Class Of '07 - Cover Story

Los Superbikes Vs. La Super-Rica

The saying "When it rains, it pours" couldn't be more apropos for the sportbike world in 2007. With five all-new models from the Big Four and Ducati, you could call it an embarrassment of riches. We called it a darn good reason to go for a ride, preferably to some worthwhile destination.

"Why not see if the rumors about La Super-Rica having the best Mexican food in California are true?" asked my wife, Susie. Why not, indeed? Mexican food, after all, is near-religious fare here in SoCal-just as sportbikes on Racer Road have been since the early '70s when Yamaha RD350s ruled Mulholland Highway. Plus, the serpentine back roads between L.A. and Santa Barbara are epic and would provide a perfect stage for what are easily the most devastatingly capable hard-core sportbikes ever assembled.

And so we found ourselves-one staffer, one ex-staffer and los tres amigos, all of differing tastes, talents and temperaments-rumbling from the Motorcyclist garage one morning on our way to the wood-rasp pavement of Frazier Park and points north. But first we endured heavy traffic, and 100-odd miles of freeway had us scribbling furious notes at our first fuel stop.

"These things, the literbikes especially, are like caged cheetahs on the freeway," I wrote. "They can't wait to stretch their legs."

A comfort-based pecking order sent the Ducati to the back. Its exhaust heat, relatively hard and high seat and stretched reach to the low bars make it the least comfy despite reasonably compliant suspension and throbby, high-amplitude/low-frequency engine vibes. Ducati returned to more of a 916/996/998-flavored riding position with the 1098, and it shows.

"The Duc's the least comfy," wrote ex-staffer Dexter Ford, "and the mirrors are useless. Riding position is more 'wristy' than the others, and instruments are hard to see in the shade. But the motor has a great growl, and no complaints with vibes."

"Typical Ducati," wrote roadracer and industry veteran Jim O'Connor. "[It's] a long reach to the bars, and the seat has some pressure points. The 1098 is narrow and I like that. The seat's high, which puts pressure on my wrists; my right thumb went numb."

On the opposite end of the comfort/livability spectrum was the CBR, which garnered positive comments from everyone.

"Everything works," read my notes. "Smooth engine, light steering and crisp controls. Higher bars and softer seat are a huge plus."

"Highly compliant suspension with very little vibration," added O'Connor. Ergos are awesome, with a great seat, well-placed bars and lower pegs. Not much wind protection, though."

"The CBR's suspension is compliant even on uneven freeway chop," wrote Jim Soldera, an automotive consultant with years of motorcycling experience and a BMW R1200GS in his garage. "No other bike was as composed here."

Between the 1098 and CBR are the GSX-R, ZX-6R and R1, with the GSX-R beating the other two by a half-tortilla margin. The Suzuki has a reasonably smooth engine (all three buzz in the midrange), a decent seat, good mirrors (clear at most rpm) and compliant legs, but its high pegs compromise rider comfort unless you're short of inseam. The Kawasaki packs a relatively smooth engine, decent mirrors and a hard if well-shaped seat, but its low-mounted bars weight wrists more than the others. The Yamaha's ergos aren't overly radical, but exhaust heat cooks your calves and thighs.

We exited at Frazier Park and headed west into the mountains to Cerro Noroeste Road (Northeast Hill in Spanish), a mind-blowing, 40-mile stretch of writhing ridge-top tarmac featuring little traffic, even fewer radar guns and some of the most alluring, high-speed corners in the country. It's the perfect sportbike venue, with 70 to 100-mph corners you can see all the way though coming at you in rapid-fire sequence. Suddenly the bikes began to feel right, their weight-forward ergos, strong brakes and firm legs allowing us to keep close tabs on what the tires told us as speeds and cornering angles got progressively more radical.

"A great sportbike road!" read my notes. "The R1 feels bigger than the others from the saddle; its wide tank strengthens that impression. It steers a bit truck-like and offers less feedback, especially over bumps, which is why it's the hardest to hustle through the twisties. It's fast, though, especially on top.

"The GSX-R feels thinner and lighter-and considerably more flickable and confidence-inspiring," my notes continued. "The GSX-R feels wired to your psyche. It always does exactly what you want, and on unknown roads that's confidence-inspiring."

"The GSX-R has amazing midrange," wrote O'Connor. "It does everything right. And it's got suspension that rivals the CBR's-it's compliant and highly controlled at the same time."

Here, the 1098 clawed back into the fight. "It's a machine for going fast," wrote Ford. "It's rumbly, snorty, mechanical and purposeful. A macho motor, but a very useable one; it's almost never scary."

"Great feel and feedback, with strong brakes," wrote Soldera of the Duc. "There's plenty of useable power everywhere. Best when ridden with a smooth throttle hand. It steers with a bit more effort than the others (like the R1), but once you get it set it's rock-solid and confidence-inspiring. The more I rode it, the better I liked it."

"I found it hard to make mid-corner corrections on the Duc," wrote O'Connor. "Probably the heaviest steering. I also thought it shifted clunky compared to the others, and it didn't seem to rev as quickly as the 999R I rode a while back." That's likely because of the 1098's longer stroke.

"I feel fast on the 1098," said Rocky Babcock, a film production expert, intermediate-level rider and owner of a tricked-out Ducati Monster. "I like open bikes for this type of wide-open work; 600s require too much physical and mental work-and too much shifting and revving."

Even so, the CBR garnered high marks on Cerro Noroeste. "The CBR feels just right suspension-wise," said Soldera. "It's got that perfect combination of compliance and wheel control; it sucks up bumps but never feels harsh."

"Steering is perfect and there's a ton of feedback," read my notes on the Honda. "The engine is perfect, too. There's enough midrange for mellow riding, and there's plenty of steam on top. I've never ridden a 600 with better power."

"The ZX-6R is peakier and a little harder to ride quickly," said Soldera. "You've got to rev it big-time to unleash all its power. I always felt like I wasn't using all the revs, even though it demands to be ridden way up in the rev range."

"The Ninja's power delivery is smooth but it's the weakest of the bunch," wrote O'Connor. "It doesn't have the midrange or low-end of the CBR. I couldn't come close to the rev limiter." The ZX-6R is also sprung more firmly than the CBR; though suspension action is good, the bike feels out of sorts at big speeds over bumpy sections. "The ZX-6R's suspension is firm but not uncomfortably so," continued O'Connor. "Where the CBR soaks up bumps large and small and settles nicely into corners, the 6R seems to blow through them, almost as if there isn't much suspension travel [there is]. But it was stable, and I liked it. Both suspensions worked well; they're just different."

From Cerro Noroeste we turned southwest onto Route 33, then plunged south onto the high-speed plateaus of the San Rafael Wilderness. The bikes got a serious high-speed workout arcing across empty valleys with no cross-traffic, running deep into triple digits without worry. All felt stable and composed here, the literbikes doing their high-velocity boogie with a bit less histrionics than the hyper, high-revving middleweights. "I saw an indicated 149 mph on one long, empty stretch," said one tester (name withheld to protect the guilty), "and the ZX-6R seemed completely bored with it."

By this point we were ready for lunch, so our stop in Ojai was a welcome one. As we talked bikes and munched burgers and salads, a reasonably firm consensus was building, but it was a bit too early to crown a winner. Talk then turned to the next day's brunch at La Super-Rica, most of our group doubtful the fare would be as awesome as rumors suggest. After all, how different can rice and the late 1700s and early 1800s. We exited at Montecito, heading back into the hills for a date with Camino del Cielo (Way of the Sky) and Kevin Wing's cameras. Along the way we rode tighter and bumpier roads, which highlighted light steering manners, compliant-yet-controlled suspension, smooth fuel-injection response, crisp, strong brakes and plentiful midrange-all traits the CBR and GSX-R have in spades. The other bikes, spectacular motorcycles one and all, are each missing small degrees of one or more of these characteristics. And when you're analyzing performance at this level, small deficiencies get amplified and noticed-and written down.

With the sun diving into the Pacific through a burnt-orange horizon, we hustled along the pockmarked and bumpy ridge-route in near-darkness to San Marcos Pass and, 20 miles yonder, the Danish town of Solvang, our destination for the evening. On the way, we noted again how polished and all-around capable the Suzuki and Honda were, and commented on that at dinner. We ate Chinese because it's an almost polar opposite to the next day's planned Mexican fare.

After an early-morning photo shoot on Figueroa Road, we finally pointed ourselves toward Santa Barbara and La Super-Rica. The place looks like a taco stand with a canvas roof, but as we discovered over the next hour and a half, the food-everything freshly prepared in back-is absolutely superb, and for nearly all of us the best Mexican fare we'd ever eaten. The rumors are true.

Tummies full, we headed back toward L.A., stopping at Neptune's Net on Pacific Coast Highway for a few camera clicks before running up Mulholland Highway and, eventually, Paiuma Road. At the top we stopped for a final photo and gathered at a picnic bench to debrief. The morning's riding-slower and tighter canyon roads-hadn't put a dent in the general consensus from the previous day: that the Honda and Suzuki, measured from an all-around capability standpoint, are the class of this so-exceptional class. There are things the other three do better than these two, but when you add everything up, there's just no way the CBR and GSX-R can finish anywhere but on top.

Graduating With HonorsBack when we were in high school, a wide gulf separated 600s from their brawnier, big-bore brothers. Middleweights were small and light and cut up curves like a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, but their modest power output made them a workout on the racetrack and a downright bore on the wide-open road. Literbikes, on the other hand, made power for days but were big and bulky and too much work in the twisties. That gulf has now largely vanished, as more powerful middleweights and more manageable literbikes blur the distinctions between the two. This made picking a winner (warning: obligatory comparison clich ahead) harder than ever before.

As the undisputed lap-time leader, the new Ducati 1098 would be the no-brainer choice if everyone reading this possessed an AMA Pro license and lived at the end of a double-apex driveway. But the typically uncompromising design that makes the 1098 such a killer on the racetrack also makes it less than ideal in the everyday environs where most of us live and ride.

The Kawasaki and Yamaha are both excellent examples of just how much middleweight and literbike technology have advanced in recent generations. The ZX-6R is blessed with a brilliant chassis, but the 600cc motor retains just enough vestigial soft-on-bottom/narrow-on-top power characteristics to keep us wishing for more. The R1 makes big power, but plus-sized physical dimensions and high steering effort reminded us that a literbike can still be a lot of motorcycle.

The Suzuki, on the other hand, felt anything but big, with a compact riding position, careful mass centralization and utterly un-literbike-like agility in the curves. You'd never guess you were on a 1000 until you unleashed all 158 rear-wheel ponies. The big GSX-R was held back by soft, poorly calibrated suspension on the racetrack, though it shined on the street.

But even the mighty Gixxer was no match for this season's Most Likely To Succeed, the Honda CBR600RR. The tester's logs were a revelation. Never before have so many different riders, from so many different backgrounds, all arrived at the same word-PERFECT-to describe the CBR600RR's attributes. Street or track, that word appeared over and over again to describe the comfortable ergos, muscular powerplant, composed chassis, excellent suspension and brakes, light controls and more. Few bikes we've tested have possessed such a perfect balance of outright competence and all-around accessibility as Honda's latest-and finest-CBR600RR, moving it squarely to the head of this class.

The latest sportbikes, superb back roads, perfect weather and a few days to enjoy it all. Mmm...
And the food? Thumbs-up all the way. From left: the author, Soldera, La Super-Rica's manager, O'Connor, Backbock and Ford.
Off The Record
Karma is a bitch. Just weeks after writing my "Crash Test Dummy" editorial, I unceremoniously binned our Ducati 1098. Wicked-fast with a race-ready chassis, the Duc obviously doesn't suffer fools. Yamaha's YZF-R1 required set-up attention, and its hairball motor made it a handful. More neutral handling and flawless throttle response meant the Suzuki GSX-R1000 better suited my particular skill set. The Kawasaki ZX-6R corners like a 250cc GP bike (good), but accelerates like one, too (not good). The Honda CBR600RR powers up more like a 750 and remained utterly composed no matter what inputs I threw at it. Quick, confident and unwaveringly predictable, it's everything I want a sportbike to be.Aaron frank
Age: 32
Height: 5' 7"
Weight: 150 lb.
Inseam: 31 in.
Every track has one section that scares the crap out of you. At Thunderhill, that's Turn 8. The GSX-R1000 is mega-powerful and surprisingly light on its feet, but I struggled to find traction. The Ninja ZX-6R was well-balanced, but the position was awkward for my size, and the narrow powerband made riding it a chore. The CBR600RR never put a wheel wrong. The R1 had motor and just enough suspension to access the power. But aboard the 1098, I saw 127 mph flash across the speedo in Turn 8-10 mph faster than the best of the others. They must close the factory doors in Bologna every night by waving a checkered flag.Eric Gulbransen
Age: 41
Height: 6' 2"
Weight: 192 lb.
Inseam: 34 in.
The Ducati's new, easier-to-digest retail price makes this a tougher decision for some folks, but this remains a function-vs.-emotion deal. If functional perfection makes you swoon, you're talking Honda and Suzuki. The other three stop, go and corner like there's no tomorrow, but each is missing a piece or two of the do-it-all puzzle-unlike the CBR and GSX-R, which have all the pieces in place. But if emotional heft is primary, there's no contest: The 1098 wins easily, with more visual and visceral impact than any bike I can think of, except maybe the KTM 990 Superduke. Picking our 2007 Motorcycle of the Year is gonna be tough.Mitch Boehm
AGE: 44
HEIGHT: 6'
WEIGHT: 225 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.
This makes no sense, but as any veteran Motorcyclist reader can attest, that's never stopped me before. The R1 is too much. The GSX-R1000 is way too much. The Ducati? Stunning looks and great, usable power, but the ergonomics had me humming, "Don't be cruel..." The Honda is the better, more versatile 600-which is, of course, why I like the Kawasaki. I love its clean looks and wailing Formula-1 motor, and everything else is close enough. At one point I said to myself, "Ford, you are wringing this thing's neck," then looked down to see the tach needle sweeping past 10,000. Only 6500 rpm to go... Dexter Ford
AGE: 53
Height: 6'
Weight: 240 lb.
INSEAM: 32' in.