Litre Beaters: 2003 1000cc test

When you absolutely, positively have to go as fast as possible from one point to another there is only one class to turn to. But when the siren goes off is the new GSX-R still the fastest way to get to a nuclear bunker?

By the time you read this good ol' George Dubya, a man without the mental capacity to eat a pretzel safely - will probably be trying to put more dents in Iraq than you'd find on the average black cab. Chances are this will end up like many a playground scuffle where the big lad punches the little one who runs home to his mum. But should things go even more pear-shaped it's time to arm up with a bike that'll hit an apex harder than a laser-guided missile and accelerate faster than an Iraqi out of a bunker when he sees said missile coming.

And in the 1000s class there is only one newcomer for 2003 - Suzuki's GSX-R1000. Honda's FireBlade, Yamaha's R1 and Kawasaki's ZX-9R remain unchanged, bar colour schemes while the Suzuki gets a new frame, suspension, radial brakes and a tweaked motor. Last year's Blade did enough to edge ahead of the GSX-R in our group test but has Suzuki done enough to win back the crown again this year? Let's find out.

On Track

Suzuki GSX-R1000

Suzuki has concentrated its efforts on updating the GSX-R chassis for 2003, just the opposite of Yamaha who last year spent time taming the R1's power delivery. The GSX-R's engine feels the same as last year - very linear power band, loads of mid-range grunt and stacks up top too, but the new model's biggest asset is that new chassis that lets you harness it. So much so I found the GSX-R easiest on the track - quite an achievement considering it's putting out the same power as a two year-old superbike... The new chassis gives loads of feedback and is really happy to be ridden hard, but you still have to give it respect. 158bhp bites if you get cocky! Luckily throttle response is very progressive getting back on the power mid-corner which helps reduce the chances of things going wrong, especially combined with the new levels of feeling from the chassis.

Through tight corners the GSX-R felt light and changed direction with minimal effort and the steering was very accurate, hitting the spot every time and tracking through corners perfectly. On the gas rear end grip was phenomenal and considering the power at your right hand, Suzuki must have worked very hard to get the rear suspension right - I can't really fault it. So handling was very impressive, but I still have one gripe. On last year's bike I found that under heavy braking the front end could hop. A lot of riders may not get to this point but on my own GSX-R1000 I spent ages setting it up and although the rear was fine I couldn't cure the front without stiffer fork springs. But this is a small thing, and only shows up braking hard from 150mph to a stop, which to be fair most riders aren't going to do on regularly. Styling? Well blue and white is still the colour to have. The silver looks nice but the black is really best forgotten about.

Track verdict

A very forgiving bike to ride and confidence inspiring despite huge horsepower. The new chassis has really harnessed the power of an already excellent motor and made it useable.

On the track cont.

Kawasaki ZX-9R

Even though the big Kawasaki is the most dated I was still looking forward to jumping on board around a track and despite the least racy riding position here you soon plug into it and get on with the job in hand.

First thing I noticed compared to the other three was there were virtually no vibes through the bars, not that there was a lot from the other bikes, but the nine was just so silky smooth compared its the rivals.

On track though you're really looking at new generation 600cc performance because of the ZX's greater weight and lack of power. It's still a fast motorbike, very smooth and predictable, and it takes a lot of the hard work out of riding but the others will all out-stomp it.

But because power is so smooth you can get on the gas earlier and harder with less worry of the back spinning up sideways as it can on the R1 or GSX-R. The nine simply has less torque and the weight kills the power a bit.

The front felt a little nervous mid-corner with a lot of angle, but as soon as you were up onto a bigger bit of the tyre it was fine and increasing the damping would help fine tune matters. Braking into corners I was using the same markers as on the other three bikes and the Kawasaki was stopping in time, which means the brakes are up to the job, but I was going slower on the ZX because of its lack of power. My biggest problem with this bike is that I'm sure a new model is just around the corner... The ZX-10R when it arrives should be the bike to really compete in this class.

Track Verdict

Against the competition this is still a rewarding bike to ride, but ultimately it's clearly outclassed. Bring on the new model.

Yamaha YZF-R1

The R1's sharp looks easily make it the sexiest of this bunch and if I wanted to go out late at night and just tear about it's definitely the one I'd want. Riding position is the most race-like, which suits me fine but may not be to everyone's taste. It shouts: "take me to the racetrack," as you hunch onto it while the ZX-9 squeaks: "take me to Margate".

The R1's handling is very positive and the front feels real good - something Yamaha worked on with last year's relaunch, but while it's now very stable at high speed it has lost a bit through slower corners. Turning in it's lazier than the others and I found from mid-corner to exit there was a touch of understeer. Basically in their efforts to calm the bike's handling for the road Yam have slowed it down on the track. Once leant over mid-corner the throttle response is very smooth and power very linear - almost as good as the GSX-R in fact, but the bike we rode at Rockingham seemed to be lacking grip. We later traced the problem to tyre pressure in the rear. Letting out a few psi soon sorted it out.

The R1's brakes are just right and I couldn't make it chatter or hop like the GSX-R could, which is very impressive and made it feel stronger than the Suzuki and easier to brake later into corners.

As for that motor, bland isn't the usual way of describing an R1 lump but that's how it felt compared to the others. Not in a bad way, but the power delivery is just so linear it doesn't give you the buzz 140-plus bhp should. But because it's so linear the motor is quite deceiving and you don't realise how fast you're really going. Only when you glance at the speedo do you remember you're on a guided missile.

Track Verdict

I love the styling, it's the sharpest and best looking bike here, but the motor lacks the excitement of the GSX-R and the handling can be a bit slow as standard.

Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade

This time last year I though the Blade looked the business having been honed into a much meaner, leaner and sharper looking bike but it's funny what a difference a year makes - with the new CBR600RR looking so good the Blade now looks dated. It's Honda's fault I suppose for making such a good looking 600! Saying that, riding the Blade it's a different story.

It's a little like the Kawasaki in the way it has a 50cc disadvantage that makes its power more manageable and that chassis is really nimble and very light too. In fact at 168kg it ties with the GSX-R for lowest dry weight - something you really notice when you ride it.

On track, the Blade is a real fun bike to get daft on. Brakes are the best here - razor sharp and with really good feel.

This really is the kind of bike that fills you with confidence and even if it does go a little bit sideways there's so much feedback you're still in control.

The motor's sweet too with a nice midrange and a hard drive to the top end, which makes it really rideable. For a rider with a little less ability it's more rewarding and easier to ride at a track than the Yam and Suzuki which demand harder concentration.

Considering the Blade doesn't have a steering damper I didn't have any moments or high speed wobbles, but I would fit one if I was going to ride it hard on the road. In fact, handling-wise the only thing I could really fault was the hero-blobs, which seem to go down at the slightest hint of a corner. It's so frustrating and really they need a hacksaw taking to them.

Track Verdict

The Blade was probably the most rewarding bike to ride here. You can concentrate less and ride it harder while stacks of feedback let you get the most out of it.


The Suzuki is awesome and the best of this bunch just because of the serious amount of power it has and the handling which is pretty much faultless. My only quibble is that hopping on the brakes under really heavy braking, although I am the last of the late brakers and can bring out the worst in any front end.

Looks-wise I 'm not so happy with any of the colours the GSX-R comes in  and if I had one I'd get it painted in the new Rizla Suzuki race team colours which are quality, in my humble opinion, like.

 But if I had less track knowledge or confidence the FireBlade is the one. It's forgiving to ride because it packs slightly less power in a very tight handling package. Still bloody fast when it wants to be though.

Although the R1 looks the sexiest riding-wise it doesn't light my fire like the GSX-R or give me the pleasure of the Blade, which just leaves... ...the Kawasaki. Still very capable, low speed handling not my favourite but a fast bike you can jump on without any worries of getting into trouble. All adequate, but the ZX-10 can't come soon enough.

On the road

On the Road

The Honda and Yamaha are high-class Park Lane hookers. Business-like, refined and excellent at their job while the Suzuki is plain dirty. If it was a prostitute it would turn up with all the kinky stuff and shag you to within an inch of your life. And the Kawasaki? Well, it's one of the old biffers that hang around King's Cross in fishnets and low cut tops - good looking once, but now a bit saggy. Still a good ride mind but given the choice you'd go up-market.

Quite how road tester Chris Moss has gained such insight to the London prostitution scene is best not asked but it's a good analogy of the differences between these bikes.

Just look at the Blade. In 1992 the first ones shook the world as the lightest, fastest, best handling bike around and it literally blew its competition away. Over the next ten years Honda softened its edge making it more of an all rounder.

And it's the same story for the R1. The first generation had razor handling (for the time) and viciously potent motors while the latest gets smoother power from its fuel-injected motor and less flighty handling. Both Blade and R1 have been refined to become better packages and while still firmly sports orientated, also come with road concessions.

Despite a sporty image the ZX-9R lacks that hardcore edge. Like the kid at school who turns up in flares when drainpipes were in, it's always been one step behind the opposition. As everyone else went lightweight, the Kawasaki remained big and bulbous catering more for the all-round market than the pure sports nut. In a class dominated by top speeds, lap times and dynos the ZX has always been the one making excuses rather than leading the field.

The GSX-R however makes no excuses about it has been built to do and you get exactly what you pay for.

What really gives the Suzuki its advantage is its motor. A lot of people argue there's no real justification for having a bike with a top speed of 186mph and over 150bhp at the rear wheel on the road, but that misses the point because as we know too much is never enough. And if it's excess you want, the GSX-R sure delivers.

On the road you simply can't hold the throttle fully open for any length of time, or any short period of time for that matter. It's just so bloody fast. On a mad blast at speeds to guarantee a ban as well as your face in national newspapers, riding the 'Blade, R1 or ZX-9R you find yourself with the throttle pinned wide open almost wanting more. But on the GSX-R you're only on about three quarters throttle with very occasional bursts of full. And the power isn't just concentrated at the top, it's everywhere. "You just have to look at the throttle and it accelerates," reckoned Daryll, "any revs in any gear it just clears off". Compared to the 'Blade and R1, which both feel weak below 6000rpm, and the ZX-9R that needs revving hard to get the most from it, the Suzuki feels more powerful, everywhere. It's actually an intimidating bike to ride because you just know no matter how hard you try you are never going to come close to using all the power, even on a track.

It's worth remembering here that we are comparing four of the most powerful sportsbikes on the market against each other. Ride any one of them in isolation and it will feel like an absolute rocket ship, but jumping from one to the other the differences show.

The Suzuki is streets ahead when it comes to overall power but the other three are harder to split. Lowdown the FireBlade is a bit disappointing and below 3,000rpm it feels fluffy and it isn't until around 6,000rpm that it clears its throat and starts to get going. A lot of this is down to the H-VIX valve but is more of an annoyance than anything else although I found pulling away you needed to slip the clutch more than on the others.

Yamaha did a lot of work on the R1 in 2002 to improve lowdown power and it shows. It's much stronger than the 'Blade at the bottom yet still gives a solid kick when the power really comes in. The motor revs really fast and the fuel injection is spot on, second only to the Suzuki whose dual valve throttle body system is the best around.

As for the Kawasaki, it doesn't quite hit the mark. Traditionally the motor has always been the strongpoint in big K's arsenal, but the ZX-9R's lump feels dated. There's no way it can be described as slow, but the other bikes all accelerate harder and stronger. There's little to fault but against the others it's the olde worlde option. Right down to its carbs and fuel tap.

But surprisingly things are different when it comes to the corners. The GSX-R is the only one running a steering damper as standard, but like most non-adjustable dampers it ruins low speed handling. The problem is companies are unwilling to fit adjustable dampers as stock for liability reasons, strangely cost isn't the issue. If it's adjustable and the rider turns it off then the bike goes into a slapper, there's a chance the company could be held liable.

On track the Suzuki's damper makes sense, and at high speeds on the road it's essential but at slow speed it makes the steering feel heavy and slow, as if the head bearings were too tight. Through town it's a nightmare and in the wet it reduces the feeling through the bars making it harder to feel what is happening.

Get on the Blade or R1 after the GSX-R and you have to recalibrate your brain. Both turn faster than you can imagine and feel much better at slow speed, but up the pace and you'll soon be thinking damper thoughts. Hit a bump on either and the front will shake slightly and from previous experiences I know this can develop into something bigger. If I owned either bike the first thing I'd buy would be a damper, its just a handy precaution with bikes that cram over 140bhp into packages with 250cc handling - of course they're going to be a bit lively.

Which is why the Kawasaki is so composed - it may not be the sportiest, although it's by no means a slouch through the corners, but it's absolutely rock solid everywhere else.

Upping the pace through fast knee down curves the R1, 'Blade and GSX-R are virtually inseparable. The GSX-R's suspension feels the best and is set slightly firmer than the Honda or Yamaha's as standard but the damper and physical size of the bike make it slightly harder work to change direction. The Honda is the sharpest, and through a series of twisty corners will generally come out first, but the R1 will be close on its heels with the GSX-R a whisker behind and the ZX-9R bringing up the rear, by quite a few meters.

Wind the nines suspension up however and the gap will be reduced, and you'll have the added bonus of more metal left on your footpegs, but with evenly-matched riders it's never really going to bother the others.

But if you're looking at owning a litre sports bike and want to use it everyday there's more to consider than which is the fastest and packing the all-out best handling.

And this is where the Kawasaki makes sense. It's easily the comfiest of the four because it's so large. The clip-ons are widely spread and switching between it and the R1 the ZX-9R feels like it has practically flat bars. For long distances the fairing actually provides some wind protection, unlike the R1's, and the pegs don't make you feel as though you're riding a Grand National winner.

The Suzuki's next down on the bulk list, feeling physically larger than the Honda and Yamaha but it's nowhere near the Kawasaki when it comes to racking up some distance.

Styling is always a bit of a personal taste thing but I think Mossy's description of the silver Suzuki as looking like "someone has been down Halfords and bought a can of silver paint to respray a crashed bike" is a bit on the harsh side although blue and white is definitely the colour to have. As for the R1 it's one of the best looking bikes out of Japan yet and a modern classic while the 'Blade puts in a purposefully plain appearance in red and black. And the Kawasaki? Big, svelte and kinda muscular, but it sure is dated, even the clocks are analogue. So yesterday, daahling.

Conclusion time

If you want a bike that thrills you every time you get on it and will leave you out of breath and sweating after every ride then go for the GSX-R. It's as simple as that. It's a Mr Nasty, full of attitude and gives the impression it's fed up with political correctness and plain old wants to shock and intimidate you. And if you're into that kinda thing it's brilliant and better than last year's.

In comparison the Honda and Yam are still very fast, and without dampers turn sharper on the road, but just don't quite give the same buzz and excitement you get riding the Suzuki. Their madness is a little more accessible more often than the Suzuki's however.

Which leaves the Kawasaki. It's an all rounder, competent in the corners, fast and with good brakes but will always trail if any of the others really decide to boogie. But you can pick 'em up cheap, and some dealers are cutting as much as £1500 off so it's a sharp buy. Just don't be under the impression you're buying a cutting edge sportsbike.