Two wheels versus four is an age-old argument that has been tackled by virtually every major automotive publication over the years. Usually taking place between an exotic limited-run supercar made of space age composites, and a sub-£20,000 superbike that can be bought straight from your local dealer, the answer is usually the same: in a straight line the bike is faster, but on the brakes and through the corners the car has the edge – four wheels wins. Shocker.
Now, don’t get us wrong, we love these tests, and there’s no denying that they make for Internet gold, but in reality, aside from creating a great deal of bickering in the comments section, they achieve very little. Which got us thinking. Putting racetracks and airfields to one side, in real world conditions, with oncoming traffic, blind corners and suicidal camber, would the car still reign supreme?
After a number of emails and a great deal of arm-twisting, the helpful chaps at Honda decided to step in to help us answer this question. Providing the latest and greatest Fireblade, the CBR1000RR SP and a 2015 Honda Civic Type R (regular CTzens will notice that this is indeed CT ed Matt’s longtermer, or at least was at time of writing), the stage was set to put these two focused albeit affordable all-rounders to the test.
The meeting point, chosen by local resident Matt, was a demanding stretch of B-road in Cambridgeshire, picked for its unique blend of tight technical corners and fast straights. As usual, I arrived early, to give myself some time to pour over the various details of the track-focused Fireblade.
Designed to stand proud as the ultimate iteration of the current-generation CBR1000RR, the SP doesn’t want for trick kit. Öhlins suspension is fitted front and rear, flashy gold wheels are wrapped with ultra-sticky Pirelli Supercorsa SP tyres (essentially cut-slicks) and new Brembo brake calipers contain track-focused sintered pads. A forged top yoke, ‘selected’ pistons, a lighter subframe, and C-ABS with unique-to-the-SP settings help to round off a machine that feels easily as exotic as its European counterparts.
That said, you might expect Honda’s super-sports flagship to feature a comprehensive array of electronic rider aids, given that many less expensive class rivals already include such features. Not so with the SP. With Honda determined to keep things simple - a tradition dating back to 1992 and the revolutionary first Fireblade with its awkwardly sized 893cc engine - the SP is one of the last truly raw superbikes, with your right hand being the only form of wheelie and traction control; a detail that certainly played on my mind when it came to our first run.
Tactically, I let the car go first, giving myself time to focus on just riding the bike; well, that was the plan anyway. Matt sets off like the proverbial scalded cat in the Civic. Thankfully, with no rider modes to select, I can get straight on with the job of hunting him down.
Rocketing down the first straight, initial impressions of the ‘Blade are positive. Throttle response is simply flawless, with the engine responding with an immediacy that is simply lacking from the standard bike. Below 4000rpm the motor builds power in a wonderfully linear surge, and once past 6000rpm the bike simply rockets towards the horizon. Granted, the lack of a quick-shifter is a minor irritation, but if Michael Dunlop can set a 133mph average lap at the Isle of Man TT without one, who are we to complain.
Unsurprisingly, I quickly catch the Type R, and despite it having a clever differential, aggressive rubber and a whopping 295lb ft of torque to play with, the Civic simply can’t claw its way out of corners quick enough. I pass it down the next straight and dive into the following set of switchbacks with all the verve that I can muster.
Not one to be deterred, however, Matt uses every ounce grip to stay with me. A quick glance in my mirrors tells me that between each corner I can open up a few meters with a twist of the throttle, but there’s simply no way I can carry as much corner speed into the bends. The combined ABS system - which links the front and rear brakes – gives added confidence on entry and the taught suspension reduces dive under heavy braking, but on an uneven surface, there is ultimately a limit to how hard you can push.
As we reach the ‘finish line’ of our unofficial route I’ve managed to catch, pass and ultimately gap the hot hatch, but not by the margin we were expecting. We complete a few more runs and the outcome is the same each time: bike first, car second – but I’m having to work for it. Granted, you could argue that by waiting for clear road before each run, and staying roughly within the speed limit, we weren’t exploiting the bike’s full potential, but we’d like to keep our licences and our lives, thank you very much.
That said, ultimately it was the bike that won out, and we suspect that the outcome would be the same no matter the car. The bike dealt with sump cracking compressions with relative impunity, demonstrated incredible high-speed stability in the quicker corners and delivered straight-line performance that would trouble anything this side of a McLaren P1. And that’s not to mention that by the end of the day the Type R’s specially Continental SportContact 6 tyres had overheated and the Brembo brakes (350mm iron Brembo discs and four-piston brake calipers brakes) were looking a little smoky.
The SP on the other hand felt all the better for its thrashing. As soon as we finished shooting - which culminated in me taking a quick drive in the Type R to see things from Matt’s perspective - I rode the ‘Blade back to London through rush hour traffic, and used it for various meetings throughout the week. I then handed it back to Honda - rather reluctantly, I might add - who then packed it up and sent it off to the Isle of Man for Marshalling duties at the TT. What a machine.
So is that the end of it then, the question of bikes verses cars answered once and for all? No, of course not, but that’s the beauty of this rather petty argument. There are so many factors to take into account – price, availability, environment, skill – that this debate will rage on until we’re all forced behind the wheel of driverless pods. In fact, at the time of writing, Honda is on the verge of launching both an all-new Civic Type R, and a revised Fireblade with a full electronics suite, so very shortly this test will be out of date.
On the plus side, I hear our own vertically challenged Alex Kersten is taking his bike test shortly, so perhaps this is a test that can be revisited – on the condition that he can touch the ground that is…