Used 600s: Kawasaki ZX-636R, Honda CBR600FS, Yamaha R6, Suzuki GSX-R600

Yesterday's supersports screamers are still duking it out on the used battlefield. Under cover of sunshine, Bertie advances on middle England with a bunch of war veterans to find out who still cuts the mustard gas

I'm struck with the senselessness of it all. All this human waste and complete devastation. No, I'm not queuing in the gents' bogs at Brands Hatch after a World Superbike race; I'm standing by a commemorative obelisk in the drizzling rain and reading about the battle of Naesby in 1645.

It says on the plaque that around 8000 Royalist troops took on Parliament's New Model Army, which were some 13,500 strong. Little wonder it didn't go well for the Royalists. In the aftermath of the battle they were pursued and slaughtered all along the road to Leicester. At least 100 female camp followers were murdered or mutilated by battle-crazed Roundheads. Yuck.

There's a lot of emotion and pent up energy around old battlegrounds. And I'm adding to it as I'm now panting, sweating and swearing at world famous photographer John Noble, who's making me push a bike up a hill so we can take the opening shot you see on the previous page.

As a fat and un-fit me heaves 200-odd kilos of fully-fuelled supersports 600 up a small, damp hillock in Leicestershire to sit with its peers, my mouth is dry. It's dry because as I pull back, I do a double take at the realisation that these bikes - hot ships back in 2001-2002 - are now the old soldiers, seasoned campaigners who are still slugging it out in the busiest battlefield in biking: the used 600 market.

So they're not the latest tackle, but let's face it, these machines are the bikes that so many of us want, most of us can afford and thousands of us buy. They're (mostly) tame and useable enough to ride straight after your test and yet still crazy enough to downsize to if the wife/hubby runs off with the milkman/ paperboy and you have to sell your latest sports 1000. So while we can harp on about new bikes all we like, the reality for many of us is that the commitment of actually buying a brand-new machine is a bit too much for our pockets.

We start at Naesby, in Leicestershire, where, the locals insist, the ghosts of that fateful day on 14 June 1645 still remain locked in ethereal combat on each and every anniversary of that turning point in English history. As we wheel the bikes down the slippery mound and thumb the starter buttons, we realise that these old campaigners aren't ghosts, they're still very much alive and ready for battle.

Well, almost. The Suzuki and Kawasaki are fitted with alarms and immobilisers, and their batteries are dead. Thank God for Daryll, the spannering Dwaff. He's smaller than a newborn Hobbit and easier to bump-start than Elton John's pacemaker with a copy of Euro-Boy.

Away we go into the broadening sunshine. Sod the rain; we're chasing the sun.

I'm going to steal the keys to the Honda, I think. It's a pleasure to get on this bike as the overall shape of the FS looks so good with its double headlights and twin rear light cluster, and this one has been so damn well looked after. It's standard too, which makes the bike feel like it's hardly been used. There's a lovely black satin finish to the frame, which subtly butches up the looks of the bike as well as proving to be very hard wearing - with a bit of TLC these things can do huge mileages without looking tired.

But as we leave Naesby behind, you soon find that the riding experience isn't so impressive. The engine itself feels perhaps the worst of the four machines here. It hasn't the rawness or personality of the GSX-R or R6, and it's also the one, which needs most prodding of the gear lever to keep up with the boys ahead. Hmm... surely the CBR, in this, its sporty FS guise at least, should be more exciting? This, after all, is the version tweaked for more excitement. Damn it all, my rose-tinted memory is telling me that the standard F with plusher seat, centre-stand, slightly less poke and a few different engine internals felt better than this a few years ago. I know the rev-limiter kicked in at around 14,000rpm, as did a shift light, because together they woke me up. Okay, I'm joking, but welcome to CBR ownership: this bike doesn't shout about its talents. And that's the way it should be seen, because taken in isolation CBR600 is a corker and it will do anything you ask of it. This thing is an honest tool and, while it never feels completely involving or stimulating, it's still doing the job. And when we speed tested the bikes a day later we soon saw that there was a man of steel hidden under this mild-mannered exterior as the CBR wasn't the slowest bike out there.

I should have known better. You write off the CBR at your peril.

As we plough on through Leicestershire into Northamptonshire, other good points raise themselves. The brakes are another place where this bike takes top honours. Despite more than 10,000 miles under its belt, the pads bit hard into the twin front discs and hauled the bike up smartish, like.

Our first stop for pictures and Mossy, who's ridden many miles on all these bikes, can see I'm in a quandary with this machine.

"This is a bloody good bike that can do everything really," he mused. "Well everything bar excite, that is. It's just a bit too adept to do that. A bit like Claudia Schiffer who's just a bit too nice to be sexy. Actually, that's a load of shite. I'd love her to... " Yes, thank you Mossy. We get the picture.

So let's get the quality issue out of the way now. Honda's CBRs have always been the best bolted-together bits of Jap metal this side of a Samurai's suit of armour. Daryll knows CBRs better than any of us; he used to sell 'em at his shop: "The best 600cc motorcycle I ever owned was probably a 1987 CBR600," he recalled wistfully. "It was much better than anything else on the market at the time. And if you bought one in '87 for £2699-ish you'd make a profit on it a couple of years later as they held their money so well." They last, too. This example was in absolutely immaculate condition and had 10,400 miles on the clock - that's much more than the Kwak and yet the CBR is the better-finished motorcycle. Impressive.

Time to swap bikes, then. Like sitting in a bath of Preparation H, my gluteus maximus loves the plush seating of the ZX-636. I've always been a massive fan of the green bikes.

Hmm. S'funny, but I remember the 636 motor being stronger than this. In comparison to the GSX-R for midrange it feels like it's coming out second best. Can't be right, surely, not with those extra cubes? Still, the best bit about these babies is the real do-it-all factor you get from riding them. The middleweight Ninjas do feel like you could tour and scratch on them almost as well as the CBR, and with a bit more attitude and excitement to boot.

Mossy has been riding the ZX-6 for a while before me and we're starting to have a difference of opinion on this bike. While we agree that it has a pleasant mix of CBR and GSX-R, we disagree over the motor and the brakes. Mossy reckons the extra capacity gives the Kawasaki a real advantage lower down in the rev-range, but I can't feel it compared to the other bikes on this test. He also rates the brakes highly.

"The six-pot brakes do a bloody good job," he says pointing at the clean, green Kwak and me during our fuel stop. "They've got plenty of power and feel. Though the discs on this bike don't feel brilliant, like."

Aha! Agreement at last. There's the all-too familiar pulsing feel on hard braking which feels like a warped disc, but overall I'm not a fan of these six-pot Tokicos. Traditionally these brakes work well enough, but lacks feel. You never know how much you're going to get when you throw the anchor out, so regular cleaning of the calipers helps.

Got to agree with Mossy on two things though: the Kawasaki growl is as seductive as ever, meaning that you want to chase those green demons lurking up high on the rev counter, and this bike has also been nicely looked after. Handling too is crisp and precise, if not R6-twitchy.

Little things do annoy though. Back in the mid- to late-1990s I did wonder if Kawasaki engineers were caught in some kind of 1980s bubble, sitting there with wet-look perms and Betamax video recorders. Why? Because they always seemed to stick with old ideas for way too long, ideas like the fuel tap and the analogue speedo. For me, this could be a deal-breaker come cash up-front time, I can tell ya.

The sun is now shining brightly and I'm watching my force of stunt-monkeys pull wheelies for the camera. I've got the GSX-R to ride next but I'm starting to have carnal thoughts about the CBR600 as Mossy cruelly thraps it through the gears on its back wheel. I've been suckered in by the CBR, like more than 400,000 of us have worldwide. Let me tell you, the chances are that you WILL own a CBR600 at some time in your biking life. Sorry, but it's true.

Stronger feelings now I'm riding this GSX-R600. Feelings of pain. The aftermarket rearsets mean I'm in agony from the thighs down, while the higher-rise bars make your top-half feel more relaxed. The Quill pipe barks nicely though, and the motor on this bike feels fairly strong low-down. Not your typical GSX-R feeling where you're chasing 10,000rpm all the time. You can't mistake the GSX-R DNA in this bike, and for me that feeling is more concentrated and intoxicating the smaller cc the package is.

Handling-wise the GSX-R isn't too bad. The Öhlins rear-shock is a welcome addition as this bike, with these miles on it, would have seen the standard shock long since say goodbye to any damping it once had.

Mossy: "The handling is still very good, but the ride is spoilt by the ridiculously high rearsets. There's little need for them and the cramped riding position they force you into reduces your control over the bike. But the steering is quick and light thanks to the steering damper being removed."

And it's a shame the brakes are so poor. Again this isn't traditional GSX-R territory - normally the 600's brakes are fine - but these do feel as though they've suffered a little over time.

But let's pull some points back here for the GSX-R. Sure, we've mentioned the shite add-ons that ruin a perfectly good bike, but when you consider that this machine has done almost 25,000 miles, you have to reluctantly admit that the bloke who owned this machine did actually look after it. Sure, there are some scratches here and there and some paint has worn off around the seat, but for a bike with such a high mileage it hasn't done bad at all.

Sadly, the rain that met us in the morning at Naesby has finally chased us down to our favoured section of switchback bends in Northamptonshire, where Jon isn't really enjoying the R6. The ol' rodent, who normally plonks a bike on its ear with some aplomb, is being a little reluctant to play.

"It's a bit strange," says Urry the Irksome, "but despite this R6 having a 70-section front tyre instead of the standard 60-section, it doesn't handle as nicely as it should."

It's the end of the day so we decide to split up, head home and enjoy a morning's ride tomorrow before we head to Bruntingthorpe and speed testing. I've got the Yamaha.

I wasn't looking forward to this. For some reason R6s and me don't get on. I've not crashed one, mind, it's just that the R6 has always been just a little too manic for me and just a smidge too small to keep my lumpy frame comfortable.

The morning dawns bright and pleasant so I decide to go the very long and pretty way to meet Daryll, and see if on the way I could fall in love with a three-year-old R6. The first thing you notice is that wonderful motor. Despite having a stock pipe, this old R6 had plenty of guts lurking at the top-end of its rev-range, as Daryll later found out. It still pulls strongly from around 8000rpm, but it feels more full of character than the other bikes thanks to what feels like a little dip before that number appears on the tacho.

Peeling into the first couple of bends and I could see why Urry was a little circumspect in the corners on this bike. It feels a bit flighty. Not flighty as in bars-out-of-yer-hands while on the gas, but it felt more like the rear shock was lacking a little in the compression and preload department and feeling a bit low at the back.

Mind you, it wasn't enough of a problem to stop me relishing in the howl of a decent inline four hitting 12,500rpm. The R6 seems to have more top-end than Lucy Pinder. And looking at that number on the tacho is as arousing as checking those ladies' wares out. Well, it was until I hit a bump and the bike decided to go into a helluva wobble. Suddenly my undercarriage retracted in fear and panic and, despite repeated thoughts of Lucy Pinder, it refused to come out again for the rest of the day. Oh dear.

Speed testing with Daryll reveals figures almost as interesting as Lucy's. Despite my feeling with the GSX-R over the CBR and ZX-636, our VBox of tricks showed that the GSX-R was the most lethargic down Bruntingthorpe's runway. I wonder if the GSX-R is a restricted import, or maybe it's been down-geared? Oh well. But one of the biggest surprises came when we found that, despite having the most boring engine of the four, the CBR wasn't the slowest bike there.

Two winners here with a very close third and a sad, distant fourth. The CBR and ZX-636 take top honours, although neither are perfect.

The CBR is probably as close to a depreciation-proof middleweight as you're going to get. Like an iPod it's beautifully put together and its battery lasts marginally longer - unlike the other bikes, when you fit an alarm to 'em. Sure, it hasn't really got the 'wow' factor of the others when you're spinning it up, but it has the potential to be just as enjoyable with a few choice bolt-ons. Just remember to keep the original bits.

Almost up with the CBR is the ZX-6R. The finish on this example was exemplary and it comes close to doing what the CBR can do with a massive injection of fun and character. Both are fine-handling machines even with between 8-11,000 miles on them.

The R6, meanwhile, ploughs a different furrow, one that is more exciting, more visceral but ultimately just ever so flawed thanks to the slight suspension gremlins. Shame, because a well-sorted R6 is a thing of joy and the bike itself is only matched by the GSX-R for sheer excitement.

So there's one big loser here: the Suzuki GSX-R600. Yes, this one's been fairly well looked after, but it's also been butchered by some completely wank add-ons. When will GSX-R owners ever learn? The original and standard bike was so competitive that even with the onset of the new CBR-RR, ZX-6R and 2003-updated R6 it could cut it. But while the motor feels good on the road, it then fails to deliver at the strip, reading 186mph while providing only 155mph of go! Ah, that'll be the fiddled-with gearing, then. Added to this is the discomfort of the rearsets, complete with downward pointing control levers, which are a pain in the foot.

Sadly, this reflects what we've seen time and again with these bikes. First off, you need to keep 'em clean, and religiously so. And then you have to fit decent add-ons or at least keep the original kit. GSX-R buyers traditionally aren't those sorts of owners.

That said; remember that, just like the A-team, if you can find them, maybe you can have a standard, un-adulterated GSX-R600. It's just a shame that they're as rare as a clean bog stocked with soft toilet tissue at a British motorcycle racing circuit.