They shouldn 't let it lie
But they're going to just the same. Like the TZR, the good old powervalve is
being pensioned off. Muted by noise restrictions, choked by emission controls
and rendered obsolete by ever newer and faster models, the 350 has come to the
end of its eight year run.
Rather the oddball in our test, the 350 was invited along to give us
something to ride when the others got too uncomfortable, and to allow Rupert to
exercise his well known concern for endangered species of all kinds.
Rupert loves this bike: 'I love this bike,' he said. See? The
350 arrived with a half worn OE front tyre, and a similarly dogeared Metzeler
ME99 rear. Rupert: 'Felt awful and yawed into comers. Front/rear mismatch bad
news. Dodgy in the wet' The first port of call, therefore, was to kneel at
the shrine of Steve Lythgoe at Sharples (0204 54698). Steve, fount of all
knowledge on things black and sticky, recommended Pirelli Demons but didn't have
a front one in stock. A few phone calls and the Manchester Pirelli distributors
had some on the doorstep within a couple of hours. Thank you Ivan.
As promised, the Demons transformed the feel of the bike: 'The
Pirellis wade the RD feel planted. Smooth banking, chuckable and more stable.
Footrest down no prob. The mutt's nuts for the RD.' - Rupert.
(Trevor was even moved to ask if they were available for his pushbike.)
The 350 feels understandably dated: "70s superbike construction — lots of
space inside fairing and frame means reduced rigidity.' - Rupert. But in
spite of this, it manages to be more than the sum of its parts. The forks flex,
the rear shock overheats and the brakes need the grip of a gorilla to overcome
spongy hoses and haul to a stop. None of this is really a criticism; the bike is
so balanced that no one thing holds it back. On the road or the track, the
suspension and frame give plenty of feedback. Rupert again: 'The chassis
feels great - really confidence inspiring.'
Rupert went on to attribute much of the 350's manageability to the
old-fashioned seating position, which makes it easy to shift weight around
between hands, feet and backside. This led Trevor to describe it as: 'The
tourer of the two-strokes. More of the old sit-up-and-beg stance. Rolls Royce
seat compared to the rest.'
I was particularly grateful for the comfy seat on the run back from Three
Sisters a few hours after my unscheduled track inspection. There was no way I
could sit on any of the 250s - even the TZR - but the 350 was comfortable enough
to allow me to keep up with the others without aggravating my bashed left arm
For me, the best thing about the 350 is the way it lets the rider know when
it's time to back off. The Kawasaki and Suzuki walk a very fine line between
fine handling and unmanageability - you either get it right or very, very wrong.
The 350 reaches a sort of plateau area just before it reaches its real limits.
It's possible to go a fair bit faster if you up your concentration levels; it's
equally possible to bumble along and let the bike do the work, confident that
it'll forgive you for the odd unconventional line or unexpected emergency stop.
The motor in our bike had been seized and completely rebuilt just before we
borrowed it, and was running rather woolly. Rupert tells it like it is: '
Warms slow, spews on choke. Lots of clatter on overrun at mid revs made worse by
worn shock absorbers in clutch basket. Bit more of a noticeable power step than
others. Never feels crisp and agonisingly beautiful like the KR-1S. Pulls good
wheelies off the throttle. Power valve opens/shuts at 5,500rpm — engine hunts
and clucks like a Norton Fl. Transmission backlash makes this worse. Dies at
9,400rpm. Ledar pipes increase rev range. Will go faster with higher gearing,
but lower is better — the motor is in the real road speed range then.'
Thank you. Now, where were we?
Ah, yes. It was no surprise that the RD was the easiest to get on with in
town. Even running rich it was still possible to stay at low revs. The milder
tuning and extra 100cc makes for better roll-ons than the 250s, too.
The RD is a relatively cheap, freely available way to get to work all week,
get your knee down at the weekend and take on holiday in the summer. Direct
comparisons are meaningless. This is one of those rare bikes that is, quite
literally, in a class of its own.
They couldn't let it lie
It was a matter of honour, I suppose, that Suzuki should try to follow up
their return to Grand Prix with a similarly impressive return to the streets and
roundabouts where those races are re-run every Saturday night. Unfortunately for
them the old RGV didn't really make an impression on the track (in the UK - it
did in France - RP), and when it came to laying down the deposit for a
road-going 250, the RGV's styling wasn't seductive enough to get over being a
few horsepower down on the KR-1S.
The power shortfall is still there, so perhaps with the M, Suzuki are trying
to win sales through sheer novelty value - the first 250 with upside-down forks,
banana swing arm and both exhausts exiting on the same side.
They certainly aren't trying to win anyone over by making them comfortable.
Trevor: 'It may be first in the pose department, but it's definitely last in
practicality. Bum up, head down sitting position hurts wrists, bum, back, neck.
You need to be an unbalanced ex horse-jockey.' Rupert rode the RGV from
Wigan to Peterborough, and complained that his bottom started hurting at
Donington. He had other complaints to make about the position, too: 'The bars
are too low. Even at the track I'd have preferred them higher so I could wrestle
the bugger, turn it more easily. They're only that low to keep you out of the
wind, and the price you pay when you ride slowly is high.'
If you can't wrestle with the bars, you've always got body weight. The RGV
responds to pressure on the footrests more precisely than most bikes do to
commands from the bars. ' Weight pushed onto the foot-rests will give the
required angle of lean. The bars are there to give stability.' - Trevor.
On bumpy fen roads, the RGV produced the most frightening tank-slappers I
have ever had the misfortune to experience. The bars weren't wrenched from lock
to lock as violently as on the Kawasaki, but they took longer to settle down -
time that you don't always have when you're headed for the dyke and the coypu
are hungry. It's strange, but the RGV only behaved like this in a straight line.
On my way home from work there is a long, left-hand bend. On its apex is the
scar of a long-forgotten roadwork, running from one side of the road to the
other and sitting proud of the surface. Hitting this cranked over the Kawasaki
kicked its front wheel towards right lock, and threatened worse, before coming
back on course. On the same bend, at similar speed, the RGV hit the bump,
bounced, but continued on line.
Elsewhere on the road, the RGV would sit up under braking, a tendency that
went from mild to awful depending on suspension settings. As a rule, the nearer
we got to curing it, the worse the suspension behaved the rest of the time. In
the end, it's something you have to learn to live with. Stephen suggested that,
if you really need to scrub off speed in a corner, then you should use your
Anyone buying an RGV as daily transport needs his or her head examined. Apart
from the obvious disadvantage of acute discomfort and atrocious fuel
consumption, pick-up from rest causes problems. Trevor: 'Poor clutch action
when cold. Sometimes stalls when engaging first. Clutch riding required up to
three grand to avoid laughs from car drivers going from traffic lights.'
Once the bike's moving, other irritating traits make themselves known. The
Suzuki's gearbox is not up to the standard of the rest of the bike - the first
three gears clunk like a car door, though after that it's as slick as you could
wish. When the oil light glows you discover the oil filler can only be reached
with a funnel (and how many paddock jackets have room for a funnel these days?).
Our bike usually ended up with overspill dripping onto the rear tyre. The
pillion seat is a sick joke. The kickstart lever vibrates outwards whilst on the
move, then catches your leg when you try to put a foot down to stop.
The motor is in a very high state of tune straight from the factory - peak
power and torque are in the same place, and Stephen felt this was bad news for
long term ownership: 'It'll wear out very quick — the engine's got the nuts
tuned off it.' This translates into a very peaky feel - the motor won't
always pull 70mph in top, but brilliant carburation helps to make it useable out
of the powerband, so long as you don't expect any real acceleration. It's as if,
when it's not at peak power, the motor is just marking time. The only problem
was on the overrun: 'Excellent carburation from tickover to 12,000rpm, except
rolling off slightly at high revs, eg: passing a car and pulling in. The motor
stutters and clacks quite violently - you have to shut off or accelerate. It
would be nice if it was crisp and clean at this point.' - Rupert.
Public roads can never give a true indication of the RGV's capabilities. This
is a bike designed to be ridden on smooth, twisty tarmac with nothing coming the
other way. Once you know which way the track turns the RGV will take get you
round quicker than you thought possible. It is capable of taking you to
astounding lean angles and it can stop as fast as you dare.
It is not, however, an easy bike to ride fast. It will respond to precise and
knowledgeable control by taking you to a smooth, fast lap. It will respond to
nervous input by spitting you off. The RGV is at a stage of development where
there is no room for anything other than perfection. You sometimes feel as
though you've reached the RGV's limits, but the limits are your own.
Rupert: 'At 80-110mph it just glides along like a low flying aircraft.
Superb poise - change the angle of lean and it'll immediately assume the new
set, a bit like when a hairdresser moves your head to a different position. The
front feels mega pushable. Astounding grip at crazy angles - I've never seen
anyone lean over so far on road tyres as Stephen at Three Sisters.' Those
marvellous tyres, though, pay for their superb grip by wearing out and
spitting off bits of rubber onto the bellypan as rapidly as anything with NOT
FOR HIGHWAY USE on the sidewall.
The final say on the RGV has to go to Stephen: 'Even though it's down on
power, I think I could win a club race on one of these.'
I had to let it lie
One second I was following Stephen out of the hairpin and into the downhill
left hander, the next I was sliding along on my back. The front had gone so
quickly it wasn't until I'd ground to a halt that I realised what had happened.
Unfortunately this was before the RGV arrived at Three Sisters, so we
couldn't get a direct track comparison, but even the few laps we managed had
shown up what Stephen considers an inherent problem with the Kawasaki's front
suspension: 'Very quick steering - too quick. The head angle is too steep and
the forks too hard for road use. The front seems unsure of where it wants to go
at high speed. Slaps violently. If you hit a bump changing line or braking
you're in deep shit - you just have to try to hold on 'til it calms down.'
The forks seem to have too little compression damping and too much rebound -
under braking they dive straight to full compression and then stay there,
chattering over bumps so that it's impossible to use all the incredible power of
the front brake. 'Like trying to dig up concrete with a garden fork,'
was how Trevor put it.
Stephen plans to try longer, softer springs and slightly more oil, but of a
lighter grade, on his own KR-1S.
The rear suspension is fine for going fast, though the shock tends to top out
on the standard rebound settings - going up to position two cures that, any more
and it begins to chatter.
The other factor preventing full use of the brakes is the seating position,
which is the worst of the 250s. 'Jump on a desk and kneel on it, then put
your clenched fists flat on the desk face down. Then look up. That's a KR-1S
riding position.' - Rupert.
Like the RGV, the low bars are too far away for the rider to steer as
effectively as possible, or to brace himself against the brakes. The Kawasaki
has one of the most powerful brakes currently available on a motorcycle, but you
can stop quicker on the RGV because it's easier to control. These criticisms are
only in relation to the RGV's excellence. Ridden on its own the KR-1S seems like
the most responsive bike in the world.
The intensely quick steering feels as though it will tuck the front under and
doesn't feel as controllable as the RGV. The grip from the KR-1S's radials can
get you out of a lot of trouble, though. Trevor: 'If superglue was radial,
this would be the black, circular version.' Rupert was similarly knocked out
by the combination of grip and handling: 'Bloody unbelievable and a rare
experience even for someone who roadtests bikes all year. Controlled-squirt
power enables you to use all the grip. Ride this bike if you want to know what
racer handling is. Excellent motorcycle.'
In the real world genuine excellence matters less to most people than
perceived performance. Marginally out-handled and comprehensively out-posed by
the RGV, the KR-1S will have to make the most of its power advantage if it is to
maintain sales. On the dyno, the perfectly set up RGV gave a max of 53.7hp. The
Kawasaki pushed out 55.5, but Ledar's Colin Taylor reckoned it was over-oiling
and running rich, and that there were several more horses to be gained by
careful setting up.
Even as it was, Rupert raved about the motor: 'Crisp and progressive
buildup of power. Mighty impressive. Minimal hunting on a neutral or closed
throttle. At 8,000rpm it just goes Waaaa! (To simulate this sound, take a
large sheet of calico - available from all good drapers - and tear it quickly
from top to bottom - KR) (Must be warp to weft — JR) Addictive.'
Get caught in the flat spot just before it takes off, though, and it's easy
to get bogged down. Trevor: 'If you're not at 7,000rpm then roll-ons become
Once in the power the KR-1S pulls up to 136mph, stomping on the RGV by nearly
10mph. This has more to do with gearing than with the small power difference,
but higher gearing would lose the RGV the small advantage it has away from the
Urban riding is not the Kawasaki's strong point, but it is no worse than the
RGV. Manhole covers and potholes throw you against the tank, even at low speed.
This puts even more weight on your already overloaded wrists, and the quick
steering which is such a joy at the track wanders around like steering through
treacle. The bike doesn't start working until it reaches the sort of speeds
which leave your licence extremely vulnerable.
Trevor found the motor absolutely useless below 3,000rpm, but tractable
enough between there and 7,500, after which: ' Warp drive that James T Kirk
would kill for. And the gears are as precise as climbing stairs.' The only
problem with the gearbox is an occasional need to hunt around for neutral -
annoying at lights, but as most people sit in gear and rev the engine they won't
On the forecourt, filling up with two stroke is easier than on the RGV, but
entails taking off the pillion seat, getting to the toolkit, then unbolting the
main seat to access the tank. The best smelling oil for the KR-1S is Silkolene
Pro-2, by the way.
If I wanted to get really picky I could say that the indicator switch is too
fiddly for a gloved thumb, the mirrors reflect your elbows, the lights are too
diffused to offer serious illumination and it hurts when you fall off. But these
things are of no relevance to anyone who wants one of these bikes. Like the RGV,
the KR's a racer with lights. It'll be bought on the back of track success and
fashion credentials and bugger everything else.