Twenty-five years ago was three years before Al Gore conceded a too-close US presidential race to George W. Bush, as we collectively decided to kick the global warming can down the road a bit further. Honda’s first bike with a catalytic converter was also three years in the future – the VFR800FI. Just before all that hit the fan, 600cc Japanese inline four-cylinders were all the rage: carbureted, basic, cheap, and expendable. Ninety horsepower in a 420-pound package was all you really needed. And in 1997, the top 600s were still even pretty good streetbikes. The MO crew was positively giddy over all of them.
The testing Begins: Kawasaki ZX-6R
When these four sportbikes of the apocalypse began assembling for our shootout, early predictions rated Kawasaki’s ZX-6R as a likely victor. We had all enjoyed the ZX6 tested last month, so the 6R’s shorter wheelbase, fully adjustable suspension and 29 fewer pounds promised to make for an even better ride. So how did the Kawasaki come to find itself relegated to fourth place?The answer lies in the vague feedback offered by the 6R’s front end, a problem that is compounded by the low-profile stock Bridgestone tire that gives poor traction at full lean. The cumulative result is a front end that “pushes” and “tucks” in corners. Having a poor connection with the front destroys confidence, which in turn slows lap times and canyon cornering speeds. How bad is the feedback from the 6R’s front forks? “I knew that the front was there,” quipped Graves after his first track session on the 6R, “because at the end of the straight you pop up and hit the brakes, and something slows you down.” Higbee also found the ZX-6R’s front lacking: “Even at a moderate street pace I had trouble keeping the front tire from sliding out under me, which isn’t my idea of fun.” This lack of front end feel was responsible for five of our seven testers (Graphic Artist Billy Bartels and Guest Commentator John Slezak also participated in this test) picking the 6R last in this comparison.
Handling manners improved after the Metzeler MEZ1 race-compound tires replaced the stock Bridgestones for testing at The Streets of Willow. Now we had more confidence that the tire would stick, but feedback and turn-in manners remained poor. This led Higbee to question the 6R’s geometry: “The front end feedback told me that it was turning in too much, a sign that it needs more trail. I also noticed that the triple clamps are narrow, which might explain why the 6R refused to turn properly — there’s not a lot of leverage there.”
The nail in Kawasaki’s coffin comes from the price tag. At $8299 it’s $500 more than the second most-expensive bike, Honda’s CBR600F3 — and a whopping $900 more than Yamaha’s YZF600R.
In the 6R’s defense it did post the quickest quarter-mile time of 10.79 at a smoking 126.78 mph — and at 92 bhp its engine swings the biggest stick. It sounds better than its challengers too, with a deep and throaty howl that belies its displacement. Comfort was excellent with a fairing that directs wind past the rider’s shoulders and creates a calm pocket of air behind the screen. Seat quality is also very good for a sportbike with a wide, flat platform that allows several hours to pass in comfort.
There is always some poor kid who is the last to get picked for baseball, and that kid is the ZX-6R. It is a great bike with bad front geometry. Unfortunately in this tough crowd that is enough to relegate a bike to last place.
3. Suzuki GSX-R600
We’ve been anxiously waiting for Suzuki’s new GSX-R600 ever since we all fell in love with the GSX-R750 last year. Would the 600 be the same knockout combination of awesome power and light weight, or would it be a sleeved-down, overweight dud like the last GSX-R600? Speculation and rumors abounded.
Last month, when Pascal Picotte topped the SuperSport field during tire testing at Daytona on a GSX-R600, we knew that Suzuki had done their homework. But after finally getting our greedy mitts on a GSX-R we were initially disappointed. Midrange power was terrible, and excessive driveline lash made street riding a chore, both made worse by excessively lean low- and mid-range carburetion that “lean surges” the bike at cruising speed. Further limiting the fun was a riding position that folded the Suzuki’s pilot into a pretzel to fit the uncompromising riding position.
At the dragstrip the Suzuki’s wimpy midrange power and vague clutch dropped it to last in the rankings with an 11.31 pass at 123.1 mph. Dyno testing shows the problem — at 8,000 rpm the Suzuki trails the Honda by a staggering 12 bhp. Even at the top end it fails to top its competition with a peak of 88.7 bhp.
With its full-on race approach, we thought the GSX-R would rule in the canyons. But a full day spent reducing the world’s supply of knee-sliders left us questioning the Suzuki’s purpose in life. An F3 is a match for the GSX-R when things turn twisty, but it won’t beat you like a rented mule on the ride home. And at $7,799, the Honda is only $100 more than a GSX-R.So why put up with all of the Suzuki’s shortcomings? Because on the seventh day, MO raced (MO is what we call Motorcycle Online). And for once, we all agreed: it is the best track weapon. A faster circuit would have allowed the Suzuki to press home an advantage more than the tight and twisty Streets of Willow. Its light weight (435lbs full of gas), lets it carry the highest cornering velocity and greatest turn-in speed. Graves described the Suzuki as “feeling like the front was directly beneath your shoulders.” Higbee was even more kind: “It felt like I was coming near the limits of the Honda but the Suzuki had lots left. Add some new tires, a Yoshimura pipe for more power, have Race Tech do the forks, Fox rear shock and watch out Miguel Duhamel. If you can ride the Suzuki to its limits, you’ll win national races.”
2. Honda CBR600F3
What can we say about Honda’s CBR600F3 that hasn’t already been said? With its unbeatable combination of great speed, comfort and reliability, the F3 has ruled the 600 class for years. Honda is smart enough not to mess with the defending AMA 600 Supersport champion, and therefore their strategy for improving the F3 has always been one of refinement, rather than redesign.Honda has continued this trend in 1997, as a host of minor changes have brought the F3 to an even higher level. Power is up slightly over last year with a peak output of 90 bhp at 11,500 rpm. But what makes the Honda’s engine special isn’t its impressive peak horsepower, but the way it pulls strongly from idle to redline with no dips or flat-spots. That linear powerband helped the F3 post the second-quickest drags trip time of 11.00 at 124.61 mph.
In the canyons the F3’s wide spread of power made fast cornering easier than on the Suzuki because the F3 pilot doesn’t need to do a gearbox tap-dance to stay in the powerband. Even more important was that the F3 could get to and from the canyons without hurting its rider. “There’s no reason for the GSX-R on the street because I can go just as fast on the F3 in comfort,” Higbee remarked after a day in the canyons.
Honda’s F3 posted the second-fastest lap time during our tire-shredding stint at The Streets of Willow, trailing the GSX-R by just eleven hundreths of a second. While it was almost quickest that day, Honda’s F3 did scrape more than its competition: “Just when I was getting serious about going fast on the racetrack the footpegs and exhaust canister started scuffing the asphalt,” said Higbee. However, both Higbee and Graves agreed that the F3 was the easiest to hop on and ride quickly. “It is the most user-friendly bike and most forgiving when pushing it to its limits,” Higbee said. Graves described the Honda as “rider-friendly and easy to slide and feel comfortable on.”Honda came into this shootout as the reigning class champion. With subtle updates for 1997, the F3 looked like it might spend another year at the top. But Yamaha had other ideas…
1. Yamaha YZF600R
Surprised? We were downright shocked. Yamaha’s YZF600R came quietly into this shootout with no one predicting it would win. At $7,399, we knew the price was right — but we doubted the bike’s ability to match the competition. Billy Bartels was first to heap praise on the YZF, as he lauded its comfort after a ninety-mile ride from Yamaha’s headquarters. Soon others began to take a shine to the bike. We all raved about the awesome front brakes and superior bottom end on the YZF.In the canyons Yamaha’s YZF was a capable, if not extraordinary performer. Front suspension rates were on the soft side and the stock Bridgestone tires behaved poorly at steeper lean angles (they’re the exact same ones that Kawasaki uses on the 6R). Also, at 482lbs full of gas the Yamaha is the class porker. That’s almost 50lbs more than the Suzuki, and was responsible for its slightly slower mid-corner speeds. To its credit the YZF’s torquey motor pulled strongly on corner exits, allowing a good rush to the next corner. Originally, we felt the engine lacked a real top-end punch, but at 88.5 bhp, it was only 0.2 off our Suzuki. The bike pulls so cleanly and strong from down low, it just feels slower — the top end hit, in relative terms, is less of a percent gain.
Dragstrip testing wasn’t the YZF’s forte either as its weight and grabby clutch left it struggling to keep up. Graves eventually clicked off an 11.21 pass at 123.02 mph, over four-tenths and three miles an hour slower than the Kawasaki. Not exactly the stuff that champions are made of. The Yamaha was, however, the only bike that didn’t fry it’s clutch at the drag strip. (Many thanks to Barnett for providing clutches for the other three on one hour’s notice.)
Racetrack testing threatened to drop the YZF to the bottom of everyone’s list, but here the Yamaha surprised us. Despite its weight, soft suspension and lack of top-end, the YZF proved to be a competent track weapon. Editor-in-Chief Brent Plummer actually turned his best time of the day on the Yamaha. Although it isn’t as precise as a GSX-R, all of our testers posted good times on the YZF.