Highly anticipated and hard fought, it is an annual event with weighty social, political and economic implications. Sort of like Chelsea Clinton's coming-out party with knee pucks and Z-rated rubber. Inked with the same blood-red Sharpie(R) we use to mark Pamplona's running of the bulls, Indy's 500 and Eddie Lawson's birthday, it is Motorcyclist's annual 600cc supersport skirmish. And it is time.
Unlike the near-three-mile-per-minute proclivities of Honda's CBR1100XX or the focused, hormonal purity of Ducati's 916, the archetypical 600 sporty bike shines brightest not from any single facet. Instead, following the wonderfully (if you're Honda) frustrating (if you're not) tire tracks of the CBR600 series, the conventional middleweight paradigm aims at that elusive point where the marketeer's price and performance curves cross. That's why the reigning 600cc champion, Honda's F3, spreads its broadband brilliance over most any sort of riding the Great Unwashed Sporting Hordes can think up. It is the proverbial jack-of-all-trades, and master of some. >
Thus, traditionally, middleweight warfare is a game of inches--millimeters even. But watching Honda kick the can a bit farther than everybody else every year was becoming an exercise in predictability--predictably monotonous.
Then, Suzuki shrunk its 750cc GSX-R track-scalpel to 600cc scale and blew the game wide open. It is the first real deal--a no-apologies, no-regrets, take-no-prisoners 600cc racer replica. The 1997 GSX-R600, odds-on wild card in this year's deck, provokes a new question: Does unadulterated sporting brilliance beat all-around aptitude? Is the latest F3 strong enough to keep Honda's middleweight CBR dynasty alive? Can the revamped YZF600R hold its own? Will Sister Ruby overcome brucellosis and a bad NyQuil habit to rejoin the roller derby? Oops, wrong story. What about Kawasaki's highly rapid ZX-6R, then? Keep your shoes and socks on, boys and girls. The answers are just around the corner.
The path to conclusive answers starts with knowing where to look. On the advice of Feature Editor Burns's parole officer, we began with a Track Flog at Willow Springs International Raceway. Otherwise, exploring all four corners of a current 600-classer's performance envelope can land you in solitary confinement or intensive care in an L.A.P.D. minute. From there, we hammered the middleweight Class of '97 over the surface streets, interstates, back alleys and Taco Bell drive-thrus of Los Angeles, which led to perfect Sunday morning rides straightening out serpentine blacktop. But first, take a few seconds to get your mind straight.
Look closely. Move beyond the obvious similarities in engine size and mission statements. After a few days and miles, each combatant will assert its own distinct character. As the once and future king of seamless, digital refinement, Honda's latest F3 feels small, tight, narrow, agile and ergonomically correct. At 459 pounds soaking wet, it is seven pounds heavier than Kawasaki's more compact ZX-6R. The Ninja's rider and passenger accommodations are less capacious than the Honda's as well, making the Kawasaki a more comfortable ride for the sub-six-foot set. Adjustable brake and clutch levers are exclusive to the Ninja, as is the idiot-resistant neutral finder.
On to the Suzuki. Everything from the steep, rakish windscreen and low clip-ons to the high-mount aluminum footpegs and slippery tail section, peg the 440-pound GSX-R as a narrow-focus, no-apologies sporting weapon. Planted on its wide, flat seat, you're further from the pavement than on any of the others. The Suzuki is a track spike among training shoes. Neither short of leg nor faint of heart need apply.
Next door, the 485-pound YZF-R is a roomier, more comfortable, everyday fit for most riders--especially tall ones. Along with the extra mass and room comes more faring protection and real space for two. Call it the GT of the bunch.
Now start the engines. Blip the throttles. The practiced ear can tell one 600 from another with no help from the practiced eye. The CBR's familiar, veiled gear whine dominates its aural signature. Then there's the throaty, ram-air bark of the otherwise eerily quiet Ninja engine. The GSX-R is a cold-blooded warrior, only settling into a loping, cammy, metallic-raspy idle after it warms up a bit. In contrast, the calm precise-idling YZF four recalls nothing more than a 16-valve Rolex.
Once clear of the driveway, all our contestants happily suffer the necessary indignities of urban commuter duty with the sort of athletic moves you'd expect. Still, some suffer more happily than others. Blessed with the lightest steering, bump-erasing suspension, roomiest rider accommodations and marvelously accessible midrange horses, the YZF wins the war between 8:00 a.m. Monday and 6:00 p.m. Friday. The Yamaha's only glitch (and a minor one) is a fragile-feeling clutch with a narrow, sometimes grabby, engagement band.
A much-improved transmission cleans up the '97 CBR's urban report card. The Honda's carburetion and driveability are dead-on perfect. Still, this year's more sporting HMAS suspension is a bit less compliant over the post-apocalyptic moonscape of L.A. city "streets." Even less-compliant suspension bits conspire with an exasperating off-idle lean stumble to drop the quicker-steering ZX-6R behind the F3 in urban warfare. In traffic, the GSX-R is a Navy Seal at High Tea: uncomfortable.
Despite more humane ergos than its '92-spec predecessor, the GSX-R's warlike riding posture overloads tired wrists around town, enforcing a tuck that, for anybody over 5 foot 9 inches, is too near fetal for comfort. Factor in a nasty 4200-rpm lean spot, a lashy driveline and you have a bike that's (much) happier beyond the stop lights and city limits. No surprise there.
Once traffic lights give way to the appropriate on-ramp, the YZF wins again. Plying rain-grooved freeway at a silky-smooth 75 mph, scanning crystal-clear mirrors for Officer Speed, the Yamaha's artfully sculpted one-piece saddle and sport-touring-size fairing let you drain well over 200 miles from every 4.9-gallon tankful. No other 600 comes with a longer leash. With those comfy suspension bits along for the ride, the YZF is the 600cc solution for interstate twisty-road exploration.
Second place in the interstate battle is a tie you can settle for yourself. Choose less wind protection and more vibration on the CBR, or the less roomy, slightly better-protected cockpit of Kawasaki's smoother, more powerful ZX-6R. At or around legal freeway speeds, a handful of Kawasaki throttle delivers the most convincing forward thrust of the foursome. Most sub-six-footers will go with the smooth and fast Kawi every time.
Despite the least wind protection of the foursome and relatively cruel ergos, the Suzuki's reasonably smooth engine and humane seat make it a survivable freeway ride for the sub-six-foot set. Relatively unforgiving suspension and precious little wind protection make it our port of last resort for high-mileage, straight-line missions. Again, no surprise.
But if touring is your central joy in life, try the Gold Wing aisle. All those "practical," comfortable, commuter considerations serve only to begrease, beguile and otherwise mollify the significant-other/live-in loan officer. It takes horsepower to open the doors of your dirty little weekend kingdom. Lots of it. But more, as Pamela Anderson Lee's plastic surgeon has proven, is not necessarily better.
Judged on dyno curves alone, the GSX-R and ZX-6R rise to the top with identical outputs of 96 rear-wheel horses apiece. The Suzuki's arrive at 12,000 rpm; the Kawasaki's 250 revs earlier. Differences end there. The GSX-R's steeper trace concentrates the real muscle above the 9000-rpm point, whereas the torquier Kawasaki delivers potent thrust from 7500 rpm, followed by another surge of Green Meanness at 10,000.
Next in line, the hotted-up, '97-spec F3 engine spreads its urge between 6000 and 11,750 rpm, at which point all 93.5 horses (three more than the '96 edition) arrive. Yamaha's silkier YZF takes a more practical approach. Its 88.5-horse peak horses give up five compared to the Honda in exchange for more accessible muscle between 6000 and 9000 rpm.
Trading dyno charts for drag strip timing slips, the game is simpler: power-to-weight--and a strong clutch. Factor out the rider, and each GSX-R horsepower pushes 4.6 pounds, versus 4.7 for every ZX-6 horse, 4.9 for a CBR pony and 5.5 for the heaviest-laden Yama-horses. That's also the finishing order for the 440-yard dash: 11.09 seconds at 124 mph for the Suzuki, 11.10/123.5 for the Kawasaki, 11.30/120.8 for the Honda and 11.31/118.9 for the Yamaha. You can't fool Mother Nature or Father Physics at the drag strip.
The racetrack puts engaging twists in the same basic plot. For starters, need defines want. And our racetrack needs are simply and sharply defined. Give us a light, agile, rigid chassis accurately controlled by cooperative suspension, propelled by lots of useable power and arrested by equally effective brakes. And traction; more, of course, is better. To level the traction playing field, we mounted Dunlop's stickiest new street-legal racing rubber--the new D207 GP--onto each contestant for our track work. Simply put, nothing sticks better. (See the accompanying sidebar for the whole story.)
Racetrack testing polarizes our contestants into two 600 classes: The GSX-R, and everybody else. If you want to win, you need maximum cornering speed and rock-steady stability, which means you need the Suzuki. End of story. With big power pushing the lightest, sweetest-handling, best-suspended high-velocity package in 600-land, the GSX-R is almost in a class by itself, a level of magnitude beyond the capabilities of its more broadly focused peers. Confining the frenetic GSX-R tach needle between 9000 and 12,000 rpm keeps your left boot moving only slightly slower. But the payoff is lap times the others can't quite match, at least on faster tracks.
On Willow's main 2.5-mile circuit, where speed and stability are the keys to fast-lap-land, the Suzuki ruled with a 1:30.07-second best, followed by the Honda's 1:30.74-second best. Despite its ultra-steamy engine, the Kawasaki's sketchy suspension and confidence-deflating front end dropped it to third with a 1.31.04-second run. Surprising no one, the Yamaha's softish suspension wilted in the heat of track speeds. Still, the YZF managed a 1:31.30-second best. Our resident fast-guy reported that while he was nearly at the limit on the F3, Ninja and YZF, the GSX-R had more speed in it, which he'd likely find with a bit more time on the bike.
Interestingly, the Suzook was bested on Willow's shorter 'Streets course by both the Honda and Kawasaki. Not so much because of steering or suspension or overall power, but because of its tallish gearing and peaky power delivery, which kept it from exploding out of the circuit's slow corners as quickly as the midrange-heavy ZX-6R and CBR. Despite this, the GSX-R's overall competence on the track made it the staff pick for a 600-class racer.
Who wins the race for second depends on who you ask. Under a rider good enough to avoid bumps (or brave enough to ignore them), the Kawasaki's class-of-the-class monster motor, excellent cornering clearance and quick steering outweigh its relatively quirky front-end feel and harsh suspension on the track.
Everybody else, though, went faster on the Honda, which never seems to get ruffled and is as forgiving as they come. It pushes more meat with a little less muscle than the Kawi, but the Honda's more linear, predictable steering and more compliant HMAS suspension soak up some of the Kawasaki's straight-line advantage, especially through bumpy corners. As far as we're concerned, factor in the extra power and feel in the Honda's brakes and the F3 takes second at the track--by two skips and a bump.
Playing yin to Suzuki's yang, the Yamaha's broader, more comfortable, more broadly focused approach begins to unravel approaching racing speeds. Steering is wonderfully light, and the YZF front end inspires devout trust. But the plush suspension, comfortably low footpegs and maximum-midrange tuning translate to a wallowing chassis that drags hard parts with alarming regularity, and gets steadily reeled in by the others on long straights. Fantastic initial bite followed by major power makes the YZF brakes the best of the bunch under an expert's grip, though their blend of power and sensitivity can lock the wheel with alarming ease under ham-fisted inputs.
Jump cut to the complexities of high-velocity travel on public pavement, and what you want still defines what you need. But on the street, comfort and civility carry enough weight to (nearly) shuffle the deck completely.
If your life revolves around Ludicrous Speed on a road you know better than the first Boston album, there is only the GSX-R. For us, wicked fast as it is through any set of corners, the narrow focus defined by the GSX-R's uncompromising ergos, taut suspension and limp midrange power (complete with nasty lean stumble) exact too high a price most of the time. Tall gearing and stiff springs are better suited to faster, smoother roads than tighter, bumpier ones. The price of speed on the Suzuki is hard work and knowing exactly what Rollercoaster Road will do next. Guess wrong or get lazy on the GSX-R's shifter, and you're becalmed in the sub-8000-rpm Horse Latitudes where once-fizzy power falls flatter than day-old Coors.
Armed with a broader, more accessible mountain of power building to a savage top-end hit, the Kawasaki devours straight pavement quicker than the others. The 6R's brakes serve up a satisfying blend of power and feel, but less convincingly than the Yamaha's. Stay off the front brakes once you're arched over in a bend, or the ZX widens up your line with a sudden return toward vertical. The Ninja flicks a bit quicker than the others, though some post-flick numbness and a jittery, disconnected feel over mid-corner bumps eclipse confidence with anxiety, especially for the sporting apprentice. For us, that minor allergic reaction to fast, ragged pavement is The Fly in Team Green's back-road ointment.
Lighter steering, reliable front-end feel and blissfully plush suspension make the YZF-R easier to deal with through a day's worth of bends. Its fat midrange, surgically precise shifting and effective gearing form the most potent tight-road powertrain of the group. But comfort has its price. Low pegs kiss the tarmac more regularly than the other bikes. Then at about 9.7 on the Society of Motorcycle Journalists' Unbridled Aggression Scale, those extra pounds (26 more than the CBR; 45 more than the GSX-R) begin to overwhelm soft springs, the YZF starts wallowing around on its legs and the whole sporting party begins to sour.
Now rip into that same set of bends on the Honda. Brakes bite hard initially and follow up with enough power and feel to hold the front Dunlop on the brink of howling. Steering is slightly heavier than the Yamaha's, but plenty linear, and accurate enough to inspire confidence at any speed. The ride is taut, even semiharsh at times. Either way, terrain-following F3 suspension lets you feel the bumps at speed without letting them unsettle the chassis--or your nerves. The Dunlop Sportmax II radials on our CBR deliver the best mix of stick, steering feel and wear of any original-equipment rubber in the test. Cornering clearance is more than adequate, and Honda's ram-air system and spot-on carburetion translate to flawless throttle response. The CBR's only real flaw on the street is the insidious buzziness Honda hasn't cured in 10 years of trying.