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
But 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
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. ■