Road Test: Hornet 600 v Z750 v Bandit 650 v FZ6

Whitham takes us by the hand and leads us through the streets of Huddersfield. Four battered middleweights, a bag of chips and a Fanta, please.

When I were training as an engineer, just after I left school, I had these safety boots, the kind with the metal protective bit on outside. All the girls used to hang outside the chippy, so I'd come steaming down this hill on me Fizzie, flat out at 40mph with my toes scraping on ground, sparks everywhere. Fookin' mint."

That is just a small taster of what life was like in Huddersfield in the early '80s, James Whitham's formative years. And now, despite travelling the world racing in GPs, World Superbikes and World Supersport, Whit still lives about a mile outside his hometown in the gritty north.

A while back I had been chatting with James and referred to Huddersfield as 'the lint in the UK's belly button'. "Yeah some parts are proper shit," he agreed. "Most of the industry is shut down, but Huddersfield ain't that bad really. Just outside he town you've got some great roads, the moors are top for bikes. Come up and I'll show you." And so here we are, stood in the rain, eating chips covered in gunk that looks like something hacked up by King Kong.

"I thought mushy peas were green," said Niall after seeing what James was eating. "Sod that, I'm having curry sauce."

The day hadn't got off to the best start. Arriving the night before, Oli and I had been talking about how beautiful the area was and how good the roads were. The next morning I couldn't even see the hotel car park because of the mist and rain.

"This has set in for the day," reckoned Whitham. "Never mind, I'll show you where I used to hang out. It's in town so at least we can get a brew to warm up."

Bikes ready and waterproofs on, Whitham stared at the Bandit: "What engine is that? Looks like an '80s GSX-R motor, I've stripped so many of them damn things." The Bandit's engine is a very close relative of the old oil-cooled GSX-Rs. It certainly hasn't changed much since the original 600 Bandit's launch in 1995. All Suzuki has done for 2005 is add an extra 50cc and stiffen the chassis a bit. Not exactly keeping up with the water-cooled, sportsbike-engined competition, but it is about a grand cheaper.

Over by the also-revised Hornet Niall was making odd cooing noises. This actual bike is going to be his longterm test bike for the year, and it's the first time he's seen it in the flesh. "It's quite classy, isn't it?" he said, eyeing the inverted forks, high pipe and bronze paint while shielding the key from a circling Whitham.

Class is something that Honda has always engineered into the Hornet. This year it gets new inverted forks to fend off the attack of the Z750, Bandit and FZ6, pus a bit of weight is saved by replacing the fuel tap with a digital fuel gauge.

Watching out for the cobbles, which Whitham described as 'the most slippery things in the world,' a soggy band of bikers headed into Huddersfield.

After a moment of excitement when we stumbled onto the set of Heart of the Matter (it's Yorkshire's equivalent of Eastenders, but less depressing), we found Whitham's childhood chip shop, ate mushy peas and hid in a cafŽ until the rain passed. Which it didn't. Wet roads aren't a lot of use for either testing bikes or photographing them so, after deciding that the Fazer looked good but the Z750 was the most handsome of the bunch, we called it quits for the day.

The next morning things were looking up. It wasn't raining any more and the roads had dried, so it was time to explore James' 'magic triangle,' - his local scratching route and the best roads in the area.

I've ridden round here a few times in the past, but never on the roads James took us to. He's right when he says it's top biking country; the surface on the whole is excellent and the roads tight and twisty, perfect for our naked middleweights.

With Whitham leading the way the pace wasn't exactly touring speed, so I was quite relieved to have prised the Hornet's keys out of Niall's clenched fist before we left. On unfamiliar roads the Honda is the perfect tool. Its CBR-derived engine is smooth enough to flatter even the most cack-handed riding. Enter a corner too slowly or in the wrong gear and the 600cc motor copes without too much protest. A common complaint with the Hornet of old was the lack of bottom end, but the 2005 bike is stronger low down and much smoother. It still has the familiar Hornet vibes, but they feel slightly muted, which is strange as Honda claims not to have changed anything which could have such an effect. But something is different; I'm sure I'm not imagining it.

What has changed is the suspension, which feels far better than before. The new inverted forks up front are a tad soft but it isn't really a problem. You only really notice it because the revised set-up encourages you to ride faster than before.

"That Z750's engine is fantastic," said Whitham. "It sounds really good and the extra torque is dead useful. It's smooth from the bottom and strong right through the mid-range, which is just what you want from one of these kinda bikes - you need to be lazy on 'em. The rear shock in't too good though. I hit a few bumps and the back just clattered my arse. It needs more damping."

The Z's rear shock is a weak spot. For normal use it isn't bad, but add a few bumps and up the pace and it just gets overworked. The problem with bikes in such a competitive category is that manufacturers have to keep costs down so some areas are skimped on - and it's often suspension. It's the same story with the Fazer.

"It's too hard," reckoned Rob after riding the FZ6. "On smooth roads with fast bends this works, but on bumpy roads it kicks you out of the seat and makes it hard work. And the engine doesn't help matters. It needs lots of revs and isn't nearly as useable as the old Fazer's engine. It just feels wrong in this bike. If you want to buy an engine to scream the nuts off then buy a sports bike; these kind of of bikes need mid-range."

Niall half agreed: "Yeah, but a bit of character is a good. This Bandit is so lethargic. The brakes, engine, chassis, you name it. It's comfortable enough but it feels like it's from the dark ages. I'm sure in its day the Bandit was good, but its day was 10 years ago now!"

Apart from the digital fuel gauge there isn't anything about it that says 'I'm new'. "I'm sure that for a certain type of rider it's okay," reckoned James, "but if you rode any of the others you'd be gutted. It doesn't really do owt that wrong - it's comfortable and the suspension floats over bumps like a big magic carpet, but that's also its bigdisadvantage. If you aren't that experienced you may think it's fine, but try cornering at speed and the suspension is all over the place. It's just too soft."

You get what you pay for with the Bandit. It's a cheap, no frills entry to biking aimed at riders who want an easy-to-live-with machine. And that's what it is, which is fine if that's all you're looking for in a bike. But if you're looking for something that is more than a means to an end, something other than a tool to get you from A to B, then the Bandit may disappoint. It will carry you around in comfort, but not a lot else. Okay, you pay less for it, but a cheap price tag has other drawbacks, and with the Suzuki it's build quality. The bike we rode only had 1000 miles on the clock but it was already looking second-hand. Exposed areas were furring up and the bike felt past its best. Niall summed it up: "It already feels like a second-hand bike when you buy it new."

Which is a contrast to the other three bikes. Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki have made big efforts to ensure their bikes look anything but second-rate. The Z750 is stylish with its magnesium-coloured engine covers, and the new-for-2005 paint schemes have a cool metal flake effect, replacing the slightly Lego-brick blue of last year's machine. The FZ6 has underseat pipes and a really trick looking chassis, which is actually a cost cutting part but looks great, while the Hornet has a quality look and feel. In each case costs are cut using parts already in production leaving spare cash to concentrate on styling, and that helps shift bikes in a class where price has a big effect on sales.

So where does the smart money go? Unfortunately not with the Suzuki. Niall hit the nail on the head when he said the Bandit would have to be, "considerably cheaper than it already is to be an option. At the right price it is capable, but only that, not special." And while it is a grand cheaper, this saving would be lost on resale value due to the lack of build quality.

"It ain't bad in any way," said James, "but compared to anything else it looks dated and there in't anything that makes it stand out."

The Fazer split opinions. Niall was drawn to its hard suspension because he felt it complemented the revvy engine, but both Rob and I felt it was too harsh, unforgiving and lacking in low-down power. "It's not the strongest engine but I found it quite exciting," said Niall. "And I love the look of it."

James thought it was a class act. "It's awesome looking from some angles but others oh no, no, no," he said. "You have to make the engine work though, and I'm not sure that's what people want from this kind of bike." Good point. These bikes are often bought as a first big bike or easy-going commuter, so a user-friendly motor is ideal.

Enter the Hornet and Z750: When it comes to ease of use, they rule. The Kawasaki's bigger engine makes it the easiest to live with day-to-day; it's superbly smooth and powerful in the low and mid-range, and it doesn't feel cumbersome. A neat trick.

"It a nice bike," said James, "with a good engine, and it steers the best. I reckon the seat was a bit on the hard side but that's a minor thing. With no fairing you aren't going to be doing a massive mileage."

Niall agreed: "It's exactly what a naked bike is about: fantastic engine, over-the-front riding position and great looks. But the Hornet isn't far behind. It's a cute little bike with a low riding position and smooth throttle response. It's comfortable, built really well and dead easy to live with."

James is thinking about getting wife Andrea into bikes and reckons the Hornet would be perfect: "It's a bit lighter and gentler than the Kawasaki but still has a smooth engine with good low and mid-range. For more experienced riders I'd recommend the Z750, but if you're newer to biking you'll get on better with the Hornet."




PRICE NEW - £5199


POWER - 86bhp@11,800rpm

TORQUE - 43.3lb.ft@10,000rpm

WEIGHT - 178kg



TOP SPEED - 133.3mph

0-60 - n/a





PRICE NEW - £5199


POWER - 101.1bhp@10,600rpm

TORQUE - 52lb.ft@8000rpm

WEIGHT - 195kg



TOP SPEED - 141.4mph

0-60 - n/a





PRICE NEW - £4200


POWER - 73.6bhp@9850rpm

TORQUE - 41.9lb.ft@7500rpm

WEIGHT - 201kg



TOP SPEED - 129.5mph

0-60 - n/a





PRICE NEW - £5399


POWER - 87.6bhp@11,600rpm

TORQUE - 42.6lb.ft@9600rpm

WEIGHT - 173kg



TOP SPEED - 131.5mph

0-60 - n/a