Pros: Braking; handling; low weight; power; reliability
Cons: Soft forks; fiddly to work on; fairings expensive to break; sound and power delivery bland
I've owned a 2002 '954 since mid 2002. It did about 3000 miles as a road bike before I got tired of our lousy roads, astronomic insurance prices and ... helpful ... policepersons, and turned it into a pure track bike. It has a sprint steering damper in a hyperpro tank-top mount, the usual frame protectors, a Moriwaki half system from a '929, sticky tires and some pre-crashed bodywork courtesy of e-bay, but is otherwise stock. For those considering a used or remaindered '954, I'll summarize a few relevant points you might find useful.
* Cooling capacity: These bikes chronically overheat when used on the street. In my experience, the temperature will keep going up unless you're traveling above 45 mph, and the fan will NOT necessarily keep the temperature below the critical zone. I had the pleasant experience of having it blow coolant all over the lower fairing, which is not fun. And it would really suck if the valvetrain melted down on you.
* Maintenance: Compared to my old GSX-R-750 WV and my TRX-850, it's a pain in the butt to work on. Getting the battery out requires 15 minutes of swearing and tugging with a needlenose to remove a hidden catch on a pointless rubber retaining strap holding the battery to the undertray. Removing the lower cowl requires taking out 5 plastic push-pins which inevitably wear down and refuse to go back in, and two allen bolts that are covered by the intake shrouds...which means either removing the tank or damaging the shrouds by yanking them off. Oh dear. And don't even think of getting to the radiator cap without removing the right side lower cowl. The upper cowl and headlight are complicated mouldings and very expensive if you manage to damage them. In short, if you like to work on your bikes and aren't a certified Honda mechanic, consider this a minus.
* Braking: The '954 shares gold Nissin 4-pot calipers with the RC-51, and I believe also the new CBR-6-RR. They need absolutely nothing and are brilliant straight out of the box. Huge feel and power, minimal fade on the track, and together with the engine braking, you can lift the back wheel at any speed (more of which later). Unlike Yamaha's Sumitomos, which I've used on my TRX and YZF-600-R, or the Suzuki 6-pot Tokicos, they don't seem to lose bite or power as the pads age and the calipers accumulate dirt. I doubt they give away anything to these new blingin' radial-mount calipers. The rear brake is unobtrusive, which is as it should be.
* Suspension: It's a Honda, so the forks are undersprung and underdamped. Unless you're under 150 pounds soaking wet, they dive a little too much, although nothing like as badly as those on the Superhawk. Like the RC, the '954's geometry, coupled with the mass-centralization concept Honda likes and those powerful stoppers, means that the back end will often lift well before front tire grip is exceeded. The problem is that a sudden grab of the brakes in an emergency, or a bumpy braking area on the track can jack the back into the air and then allow it to kick out sideways. It's not unpleasant if you're an experienced rider, but limits the bike's phenomenal braking performance, and I could see it causing someone to run off the road/track if they encounter unexpected ripples or bumps. Short people, light people, and people who love the back brake will not have as much of an issue as me (6'2" and 190 pounds). Fork rebound may also be a little soft from the factory - geometry change during throttle transitions are noticeable, but not alarmingly so.
* Tires: The bike came with Bridgestone BT-010s, which I recall being great on a VFR-800, but didn't give a lot of feedback on traction, and seemed to cause the '954 to run slightly wide. This may also be due to a wide 190 OEM rear tire. Pirelli Dragon Evos gave a generally similar mild understeer with better feedback and confidence on traction. I have had great experiences using a Diablo front and Diablo Corsa rear - these Pirellis neutralize the steering, allow it to hit apexes, and they stick like glue. 180/55 rear tires are preferable to the stock 190s. There is no reduction in grip and turn-in and flickability are improved. They're also cheaper, and race take-offs from 600s and 750s abound on e-bay for you street riders.
* Chassis: Magazines report different results regarding stability, which may be due to variances in geometry and putting together the steering head bearings from the factory. In my experience, prospective buyers need to budget for a steering damper, but shouldn't ask for Honda's optional replacement bearings. I found the bike wanted to tankslap constantly over crests, and on Loudon's banked straight (for example), wanted to weave at anything over 100 mph. My Sprint damper usually ends up set at 10 clicks for the track, and I still get the occasional kick. This was far worse than my GSX-R, which used to be the reputed king of slappers. Other than that, the chassis is as gorgeous as prospective buyers will have read. It has excellent front-end feel with neutral geometry that loves generous trail-braking, gives easy mid-corner adjustability, and once you take off the dangerously low peg-feelers, lean angles limited only by your tires. It's super-quick and super-reassuring. The only down-sides are:
- A CBR-6 is notably thinner in the tank, as is the new CBR-1000, and many competing bikes.
- Turn-in is unproblematic, but slower than an R6 and its ilk.
- Poor on/off throttle fuelling means the bike can be jerky getting back on the power from the overrun, and the relative softness of the suspension means there's potential for upsetting traction without careful throttle management.
- Like the '929, I don't think it's particularly good at putting down the power through normal road tires - it melts them and you start rear-wheel steering out of every corner. But this could probably be said of all liter-bike fours, and is great fun if you like to show off and don't mind the occasional horrific highside.
- Fast riders much above 140/150 pounds should budget for new fork springs and installation.
* Engine: It's a Fireblade, so unfortunately it sounds a bit like a Civic SI or an S2000. An exhaust system just makes it sound like a louder S2000. You get approxmateley 138 horsepower at the wheel and a very broad torque spread thanks to the powervalve. This makes it an excellent track engine, because you can always go in a gear too low, and it will still pull strongly off the apex. You'll have better exit speed with superior traction versus the 600s and 750s due to lower revs. In fact, if you've just stepped off a 600, it feels like cheating. But unless you have a get-out-of-jail-free card with your local police, this much power is irritating on the street. You can't use full throttle or get the thing out of second gear without becoming instantly arrestable on any road in the country: an SV-650-S would be so much more fun. Aside from a holed radiator, which wasn't the bike's fault, I've had no mechanical issues in 2 years of ownership ... it's a Honda.
To sum up, the 954, like all CBRs, will reward an owner that prefers a good lap time to cutting-edge looks or an emotionally inspiring riding experience. For example, the CBR-F3 might have looked and felt a bit like a jello mould, but it kicked butt on the track or around any corner.
Unlike most other CBRs, however, the '954 sucks as a street bike. It overheats very rapidly, has the usual low sportbike screen, isn't great at carrying people or luggage, gets worse than average mileage, has very expensive fairing pieces to smash up, tankslaps harshly, and has too much power for the puritanical US speed police and dozy car drivers. As you get used to the bike and start to push its limits, you'll start to appreciate its enormous potential and the willingness of the chassis to let you use that potential. I can honestly say it's the only bike I've ridden that I feel absolutely no anxiety about leaning to fairing-scraping angles - it's just a question of whether you trust the tires and the road surface. But if you believe a cool intake noise is the most important thing or you like to wrestle and fight your bike into, around, and out of corners (i.e., you are a former member of the GSX-R-1100 owner's group ;), you'll probably hate it and buy a blinged-out chrome R1 instead.
The kicker is that because the CBR has an image problem derived from its looks and having a lower power output than other liter bikes, you should still be able to get it at a very substantial discount over the competition.