HONDA'S new superbike, the CBR900RR FireBlade is the fastest the company has ever produced. It is a distinction that the 120bhp, four-cylinder machine is likely to keep. The European Commission is seeking to impose a 100bhp power limit on motorcycles that would cripple the performance of the fastest machines.

Such a limit already exists in several countries, including France and Germany, and it is likely to be introduced across Europe within the next couple of years. Political sensitivity has apparently held Honda back from releasing ultra-high performance models; but now the Japanese manufacturer seems to have accepted that the game will soon be up, and has perhaps launched the 'race-replica' FireBlade as a final burst of defiance.

But in one respect the FireBlade offers an indication of the way sports bikes are likely to evolve. Although the output of its watercooled, 16-valve engine is well over the proposed limit, the CBR owes much of its performance to its weight of just 407lb (185kg) - a figure more typical of a 600cc middleweight than of a high-performance 893cc machine.

Unlike Honda's exotic NR750, an oval-pistoned V4, the FireBlade's engine retains a traditional in-line layout, and contains little futuristic technology. Instead its designers concentrated on making the 900RR as compact as possible. Other large-capacity bikes produce even more power than the Honda, but none is as small or as light.

Its chassis blends conventional design with high specification and top-quality components. The frame is a typical aluminium structure, based around two large-section beams. The sophisticated telescopic front fork and single rear shock absorber provide plenty of potential for suspension fine-tuning.

The FireBlade's plastic bodywork also plays a leading role. The streamlined fairing has small holes near the headlights and in the lower section, which, Honda insists, improve cornering by enhancing airflow around the bike.

Whether or not that is true, the FireBlade's performance is breathtaking. With such little weight to carry, a flick of the throttle is all that is needed to make the 900 accelerate like nothing else on the road. It races to 60mph in less than three seconds - twice as fast as a Porsche - and has a top speed of more than 160mph. Yet, treated gently, it is as docile and easy to ride as any Honda.

Handling is extraordinarily nimble for a large-capacity bike. The combination of the 900's light weight and rigid frame gives wonderfully precise steering. Suspension is firm yet reasonably comfortable (although the riding position is quite cramped, and the low handlebars make wrists ache in town). The disc brakes are powerful; the wide, radial tyres allow gravity-defying angles of lean.

There is little doubt that the FireBlade's combination of power, weight and handling make it the best Japanese sports bike yet, in terms of pure performance. Priced at a competitive pounds 7,125, it is a brilliantly engineered machine that can hold its own alongside the far more expensive hand-built sportsters.

Nor does the Honda's potential for outrageous speed mean that it is inherently unsafe. Far from it. The quality of its chassis gives a generous safety margin in normal use. And the Eurocrats' plans ignore overwhelming evidence that most bike accidents happen at low speed, and are related to lack of experience rather than excess of power.

Limiting the CBR900RR to 100bhp, by coincidence the output of Honda's CBR600 middleweight, would be as unjust and pointless as restricting the performance of the fastest cars (and would benefit the environment far less). But the FireBlade does raise the awkward question of whether a bike can be too efficient for its own good.

The Honda's effortless high performance means that it must be ridden fast if much of its awesome ability is to be exploited. On Britain's crowded roads that is rarely possible without risk to life and licence. Which means that the excitement of riding the FireBlade is often tinged with a frustration that Ferrari drivers doubtless know all too well.

(Photograph omitted)

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