Fantasies are good for you, even Freud would agree. They make tolerable the dulling grind of gainful employment, make bearable the hellish commute and the vacuous elevator banter. Motorcycles are, undeniably, fantasy machines both for the places they can take you (literally and figuratively, as an object of Freudian projection) and for what they represent as works of mechanical art. Given unlimited funds and equally broad spousal consent, how many of us would opt for just one bike? Nay, the custom four-car garage (with nary a four-wheeler in sight) would house a bodacious collection.
But the reality is a half-a-car garage taken over by nonmaintained lawn implements, cast-off kids' toys and the general detritus of modern life. In the corner, next to the ladders, is your one motorcycle. Statistically, it's likely that it's one of those tested here: a 600cc supersport.
By the raw numbers, the middleweight class owns the sales race, with bikes in this price and displacement category handily outselling halo models like the RC51 or YZF-R1. (Honda sold more than 8000 CBR600F4s last year alone.) Today's middleweights are hugely popular because they're uncommonly versatile. You can take one touring, slog through the daily commute and enjoy the weekend twisty-road thrash. You can afford to buy and insure one. As a rule, 600s aren't as deadly serious as their liter-class stablemates (yet are every bit as capable), and their compact dimensions put them right into the demographic sweet spot where youngsters, the slight-of-build and the fairer sex congregate. Middleweights, in our view, embody the right combination of exhilarating and docile performance, allowing you to relax a bit and enjoy the pace rather than fret over balancing 130 horsepower and knife-edged manners.
This year, we expected to see some of the fiercest competition yet. Triumph's new TT600 has arrived full of the company's hopes and packing high-tech credentials, and Kawasaki's ZX-6R returns substantially upgraded for 2000. We figured these two would give the established class leaders-Honda's CBR600F4, Suzuki's GSX-R600 and Yamaha's YZF-R6-a bloody nose or two. We were partly right. The Triumph succumbed to early bike-itis and returned from surgery too late to be included in the comparison. (See our early impressions on page 54). Kawasaki has, on the other hand, made real progress with its ZX-6R, making this one of the closest, hardest-fought comparison tests we've done. (Jeez, we're saying that a lot lately.)
Introduced in 1997 as a GSX-R750 clone with an all-new 600cc engine, the middleweight GSX-R is the oldest bike here. That is its biggest shortcoming. Unchanged for 2000 save for paint and graphics, it's due for a dramatic redesign next year in the mold of the impressive 2000 GSX-R750. We're hearing of dry weight around 345 pounds and 100-plus horsepower at the rear wheel. Sign us up.
Given the torrid pace in 600 development, you'd think the Suzuki would have been left for dead. Not quite. In fact, the 'Zook finished fourth here mostly on lackluster engine performance. Buzzy and thrashy, the 600's engine produces decent peak horsepower (93.3 hp @ 11,750 rpm), though at the expense of midrange drive. Unless you cane the engine up into five digits, it feels flat and dull. Get caught fleeing your favorite corner in the wrong gear and you'll swear someone has mashed on the rear brake pedal. Although generally well-mannered (our bike was a touch cold-blooded), the GSX-R's engine just doesn't have the broad spread of crisp power that's become the norm in this class. A couple of years ago we'd accept this behavior as a side effect of extracting maximum power-but the field has moved on.
Further down the line, we can begin cutting the Suzuki's powertrain some slack. The clutch is crisp and the gearbox is really very sweet-although our bike, delivered with fewer than 200 miles on the odometer, felt a bit tight. We know the GSX-R has one of the best gearboxes in the business, so no worries here.
If the Suzuki wilts a bit in the steam room, it assuredly comes back to life on the Stairmaster. Although nearly identical to the previous-generation GSX-R750's, the 600's chassis is surely suitable in middleweight guise. Crank the bike along fast roads and you'll be rewarded with a supremely confidence-inspiring ride. Dive for the apex and the bike obediently follows; brake deep into the corner and the GSX-R will complain not a bit. Maintain serious corner speed and the bike yawns. Sure, we noticed the bike's comparatively heavy steering response-similar to the R6's but heavier than the CBR-F4 or ZX-6R's-and that the front brake feels a bit wooden. But the bike's innate competence and bloodhoundlike tenacity to your chosen line make us reconsider the severity of those faults. Besides, the back-of-mind thought was always, "Well, Suzuki will sort it all out for next year."
Suzuki would do well to carry over the 2000 model's suspension qualities. Rough roads will have the bike moving vigorously on the suspension, but this action never runs the bike out of shape and mainly serves to inform you about what the tires are doing. Where some of the more accessible bikes here temper this kind of feedback, the Suzuki lets it through unmolested. What's more, the baseline suspension settings proved close to perfect for riders of varying weights and skill levels. Good stuff front and back.
Even if the GSX-R's engine were as good as the others, it would find itself midpack as an all-around streetbike by dint of its ergonomics package. Yes, we know the racer crouch is perfect for the track, and that firm-but-well-damped suspension is the ticket for backroad strafing, but the combination makes this bike the last choice for a freeway or urban grind. And, yes, we're also cognizant that this poseur crouch continues the rich GSX-R heritage. But against the other bikes here-even the hard-core R6 is more comfortable-the Suzuki begins to seem somewhat out-of-date. Partly to blame is the 750-sized chassis, which puts more distance between the seat and bars than any of the other current 600s.
Ultimately, we're having a hard time getting really worked up over the Suzuki. And that's in part because we can guess what's coming for 2001. As lame ducks go, the GSX-R600 is far from humiliated, but the clock is ticking.