The middleweight sector is crowded. But, says Tim Luckhurst, Honda may have found another winner

Engine: 599cc liquid-cooled, four-stroke in-line four
Max power: 88.1Kw / 118.1bhp @ 13,500 rpm
Max torque: 66Nm @ 11,250rpm
Brakes: Front twin 310mm discs, rear 220mm disc
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, chain final drive
Dry weight: 155kg
Seat height: 820mm
Tank capacity: 18 litres
Price: around £7,700

My first view of the pit lane at the Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, felt like a boyhood fantasy made real. Lined up were 16 Honda CBR600RR motorcycles, each attended by a dedicated crew. An autumnal sun was steaming the last drop of dew from the race circuit. Lemonade was on ice. Surely there could be no finer conditions in which to test the new version of a bike that has dominated Supersport racing since 2003?

Then I spotted the 2004 World Superbike Champion, James Toseland, lounging beside the bike next to mine and swallowed hard. Running is hard in race leathers so I accepted his offer to guide me round. My hands were trembling and my visor misted with nerves, but Toseland could not have been kinder. He showed me the racing lines at speeds he considers stationary. Then he cajoled me onto the pillion of his own bike and treated me to three exhilarating laps. When the sensation of being microseconds from extinction faded I felt ready to push the little Honda to my own limits.

The first impression is that it is gossamer-light. Honda has shaved down the 599cc engine to make it the smallest in the class. This unit is paired with a new frame and swinging arm that knock off another kilogram. A mass-centralised exhaust system loses a further 500g. The new CBR is 22mm shorter than its predecessor and nearly 8kg lighter. The result is a machine with the speed and agility of a turbo-charged squirrel.

Honda says the electronic steering damper is so subtle that a rider will not notice its contribution to smooth handling at track speeds. That is too humble. There are not many motorcycles which feel as dependable at extreme velocities. The CBR600RR tips, flicks and grips tenaciously. I was soon revelling in the tight, left-hand hairpin and twin chicanes. Touching the brakes to correct a line, even midway through a bend, barely troubles its equilibrium. Only the huge metal sculpture of a spider on the grassy knoll above the track worried me; someone else's boyhood fantasy I imagine.

There are 35,000 old-style CBR600s on our roads and they retain high resale values. The new version is a big leap forward. It has punch in every gear and smooth, linear, power delivery throughout the rev range. There is enough torque to pull from low speed in high gear, but real track exhilaration comes from holding the revs between 7,000rpm and 13,500rpm all the way round. I lacked the nerve to take the chicanes at full throttle - but Toseland didn't and, even two-up, the bike swept through with aplomb.

I did not ride on public roads - which is where most owners will use these machines - but a full day of track riding is a powerful microscope; it revealed few flaws. The pillion seat is tiny and the bike itself is not perfect for a large rider. I fear the rear brake reservoir - located above a pillion footrest - might be vulnerable to accidental kicking by a passenger. But these are minuscule gripes.

The new CBR 600RR is searingly quick and blissfully manageable. It responds equally well to expert thrashing by a world champion or exploratory racing by a road rider like me. Indeed, its forgiving nature makes it ideal for riders keen to learn track skills. The suspension is particularly versatile. The bike feels sumptuous with race settings and tyres - but even the standard road settings with which I completed my first 10 laps offer excellent handling. Its absolutely functional appearance is also very sexy.

Until the launch of Suzuki's GSXR600 and Yamaha's YZFR6, the original Honda CBR600 dominated this segment of the British market. It is still among the most sought-after second-hand bikes. The new version - which will reach British dealers in February- represents a highly credible bid to regain dominance.

Is it the best of the bunch? To form a judgment I would have to test it back-to-back against the excellent little Suzuki and Triumph's marvellous Daytona 675. Until then I am certain that it is a formidable motorcycle, loaded with the racing expertise that has won three consecutive World Supersports Championships.

Ride it on tracks. Ride it on winding roads. Above all, ride it fast. In the tradition of great sports bikes for the road, the CBR600RR invites adventure and rewards risk. Thank goodness such fun is still legal.

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