Despite the phenomenal top end of the Kawasaki, it looked like the
performance stakes would be between the Yamaha and the Honda. For handling, grip
and steering, Terry rated the Honda as perfect, again putting it a couple of
points ahead of the FZR.
Tony also rated the Honda best in handling — it comes with Michelin radials
while all the others were on Dunlops — but like most riders, found that the CBR
was second to the Yamaha under braking. The Honda's brakes are powerful, a bit
heavy and have a tendency to make the bike sit up in corners. Depending on how
the suspension is set up, this can be a strong or a mild tendency, but when
you've got it at its mildest, the suspension is getting towards the
teeth-chattering choppy setting.
Where the Honda felt firm, taut and heavier to steer, the Yamaha always
seemed easier to turn and yet it was just as precise. On the FZR you could
simply point it and go but then its riding position is less of a compromise and
the Honda feels completely natural whether you are scratching round a circuit or
easing it through rush hour traffic. Here and on motorways, the Yamaha's small
seat and hard rear suspension made it less of a favourite than the CBR. (Anyone
dismantling the bodywork would quickly reach a different opinion. All CBRs have
suffered awkward-to-fit plastic; this one takes the art a stage further and if
the studio where we stripped the bikes hadn't been on the ground floor, I would
cheerfully have thrown the entire bike out of the window.)
In touring conditions, engine performance counts for less and the Honda was
in a three-way tussle with the Suzuki and the Kawasaki for comfort and
effortless driveability. Strangely enough, most of the riders criticised the
Kawasaki for lacking midrange and feeling peaky, while praising the Honda for
its flexibility. The engine tests showed that the Kawasaki has in fact got a
better midrange. . . it must be the combination of the Honda's immense rev range
and low gearing again.
What also works in the Honda's favour, even in touring and traffic
conditions, is the blend of good handling, a perfect riding position and well
set-up controls. It all gives the rider confidence and comfort, he feels
happier, it's less effort and he's less likely to make mistakes like being
caught in the wrong gear. So the bike feels better, maybe even quicker, because
Stephen commented that the rider looked as if he fitted the Honda; Terry said
the Honda looked and felt good. . .and was great fun to ride; Tony said it was
the easiest to ride although he preferred the crisp response of the Yam.
And this is what makes the Honda the best of the bunch. It has a pretty thick
edge in performance over the others; it may not be quite as crisp or as light as
the Yamaha, but it isn't far behind and, in every other respect it feels as if
has been tailored just to suit you and the conditions. It feels like a lot of
effort has gone into the design and development, and the price reflects this;
how much optimization can you afford?
Running, in most people's opinions, a close second to the Honda, the FZR
would occasionally shine out and become the undisputed best of the bunch. The
braking point for the hairpin was one of these times. The surprise was that it
stayed with the Honda on so little power.
When we ran the engine tests we were worried in case there was something
wrong with the engine — it was about 4bhp down on last year's demonstrator — but
we think it was because the motor was still a bit tight. It had covered less
than 500 miles when we did the dyno test but later on it pulled the same top
speed (140.5mph) within half an mph of what we got last year.
Fault or no fault, it was a good way behind both the Honda and the Kawasaki
on peak power, which isn't totally amazing when you see that the Yamaha runs
32mm carburettors while the others are up to 34 and 36mm and even the Suzuki has
Apart from that, it has got a very strong midrange, as much peak torque as
the others and it has got a very steeply climbing torque curve; this, the crisp
throttle response and the light weight of the machine are what the rider can
feel. It makes the bike lively and it's what our riders liked and mentioned most
about the FZR.
In contrast to the philosophy behind the Kawasaki, the FZR feels like a 250.
Its riding position is race-oriented — it is comfortable on long journeys if you
happen to be the same shape as the Yamaha but not many people are. But it also
puts the rider in the best position when he needs to throw the FZR at a corner;
where he aims, it goes. It's as simple as that.
For this year there are new graphics, a single headlight fairing, radial
tyres (Dunlops on this one) and first and second gearbox ratios are different.
First is slightly lower, while second is slightly higher and the final drive
pulls one tooth higher on the back wheel although this will be offset to some
extent by the lower profile tyre.
The tyres aren't bad but we Know what this bike can be like on the best tyres
(soft compound Metzelers) and the difference is worth having. The only real
fault with the bike is the combination of rear shock and the tyre; it is too
hard and choppy for road use and doesn't keep the wheel hard against the ground
when cornering fast. The wheel starts to chatter and spin just when you want it
to dig in and drive.
Despite the riding position, Tony liked the Yamaha best in traffic and went
on at some length about the v. torquey motor, the crisp response and the fact
that the Yam had the best midrange and fastest roll-on speed. Stephen made
similar noises about the flexibility, the pick-up and the fact that it was
rarely necessary to shift down in order to accelerate briskly.
The lack of weight and size also showed up under braking; three of us thought
the Yamaha was best, while Terry reckoned it was a close second to the Honda.
Both bikes had a heavy, solid, four-fingered sort of feel, but lots of power.
Where the Honda had a quick-action span adjuster, the Yamaha had a screw and
locknut — on both machines the brakes were so powerful it made a big difference
if the lever span could be made to match your hand span.
Even if it wasn't quite as quick as the Honda around the circuit, the FZR was
certainly easier to use. The harsh rear suspension was the only real criticism
here and combined with the narrow, hard seat — made a rather greater criticism
for the road. The Yamaha is more open to general criticism: it is the only one
without a centre stand, it is the unfriendliest towards pillions and Tony
didn't like the flimsy tank, whose top would bend in and out if you rested your
hand on it. Ironically it had the best
Sleek and single minded, the Yamaha goes where it's pointed and gets the
pretty swiftly. It is also the only one not to have a centre stand, much to
Micron's delight. mirrors of the lot.
Overall, our testers rated the Yamaha for its performance and its fun value.
Terry thought he would prefer it to the Honda if it were going to be raced. But
when it came to it, they all put the Honda at the top of the list and the Yamaha
second as an everyday road bike. That, however, was purely on riding
impressions. The knowledge that the Yamaha costs £300 less than the Honda might
just change this particular perspective.
I have to admit that I had never taken the GSX very
seriously; this attitude stems largely from its underpowered engine which puts
it approximately one generation behind the others and prevents it from competing
on any performance grounds. It was also built down to a price and some of the
quality around the bike reflects this a bit too obviously. Thus it was just a
cheapo substitute for the real thing, you get what you pay for, etc, etc.
The day at the studio began a minor change of mind. The Suzuki was the only
one to have been ridden on the road at that point and had to be cleaned. The
salt and assorted road muck actually came off quite easily (although a week
later I was still finding white and furry bolt heads that the WD40 had missed).
And the bodywork snapped in and out of place like a racer's compared with the
Honda. In my frustrated smugglings with the Honda's fairing I began to develop a
warm affection for the Suzuki.
It contrives to look smaller than the others, although in reality it is
considerably heavier. Tony, who is a designer and knows about these things,
said, "[the GSX] is the nicest looking, v. angular and aggressive. Having ridden
all four, I would choose the Honda as favourite even though the colours are naff
and it doesn't look as fast as the Suzuki." Who'd have thought it?
Of course, however you look at performance, the GSX is well down. But on the
motorways, through town, on the mountain roads and even at the twisty race
track, nobody ever got left behind on it. At the track it wasn't even last. The
only places it got seriously blown off were in the test house and along
Bruntingthorpe's straight. Quality still shows up in odd places, for instance,
Suzuki's suspension doesn't keep the wheels evenly pressed against the ground
and limits its cornering ability. Yet it wasn't much worse than the Yamaha and,
on similar tyres, it behaved in a similar way. Most of the riders' comments put
it in the "average" bracket, with one or two hints of praise peeping through
when you've got an "average" bike at well below average cost, it means the value
Of course, when you start analysing it in detail, it doesn't match the best
bikes. Terry, having made a note of the good riding position and controls,
particularly the brakes, on both the Honda and the Yamaha then came to the
Suzuki: ". . .the bars are not so good and when pushed hard over a bumpy road
you might get into a bit of a tank slapper. The foot pegs also touch the deck
quite easily [as do the Yamaha's JR]. . .the tyres gripped quite well but it is
not so powerful and rapid as the Honda and Yamaha and you certainly need to
twist the throttle more to get things really humming." The GSX generally seemed
comfortable on the road, with reasonable weather protection and a fairly good
ride from the soft suspension. Its mirrors were criticised, as were its brakes.
On the track, where the brakes were used very hard in a couple of places, the
Suzuki was the only machine to need its back brake, the others had more than
enough power up front.
Its weight is a penalty under braking and accelerating, as well as making it
harder to chuck into corners. The whole thing looks flimsier, yet it boasts 41mm
fork stanchions (compared to the FZR at 38mm) and it has as much or more
suspension travel than the others. In terms of ride comfort its weight is an
advantage, because the sprung to unsprung ratio is greater and gives the
suspension less work to do.
The graphs show how far Suzuki have gone with the engine, ie not very far. At
peak power it is only a little way short of the Yamaha, but with a stack less
midrange and torque. The road performance matches this exactly. As a comparison,
it doesn't look too good, but on its own it can be more than adequate; a 130mph
top speed means you can cruise comfortably at 100 mph.
It's hard to criticize it further than that, because every point has to be
mitigated by the price of the bike. Our verdict last year was. . .competent,
heavy, bland, good value for money. The Suzuki hasn't changed and neither have
We all came to the same conclusion, quite independently, about the Kawasaki.
We reckon it is deliberately built and styled to resemble a bigger bike. It is
aimed at those who want a 1000 but don't need the running costs or the physical
effort of lugging one about. It is the only explanation which fits the facts; we
know, from evidence like the KR-1S, that there are people at Kawasaki who know
what a corner is, but they were obviously kept away from the ZZ-R.
It's probably a corporate styling decision. When you see a showroom lined
with ZZ-Rs, it's not immediately obvious which are the 250s and which are the
1100s. They probably intended to make a 750 too, but nobody noticed its absence
until it was too late.
Even though the 600 is styled like a bigger bike, there is no reason why it
shouldn't have good ride and handling, but there is a subtle mismatch somewhere
between suspension and tyres and this lets it down in the biggest imaginable
way. Because it is styled beyond its 600cc station, it already feels a hefty
lump (it weighs 341b more than the Yamaha but 141b less than the Suzuki) and
when the suspension lets it bounce and sway it feels more uncontrollable than it
It has a good, strong engine delivery with the best midrange of all — yet the
riders often criticised it for being peaky, an indication that it was difficult
to use the performance, perhaps. The top end isn't quite as powerful as the
Honda, but it has the same ability to rev out well beyond its peak, without
dropping too much power. This engine characteristic, coupled with very good
aerodynamics, gives the ZZ-R dramatic high speed capability. With less
horsepower than the Honda, the Kawasaki managed to be faster, reaching a best of
The size and the aerodynamics work in its favour as a tourer, it can be
comfortable and relaxed to ride but it didn't impress our testers. Tony didn't
like the cruising performance because the flexibility was spoilt by a lag
between twistgrip and wheel. Stephen complained that it needed to be kept on the
boil and there was a small midrange flat spot if you dropped down a gear to open
it up. Terry commented that it needed to be ridden like a two-stroke. Everyone
liked the top end, and that was about it. Even the brakes came in for some
criticism, mainly because the suspension was felt to be too soft to control the
bike when it was being braked hard.
Terry praised the bike's high speed cruising ability (he did more motorway
miles on it than anyone else) and he liked the stability and comfort the
fairing created a lot less wind than any of the others.
In traffic it was the widest of the four and although Stephen made the
comment that the mirrors "don't stick out far enough to do any good", it should
be said that Terry, the driver of a small Peugeot and I disagree with this.
Since last year the ZZ-R has no specification changes other than graphics,
but Kawasaki have revised the entire gear train downstream of the clutch, all
the way to the cush drive in the wheel. This was criticized in our test last
year (June, 1990) and even then Kawasaki were working on a better drive train to
eliminate the sloppy gear changes and the feeling that there was several feet of
slack in the chain. It still isn't the sweetest transmission in the world, but
it's a lot better.
In company with the other bikes, in situations ranging from mountain roads to
race tracks, it was inevitable that the ZZ-R should lose out. On a fast, smooth
surface its awesome top end could find a way out, but anywhere that bumps and
corners conspired together you'd find a small queue of riders heading for the
other three machines. Even the Suzuki — not taken seriously as a sportster
because of its lack of power — was quicker around the fairly demanding twists
and turns of Ledenon's No. 2 circuit.
As a large-ish touring lump, it offers slightly better build quality than the
Suzuki but precious little else and at a fairly serious difference in price. I
could think of several things to do with £850.
And that is where the Kawasaki's at. It doesn't do enough and it costs too
Our riders were decisive here: Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki. Their
comments are also echoed by the dyno and track test results but it proves that
sheer top speed is not a deciding factor when you actually ride the bikes. And
neither is styling; the only comments were whether the styling suited the
particular purpose under discussion, plus Tony's valiant attempt to say
something nice about the Suzuki.
This is possibly where we deviate from the real world. Last year a lot of
people did buy the ZZ-R600, presumably on looks and its next-to-150mph top
speed. I wonder if any of them regret it? It also drove Honda to produce a new
frame and a new engine for the CBR. Now if Honda could headhunt KHI's
aerodynamicist and if KHI could have a chat with Honda's chassis man, there
would be a race worth watching. The FZR, always in the immediate background
ready to shine forth, is more single-minded. There are no pretensions about
touring or passengers. This is a road legal Supersport bike and the people it
appeals to wouldn't stop to look at the other 600s.
We all want maximum performance but the final decision is often in the hands
of the moneylender. And so the GSX600 bursts upon the scene in a flurry of used
one-pound notes (still legal tender where JR lives Ed). The difference in price
is great enough to cover up any gaps in performance. Top speed? What top speed?
Eleven-second standing quarter? It would take me longer than that to count the
£1000 change. JR