Givin' it the business. Honda's 599 is based on the previous Hornet 600-there's a new- gen
2: Honda 599
Typical Honda. In just about every way this is a delightful, well-oiled motorcycle, a cheerful little bundle of energy that is fun for the old hands yet extremely kind and forgiving to the just-licensed. Perky. A veritable Meg Ryan (before the cosmetic surgery) on wheels.
And yet in typical Honda fashion there doesn't seem to be anything on the spec sheet to suggest the goodness baked into the 599. It's the only bike here with a steel frame; the only one with carburetors; the only one whose suspension is clearly aimed at the short-and-light contingent. The suspension adjusts for rear preload only and, like the others, the front brakes use old-tech, two-piston, sliding-pin calipers. The liquid-cooled inline-four is based on the CBR600F3's, for cryin' out loud!
Hop on, turn the key, pull on a little choke-oh, how quaint-and start her up. Yes, carburetion makes the 599 a bit coldblooded, but throttle response once warmed is very good, with no weirdness to foil the inexperienced. Off the bottom the 599 rocks, pulling strongly through the rev range. On the dyno the 599 shows its stuff, with more torque than either the Triumph Speed Four (see road test, page 50) or the Yamaha until the FZ6 comes up to its first hump around 4750 rpm. Still, the Honda maintains a nice, even torque curve through the middle, with a curious shark's fin just shy of 10,000 rpm that defines both the torque and horsepower peaks (47.4 and 88.0, respectively). That the supposedly old-fashioned Honda is within a horsepower of the newer Triumph is an achievement of significant proportion.
In the real world you hardly notice the peak-power shortage next to the Yamaha. Part of this is gearing-the 599 is less than 0.3 seconds behind the Yamaha in the quarter-mile and betters it in top-gear roll-ons-and part is personality; the 599 seldom feels down on power.
Maybe some of this apparent power parity is an illusion stemming from the Honda's compact dimensions. Sit down and the 599 feels tiny-in the same way the 919 feels like a welterweight next to the lumbering Bandit, FZ1 and ZRX-with a short throw to the bar and a seat seemingly two feet from the ground. Although not the lightest bike here, the Honda nonetheless feels small and agile-it may be dense, but the density is in the right place. If you were building a bike to specifically favor the just-learning end of the rider cosmos, this is how you'd do it.
Easy on newbies, sure, but the 599 also lets more experienced types have a thrill or two. Honest steering-maybe not quite as direct as the Yamaha's, but close-and well-chosen damping rates help keep the chassis under control. The springs are soft, so larger and more aggressive riders may notice some vagueness while leaned over, particularly if the road is anything but billiard-smooth. Cheap suspension-hey, it's not a knock; they all have low-buck suspenders-means the 599 doesn't settle down as quickly as a supersport, but you wouldn't expect it to, and soft spring rates give the bike a good highway and around-town ride. The short wheelbase affords the Honda real agility without imposing stability worries. In sum, a very good chassis mated, thankfully, to a fine powerplant.
Thus established, the 599 is great for beginners, still fun for old farts, seamlessly produced and relentlessly developed. Why didn't it win? It's about the bucks, you know. Honda did itself no favors in the category by pricing the bike so high-at $7099, it's almost out of reach. Consider that the sum is just $900 shy of the much faster 919 and a mere $300 below a Suzuki Bandit 1200S. "Yes, but no Honda dealer in his right mind will try to get $7100 for the bike. The real-world price will be a lot lower," came the argument from the 599 camp. (Actually, that would be all of us; no one really disliked the bike.) True, but we can only go by MSRP, and if you can hammer 10 or 15 percent off the list price from your local Honda emporium, you could probably do the same over at the Suzuki dealer. Let's put it another way: If the 599 listed for, say, $6500 and maybe had a few more amenities-there's no centerstand, the instruments are Spartan and there's nothing but a headlight to break the wind-it would win this comparison outright. The remaining issue is this: Are you willing to spend more for a friendlier motorcycle? Let the soul-searching begin.
What can we say? Our love affair with the SV650 continues, fueled by the spunky 645cc V-tw
1: Suzuki SV650
The Suzuki's first-place finish is a triumph of value over appearances, of scrappy attitude over gloss and features. May we be blunt? Not one of our testers loved the SV's chunky looks. Particularly in non-S guise, the angular bodywork looks plainly overstyled, an aesthetic reach beyond Suzuki's grasp. From too many angles the look is discordant and malproportioned. In other, less kind terms, it's ugly.
So how could it win? Easy answer: It just plain works. The aluminum chassis is stiff and the engine is, as ever, a torquey and total thrill. Refer again to the dyno charts and you'll see what we mean. All that low-end makes the SV feel utterly effortless in the city and on the tightest of back roads. Yet it's also smooth enough to make a pleasant companion for highway riding. It may be down on peak horsepower compared with the inline-fours, but you'd hardly notice that on the street; the SV pulls out of corners with authority and revs freely to its 11,000-rpm redline. Where an FZ6-mounted rider would be stirring the gearbox and feeling frantic, the chucklehead on the SV just sits there, watching the road and working on his lines. It's hard to describe just how delightful this powerplant is, with its contented chuffing, great torque spread and melodious soundtrack.
Performance is deceptive. Owing to its low weight-at 429 pounds wet it's the lightest of the group-and plentiful grunt, the SV keeps the bikes with more peak horsepower in sight down the quarter-mile and struts away in the top-gear roll-on. Consider this the SV's modus operandi: It never feels utterly, wicked fast, but always seems ready to squirt away from the apex or into a rapidly closing hole in traffic. Our sole complaint with the powertrain is the new fuel injection's tendency to snatch at certain engine speeds, a characteristic that bothered some riders more than others and that is, in balance, nowhere near as irksome as the Yamaha's maladies.
In years past, the SV has triumphed for a combination of power and superior handling, but the march of time has caught the little Suzuki in the second category. An inexpensive damping-rod fork and similarly low-rent shock (both adjustable for spring preload only) return from the previous SV with minor changes, but they're not enough to keep the Suzuki ahead of the others in pure handling terms. Most of the blame goes to the fork, which is harsh over small bumps and woozy over large ones-and generally lets the front end wander, kick and protest far too much. Your choice is to crank up the preload to keep it off the stops during hard braking and suffer too-quick rebound and harshness, or back out of the spring to get into the zone of damping equilibrium. Added to that, the shock is slightly overdamped, producing the sensation that the chassis pivots over the rear wheel instead of stroking smoothly over long-period bumps. At times, the front end chatters on braking and wants to run wide if the road is not smooth. Also, those two-piston front calipers must have high-mileage pads in them because even though they're similar to the Honda's and Yamaha's, they feel wooden. Listen up, Suzuki: The SV has been (almost) caught by the competition, and it won't be long before its stellar little engine isn't enough.
What's more, not all our riders found the SV's ergonomics comfortable. We'll hold off on a final verdict here because the bike tested was a 2003 model. A revised SV is due for '04, sporting a new, 40mm-lower rear subframe that will carry a redesigned seat. (Initial specs show the seat height to be the same as the '03 bike's, but we're told the seat will be narrower at the front to make life easier for shorties.) In addition, the trail figure will go up by 2mm, which may help some of the front-end instability. (A richer fork would be a better solution, we say.) Finally, the rear end will be restyled slightly to clean up the fender area under the trick LED taillights.
That Suzuki has undertaken such changes in only the bike's second season indicates how serious this class has become. After all, the SV pretty much had the category to itself, at least here in America, so it could be sold for a low price and we'd all ignore the worst low-dollar offenders on the chassis side. Now there's genuine competition, but the SV still manages to come in hundreds of dollars less. Take the difference in price between the SV and the 599, for example, and you could have the fork tended to, fit new tires (we know that a taller, 70-section front will help feedback and compliance on this bike) and even install the Suzuki accessory mini fairing.
From the start, the SV has been about getting more bike for the buck, a noble effort that's still successful. Just don't call us cheap.