Photos by Blake Conner and Minime
Torrance, California, April 6, 2001 -- "There are blondes and there are blondes, and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points," notes Raymond Chandler, "except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blond as a Zulu under the bleach and, as to disposition, as soft as a sidewalk." Wrapped in slick bodywork and manufacturer hype, some motorcycles deliver the goods while others just look the part, like a transexual, leading you to believe there's something under the skirt that you want in on.
But when you get there after all the effort, it's too late to realize you didn't want it at all. A classic case of bait and switch, then. All the signs point to one thing, but oh, my, how the packaging misrepresents the goods. And the Open Class of sportbikes is really no different. We've spent a considerable amount of time with each of these machines -- and a seemingly infinite amount of time arguing about the outcome -- and can tell you that each of these bikes are fine specimens in their own right. But we soon learned that, despite similar attire, not everybody came to this Open Class party prepared to do battle on the same playing field. Sure, looking pretty is fine for statues and getting into night clubs, but in the world of two-wheels, you'll need to do more than just look the part.
"So which big-bore is best? We spent time on the track and traffic, in a full tuck and even in the work shop to find out which Open Class bike is the flavor of the year for 2001."
The four Open Class bikes we have assembled before you are all good examples of modern beauty: Kawasaki's ZX-9R, Suzuki's GSX-R1000, Honda's CBR929RR and Yamaha's YZF-R1. They all have their fine points, sure enough, but only one of these bikes packs the sort of prowess that keeps it razor sharp, and then tames itself only enough to ensure you don't get bit whilst sampling its awesome wares.
Fourth Place: Kawasaki ZX-9R
People kept asking us after last year's Open Bike Shootout, "why do you guys include the Kawasaki when it's just going to lose?" To this we can only reply, "if you actually stowed your ego and wanted to purchase one of the best all-around sportbikes available today, you'd be riding a 9R." But people don't want to hear that, and, well, good for them: it's not true. This bike is a foot shy on the performance yardstick when compared to the other three here, and if you want a sport-tourer -- admittedly, it's the best at that in this group of sportbikes -- well, why are you reading this test? It's a decent sport-tourer and a rational choice for mature riders. But we're not very mature while doing sportbike shootouts; what really sucks is getting passed by a rider of much lesser skills while you're piloting the Kawy. And having to listen to him about how he passed you, over and over again damages our frail egos, thus, we don't like it, and it gets last.
Granted, when it comes time to head out for a seriously long ride with everything from city traffic to twisty mountain roads to burning up tanks of petrol on the interstate, the ZX-9R is quite capable. However, as good as the ZX-9R is at this "all-around" business, it certainly has some issues it needs cleared up before it can be considered a serious threat for the Open Class title. The most serious of nagging traits on this bike is the carburetion glitch, which is just inexcusable. In on-off throttle situations, picking up the throttle results in a lag before the copious power comes on with a surge. At the racetrack, you learn to ride around this problem since you're able to gauge the bike's response based on what it did in the same corner on the previous lap.
But on the street, where every corner is different and nothing is repetitive, this can cause major troubles -- especially for the ham-fisted among us. Throttle glitches aside, the other thing that holds the bike back is it's girth. Not just it's physical size, and it is big -- even a blimp is large, the difference being blimp's weigh next to nothing, but the Kawi tips the scales to the tune of a solid 10 pounds more than the next closest bike.
Worse, it feels even heavier when the going gets twisty, even on the street where this bike otherwise shines. With the best wind protection of the bunch and a silky smooth motor that's got plenty of grunt and features a slick-shifting transmission, the ZX-9R makes more concessions for street riding than anything else here. And if that's your bag, baby, then this is your Mojo. It's certainly not ours.
But if you need something, dare we say a little spicier, then keep reading for bikes that have more motor, better brakes and make fewer concessions for comfort. Nay, the next three bikes aren't the most cozy places to spend thousands of miles, but the outer edges of their performance envelopes more than make up for any other shortcomings and leave the Kawi behind with nary a thought about it. Such a cold, cruel world this is.
Third Place: Honda CBR929RR
The CBR929RR is the big daddy of Honda's sportbike line-up. When it was introduced to us at Las Vegas last year it had just undergone a rather comprehensive refurbishing that left it lighter, sharper and more powerful -- all good things as far as we're concerned. Unfortunately, the biggest CBR got edged out last year by both Yamaha's R1 and Suzuki's giant-killer GSX-R750. Immediately following, the e-mails started pouring in: "...but so-and-so magazine said the Honda was the best," went one. "You guys don't know what you're talking about. I just bought a 929 and it's the best bike I've ever owned," went yet another. And, while we're not saying another magazine didn't have their reasons (ad-choo! Oh, excuse us...), the Honda just didn't offer the sharpness of the GSX-R or the all-around good feelings the R1 provided. Well, not for our group of testers on the roads and racetracks we encountered, anyway.
"The 929 is one hell of a competent machine that returns to the Y2K-plus-1 fray completely unchanged."
This isn't a bad thing, mind you. In fact, it's the only machine whose chassis we didn't have to adjust all day at the track to get it to handle well. As we said last year, the Honda is the lightest-feeling open classer we have ridden to date. All manufacturers tout 600-class feel, but the 929 is the only one that makes good on that promise. Tipping into a corner, it's the easiest to change direction on. Once into the corner, however, it's the second to touch things down on (the Kawi being first).
On the brakes, it's easily got the business down pat. The Honda's binders are just about the best in the test. The Suzuki may have more powerful brakes (if only slightly) but nothing here has the feel combined with the power of the 929's stoppers.
So the suspension and brakes are great, it "steers on rails," but the motor? It's amazing how quickly the top of the class gets out-classed these days. The Honda felt weak in comparison to the other bikes on hand. It's also got a fuel-injection glitch that, while not readily apparent at the track, did annoy us a bit in street riding situations. So it goes with progress. Regardless, in a realm where power rules, the Honda falls behind by quite a few horses, something that its stellar chassis just can not make up for.
Second Place: Suzuki GSX-R1000
Also, it's different when you ride them all. Looking at the numbers, we all thought the GSX-R would be better and, while in the hands of a Pro-level racer it can go a tenth of a second or so faster around a racetrack, it'll never beat an R1 in the tight, undulating twisties that are real-world canyons -- certainly not with anyone of lesser abilities riding it." Quite simply, Suzuki's new GSX-R1000 is the lightest, most powerful open class bike ever.
Many months ago, while thinking about how much fun this test would be, we were all sure the GSX-R would conquer all, king of the proverbial sportbike hill, at least for a year until something better moved into the neighborhood.
Indeed, there's never been anything like it (porky Hayabusas and ZX-12Rs have no business in this crowd), and the thought of another bike some day eclipsing this bike's razor-edge handling and sphincter-clenching power has us a bit apprehensive, really. We can already see the scattered bodywork littering the roadside. In fact, we already have: We shared the racetrack with our pals from Cycle News, and not only did they wad our GSX-R1000 testbike, but their unit too. If we're not mistaken, MO is the only major US publication that didn't destroy a GSX-R1000 this year (which is truly amazing, given Calvin and Minime's nasty history on Suzukis). Pass the Paxil, mommy dearest, just riding this bike will fray years off your nerves.
Regardless of the potential for damage, with all these "mosts" and "bests" under its belt, it would seem foolish to award the GSX-R anything but first place, right? Well, it would seem that way, but it's just not the case: "just because a bike has more power," harped Calvin "HackFu" Kim, "doesn't mean it's a better bike." If you and/or the machine can't control that power, it'll only make you slower."
Ah, young Calvin immediately regretted saying such words:
"Wussie" chimed in the peanut gallery. "Panzy. Wimp. Skirted Squid," it was getting ugly...
"As for the handling of the GSX-R, it was one of the most solid bikes once you got to mid-corner."
Chastened, HackFu looks ready to fetch his AK-47 and meet his Postal worker buddies on the roof. But, before we condemn him -- and, once again, his surprise vote that swung the outcome of a test into uncharted territory (Calvin voted the Honda F4i last in our recent 600cc shootout, knocking it out of first), let's consider his case.
First of all, AMA Professional Roadrace Champion Nigel Gale also voted the R1 first. Nigel's a nice guy, probably saner than the rest of us here, and certainly more mature. Why? Because, even for experienced riders and racers, the R1 is easier to turn consistently fast lap times on, usually within tenths of the Suzuki. Which leaves the rest of us non-Championship-winning riders (that'd be you): For the average person, the R1 is both faster when the going gets twisty, easier to adapt to, and more comfortable to boot. Which puts us at our second point: Putting the emphasis on street duty, like you readers requested, doubts begin to arise about the Suzuki's total dominance. Let us pontificate: As powerful and precise as the GSX-R can be, it's also a handful to ride -- even professional motorcycle testers are wadding it in unprecedented numbers.
"The engine is so torquey and powerful, speed sneaks up on you. Just when you need a planted, confident front end, the GSX-R's vague front end can throw you down to the ground."
And excepting to the rotund Kawasaki, the GSX-R feels like the heaviest bike here when you're in the twisty canyons. 'Round-town maneuvering is best done carefully, as the tight steering damper can make tight confines seem more daunting than Willow's Turn Eight. Don't forget the ass-up, face-down riding position standard on GSX-Rs that MO once dubbed, long ago, "better suited for one's first day in prison than the operation of a motorcycle." That still holds true.
Page2Even when you're on the tighter portions of a race track or canyon road, the GSX-R feels a larger than the R1, and like it's toting around a chunk more heft than the 929RR. There is a common refrain among pilots that refers to how you should treat the machine you're flying: "stay ahead of your plane." Nothing could be more true of the Suzuki. It's not only physically demanding to ride this bike near the level it deserves to be taken to, but it also requires every bit of mental alacrity you can muster. Things happen faster perched in this seat than any other available over-the-counter.
As for the handling of the GSX-R, it was one of the most solid bikes once you got to mid-corner. But getting the bike turned in, trailing the brakes, there was some occasional doubt as to exactly what was going on where the front tire met the tarmac. And as Jeff Haney noticed during one of our mid-day gum-flapping sessions, "the GSX-R has really good suspension, but less effective travel than the R1. Compared to the GSX-R, the R1 is like a dirt bike, really soft and cushy." Jeff paused, then continued, "but the R1 can really be dialed in for the track."
Believe us, a vague front end will likely by your downfall if you own one of these awesome machines: The engine is so torquey and powerful, speed sneaks up on you. Just when you need a planted, confident front end, the GSX-R's vague front end can throw you down to the ground. Just ask the guys from Cycle News. Fortunately, they're okay, and will live to be niggled by MO another day.
As some Suzuki engineers confirmed at the Road Atlanta press intro, some derivation of this bike is what you will see competing in the 2002 4-Stroke GP wars. Given that, it's no surprise the GSX-R1000 is as fast, or demanding, as it is. Our hats are off to Suzuki for building the biggest, baddest, oh-my-God bike we've yet to ride. Unfortunately, it turns out that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
First Place: Yamaha YZF-R1
Surely you'll recommend that we go back and look at our helmets for the rest of the marbles we've lost. The Yamaha, giving away some 11 horses and 10 pounds to the Suzuki comes out on top? Let's just say we didn't expect this either. But then we rode all the bikes back-to-back-to-back and convinced ourselves that we, too, can be wrong.
No one disputes that the R1 is the bike that we all choose to ride: Faced with a stable of the latest, greatest bikes, all free, the R1 is the one we haggle over for the keys whenever we're going anyplace. What was truly surprising was the racetrack: At the start of the day, the Yamaha was feeling pretty good right out of the box. It had a good motor that fell just behind the Suzuki, but well ahead of the 929 or ZX-9R. Similar things were happening with the chassis, too. As the speeds came up it was as communicative as anything, though a bit wallowy and riding a touch low in the rear.
"You've been warned: If you're a mere mortal, Yamaha's R1 is the bike for you."
Two notches of pre-load in the rear with a few clicks more rebound and compression damping in both ends got things settled to the point that every tester felt the most comfortable pushing to their respective limit on the R1. While the outright lap times were a tick behind the fastest riders' best tries on the Suzuki, the R1 enabled the rider to run lap after lap at or near maximum pace and have the most fun while doing it.
The only thing that holds the R1 back from perfection are a few small annoyances that only show up in light of excellent entries from the likes of Suzuki and Honda. You see, the R1 may feel lighter than the big momma GSX-R, but it's quite porky next to the ultra-light-feeling 929RR (we'll not even mention the ZX-9R here). Also, the brakes on the Yamaha work well, but they are eclipsed by the binders on both the Honda and Suzuki as far as absolute power is concerned.
You see, the Yamaha may not be the best bike for the like of Kevin Schwantz or Valentino Rossi, nor is it the luxo-tourer the Kawi is. But it is more things to more people than any other bike we can think of. It's as nurturing as your mother or as viscous as your neighbor's pit bull. It's all up to you and your right hand, really.
|How we voted|
In a nutshell... Yamaha - As easy to ride at a moderate pace as it is to haul ass on the track. Suzuki - Street-based shortcomings offset by incredible track-prowess. Honda - Easiest-to-ride bike here but can't make up for horsepower deficit on track. Kawasaki - Great street bike that's simply outclassed when the pace escalates. It's Fat City if you're a sportbike enthusiast these days. Just think about what happened here: a bike came in second place because it makes too much power and is too sharp-edged. Oh, and if you think we're a bunch of sissies, don't let us sway you with stories of how many of these GSX-Rs test units have been tossed away already. Yes, the GSX-R is an amazing bike, but even people who are professionals and ride every day have their hands more than full with this bike. Whether or not they want to admit that to you or not is another story, though.
That said, the Kawasaki takes up the rear of this rapidly moving pack. It just isn't as well-sorted as the other bikes here. Kawasaki had better get a move on because they're losing market share by not being aggressive enough (like Yamaha and Suzuki). And this is no time to be resting on your laurels.
"The Honda is a great bike and, in fact, makes a top choice for a street bike."
With its unrivaled flickability, smooth power and great suspension, it makes short work of just about any back road. But in the class where it's all about power, we're left yearning for more from Honda's latest.
Again, it's pretty amazing that a bike like Suzuki's GSX-R1000 comes in second because it's too powerful and sharp unless you're an absolute wizard at the controls of a modern sportbike. Wait, check that, in addition to skill, you have to know two things: Self-restraint (or this thing'll get you in way too hot in nearly every corner) and that this bike easily overpowers even Metzeler's awesome Rennsports, let alone the stock-and-not-too-sticky Bridgestones. You've been warned: If you're a mere mortal, Yamaha's R1 is the bike for you. Thus, Yamaha rests in the winner's circle, nervously looking over its shoulder at the bikes just behind it. Could next year be time for the tables to turn?
Things are just not as easy as they used to be, but damn they're fun!
Brent "Minime" Avis
Being the hooligan of the bunch, you'd think I'd be happiest perched upon whatever has the most power (wheelies), best brakes (stoppies) or sex-appeal (hey, I have this thing for women) -- and you'd be correct in that assumption. Sure, the Suzuki can be a handful and a bit overkill, like using a Panzer to crush a beer can. But anybody who knows me knows that I am not into subtlety. The Suzuki is like my girlfriend who requires constant input and only rewards you if you do things perfectly, which happens rarely, if ever. But, for good or bad, I'm still with that same cranky, demanding girlfriend -- and the Overlord of Overkill GSX-R still holds my heart. Will I ever learn? I hope not, I'm having too much fun.
Calvin "Hackfu" Kim
My off the record thing... which is actually on the record.
I wanted to like the Honda. A lot of people like it and, maybe I'm crazy, but it just didn't appeal to me. It's a well-performing bike. You can turn it in really well and it's responsive, but I liked the R1 and GSX-R more.
"The ZX-9R is big, and it feels even bigger on the track."
It's a lot of fun to crank it over and carry tons of lean angle, however that carburetion glitch ruins everything. The GSX-R is an awesome sportbike. It handles great and has killer power, but it's like buying a Top-Fuel dragster as your daily driver. Even if it provides a thrill like no other, it takes a lot of effort to use, and the sort of skill that few on this earth are in possession of. I'm not ashamed to admit I'm not one of those people.
That leaves the R1. It handles great, has a great motor, and is actually livable -- that is, I could see it as being my only bike. That's why I like the R1.
Nigel "Popeye" Gale
The other day, I was pontificating on my "jubbly theory" and how it pertains to motorcycles. It goes something like this: When at the local mall, checking out the fairer sex, the ones with the biggest jubblies get the biggest smile. Same with motorcycles -- the one with the most ponies gets the nod. This is human nature and is normally very flawed. And in the case of the GSX-R1000 it is very flawed, but for a different reason. The GSXR is a wolf in wolf's attire. It is probably better than you are.
Most of us like to jump on a bike, give it a good flogging, jump off and say, "yeah it could use more mid range, better brakes, a bit of this, a bit of that," and that makes us feel in control. When you jump off this GSX-R, though, you feel humbled. It is better than you. When you jump on the Yamaha R1, you go through a similar defeat. It does everything so well you start thinking of the aftermarket suppliers not being able to feed their families as the bike needs nothing but tires. The Honda 929 worked like a dream and was maybe more fun than the others. I could use it harder and feel more manly.
Now the Kawasaki ZX-9R: Seven or eight years ago I borrowed a 9R long-term test bike for two weeks. I handed it back with a bald rear tire and a big grin on my face. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed that bike.
It had horsepower, handling and brakes that, at the time, nothing was better. Times have changed, the ZX-9R still has a monster engine but is long in the tooth compared to the other three bikes.
"The bottom line is this, though: Any one of these bikes will put a big smile on your face and get you into plenty of trouble."