2006 Open Superbike Shootout
Honda CBR 1000RR : Kawasaki ZX-10R : Suzuki GSX-R1000 : Yamaha YZF R1
Get the Flash Player to see this player.Yamaha YZF-R1: Even the Godfather Gets No Respect
What's incredible about the R1 is how well it stands up to the ravages of time. Despite the ancient design being an incredible three years old (with mild revision for 2006), the R1 still bested the Honda thanks to revisions focusing on keeping and enhancing what makes an R1 such a pleasure to ride.
First off, we all liked the pretty new yellow and black 50th-annivesary paint scheme. The yellow has more than a hint of gold in it, and it looks like a million bucks when the light hits it. For Dale and Sean -- who spent happy childhoods surrounded by AMA Camel Pro racing in its 1970s glory days -- the R1 looks how a Yamaha racebike should look.
Once on board, you touch and feel a bike that has solid build quality through and through, from the way the sexy faring fits together to the nice little bracket that keeps the clutch cable away from obscuring the instrument panel. The panel is nicely designed and finished, although some of us found the small speedometer display to be a bit hard to read. Still, everything about this bike's finish and design looks and feels right.
It sounds right, too. The motor fires up and makes all the appropriate growling and howling noises a big motor like this should make. Unfortunately, it's the least-powerful motor in the test, showing a mere 154.5 hp on the MO Dynojet dyno. But at least it is smooth and makes power where it should, with almost perfect fueling at all speeds. The cable-operated clutch is smooth with a light pull, and the gearbox is adequate, but Gabe noticed it to be a bit more "clicky", with a slightly longer throw than the other bikes. Don't ask him what "clicky" means; just accept that the Yamaha gearbox is perfectly functional and adequate, just a smidgen less smooth than the newer machines.
Riding on the street is comfortable and fun. The stable chassis is fairly roomy; 5' 8" Pete said "the Yamaha had the best legroom, but a longer stretch to the handlebars", so it's no surprise the bigger boys found it comfortable as well; Sean noticed that "On the freeway, the R1 is noticeably more comfortable than the CBR." The easy-to-use motor is perfectly willing to hoist the front wheel up on command, or whip you onto freeway onramps like you're riding an Exocet missile: redline in first gear is somewhere in the low triple digits. You can go to jail without ever using the shift lever. Why scuff your Air Jordans if you don't have to?
Freeway droning is not that bad either. The ample legroom and tolerable seat keep you from cramping up too badly between fuel stops, which will be pretty frequent if you're flogging the bike; our test unit only got 130 miles out of 4.13 gallons of premium for an average of 31.47 mpg. This is proof you have to work a little harder if your motor doesn't have the power of your riding companions'. We imagine fuel economy would be closer to 40 mpg if the pace was more relaxed and you weren't climbing huge, snow-covered mountains.
Night riding will be fun too, but your riding buddy will want to be behind you. The four projector-beams are very powerful, lighting the way very nicely. Sean noted after a 50-mile evening ride that "the R1's lights blind you: they're like mil-spec laser-weapons...they're brutal! The R1 simply paints the road with bright blue light."
On twisty roads, the Yamaha does everything a rider expects of it, just with a bit more effort than the other bikes. It feels a little bit wider, a little bit slower, and a little bit more buzzy than the competition. This isn't to say it's a bad bike; it's just that it's lacking by a fraction in several areas, which adds up to a tiny lead for the next-better machine. Still, there's no doubt an experienced rider could hustle this thing up a canyon as fast as she could any other bike. It's stable, yet turns precisely and easily, wheelies on command (but stays planted when you need it to) and offers wonderful feel and power from those terrific monoblock brake calipers and radial-pumping master cylinder. It's a good package and nobody could pick any major nits with it.
Out on the track, those tiny differences add up to make the Yamaha noticeably slower than the other bikes. A 12 hp gap in power and a slightly cruder feel kept the R1's lap times from rivaling the other bikes. Certainly an experienced rider, with a little development work and plenty of practice time, could set a track record with the R1 -- or any of these bikes -- but it just didn't impart the confidence to go fast like some other bikes did.
It's still a great choice for a track bike, though. The suspension feels plush and expensive, yet not mushy, the brakes do the job without fading, and if you think 154 hp isn't enough to go fast, you're probably either winning national-level roadraces or not really skilled enough to ride one of these bikes safely anyway. It's all about the rider, not the bike, and the R1 provides a good, solid platform on which to hone your skills and get truly fast.
However, in this company, "solid", "good" and "competent" just aren't enough to take the Best Bike crown home, especially if you cost $600 (as tested) more than the least-expensive bike. If you love the looks and feel of the Yamaha it's definitely worth the money, but if we were Yamaha fans we'd wait to see what the company is planning for 2007. These bikes have a three-year cycle, and Yamaha doesn't like to be beat by anybody in the Superbike game. Just like last year, the YZF-R1 is a terrific bike, but not anybody's first pick.
Tony Bennett Opens for Frank Sinatra: Kawasaki ZX-10R
If you took the forgiving, stable chassis from last year's CBR and plopped in the rambunctious motor from the 2003-2005 ZX-10R, you might have a bike that feels like the new ZX-10R. The filling in the Twinkie is the standard Ohlins steering damper to tame its wild ways. Does it retain enough of the naughtiness from last year to sneak past the GSX-R ?
Apparently not, but it's still a terrific bike that will reward Kawasaki fans by providing everything they like in a Kawasaki while still being easy and fun to ride. From the hot new styling to the dyno-shredding rear tire, this bike really is working hard to please the crowd.
The styling for 2006 is not-too-shabby. Kawasaki's stylists somehow managed to make the bike even more menacing this year, although we all agreed it looks much better in black than the other colors, much to the chagrin of Big Brother Dale, who has "a thing" for red Kawasakis, according to Sean. The underseat exhausts and shapely new swingarm add a touch of class to a bike that already looked pretty good.
Seated on the new bike, the first thing that leaps into focus is the new instrument cluster. Kawasaki must have been tired of explaining why they used that wacky digital tach, because now the tachometer is analog, with the needle behind a wafer-thin screen for the speedometer readout. It looks very trick, but unfortunately Gabe found it hard to read the small stub of a tachometer needle because of poor contrast with the background color and the obscuring effect of the speedometer. Pete said the exact opposite and said it was the best in the test. Maybe Gabe needs glasses.
If you want to forget all about that, just fire up the motor. The engine on this bike sounds great, with the traditional Kawasaki intake sounds filling your helmet at high rpms. The clutch and gearbox are smooth and have a light feel, plus the fuel injection functions perfectly, so tooling around town isn't a problem.
The slightly lower level of comfort might be, though. The footpegs are low enough to offer plenty of legroom, the seat is pretty broad and comfortable, but the handlebars are noticeably lower than on the Yamaha and Suzuki. If you aren't hustling the bike through the turns, it can get uncomfortable during long freeway rides. Wind protection is also not as good as the Honda's or the Yamaha's, but we know this isn't a touring bike, right?
Where the bike works well is in the twisties. Just leave it in second gear and squirting off the corners is absolutely not a problem, not with 166 hp it isn't. The motor is smooth almost everywhere, too; the second-smoothest motor behind the Honda's. Even then, it's pretty close. It encourages you to use the whole powerband, which can make the front wheel hard to keep on the ground.
When you do get the front wheel up, the steering damper and revised chassis keep things under control for when you land. Gone is the stubby, racer-with-headlights feel of the older Zed Ex. What replaces it feels slightly sanitized, with more of a refined Honda-like feel than that old burly Kawasaki charm. The bike does everything -- turn, brake, accelerate off turns -- as well as anything we've ridden.
On the racetrack, the Ten succeeds in being user-friendly and easy to ride. It steers with a light touch, but doesn't feel like it's flopping into the turns like the Honda does. It also holds its line well, even while trail braking. The motor makes way too much power for most riders and most tracks, but as long as the operator respects that it is very controllable; keeping the hard-to-see tachometer needle below 9,000 rpm aids in power management exiting turns, and once the bike is mostly straight up-and-down, screwing it on towards redline gobbles up a straightaway like Dirty eating shrimp at an industry event.
At the end of that straight, the ZX-10R's excellent brakes keep everything under control. Sean said that it "has the best brakes...they're noticeably more powerful. They're perfect; super-powerful without being touchy." The combination of radial mounted calipers, the radial-pump master cylinder and separate pads for each piston add up to give the Kawi the edge in the braking department.
Also contributing to the speed-with-safety theme on this revamped bike is that fancy-looking Ohlins damper mounted cross-ways behind the triple clamp. It's notable for being the only adjustable damper in the test, with that distinctive Ohlins feel coming through your fingers when you click the easy-to-access adjuster knob. On the track, you can actually feel the damper working smoothly and fluidly against the bumps and wheelie-divots that litter Buttonwillow's surface. Having a damper makes a big difference, and with the speeds and acceleration these machines are capable of, having a top-quality damper is muy importante. Kudos to Kawasaki for not skimping in this area.
The ZX-10R is designed to use a 190/55-17 rear tire, not the 190/50-17 size we used. Michelin doesn't make their Pilot Power Race in the correct size; in fact, almost nobody does. Kawasaki used the taller sidewall (the "55" refers to the sidewall being 55% of the tire width) to increase stability and traction. However, Kawasaki had two technicians at the track who did some suspension setup and adjustment to make sure the shorter profile didn't adversely affect handling or safety. They rode the bike (quickly, too!) and seemed to think the Michelins suited the bike just fine, and Sean agreed with them, having also ridden the bike on correct-sized tires at the bike's launch at Fontana; "I liked the way the ZX-10R felt with the different tires." If there's a reason the ZX-10R didn't win, it's not because of us changing the tires.
"I was convinced it was going to sweep the shootout this year", said Sean after the test concluded. He was pretty surprised that it didn't. It's a very good bike, one that will surely please anybody who buys one with its winning combination of stable, predictable and forgiving handling with a colossus of a motor. However, at the end of the day the Kawasaki just fell short in the charisma department on the track and on twisty roads. It also lacked the comfort that a good street bike needs. Were it not for the brilliance of the GSX-R's design the ZX-10R would have won handily; as it is it's a unanimous choice as second-best.