And in those days each Japanese manufacturer built an inline 600cc Four-cylinder sportybike, and so it made it natural to compare them, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose. And if any bike should smite the eye of the other three, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; then that bike shall go free and prosper in the marketplace. Or that was MO’s story, anyway.

Top 600s, 1997

1997 600cc Sportbike Shootout

Forget 750s or open-class sportbikes, the real battle for supremacy is waged in the 600 class — these are the best-selling sportbikes made. Here, manufacturers pump huge amounts of money into research and development to produce the quickest, fastest, best-handling machines possible. This space-race for the 600 title has led to machines that out-perform liter bikes of just a decade ago. But which 600 is best, and more specifically, which is best for you? Read on, and join us for a thorough thrashing of the world’s best 600cc sportbikes.It was the best of times, for sure: Motorcycle Online recently rounded up the best 600cc Sportbikes produced, dusted off our leathers and fired checks out of the corporate account like a cheap six-shooter, appropriating funds to rent Los Angeles County Raceway’s quarter-mile drag strip, Willow Spring Raceway’s Streets of Willow, as well as taking over Graves Motorsports’ shop for the better part of a week to have the bikes dyno’ed and track prepped. Lastly, we brought in AMA Superbike star Shawn Higbee and reigning Willow Springs Formula One Champion Chuck Graves to assist Editor-in-Chief Brent Plummer and Associate Editor Gord Mounce in the testing. The point? To carve as many canyons as possible, shred a bunch of tires and fry three clutches at the drag strip? That’s what the four of us thought until Managing Editor “Big” Tom Fortune brought us all back to reality: “This is a street bike test. Remember, tens of thousands of people around the world are going to plunk down their hard-earned money on one of these machines, and in many cases, it’ll be their only bike that they have to live with for years to come, through various conditions such as sport touring, commuting and canyon riding. And less than three percent of the machines will ever see a racetrack. You will evaluate these bikes with that in mind!” That said, we headed to Palomar Mountain, and the testing began…


The testing Begins: Kawasaki ZX-6R

Shawn Higbee gets down to business on the Kawasaki at Willow Springs: "To keep up with Graves when he was cruising on the Suzuki," Higbee tells us, "I had to ride the wheels off the Kawasaki, power-sliding it out of turns."
A pressurized air box fed by two large "ram-air" scoops helps the ZX-6R's already impressive top-end power.
Chuck "I'm going to smoke all you clowns" Graves on his way to an incredible 10.79 second run at 126.78 mph. We only made 11 passes before the clutch fried -- Chuck felt the little ZX could've done better.

When these four sportbikes of the apocalypse began assembling for our shootout, early predictions rated Kawasaki’s ZX-6R as a likely victor. We had all enjoyed the ZX6 tested last month, so the 6R’s shorter wheelbase, fully adjustable suspension and 29 fewer pounds promised to make for an even better ride. So how did the Kawasaki come to find itself relegated to fourth place?The answer lies in the vague feedback offered by the 6R’s front end, a problem that is compounded by the low-profile stock Bridgestone tire that gives poor traction at full lean. The cumulative result is a front end that “pushes” and “tucks” in corners. Having a poor connection with the front destroys confidence, which in turn slows lap times and canyon cornering speeds. How bad is the feedback from the 6R’s front forks? “I knew that the front was there,” quipped Graves after his first track session on the 6R, “because at the end of the straight you pop up and hit the brakes, and something slows you down.” Higbee also found the ZX-6R’s front lacking: “Even at a moderate street pace I had trouble keeping the front tire from sliding out under me, which isn’t my idea of fun.” This lack of front end feel was responsible for five of our seven testers (Graphic Artist Billy Bartels and Guest Commentator John Slezak also participated in this test) picking the 6R last in this comparison.

Handling manners improved after the Metzeler MEZ1 race-compound tires replaced the stock Bridgestones for testing at The Streets of Willow. Now we had more confidence that the tire would stick, but feedback and turn-in manners remained poor. This led Higbee to question the 6R’s geometry: “The front end feedback told me that it was turning in too much, a sign that it needs more trail. I also noticed that the triple clamps are narrow, which might explain why the 6R refused to turn properly — there’s not a lot of leverage there.”

The nail in Kawasaki’s coffin comes from the price tag. At $8299 it’s $500 more than the second most-expensive bike, Honda’s CBR600F3 — and a whopping $900 more than Yamaha’s YZF600R.

In the 6R’s defense it did post the quickest quarter-mile time of 10.79 at a smoking 126.78 mph — and at 92 bhp its engine swings the biggest stick. It sounds better than its challengers too, with a deep and throaty howl that belies its displacement. Comfort was excellent with a fairing that directs wind past the rider’s shoulders and creates a calm pocket of air behind the screen. Seat quality is also very good for a sportbike with a wide, flat platform that allows several hours to pass in comfort.

There is always some poor kid who is the last to get picked for baseball, and that kid is the ZX-6R. It is a great bike with bad front geometry. Unfortunately in this tough crowd that is enough to relegate a bike to last place.

3. Suzuki GSX-R600

Associate Editor Gord Mounce posted his best time at the racetrack on the race-ready GSX-R600.
The Suzuki's radical riding position starts to make sense at the track. On the street? It's painful.

We’ve been anxiously waiting for Suzuki’s new GSX-R600 ever since we all fell in love with the GSX-R750 last year. Would the 600 be the same knockout combination of awesome power and light weight, or would it be a sleeved-down, overweight dud like the last GSX-R600? Speculation and rumors abounded.

Last month, when Pascal Picotte topped the SuperSport field during tire testing at Daytona on a GSX-R600, we knew that Suzuki had done their homework. But after finally getting our greedy mitts on a GSX-R we were initially disappointed. Midrange power was terrible, and excessive driveline lash made street riding a chore, both made worse by excessively lean low- and mid-range carburetion that “lean surges” the bike at cruising speed. Further limiting the fun was a riding position that folded the Suzuki’s pilot into a pretzel to fit the uncompromising riding position.

At the dragstrip the Suzuki’s wimpy midrange power and vague clutch dropped it to last in the rankings with an 11.31 pass at 123.1 mph. Dyno testing shows the problem — at 8,000 rpm the Suzuki trails the Honda by a staggering 12 bhp. Even at the top end it fails to top its competition with a peak of 88.7 bhp.

Four-piston calipers and a conventional fork are fitted. The GSX-R750 uses upside-down forks and six-piston brakes, costing about $1300 more.With its full-on race approach, we thought the GSX-R would rule in the canyons. But a full day spent reducing the world’s supply of knee-sliders left us questioning the Suzuki’s purpose in life. An F3 is a match for the GSX-R when things turn twisty, but it won’t beat you like a rented mule on the ride home. And at $7,799, the Honda is only $100 more than a GSX-R.

So why put up with all of the Suzuki’s shortcomings? Because on the seventh day, MO raced (MO is what we call Motorcycle Online). And for once, we all agreed: it is the best track weapon. A faster circuit would have allowed the Suzuki to press home an advantage more than the tight and twisty Streets of Willow. Its light weight (435lbs full of gas), lets it carry the highest cornering velocity and greatest turn-in speed. Graves described the Suzuki as “feeling like the front was directly beneath your shoulders.” Higbee was even more kind: “It felt like I was coming near the limits of the Honda but the Suzuki had lots left. Add some new tires, a Yoshimura pipe for more power, have Race Tech do the forks, Fox rear shock and watch out Miguel Duhamel. If you can ride the Suzuki to its limits, you’ll win national races.”

2. Honda CBR600F3

Editor-in-Chief Plummer (on the CBR600) queries Managing Editor Fortune: "Where's the first turn, and what's the lap record?"
Plush, well-damped suspension and sticky stock tires make Honda's F3 an excellent all-around street bike.

What can we say about Honda’s CBR600F3 that hasn’t already been said? With its unbeatable combination of great speed, comfort and reliability, the F3 has ruled the 600 class for years. Honda is smart enough not to mess with the defending AMA 600 Supersport champion, and therefore their strategy for improving the F3 has always been one of refinement, rather than redesign.Honda has continued this trend in 1997, as a host of minor changes have brought the F3 to an even higher level. Power is up slightly over last year with a peak output of 90 bhp at 11,500 rpm. But what makes the Honda’s engine special isn’t its impressive peak horsepower, but the way it pulls strongly from idle to redline with no dips or flat-spots. That linear powerband helped the F3 post the second-quickest drags trip time of 11.00 at 124.61 mph.

In the canyons the F3’s wide spread of power made fast cornering easier than on the Suzuki because the F3 pilot doesn’t need to do a gearbox tap-dance to stay in the powerband. Even more important was that the F3 could get to and from the canyons without hurting its rider. “There’s no reason for the GSX-R on the street because I can go just as fast on the F3 in comfort,” Higbee remarked after a day in the canyons.

Changes for 1997 include a redesigned tail section that still pops loose. Honda’s F3 posted the second-fastest lap time during our tire-shredding stint at The Streets of Willow, trailing the GSX-R by just eleven hundreths of a second. While it was almost quickest that day, Honda’s F3 did scrape more than its competition: “Just when I was getting serious about going fast on the racetrack the footpegs and exhaust canister started scuffing the asphalt,” said Higbee. However, both Higbee and Graves agreed that the F3 was the easiest to hop on and ride quickly. “It is the most user-friendly bike and most forgiving when pushing it to its limits,” Higbee said. Graves described the Honda as “rider-friendly and easy to slide and feel comfortable on.”

Honda came into this shootout as the reigning class champion. With subtle updates for 1997, the F3 looked like it might spend another year at the top. But Yamaha had other ideas…


1. Yamaha YZF600R 

Chuck Graves lookin' good on the YZF.
Editor-in-Chief Plummer went fastest at the racetrack on the YZF: "The YZF's excellent binders allow you to one-finger the front brakes and the torquey motor produces killer drives off corners."

Surprised? We were downright shocked. Yamaha’s YZF600R came quietly into this shootout with no one predicting it would win. At $7,399, we knew the price was right — but we doubted the bike’s ability to match the competition. Billy Bartels was first to heap praise on the YZF, as he lauded its comfort after a ninety-mile ride from Yamaha’s headquarters. Soon others began to take a shine to the bike. We all raved about the awesome front brakes and superior bottom end on the YZF.In the canyons Yamaha’s YZF was a capable, if not extraordinary performer. Front suspension rates were on the soft side and the stock Bridgestone tires behaved poorly at steeper lean angles (they’re the exact same ones that Kawasaki uses on the 6R). Also, at 482lbs full of gas the Yamaha is the class porker. That’s almost 50lbs more than the Suzuki, and was responsible for its slightly slower mid-corner speeds. To its credit the YZF’s torquey motor pulled strongly on corner exits, allowing a good rush to the next corner. Originally, we felt the engine lacked a real top-end punch, but at 88.5 bhp, it was only 0.2 off our Suzuki. The bike pulls so cleanly and strong from down low, it just feels slower — the top end hit, in relative terms, is less of a percent gain.

Dragstrip testing wasn’t the YZF’s forte either as its weight and grabby clutch left it struggling to keep up. Graves eventually clicked off an 11.21 pass at 123.02 mph, over four-tenths and three miles an hour slower than the Kawasaki. Not exactly the stuff that champions are made of. The Yamaha was, however, the only bike that didn’t fry it’s clutch at the drag strip. (Many thanks to Barnett for providing clutches for the other three on one hour’s notice.)

The stock Nissin calipers, pads and rotors on the YZF are the best OEM four-piston brakes we've ever tested.Racetrack testing threatened to drop the YZF to the bottom of everyone’s list, but here the Yamaha surprised us. Despite its weight, soft suspension and lack of top-end, the YZF proved to be a competent track weapon. Editor-in-Chief Brent Plummer actually turned his best time of the day on the Yamaha. Although it isn’t as precise as a GSX-R, all of our testers posted good times on the YZF.

  • Born to Ride

    Crazy how much physically larger 600cc bikes were back in the day. I bet they had way more midrange power too. The birth of the fully committed 600cc scalpel was the death of the class.

    • spiff

      The F3 was the epitome of the class, the R6 was the beginning of the end.

      • Born to Ride

        Why not the f4i? Most people I talk to consider it the best all rounder supersport ever. I was going to buy one as my first bike but my dad wouldn’t let me get anything with clip ons. Said it compromised visibility and control in low speed conditions where I was more likely to crash while learning. I suspect I just didn’t want me on a damned crotch rocket god dammit.

        • spiff

          In my brain the F3 was the pinicle of the real world bike concept. The F4 was just a refined version.

        • JMDGT

          When Honda went to fuel injection I almost bought a new CBR600. I waited and bought.
          A VFR. A bike that was a really good motorcycle but my expectations of what I thought it should have been ruined it for me. The Street Triple RS is more bike than anything available in that range at that time was. In my opinion of course.

          • Born to Ride

            Yeah, every single time I go to buy a new bike, my mind says “STREET TRIPLE YOU FOOL!”, and then the heart is like “Ducatis are soooo pretty and rumbly….”

          • JMDGT

            There is not a day that goes buy that I don’t think about buying a SuperSport.

          • Born to Ride

            I love the new supersport, but I’d have loved it a lot more 40lbs lighter with an 1100evo engine.

          • JMDGT

            I hear you. It is still on my list though.

          • Born to Ride

            So, it turns out that if I buy a supersport, replace my Guzzi, and Carry full coverage on the bike. My insurance premium will only go up by 800$. This makes the supersport the least expensive new sportbike I can buy as far as total monthly expense goes. Oh and that’s the S model… Maybe a roadster isn’t in my immediate future.

          • JMDGT

            Everything has a cost. Whenever I think about selling my old Roadster I always think it’s not worth that much it doesn’t cost much to run or insure I’ve had it since new I still have room for it in the garage. It would be the one to go if I get another bike. I’ll just keep it. Between it the RT and the Streety I’m good for now. I chose the Triple over the SuperSport when I bought it this year. I still want one.

          • Born to Ride

            Well I’ve been looking at my next purchase with utilitarianism purely in mind. As it turns out, seldom do I get a chance to go for a cruise with my buddy or my dad, but very frequently I go sport riding. So it stands, I’ll get more utility out of a sport bike than a cruiser. So then it becomes, what is the best sport bike for the money that I’ll actually love to own? ‘09 CBR1000? Low initial investment, astronomical insurance. Aprilia Tuono? I don’t want to own a bike long term that is built by a company that is known for having the worst factory support and parts availability. Street Triple? Perfect bike, buy it now, buuut Ducati Supersport? Somehow it’s affordable, gorgeous, and rideable, all at the same time. 2500$ more than a Street RS though, which is objectively a better bike in every way but aesthetics and front suspension. Shit man… how did you even choose?

          • JMDGT

            I thought the Triple the better bike for what I wanted to use it for. Sunday morning fun rides on the few good roads available here. The SuperSport as much as I like it (because it reminds me of what a VFR should be) with the extra cost it fell short in my opinion. I keep saying I need to buy a Tuono before I cash my chips in but I like the Speed Triple R better. I don’t know why. With the top of the line suspension the M50 brembos light weight and the engine they are using in Moto2 it made it a lot easier to choose the RS. I had been too long without sportbike. Maybe a new V4 Panigale some day.

        • spiff

          I went to a friend for a loan to buy my first bike. He owed my father a favor, and gave me a Seca 900 he won in a poker game.

          • JMDGT

            That mon ami is a great story. I cannot even come close.

          • Born to Ride

            Nice! Well I was 17 when I got my SV 650. I only borrowed 500$ from my dad to buy it, but he was gonna have the final veto on what I was “allowed” to ride. He also didn’t let me ride it till I paid him back in full. Real authoritarian type that guy…

          • JMDGT

            I was allowed to have any car or bike I wanted but had to pay for it myself. I bought a CL175 from my neighbor in preparation for riding on the road. My Dad thought a CB350 would be better for me and said if I sold the CL he would lend me the difference to by the CB. He financed $500.00 for me. It took me about 6 months to pay him back but he paid my insurance that year.

          • spiff

            The family subsidiary, a beautiful thing.

          • Born to Ride

            Your dad sounds like a chill dude. Haha

          • JMDGT

            The best thing he ever told me was ” you want more money work more.”

      • roma258

        The first and second gen R6s were great street bikes!

        • spiff

          Agreed, but that is the point when track prowess was cemented as priority. The focus continued to sharpen from that point on. The R1, while being inspired by the 900RR, is guilty of the same.

          Damn you Yamaha! You helped piont the industy in a direction to create incredibly capable motorycles that were so much better than the average bear, that they became irrelevant.

          • Born to Ride

            They need to redeem themselves buy building a SuperSport competitor that looks like the r1/6 and has the 850 Triple. And DON’T just slap a fairing on an FZ09 dammit!

          • spiff

            Hear hear.

          • Lewis

            I will agree with you on the 97 YZF 1000. I had one and sold it to buy the 98 R1. I found out in short order I could not ride as quickly on the R1 as the old YZF. The main culprit was lack of front end feedback and stability. That R1 was an animal, magazines quoted 150 HP at the crank and mine made 143 at the rear wheel on the dyno. Never buy a spec sheet. Ended up going to a Ducati 748 after that which ended up my second favorite bike to ride fast right after the 97 YZF1000.


    My CBR600 was five years old in 97. I wanted something new but it was paid for and I was planning on getting married. That put a damper on any new purchases until 2002. I really wanted a new bike but it was not in the cards back in 97. I very much enjoy these old reviews. TFTM.

  • RyYYZ

    In the review of the ZX6R it’s funny to read the praise for the previous model ZX6(E) model, which I had an example of. Not that it wasn’t a perfectly good bike for its time, but reviews I’ve read of it generally criticize its weight, relatively poor handling, etc.

    That ZX6 was the last of the line that was really intended as a street bike first. Had a locking compartment on the dash, and nice chromed pop-out bungee hooks on the tail section. And turn signals integrated into the body. I sold mine after a year due to comfort issues, though, and picked up a ’95 Concours. Heavy, but comfy.

  • Tinwoods

    That Yamaha Thundercat? Meh. I saw the pic and for a second I thought I was looking at its glorious big brother, the one-year-here (in the US) YZF1000R Thunderace.

  • Sentinel

    As other’s have said, once they all went too far into the race side of the equation, they lost their “real world” usability, and thus sales took a nosedive and never recovered.