Racetrack credentials are one thing; a long and illustrious competition history something more. And a comprehensive dossier of the latest technology and packaging is yet another gold star in the permanent record.
But let's not forget one critical piece of this supersport puzzle: These bikes, no matter how trick they appear on the specs page or how well they translate into racetrack tools, are street bikes-two-wheeled sporting machines designed for public roads. And as such they must start, stop and comfortably support a human for the far more mundane and less-exacting pursuits of back-road riding, commuting and touring.
It's a testament to the stunning state of the art that these four motorcycles-Honda's new CBR 929RR, Kawasaki's redesigned ZX-9R, Suzuki's clean-sheet GSX-R750 and Yamaha's revitalized YZF-R1-can be dang-near all things to all riders. As sharp-end sportbikes, they possess the kind of power, lightness and handling that would have set the racing world afire not that many years ago. Imagine a 750 sending 123 horsepower to the rear wheel, or a near-literbike that tips the scales to the tune of just 405 pounds without fuel.
Perhaps just as impressive is that none of these top-line missiles is in any way high-strung or difficult to ride. All "carburet" well (two are fuel-injected), have wide, usable powerbands and serve up a highway ride that, while taut, never ventures into harshness. Despite a few comfort compromises, all four will dutifully serve you on the daily grind, transporting you to and from work (or your favorite canyon playground) without mutilating your sorry carcass as would, say, a Ducati 996.
Ultimately, parsing the differences among this quartet of supersports requires extensive and arduous back-to-back testing on a variety of sublimely curvy roads. (Where do we form the line for that job?) In isolation, all feel fast, sophisticated and screwed to the road. Put them cheek-to-jowl and the differences, however slight, emerge clearly.
Back-Road Riding, Fast RoadsGetting around quickly and comfortably on the street comes as much from the confidence engendered by your ride as the bike's basic competence. If it sends you the right signals and behaves in a way that you find predictable-notice here the influence of personal bias, as some riders like different things from different bikes-you'll have the sense of leaving a greater margin for the unpredictable, like dirt at the apex or minivans crossingthe double-yellow. As a result, you'll go faster with greater comfort. And on the street it's all about how the ride feels more than outright velocity.
On the roads we frequent, one in particular is known for its long, sweeping turns that encourage a smooth touch and tidy lines. Here, the ZX-9R feels great-initially. With good power available all over the rev range you're left to explore lines and braking points rather than fuss with gear selection. Basically pick a gear or two and you're set. The Kawasaki is wonderfully stable at high speeds-as you'd guess once you know it's got the longest wheelbase and the greatest amount of trail of the four bikes. It's also the heaviest (23 pounds more than the next chubbiest), and this extra mass portends the bike's unflappability. You notice the extra heft mostly in the size of the bike-it is, by quite a margin, the largest-feeling of the group. Finally, when the going gets really rapid, the 9R's chunkiness begins to overcome the suspension and the bike's comparatively slow steering response makes you brake a little earlier and you're far less inclined to lunge for the apex at the last possible moment.
At the opposite end of the scale, so to speak, is the featherweight Suzuki. With its low mass (an amazing 426 pounds full of fuel), peakier engine and more softly calibrated suspension (an expected side benefit of its low weight), you'd expect the GSX-R to be a handful in the fast stuff-flighty, maybe, like a middleweight stuffed full of horsepower and adrenaline. Not so. In fact, it rails. Thanks in part to a longish wheelbase and superb suspension componentry, the Suzuki is totally composed in fast sweepers, yet retains the kind of maneuverability that is the whole reason engineers sweat grams and tenths of millimeters in weight distribution.
In fact, about the biggest task on the Suzuki is keeping the engine on the boil. As you'd expect by spotting the competitors at least 150cc yet still producing competitive peak power, something's gotta give. That something is the effortless midrange lunge the other three bikes place at your disposal. On the GSX-R, life begins at 10 grand. It's not weak in the middle by 750 standards-it is a torquer next to the previous GSX-R750-so the lack of midlevel grunt makes itself obvious when you hop off a torque-monster like the 9R or R1. Some of us loved that aspect-part of the challenge of sport riding is to keep the motor screaming and take command of the situation. Others-and we're not naming names, McQuide-preferred the shifting-optional power delivery of the full literbikes. Rev junkies, we know who you are.
Shifting-impaired riders of the world need look no further than the Yamaha R1 for their dream ride. For 2000, the tuning-forkers propped up the R1's lower midrange (around 4000 rpm) by a couple of foot-pounds to complement the bike's traditional top-end rush. As a result, the R1 never feels stressed or troubled, no matter how fast you want to go. Better yet, this year brings additional refinement in the form of improved throttle response. Sure, the R1 doesn't shift as well as the best, but it's not far off, and the extra dose of Honda-like refinement and civility in no way reduces the bike's ability to make your blood boil.
Chassis changes help the R1 stay svelte-although it's still heavier than the Honda or Suzuki-and make what was already a highly competent package incrementally better. Of particular note is the Yamaha's stability and ride composure. Even on our fast road's notoriously crumpled pavement the R1 charged around more like a low-flying warhead-delivery device than a ground-bound motorcycle. Choppy pavement has almost no effect on the R1's ability to hold a line, and although the bike moves around when you wick up the pace, it remains more serene than any of the others.
Ride the Yamaha like a goon and you'll be loving life. Just don't swap it for your buddy's CBR929RR. Imagine everything the R1 is-fast, slick and composed-and toss in a seat-of-the-pants profile that feels even slimmer, and steering that combines the R1's stability with GSX-R-like immediacy. (Did we really call the R1 fat and slow-steering? How time flies.) True, the Honda's engine is a bit buzzier and slightly less powerful than the all-conquering R1's, but the result is partially offset by the 929's lower weight (434 pounds with fuel). Velocity comes easily to the 929 even if the power isn't as immediate or as intoxicating as on the R1.
While we appreciate the Honda's engine just fine, it's the chassis that makes us take the long way to work. With amazing agility, the 929 turns with so little effort and commotion that you're tempted to set and reset your lines just to see the RR do its thing. (That's our excuse, and we're sticking to it.) Add in brakes that are by a slim margin the best here-immediate, progressive and predictable-and you've got a sublime fast-road package. You get the feeling that you could stand the Honda on its nose anytime, anywhere, and in complete confidence.
Finally, the Honda's suspension, though not as plush as the Kawasaki's or as buttoned-down as the Yamaha's, goes about its work seamlessly. At a modest pace, the ride feels busy, as though it could get harsh and ugly at elevated speeds. But pour it on and the Honda just works better and better. There's slightly more road feel than on the Yamaha and less suspension movement than on the Suzuki-the GSX-R, in particular, was criticized by our heavier riders as being a touch mushy. Although you have to work a bit harder to keep the engine in the meat of the powerband (next to the Kawasaki or Yamaha, anyway), the rest of the package is more than a match for the R1.
For faster twisties, our preferences line up like this: Honda and Yamaha very close together, the Suzuki a slightly larger increment into third, and then the Kawasaki.
Back-road riding, slow roadsIf fast roads reward powerband management, smoothness and pure courage, the really tight (and, on our testing route, coincidentally smooth) roads put a premium on engine flexibility, steering response and general agility.
You'd expect, then, that the superlight Suzuki would show its shapely tail section to the others. Not quite. Instead, the GSX-R's lack of midrange punch becomes ever more apparent, and lands the bike slightly out of its element. Sure, it turns well and its brakes are highly rated, but forward progress is often dulled by the rider's search for just the right gear to keep the motor spinning up. On the 30 to 60 mph corners we're talking about here, that's not always easy.
What's more, the Suzuki's soft suspension, which feels just fine in the faster stuff where chassis loads are less abruptly applied, lets the bike bob and wander more than we'd like. We also noticed that the Suzuki was the most inclined to stand up on the brakes (so forget about stuffing it in really late only to change your mind) and had considerable bump steer; every stroke of the suspension had to be accompanied by slight changes in bar pressure to hold a desired line. Individually, these characteristics aren't damning, but put them together in a high-workload situation and the Suzuki soon becomes more work than you bargained for.
Landing just behind the GSX-R on our tight back road was the Kawasaki. If you failed to notice its heft on the fast stuff, there's no question you'll see the differences here. With suspension calibration and brakes well up to an eight-tenths pace and a generous spread of midrange power, the ZX-9R encourages you only up to a point. (That said, under those limits, the bike is really a peach-just be sure you know where the wall is.)
To its credit, the 9R, with a more upright riding position and wider-set bars, gives you extra leverage and a better vantage point than the others. Actually getting the bike heeled over and changing direction is less effort than all but the Honda on this sort of road. But the bike constantly sends back signals that it doesn't really want to be flicked vigorously. About this time, you're starting to notice that you can't brake quite as late.
On faster roads, the Honda and Yamaha finish closely. But on the serpentine blacktop, the Honda's immediate steering and greater accuracy let it pull out a dramatic lead. It's here the 929's fast steering (amazingly bereft of headshake or other nasty side effects) and tack-sharp brakes give you the tools to slash through the turns. From max-lean left to hard-over right the Honda is the fastest-responding bike here. (The Suzuki's soft suspension takes some of the intensity out of it that's not quite compensated for by its light weight.)
No question, our testers were convinced that it was easier to go fast (and enjoy it) on the Honda than on the Yamaha, which felt a touch ponderous and top-heavy. But let's also put that in perspective. While the Honda turns quickly, the R1 doesn't exactly change direction like an ocean liner. And while the Honda has a one-finger front brake, the Yamaha's stoppers are hardly single-leading-shoe drums. As we said before, the differences in these bikes are subtle, almost minute. But the inescapable conclusion is this: On a tight piece of blacktop, you'll go faster, easier, on the Honda than the Yamaha.
Finishing order for the tight roads: Honda noticeably ahead of the Yamaha, in turn conspicuously ahead of Suzuki and Kawasaki.
Commuting/touring Ah, the joys of retribution. For all the spanking the ZX-9R received during the back-road segment, the big Kaw fully redeemed itself for touring and commuting duty. It's not hard to see why. With taller handlebars and a roomier riding position than all the others-and a couch-like saddle that looks racy without being the slightest bit uncomfortable-the 9R positively coddles its rider. Add to the equation the smoothest engine of the lot, excellent wind protection, mirrors that let you see the world behind you and supple suspension and you've got the consummate touring rig of supersports. If your nearest twisty road is 100 miles away, stow your ego for a moment and grab the Kawasaki. You won't be sorry.
If there's a bit of a gap back to second place in the commuting/ touring Olympics, the slot is at least well filled by the Honda. With a slightly more humane riding position than the Yamaha, it takes second narrowly over the R1, whose suspension is slightly more compliant over concrete-slab highways. Blame the stinkbug riding position for keeping the R1 out of second place here. Say what you want about the look of a racing riding position or the need for it when you've got 130-plus horsepower and a 54.9-inch wheelbase; the bottom line is that a freeway drone on the R1 is not the most pleasant of experiences.
On the Suzuki, it's also the ergonomic package-in particular, the tiny riding position dictated by the GSX-R being a tiny bike-that overcomes what is otherwise a serviceable setup. The Suzuki's engine is impressively smooth and its suspension gobbles up all sorts of pavement nastiness. A reasonably large still-air pocket gives the rider good protection from the elements and even the mirrors work pretty well. If you're five-foot-five you may find this the best ride of the bunch, but for those of us with laminated Weight Watchers cards, it's just too confined.