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Suzuki GSX 1100F Katana
Step aboard the big blue time machine, a bike which repackages a great concept, once abandoned, in 1988 parts.
Trip time: 00:00. Place: Reno, Nevada. Destination: Westlake Village via Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Lakes, and the Mojave Desert. Road conditions: In the northern section, two-lane blacktops hunt through a changing topography and rip across scattered flatlands; to the south, long mindless interstates cut the scenery with unswerving resolve.
Since 1986, this kind ot ride would have you reaching for any kind of motorcycle but a Suzuki. But in 1988 the new GSX1100 Katana plugs a hole left in Suzuki's lineup since the exit of the GS1150 two years ago. The GS was a classic Superbike in the sense of a true all-rounder: comfortable, civilized, with a full repertoire of handling and power. Since the departure of its GS series, Suzuki has launched a long procession of enticing motorcycles—Spanish-galleon Cavalcades, designer-jean Intruders, hot-spark GSX-R sport bikes-each tuned to a narrow short-wave channel in motorcycling, but all lacking the wide-band-broadcast appeal of the GS1150.
Now, at last, Suzuki engineers have rustled through the parts bins and drafting tables to recreate the GS in contemporary technology. The Katana propelled on 16-inch wheels by a bored and-stroked GSX-R1100 engine wrapped around a steel perimeter frame and bubble-packed in aerodynamic bodywork. That's irony enough: the name of the very styling exercise that first drew the GS away from the vision of an all-purpose, big-bore performer six years ago—Katana—now hails this 1100's return to the Superbike fold.
Trip time: 00:30. Place: The high desert outside Reno, just an earache away from a thousand jangling slot machines. The Katana feels like a cross between Yamaha's FJ1200 and Honda's CBR1000 Hurricane. Slipping through Reno traffic, the new Suzuki seems lower, more compact, more maneuver-able and far lighter than the Honda. (Actually the GSX would later check in at 591 pounds wet, nine pounds heavier than the CBR.) This bike launches from stoplights with the slightest blip of the throttle, pressing its rider deeper into a saddle that already feels six inches thick. The engine barely takes notice of these rapid departures; it murmurs nonchalantly, the tach parked below 5000 rpm and the full force of the Katana's 11,300-rpm engine awaiting a road with space to run. Approaching the outskirts of Reno, the rider settles into the luxurious cockpit, already comfortable and at ease for the ride ahead.
Unlike the GSX-R1100, the Katana cradles its rider in luxury. Large analog instruments the speedo calibrated to 170 mph, the tach turning red at 11,300 rpm straddle a digital clock and fuel gauge, fairing dash panels hide wiring harnesses and bracketry, the handlebars poke out from beneath a seamless plastic cover. The mirrors, though they show more elbow than we prefer, give a broad rearward view. Footpegs and medium-rise bars are perfectly positioned for a neutral, comfortable riding posture. Much of the Katana's exceptional comfort comes from its seat; this long, wide, soft saddle provides excellent long-haul support and plenty of room to stretch. Passengers report similarly supple seating from the pillion.
The Katana's ABS plastic fairing, pressed up tight against the upper frame rails, measures only 19 inches wide. Yet cutaways in the fuel tank give the rider room to squeeze inside the bubble for full-body protection against the cold. The GSX's air management with ducts to draw cooling air into the engine bay and airbox, and heated air out, away from the rider—is effective. Even during cruising through warm, mid-town traffic, not a trace of engine heat spills into the cockpit.
What sets this fairing apart from run of-the-mill aerowork is Suzuki's new Power Shield, a retractable windscreen operated by a handlebar-mounted control switch. Push the button and the shield raises as much as three inches from its fully retracted position. Using essentially the same mechanism as automobile power windows, the PS employs a pair of plastic ball-chains—the left side driven by a sprocket from a small Kioto servo-motor, the right by a drive shaft—to articulate the shield in push/pull fashion.
Although raising the shield extends the envelope of still cockpit air and shrouds the rider's chest and shoulders from the blast, helmet buffeting and wind noise at 60 mph actually increase when the shield is in its fully extended position. Not until 80 mph and faster does this air-spill become less turbulent. In the high-desert chill, we settled for earplugs and ran at a law-abiding 60 mph with the windshield full up.
In keeping with the 1100's long-distance character, Suzuki tuned the Katana suspension highway plush. Up front, a non-adjustable 41mm fork with softer spring and damping rates than the GSX-R strokes through half an inch more travel. Out back, a new Full-Floater system uses articulating links rather than the eccentric bell-crank found on last year's GSX-R, to provide more progressive action and smoother overall response. Like the fork, the 1100's rear spring and damping rates are tuned soft. The Katana inherits the GSX-R's remote, hydraulic spring preload adjuster and four-way rebound damping adjuster, and it's a good thing: At standard settings, the GSX's softly sprung rear suspension squats under acceleration, and bottoms over medium-sized bumps. Stiffening the shock with number-four spring preload and damping settings serves to buoy up the Katana's rear end, yet the bike's highway ride remains compliant and supple.
The only compromise to the Katana's long-distance comfort comes from engine vibration. Floating the non-counterbalanced engine on rubber mounts would have undermined chassis stiffness, so Suzuki gave the GSX engine elastic mounts in front only. Rubber-mounted handlebars and footpegs are vibration. Certainly, the GSX isn't as silky smooth as Honda's CBR1000—at virtually all engine speeds, vibration courses through the Katana fuel tank. But the GSX has a sweet zone for cruising: At 60-75 mph in top gear, vibration, though still present, is much less annoying than elsewhere in the powerband.
Trip Time: 03:00. Place: Carson Pass, south of Lake Tahoe. Road conditions: Fast, sweeping curves and long, desolate straights climb the High Sierra, then plunge 5000 feet down to Jackson, 60 miles away.
After hours of doddering through Lake Tahoe traffic, the Katana finally quoias rush past like posts on a picket fence, wind blast tears at the edges of a riding jacket. Tucking in just slightly pulls you into the silence of the fairing's still-air pocket. Even at this speed, the engine is loafing, half-way to redline. But Carson Pass is not the place to explore redline in fifth—a calculated 170 mph. Instead, you run in third and fourth with the tachometer in its upper register, where the Katana puts triple-digit horsepower in your hand.
The GSX-R 1100 made speed with low mass, but the Katana trades on raw power. At the dyno and on the drag strip, the GSX1100F is the fastest, most powerful motorcycle Suzuki ever produced by 1988, period. Fresh from its little tour in the mountains, our Katana ripped off a 10.91 -second, 123-mile-per-hour quarter milealmost dead even with Honda's potent CBR1000. On the Kerker dyno, the Katana pumped out 106 horsepower at 9000 rpm, which puts it behind the 113-horsepower CBR and 122-horse-power FZR1000, but stronger than the FJ1200, last year's 1000 Ninja, and Suzuki's previous earth-shaker, the 101-horsepower GS1150. The GSX-R1100 puts the Katana's power into perspective: At peak, the GSX pumps out a whopping 17 horsepower more than the GSX-R, yet both bikes share the same basic powerplant. Why?
The Katana's four-into-two exhaust system offers more volume, greater flow, and more latitude in exhaust tuning than the GSX-R's single muffler pipe, and the change is evidenced by further alterations on the exhaust side of the Katana's cylinders: an increase in exhaust valve size up from 25mm to 26mm a cleaner combustion chamber and resculpted exhaust ports to take advantage of the increased flow. On the intake side in the cam profiles, inlet valves, 34mm Mikuni carbs nothing has changed.
Big Katana power means a bigger engine. With a bore and stroke of 78 x 59mm, the 1127cc GSX engine gets 75cc more displacement than the GSX-R from pistons enlarged one millimeter, and a two-millimeter increase in stroke netted by moving the crank pins outward. Boring the existing cylinders to fit larger pistons would have resulted in ultra-thin liners, limiting overbore and inviting heat-induced distortion, so Suzuki cast a new cylinder block to accommodate thicker, stronger liners. Inside, new short-skirt, slipper-type pistons, tapered and drilled around the wrist-pin boss, reduce reciprocating mass. Suzuki's new digital ignition, capable of plotting a curve in 125-rpm increments, gives slightly more ignition advance than the GSX-R 1100.
On its way to picking up 17 extra horsepower, the Katana engine also gained weight: stronger crankcases, and a revamped SACS oil-cooling system that boosts capacity from 5.0 to 5.8 quarts with a deeper sump and taller oil cooler, circulated by a higher-output pump. Smaller, lighter helical gears in the Katana's primary drive reduce weight somewhat while raising the gearing slightly and quiet the engine as well.
It's interesting that, through the GSX-R's low-mass approach and the Katana's high-power/high-weight strategy, both bikes end up with almost identical power-to-weight ratios.
Trip time: 06:00. Place: Highway 49, North of Sonora, the night's destination. Road Conditions: Tight, roller-coaster roads, curling unpredictably along the path of least resistance serious sport-bike country.
Half a mile into Highway 49, the Katana sticks a footpeg into the pavement for the first time on the trip. Five miles later, both footpegs and the cen-terstand have felt the grinding touch of asphalt, but, even with solid parts throwing sparks, the Katana stays rooted to the road. That's premium rubber at work: Not since the '83 XN85 Turbo has Suzuki ventured outside Japan for OEM tires, but the Katana rolls on fat, sticky Metzelers, a 120/80 Laser front, and 150/80 ME-99A rear, both wrapped around 16-inch wheels. These boots are Cling City.
The choice of 16-inch hoops for the Katana, rather than the 18-inchers found on the GSX-R1100, reflects Suzuki's goal to keep the Katana as low as possible. The GSX-R achieved agility through lightness, but the Katana, at 591 pounds wet—88 pounds heavier than the GSX-R—gets its backroad moves from strategic weight placement. Ironically, the new steel frame serves both cause and cure in the Katana weight game: Tipping the scales 38 pounds heavier than the GSX-R's alloy frame—over twice as heavy—the new frame adds poundage, then counters with a solid basic layout and excellent geometry.
Huge rectangular main beams, wrapped tightly around the cylinder head rather than over the top of the engine as in the GSX-R, position the weighty contents of the Katana's fuel tank and the steering head as well considerably closer to the ground. On paper, the Katana's chassis geometry wheelbase, steering angle, etc.read like a carbon copy of the CBR1000, yet on the road the two feel entirely different: The Katana lacks the CBR's top-heavy feeling, and this makes the Suzuki easier to maneuver on tight roads. Its 16-inch front wheel helps too, giving fairly light steering, and better snap-roll agility than the CBR
ut despite the Katana's low-effort handling, for a serious backroad romp most sport riders would choose the CBR. With its soft suspensionespecially the non-adjustable fork—the Katana simply lacks the poise and unflappable stability of the CBR: Hit a bump midturn, and the Suzuki mashes down on its suspension, robbing cornering clearance and steering precision.
In hard braking as well, the CBR gets the nod: Unlike the GSX-R1100, which puts ten live pistons at your command two in back and a pair of four-piston calipers up front bearing on huge 310mm discs—the Katana uses smaller 275mm front discs and Suzuki's old-style twin-more lever travel, and less stopping power—123 feet from 60 mph—than a big, powerful motorcycle like the Katana deserves.
Trip time: 24.00. Place: Yosemite National Forest. Road conditions: Gentle sweepers, climbing to 10,000 feet.
Park Rangers carry chainsaws in Yosemite, and they don't take kindly to speeders. The limit is 45 mph, and the Katana purrs along happily at that speed. Apart from two stops to soak up scenery along Tioga pass—a place where even the birds wheeze from oxygen deprivation—the Katana rolls from one end of the national park to the other, all in top gear. Top gear? How much power is this thing packing?
At low revs, this Katana's power curve towers over other Superbikes': At 3500 rpm, the GSX-R falls six horsepower short, the CBR is down four horses, the FZR1000 down nine. Apart from a dip at 6000 rpm, where the CBR has a seven-horsepower advantage, the Katana runs stronger down low than anything save Yamaha's now-defunct FJ1200.
But the Katana's biggest advantage comes in the form of a mid-range wallop: At 7000 rpm, the Katana's horsepower is up 16 percent over the CBR, 27 percent over the GSX-R, and 30 percent—23 horsepower!—over the FZR1000.
Big numbers down low, and crisp, immediate throttle response give the Katana the grunt to flatten 10,000-foot passes in top gear.
This combination also makes for impressive full-throttle roll-on performance: From 45-70 mph in the top three gears, the Katana absolutely smokes the CBR and GSX-R, and nips the FZR and FJ1200 in third gear as well, though the two Yamahas inch ahead in the top two gears. Nevertheless, the Katana's broad-ranged power lets this supple, long-legged Superbike run with the most potent engines in all of motorcycling.
Trip Time: 30:00. Place: The Mojave desert. Road conditions: Long, straight, desolate, dark, fast.
The Katana's halogen headlight bores through the gloom of a moonless Mojave night, the soft yellow glow of its instruments lighting the cockpit. Since yesterday, 600 miles have rolled beneath this motorcycle. Whole vistas, the twinkling lights of distant cities, pass in darkness. No need to stop: The Katana's 5.5-gallon fuel tank has no reserve, but at a steady 60 mph you'll cover this last 250 miles before the carb throats run dry.
Trolling at midnight, hours from home with nothing to see, you run on autopilot. Two things can happen: You might focus on problems with the machine until even minor nits grow into major annoyances. Or you might cast back to daylight and reflect on the revelry of the ride. Times like these, the Katana is the kind of motorcycle that leads you backWard, to pleasantly reminisce, because it doesn't leave you much to pick on: the exhaust note could be quieter; the engine could be smoother; and operating the centerstand requires too much muscle. Details.
After 20 hours of tearing down tight winding roads and vaulting high-mountain passes and rolling down endless highways in perfect comfort, you realize that never once did you wish you were riding something else. Sure, the CBR 1000 Hurricane handles better and stops harder at speed, but even though the CBR has a sporting edge over the Suzuki, it can't match the Katana's plush highway ride, fairing protection, low-speed agility or low-end snap.
Which bike you pick depends on where you place your priorities. With the GSX1100 Katana, Suzuki has produced its finest all-purpose Superbike, and offered you the choice. ■