2009 Literbike Shootout
Honda CBR1000RR vs Kawi ZX-10R vs Suzuki GSX-R1000 vs Yamaha YZF-R1, with a side of Ducati 1198S
Get the Flash Player to see this player.The Pursuit of Perfection
It’s been nearly 12 years since I began working as a full-time motojournalist, and I get wistful for those simpler days. Back then, the literbikes (CBR900RR, ZX-9R, GSX-R1100 and YZF1000) were separated by nearly 100 pounds of weight and huge power disparities, and ergonomics ranged from racetrack refugee to something we now call sport-tour-y. Even a neophyte motojourno could pick a clear winner.
But today, we’re stuck in a world of finely honed and fully featured literbikes whose level of diversity is amazingly insignificant. They all haul ass around a racetrack, chassis geometry distinctions are measured in fractions, and peak horsepower differs only by about 5%. Unless you’re a nationally ranked Superbike racer, each of these bikes is way better than you are, and saying one is significantly better than another is mere hair-splitting.
If a person could ride a bike blindfolded (maybe next shootout…), they’d be hard-pressed to discern which literbike they were on. Jumping from one model to another at the racetrack, it was astounding to be fully comfortable running quick laps immediately on another brand’s bike, as they all have remarkably high performance envelopes yet are amazingly user-friendly for what are essentially road-bound missiles.
Stellar radial-mount brakes with monoblock calipers? Check. Race-derived slipper clutches? Check. About 150 tire-shredding horsepower? Check. Same for high-tech fuel-injection systems, stiff inverted forks, comprehensive electronic instruments and calming steering dampers.
Last year, Honda delivered a finely engineered sport tool in its then-new CBR1000RR, and we liked it so much that we awarded it the victory in our literbike shootout. Though unchanged for ’09, the RR retains its punchy, midrange-heavy powerplant inside a package that weighs less than any of its natural rivals.
Threatening the Honda’s class king status are two new-from-the-ground-up competitors. Arriving with a splash is Yamaha’s R1, endowed with a revolutionary cross-plane crankshaft like Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP machine. We loved its tractable power when we rode it at Australia’s Eastern Creek circuit late last year, and we were anxious to see how this fresh design would stack up against the usual suspects.
Also fresh to the literbike equation is Suzuki’s all-new GSX-R1000. Pete recently came back from its racetrack intro gushing praise over the latest, greatest Gixxer. Composed handling and major-league power is assured, aided by the addition of Showa’s new Big Piston Fork first seen on the new ZX-6R.
And lurking in the shadows is the unchanged Kawasaki ZX-10R. But let’s not underestimate last year’s shootout runner-up, as its burly motor still challenges for class honors, and its 2008 redesign handles much livelier than its previous iteration. And the big Ninja has an ace up its sleeve by the fact that it retails for $1200 less than the most expensive bike in the class.
And speaking of the class, we happened to have a Ducati 1198S hanging around while our shootout was going on, so we brought it along on our street ride and our day spent lapping Willow Springs International Raceway with our friends at Track Daz. However, at least 50% of the Japanese OEMs objected to comparing their sub-$13,000 machines with the lusty $21,795 Ducati, especially since their bikes don’t yet have a traction-control system to compete with Ducati’s. And then there’s the fact that the sexy Duc isn’t technically a literbike, it’s a 1.2-liter-bike. So, in the interest of playing nice, we’re including the 1198S mainly as a sidebar story.
So, with all this new blood in the mix, one might expect a drastic reshuffling of last year’s finishing order. Well, without giving our conclusion away early, let’s just say that we were amazed at how well matched this crop of literbikes are. In fact, even after we finished all our testing, no one could say for certain which bike was best. Our winner would be determined purely by the results on scorecards. Read on!