Let's say this much up front. Anyone with a zip code near the front lines of sporty bike technology will be underwhelmed with the Katana 750. New skin on 15-year-old GSX-R tack, they'll call it; a.k.a. pass. Anyone whose stance on performance begins and ends with a knee on the ground will agree. But if a practically priced ride parked somewhere between the Captain Sensible standards and racetrack-refugee sportbikes is what you seek, Suzuki's Katana 750 is a perfect fit.
That's because it is nearly the only fit. This year's list of fully faired 750s priced under $7300 has one entry: the Katana 750. That's no accident. While others have largely abandoned sensibly priced sportybikes, Suzuki's Katanas have defined the category for more than a decade: kinder, gentler GSX-R power in a workmanlike steel-perimeter chassis looks almost modern inside a slick plastic skin. With more than 17,000 of the beasts sold over the last 10 years, people seem to like the idea.
The success of that original premise let the Katana 750 live on with minimal changes between its 1990 debut and the 1998 makeover that carved its current shape. Inspired by aero-dynamic studies and the fluid contours of various goggle-eyed, deep-ocean dwellers, the styling that surfaced two years ago is either chic, or a good case against combining sea urchin and pepperoni pizza with late-night reruns of Jacques Cousteau.
Based on the "long-stroke" 1985 GSX-R750 engine, the 16-valve, 749cc, air/oil-cooled mill was blessed with a list of subcutaneous improvements in 1998. Start with a lighter, more compact starter motor, a more robust clutch, a silent-type cam chain, GSX-R style carbs with throttle-position sensors, a revised cylinder head, improved rods and piston rings and a stronger charging system. Those evolutionary changes kept functionality up while holding the price down to $7249 for 2000-just $50 more than the 1999 model.
What you get for that money is a comfortable, reliable ride that delivers everything the average street rider is likely to ask of it. The deeply dished seat conspires with rubber-mounted handlebars and pegs to describe a comfortably upright riding position, though the bar angles rearward too sharply for our tastes. The oversized speedo and tach are marvelously legible, as is the nifty digital clock. Overall, the rider's workplace is very functional, if a little on the dull side.
At 511 pounds with its full complement of life-giving bodily fluids, the Katana feels a little porky being muscled out of the garage. Moreover, contrary to popular folklore, Katana means sword in Japanese-not exasperatingly lean off-idle carburetion. The throttle-position sensor added in 1998 improves driveability immensely, but there's still time for another latt while the thing warms up on cold mornings. The new cam chain squelches most of the old GSX-R engine's mechanical clatter, though it's still more agricultural sounding at idle than the average liquid-cooled mill.
Taking up the cudgels of our daily commute, clutch pull is refreshingly light, though too much engagement lives in the last few millimeters of lever travel, and our bike was hypersensitive to cable adjustment. Progress through the six-cog gearbox was a little stiff at first, but loosened to approach the precision characteristic to previous Suzuki transmissions after a couple thousand miles.
Generating 81.6 horses at 10,500 rpm, the Katana comes up markedly short of the 93.3 Suzuki's own GSX-R600 spins out at 11,750, but has a bit more torque-45.1 foot-pounds @ 7750 rpm. If you're trading up from, say, a small-caliber V-twin cruiser or a minivan, the venerable GSX-R derivative seems to pull bloody hard from 6500 until its date with the rev-limiter just past 11,500 rpm. Those of us spoiled by quicker tackle, such as Suzuki's latest GSX-R750 or any of the latest 600 Supersports note the tach needle's leisurely progress between those points.
The Katana enjoys connecting points on the map with twisty lines as long as there's no rush. Steering is accurate, if not exceptionally light. Adjustable only for rebound damping, the softly sprung 41mm fork keeps the front wheel under control at any sub-Schwantz pace. Ditto for the fully adjustable (though virtually inaccessible to conventional tools) rear shock. Aside from a lack of feel scrubbing off Big Speed, the front brake is perfectly adequate for laid-back sporting sorties. At that rate, cornering clearance is abundant also. Pressed harder, the Katana explains that it's not a GSX-R by wallowing on its soft suspenders and bashing various solid bits against the tarmac until the torture stops.