Honda’s dynamic duo blow sportsbike title fight wide open
The Blade is better than ever. It’s 90% new, lighter, smaller, with more power and a plethora of rider aids and in SP form it looks stunning, too – and so it should for close to twenty grand.
Over the years, just like me, the Blade has got a little soft, put on a bit of weight, and appeared bulky alongside sharper rivals. But it’s a different story with the new bike. It’s still a Blade, but a much smaller, lighter and thinner one. The position of the bars, seat and pegs doesn’t feel much different from the old model, but the screen is tiny, the frontal area is small, almost like a supersport bike. Down the main straight at Portimao, with the full colour digital dash reading 175mph, I’ve got my bum pushed back against the seat hump as far it will go, with my chin on the fuel cap as I get tucked in.
While it’s fast, the power is useable, the torque linear, and the wheelie happy old Blade has gone. There are no peaks and troughs in the power curve, just continuous drive to the 13,000rpm redline – 750rpm higher than before. On paper the new Blade might be down on peak bhp compared to the competition – unlike some, Honda aren’t boasting the magic 200bhp – but the bike’s designers say you don’t need power, you need control. And this 2017 model makes use of every last pony with superb chassis composure.
At the end of the straight there’s a slight pulse from the ABS through the lever, as the new Brembo calipers eat away at your speed. Unfortunately, the ABS can’t be deactivated and at times was a little intrusive for hard track riding. The clutch lever is dormant once you’ve pulled away, the auto-blipper and the engine brake assist do the work on downshifts, the quickshifter firing in the gears on the ups.
Blade rewards your trust
Hit the apex, knee brushing the track, and you can simply crack the throttle and let the electronics control the wheelspin and hovering wheelies on the exit. It takes a while to trust the electronics, but once you’ve felt them save a slide or control a wheelie you have the confidence to lean on the rider aids, and let them do the head work. They aren’t intrusive, and have been developed to improve your lap times not hinder the fun. If you’re too aggressive with the throttle they will cut in abruptly, but you learn to tickle the edges of grip until the clever electronics help you out as you push past the limit.
You can tweak the rider aids to suit your riding and the conditions. I eventually opted for full power, engine braking on its least intrusive setting, and torque control (traction control to me and you) on its lowest setting. You can even change how rapidly the quickshifter makes its changes. It’s impressive, and (apart from the ABS) you can switch everything off if you wish. The old Blade didn’t have any rider aids, but in a single model update Honda have delivered some of the best on the market. And if you think that is impressive, wait until you get to ride the semi-active Öhlins suspension.
Honda have three pre-set semi active settings: A1 for track, A2 for fast road, and A3 for comfort. As we rode the new Blade on track (on Bridgestone slicks) we focused on the A1 semi-active track setting. In this mode there is a default set of parameters, but you can tailor them to personalise the suspension. This is when most people switch off as suspension set-up can be confusing, but Honda have made it easy.
You can improve the suspension in four ways: General, Brake, Corner and Acceleration. Within each of these categories displayed on the dash you can change to plus 5 or minus 5. For example: if you want improved braking support you add, if you require better acceleration add again. If that is too much you can reduce it again, while Corner mode helps the bike through fast direction changes. You can change these settings while on track but I preferred to come in, select my changes, and head back out again before the slicks had time to cool. In a 45-minute session I was in and out of the pits seven times trying different settings, and if you make a mess of it, it doesn’t matter – simply revert to the Honda defaults, which actually work really well.
And for those who still want to adjust their suspension using conventional parameters, Honda have created three standard modes: M1 Track, M2 Winding and M3 Street. You can add and reduce compression and rebound in 5% increments, and again there is a default setting if you get it wrong. In manual mode the suspension is not semi-active, but you can still make adjustments on the move.
To think the old bike had no rider aids and had remained essentially unchanged since 2008, this is a big step forwards for the Blade.
‘There are no peaks and troughs, just continuous drive to the redline’
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