Japan dominated the sportbike industry for decades. The onslaught began with the lightweight two-strokes of the 1960s and continued until the economic downturn forced Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha to slam on the brakes just a few years ago. Meanwhile, European companies such as Aprilia, BMW, Ducati and MV Agusta have rolled the throttle to the stop and arguably moved into the lead, in terms of technology if not volume. Some say Japan, Inc.’s high-water mark is behind us, but the tide of progress hasn’t stopped rising; it’s just slowed.
The Big Four are still churning out some very impressive sportbikes. In the midst of this worldwide depression we had two “Class of” winners emerge from Japan: Honda’s CBR1000RR in 2008 and Yamaha’s YZF-R1 one year later. For 2012, both bikes are back, the Honda updated with new suspension and wheels while Yamaha makes the technological leap to traction control. These optimized former champs face off against Suzuki’s updated GSX-R1000 and the new-for-2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R.
If we were to include every competitive model in the 1000cc-and-up superbike class, we would have no fewer than eight bikes. Rather than exhaust ourselves with a battle royale, we opted to test the European and Japanese machines separately. Besides, our annual “Class of” comparison is hands-down the best week of the year, so why not enjoy it twice? To determine an overall victor, we’ll take the winner from each group and pit them against each other in a future issue.
Talk about splitting hairs: These four Japanese superbikes’ specifications barely vary. Displacement and bore/stroke are practically interchangeable, as are price, power and chassis geometry—these are essentially four manufacturers’ take on the same machine. The big difference is in electronics, or lack thereof. The ZX-10R and YZF-R1 have joined the technological revolution, but are the non-digital CBR and GSX-R stuck in the Stone Age? Or worse yet: Are the good, old days of the all-conquering Japanese literbike over? It was our mission to find out.
Our testing regimen entailed two days of road riding and two days at the racetrack. We droned down the congested 405 Freeway, raced along the serpentine Ortega Highway and did repeat runs up and down State Route 243 above Banning, California. From there we headed to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway in Desert Center for two days of performance testing, then reversed our route for the ride home. The goal of our four-day adventure was simple: To determine which bike from the Land of the Rising Sun would rise to the top.