2006 Suzuki SV650S v. 2006 Kawasaki Ninja 650R
To SV or not SV, that is the question...
The SV650 and Ninja 650R are tied in one area: they both come stock with pretty ho-hum tires. Suzuki uses Dunlop D220s, a sport-touring compound that promises long tire life but limited racetrack grip. The Kawasaki comes equipped with Bridgestone BT-020s, also sport-touring tires designed to balance tire life with performance.
We wanted to compare the two motorcycles on the racetrack, and since so much of a bike's feel and performance can be influenced by tire choice, we decided to mount the same tires on both machines. We made a call to Michelin, asking for a couple of sets of their Pilot Power street/trackday tire.
Michelin claims the Power provides maximum handling, as well as maximum wet and dry grip, while offering very good durability and a good price. They also claim that the Power quickly reaches its optimum temperature, and remains soft even in cold environments. These would be great features riding at Willow Springs, where temperatures hovered around 50 degrees, and up on the Angeles Crest Highway, where you sometimes see a powdering of snow in the winter.
We received a 120/70-17 front for the SV, which is designed for the 120/60-17. To prevent any ugly incidents, we compensated for this by pushing the triple clamps about 12 mm lower. On track, the SV didn't exhibit any symptoms of maladjusted steering geometry, with no tankslappers or wobbles of note. The Kawi calls for a 120/70-17 front, so we could just put the tire on with no trouble other than removing a front axle that was tightened to about 200 foot-pounds of torque with the crummy little tool from the Kawasaki's toolkit.
On the racetrack, the Powers did what Michelin claims they will do. They came up to temperature quickly and stuck predictably. Our faster testers had no complaints about the level of grip offered, regardless of tire temperature. After a full trackday, where the two bikes were almost constantly on track due to a certain tester hogging the SV all day, the tread at the edge of the tires showed a bit of wear, but there was no chunking, splitting or scalloping I could see on either tire. Michelin also says the tire will maintain a constant level of grip as the tire wears, so I'd feel good about doing several track days on the same tire, spread out over a few months of trackdays.
On the street, the tires work as well as they do on the track, requiring little warm-up time. That's a refreshing change from older race-compound tires, which would sometimes never get up to temperature at a street pace. I'd expect 3,000-5,000 miles of wear from these tires, although over-inflating and careful riding would probably increase this figure.
As good as motorcycles are these days, the tires are even better. A tire this good would have beaten slicks for grip and wear 10 years ago, without costing $400 a set or requiring tire warmers. Life is good. At an MSRP of $137.99 - $142.99 for a front tire and $167.99 - $216.99 for a rear, the Powers come in most sizes for modern radial-equipped motorcycles. You can get more information on Michelin's website.
The votes are in. The Ninja 650R is an outstanding motorcycle, especially for the price. It's a bike we here at MO can feel very good about recommending to first-time riders, the kind of riders who recognize that it will take many years of building skill to outgrow this versatile and enjoyable little machine. It's also a great-looking bike that will hopefully be a sign of things to come from Kawasaki. The sparkly red frame and two-tone fairing look great, and the clean, simple look of the exhaust-free tail section make the Suzuki's styling seem old-fashioned and clunky.
However, we can't just judge a bike by appearance and how novice and intermediate riders will like it; many of our readers are expert riders, racers and trackday enthusiasts who value handling, ease of use and value more than just raw horsepower or fancy styling. Taking that standard into account, the Suzuki is the bike to have. It's the bike almost all of us would want to own if it were our six grand to spend, with proven performance, charisma and value that the Kawi can't beat without plenty of expensive modifications. Sean put it best when we asked him to compare the two bikes on the track: "The slower you go the more you like the Ninja. The faster you go the more you like the SV." And another tester said, with blunt-instrument simplicity, that switching from the Ninja to the SV "was like going from a Ford Escort to a Ferrari".
If there were no SV650, we would be gushing about the Ninja. Unfortunately for Kawasaki, there's already a middleweight twin on the block, and it's a very good one. The SV is good enough to not only be a class standard, but also a benchmark for all motorcycles. It's fast, fun, easy to ride, reliable, a good value and one of the best-handling motorcycles around once you throw a few bucks at the suspension.
If you want a good-looking, sufficiently fast and very comfortable budget commuter and weekend fun-bike, and have a thing for parallel twins, get the 650R. However, the SV650S, judged by almost any criteria -- handling, power, brakes, or suspension -- is a clear winner here. If you're a hen-pecked spouse limited to just one bike in your garage, the SV has enough do-it-all versatility so that unreasonable limitation won't hurt you that much
What I'd Buy
Pete Chooses not to Rock the Boat
I'm usually one to cheer for the underdog. And I also like it when someone challenges the status quo. After riding Kawasaki's newest Ninja about a month ago, I walked away with the conviction that this bike would storm the marketplace and give Suzuki's formidable SV a serious run for the money. Indeed, after having spent more time on an SV than ever before, I still think the 650R will be a big presence in this category but more so because of its ultra user friendliness and emotional appeal than from a sheer performance standpoint.
The Ninja's low saddle height, upright bars and narrow "waist" are inviting and comforting. It's easy to ride due in large part to the very neutral riding position (it's like riding a 650 cc office chair) that kept me comfortable and relaxed. That's a very important state of mind to be in for new, mild-mannered, or any rider for that matter. I would vote the Ninja Commuter King as well as Comfort King.
Of nearly equal importance to new riders is how their new bike looks. The color matched frame, forks, triple clamps and wheels blend perfectly with the two-tone paint on this fully faired bike. Throw in the trick petal rotors borrowed from its bigger ZX-6R and ZX-10R brothers, the visually demanding shock location and the almost invisible exhaust and the Ninja is by far the better looking bike to me.
When push comes to shove, the SV can push harder. Where the Ninja's power reserves are just about tapped at 9,700rpm, the SV is much more exhilarating to ride as its great intake note howls up to and beyond 11,000. I'm still disappointed with the Ninja's Spartan suspension, especially when it would begin to unwind and protest with its less-than-stable rear end or transmit a harsh jolt from high-speed bumps. The SV is much more supple and stable. The SV, whether through a different master cylinder ratio, pad compound or otherwise, inspired me to brake much later than on the Ninja with its underpowered and "wooden" feel in the brakes. I still say one higher quality opposed piston and rotor would've been the way to go in lieu of the fancy petal rotors. If you find yourself one gear too high coming out of a corner (as I invariably do) the SV's V-twin mill comes to the rescue with plenty of grunt from down low as it pulls in an exceptionally smooth and linear manner. Lastly, the SV's digital speedo and tachometer configuration are perfect.
"I demand as much performance as I can get for my money..."
If track time is on the itinerary the SV will ultimately be the better choice. With the exceptions of poor ground clearance, low clip-ons (as compared to the Ninja's "sit up and take notice" bars) and a slightly finicky transmission, the SV needs little if anything to enhance or improve upon. I demand as much performance as I can get for my money and the $150.00 price difference separating the SV650S from the Ninja650R is negligible for such a well-sorted motorcycle as the Suzuki. And although I prefer a windscreen, the $5,949 required to purchase the fully naked SV650 model makes the choice even easier.
-Pete Brissette, Migraine Editor
What Gabe Would Buy if He Were Credit Worthy
I was really impressed by these two bikes. The level of performance offered for $6,000 is incredible, and we should have a moment of quiet prayer to thank the Moto-Gods.
I doubt Kawasaki will sell more than 5,000 Ninja 650Rs nationwide this year, and that's a shame. It's a very nice bike, the kind of bike a first-time or re-entry rider would be foolish to dismiss out of hand. It's incredibly versatile and comfortable, and has the best parallel-twin powerplant I've experienced since the Yamaha TDM 850. Racers develop EX 500 powerplants, dumping thousands of dollars into them to make them 65 hp grenades. The Ninja feels like a well-developed EX 500 motor, except much smoother. This bike will challenge the SV's dominance on club-racing circuits, once the same modifications that racing SVs get are applied to it.
Still, the Ninja is a well-developed bike that is fun to ride and has a nice little personality, but it's no SV650. Everything the Ninja does, the SV just does better, and that's a tribute in itself to the SV when you realize how well the Ninja does what it does. But in terms of brakes, motor, chassis and suspension, the SV is better. Sure, the Ninja is a nicer-looking, more comfortable bike, but if we had tested it against the standard SV650, with the higher bars, lower pegs, taller gearing and svelte, clean looks, the Ninja probably wouldn't have bothered to show up.
That naked SV650 is just $5,949. For another $1,500 you could do suspension, a better windscreen and a high-mount exhaust. The resulting bike would handle better than many bikes costing $10,000 while being cheap as buttons to insure and maintain. It could commute, tour and slay giants at trackdays and on Sunday mornings. That and a dirtbike in an enthusiast's garage would be a sure ticket to moto-bliss.
If the Gods allow it.
-Gabe Ets-Hokin, Featureless Editor