Performance Sportbikes - Mega Phone

Devilish Details

We have re-entry riders, so you might as well call me a re-entry motojournalist. Way back in 1982 I started with Cycle Guide magazine as a shop guy and eventually got promoted to a writing position. What a wonderful opportunity to dive in at the deep end of motorcycling after years of peering over the edge. While I worked for CG, Honda introduced the first Interceptor, Kawasaki was in the second generation of GPzs, turbo bikes came and went and Suzuki brought out the GSX-R. Heady stuff.

By 1987, Cycle Guide was dead and I had to move on. Although I made a living playing with airplanes for a while, I didn't go long without a motorcycle. The Honda VF500F gave way to a weird dual-purpose NX650 that was ideal for the central-Maryland back roads near where I lived. A brace of R1100RS BMWs followed. None of these bikes was cutting-edge sporting stuff; it was a decade I lived with a BMW as my benchmark.

So it was time to leap from the high dive again when I arrived at Motorcyclist this year. If you haven't witnessed it yourself, you can't imagine how far sportbikes have come since 1987. Tire, engine and chassis development have created bikes so potent and competent that they seem hardly related to their predecessors. Still, I'm beginning to think some of the manufacturers have sacrificed too much for the last ounce of lost weight or the final iota of centralized mass. This concentration on performance has let them miss a few of the all-important details.

For instance, what's with the mirrors today? In 1982, most bikes had bar-mounted mirrors, and they worked fine. The 1983 Kawasaki GPzs had mirrors on stalks attached to the half fairings; they were miserable, blurry and slightly tinted to boot. They weren't an aberration, but the beginning of a long, downward slide. (Who said round mirrors are OK, huh? The world of interest behind you is rectangular!) Riding the YZF-R6 in to work recently, I wondered how this motorcycle could be so good and the mirrors so much junk. I'm broad across the shoulders, but not far out of the norm, and I'm not the only one complaining. My guess is that good mirrors just weren't important to Yamaha and maybe would have got in the way of killer styling.

Where have all the centerstands gone? I know engineers work extremely hard to shave weight and are loathe to specify nonessentials. And, yes, I'll also admit that more-durable tires and O-ring chains spread out the maintenance. But the centerstand is such an elementally useful device that I'd gladly sacrifice a nanosecond of turn-in response for the benefits it provides. Please.

Instrumentation has improved since the 1980s, but I'd love to see more clocks. With all the LCD panels in use, adding a clock is a no-brainer, yet not every manufacturer does. Here's an old rant: Now that electronic stepper motors and digital displays have supplanted the old mechanical speedo, why can't you chip heads make them accurate? For a moment, quit trying to protect me from myself and give me the straight story.

How about these newfangled fuel-injected bikes that don't "carburet?" Neither of my BMWs had what I would call good throttle response; the 1994 RS was dodgy, but the '96 was better. Abrupt off the bottom (just what you want in a torquey twin) and afflicted with midrange surging, the RSes made me wonder how two engineering-based companies like BMW and Bosch could fail to figure it out. They're not alone. Our first U.S.-spec Triumph TT600 was just miserable, on the borderline of unridable, and the Honda CBR1100XX I rode recently had a most annoyingly sensitive throttle at highway speeds. I had to concentrate to keep the bike at a steady velocity. Never make me have to concentrate-something's gonna give.

Finally, there's the ergonomics issue. I blame Suzuki. When the GSX-Rs debuted with the most aggressive, racer-like riding positions ever seen on the street, buyers cheered and bikes shot out of the showroom. Other manufacturers saw this success and deduced: a) Riders don't really want to be comfortable, or b) They'll put up with wrecked wrists and shagged shoulders if the bike's good enough. Look at a profile view of the first Interceptor next to, say, an R1 or even a 929. We'd call the old Honda a sport-touring bike-and some would say "chopper" by today's ergo standards.

I don't advocate retrograde engineering or a return to the times when the GS1100E was the best thing on the street. But I will continue to gravitate toward more rational sportbikes like the Honda Super Hawk (despite its awful mirrors) and CBR600F4, Kawasaki's excellent new ZX-6R and 9R, Suzuki's SV650 and Yamaha's YZF600R. These bikes get a lot of the details right, and that's enough for me to tolerate some of their supposed performance shortcomings.

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