THE superbike class has been completely revitalised in the space of four years.
Back in 2014, it was looking a bit stagnant, with sales in decline and a shortage of major model developments.
Then Yamaha gave the market a big boot up the backside in 2015 with the new YZF-R1, featuring radical new electronics, not to mention styling.
BMW launched a comprehensively redesigned S1000RR the same year (although the old one was so good it barely needed to catch up).
Kawasaki answered with a heavily updated ZX-10R in 2016.
All of which begs a question so obvious we don’t even need to tell you what it is. Let’s just get on with answering it, with our five-bike track test at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground in Leicestershire…
The S1000RR’s engine could be foremost among the various features which helped it dominate the class for so long. What it does so well is deliver astonishing performance with impeccable manners.
With stronger mid-range then the competition (at least until now) and a beautifully smooth power delivery, proving aggressive torque doesn’t have to be snatchy, it just makes it so easy for normal riders to go faster.
But it’s got a problem: it’s not the only one anymore. The ZX-10R is just as smooth and easily managed, although it perhaps doesn't deliver quite the torque below 7,000rpm.
More worringly for the S1000RR, the GSX-R1000 is just as smooth, controllable and user-friendly and feels even stronger in the mid-range. In a straight-line roll-on acceleration test, in from 40mph in fourth gear, the GSX-R didn’t just beat the S1000RR; it smashed it. We did it twice, just in case something had been amiss the first time, and it smashed it again.
It did the same to the new Blade, which itself didn’t feel at all lacking – strong, eager and just as manageable as the others.
The R1 feels slightly more aggressive than the rest. It’s also got good low-down torque and scorching top-end but the main source of the impression is the slightly rougher feel and sound of the crossplane crank engine, giving it a raw edge and making you feel more like you might be on an actual race bike.
The Blade is the pocket rocket of the five. It looks the smallest at first glance and it feels the smallest when you’re riding it, with a tiny screen that’s not much use at high speed and bars that feel closer to you than the other machines'.
So it’s easy to dominate – but it doesn’t have quite the reassuringly planted-feeling front-end of the ZX-10R, which feels bigger, the pay-off being a sense of stability.
Sometimes it’s nice to feel like you’re on something a little more substantial - for example when you’re passing 160mph and still accelerating, wondering how late you should brake for the approaching sharp right-hander – and the S1000RR delivers this too. It’s reassuring at extreme speeds with no evident compromise to agility.
Again here the R1 feels a bit more aggressive than the others, with a taller seat and stiffer, more race-bred feel. It takes a little longer to settle into than the others but once you're there, you're there.
All the machines can do that for you: let you forget about everything except where you want the bike to go.
But it’s the GSX-R that stood out as the one to do it almost from the moment it turned a wheel, is if I’d already had time to acclimatise to it. Although it possibly doesn’t have quite the planted feel of the ZX-10R, it seems so sharp-steering and compliant you can almost think it where you want it to go.
All the bikes coped well with Bruntingthorpe’s bumpy surface.
The R1, with fully-adjustable KYB components, and the ZX-10R, with Showa Balance Free shock and forks, both seemed a little stiffer than the others. The Kawasaki in particular felt taut over some of Bruntinthorpe’s bumby corners. The GSX-R, also with Showa Balance Free Components, and S1000RR, with optional semi-active suspension, seemed less inclined to try to unseat me, as did the Blade, with fully-adjustable Showa Big Piston forks and Balance Free Rear Cushion shock.
Honda gave us the base-model Blade for this test (as opposed to the SP version), which doesn't have the semi-active Öhlins suspension or Brembo brakes of higher-spec versions. Its Tokico brakes just weren’t up to the standard of the rest of this crowd, needing to be worked much harder for equivalent stopping force.
The R1’s monbloc calipers felt much more powerful, and the other three bikes’ more powerful and controllable still.
Again, I think GSX-R stood out ahead slightly here, its Brembo set-up delivering precise and immense force in response to an effortless two-fingered pull on the lever
All these bikes have riding modes plus lean-angle-sensitive multi-level traction control. The ZX-10R, GSX-R and Blade have lean-angle-sensitive ABS, while cornering ABS is an option on the S1000RR.
The higher-spec Sport version of the S1000RR also has semi-active suspension and an up/down quick-shifter (featured on the one we rode).
The R1 has an anti-wheelie function, a launch control system for race starts, and a unified brake system, obviously with ABS.
And the GSX-R has Suzuki's single-press ‘Easy Start’ ignition button. Don’t forget that.
Actually do forget it, because the thing that really separated the bikes in this test was none of the above. It was the quick-shifters, or lack thereof.
The absence of one on the base-model Blade hampered it in this group, where all the other bikes have one. When I rode it, I sometimes found myself looking for a quick-shifter that wasn’t there, and I was conscious of the extra time taken by gear changes.
The R1 and ZX10-R have a quick-shifter for upshifts, both of which work well.
The S1000RR we rode was equipped with one for up and down-shifts, which worked better on the way up than down, where the change could come with a jolt.
The GSX-R had one for up and down which worked like no quick-shifter I’ve ever tried before. It was almost seamless and instant on the way up, but the real revelation was the down-shifts, delivered so smoothly you’d barely know you were doing them.
That GSX-R quick-shifter. It’s one of those things you don’t know you want until you try it, and then you need. It kept bike so much more settled for corner entry than I could ever manage otherwise. It almost removes gear changes from the many things to think about while riding a litre sports bike on track, transforming it into a 200hp twist-and-go and freeing some of your brain to focus on being better at the rest of the job.
We don't like
A couple of other things about the Blade. It was more prone than the others to back-torque on aggressive down-shifts, causing the rear to lock sometimes on the approach to a corner and making for a more unsettled entry.
And the seat is slippery. There’s more of a tendency to slide backwards on it under hard acceleration and a greater need to grip the tank, something you don’t need to focus on so much on the others, which better keep you in position.
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Pictures by Tom Rayner