Honda CBR1000RR vs. Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R vs. Suzuki GSX-R1000 vs. Yamaha YZF-R1 | The Big Four's Big Four

Class of 2012 Part I

By Ari Henning, Photography by Joe Neric, Adam Campbell

Best Lap: 1:54.84

Yamaha YZF-R1

In this crowd of essentially identical motorcycles, the YZF-R1 stands apart. Kudos to Yamaha for providing riders with a bike that so clearly utilizes trickle-down technology from MotoGP racing. First the YZF-R1 was blessed with the Crossplane crankshaft, a design that was proven by Valentino Rossi in 2004 and then applied to the streetbike in 2009. For 2012 the R1 received traction control, blessing street riders with an electronic rider aid that was developed at the world championship level. This latest version also has a restyled nose, with sharper features and LED illumination along the lower edges of the air intakes.

All of our test riders were fond of the R1 early on. Its rider triangle is spacious with high, flat clip-ons that are easy on your wrists. It’s comfortable for a sportbike, with compliant suspension and comprehensive wind protection that’s closer to that of an FJR1300 than an R6. Then there’s the addictive engine character that made the Yamaha a favorite on the street. Twist the throttle in any gear and the Crossplane engine grunts and slingshots you forward with locomotive-like power. Some testers found the throbbing low-rev crank vibration annoying, while others considered it an asset. Where the other bikes in this comparison felt and sounded like a fleet of sewing machines, the R1’s deep, pulsing exhaust note and distinct engine character set it apart.

With more seat time, however, testers started voicing complaints. The R1 has the strongest engine braking and light-switch throttle response, which makes navigating tight roads nerve-wracking. It also throws off a lot of engine and exhaust heat, cooking your legs and backside. And then there’s its size: With a full fuel tank the Yamaha tips the scales at 475 lbs.—35 lbs. heavier than the Kawasaki—and you can feel that weight every time you bend the bike into a turn. It’s also the least muscular, putting down “only” 146.8 bhp at 12,000 rpm. The Yamaha’s apparent size is exacerbated by a fairing that is half again wider than the Honda’s, and even with reshaped muffler caps and heat shields intended to reduce its perceived bulk, the R1’s posterior still warrants a “wide load” banner. All that aside, the Yamaha is a great streetbike, with all the character and style you want and stable (albeit sluggish) handling. Next to the Honda the Yamaha feels strongest down low, and shift action is so sweet, we’re convinced its crankcase is filled with honey.

At the racetrack the R1’s heft was a hindrance, as was the initial chassis setup. The bike had a tendency to stand up under trail-braking, making graceful corner entrances challenging. It also ate front tires. Raising the front end made the Yamaha more neutral at corner entry and slowed tire wear, but it was still more work to bend into corners than the others.

The R1’s abrupt throttle response was annoying on the street, but proved maddening at the track while trying to dial on the gas at full lean. Even in the “Standard” power mode, throttle response off closed throttle was jerky, upsetting the otherwise stable chassis. Switching to the softer “B” power mode blunted performance too much, and we can’t imagine where or when anyone would ever use the ultra-severe “A” mode. The Yamaha’s big six-piston Sumitomo brake calipers work well, but the slipper clutch didn’t slip enough, causing some unnecessarily lurid slides entering tighter corners.

The Yamaha’s Traction Control System (TCS) proved the better of the two systems here. It offers more levels of sensitivity and has a smoother engagement strategy that manipulates the ride-by-wire throttle butterflies first, rather than cutting spark and then fuel like the Kawasaki. The Yamaha was already a smooth spinner, and with traction control we were able to confidently streak every corner exit on the track. Even so, the R1’s impediments made it difficult to ride fast, resulting in the slowest lap times.

We can’t say enough about how smoothly the Crossplane engine puts down power, but while the other bikes’ output ramps up at high rpm, the R1’s falls off. It still has the most inspiring exhaust sound and outstanding engine character, but that’s not enough to compensate for the searing engine heat, extra heft and abrupt throttle response. The YZF-R1 incorporates some impressive technology, but overall it doesn’t work well as a package.

Aaron Frank

BEST LAP: 1:56.31, Kawasaki ZX-10R | AGE: 37 | HEIGHT: 5’7” | WEIGHT: 155 lbs. | INSEAM: 32 in.

I loved our “Class of 2008”-winning Honda CBR1000RR so much that I bought one. Minor improvements make this year’s model even better, and I fell in love all over again on Highway 243. Light, impeccably balanced and absolutely neutral, it was the perfect mount—until we arrived at the track. Once the CBR’s rear tire started spinning, I folded. On the TC-equipped bikes, however, I was all in. The difference between my times on the TC and non-TC bikes was vast. Traction control boosts my confidence and my ability to concentrate on other aspects of going fast. The Yamaha delivers better TC, but that’s all. The Ninja rules everywhere else. Honda and Suzuki: It’s time to step up.

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