Used test: Kawasaki ZX-7R vs Suzuki GSX-R750 SRAD

Suzuki's GSX-R brand represented the ultimate race replica for the people. Can Kawasaki's masterpiece take it on?

In pubs and over-crowded car parks across the country, these two protagonists were the talking point of the year. The 750cc market was still huge and it hadn’t had a shake-up for some time, so having two come along at once sent press and punters alike into a genuine frenzy. Despite endless technological updates, Suzuki had lost their way with the last of the Slingshots and had suffered as a result, with a lack of silverware on the track and a slightly dented reputation on the street. Known affectionately as ‘The Plank’, the ZXR750 was tired and ready for immediate replacement.

The incredible effort that Suzuki put into the development of the 750WT blew our minds then and is still evident today. The entire machine was scrutinised meticulously from the engine internals to the electrics to ensure that every weight saving improvement that could be made, was. Even the rolling chassis and its diminutive dimensions were based on the RGV500 GP bike to give the 750 the base line with which the engineers could create a track inspired winner. Suzuki’s intentions were clear. Take the Superbike class to a level so high that the competition wouldn’t stand a chance, just as they had done back in 1985 with the ‘Slab Side’ 750F. History tells us that they achieved precisely this, but in doing so left the door wide open for Kawasaki to barge in with their lime green bruiser.

So utterly focused were Suzuki on producing a razor-sharp, one-dimensional racer that they unwittingly intimidated the poor folk who wanted a proper sports bike, or something that looked the real deal, but would be a road-focused pussycat to ride - hence the huge success of the ZX-7R

The great leap forward for Suzuki is so evident in its styling. Whilst retaining the overall aggressive identity of the GSX-R family, the WT looked much sleeker, more business-like and genuinely very horny indeed. The fairing was now smaller with covered headlights but with enough screen for the rider to crouch behind, and created from the side profile what looked like the perfect aerodynamic  flow with the air leaving the rider’s back and continuing on and past the bulging rear seat hump that caused a stir. A dozen years on and it still looks fast sitting still.

Kawasaki had created more of a handsome brute than a lithe beauty and the fascination with tiny and light had clearly not been a priority at development meetings in the leisure products department. In many ways the key to the respective looks and behaviour of these two is kilos. Suzuki had busted a gut to reduce their waistline while Kawasaki seemingly made no such attempt and proceeded to try to disguise it with a new set of clothes. It didn’t really work. The ZX-7R looks low and wide from every angle and indeed much more portly (and modern) than the outgoing ZXR750, even if it hadn’t actually gained any weight. It’s easy to sit here and poke the Kwak in the tummy and giggle behind its back but the fact is it looks bloody sensational. I know plenty of people who opted for it over the Suzuki purely on looks, and have met a few who have owned both. I always preferred the more aggressive looks of the 7R over the dinky WT in race trim, and it remains one of my favourite looking SBK racers of all time. Kawasaki also declined to develop the 7R over time, allowing it to sell well on its reputation until 2003, while Suzuki tinkered and fettled, introducing fuel injection a year later and enjoyed great success until its replacement in 2000.

The fact is that this category is a numbers obsessed game and Suzuki came up with the right numbers for a sensational power-to-weight ratio. The generous use of magnesium helped shave 9kg from the motor alone, 20kg off of the outgoing models weight and stood on the scales at over 25kg lighter than the 7R. If you combine 10% less weight and 10% more power, which the Suzuki did make at the wheel, then the significance of these numbers suddenly hits home, and you can bet that the riding experience is going to be on a very different level. What Suzuki had created was in fact so extreme that it instantly became the genuine and only rival for the already legendary 900cc Honda FireBlade which had dulled slightly since its inception.

Kawasaki ZX-7R

Kawasaki ZX-7R: Still fat

Numbers aside for a moment, the 7R still feels pretty extreme in terms of riding position and is as radical as you’d really want on a road bike – plenty of weight on the wrists which are at the same height as your rear end feet tucked up nicely to form the racers crouch. The view for the rider is serious too – centrally focused rev counter with the redline set at 12,500rpm, fully adjustable front forks and span adjustable clutch and brake levers. Jostle the bike into position before starting and there’s a timely reminder of the extra kilos and just how that might have a negative affect on the ride ahead.

After adjusting to the tyres that have seen better days, it takes only minutes to feel comfortable and relaxed in the seat. At pottering pace the 7R offers a very leisurely and reassuringly stable ride. The motor  is neither super-smooth nor particularly harsh, but has that slightly raspy and trademark Kawasaki throaty edge that adds a tingle of excitement. Whilst it will pick up speed at a reasonable rate in top, the torque is simply overpowered by weight so the use of gears to get a hurry on is absolutely essential. It remains smooth yet uneventful below 6,000rpm and you could close your eyes and imagine being on a sports tourer heading for the ferry.

But click down three gears and wind the throttle fully open and it’s suddenly a sports bike. Engine noise, induction roar and the howl from the silencer all announce that we’re off and to be fair, the 7R is no slouch.

On a good stretch of A-road it has enough power to dive into the sweetest high-speed corners as fast as you’d be prepared to on any current sports bike, though gearing and revs are quite crucial for shall I/shan’t I overtaking moves. The engine is willing and power delivery is progressive, if not mind-blowing, above 7,000rpm but you’ll need to keep it well above 9,000rpm to make serious progress and keep the adrenalin flowing. But the pioneers of ram air induction have added that little extra few horses at the top end to help not only with performance but also the overall experience in contrast to the docile bottom end.

Those massive 310mm front discs and 6-piston calipers create a formidable braking department and the new 43mm USD front forks and beefy spin spar frame meant that there was little if any detectable flex in the front end, unless hammering down the gears into Redgate in a hot summers day. Kawasaki must be applauded for the chassis on the 7R because at any speed and on all but the most disruptive road surfaces, the bike remains calm and super-stable.

It takes some ham fisted riding to unsettle the Kwak at road speeds because stability is the one true benefit of it being overweight. It will glide over the bumpy bits thanks to a new and more compliant rear end and although you could argue that the steering is too leisurely (easily rectified), it does provide a smooth, manageable high-speed experience with none of the flappability of incorrectly set-up lighter machines. It’s almost odd that the bike manages to behave much the same regardless of road surface, corner entry speed and lean angle. It is always solid and planted which is why it was so popular – plenty of thrills for the average rider but without the skittish terror induced (or imagined) from hammering a knife-edged pocket racer.

Click to read: Kawasaki ZX-7R owner's reviews

Kawasaki ZX-7R Specifications

Price now: £1,000 - £3,000
Engine: 748cc liquid-cooled, 16-valve in-line DOHC four
Power: 112bhp @ 11,800rpm
Torque: 58 lb-ft @ 10,000rpm
Front suspension: 43mm USD telescopic fork, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Unitrack monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: Twin 310mm discs, 6-piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 230mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Dry weight: 203kg
Fuel capacity: 18 litres
Top speed: 155mph
Colours: Lime green, Red

Suzuki GSX-R750 SRAD

Suzuki GSX-R750 SRAD: Still fruity

To fully experience the out-of-the-box race bike experience and to take me back a decade in time, the GSX-R had to be ridden second. Our late ’97 model here had been ever so mildly pimped but also well set up by owner and WT fanatic Warren Pole. Whilst Kawasaki always produced an attractive alternative to the race-rep lime green colour scheme, the Suzuki was generally only worth having in the blue/white option and this one is a peach.

In comparison to the 7R, every inch of this machine is track biased. It is the same size and weight of a 600cc Super Sport replica twelve years its junior – testament enough to its ground breaking specifications. It is as minimal as a bike can be whilst still being road legal – thirty minutes with the under seat tool kit and this baby was ready to race. Gone is the ugly and traditional GSX-R double cradle frame, in its place a figure hugging aluminium beam affair cradling the all-new short stroke, high revving motor that was short enough to allow a reduced wheelbase.

Sit in it and you feel like a racer. There’s not much underneath you and that’s just how it feels – wiggle the bike from left to right without using your arms and you begin to doubt that it tips the scales as high as 169kg dry.

The engine is more crisp, responsive and rev-happy at a standstill and feels as though it is begging to dip in to that incredible 13,500rpm redline. The bike has begun turning in to the corner before the rider has thought of it – the ’96 bike was noted for its quick steering and I can’t think of a bike since that has a faster turn-in than this shortened GSX-R.

The Suzuki is quite frantic and is designed to thrive on revs and the sensation that this delivers the rider is explosive. Though torque must be sacrificed, the GSX-R is easier to ride faster than the Kwack with the same amount of gear changes, thanks to its low weight. Thanks to the engine management black box of trickery with throttle position and rpm sensors, the GSX-R will pull smoothly and cleanly from as low as 2,000rpm and will start to fly at 8-9,000rpm, pulling hard all the way to just over 13,000rpm.

Whilst the 7R is a fast bike, the GSX-R feels dangerously fast in comparison. Not only that, but the oil tanker stability of the ZX is not present here. Whilst the Suzuki steering seems to slow at higher speeds and develop a more natural turn-in rate, it is equally likely to react to poor surfacing and poor rider decisions. Yes it will change direction mid corner in the blink of an eye, but such is the geometry and level of feedback that it disguises none of what is going on beneath you.

Everything from the brakes through to the suspension and beautifully crisp (as only Suzuki could make ‘em) gearbox to the rider’s hands is pure racetrack in feel. The SRAD (Suzuki Ram Air Direct) intakes suck air through those fairing ducts either side of the headlights and force it through the frame, not a genuinely pressurised airbox like on the Kawasaki, but the noise under full chat is pure addiction. This is one of those ultra-pure riding experiences on a bike that was born out of a necessity to rampage the race track and murder everything in its path, and thankfully before tiresome safety gizmo’s had a chance to dilute those instincts. Of course the ZX-7R could not  compete in terms of sheer performance but on a different real-world level, was a truly heroic competitor and sadly the last hard-core Kawasaki towear the 750 sticker.

What interests me is how the SRAD would compare to the GSX-R750 of today, because I have a sneaky feeling that in terms of outright adrenalin and grin factor, Suzuki have never improved on the original WT.

Click to read: Suzuki GSX-R750 SRAD owner's reviews

Suzuki GSX-R750 Specifications

Price now: £1,500 - £3,000
Engine: 749cc liquid-cooled, 16-valve in-line DOHC four
Power: 130bhp @ 11,500rpm (claimed)
Torque: 60 lb-ft @ 10,000rpm
Front suspension: 43mm USD telescopic fork, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, gas/oil damped, fully adjustable
Front brake: Twin 296mm discs, 2-piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 296mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Dry weight: 179kg
Fuel capacity: 18 litres
Top speed: 165mph
Colours: Blue/white, Black