Led astray by the lure of wild powerbands and wilder tank-slappers
we present: KR-1S, RGV250M, TZR250 and, just for old time's
sake, RD350LC-F. We trundled them across the fens, hurled them up the Cat
and Fiddle road (the A53 between Buxton and Mace), sat them in a traffic jam in
Manchester and finally whupped them round the ultra-tight Three Sisters race
track near Wigan. We even brought most of them back again.
They wouldn't let it lie
Well, actually, they would've let it lie, but we wouldn't
listen. The TZR is now out of production, and Yamaha aren't keen to push the
remaining stocks. They would rather let them slip quietly away without any fuss
that might detract from the almost certain 1992 launch of the all-new TZR.
It's a shame really, because there is life in the TZR yet as
road bike. It may no longer be able to cut it on the track, but the combination
of stable handling and reliable power means it can still keep up on all but the
For any model to survive so long virtually unchanged is
testament to the soundness of the original design. Rupert: 'It's the perfect
mix of race technology and practical useability.'
On the Cat and Fiddle and surrounding roads the TZR was probably
the easiest to get the best from. Chassis, brakes and power harmonise so well
that the rider can concentrate entirely on the road ahead, confident that the
bike won't spring any nasty surprises. Stephen: 'I really don't think you can
fault it - you can slam it into corners with the brakes full on and it'll still
go round, with the only protest coming from the tyres.'
Where the RGV would sit up violently under mid corner braking,
and the KR-1S felt as though the front wheel would tuck under, the TZR stayed
gently on line until the rider decided what to do next. This is the sort of
behaviour that can save your bacon on unfamiliar roads, especially when they are
flanked by frightening drops.
On paper at least, the TZR is the slowest steering of the 250s,
sharing its rake and trail figures with the 350 powervalve, and it may be this
which helps give straight line stability that's no more than a dream for KR-1S
owners. Cresting small rises on the Cat and Fiddle, or launching off yet another
cratered bump on my ride across the fens to work, the TZR would lift its front
wheel slightly, give just a little wibble, then smack rather satisfyingly back
down to earth before continuing on its way as though nothing had happened.
On the same fen roads, the KR-1S would go from lock to lock
before settling down, and meeting another bump before the steering had sorted
itself out was a deeply distressing experience.
At Three Sistefs the TZR's tyres quickly became the limiting
factor. Yamaha aren't doing themselves, or the bike, any favours by letting it
out of the factory with tyres so far behind the rest of the bike. Trevor:
'The standard tyres are disgusting.' This was something we all agreed on,
although Rupert was more polite: 'The tyres grip OK but offer nothing like
the feel and grip of the RGV/KR-1S. Aftermarket stickies would improve things
but it'll never quite be up to the latest standard. It'd be enough for most
people though.' By all accounts a change to Avon AM22/23 rubber does the
Lousy tyres aside, the TZR feels totally at home at the track,
though it rapidly runs out of Ground Clearance - if you don't hang off as far as
possible it feels as though the footrest is about to dig in and lift the whole
bike off the floor. The braking lacks some of the awesome ability of the newer
250s - 'Plenty of power, plenty of feel. But the KR-1S and RGV have even
more.' - Rupert. It is easier to use all that's available, though, and a
panic application doesn't necessarily spell disaster. Trevor: 'The single
disc works fine, but requires further clenching of the fingers after the initial
Stepping onto the TZR directly after the RGV, it's easy to see
the Yamaha as crude and unsophisticated, but the fact is that the basic package
is so good it doesn't need frills. Stephen, commenting on the suspension
options, pointed out: 'There's not much adjustment because it's not
needed.' The best thing to do with a TZR is to set the rear preload to suit
your own bulk, then get on with riding it.
Ten minutes in town and the TZR shows the other side of its
character. Apart from some mild clucking between 5 and 6,000 revs, when the
powervalve can't decide whether to open or close, the motor is utterly docile in
traffic. It puts up with extended low-speed running without complaint, all the
controls and switchgear are sensibly designed and easy to use, and the
well-shaped seat and relatively upright position make it easy to trickle through
jams where the Kawasaki and Suzuki produce a wrist-heavy weave.
Trevor summed up the joys of long-term TZR ownership: 'More
friendly than the others. Starts first time, the mirrors are useable and the
seat is comfortable up to the first tank refill' If that doesn't sound very
far, bear in mind that the other 250s were probably designed by an unemployed
set designer from a Japanese TV game show specialising in personal humiliation.
Stephen added: 'The TZR is easy to clean, good pillion seat, luggage can be
carried, lasts for ages. Bought by sensible people.' Except for you,
If all this seems to be singing the TZR's praises rather too
loudly, then I apologise, but Trevor was its loudest critic, and the worst
comments he could make were to suggest that it was under-geared (hitting peak
revs long before the timing lights at Bruntingthorpe), and to point out a grabby
clutch. The TZR is dead. I wonder if the new one will live as long.
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
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 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 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
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.' -
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
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.' -
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
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
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
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 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 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 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.