All in all, the Honda 919 just might be the spiritual successor to that 1969 CB750K. Of course, it is not nearly as important in the history of motorcycling, nor does it make any great technological or performance leaps. It is, however, a do-it-all motorcycle stripped to its elements-combining style, power and nimbleness.

We convinced Honda that MD could make some interesting modifications to a stock 919 — modifications we will describe to readers in future articles. The 919 starts out as the lightest bike in its class, and we intend to make it significantly lighter (those twin mufflers and their heat shields must weigh a ton), and more powerful. Oh, and look for that fly screen to show up on our bike, as well. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, take a look at Honda’s web site for additional details and specifications on the 919. U.S. MSRP is $7,999.