2007 Liter Bike Shootout
Honda CBR 1000RR : Kawasaki ZX-10R : Suzuki GSX-R1000 : Yamaha YZF R1
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Last year saw Honda give the CBR1000RR the kick in the pants that it needed to stay in the hunt. A couple of us thought it went the wrong way on the spectrum, noting in last year's shootout that "...the new [at the time] bike's responsiveness will manifest itself as an intimidating tendency to overreact to rider inputs resulting in a rider who's less-relaxed and even less likely to extract the most from his/her riding abilities." Yet, given enough time to get acquainted, most of us found that "on the CBR you can just fling the thing in there...it's not unstable, just much easier to steer."
Owing much to this new-found acceleration and agility for 2006 were a myriad of lightened internals, as well as some bits on the outside that equated to a total savings of 15 pounds The 998cc liquid-cooled, 16-valve Four is the same today as it was in '06. But back then all the changes to the bike accounted for upwards of 60 percent over the previous model. Things like magnesium engine covers, a lighter fairing, a lighter HMAS fork and shock, lightened and improved cam and crankshafts, and a lightened radiator and exhaust were just a sampling of the things Honda tweaked. Boosting the compression ratio from 11.9:1 to 12.2:1 along with a number of other alterations allowed redline to bump from 11,600 to 12,200 rpm and certainly didn't hurt the bikes ability to accelerate.
Though the twin-spar frame remained largely intact from the previous version, much of the rest of the chassis saw more than just a couple of changes. For example, the wheelbase shriveled a tad from 55.6 to 55.2 inches, steering rake tightened from 23.75 to 23.45 degrees, and trail decreased by a seemingly indiscernible two millimeters. To me and you, that translates to 3.9 inches. Also on the chopping block was the swingarm; it lost five millimeters. Lastly and in similar fashion, brake rotors lost 0.5mm in thickness, but increased in diameter to from 310mm to 320mm. Scoff if you will at all the little reductions here and there, but when you throw in the ground-breaking HMAS electronically-controlled steering damper, renowned cassette-type transmission, and a lighter, faster revving engine into the mix, the result was – and still is – a bike uncharacteristically ferocious in acceleration for a Honda while still maintaining legendary Honda reliability and stability.
Kawasaki ZX10-R $11,249.00 ($11,549.00 Ebony)
If ever there was an iconic motorcycle, it just might be the Ninja. C'mon, you have to admit it. That name has been stirring the souls of young men and women for decades. I remember the first Ninja that caught my eye. It was a Ninja 900, and a friend of my dad was selling one. I was but 16 years-old, and the chances of me owning that while under my father's roof was about as likely as Alberto Gonzales being able to recall anything. Nevertheless, the fact that a Ninja was so accessible was thrilling to me. It's a friggin' Ninja for cryin' out loud! Who wouldn't have wanted one?
Today's Ninja is a wee bit beyond the tech of 1985 and as popular as ever. Merely seeing a sportbike in the distance is enough to make you say: "Ninja!" even if you can't really make out what it is, as long as you can see the Green.
Like Honda did with the CBR, Kawasaki made serious revisions to the ZX-10R in 2006, taming its unbridled spirit from the previous year. But they didn't calm this stallion down by muting the near-160 horsepower 998cc 16-valve four-cylinder ballistic missile of a motor. Instead they wisely added a steering damper – Ohlins flavor, please! – and made some serious changes to the chassis.
Starting with a frame composed of cast and pressed aluminum bits, they went beyond twin-spar and made the spars wrap over the engine to create a backbone of sorts. As a result, the shape narrows the bike significantly, giving it 600-class width. Additional changes to the frame last year had the engine mounted more forward and up, as well as tilted back a skosh. This series of changes aided what Kawi refers to as "roll response." None of those changes meant that the quick-handling Ninja's scant 54.7 inch wheelbase would be any different. More improvements came in the shape of unfashionably small, floating 300mm petal-type rotors pinched by four-pot radial-mount calipers. The rotors are nice and light, so why shouldn`t the six-spoke cast wheels that they're attached to be just as light? Indeed, they are.
Keeping that front wheel in check is a set of what is becoming a class-standard 43mm inverted cartridge fork, although they don`t have the separate high- and low-speed compression damping adjustment of the Gixxer. Some functional styling changes came about in '06 on the Ninja, namely a reshaped fairing with a set of menacing looking headlamps and a hungry ram-air intake between them. Finally, that wacky tachy was gone and in its place was a centrally located analog tachometer with an LCD speedo in the center that creates a neat 3D look. Too bad the lens is slightly tinted, marginalizing the view.
There we have it then; two big bore bikes fresh out of the oven, and two that, in this day and age of rapid development, might get placed on the day-old rack. They're still quite tasty, though!
"Who ever will I get to ride these things on the street with me?" That was the question I needed to answer soon if we were to get the show on the road, so I called upon my courier powers and summoned the likes of long-time Brit biker friend, Steve "Speed" Kelly. Steve's been in and around motorbikes for most of his life. He was a courier in Ol' Blighty for many years, as well as here in smoggy L.A. In between all that, Steve has a least three seasons under his belt at Willow Springs Motorcycle Club and plenty of time on some the most desirable race tracks in Europe. He's also owned, ridden or raced just about every non-cruiser motorcycle from the past 20 years. Yep, he'll do nicely.
Next up, and with just as much fanfare, is the beloved Buzz "Buzglyd" Waloch of Motorcycle.com forum fame. Buzz is an accomplished street rider and has participated in a number of our shootouts. He always makes excellent observations that we often don't, and he usually has a credible reason as to why he does or doesn't like something about a motorcycle.
EXTRA! EXTRA! Read All About It!
That's how I saw the headline in my head. Let me 'splain. You see, the cool-headed, smooth-riding editor extraordinaire Kevin Duke (aka Danger) is now helping helm the mighty ship that is Motorcycle.com. Who better, than a kick-ass Canadian to guide the magazine to its new future.
"Straightaway, Duke was full of bright ideas. With many bikes to ride and not so many riders, we needed one more talented titan tamer to help us."
"What's that you say, Danger? You got who to come along?"
After I picked myself up off the floor and patted my own brow dry, I remember distinctly hearing Kevin say that none other than the Edge was joining us. Not that impressive Irish guitarist from some mildly popular band called U2. No, Duke was talking about Alex Edge of MotorcycleDaily.Com. Surely with the addition of Alex, major publishing houses around the country would scramble their business managers to learn if Motorcycle.com was planning world domination. Rest assured, we are!
With the street beat covered, this left only a couple more issues to resolve. Where in the world – or at least the three surrounding counties – should we track test these monsters, and who's going to punish them correctly? The track gods smiled upon us, and with an incredible stroke of luck we were able to capitalize on an abandoned reservation for the "big track" at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, located in Rosamond, California. Hell, yeah! One down, one to go. Duke, without missing a beat, knew he had our go-fast man:
Kev spells it out like this: "Once we decided to rent the big track at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, we knew who to call set some fast, consistent times for our shootout: Curtis Adams. At 6-foot-six and 215 pounds, Adams isn't your typical sportbike jockey, but he's logged a million miles at Willow and he was a longtime holder of the outright lap record at what's known as "The Fastest Road In The West" until the AMA Superbike championship held a couple of races there. Racing a Triumph in the AMA's former Pro Thunder series, he took more wins than anyone else, and he was also a five-time race winner in the old Formula USA championship. Not only a super-nice guy, Adams is also able to crank out laps at Willow like a finely adjusted valvetrain, clocking in tours around Willow within a tenth of a second. As the 46-year-old is also the lead instructor for the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club's Advanced Race Clinic, his consistency and speed around Willow probably shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. And speed runs in the Adams genes, as 17-year-old son Bradley is already faster than we will ever be."
The first day of street time had us winding up and down the Angeles National Forest, sampling the roads that keep many motorcyclists residing in greater Los Angeles. This little route of ours provided a good mix of nearly flawlessly paved sweepers. Other portions of this initial ride gave us ample opportunity to see just how well these bruisers could be hustled through tight, first-gear turn roadways that seemed to double back on themselves.
Day two was edgy and dangerous...um, I mean Alex, Kevin and myself worked our way to the Mojave desert via more twists and turns courtesy of highways 150 and 33, with our final leg connecting us to the 5 freeway by means of Lockwood Valley Road. Ah, SoCal, ain't it grand?
The Nitty Gritty
Fourth Place: ZX10-R
All of the motorcycles in this test have something we like about them. Buzz was quick to note that the Ninja has a "very attractive shape without fussy graphics and stickers." Well noted, Buzz. The Kawi could be taken for a minimalist in styling, yet it doesn't suffer for it. The front indicators are cleanly integrated into the fairing and a fork shroud does a great job of complimenting the fender. The lines on this bike, from front to rear, are swoopy if nothing else. It has an artistic flare when viewed in profile, with unique geometric shapes carved into the bodywork. And though a bit obvious – as compared to say, the CBR – when you first approach the bike, the under-tail exhaust immediately brings your attention to the deep saddle, enticing the rider to climb in rather than on.
On The Street
The first impression most people get on the ZX is that it is rather large feeling when confronted with the big fuel tank and low seat height. Though he doesn't ride in the street, it's worth noting that even gigantasaur Adams commented, "Initially the Kawasaki feels big; it may be the shape of the tank." And in a half-hearted effort to be a comedian, he joked, "Maybe it's all that green!" One thing none of us could complain about was the plush seat. Buzz gave it a slightly backhanded compliment saying it had "the least horrible seat of the bunch."
An ergo issue raised by both Buzz and Kevin were the high footpegs. Seems an aggressive, racy stance isn't so quaint on the street for extended periods. According to Buzz, the long-ish reach to the clip-ons impacted his comfort level, noting, "I like to really get over the front end and it wasn't possible to do on the Kawi." He also attributed what he called poor front end feel to this ergo trait. As a matter of fact, at least four of us noted the vague and at times confidence-zapping front. Steve owned an '05 unit and was really looking forward to giving the latest iteration a go. Unfortunately, he was disappointed, saying the Kwakker was "the hardest to hustle through the corners" and that "it just felt downright unstable, as if the front end and back end where in a constant battle with each other." Zoinks! Not good.
Lucky for us, get up and go is not a problem on Mean Green. It still has that same tour de force of an engine and we all loved the way it developed power. Second-gear wheelies were as natural as turning on the ignition. Kevin, despite his years of poetic prose, was left with nothing more to say than, "awesome motor!" Atta boy, Duke. Regardless of its dubious front-end feel, Alex had plenty of happy feelings toward the Ninja, quipping "The ZX-10's turn-in was crisp and smooth." Danger was just as happy with the motor as any of us but was keen to observe that it was "coarse at some revs but smooth at others." And he also felt that the tranny, as smooth shifting as it was, produced an ever-present and annoying whine while at cruising speeds. That Duke, what a whiner.
On The Track
Sadly for the Kawasaki, it seemed that countless laps at two and half miles each only exacerbated its ill-handling nature on this trip. For those that rode on the street, little else changed at the track. But even on this day in a completely different environ, things like "insane power" and "felt like the fastest" were still being heard. Even Adams admitted that what ever handling woes plagued the Ninja – in the first half of the track day – could be forgiven to a small degree once you open the throttle. "Get the thing pointed straight, then it's like, 'Oh my goodness, it just made up for whatever we gave up right there, and then some!'"
"As the day wore on, there just seemed to be no end in sight for what had become an insurmountable problem with the Kawi's shock."
Even with its preload adjuster on its maximum setting, we couldn't dial in the correct amount of sag for the 215-pounder Adams. Big guys will want to fit a stiffer aftermarket spring. Everyone could appreciate the engine, the brakes, slipper clutch or even the slick-shifting transmission. Yet, despite having friend-of-MO Lee Parks and his good buddy Paul Thede, founder of Race Tech Suspension on hand, there was no reprieve from the rear. Curtis summed it up succinctly and accurately saying, "The rear travels up and down violently through the stroke. It's just moving around so much that you miss your mark." This presented such a problem to Willowliscious Adams that he found it distracting and wasn't able to fully focus. Conversely, Adams didn`t have a problem with the ZX's front end, especially after raising the rear ride height.
Which brings us to another trouble spot for Adams on the Ninja: the instrument cluster and its smoked lens. It was so much of an issue that he said, "The tachometer is nonexistent as far as I'm concerned. Can't read it. No where can I see it. It's completely out of view the whole time. I just have to go by the shift light; when it comes on, I shift."
Phew! Pretty harsh stuff, no? Since the shock maladies seemed so dramatic I'd be willing to chalk it up to some kind of anomaly. But all OEMs had tech representation on site, save for Suzuki (and for that we had Paul Thede. Still, no matter the amount of messing with rebound, or shimming up the shock for additional ride height (that made the bike steer much better), the Ninja's rear suspender just couldn't be made to work satisfactorily for Adams, though it was okay for our lighter riders. In the end, this was probably the killer for the Kawi.
In an industry with such rapid development and implementation of trickle-down tech, a bike can fall hard from grace quickly. Perhaps Team Green will do to the ZX-10R next year what they did for their ZX-6R of this year: make it one of the best handling Kawasakis ever.