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Kawasaki ZX-6 Ninja
Review by Trevor Franklin
CBR 600 vs ZX 600 vs GSX 600F vs FZR 600R
The CBR is the only one of the four to have been seriously modified since last year, and it has been revised in just about every direction. The full details appeared in our February issue, but the essence is: more power, more revs, and a complete set of geometry changes.
Considering that we thought the '90 model was the all-round best of the 600s, there seemed to be a big risk that any changes could only make it worse. Not so. It is different not particularly better to ride and to handle, but it is a lot faster.
One consequence of this is that things like the suspension and brakes are actually better than last year's, but this isn't obvious at first because the Honda arrives at places a lot more rapidly and needs the extra quality just to keep the same level of control.
It has more top-end (about 5 horsepower's worth) and revs two to two-and-a-half thousand further into the wide blue yonder. This revability covers up some dips and bumps in the midrange because it lets Honda run lower gearing which translates into more tractive effort at the back wheel, and that's what the rider feels. We couldn't run quarter-mile times because some clod broke the wire, but the computer predicts an 11.6 second pass at 121mph. The computer also predicted a top speed of 147mph and the best we measured was 146.5mph. The German magazine Motorrad got a top speed of 143mph and a 0-400m time of 11.9 seconds. In the absence of a quarter mile of cable, make of that what you will.
It makes the CBR an impressive machine, although ironically it still doesn't beat the ZZ-R on sheer top speed. In every other department though, it's a clear winner. When asked to rate the four bikes in order, each of our testers wrote Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki. The decision was quite clear-cut, with no hesitation, even though Stephen had considered himself to be a typical Yamaha customer.
Stephen had also spotted the effect of the low gearing/high revs, commenting that while the roll-on speed was not as good as the (lighter) Yamaha, the power was very usable. Tony rated the Honda as the most flexible and driveable, even though the Yam felt like it had more torque and gave a crisper response. Terry simply gave it 10/10 for all-round performance and flexibility, rating the Yamaha at 8/10 as next best.
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 of this.
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 33s.
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 is good.
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.
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 needs to.
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 149mph.
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 much.
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