2009 Literbike Shootout

Honda CBR1000RR vs Kawi ZX-10R vs Suzuki GSX-R1000 vs Yamaha YZF-R1, with a side of Ducati 1198S

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Engine
Power, tractability, response, user friendliness
(Given the importance of this category, it’s double-weighted)

GSX-R1000 –  95%
ZX-10R – 91.25
CBR1000RR – 90
YZF-R1 – 87.5 

We were expecting Yamaha’s new cross-plane crankshaft design to offer significant benefits in this critical category, but not all our testers were blown away by it. “I can’t say I really felt any difference from the cross-plane crank on the street, although I can hear what people like about the exhaust note,” said journalist/author Mark Gardiner after a ride. (Check out RidingMan.com to see his exploits at the Isle of Man.)

On the other hand, Steve “Speed” Kelly believes the cross-plane engine enhances corner-exit speeds on the track. “All that hype about there being a connection between the throttle and the rear tire is true. If you want to able to spin up the rear tire exiting a corner, having the bike sliding around while you keep the gas pinned, no other literbike I've ridden before made this so easy. The grip and drive the R1 gives somehow allows you to just keep opening the throttle when on other bikes you'd be backing off for fear of highsiding yourself.”

The new R1 has a unique new engine that sounds friggin’ awesome! It goes pretty good, too.

Indeed, this is a much more pleasing engine than its former peaky powerplant, and its V4-like growl entices even elderly kids to twist the throttle to hear it rev. It’s an audio treat for ears that have grown accustomed to the familiar shriek of a typical four-cylinder motor. The cross-plane crank design results in odd vibrations for an inline-Four, delivering rough vibes at lower revs before magically smoothing out at higher rpm via a counterbalancer. It’s another sensation unique to the R1.

But, as we suspected at the Yamaha’s intro, this new motor is lacking a bit of the old bike’s revvy surge up top, peaking with just 146.1 hp at 11,800 rpm. This is the lowest output of all the literbikes, even less that the Ducati’s 150.4 hp, and it’s down from 2008’s 153.5 hp. Max torque is down incrementally to 73.1 ft-lbs at a relatively low 9000 rpm.

Overall, this is a very interesting and satisfying engine, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s down about 10 ponies from the most powerful engines in this group. The R1’s missing top-end pull became evident when the bike was unable to make up ground on the V-Twin Duc down Willow’s front straight. While this speaks volumes about the 1198’s bodacious V-Twin, it also writes a less impressive chapter in the R1’s story.

We were surprised to see the R1’s new motor lag behind its rivals, and we were blown away to see the CBR’s significant midrange advantage over its newer competition. Once past 11,000 rpm, the Gixxer and Ninja race for the biggest numbers.

At the other end of the spectrum is the mega-motored Kawasaki ZX-10R. It rules the roost with 155.9 hp, vigorously inhaling any straightaway in its trajectory. When twisting the Ninja’s throttle hard, you’d best be pointed in the direction you want to go, as you’ll be there in a nanosecond, especially if you keep the heavy-hitting mill spun up to exploit its 12,200-rpm horsepower peak.

As with all these bikes, electronic fuel injection assures prompt cold starts and mostly seamless acceleration. Throttle response from the ZX is immediate and incredible – newbs beware! – but power production is surprisingly soft in the midrange zone. The 10R’s mill has a stimulating rumpity vibration at low rpm, but it smoothes out nicely at cruising speeds.

The Big Ninja cranks out the most power this year, just like it did in 2008, but just by the hair of its chinny chin chin.

Challenging the Ninja for the biggest dyno numbers is the all-new engine in the Gixxer Thou. It spat out 155.2 hp at its 11,700-rpm peak, and it pulls though the powerband in an impressively linear fashion. Torque production is second (third if you count the Duc) only to the amazingly strong CBR, and a GSX-R rider always has a deep reserve of power on tap.

On the track, the Gixxer feels noticeably stronger than all but the potent Ninja, and its throttle response also proves to be very manageable on the street. As usual, we barely experimented with Suzuki’s Drive Mode Selector, preferring to keep it in its full-power A setting. The Gixxer mill’s only shortcoming is some rough vibes coming through the frame at various revs, becoming obtrusive above 85 mph when the motor is spinning around 6000 rpm in top gear. Keep the speeds down to a more reasonable 75 mph and it’s smooth enough for a day-long sport-tour ride.

The CBR’s engine doesn’t post the biggest horsepower numbers, and it’s missing some fancy technology (engine-mapping adjustability, cross-plane crank, variable-length intakes) fitted to some others, but this is perhaps the best street engine of the group. Its midrange pull is simply outstanding, with major-league grunt available earlier than any other literbike. Its torque peak of 76.6 ft-lbs is not only the highest of the Fours, it also boasts a twist advantage over a 5000-rpm range.

It may not make the most power, but the CBR makes the most of the power it has.

The double-R engine's only hiccup is a leisurely response at low revs, perhaps tuned that way to minimize harsh throttle reaction when tooling around town. Power peters out above 11,000 rpm, so there’s little sense in wringing it out to its 13,300-rpm redline, but this powerplant is nevertheless extraordinarily effective.

Transmission/Clutch
Clutch actuation, slipper, shift ease, precision

1. YZF-R1 – 95%
2. CBR1000RR – 92.5
3. ZX-10R – 92.5
4. GSX-R1000 – 87.5

Like so many of the categories in this contest of highly competent contemporaries, we’re basically splitting hairs here. All four bikes run 6-speed trannies and all four transmit power to the rear wheel via some proprietary form of a slipper clutch.

“The R1 gearbox and clutch were perfect,” said returning bike reviewer and Riding Man, Mark Gardiner. The CBR also offers great feel at the clutch lever, and the Ninja’s transmission is easy to use, however, the R1’s back torque-limiting clutch performed with even more transparency than the other two. About 2.5% better performing, to be exact.

We voted the R1 top spot in this category thanks to its excellent clutch/transmission combo.

Surprised that an all-new engine in all-new bike would rank so low in this category? In final voting we were a little surprised too, but this is one of many examples of how a couple seemingly minor issues can eat into scores, scores that could otherwise be almost identical.

The Gixxer’s last place is primarily a result of “a slightly sticky gearbox that didn’t always like accepting a clutchless upshift,” Kevin noted, having a near carbon-copy experience that Pete made mention of in the GSX-R’s U.S. press intro report. The Suzuki’s clutch is now cable-actuated rather than the hydraulic system from before, and therefore provides a little more feel, yet a couple of us weren’t super-excited by the narrow range of engagement. See, not a big deal, but with bikes so evenly matched…


Handling
Quickness, feedback, stability, confidence

1. CBR1000RR -- 97.5%
2. ZX-10R – 90
3. GSX-R1000 – 86.25
4. YZF-R1 – 85

When setting out to recreate the new Gixxer Thou, Suzuki reversed usual priorities in that engine design would follow the chassis, so-to-speak, complementing and enhancing “close-to-ideal” chassis dimensions. Suzuki worked diligently to ensure that the new chassis would allow the rider to capitalize on all that legendary GSX-R power. That’s good evidence that handling is of paramount concern, not just for Suzuki, but also for the other three.

Each bike comes with a steering damper, and all but one (ZX uses an adjustable damper) are electronically controlled and speed sensitive. None, however, are quite as advanced as the CBR’s HESD. Its action is imperceptible during slow-speed street situations, allowing natural, easy steering, and at ludicrous track-lapping paces it keeps virtually all inclinations of headshake at bay.

The Honda RR chassis platform was the most appealing on the street as well as on the track.

Though it doesn’t boast the latest, greatest or fanciest suspension, the reality is the Honda’s springy bits work exceptionally well. On the Super Slab or canyon carving, ride quality is supple yet doesn’t sacrifice front-end feel. Out on Willow’s demanding high-speed sweepers the CBR is unflappable while at the same time its raciest-of-the-group steering geometry allows easy and quick left-right transitions. On the street, steering is light and sharp: Performing tight-radius U-turns in the middle of the road for photo passes was as easy as looking in the direction you wanted to go, the Honda following like an obedient puppy.

Despite best efforts, the Zook’s improved stability via a longer swingarm courtesy of a more compact engine and twin-spar frame failed to ultimately de-throne the Honda from its top-spot in this category.

Of the Suzuki’s trick new Showa BPF front-end, Kevin said it performed very well, as it “holds the suspension up high in its stroke to absorb ripples,” however, he theorized this trait was more beneficial on the street than on the smooth track at Willow. Though the Suzuki isn’t as light as the wispy CBR, it rolls into racetrack turns or canyon road corners, from upright to your chosen lean angle, in a smooth, linear fashion.

Light steering effort and stability keep the ZX nipping at the Honda’s heels.
The new Yami’s handling isn’t as snappy as the others in the test, and it weighs considerably more than the CBR.

The big Ninja has the laziest geometry – specifically with a 25.5-degree rake – and is second heaviest with a 459 lbs measured wet weight, yet it feels nearly as feathery and agile as the CBR. The adjustable Ohlins damper keeps headshake to a manageable level but never impedes quick steering inputs. Perhaps Steve “Speed” Kelly says it most plainly: “The Zed-10R is easy to ride, turns in great and holds a line perfectly.”

It’s fresh, it’s new, it’s fast, but it’s also fat. The new R1 is rather portly, a full 37 lbs more than the CBR’s lightest 439 lbs measured ready-to-ride wet weight. The R1’s extra heft made itself known, as it doesn’t have the immediate response to initial steering input like the CBR or Ninja. Nevertheless, the R1 makes up for this shortcoming.

“It reminds me most of the Ducati in terms of handling: a little effort to initiate the turn but once turned in it’s responsive and quite stable,” Pete noted. This sentiment was shared by Kevin who said the R1’s confidence-inspiring handling was “a boon on Willow’s fast layout.”

Early in the day at the track, Mark and Steve weren’t entirely convinced the new Yamaha’s front-end was in perfect contact with the tarmac, but a reduction in rebound damping and a small amount of rear preload corrected the front’s propensity to skitter over bumps. Regardless, the Yami impressed the least here, not really failing in any sense, but just not offering the breadth of handling performance of the CBR-RR.

In street duty the Bridgestone BT016 meats spooned on the Suzuki and Kawi, the Honda’s Dunlop Qualifiers and the Yamaha’s Dunlop D210s all are excellent tires. At the track their collective performance was quite admirable, but their useful life is, naturally, shorter than, say, a super-grippy DOT race tire. The salient point here is that searching for razor’s edge performance in any of these motorcycles was somewhat limited by OEM rubber, as Mark learned the hard way while still driving home why we put the CBR numero uno in this section.

“It [Honda] felt so planted and confidence-inspiring that I crashed it,” says a red-faced Gardiner. “If you take this bike to the track, you need to run it on real race rubber. That’s a compliment to the brilliant handling; lesser bikes send you a warning as you reach the limits of the tire’s adhesion but the CBR1000RR was completely composed, ready to do much more on demand.”

Thankfully OEMs bring plenty of spares to track days… even whole bikes, Mark!

TrackDaz – Our Latest BFF
By Kevin Duke

TrackDaz rider meetings are typical except for the occasional burst of humor: “Keep the stunt show stuff on the street where it belongs!”

There is no legal way to legally stretch the legs of a literbike on public roads (and I have the CHP documentation to prove it), so we’re grateful for the plethora of trackday companies that have flourished over the past decade.

One of the leading SoCal-based trackday operations is TrackDaz, owned and operated by Dustin Coyner and Rudy Cortez since 2000. Since then, TD has hosted about 200 racetrack adventures, honing their events to ensure maximum track time at a reasonable cost.

Rather than providing elaborate lunches and a strict adherence to a rigid schedule, TD doesn’t bother closing the track for a lunch break and has its clients bring their own grub to eat on their own time. If a crash brings out a red-flag stoppage, Coyner and crew strive to not let that eat in to each group’s session. A day at Willow Springs’ big track like ours costs only $150, while an event at the smaller Streets of Willow is priced at just $120. TD also hosts occasional events at Buttonwillow Raceway, and those cost $160.

Most trackday providers typically separate their riders into three groups, and TD follows suit by dividing guests into A, B and C groups, with the “C” faction being for slower and/or novice track riders. Because TD events often precede race weekends, you’d better not overestimate your speed and select the A group, as it is stacked with really fast racer boys out to cut seconds off their lap times.

Don’t be afraid to take your bike to a trackday. All you need to do is tape up some glass, make sure it’s in good running order and have a set of decent tires.

During our outing with TrackDaz, we were pleased to see about 10 trackday virgins in attendance, as too often we see street-only riders unable to ramp up their skill levels within the confines of public roads. A trackday is free from the distractions of the street like cops and cars and gravel, allowing riders to concentrate on their speed and technique. It comes as no surprise that riders with trackday experience have a greater level of talent and speed, so attending a TrackDaz event is a much better investment in your riding career than something like a set of billet bar-end sliders. If you’ve never ridden on a real racetrack, you have no idea how much fun and excitement you’re missing.

For those who desire instruction with their day at the track, Coyner and Cortez have added TrackDaz Academy schools. This is a stand-alone school separate from a normal TrackDaz event, and there are less than half the number of students than the normal 100 or so at the regular TD track events. And new for ’09 is the TrackDaz New Racer School in which new racers can get certified for the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club race series.

Nearly any sporty bike is welcome at a trackday, and the only modifications required are to tape over any glass items (headlight, mirrors, taillight) and the wheel balancing weights. Just make sure your tires are in decent shape. Race-tire vendors are usually on hand to sell and fit sticky rubber to your wheels, and a local photographer typically shows up to document your speed and style for an additional charge.

Coyner describes the difference between TD and other trackday providers is the passion they have for the job, adding that they have a large group of experienced staff and instructors to assist anyone who asks. And don’t worry about not fitting in, as Coyner says he’s had riders ranging from 12 years old all the way up to 70!

So, if you’re near the Southern California area or plan to travel there, do yourself a favor and see if you can book at day with TrackDaz. They hold roughly 25 events a year, so you’re bound to find one that fits your schedule. There are precious few things that bring the amount of speed and thrills per dollar as a TD trackday.

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