Road Test: Supersport Superstars

How do you split five of the best supersport machines ever made? It's not easy, but using two of the UK's most successful and experienced racers, a Spanish race track and a day's riding on dry mountain roads is certainly a good start...

Posted: 24 April 2008
by Jon Urry, Niall Mackenzie, James Whitham

Visordown Motorcycle News

Sitting in a Spanish bar following two days of testing the new breed of 600s on both the track and road, we still haven't come to a conclusion. There are two pressing questions. First, who is our favourite film star and secondly, which is the best 600.

"The problem is that there isn't such a thing as a bad 600 anymore," reckoned Niall as a conclusion after deciding that Sean Connery's performances were a bit wooden.

"That's right. I remember a few years ago, there used to be good ones and ones that were really shite," agreed James, "but now it's more what you want to do with it. There are some that are best on track, but crap on road, some that are great on road but not so good on track and some that are good at both. Joe Pesci's good, what was that film where he shoved a bloke's head in a vice?"

"Casino. Yeah, the kind of person you are really influences your choice. Well it should do," said Niall. "Buy any of them and you won't be disappointed, but follow the headline grabbers and you may find one that you get one that doesn't really suit you, or what you want to do with it."

From this it may sound that we haven't really reached any firm conclusions when it comes to splitting these bikes, which is true to a certain extend, but also not true. Both Whitham and Mackenzie chose a top bike, well the one that they would choose out of the five anyway, but that doesn't mean to say that the others aren't worth touching. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life and one man's meat is another man's poison.

So it all started two day's earlier at the Almeria circuit in southern Spain, a track known for its tight and twisty nature which BSB and WSB teams often use as a pre-season test track. Being scrounging gits we managed to piggyback onto British company Front Row GB's three-day track day booking and after what was easily the best safety briefing we have ever heard including such gems as "wheelies, we like them and thecircuit director does as well" and overtaking, err you can do it," which left Whit muttering about wishing he could say that stuff at his UK days as we unloaded the bikes.

The first job of weighing the 600s fully fuelled revealed the usual web of manufacturers' lies with none of the bikes being anywhere near their claimed weight, even allowing for a tank of fuel. If you care, the R6 and ZX-6R are actually the lightest, both weighing in at 193kg wet, while the Trumpet is a portly 202kg.

With both Niall and James knowing their way around the circuit like the back of their hands after years of testing there, they joined in the fast group while I watched from the pit.

After a few laps to get the night before's Baileys out of their system (and you thought racers were hard men) they got down to the job in hand. A screaming engine announced the arrival of James on the Kawasaki as he howled out of the corner onto the start/finish straight and past the pits. As he passed, the ZX-6R looked like it was a bit of a handful as every gearchange seemed to bring a small shake from the head of the bike, and compared to Niall on the Honda he seemed to be having to wrestle the bike around. Which was confirmed when he came in.

"This revs like crazy. The power just never drops off, really linear, and loads of it. It just screams, from the motor and airbox, which makes it really exciting to ride. But it isn't the most stable, it shakes its head when the front isn't weighted. There's a little bump just after the start/finish that sets it off. Doesn't really feel like it will get worse but it does shake. But that's the trade off for quick steering. Great motor and through the corners it's ace, makes you push harder."

"You just can't upset the CBR," reckoned Niall, "I love this, it feels stronger than before, especially driving out of corners. The old one was as flat as anything in the mid-range, which ruined it, this has made up for that. Much better. The handling was always there, now it's got a motor to back it up."

It's funny to see the contrasts in bikes between the two manufacturers. Kawasaki has always had a reputation for building mad, bad and bloody fast machines that have few compromises, while Honda refine, engineer and work out the best way to solve a problem and make a bike that does exactly what it is designed for. Which is why people accuse them of lacking in character. The CBR does the job, no fuss or dramas, where as the ZX-6R does it, but with a rabid ferocity about it. To crack open a walnut, Honda would design an intricate clockwork device with a balanced mechanism that splits it open perfectly. Kawasaki would welly it with a big hammer.

With the next session about to go out on track, I decided to go for familiarity with the Daytona 650 to try and remember which way the circuit went. A few memory jogging laps and the Daytona was again trying to be my friend. It's a big, comfortable bike that just wants you to enjoy yourself and does its best to shepherd you around, unlike the new breed of 600s that are far more aggressive. Is this a problem? Not really. Personally I really like the reassuring feel of the Daytona, it's fun on track and the new motor has some much-needed corner exit punch. But it's when you compare it to the Japanese bikes that the Triumph's limitations show.

After a few laps Niall and James cameflying past on the R6 and GSX-R respectively, obviously a bit of old team rivalry remained, so I decided to see how many laps I could keep them in sight (there's a very long back straight at Almeria which helps this!). As soon as you start working the Daytona hard it fairly quickly reaches a limit, or feels like it does. The Triumph is by no way disgraced on track, but it's just that the Japanese bikes are far better designed for track use. Up the pace and the forks feel a bit too soft on the Triumph, the motor doesn't rev very high and so lacks the over-run which helps driving out of corners, and it feels that much more heavy to turn through the bends. It's still very competent, it just doesn't really have the same level of reserves to play with.

Back in the pits and Niall and James are comparing notes on the Yamaha and Suzuki. "The changes with the new front tyre make the R6 better than last year, it doesn't have the drop-in feeling about it and the front tracks much better around corners. The problem is that you get off the Honda and the R6 feels quite soft. It handles well, but needs muscling around and you have to work at it," said Niall.

"They all do that, even my race bike needed to be forced around corners," reckoned James. "You just kind of get used to telling it you're the boss. Coming out of corners the GSX-R was much stronger. It's got a mint engine, doesn't feel like a 600, more like the 636cc Kawasaki, and it sounds just as good. I love the riding position, big and roomy while still being sports. A good compromise. The handling is great, but you have to work it a bit. Where the Kawasaki just drops in, the Suzuki takes a bit more effort to get turned, but it's much more stable and a good trade-off."

Keen on seeing what the fuss is all about I took this chance to try out the ZX-6R. After the big and bulky Daytona the Kwack seems tiny. The riding position is race bike, high pegs, low bars and a screen that completely obscures the clocks. Which isn't a massive problem as they are fairly unreadable anyway. It takes a few laps to get used to this position as it really is cramped, especially if you are taller. My elbows seemed to keep brushing my knees and it's very front-end biased. But on the move you can almost forgive it for this.

The ZX-6R is a track bike, no questions. The handling is brilliant, razor sharp and more precise than a German instruction manual. It attacks corners, leans for ever and is just mental to ride. The engine appears to have no rev limit as it just howls and revs and revs and revs until the tiny warning light flashes, but you can still keep spinning it. It's insane and very fast. Coming onto the back straight the 636cc ZX-6R caught up and passed an original model R1. That's a 600 overtaking a bloody 1000cc sportsbike! It's amazing just how fast it is!

And when it comes to braking the ZX-6R has 'ugh' brakes. The kind that you slam on and are holding on so tight that once you let them off you give out an involuntary 'ugh' noise. Well I do anyway. And the slipper clutch is simply fantastic. James reckoned it was as good as anything he had ever used and through the whole day it never caused any problems. Just approach a corner, bang it down the gears and dump the clutch. But the front is definitely lively.

"I don't understand why all sportsbikes don't have dampers," Niall mused after riding the ZX-6R, "it's not an admission of something wrong, just a safety device. The Suzuki has one and you don't even think of it being there. It's a good track bike though, and as long as you know where it will start to shake you can ride around it, or at least be prepared for it. Having said that it's very good on track, just keep your wits about you!"

Whitham, having finished lapping on the familiar R6, pulled into the pits: "I do like these, and I'm not just saying that because I raced one. They're so forgiving. It feels more like a good road bike that's still willing to mix it on track compared to the CBR or ZX-6R, but it's still good to ride. The R6 is fun and forgiving, not like the ZX-6R which is just silly. I'm not so sure on the Honda mind. I just don't really like them. It's very good and handles well but it just doesn't really inspire. The brakes are great, definitely stronger, although there was nothing wrong with the old. I'm not sure the mid-range is that much better, it still needs to be revved. And what's with those bloody things on the end of the pegs? They grind everywhere! I'd rather have the Suzuki. I love that GSX-R"

Niall agreed:"It's really sorted. It handles well, great engine and feels balanced. It does everything you want. It's even comfortable."

With the Japanese bikes covered Niall and James turned their attention to the Triumph. "It really isn't that bad," reckoned Niall. "It doesn't really do anything wrong, it's just the others are so much more sophisticated with radial brakes, inverted forks and slipper clutches. The Triumph doesn't."

"It's really good up to a point," agreed James. "It depends if you reach that point. It's not bad at all, but in this company the worst on track."

So which would the boys choose for the track? "The ZX-6R is the best track bike, no question," reckoned Niall, "but it could be a bit too much. You feel like you should be passing everyone. I'd choose the Honda because it looks great and it's more manageable. Then it would be the Suzuki then Yamaha, then Triumph."

"I'd go for the Kawasaki as the best track bike," said James. "It's so much fun, but it's dead close. The GSX-R and R6 tie for second with the CBR a close fourth. I just didn't find it as much fun. The Triumph comes last."

With the track day over and an early night under our belts, the following day we headed for the roads around Almeria. It sounds obvious, but what makes for a good track bike doesn't necessarily work as well on the road, so testing these bikes on the public highway is euqally important. Especially seeing as few of us can afford a track day every time we want to take the bike for a run.

Even on Spain's beautifully-Tarmac'd roads you can't push a bike anywhere near its limits, so the road riding side of things is much more about comfort, manners and generally practicality. Which is why the Triumph does so well. Not only does the new motor make the Daytona a complete wheelie monster, helped by its very smooth power delivery and throttle response, but it also makes for a much more relaxing ride with fewer gearchanges and less engine revving needed. All of which make it a really good road bike, which is what Triumph intended it to be all along: a sports road bike that's also be fun on a track.

Which is the exact opposite of the Kawasaki; it's simply horrible on the road. "It's just so uncompromising," reckoned Niall. "It has a habit of shaking its head, the riding position is too cramped and the engine screams. Everything that makes the Kawasaki great on track makes it horrible on the road. I'd take the Yamaha or Suzuki over it every time, even the sportier Honda. On the road they handle as well, they're more comfortable and the Suzuki's engine feels almost as good. There isn't much in it."

James agreed: "For me it's the Yamaha or Suzuki on the road, no question. The GSX-R just edges it because I find it more comfortable, but you can keep the Kawasaki. The Triumph is good, I can't fault it on the road but it doesn't have any of the trick bits. It just looks dated, a bit old hat. Shame really, because it's really nice to ride."

As I spend most of my time riding on the road I'd have to agree with them both. The Kawasaki is just too much like hard work. It's very uncomfortable and too lively and track focussed. The Suzuki wins it thanks to its strong motor, lovely gearbox and comfortable riding position, and the Triumph comes second as I don't really care about trick bits; I'm more interested in comfort. Anyway, I reckon it looks great. Next up, the Honda tips it over the Yamaha as it looks brilliant. Sorry Kawasaki.

So, after all that, which is the best 600? Well, as I said earlier, it depends on what you want. For a circuit addicts the Kawasaki offers everything. It's an amazing track bike but crap on the road due to a very cramped riding position and a track-oriented chassis. For a track day nut who rides on the road every now and then the Honda would be a fine choice. It's quite comfortable and a fairly practical tool to boot, with good build quality and stunning looks.

The Suzuki and Yamaha are all-rounders, with the GSX-R the better of the two. It's a great track bike but also very practical as a road bike, while the Yamaha is almost as good most of the time, it just isn't quite as comfortable - although the motor is more refined and smoother too, without that GSX-R rasp. The Triumph is a road bike, and a very good one at that, which can be taken on track. It certainly can - and does - cut it, but the Japanese machinery has its measure on the track. And it comes with far tricker kit for not a lot more money.

So which is the best compromise for the occasional trackday and the daily drudgery of the run to work? Niall plumped for the CBR as he loves its look and 250 GP-style riding position, while James went picked the Suzuki for its combination of comfort and slightly agressive edge.

A split decision then. Two great bikes that can easily do everything asked of them - and an awful lot more besides.

SECOND OPINION - JAMES WHITHAM
The 600 class is so tight now we knew all five were gonna be good, and they were, just at different things!

KAWASAKI ZX-6R
Seating/bar position is good, but only if you're on a race track or like high pegs and a fiendishly low screen. The engine is very strong. Easily the most powerful of the bikes we tested and the fastest as well, a good 8mph up on the others by the end of the straight. The power is fairly linear, pulling strong right to the redline, and the slipper clutch works well on track. Handling is very sharp, radial brakes are powerful and turn-in is very good with minimal weight transfer. Slight understeer when you open the tap is not a big problem. The bars feel a bit lively at high speed (quick steering always has a trade-off). This became more of a issue on the road.

SUZUKI GSX-R600
The Suzuki feels the biggest but for me it was the most comfortable. The motor has good mid-range but loses out to the ZX-6R on top-end, but it is a genuine 600. The handling and suspension feel generally softer and more forgiving than the Honda or Kawasaki. It won't turn as quick as either but is more stable than both, which is good as you feel like you could make a mistake on the GSX-R and get away with it. The GSX-R is more than capable on track and great on road.

HONDA CBR600RR
The CBR felt like you were sat on top of the bike rather than in it, but once I got going it felt really comfy, despite its small size. The handling is sharp without being scary, braking is the best of the bunch and turn-in is precise, but with a slight tendency to understeer on the exits. It won't change direction like the ZX-6R, but it's more stable, which isn't a bad thing. Despite the changes, I still felt it lacked a little mid-range, but it was willing to rev. My main complaint with was that it decks out really easily, even on the road, although the only thing scraping was the inch-long bolts sticking out of the pegs. Good on both road and track, but you have to keep your mind on the job with the CBR.

YAMAHA YZF-R6
The R6 has a similar compliant, forgiving feel to the GSX-R, and you feellike if you make a mistake or run off line you could correct it without fear of retribution. It tends to run wide on exits but gives you confidence to muscle it onto the right line, helped by the new 70-profile tyre which improves it. The motor has good mid-range but runs out of steam towards the red. The biggest improvers this year are the brakes, which are now on a par with the rest. A good road bike that's more than able to mix it with the new kids on track!

TRIUMPH DAYTONA
The Daytona has the best bottom and mid-range of all the bikes, but was flat as a kipper at the top. It required less gear changes than the others but needs their over-rev as it jsut stops dead. The handling was nice and very neutral but only to a point. Once you started sending it on a bit the suspension started to feel old school. Ride this bike within its limits it behaves well. Dated, but good.

SECOND OPINION - NIALL MACKENZIE
It has never been harder to choose the best middleweight sports tool. The Triumph was the one at the bottom of everyone's list, but that doesn't mean it's a bad bike. After all, how can it be after its performance in the British Supersport Championship over the last two years? Every bike will appeal to someone for different reasons. Here are mine.

HONDA CBR600RR
In my opinion the Honda is a work of art from every angle, finished beautifully both outside and inside the bodywork. It now has better mid-range, which also provides it with a personality, plus it's sharp handling will give riders of any ability the feel good factor.

YAMAHA YZF-R6
The Yamaha is also gorgeous, but mostly from the front. It has great handling and that increases your confidence the more time you spend exploring its limits. A comfy road machine that excites as the ram air effect kicks in while accelerating.

SUZUKI GSX-R600
The bright yellow and black graphics of the Suzuki make it stand out from the crowd (blue and white is a bit predictable), and this is another complete road and track package. It no longer has the mid-range advantage over the others, but the 'in the bike' riding position will appeal to many.It gives excellent feedback during braking and while flicking it around.

KAWASAKI ZX-6R
The Kawasaki is the daddy of the bunch when it comes to power, and that includes bottom middle and top-end. It also has one of the best howls of any four-cylinder at the moment. The pegs are mounted too high for me and the distance between the seat and tank is too short. Its looks are on a par with the Honda, although it's physically bigger and more butch. Every box is ticked with the ZX-6R, which makes it an exciting bike to ride, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. For years now I've felt no manufacturer should encourage riders to take their quick-steering sports bike to a race track without fitting a steering damper. I can't begin to tell you how strongly I feel about this.

TRIUMPH DAYTONA
Last but - and I really must emphasise this - not least is the Triumph. The Daytona is very capable round a race track, especially now with its capacity increase giving some nice extra torque allowing more flexibility in the higher gears. It can match the competition mid-corner on handling and power too, but does lose out with it's 14,000rpm rev limit. That said, it's still fun to ride with its super-stable handling and accurate tracking in slow and fast corners. The improved transmission now enables quick, clean shifting, which was a definite headache on the original Daytona. Unfortunately, the competition has moved on too, so if radial brakes and upside down forks are necessary for your image then I'm afraid the Triumph fails to deliver here. But if you want a great British wheelie bike that cuts it on track, you won't be disappointed.

SPECS - HONDA
TYPE - SUPERSPORT
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £7299
ENGINE CAPACITY - 599cc
POWER - 102.2bhp@13,500rpm
TORQUE - 41.9lb.ft@10,900rpm
WEIGHT - 163kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 18L
TOP SPEED - 159.8mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 125MILES

SPECS - KAWASAKI
TYPE - SUPERSPORT
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £7245
ENGINE CAPACITY - 636cc
POWER - 109bhp@13,800rpm
TORQUE - 43.3lb.ft@11,800rpm
WEIGHT - 161kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 825mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 17L
TOP SPEED - 163mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 125MILES

SPECS - SUZUKI
TYPE - SUPERSPORT
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £6849
ENGINE CAPACITY - 599cc
POWER - 101.5bhp@12,200rpm
TORQUE - 47.7lb.ft@10,000rpm
WEIGHT - 161kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 17L
TOP SPEED - 159.8mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 135MILES

SPECS - TRIUMPH
TYPE - SUPERSPORT
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £6499
ENGINE CAPACITY - 646cc
POWER - 108.7bhp@11,400rpm
TORQUE - 52lb.ft@10,000rpm
WEIGHT - 165kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 815mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 18L
TOP SPEED - 157.7mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 125MILES

SPECS - YAMAHA
TYPE - SUPERSPORT
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £6599
ENGINE CAPACITY - 599cc
POWER - 100.7bhp@12,700rpm
TORQUE - 42.6lb.ft@10,000rpm
WEIGHT - 163kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 830mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 17L
TOP SPEED - 157.7mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 130MILES


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