Countryphiles: Honda CBF600S, Kawasaki ER-6f, Yamaha XJ6 Diversion, Suzuki GSX650F

The commuter motorcycle has grown up and turned into a proper bike in its own right. We took them out of their natural element of city streets for a damn good thrashing on country roads

Getting from A to B on a bike designed solely to get from A to B as cheaply as possible used to be a rather wretched affair. Such bikes were, quite frankly, built down to a price, plasticky, slow, handled like shopping trollies and looked crap. They would do the job adequately but left the rider feeling like he’d been robbed of the whole reason he got into bikes in the first place.

And then, around the year of 2006, someone realised that perhaps, just maybe, bikes that were practical and affordable didn’t necessarily have to be shit. That just because someone bought a bike that had to be useful, didn’t mean they wanted to be bored to death and feel like a second-class citizen every time they rode it. As materials and components became cheaper, and the demand for affordable transport increased, so the fun, funky commuter bike was born.

To put this in context, I’d just spent a month riding around on a £26,000 Ducati 1098R, a hand-built marvel of a thing the likes of which don’t come around very often. I went straight from that onto these little fellas. Surely, downsizing to the more budget-driven spectrum of motorcycling would be an awful kick in the chops after swanning around on the Ducati? That this wasn’t the case is testimony to how far the ‘commuter bike’ has come on since the insipid days of the Kawasaki ZR-7 and Suzuki GS500E.

Now with full fairings, stylish bodywork, fancy paint and even wavy disc-rotors, the once timorous budget tool has properly come of age. And not only can it whisk you back and forth to the office cheaply and with the minimum of fuss, but it’ll hold its own when it comes to cutting loose at the weekend. Just to prove this was the case, we brought along a die-hard 600 supersport rider, Henry Boyson, to see if we could convince him of the merits of the New Breed.

Kawasaki ER-6f

Kawasaki ER-6f

Very green and very impressive, Kawasaki’s brilliant little ER-6f proves that you don’t need to be banging the same four-cylinder drum as everyone else to be top fun

The Kawasaki is a tremendous little thing. It’s incredibly green, so green in fact that it matches the green of the neutral light, shade for shade. It’s also a stylish bus, particularly the side-mounted shock and tubular swingarm arrangement. It’s also physically very small so that anyone can feel comfortable on it, even those of the female persuasion will hop on the Kawasaki and speed off without a moment’s hesitation. But it’s also roomy enough for lanky bastards (like me). In fact the relationship twixt seat and footpegs is almost luxurious in its length. The screen is high enough to work, the digital clocks are a bit silly but do the job, and it exudes a level of finish that, although a bit rubbery, belies its budget status. I’d imagine that a good dose of British winter would give it a kicking, but stay on top of the cleaning regime and you’ve got yourself a great-looking bike.

Once the 650cc parallel-twin engine is up and running (it sounds very much like an irate humming bird at most revs) it becomes obvious that to go anywhere in a hurry you have to keep it cooking. Below 6,000rpm it’s a bit of a slouch, great news for learners but less so for commuters who could do with a fat midrange for town work. Parallel-twins are historically rev-hungry, so this is just the way things are.

In town, the baby Ninja is effortless and slim enough to squeeze through the tiniest of gaps in traffic, although it’s so smart you’ll not want it to get scratched in motorcycle parking bays. Which is inevitable in London.

Once out in the open, the under-slung exhaust spits out its tiny emissions with increasing exuberance all the way up to an indicated 130mph – which is plenty for a little thing like this. “I really like this,” said young Mr Boyson after his first ride. “It sounds good and looks good, which is important. It’s like a halfway house between a sportsbike and a commuter bike, really usable and surprisingly fun to ride. It’s very small, isn’t it?”

The ER-6f is the only bike here to have fancy brakes in the shape of wavy discs (all the bikes bar the Suzuki have ABS, which is very impressive) although ironically these are the second-weakest brakes on test. It takes a quarter-second before anything happens, and you need a good four-fingered squeeze if you have to slow down in a hurry. What’s impressive is the basic suspension and handling package. Our test was conducted on a mix of roads, and the Kawasaki would scurry along in total composure regardless of what you threw at it. It’ll bounce around and give the odd waggle through the handlebars for sure, but in a fun, engaging way. “If I hadn’t ridden before, something like this would be an ideal start,” admits Henry. “Out of all the bikes here, this is my favourite as it’s got something going on.”

And that’s the ER-6f down to a tee. It’s not the fastest or smoothest, and the brakes are a bit ropey, but the bike is lightning quick through town due to its tiny dimensions, easy to ride whether you’re big or small, and packed full of character once you get out on the open stuff. Next to three other four-cylinder bikes, the twin Kawasaki is forging its own path and doing a bloody good job at it, too.

Rating: 4 out of 5

For - Looks fantastic, engaging parallel-twin engine and innovative chassis design
Against - Midrange power is flat, and...that’s it

Review your Kawasaki ER-6f

Kawasaki ER-6f Specifications

Price £5599/5999 with ABS Top speed 128.76mph
Engine 649cc, 8-valve, liquid-cooled parallel twin
Bore and stroke 83mm x 60mm Compression ratio 11.3:1
Power 67bhp at 8,750rpm Torque 45lb/ft at 7,250rpm
Front suspension 41mm telescopic forks, no adjustment
Rear suspension Monoshock, preload adjustment
Front brakes Twin-piston calipers, 300mm discs
Rear brake Singe-piston caliper, 220mm disc
Wet weight 204kg Seat height 790mm Fuel capacity 15.5 litres
Colour options Green, Black, Blue

Honda CBF600S

Honda CBF600S

Hard to fault, but equally hard to love. The Honda ticks all the right boxes, but falls short when it comes to riding pleasure and character

I really wanted to hate the Honda. Anything that looks this bland has to be utterly boring to ride, and it’s true that the CBF isn’t exactly going to blow your socks off with a turbine-like rush of bhp. Compared to the handsome Yamaha and Kawasaki it really is spectacularly ugly; I liken it to a bath-tub on wheels. Compared to the others, the CBF is just old-fashioned. But in typical Honda style it goes, stops and handles better than all the other bikes here. It’s a rounded, considered motorcycle that’s been developed with the rider in mind and it completely belies its budget moniker; why they wrapped it in such a god-awful design is a mystery, because otherwise I’m certain this thing would sell bucketloads.

It’s actually very hard to pick out one thing that the Honda does well, because it’s the sum of its parts that works. Of course it’s comfy, far more comfy than the Suzuki or Kawasaki, and it exudes an air of polished refinement that the other bikes cannot match. The screen, for example, doesn’t look like it’ll do much to deflect the wind from your helmet. But just a slight crouch is enough to deposit you into a remarkably still pocket of air. The engine is smooth to the point of total blandness, far smoother than the revvy Suzuki or lumpy ER-6f, and yet it’s deceptively rapid. And this all through a gearbox that is (yep, you guessed it) very smooth. Although, unfortunately, there is the odd tendency to leap out of 2nd gear.

The suspension and brakes – work well. It’s difficult to be more specific than this, because they’re entirely androgynous. As with many Hondas the front forks feel too soft for anything other than gentle bimbling, but due to the use of progressive fork-springs they’re capable of digesting seriously spirited riding as well as grinding effortlessly through town. Henry, however, wasn’t that impressed. “It’s bland, and I thought it would have more poke,” he said. “You give the Honda a big handful and nothing happens. It’s not that it’s bad, it just doesn’t stand out.” And that is exactly the CBF’s brilliance, or Achilles’ heel: it really doesn’t stand out. More youthful riders are going to look to the Kawasaki or Suzuki for their fix. The Honda is for the man who doesn’t have anyone left to impress – most of all himself. “I’m more about the style,” admits Henry. “Hey – I’m superficial! I’m sorry, but people like to look good. Girls like a good-looking bike, and they’re not even going to notice the CBF.”

No, they’re not. In fact not even the dustbin men who swing by my house at 8am of a Monday morning even passed it a second glance. The CBF is completely invisible, as seamless in its execution of The Efficient Motorcycle as it is in the power delivery of its engine. But when it was time to ride home at the end of the day, there was only one bike I wanted to be on: the Honda. You spend your whole day leaping from one bike to the next, but the one you ride home on is always a winner…

Rating: 4 out of 5

For - It’s a Honda, great build quality and smooth engine and handling
Against - Totally bland, rather ugly and lacking excitement

Review your Honda CBF600S

Honda CBF600S Specifications

Price £6180 Top speed 129.43mph
Engine 599.3cc, 16-valve, liquid-cooled in-line four
Bore and stroke 67mm x 42.5mm Compression ratio 11.6:1
Power 75bhp at 9,750rpm Torque 42ft-lb at 8,500rpm
Front suspension 41mm telescopic forks, preload adjustment
Rear suspension Monoshock, preload adjustment
Front brakes Triple calipers, 296mm discs, CBS
Rear brake 240mm disc, CBS
Wet weight 222kg Seat height 785mm Fuel capacity 20 litres
Colour options Red, grey, black, silver

Suzuki GSX650F

Suzuki GSX650F

The GSX-R aping funster pulls off the neat trick of handling and a strong engine in a budget conscious package

The Suzuki is pulling an act. Like the harmless Milk snake of the Canadian bush which looks like a lethal Coral snake, thus scaring away potential predators, so the 650 is pretending for all the world that it’s a slightly dumpy GSX-R. And it jolly nearly gets away with it. “A sheep in wolf’s clothing,” says style-orientated Henry, although he then admitted that the GSX pressed his buttons. “It’s a bit like getting a Boxster instead of a 911, but the Suzuki is nice to ride. And it’s actually got some power, which is a surprise amongst this lot.”

It certainly looks the fastest of this bunch by a country mile, although in reality it’s only a little faster right across the range. Loose and revvy after the Honda and Yamaha, the extra 50ccs packed by the 650 make all the difference. Gone are the miserable memories of the GSX600F ‘teapot’ and it’s hideous bodywork (Jon Urry reckons the back end resembled an erect dog’s dick, I reckon it was more a clitoris) replaced instead with this punchy, frisky little fellow.

The GSX is vintage Suzuki. Narrow handlebar grip, confined cockpit area, wide fuel tank, comfortable footpeg position, full fairing and loads of blue and white paint. The engine is the same as used in the 650 Bandit although it’s geared up, but that means 80bhp and plenty of pulling power. In this company, it feels like a sportsbike. Which it clearly isn’t, it just looks like one. In fact the GSX owes more to the Bandit range than any GSX-R, with its trellis frame and conventional forks. Look closer and you realise that it’s little more than a Bandit with a full fairing strapped on board, but this is no bad thing. Bandits have always been great bikes.

On the move, the GSX cuts just the right dash between sporting and useful. It makes the right kind of noises, raspy and revving and the complete antithesis of the Honda and Yamaha’s completely silent power units. Indeed some commuters might almost find it a little bit too… racy.

Suzuki have always excelled at cheap speed, it’s what they’ve built their company on, and the 650F is no exception. Like the Kawasaki, the full fairing does a grand job of keeping the elements off but unlike the ER-6f the Suzuki is full size, it’s not an especially small bike. “Like getting on a real bike after the others,” says my notes. It’ll even pull wheelies of a not-embarrassing size.

In town, the Suzuki is the fattest and not as lithe as the others at squeezing through the thinnest of gaps. The wider bars of the Yamaha and Honda certainly tip them the nod when it comes to swish-swashing through lines of stationary traffic. But the mini-GSX-R comes into its own on fast A-roads, by far the most enjoyable to hold to the limiter in each gear and play at being a proper racer. It responds to a damn good thrashing in an exciting way; where the others just get faster (a bit) the Suzuki spins up nicely and you find yourself hunting corners and gears. Being a Suzuki the gearbox is in a different league to the others, while the brakes and suspension fall into the ‘satisfactory’ category. In this class, that’s as good as you’re going to get.

Rating: 3 out of 5

For - Cracking GSX-R looks, fast, exciting engine and comfortable over the long haul
Against - Just a Bandit with a fairing, bit buzzy, vibrates and impossible to reach sidestand

Review your Suzuki GSX650F

Suzuki GSX650F Specifications

Price £5849 Top speed 132mph
Engine 656cc, 16 valves, liquid-cooled, in-line four
Bore and stroke 65.5mm x 648.7mm Compression ratio 11.5:1
Power 77.9bhp @ 10,250rpm Torque 44ft-lb @ 8,500rpm
Front suspension Telescopic forks, preload adjustment
Rear suspension Monoshock, preload adjustment
Front brakes Twin-piston Tokico calipers, 310mm discs
Rear brake Single-piston caliper, 240mm disc
Wet weight 241kg Seat height 790mm Fuel capacity 19 litres
Colour options Blue/White, Orange/Black

Yamaha XJ6 Diversion

Yamaha XJ6 Diversion

A classic name that has returned to the fold with a brand new look. But is it all style over function with the new Divvy?

Easily, easily the best-looking bike of the bunch, even smarter than the already smart ER-6f. The lines of the XJ6 Diversion are just right, from the raked-back fairing to the stainless header pipes and the modern-looking wheels and bodywork. All the angles are right, it looks fast and desirable, and in no way does it look like a budget commuter. That is, until you touch things. Suddenly the smart-looking Yamaha practically comes apart in your hands. The plastic ‘air intake’ shrouds leading up the fuel tank nearly snap off when examined, the ridiculously long pillion peg carriers flex like Plasticine when you press them with your foot, and the whole thing is bendy, wobbly and not built very well at all. It may not look budget, but it certainly feels it to the hand.

The ride position is very similar to the Honda, but bereft of any of the big H’s build quality. The engine, however, is a cracker. Loads of midrange (for a cheapie 600) means you can lug it around in a gear higher than any of the others with enough oomph around town. This, coupled with the wide bars, means it’s simplicity itself to ride at low-to-medium velocities, but things go a little awry at higher speeds. The front end is, not to put too fine a point on it, dreadful. After the other bikes here it feels like it’s running a flat tyre, such is the ponderous nature of the steering. We checked tyre pressures and they were within limits, so the slow steering is just the way the Yamaha was made. “Didn’t wow me at all,” says Henry after an extensive run on the Yamaha. “Looks-wise it’s better than the others, doing its own thing and I like that. But I’ve just ridden it and can’t even remember the power – I know it had some but not in any way that would stick in my mind.” This thing of how a bike looks keeps coming up with Henry, so I push him further about it. “Yes, well you go for looks when you first start riding,” he reckons. “It’s all about the look. Then when you become a better rider, you realise performance is more important.”

The performance of the Yamaha’s gearbox is another thing that’s driving me to distraction. It’s very notchy, requiring excessive effort to switch gears and it’s best to have it in neutral before coasting to a halt at lights. Yamaha make the odd notchy box but generally they’re fine and this is off the scale. It’s a shame, because the engine is a grunty little thing and the gearbox does mar the whole motive process somewhat. And while we’re at it, the fan seems to spend half its life cutting in for no apparent reason. We can only put this down to the radiator being too small, perhaps, but even when you’ve been riding on open roads with plenty of cooling air blasting into the rads, the minute you stop that pesky fan cuts in. “It’s better than the Fazer without a doubt,” reckoned Ben Cope, “You sit in the XJ6 rather than perched on top of it, it’s comfy and with plenty of wind protection.” Which is true, the Yamaha is adept at covering distances with ease. But they’ve built a decent motor and then bolted some rather icky parts onto it that has had a detrimental effect on the package.

If style were everything, the Yam would win every time. It looks wicked. For some, this is indeed enough and if you were to ride the XJ6 Diversion in isolation, you’d be perfectly happy. But ridden alongside the others here its drawbacks are all too clear and it feels the least considered in its production and assembly.

Rating: 3 out of 5

For - Fantastic styling, very easy to ride and nimble in traffic
Against - Vague front end, questionable gearbox and feels ‘tacky’ compared to the others

Review your Yamaha XJ6 Diversion

Yamaha XJ6 Diversion Specifications

Price £4999/£5349 with ABS Top speed 130.35mph
Engine 600cc, 16-valve, liquid-cooled in-line four
Bore and stroke 65.5mm x 44.5mm Compression ratio 12.2:1
Power 71bhp @ 9,250rpm Torque 42ft-lb @ 8,250rpm
Front suspension 41mm telescopic fork, no adjustment
Rear suspension Monoshock, preload adjustment
Front brakes Twin-piston calipers, 298mm discs
Rear brake Single-piston caliper, 245mm disc
Wet weight 211kg Seat height 785mm Fuel capacity 17.3 litres
Colour options Blue, grey, red



Not as easy as you might think to pick an outright winner here. They all approach the matter of being sporty, fun commuter bikes in pleasingly different ways, although some are clearly better and worse than others. To make this easier on everyone, I’ll have to start from the bottom and work my way up. Here we go...

4th Yamaha XJ6 Diversion
Easily the best-looking but it’s just too compromised in other departments. Build quality is poor, the gearbox is fearsome, the front end is rather odd and it just doesn’t hang together as well as its looks suggest it should. With tweaks it would be a cracking bike, but as sold it struggles.

3rd Suzuki GSX650F
Typical Suzuki – noisy, fast, revvy, unsophisticated. It’s the absolute opposite of the Honda and great fun for it. However, for bikes of this nature it may well prove to be a bit much for some and it doesn’t do town work a the rest. Show it an open road and it’s off – the obvious choice for the budding supersport hooligan.

2nd Honda CBF600S
A brilliant motorcycle but so bland (and ugly) that it’s a tragedy. Refined to the point of invisibility, the CBF will run forever, hold its value, has by far the highest build quality and completely, utterly does what it says on the tin. But it’s a single sheet of white A4 in a world that demands Farrow & Ball wallpaper. Instantly forgettable.

1st Kawasaki ER-6f
The slowest bike with the least power wins! The little Kawasaki manages to be much more than the sum of its parts, from the intricate frame and swingarm to the fun nature of the parallel-twin engine. The styling is fresh, the whole thing shouts “look at me” and it works as well in town for short people as it does out on fast roads for tall people.