The new Fireblade has lost weight in a big way. But can it find riders to match? Tim Luckhurst reports

Apparently, the name Fireblade is an accident. Clumsy translation of the Japanese word for lightning from French to English landed this now legendary motorcycle with an appellation its designer, Tadao Baba, never intended.

If that is true, it's the only part of Fireblade development that owes anything to chance. Since its first manifestation reached the UK in 1992, successive Fireblades have come close to defining the ideal marriage of performance and reliability.

Originally an 893cc machine, the "Blade" (as fond owners call them) rapidly acquired a big fan-club. It is excessive to claim that the earliest examples redefined the sports category; Ducati, Suzuki and Yamaha played their part. But the first Blade was nimble, ferocious and dependable a beguiling set of characteristics.

My only complaint back then was that it was also a bit clinical. Not bland nothing so fast could be that but so easy to live with that it felt like the victim of a charisma bypass. That impression has influenced my appreciation of Fireblades ever since. I know they are excellent. I appreciate their sophistication. I just crave a touch more personality.

The 2006 version challenged my prejudice. The Fireblade had been repeatedly modernised through the first decade of the 21st century. In 2002, it grew into a 954cc bike, and in 2004 it acquired an entirely redeveloped 998cc in-line four. But it was the 2006 refinement, with better steering and a higher rev-limit, that really appealed. For the first time on a Fireblade, I began to imagine actually owning one.

Now the 2008 Fireblade is here. It puts out 178bhp at 12,000rpm, has a slipper clutch (for the first time) and threatens to beat its predecessor's top speed of 174mph. The wheels are new. The chassis and swingarm have been totally redesigned. Front indicators are integrated into the mirrors. Air intake ducts have been restyled and moved. There is a controversial, stubby exhaust system slung under the engine. The fairing is entirely new, as is the MotoGP-style tail (which looks very similar to the rear end of the superb CBR600RR). The idea is to compete head-on for performance and image with the Yamaha R1, Suzuki GSX-R1000 and Kawasaki ZX-10R.

Does it work? The aesthetics certainly take getting used to. One eminent colleague, Kenny Pryde, editor of Superbike magazine, describes it as "no beauty". Others have been nasty, calling it squashed and pug-ugly.

I think it is a logical extension of the trend in modern motorcycle design, which is basically to make things smaller and lighter. Honda has done this by taking every opportunity to trim weight and dimensions. The engine is 2.5kg lighter than its predecessor. The drive chain is lighter, and the side-stand is aluminium. The wheels, swingarm, exhaust and intake valves have all been shaved of excess weight.

The problem is that many potential owners haven't applied similar fat-loss techniques. The average British superbike owner is not a svelte 18-year-old. One-litre sports bikes appeal to middle-aged riders with middle-age spread. The bald (and some of us are) truth is that we can afford them. Some us "invested" 25,000 in the 1998 all-black "stealth" Fireblade released to celebrate Honda's triumph in the Isle of Man TT races.

Alongside contemporary rivals, this Fireblade is little. Compared with how many middle-aged motorcyclists imagine a one-litre sports bike should look, it is tiny. In full leathers, mounted on this, I fear I will look like a bear attempting something disgraceful with a gerbil.

Of course I want to ride it. When Honda innovates, it tends to do so brilliantly. It has the scale, sophistication and wisdom to make compelling motorcycles. I expect the new Fireblade to do what it's designed to do with impressive (perhaps sector-leading) speed and agility. I simply question how many of the target market will really appreciate advances in power and handling that can really only reveal themselves to experts riding at the outer limits.

As for the rest of us, well, there may be a time when motorcycles stop shrinking, but it's not here yet. The mania for miniaturisation has infected the industry to such an extent that it is in danger of building superb bikes that leave some of us looking foolish. Still, the new Fireblade looks very quick and, potentially, charismatic. I suppose I should start dieting, hard.

Search for used cars