Suzuki Hayabusa Motorcycles - Deep Impact

The Hayabusa Phenomenon

We admit it. At first, we were skeptical. Not that there was anything wrong with the idea of a 175-horsepower, 1298cc SuperDuperBike designed to blow past grim-faced Autobahn Porsche pilots-and any other street-legal motorcycle-like so many swirling Linden leaves. But the actual motorcycle-and the amazingly focused way in which it was conceived, designed and marketed-originally had us wondering just how well it would do on its own, out in the real-read: non-Japanese-world.

First, there was that Hayabusa name and the bold Kanji character on its fairing that proclaimed it. "What's a Hayabusa?" we asked? "It's Japanese for Peregrine falcon, the world's fastest animal," we were told.

The name might have been a sarcastic reference to the 'Busa's main competition, the Honda CBR1100XX Blackbird, which was the world's fastest pre-Hayabusa motorcycle. Because Peregrine falcons eat blackbirds for, well, lunch.

And the name resonated a little too well with World War II aircraft fans-the Japanese Army's Ki 43, also called the Hayabusa. Talk about strafing apexes...

Then there was the bike's odd, hook-nosed styling, with the strange "what hump?" bulge over the rear. This machine was obviously shaped, not by stylists, but by aerodynamicists. Even the paint was odd-root-beer-barrel burnt metallic orange in one incarnation, a color that seemed better suited to a Vegas showgirl's Big Hair than to a 190-mph missile.

When it was introduced at the '98 Paris Show, we marveled at the bike's sheer audacity. We made fun of the name-calling it the Tuscaloosa in a caption-but we made no secret of our desire to ride one, and the sooner the better.

Riding, as they say, was believing.

Our press-intro test rider came back from the 'Busa's launch mumbling to himself. Something about blazing, in a pack of fellow insaniacs, across Spain at speeds well over 300 kph-about 185 mph. He also raved about the machine's smoothness, its surprisingly nimble handling, its rider-friendly aerodynamics and its excellent overall ridability. Everyone had expected that the GSX1300R would be a monster in a straight line, in both acceleration and top-end velocity. But nobody foresaw just how refined and how all-around streetable it would be.

The original 'Busa got way more than its share of rabid ink that first year, based mostly on its stratospheric top speed, which stabilized, test after test, radar gun after radar gun, right around 190 mph. But we grizzled testers knew there was much more going on under that oddly curved bodywork than sheer muscle.

Sales were fine that first year, with several thousand examples spilling out onto the streets of America.

For most motorcycles that would have been the peak; like action-adventure movies, motorcycles tend to sell well the first year or two, and then trail off in sales as initial excitement wanes and the competition catches up, as it inevitably does.

Then something strange happened. Out in that real world, more and more people, year after year, found a reason to buy a Hayabusa. To the point where now, eight years after its introduction, the Haybusa, in essentially identical form, is selling at a pace undreamed of by its creators. Last year, Suzuki sold over 10,000 of 'em-with seemingly no end in sight. The current Hayabusa is so popular and well-regarded that Suzuki approached improving it-or, heaven forbid, replacing it-with serious misgivings. The Hayabusa had turned out to be much more than the sum of its parts-its dyno chart, or its top-speed numbers or its distinctive look. It had become an icon, a legend, a symbol for everything that is exciting, outrageous and excessive in American motorcycling.

Drag racers, on both track and street, adopted it as their own-because with just a few slight modifications, like a lowered rear end and a strapped-down front, it could bang off nine-second quarters the way Charlie Sheen knocks off cheerleaders. Its bulletproof, irresistible engine was the start, but its long, low chassis and rock-solid stability made it easier to ride, really quickly, than anything that had come before.

Top-speed mavens on the Bonneville salt and at abandoned airstrips everywhere embraced the bike as well, Hayabusas routinely running the fastest speeds of the weekend in a variety of classes.

Sportbike customizers, the barristas of high-speed bling, also took a shine to the thing. Starting with the World's Fastest Motorcycle is not a bad idea when you're swinging for the street-cred fences-and the Hayabusa's voluminous, voluptuous bodywork gave painters and chromers a huge canvas to work with. It's also a short ride from the drag-racing hot spots of the South and East to the customizing shops in the same area codes.

Suddenly, people who might never have given a GSX-R1000 a second look were turning into dedicated Suzuki Hayabusa riders. Where the sportbike and roadracing crowd had traditionally tended toward the lily-white neighborhoods of America, now more urban, African-American and Latino riders were starting to appreciate the sheer power and fun of riding-and being seen riding-the fastest-accelerating machine ever sold.

As with all things American, each diverse culture put its own spin on the Hayabusa. A huge aftermarket grew up around it, creating its own unstoppable marketing momentum. And as sales rose, again and again, year after year, the GSX1300R started to turn the corner, morphing from its origins as a Very Fast Motorcycle and turning into an icon of strength, power, courage and machismo.

Sure, the Hayabusa has had objective competition. The Kawasaki ZX-12R was originally designed to edge past the Hayabusa in its top-speed performance, but in a quirk of politically correct public policy, the initial buzz on the ZX-12R's speed potential created a minor firestorm of anti-hyperbike rhetoric. Fearing a wave of anti-motorcycle backlash, the major manufacturers entered into a Gentlemen's Agreement on top speed, limiting their big guns to a safe, sane 300 kph (186 mph) speed limit.

Whether you're going 186 or 189 out on the 'Bahn between Frankfurt and Stuttgart mattered not. From 2001 on, the 'Busa and the ZX-12R, and now the ZX-14 and the BMW K1200S, were governed to an anemic 186 mph. But since the Hayabusa had been there first-and had engraved its image as The World's Fastest into so many corners of the American motorcyclist's psyche-it got to retain the heavyweight crown. As Stephen Colbert might say, there may be other motorcycles out there that go just as fast.

But for now-and for the foreseeable future-the Hayabusa feels faster.

And judging by what Suzuki has done to the new-generation 'Busa-basically strengthen every component group's performance by 10 to 15 percent-we have a hard time imagining the thing doing a New Coke impression.

So what the heck-let's have a look at the damn thing, already!