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
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
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 and shoulder.
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
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
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 knee.
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
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
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
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
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)
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 hill-climbs.'
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 line.
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
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 notice.
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. Trevor Franklin