2011 Suzuki GSX-R600 | First Ride

Light makes right

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Brian J. Nelson

GSX-R is synonymous with sportbike in America. Over 360,000 Gixxers have been sold here since 1986, out-selling the competition by as much as 25 percent for the past 15 years. So when Suzuki acted to unclog its constipated inventory channel by withholding all its streetbikes—including the iconic GSX-Rs—from the USA last year, the absence was acutely felt. Now the reset button has been pushed and the company is back to business, leading off with this substantially revised GSX-R600.

Besides the Showa Big Piston Fork (BPF) and Brembo Monobloc brakes, you must look closely to spot differences between this and the old bike. Except for the more aerodynamic, vertically stacked headlamp, the styling appears practically unchanged. The spec sheet suggests more similarities. Save for a 15mm wheelbase reduction, the chassis numbers are identical. Engine geometry, too. Even the horsepower and torque figures are the same. What’s the big deal?

One figure, however, practically leaps off the page. Claimed curb weight is 412 pounds, 20 pounds less than before. The familiar façade and similar specifications conceal the fact that the new GSX-R has been painstakingly pared down, with every component scrutinized to shave excess ounces. Examples are almost ridiculous: New starter windings save 1 oz. A reshaped airbox shell is 1.2 oz. lighter than before. Smaller-diameter axles trim another 1.6 oz. Tedious, but this emphasizes the extreme measures taken to cut the GSX-R600 down to fighting weight.

Other mass-reducing efforts were more profitable. A simplified, five-piece frame construction deletes 2.9 lbs., while a swingarm made from 3 pieces instead of 5 saves another 1.9 lbs. Revised bodywork, reduced from 40 to 32 pieces and shortened a few millimeters at both ends saves a whopping 7.5 pounds. The end result, Suzuki says, is the best power-to-weight ratio in the 600cc class.

Suzuki made no specific claims regarding power output, though a comparative dyno chart shown during the tech briefing implied horsepower and torque peaks identical to the last generation, with modest midrange increases. Bore and stroke remain unchanged, though a slight compression bump, milder cam profiles that reduce valve overlap and more efficient pentagonal crankcase vents are said to enhance midrange torque. Titanium valves have been re-angled for improved gas flow and secondary injectors now spray further down Suzuki’s Dual Throttle Valve (SDTV), for quicker throttle response.

The new bike feels more different than it looks. Like previous GSX-Rs the cockpit is tight, with scant legroom and a short reach to the bars. Even with three-way-adjustable footrests and new clip-ons angled outward an extra degree, tall or big-footed riders still feel cramped. A slimmer seat pan and 10mm-shorter fuel tank make the already compact bike look and feel smaller than it is. Average-sized riders will find it easy to move around at speed.

The GSX-R600 was introduced at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, a technically demanding circuit that rewards the quick directional changes this featherweight machine excels at. Rotating the engine upward three degrees allowed engineers to pull the headtube back and decrease wheelbase without changing the front-end geometry or swingarm length, so neutral steering and high-speed stability are maintained. Blitzing the 100-mph chicane just past Museum Corner the bike snaps side-to-side like a proper racebike, and carves the line like a Samurai sword thanks to increased forward weight bias.

Barber’s multiple downhill corner entries demand a high degree of front-end feedback—another attribute of the new bike. The Big Piston Fork’s oversized, 39.6mm pistons move more fluid at a faster rate for improved compliance and stability, especially apparent during deep trail braking. The new fork dominated Barber’s famous “Alabama Coaster,” where the fast line runs over the curbing on entry. Even hitting the curb hard enough to lift the front tire off the ground, the BPF absorbed the input without upsetting the chassis or glancing off-line.

Radial-mounted Brembo Monoblocs save nearly a pound and deliver superior modulation that encourages you to brake to the apex every time, taking full advantage of that capable fork. We noted slight brake fade during longer, 20-plus-minute sessions, but that’s nothing aftermarket hard lines won’t solve. Out of the box this is one of the best fork/brake combinations we’ve experienced, equal to the Ohlins/Brembo package found on exotic European Superbikes and particularly potent on such a light, 600-class bike.

The 599cc inline-four makes adequate power—anticipate around 105 bhp at the wheel—and with a pumped-up midrange it pulls hard from 8500 rpm until just shy of the 15,200-rpm redline. The littlest Gixxer mill doesn’t have a particularly strong personality, but it doesn’t have any flaws, either. Injection calibration is seamless, throttle response instant, and vibration is minimal, only surfacing well into double-digit revs. Should rain, worn tires or rider fatigue leave you wanting less power, Suzuki’s Drive Mode Selector (S-DMS) lets you toggle from unrestricted A-mode to B-mode that decreases power by 30 percent. This is one less drive mode than last year, and S-DMS still seems superfluous on a 600cc bike.

More advantageous—at least at the racetrack—is the new close-ratio transmission. With tighter ratios between the bottom four gears and a slightly shorter sixth gear, this slick-shifting gearbox makes it easier to keep the screaming engine on the boil. An effective slipper clutch features a revised ramp angle for even smoother engagement, and it works so well on the quick-spinning 600 that you only feel it engage at very high rpms, keeping the rear tire planted and pointed in the same direction as the rest of the bike.

Suzuki’s goal in redesign the GSX-R600 was simple—extract the maximum performance increase with the minimum amount of new tooling and development costs. This is best accomplished by taking things away. The more pounds you shed, the more acceleration and agility both improve. By shaving 20 pounds—and making substantial upgrades to the suspension, brakes and transmission at the same time—the 2011 GSX-R600 is more improved than you would ever guess from a glance. It’s good to have the GSX-R back.

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