Road Test

Road Test: Middleweight Test

We put seven of the best naked middleweights through our toughest test ever...

Visordown Motorcycle News


Three things in life are certain. Birth, death and at some point you will own a middleweight 600. Everyone I can think of has, at some point in their biking life, done their daily commute on one of these best sellers or its predecessor. It's just a fact of life. When you're looking for a cheap bike that will still offer some thrills then the middleweight class is the one to go for.

And when you're talking about success, these bikes make Bill Gates look like a spotty teenager flipping burgers for a living in a fast food joint. Middleweight 600s are the best selling bikes in both the UK and Europe as a whole, and have been for several years. Which isn't surprising when you look at what you get for your cash.

This category of bikes is designed to be everything to every man or woman. They are daily commuters, traffic beaters and weekend play things while still offering tremendous value for money, low insurance and good looks. What more could you ask for in a bike?

In fact they are so popular we have had to bring you the biggest and hardest group test TWO has ever done just to split these bikes. We tested seven of the best naked middleweights - three of them brand new for 2004 - from six different manufacturers on the road, track and city streets, as well as finding out which is the fastest, cheapest to insure, toughest built and the biggest bargain in the showrooms.

We strapped them on the dyno, ran them dry on fuel to avoid you getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, scraped parts so you don't have to, weighed each bike with a full tank of fuel and even photographed them from every angle so you can cut out the pics and decide which would look best in your garage (although if you do please don't call us to tell us about it).

In our new style group test we left no stone unturned and no box unchecked in out pursuit to find the middleweight champion of the UK.

So before you part with hard earned cash read on to see where the clever money goes and which one punches above its weight.

ON THE TRACK

That Ducati has three sidestands; one in the usual place and two others that double up as exhausts," reckoned Tim after a session on the Monster.

To be fair these bikes aren't really designed to be thrashed around a track - they each have far sportier cousins for that job - but just because you want a middleweight shouldn't bar you from enjoying the odd trackday, and what better way to see what their handling is like when pushed to the limit?

Despite its terrible lack of ground clearance the Monster actually feels quite solid on track. Its trellis chassis is the same design as the sportier models in the range and feels like it could handle far more abuse than the ground/exhaust interference will allow. The suspension may be on the budget side but it is set quite firm and works well while the bike feels light and flickable, albeit with a slight skittishness to it. Despite lacking initial bite the twin disc brakes are strong and, as Ducati has chosen to give the Monster four-piston calipers rather than the two- piston sliding units on the Japanese bikes, they offer more feel. But the major problem with the Monster, and the reason why I wouldn't take one on track, is the lack of ground clearance. The trouble with exhausts is they don't fold up like pegs and tend to lever the rear wheel off the ground, which is a recipe for disaster.

Which is never an issue with the Speed Four. Triumph has basically whipped the fairing off the TT600 and down-geared it to make the Speed Four, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to find it is a decent track bike. But just how good was the real shock. "This thing could easily hold it's own on a track handlingwise," reckoned Daryll. The old TT600 was a great handling bike and because the Speed Four uses the same running gear it keeps the beautifully balanced feel, great brakes and excellent handling of its sportier cousin. Although the engine runs out of power much above 110mph and lacks a bit of midrange, as long as the needle is kept up near the top of the revs the Speed Four is right at home on a track.

But where the Speed Four was a surprise the SV was the let down. Having raced TWO's SV this year I was looking forward to riding the naked one on track. But where our race bike feels planted in corners the naked one wallows and bounces when pushed. The problem stems from both the budget suspension, which gets overwhelmed , and the riding position. Having ridden a faired SV on track I reckon the naked bike's higher bars take too much weight off the front wheel, while the faired SV, with it's lower clip-on bars, puts more of the rider's weight forward, keeping the front planted. It's a shame because the chassis, motor and brakes are all otherwise really good.

Out of the three Japanese inline-fours on this test the Hornet felt the sportiest on track, and it was only when really pushing that the pegs started to touch down. Flicking the bike around it turned the fastest of all, with the Triumph a close second, but where the Speed Four felt balanced the Hornet felt much more on the edge and every now and then would shake its head a bit to keep you awake. Through the corners it felt really good but there was always a slight lively edge to it, which both the FZ6 and Z750 lacked.

With the Z it was probably more down to the extra weight it carries, but it felt more controllable and balanced than the Hornet. It takes a bit more effort to change direction and the pegs scraped earlier but the Kawasaki was more relaxing to ride on track than the Honda, thanks partly to the motor. Its extra 750cc means fewer gear changes and less frantic screaming of the motor, leaving the rider to concentrate on the next corner. A Z750-engined Hornet would be just about perfect...

Which is where Yamaha's FZ6 comes in. Despite having the same 600cc capacity as the Hornet the FZ6 feels smoother in the mid-range while still matching the Hornet's top end rush. And while it doesn't have quite as sharp handling as the Hornet it's more stable, while still being quite fast to turn in.

And the XT660X? Well, it isn't a trackday bike. Despite being firmer than most supermotos, giving it quite good handling (although with limited ground clearance), with a top speed of just over 100mph you're not going to find many on track. But give it a twisty road...

DARYLL YOUNG'S SECOND OPINION

The surprise of the track test was undoubtedly the Speed Four, what a great track bike. Despite its look the Triumph is ace, great chassis and brakes and although the motor is underpowered in the mid-range, get it up the revs and it flies. I thought the FZ6 would be good, but the handling wallowed and the motor is even weaker than the Triumph's in the mid-range. It didn't really feel very suited to the track. The Hornet felt slightly more focused. On a smooth track it was good but got a bit flighty on the bumps. Despite its awful ground clearance I really got on with the Duke. I only weigh 10 stone and I was grinding it everywhere, not good if you are heavier. The SV could be good, but the suspension is way too underdamped, spend some money on good units and it will fly. The XT was fun but the engine too weak and the Z750 was my second favourite. Brilliant motor and really good handling.

ON THE ROAD

What makes a good trackday bike is usually exactly the opposite for what you want in a roadbike. On the road you want comfort and easy of use over sharp handling and a peaky motor. Which is where the XT comes into its own.

With its huge single-cylinder lump thumping out a large, even spread of torque through the whole range, the XT rider can stick it in top gear and enjoy the ride. And don't worry about the speed, not only does the XT struggle to get over 100mph, but you can't read the speedo anyway due to the front brake line running directly infront of the LCD screen. Nice one Yamaha! On the road the XT's lack of outright top speed isn't a problem and the high, wide bars and decently padded seat make it comfortable for miles and miles. Well, at least until the tank runs dry fuel at around 100 miles. Despite being a big single the vibrations aren't too intrusive - unless you try and pull top gear from under 30mph - and the long suspension does a really good job of dealing with pot holes and roadkill. For road riding the handling is more than good enough, and although the front brake lacks some feeling, it's plenty powerful enough, thanks to its OE braided steel line.

After its poor showing on the track I thought things would improve for the Monster on the road as ground clearance becomes less of an issue. Well, things did improve for the Duke but not by much. We all agreed that the Monster has the worst riding position of all the bikes tested. A combination of too wide, too low bars and footpegs that are too far back all conspire to make the Monster feel very unnatural to ride. Its motor lacks the refinement and smoothness of the SV's twin, and feels lumpy and vibey with a clunky gearbox. Through corners the handling is good if firm, although the exhausts will still grind out if you hit a bump mid-corner. But get up some speed and the Ducati has a feeling of not having enough weight to pin it to the road's surface, and feels skittish and floaty.

The SV has a similar feeling but only at higher speeds. Where on the track the suspension fails to cope well with hard cornering on the road it's much more suited. The Suzuki is a great back road toy, mainly thanks to its engine and fantastic chassis. The SV's motor is a beauty. Compared to the lumpy Ducati it's smoother than Justin Trousersnake at the Playboy mansion, with enough power and a typically good Suzuki gearbox while the chassis is more than up to the job of keeping everything in line. After a few miles the hard seat becomes an issue but for playing on your local roads the SV is a blast.

But what you really need for the ultimate back road toy is an inline-four.

The winner from the track, Triumph's Speed Four, retains its hooligan edge on the road, but lacks practicality. If you're after thrills the Speed Four is a great play thing for the first 50-odd miles but then the high pegs, which gave it so much ground clearance on track, start to cripple your knees, and the clip-on bars do your wrists in. But this is almost forgivable because it's so much fun. As well as sounding really raw and aggressive the Speed Four has a real kick of acceleration at low revs which makes it a lot of fun to run.

Compared to it, the FZ6 feels a bit muted and lacking. The motor is fast at the top-end and the handling really good on the road, almost as good as the Speed Four's, but through the mid-range it feels strangled. It doesn't have the Triumph's free-breathing kick, which ruins the fun unless you like screaming an engine. This aside the riding position is good, although the rev counter is impossible to read.

No such problems with the Hornet's large clocks, and on the road it's hard to split the Hornet and FZ6. Both lack in the mid-range, although the Honda feels slightly stronger, and they both handle similarly with the FZ6 feeling slightly more balanced while the Hornet has a sportier feel to it.

But what you really want is the Z750. Despite the suspension being a bit on the soft side, the chassis holds it all together well and again it's the extra mid-range that makes the difference. There's no need for frantic gear changing, no lack of mid-range and it has a gearbox every bit as smooth as the SV's. Forced to choose one of the seven we'd all plump for the Z. It may not handle quite as well as the Triumph, Hornet or FZ6, but it's close enough.

TIM DICKSON'S SECOND OPINION

The Triumph's looks don't do it for me but it goes well. It's a bit cramped for my 6ft 2in frame, but handles a treat. The motor's effective, if a bit revvy for some. The Monster is probably my least favourite Ducati, and it could be so much more. Brakes, chassis and engine are all let down by the lack of ground clearance even at a moderate pace. New riders won't be put off but they'll soon find the bike's limits. We all love the XT's looks but the ride underwhelms. It's a hoot in the right conditions but it's the biking equivalent of a BMX: great fun to ride around the garden but try going any distance and the novelty soon wears off. The SV didn't do it for me. Nice motor, shame about the vague front end, while the Hornet and FZ6 are same-but-different. The Yam has the looks, the Honda's got the build quality. The Z750 walks this test. Comfortable, good looking, and with one of the best motors of 2004. My winner.

ON THE STREET

Most riders buy a middleweight over a sportsbike not only for the cheaper running costs but also their practicality as town bikes.

Before we rode them our money was on the XT as being the best town bike as it is essentially a practical supermoto designed for the city streets. But where its tall seat height gives a good view over cars and the torquey motor accelerated quickly no matter what the revs, the problem is it's so low geared it seems that you spend your whole life swapping cogs, which can be a pain. Also the wide bars limit filtering ability, although the fold-back mirrors are a good feature.

For pure filtering ability the SV is the daddy. The little V-twin is narrow, light and its beautiful motor can hold gears for ages. And if changes are needed it's a smooth process, unlike on the FZ6.

The naked Fazer has inherited the R6's gearbox, which isn't good news. At low revs it clunks and bangs into gear and the clutch is grabby. Which is a shame as the riding position is excellent for commuting, it has a huge steering lock and the bars are narrow for getting through gaps in traffic.

Despite being physically larger than the others the Z750 hides its size well through traffic. Its extra weight isn't noticeable and while it struggles to match the tiny SV when it comes to filtering, it will happily stay with all the others while giving the rider an easier ride. Thoughtfully the Z has a very smooth gearbox and light clutch.

Which is something Ducati has learnt. New for this year is a re-designed clutch to make the lever action lighter. Although it takes a bit of getting used to and feels very weird at first, it's a huge improvement over the old clutch. Unfortunately the gearbox is still on the rough side and the seating position becomes uncomfortable after about ten minutes, which makes the Monster a horrible commuter. On the plus side it's very light and nippy, although the steering lock is poor.

The Speed Four was proving the surprise of the test, but while its motor and narrow bars made it good for filtering the high pegs and clip-ons made it a painful experience.

And the Hornet? Every city traffic light seems to come with a Hornet at the front of the queue so could so many be wrong? No. The Honda is second only to the SV, with a punchy motor, light clutch and excellent gearbox, combined with a comfortable riding position and narrow bars for getting through gaps.

Performance testing not only tells us how fast bikes are, but also how stable they are at speed. We use a V-Box for speed testing which uses GPS satellites to accurately calculate the bike's speed. It's accurate to around 30cm at 180mph!

According to Daryll, who tested the bikes, the hardest to get off the line for the quarter mile time was the FZ6, no thanks to its grabby clutch action. And it didn't feel right afterward the run, either. The rest were easy thanks to smoother clutch operations but it took him a few runs to get used to the Ducati's all-new light clutch action.

At speed all the bikes were stable apart from the XT660X which had a slight weave once it got over 95mph.

The Triumph's top speed was helped by the small fairing which was useful at top speed even if it doesn't offer much in the way of weather protection. Daryll also mentioned that the Hornet vibrated the through the bars at speed, as did the FZ6, while the SV was the smoothest.

UNDER THE SKIN

Heritage on these bikes normally means parts inherited from older brothers, long since departed.

We say normally because when you look at the newest and biggest capacity of these seven - the Kawasaki Z750 - there's not a lot that's been seen before.

It shares a frame similar to (not identical to) the Z1000 and a brand-new (and this is the strange for the budget class) motor. Pillions do OK on the Z750, as the extra CCs mean the rider can be smoother, riding the torque rather than chasing revs. The seat unit, developed from the ZX-6R, means there's a bit of space under the seat, the pegs are pretty high and there's no grab-rail.

Move to the Hornet and the heritage thing comes across. The '98 CBR600 motor is from yester-year, armed with smaller carbs (34mm as opposed to 36mm) for better mid-range. Practical stuff includes foldable bungee hooks from under the seat and a little useable space under the seat.

The Speed Four is based heavily on the older (and shitter) TT600. Hence it's superb chassis. Thankfully, the weak point in the bike - the motor's top-end - has been addressed a long time ago on the TT and benefits from shorter intakes into the ram-air system. It also has bungee hooks on the rear foot pegs, no grab rail and little in the way of underseat storage.

Underseat storage is non-existent on the FZ6 thanks to the underseat exhausts and bungee hooks can get melted by their proximity to the afore-mentioned end-cans.

The Ducati has grab-rails under the side plastics, no bungee hooks with practically nowt in the way of underseat storage, while Suzuki's SV is positively teeming with useful features. It has good underseat storage, a good single grab rail and two bungee points.

The last Yamaha, the XT660X has two grab rails that can double as bungee points, should the prospective pillion not feel the urge to take on the plank-like seat. The XT is certainly more suited to your single-seat urban missions.

DUCATI MONSTER M620S

The new style Monster 620ie was launched in 2002. Ducati increased the capacity to 618cc and added fuel injection. This year the model features a new style, lighter action clutch and different mirrors that Ducati claim offer a better view of what's behind. Quite a novelty on a Ducati!

SUZUKI SV650

The new style, fuel injected SV650 was launched in 2003. It comes in either the naked or half-faired version with the sportier faired version coming with clip-on bars, a small fairing and slightly higher pegs. There is usually around a £300 price difference between the two models in dealers

TRIUMPH SPEED FOUR

The Speed Four has remained unchanged since it was launched in 2002. The only alterations have been colours. Originally launched in orange, black and yellow these colours were soon joined by the lovely green you see below. Orange has been dropped from the range due to a lack of popularity

HONDA HORNET 600

The Hornet received an update in 2003. It now only comes in a naked version, although a small screen is available as an official extra (see the picture below). The half-faired version was only available between 2000 and 2002. Hornets come with Honda's own HISS immobiliser system fitted.

KAWASAKI Z750

Kawasaki launched the Z750 this years to cries of "why isn't it a 600?" Well who cares, it rocks. There is absolutely no connection between the horrible ZR-7 and the Z750, so don't buy one thinking it's another! The Z750 is the good looking naked bike, the ZR-7 is a pile of old, air-cooled poo

YAMAHA FZ6

THE FZ6 was launched in early 2004, a few months after the new style faired Fazer 600. It is essentially the same bike as the Fazer but the fairing is removed and replaced by a stylish single light, the bars are lower and the mirrors are different. It costs around £100 less than the faired version

YAMAHA XT660X

The XT660X is the first officialy made, mass produced Japanese supermoto. Aimed at younger riders, the XT isn't designed to race but instead to be a good looking supermoto-styled city bike that won't blow up every five miles or rattle your fillings out on the motorway

DECISION TIME

Overall the Kawasaki has to win this test. It offers the best of all worlds. It handles the track well, is great on the road and can commute through traffic with the best. The FZ6 is a close second but the lack of mid-range and clunky gearbox were annoying and a let down.

The biggest surprise was the Speed Four. What a top bike. It may look a bit 'different' but on track it was simply superb and great fun on the back roads. Build quality is a bit suspect but the price is definitely right. Honda's Hornet does everything well and is a joint second with the FZ6, although for us the Yamaha edges it on looks. Although the SV is a great commuter and brilliantly priced, it struggled when the pace upped. Spend a few quid on suspension and the little Suzuki becomes a great track tool, but not as standard.

The XT is a great looking commuter and a genuinely practical supermoto, but although fun it just didn't quite provide the thrills its looks promise. Unfortunately the Duke doesn't offer enough to justify the price and its lack of ground clearance is a pain.

SPECS - DUCATI

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2004

PRICE NEW - £4995

ENGINE CAPACITY - 618cc

POWER - 59.7bhp@8475rpm

TORQUE - 39lb.ft@6240rpm

WEIGHT - 177kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 770mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 15L

TOP SPEED - 118.6mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 103miles

SPECS - HONDA

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2004

PRICE NEW - £5049

ENGINE CAPACITY - 599cc

POWER - 89.5bhp@11,600rpm

TORQUE - 44.8lb.ft@9600rpm

WEIGHT - 178kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 790mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 17L

TOP SPEED - 133.7mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 143miles

SPECS - KAWASAKI

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2004

PRICE NEW - £5490

ENGINE CAPACITY - 748cc

POWER - 102.3bhp@10,455rpm

TORQUE - 54.2lb.ft@8027rpm

WEIGHT - 195kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 18L

TOP SPEED - 139mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 147miles

SPECS - SUZUKI

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2004

PRICE NEW - £4349

ENGINE CAPACITY - 645cc

POWER - 73.1bhp@9074rpm

TORQUE - 45.5lb.ft@7376rpm

WEIGHT - 169kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 800mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 17L

TOP SPEED - 124.2mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 129miles

SPECS - TRIUMPH

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2004

PRICE NEW - £4999

ENGINE CAPACITY - 599cc

POWER - 90.9bhp@12,475rpm

TORQUE - 41.9lb.ft@10,441rpm

WEIGHT - 170kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 810mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 18L

TOP SPEED - 135.5mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 139miles

SPECS - YAMAHA FZ6

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2004

PRICE NEW - £5399

ENGINE CAPACITY - 599cc

POWER - 93.4bhp@12,559rpm

TORQUE - 41.2lb.ft@10,658rpm

WEIGHT - 187kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 19L

TOP SPEED - 135mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 153miles

SPECS - YAMAHA XT660X

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2004

PRICE NEW - £5099

ENGINE CAPACITY - 660cc

POWER - 47.8bhp@7985rpm

TORQUE - 34.7lb.ft@6735rpm

WEIGHT - 173kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 875mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 15L

TOP SPEED - 102.2mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 110miles