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Road Test: ZX-9R vs. VFR vs. 955i

On the face of it, this is a pretty odd bunch of motorcycles. Take the motors for instance - a 781cc V4, an 955cc inline triple, and an 899cc inline four. Hmm, not exactly the most comparable bunch on the planet.

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By Warren Pole on Sun, 20 Apr 2008 - 10:04

Visordown Motorcycle News


But then these bikes are a bit of a mixed bag. There's the ZX-9R, whose normal habitat these days is being shot to pieces in a group test with the FireBlade, R1 and GSX-R1000, the VFR which can generally be found romping off with the sports touring crown whenever that little test comes to town, and the 955i - a bike no-one quite seems to have been able to place just yet. Triumph themselves stressed at the launch it wasn't built to take on the big-bore track massive of the R1 and co, but clock the spec sheet and you'll find 137bhp, 188 kilos and some sharp geometry which suggest a pretty serious motorbike lies beneath that innocent-looking fairing regardless of what the bike is or isn't 'supposed' to do.

So if these bikes are apparently so different, why on earth are we testing them together?

Well, slotting bikes neatly into categories - 600s, 750s, big twins, etc - is all very well, but as you can see from the variety of the three bikes here, it doesn't always work because some bikes just don't suit pigeonholing. Either because they've fallen behind in the class they started life in (ZX-9 anyone?), and now need looking at in a different light, or because they're so competent they can handle being tested up against pretty much anything (that'll be the VFR then), or because they simply don't fit squarely into any one class (here we welcome the 955i).

But these bikes do all have a few things in common. They're all bloody fast - as in the dark side of 170mph fast in the case of the Kawasaki - they're all perfectly suited to riding on the road either in a flurry of flat-out madness or in a gentle pottering about and enjoying the scenery kind of way, and just to make things even better, they're all very easy to live with. And nor do any of these three come with the associated aches and pains of a pure sportsbike or suffer the outright speed and grunt limitations of anything below 600ccs. Instead they all get on with going as fast or as slow as you like, for as little or as long as you like, and manage to do all this with some seriously impressive handling thrown in should outright silliness overcome you from time to time.

In a nutshell these are real bikes. Bikes you can honestly live with and that'll take in pretty much anything you care to throw at them and leave you grinning every time, and best of all, they're above becoming unfashionable after six months when they're replaced by a new 'must have' model.

Just for good measure, and because it was the only part of the UK promising sunshine that week, we took them up North to the stunning scenery and roads of the Peak District, strapped them to a dyno for accurate power readings, and then sat back with a large pot of tea and a tin of biscuits (all served on the finest bone china of course), to determine a winner.

Kawasaki ZX-9R

Halfway up the M1 at midnight on the coldest day of the year is hardly the most likely of places for a perfect motorcycling moment. But somewhere, somehow, the planets aligned and everything clicked into place as the ZX-9 and I made our way north for the beginning of this test.

The motorway was dry, pretty empty - as you'd expect with most right-minded folk being smartly tucked up in bed with someone (or something) good and warm at such a godforsaken hour on a freezing night - and the starred sky above was so big and clear as to be awe-inspiring. The air felt especially fresh too thanks to its being so bloody cold. And as I took this little lot in, all the while below me the ZX-9 was ravenously gulping down deep lungfuls of the chilled air through its vast intakes, seemingly also enjoying the atmosphere's crisp, cold density. The tacho hovered gently between seven and eight grand while the speedo needle swayed in the 120-ish mph region and the bike never once felt strained or frantic. Just long-legged and relaxed.

Adding to my sense of general wellbeing was the 9's riding position because being a tall bugger, if a bike's uncomfortable I tend to know about it before most. As it was the pegs were pleasantly far enough away, the bars flat, wide and high enough and the seat roomy and squashy enough for me to arrive at the end of three-hour trip with nothing more than a slightly stiff neck caused by my rucksack. The fairing was an absolute result too, with the screen being low enough to direct all the turbulence somewhere into the middle of my chest where it did an excellent job of easing any undue weight on my wrists, while leaving my helmet peacefully unbuffetted.

All things being considered, I couldn't have wished for any other bike at this point and the ZX-9 did an excellent job of getting me where I wanted to go with the minimum fuss.

Best bit about the whole experience though was that although the ZX was a perfect traveling companion, it also had soul and a certain X-factor that made the experience invigorating rather than plain old efficient. For starters there's no doubt it is a serious piece of motorbike thanks to the sheer size and poise of the thing. If you're in any doubts, go and sit on one in your nearest showroom and see how darned fat the petrol tank is - this bike ain't messing about. Then there's the noise and stomp coming from the motor to make things even better.

But enough of this eulogising already. Surely I must be mistaken. After all, isn't this the very same ZX-9 that constantly loses the big-bore sports shootout on account of being lardy, softly-suspended, butt ugly and out of its depth at the track.

Indeed it is, and in a test of pure performance up against the assorted flagship sports tools on offer today (FireBlade, R1, etc), the ZX-9 is now certainly past its prime. If you know your onions at the track then you'll never lap as fast on a 9 as you will on any of its supersports competition, and that's a fact, but this doesn't make for a bad bike. Remove the 9 from that arena where it really is born to lose, use it to its strengths - getting places very fast and having a bloody good time as you go - and it is a blinder.

However, one thing that even the most beautiful of winter Peak District mornings couldn't hide the next day was that the XZ-9 is still far from the most beautiful of motorcycles. Purposeful it certainly is, chunky and hard it also manages well, but beauty is never a word you'll often find associated with the big Kawasaki. Especially in the colours our test bike was in. I mean look at it - the poor thing certainly isn't playing to its strengths dolled up in black, brown and purple. Really, what were the boys in the Kawasaki paint shop thinking of?

But back on the road again and the Kawasaki continued to impress. After all, although it may have always fallen to the bottom of the heap at the track against the R1 and that lot, it could always run with them, and even occasionally throw in a few surprises on the road so it was no surprise it was coming up trumps here. The Triumph may match the ZX for torque, and even top it for horsepower on paper but ride the two back to back and the 9 feels the faster of the pair. Where the Triumph builds its speed gradually from lowdown, the Kawasaki gives you its power more urgently. Like the energetic dog that seems to be taking its owner for a walk, the Kawasaki is always pulling at the leash, scrabbling its paws and willing you to go faster as it begs for more revs.

Only slight fly in the ointment here however is the throttle response. Open the big Kawasaki up off a closed throttle at pretty much any speed and there's a slight pause before the power comes in. It feels like less than perfect fuel injection, but as the ZX is still running carbs it's a harder problem to pinpoint. Either way, this was one glitch that has left the Kawasaki trailing at the track before now and although that's not applicable to this test, it did mean greasy wintery roundabouts needed treating with a very measured throttle hand. It's a foible you quickly become used to and certainly isn't going to spit you off or anything nasty, it's just that jumping onto either of the other two bikes here it was instantly noticeable how much smoother they were making the transition from closed throttle to open.

But this slight glitch aside, the Kawasaki was the bad boy of this bunch, and the fastest too with enough handling to safely make use of its speed and see off the other two when the roads opened up, and with Kawasaki dealers offering knock-down prices for ZXs, especially last year's bikes (just the same as this year's apart from a few stickers), there has never been a better time for a slice of the ZX-9 pie.

Honda VFR

There's something about VFRs. As they sit there all smug and pleased with themselves for being the best all-round bike the world has yet seen, all you really want to do is knock them off their sidestands and see just how clever they are then, eh? You certainly don't want to like them, least of all if you happen to be under 40.

Trouble is, ride one and you can't fail to be impressed. And as I said at the launch of this latest VFR incarnation a couple of months ago, the best just got better.

Where before the cockpit looked a cut above the average, now it positively reeks of class. There's a clock, there's a temperature gauge (we were lucky to see it out of the minus figures throughout this test), there's a very clear fuel gauge, excellent headlights, a pillion seat to die for, a centrestand (of course), single-sided swingarm (looks cool, makes cleaning the wheel a damn sight easier too), and even foxy headlights and underseat exhausts just to make the neighbors even more jealous.

But it's not perfect. Oh no. I mean those exhausts are all very well Mr Honda, but where's the handy lock space under the seat gone now? And while I'm at it, those twin pillion grabrails may be trademark VFR, but they're pretty average. A single rail across the back of the seat would be a big improvement for giving the missus something to hang onto when the time comes for two-up wheelie practice.

But who am I kidding? These really are minor whinges, and they're only here because I can't stand the thought of being too nice about a VFR. After all, I'm not even 30 yet.

Once you've finished admiring the detail touches, hop aboard, find the clip-ons, bar clusters and levers all pleasantly unchanged from last year and away you go, accompanied by that gentle V4 burble. Lovely.

Lovely that is, until you get off the VFR and onto the Kawasaki or Triumph when suddenly you realise just how hard you've been stoking the Honda to keep the other two in touch. They rarely get away, even on the more open stretches, but when push comes to shove the Honda is the slowest bike here. And it's no surprise what with the VFR being some 25-odd kilos up and 30-plus horsepower down on the competition. You may be having the easiest and most relaxed ride, and your missus may be the most comfortable passenger on the back of your VFR, but if your mates are on ZX-9s and 955s and they put the hammer down, can you guarantee your wife's going to want to sleep with the 'bloke who got to the hotel last' when you all go touring this summer? Such are the tricky decisions you have to make when buying a bike.

This isn't to say the VFR's slow because it ain't, it's just that in this company it lacks some 20mph in top speed. And as we all travel in excess of 150mph daily on British roads you can see how important this is. Not. But if pub bullshit is important to you, perhaps the VFR ain't for you.

It's a bike better suited to people who know what they want and couldn't give a toss what anyone else thinks. You can tell VFR owners are serious about doing own thing because - couriers excepted - VFRs are about the only bikes still on the roads down our way now winter's back in full force. Then again, for every biker that sneers at VFRs (no, really, some do...), three non-biking members of Joe Public will think it's the absolute business.

Back to the riding though, and on the road the VFR is a composed and a taughter package than the old model. There is a slight dead feel to the forks which means obvious bumps like catseyes are transferred straight to the bars rather than absorbed, and true, the suspension may not be of the highest bespoke quality, but then the VFR ain't that sort of bike. If that's your thing, may I suggest sir (or madam) steps this way where we have a very nice FireBlade.

Regardless of all this, the VFR's suspension and chassis are enough to let it (in the right hands) show up some far more serious tackle should it feel like it. The bike feels secure, planted and gives you the feedback and neutral handling to muck about all the way until the hero blobs are worn out and the tyres shagged to the edges.

And should that happen, at least you could bin the bloody things, because although the launch bikes came on Bridgestone 010s (awesome all-weather sports road tyres), our test bike (fresh from Honda) came on 020s which, frankly, ain't all that in this weather. So when the drizzle came down and the roads became slithery, the poor old Honda would drop to the back of the pack and eventually out of sight, with its tail between its legs (the other two bikes were on 010s).

But at least it could seek solace in its brakes which were, although less powerful than the Triumph's, still very good. You see, the linked brake system has been all but ditched this year as the front lever now operates both calipers, and one piston at the back, while the back operates just one piston of the front caliper along with its own back brake. Which means rider control is up but should you be negotiating some really slippery stuff you can still get away with just using the rear pedal to steady the bike. Still wouldn't recommend you jump on it in the middle of a fast corner, racer-style, as you'll get a little more than you bargained for as that front piston bites...

But what can I say that hasn't been said before? A great all-rounder, the VFR now has more fun built into it than ever before, some added poke up-top thanks to the new V4 Vtec that comes on song at 7,000rpm, and it'll gladly take you, the missus, and the kitchen sink to the south of Spain. Although quite why you'd want to take the sink to Spain is anyone's guess.

Triumph 955i

"Will you look at the way these curves tail off - there's no gradual end to the power, it just looks like the bike's hit a brick wall and stopped dead," said Nick down at Manx Cat motorcycles as he surveyed the 955's dyno charts while the bike sat there, its hot engine plinking away contentedly to itself in the cold workshop. And he had a point too, because like all Triumphs from the modern mould the 955 seems to have an artificially early rev limiter, which cuts the motor dead while there's still power and torque in hand. On certain models, most notably the Sprint RS, this is a pain in the arse as you find yourself happily revving away and then suddenly bogging and lurching as the limiter cuts in. Fortunately, the 955 is a different animal and thanks to a healthy amount of swell in the midrange and top end of the bike's power delivery you get an instinctive feel for changing up before the limiter kicks in, even when charging hard, thus avoiding frustrating moments. The only place it could possibly become a problem would be at the track where you may want to hold one gear a fraction longer than the Triumph can manage through longer corner complexes, meaning you'll either need an unsettling mid-corner upchange, or to go in a gear higher and sacrifice a little oomph on the way in for a better drive out of the corner. Then again, if you take your track riding this seriously, may I suggest you buy something else.

This isn't to say the 955 is a bad track bike though, because it isn't and is more than capable of holding its head high in the fast group at any trackday you care to mention. Only trouble at the track with the Triumph is that although it makes light work of fast laps, you soon reach a point where the bike very clearly tells you enough is enough. This point only comes when you're really wringing its neck, and isn't a case of the tyres letting go or the plot getting that out of shape you can smell the hospital food. It's more that the bike simply won't lean any further or drive any harder than it already is, and if you try leaving your braking later and dragging the anchors into the corner to make up for it, you'll find the Triumph really refuses to play ball, preferring to try and go straight on until you let the brakes off. Nope, you've reached the limit and that's that.

So it's a good track bike, just perhaps not one you'd like to take racing. Out on the road however...

...it's really rather lovely indeed. The chunky triple motor produces more power than the shit-streakingly fast Kawasaki and the same amount of torque which, allied to the very capable handling makes for a great big bundle of fun.

Despite the figures however, it never feels as mad as the ZX because where that's all a mad flurry of revs as you wind it up, the Triumph's three cylinders make their power in a more relaxed fashion. From lowdown the pull is more steady than urgent, then from around 6,000rpm it really begins to pick up, but either way the speed you get comes in a more gentle manner than the Kawasaki. Despite the different feel to the two bikes, they stayed neck and neck up to 150mph at Bruntingthorpe, the Kawasaki only turning its top end rush into a clear advantage from here on.

But although the power delivery on the Triumph may sit in the middle of this bunch, being more relaxed than the ZX but not as gentle and refined as the VFR, the riding position was the most extreme here. Against the likes of GSX-Rs and such it's definitely on the comfortable side of sports, but it was the only bike here to give anyone any wrist grief after lengthy stints in the saddle. To be fair though, this was only tricking through town traffic, and once you get back above 50mph all is well with the world again.

One area where the Triumph aced the competition though was on the brakes. Man, these are indeed a mighty set of anchors and come loaded with extreme power, oodles of feedback and can haul the Triumph up as controllably and as hard as you dare as easily on a red hot track as they can on a salt and slime-strewn winter backroad. The back brake wasn't bad either, so all round - a top set of stoppers.

Shame the same can't be said of the gearbox. Admittedly it is a vast improvement over last year's model, and the smoothest and most positive gearbox to come out of the Hinckley factory yet but, in this company it was still the one that demanded the most from your twitching right foot as the pace hotted up.

Otherwise, the bike behaved impeccably on the road turning in a little quicker than the ZX, and certainly with less effort than the heavier VFR, changing direction with a satisfyingly light shove on the desired bar, and merrily lofting the front on the power over the slightest of crests. And just to make things even more enjoyable, the accompanying triple bark is ever-present letting you know you're on something a little bit different.

Look beyond the Triumph's sleek lines and you'll find a more workmanlike and rather less tidy finish to the bike than you will on any Japanese offering, but then this is all part of the character you buy into with a Triumph, and has no affect on reliability as the miles roll by.

Buy British and enjoy the uniqueness of a triple, looks and grace that set you slightly apart from the run-of-the-mill sports pack, and relax safe in the knowledge that your purchase guarantees at least five old men (per annum) will approach you at some point to tell you about the Triumphs they had when they were lads. It's enough to bring a tear to your eye.

CONCLUSION

With the teapot drained for the second time, and the biscuit tin empty apart from those nasty coconut ones nobody likes, we had finally come to a conclusion for this test, and a slightly unusual one it is too.

After all, these aren't bikes that can be judged purely on the basis of their performance because there's more to them than that. Performance is obviously still important, but as these are bikes designed to be as useful and easy to live with as they are to be bloody fast tyre-shredding lumps of fun, performance isn't all when it comes to picking the winner. Or winners in this case...

Because joint honours here go to the VFR and the ZX-9. The VFR may be the slower and lardier of the pair and also find itself slightly eclipsed in the outright handling stakes, but it's still plenty fast enough thankyou very much, more than able to handle anything you could care to throw at it on the roads, a whole heap of fun to mess about on and - and this is the clincher here - the easiest to get on with day after day, and mile after mile. Frankly, and this is no surprise, it's the most complete package here and that sort of behaviour needs rewarding, so first place it is.

The ZX-9 joins the VFR at the top of this pile for rather different reasons. It's a far more involving ride, intoxicatingly fast and full of handling that'll see you right road or track so on a performance level, it kicks arse here. But, as we've already said, performance isn't all in this test, so it's by virtue of its comfort - no aching wrists after an hour trawling through London's heaving gridlock, no numb bum after two hours on the motorway - it's more relaxed abilities - when you're not in the mood it's as happy at 30mph as it is at 130, and the simple fact that, given the choice, it was the first key everyone wanted when there was a stretch of clear road ahead that the Kawasaki also scoops top honours.

So that leaves a close second place to the Triumph. It's got the sportiest riding position here which can mean the odd ache and pain over distance, and it's also got the heaviest gearbox and throttle response that can make slower traffic work a bit of a bind. So despite being more relaxed to live with than an out and out sportster like an R1, the 955 loses out to the two other comfort kings in this pack. Performance-wise it's almost the equal of the Kawasaki, kicks it into the dust on the brakes, and although you'd be unlikely to separate the two given equal riders on any given stretch of road or track, the triple's lazier delivery means it never feels quite as intense when you put the hammer down as the big Kawasaki does. There's more character and style to the Triumph though and this'll be the factor that swings it one way or the other for anyone thinking of buying one.

SPECS - HONDA

TYPE - SPORTS TOURER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2002

PRICE NEW - £8345

ENGINE CAPACITY - 781cc

POWER - 102bhp@10,700rpm

TORQUE - 55ft.lbs@8,800rpm

WEIGHT - 213kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 810mm

FUEL CAPACITY - N/A

TOP SPEED - 154mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - KAWASAKI

TYPE - SUPERSPORTS

PRODUCTION DATE - 2002

PRICE NEW - £8380

ENGINE CAPACITY - 899cc

POWER - 133bhp@10,900rpm

TORQUE - 70ft.lbs@9,100rpm

WEIGHT - 183kg

SEAT HEIGHT - N/A

FUEL CAPACITY - N/A

TOP SPEED - 174mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - TRIUMPH

TYPE - SUPERSPORTS

PRODUCTION DATE - 2002

PRICE NEW - £8799

ENGINE CAPACITY - 781cc

POWER - 137bhp@10,660rpm

TORQUE - 70ft.lbs@8,700rpm

WEIGHT - 188kg

SEAT HEIGHT - N/A

FUEL CAPACITY - N/A

TOP SPEED - 166mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - N/A

Road Test: ZX-9R vs. VFR vs. 955i

But then these bikes are a bit of a mixed bag. There's the ZX-9R, whose normal habitat these days is being shot to pieces in a group test with the FireBlade, R1 and GSX-R1000, the VFR which can generally be found romping off with the sports touring crown whenever that little test comes to town, and the 955i - a bike no-one quite seems to have been able to place just yet. Triumph themselves stressed at the launch it wasn't built to take on the big-bore track massive of the R1 and co, but clock the spec sheet and you'll find 137bhp, 188 kilos and some sharp geometry which suggest a pretty serious motorbike lies beneath that innocent-looking fairing regardless of what the bike is or isn't 'supposed' to do.

So if these bikes are apparently so different, why on earth are we testing them together?

Well, slotting bikes neatly into categories - 600s, 750s, big twins, etc - is all very well, but as you can see from the variety of the three bikes here, it doesn't always work because some bikes just don't suit pigeonholing. Either because they've fallen behind in the class they started life in (ZX-9 anyone?), and now need looking at in a different light, or because they're so competent they can handle being tested up against pretty much anything (that'll be the VFR then), or because they simply don't fit squarely into any one class (here we welcome the 955i).

But these bikes do all have a few things in common. They're all bloody fast - as in the dark side of 170mph fast in the case of the Kawasaki - they're all perfectly suited to riding on the road either in a flurry of flat-out madness or in a gentle pottering about and enjoying the scenery kind of way, and just to make things even better, they're all very easy to live with. And nor do any of these three come with the associated aches and pains of a pure sportsbike or suffer the outright speed and grunt limitations of anything below 600ccs.

Instead they all get on with going as fast or as slow as you like, for as little or as long as you like, and manage to do all this with some seriously impressive handling thrown in should outright silliness overcome you from time to time.

In a nutshell these are real bikes. Bikes you can honestly live with and that'll take in pretty much anything you care to throw at them and leave you grinning every time, and best of all, they're above becoming unfashionable after six months when they're replaced by a new 'must have' model.

Just for good measure, and because it was the only part of the UK promising sunshine that week, we took them up North to the stunning scenery and roads of the Peak District, strapped them to a dyno for accurate power readings, and then sat back with a large pot of tea and a tin of biscuits (all served on the finest bone china of course), to determine a winner.

Continue for the Kawasaki ZX-9R Review - 2/5

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