600 Evolution 1985 - 2003

The Rise and Rise of the 600

Sometimes, less really is more. Take 600cc supersports bikes for example. Your mate down the pub may rant on about the fact that his R1 or his GSX-R1000 enjoys 400ccs more than your middleweight machine but does that mean he has any more fun than you or is even any faster than you? How often does he get to pin his throttle to the stop on a twisty A road? How late can he leave his braking with a heavier bike and how quickly can he flick it through the upcoming S-bends?

The popularity of 600cc supersports bikes is now so great that it's hard to imagine a biking world without them. But they are a relatively recent phenomenon - and phenomenon is the right word.

The concept of a 600cc engine displacement is not exactly new but the idea of housing a performance 600cc four-stroke, four-cylinder engine in a lightweight chassis to create the supersport class is, and the credit for inventing the class goes to Kawasaki for launching the GPZ600R.

Unleashed at the Cologne show back in 1985, the Kawasaki started a performance middleweight craze amongst the big four Japanese manufacturers which has continued to this day. The GPZ was a 592cc dohc in-line four capable of 120mph which, in the mid-80s, was a phenomenal speed for a middleweight bike, although you may titter slightly given today's standards.

But if Kawasaki got the new generation middleweight class up and running, it was Honda who defined it with one of the greatest bikes of all time - the legendary CBR600.

The first model was launched in 1986, hot on the heels of the GPZ, and now, 17 years later, it's still going strong. The original model was designated the CBR600F and, while it wasn't massively technically innovative, it offered an irresistible package of top speed, good handling, comfort and (as owners later found out) reliability - and all at a reasonable price. The concept worked and within eight years of its launch, the 100,000th CBR rolled off the production line in Japan. To date, more than 50,000 of the bikes have been sold in Britain alone making it the most popular motorcycle in the country.

The original CBR made 85bhp and was good for a top speed nudging 140mph. Today, the latest version of Honda's big seller pumps out 107bhp and is capable of showing you 160mph - at least on the clocks. But it wasn't all about speed; the CBR did exactly what it was told to do and consequently it was just sooo easy to ride. For many, that's what makes it the great bike it is but there are some riders out there who find the CBR just a bit too tame, refined and characterless. You know who you are...

Of course, Yamaha couldn't just sit back and watch two of its biggest rivals grabbing all the glory in the increasingly popular middleweight class but the firm certainly couldn't be accused of copying Honda's all-round CBR600 when it launched the FZR600 in 1989. It was the natural step-up for Yamaha RD350 owners and it soon achieved a similar reputation as a nutter's bike. No smooth, graceful, all-rounder was this machine but rather a revvy, frantic balls-out scratcher which stuck two fingers up at the CBR's refinement and paved the way for the yet-to-be-dreamed-of R6.

In between, there was a bit of an attempt to capture some of the more gentle touring capabilities of the Honda when Yamaha released the rather lardy YZF600R Thundercat in 1996. It still produced the same 100bhp as the FZR and weighed only three kilos more but its styling made it feel more like a bulky tourer. Real supersport fans would have been wise to wait two more years if they'd known what Yamaha had out on the drawing board at the time - the R6.

Little brother to the R1, the bike that re-wrote the superbike rulebook in 1998, the R6 was a no compromise machine which took the 600cc class to new heights in terms of performance and styling. It's not that the bike was revolutionary in its concept; it just moved everything on a few notches and forced the other big three Japanese firms to do the same thing with their own middleweight contenders.

The R6 was a real race-rep thoroughbred capable of beating superbikes in the right hands. It weighed in at just 169kg (as opposed to the Thundercat's 187kg) and had a claimed 120bhp on tap which propelled it to a top speed of nearly 160mph.

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