2004 Yamaha FZ6 vs. 2004 Honda 599 vs. 2003 Suzuki SV650 | The $7000 Solution

When you got no dough but the mojo to get out and go, here's what you need to know

Photography by Kevin Wing

It only makes sense. Although slow to get off the launching pad, the big-bore naked bikes have headed into orbit. Combined, the Japanese entries-the Honda 919, Kawasaki ZRX1200R (and less so the Z1000), Suzuki Bandit (and less so the SV1000) and Yamaha FZ1-have drawn a nice little trajectory into the sales charts and created rabid boosters across the land. Only a couple of problems remain: The big-bores aren't cheap to buy (and, in some cases, insure), and they can intimidate newbies and small-limbers in ways only a 100-plus-horsepower, 500-plus-pound motorcycle can.

Now, in their fetish to fill every perceived market niche, the manufacturers have stepped up to produce a whole new crop of midsized naked bikes-which face an even more difficult task than their big-inch brethren. For starters, the bikes need to appeal to a wider audience, to embrace the rider for whom the MSF course is still a fresh memory as well as the rider who is old enough to think MSF is something found in Chinese takeout. What's more, with price a critical issue, the onus is on manufacturers to trim component and development costs without running toward the cheap. (Let's face it, the bikes just below this rank-the $5000 beginner sleds-feel as creaky and uneven as a bed in a 1950s motel.)

This is a surprisingly tough category and expectations are higher than ever, particularly in Europe, where bikes such as the Honda Hornet 600 (from which the 599 is minted) and the Yamaha Fazer 600 (ditto the FZ6) sell in huge numbers. It's everyone's hope they'll do as well here. Blame this rush of new hardware for Suzuki's dismissal of the Bandit 600S from America this year; the company believes the SV650 and SV650S will honorably carry Suzuki into battle. Honda dumped the aged-but still popular-CB750 Nighthawk, while the on-again/off-again importation of Kawasaki's new-tech Z750 was finally decided to be off just as the ZR-7S was euthanized. From the outskirts comes Triumph's Speed Four, a genuine sportbike stripped of both its bodywork and sticker price, landing right in the middle of this theoretically sub-$7000 segment. All of a sudden, this is pretty cool real estate.

Difficult decisions abound. Each manufacturer positions its bike a bit differently in the segment, leaving us to answer the question: What are these things? Do-it-all, semisporty bikes? Beginner mounts? Dessert toppings? Floor waxes? It's easy to evaluate hard-core sportbikes or big-inch cruisers; they fit into tight segments. But these things...well, they have to be most things to all people who, er, value value.

3: Yamaha FZ6
If the world were a sales brochure, the FZ6 would be king. It's got everything you could want in this class: power from a renowned engine (the stunning YZF-R6), a new-tech aluminum frame, roomy ergonomics, a mini fairing, a centerstand, LCD instruments and an underseat exhaust. That's a lot. Over in Europe, where a previous generation of this bike, with a steel-tube frame and a YZF600R-sourced engine, enjoyed considerable success, the new model represents a quantum leap, a lustful grab for a slice of the Hornet 600 pie.

Over here, the FZ6 is more like a little brother to the popular FZ1. European riders have their choice of a naked or half-faired FZ6, but we'll get just the faired version. (The opposite is true with Honda; a half-faired Hornet 600 exists alongside this naked version.) For us, the salient point is that the FZ6 is a comparatively large bike. There's more room in the seating triangle for the rider and passenger, and a good-sized plastic fairing to push away the atmosphere; at moderate highway speeds the screen is fine, but greater velocities create a fair bit of turbulence. Claimed seat height is about half an inch higher than the Honda's, while the wheelbase is the longest of the lot by approximately the same amount. The general air is of a larger motorcycle, which is, clearly, a good thing for larger riders.

Given that the FZ6 uses a trick alloy frame (a weld-free pressure-die-cast affair that's bolted together at the steering head and behind the engine) and decent-quality suspension, its handling shouldn't be in doubt. In fact, it isn't. Of these three, the Yamaha has the most accurate, feedback-rich steering, with low effort and a total willingness to turn in with the positive-action front brake applied. Yes, the softly calibrated suspension allows the chassis to pitch during really hard riding, but the Yamaha's legs are generally better controlled than the Honda's or Suzuki's; it's just that the riding position is upright enough to amplify the sensations.

Back out on the road between your house and the office the FZ6 mostly shines. Again, that roomy riding position helps, as does syrupy action from the essentially fixed-rate suspension-there's an adjustment for rear spring preload only. Now you notice features like the always-on clock, the fuel gauge (with a count-back reserve minder that tells you how many miles the light's been on) and the comfortable saddle. You feel as if you could ride all day; indeed, the FZ6 emerges as the sport-tourer of the bunch.

Good showing there, so why last place? It's the motor, believe it or not. The R6-based engine simply seems out of place in a standard-style bike. Although in FZ6 guise it has greater torque below 5000 rpm than the R6-some seven foot-pounds more at 4000 rpm-it lags in this field for grunt both at the bottom and in a trough around 7000 rpm. This is a shortcoming not fully addressed by the FZ6's best-in-class peak power or its apparent pleasure in being trashed to the redline at every opportunity. Simply put, the FZ6 feels gutless at the bottom end of the range. It's peaky.

On top of that, the fuel injection has not been improved since the European launch late last year, and that, even more than the paucity of low-end urge, produced grumbling among our testers. You can see how Yamaha has tried: The gearing is taller than the R6's, and the throttle cam is an eccentric design intended to smooth throttle response. What's more, the U.S.-spec bikes have noticeably stiffer throttle-return springs than the Euro bikes we rode-yet another Band-Aid that doesn't work. Even with all that, certain on/off throttle transitions are greeted by the engine sucking in its breath (while nothing happens), and then the power comes in abruptly, taking up the considerable driveline slack with a clunk. This characteristic made it difficult for even the advanced riders to get the power down smoothly, and thoroughly frustrated our newbies. The engine also buzzes bothersomely above the 5000-rpm point. Finally, the clutch on both our and Sport Rider's test bikes was touchy, with a narrow engagement band right at the end of the lever's travel. All together, this is not a powertrain friendly to the inexperienced. We know Yamaha can do better.

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