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House of Fun - 750cc Sports bikes

Overlooked by fashion, out-classed on the racetrack, is there any point in a modern day 750? Wozza and co thrash the cream of the crop to find out

So there I was, a week before this test and smugly relaxing in my chair knowing that everything was sorted. I had a full brace of riders, a photographer who knew one end of a camera from the other and a racetrack all ready to roll. I even had the rare bikes in the bag too.

A mint R7 was coming along with owner, farming magnate and fine fellow Jamie Rule, and the MV was waiting for collection at D&K Motorcycles 'oop North. The GSX-R750 was a no-brainer because we were using my boxfresh long-termer, which meant the only missing piece of the puzzle was the ZX-7R and let's face it, how tricky could one of those be to get hold of?

Erm, incredibly actually. Obviously Kawasaki UK didn't have one, it being a deleted model and all, but as I trawled my contact book's worth of friendly dealers across the country, I found the same story everywhere. "Can't get 'em for love or money right now" or even a burst of laughter followed by a blunt "you've got three hopes, mate..."

So when a friend turned up a mint green example the day before this test was due to begin, not only was I on the verge of kissing him, but I viewed the Kawasaki with new eyes as it was rolled out of the van that night.

See, I've always given the ZX a hard time. As a new superbike it just wasn't doing the 'do'. At 203kgs it's more into cruiser territory than anything else, and with 110bhp you've got a power-to-weight ratio the latest 600s would be ashamed of. All the Kawasaki ever needed was a better rear shock, ten more brake horse, good rubber and a couple of Slimfast shakes, but despite years of road testers everywhere saying this, nothing ever changed for the big Kwak.

Every year saw a new paintjob but no more before the poor ZX was dispatched once more to the front for the annual 750s group test in ever-more-sophisticated company to collect yet another wooden spoon.

But that was then. With the slide of the 750 class as a whole we can take a more indulgent look at the ZX, taking it on face value for what it is, rather than assassinating it for what it's not and never will be now its development has been officially halted.

The best thing about the ZX is its dependability. Climbing back on board is much like slipping on a favorite old pair of trainers, so when it came to speed testing at some daft early hour the day before our Donington sojourn and it was lashing it with rain and a howling crosswind, the Kawasaki was the bike I immediately plumped for. Once aboard I was reassured straight away by the low seat and flat attitude of the whole bike. Where the rest of this pretty bunch, especially the MV and R7, sit way high at the back in true modern racer fashion, the ZX set up is by far the least radical here which means more comfort, and, most importantly before a flat-stick blast down a lumpy, soaking runway, mucho stability.

Next came the R7. Now this was always going to be tough. Trouble with the Yamaha is its super-tall 100mph first gear that bridges the gap from a standstill into the close ratio higher gears which makes getting off the line hard an absolute bastard.

But on the go, the R7 motor still felt impressive. Although the delivery was similar to the ZX-7's in its broad yet comfortable spread of power with no surprises, you can feel the expense and development time that puts the R7 lump a quantum leap ahead of the Kawasaki's.

Next up came the MV. Although it may be a head-turner on the track, flat out on a runway it is uninspiring and frustrating in the extreme. Uninspiring because straightline speed really isn't its game, and frustrating because you're never sure how much abuse these bikes can really take.

There were no such worries on the GSX-R, our final bike up the strip. Ever since the early slab-sided GSX-R1100, these motors have had a strong reputation for reliability, and this latest 750 is no exception. The R7 may feel more refined, but the GSX-R comes close, the motor spinning up and howling as if the internals were made from finely-cut crystal, and where the GSX-R stamps all over the competition is in the way it feels. The bottom end up until 7000rpm gives you good clean drive, but from here things begin to change as the exhaust note rises and you can feel the whole bike lift its game a couple of notches.

Conveniently, the spattering showers forecast for the afternoon came and went with our lunch, leaving us to an afternoon of sun-filled playtime around Northamptonshire's finest twisties.

R7 owner Jamie was keen to stay away from his bike as much as possible, confessing that he didn't really like it much - "bloody thing. It's so uncomfortable and I know people say they're amazing to ride but I've never felt at home with the handling," he muttered before making a beeline for the Kawasaki.

A smart choice for the road too, as all the things that made it so good down the speed test strip also make it a ripper on the road. The ultimate excitement of the GSX-R really isn't there because there's no searing top end to the ZX, but for fast and easy progress it is excellent. The handling is quite quick enough to let you really hustle the bike when you fancy, as long as you're in good shape - 203kgs will still make you sweat no matter how good the chassis - and as a package the bike balances together beautifully.

Should you want to take things a little easier, the Kawasaki is also top dog with more comfort than the rest put together. The GSX-R is close but its heaviness on the wrists anywhere away from hard riding marks it down.

The other two really don't measure up on practicality, however, with the MV being far and away the worst. The mirrors are a joke, as all you can ever see are your elbows, while the riding position pitches you onto your crown jewels at low speed. This is not a practical bike.

But are you surprised? I doubt it, and if you want an MV then the joy of simply being on the thing should numb you to the pain long enough to get you to your local hang-out and back.

And the R7? Low wide bars, high pegs, no pillion seat. Nuff said. The R7 is a racer with road concessions and little else, a point rammed home when we took it apart on a couple of occasions.

Jamie had already said he wasn't entirely chuffed with the handling, and everyone else felt the same after a stint on the thing. Either the back end was way too high, or the front too low because there was so much weight over the front end that steering, especially at low speed or off the power, was bloody horrible, while the back end was way too light, locking up under the lightest dab of back brake. All in all, the experience felt more like riding an exercise wheel than a superbike legend.

While we scratched our heads and pretended we knew what to do, Niall stepped into the breach with a knowing look on his mush.

"There's an awesome bike in every one of these waiting to get out," he said as we nodded sagely, "but until you get the set-up near the right area they can be really nasty", and before we knew it he'd whipped half of Daryll's tools out of his garage and was attacking the defenceless Yamaha.

Like a true racing thoroughbred, this is a bike made with quick stripdowns in mind. Despite its sweet lines and looks that make the R7 as much of a head-turner today as it was four years ago, once the bodywork's off, the R7 exudes that same function-before-form air of the best GP bikes. This is a tool made to race over anything else

Once stripped, the R7's forks were loosened off and raised in the yokes a few rings to lighten the front up some more with a bit of good old-fashioned heaving and a few smacks with a rubber mallet.

And, on the road at least, things were now much improved with the R7 feeling far more composed and beginning to hint at the stunning accuracy it had to offer if only given the space to go faster. A track was what was needed, so it was a bloody good job we were at Donington the next day.

As for the GSX-R, well it was nearly as practical and easygoing as the Kawasaki when you felt like it but with far more power to satisfy when you wanted to pull the pin.

Steering is fast and accurate, but with enough compliance in the suspension to avoid the headshakes that can accompany quick turn-in despite all the extra power on tap, and that was even with the standard steering damper removed.

This GSX-R here is the second one I've had as a long-term test bike and having removed the dampers on both I can safely say you don't need 'em after 20,000 cumulative road, track and back wheel miles in all conditions. All the damper does is mess with your low-speed handling, making the bike feel as if the tyres are flat which becomes an irritation in town.

With the road test now over, it was time for a day's track fun at Donington to round off our 750s excursion.

Staying with the GSX-R, this was stunning at the track. Other bikes may have been faster or easier to lap quickly, but the GSX-R feels like the fastest bike on the planet which is where it counts at trackday time.

It's not perfect however. Those front brakes are really pretty shoddy by modern standards. With very little initial bite followed by only marginally more feel and not a great deal of power they're average at best, and even the old ZX-7 could slip by largely at will on the anchors.

One popular cure is braided hoses, but having tried these in the past they seem to rob more of the already limited feel in the system despite upping the power slightly. Handling too is ever-so-slightly mushy compared to the latest sports kit, but the steering still gets you into corners as accurately and as hard as you dare while the suspension provides all the feedback you could want to get as near your own or the bike's limits as you like.

Which is not something that can be said of the MV. It seems the same with all standard MV F4s I've come across over the years that despite God-like steering, the stock suspension simply can't cope, especially that Sachs rear shock.

This problem wasn't helped on our test bike by the state of its rubber. Michelin Pilot Sports are more than up to track work, but the ones adorning our test bike looked well past their sell-by-date and were making for some interesting moments - notably Jim taking to the grass at around 100mph after the biggest near highside I've had the privilege of seeing in a long time. Obviously, this could have been a serious mess, but as both the Evil one and the MV survived unscathed it was just good comedy.

On the ZX-7 however, life couldn't have been more different. Just as on the road and the strip, the ZX was unflappable. It did have an air of heaviness about it at the track thanks in part to its overall weight, but even so it was still surprisingly good fun.

Hare up to your intended corner, hammer on the brakes as hard as possible and enjoy plenty of stopping power before tipping the bike in, savoring the accurate if slightly slow steering, before relaxing safe in the knowledge you're still in the care of one of the best production front ends in the business mid-corner, then winding the power back on again hard without too much worry and firing onto your next turn.

But if you are feeling this way, whatever you do don't get on an R7 - this bike will handle the opposition here into a cocked hat along with almost any other bike you care to mention. It is simply one of the most awesome motorcycling handling experiences around.

Try as you might, this bike simply goes exactly where you ask it and with the lightest of rider inputs without an ounce of wallow, flex or bounce. Never once do you feel out of control on the R7, because the suspension and chassis are telling you everything you could need to stay upright.

This R7, just as any other, offers a legendary track experience. Not cheap, nor practical, but if money were no object, an absolute essential addition to any superbike collection.

Conclusion

As a straight buying decision here, there's little that can touch the GSX-R. In passable comfort it gives you reliability, track lunacy, road idiocy and day-to-day transport when asked. It is perhaps the most rewarding four-cylinder sportsbike on the market right now. And with used prices starting at four grand and more favourable insurance premiums than their 1000cc bigger brothers they're hard to pass up.

But for pure performance, the R7 walks this test, as indeed it should at £23,000 new. There is more handling and track pleasure to be had out of one of these for the serious rider than anything this side of a very sorted supersports Duke. Just don't expect to enjoy it on the road.

For those wanting a road-biased bike with plenty of attitude and still just enough bike to make the track a good place to be, the Kawasaki is the answer. Still a good-looker and with a great pedigree, she's a real keeper. However, if you want one be prepared to scour the earth.

Which leaves the MV. Very beautiful and incredibly competent for something so pretty, but ultimately a disappointment thanks to frustrating imperfections (steering lock, mirrors), and less than excellent track manners.