2001 Open Class Shootout

Four Big Devils in the City of Angels


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Four Big Devils in the City of Angels

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.

Freddie Spencer School Instructor Jeff Haney and MO's Brent 'Minime' Avis, standing fully erect, admiring each other's package.

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

Though the Kawi has the snap coming off the corners, its lack of cornering clearance combined with its girth make twisties a chore.

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.

Kawasaki, the company known for awesome motors, has fuel metering glitches in the 9R. If you own one, pop the caps and back out the idle air screws, or go up a half size on the pilot jets.

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 Honda is the only machine whose suspension clickers we didn't have to twist all day at the track.

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.

Daytona-winning Nigel Gale had high praise for the 929's flickability -- as did the rest of us.

"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

Does the Suzuki have motor? Hell, yes. Does it handle? Can we get an "amen" from the choir?

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...
"Blasphemer!"

Not an uncommon sight at the track: The Suzuki out in front of the mellower Honda. On the street, however,

"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.

We're scaring ourselves these days. The Suzuki comes in second because it's too fast and sharp. Amazing, huh?

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.

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