Everyone loves a close fight. Whether it’s Ali and Foreman duking it out for a full 15 rounds or if it’s the Steelers eking out a narrow victory over the Cardinals in the Superbowl, a closely contested match-up is always fun to watch.
Which is why our annual Supersport Shootout never fails to attract loads of eyeballs to Motorcycle.com. It’s a never-ending tussle of one-upsmanship among the Japanese manufacturers, as models that ruled in one year often get usurped by the latest and greatest newly developed contenders.
This year continues that theme. In our ’08 comparo, we judged Honda’s CBR600RR to be the class leader: Its combination of the category’s strongest powerband, exemplary chassis and suspension, and Honda’s typically high levels of fit and finish made it our favorite 600. The double-R got some slight revisions for ’09, finally getting some modern turnsignals in addition to revised engine tuning that held a major surprise (keep reading…). Honda also unveiled its new Combined-ABS system this year, but our bike wasn’t fitted with that option. You can read about the brakes and other revisions in our 2009 Honda CBR600RR C-ABS Review.
At the other end of the spectrum is Kawasaki’s ZX-6R. The ’08 model had some admirable traits, but good looks and a competitive powerplant weren’t any of them. Team Green fights back this year with a fully freshened middleweight Ninja, boasting a boosted engine and a nastier appearance. We found out how good it is after some solo miles in our ZX-6R street test, and it thrilled us with its hella-strong engine and sweet handling. We said then that there was no chance of the ZX again finishing near the back of the pack, and we confirmed it in this street-biased shootout.
Suzuki brings to the party a GSX-R600 mechanically unchanged from the revamped version it debuted a year ago. It finished just narrowly behind the formidable CBR last year, and it impressed us again with its confidence-inspiring composure, a very competitive engine and notably improved finish quality.
Yamaha’s YZF-R6 comes into battle in a difficult position. It was our least favorite 600 in last year’s Shootout, mostly because of its peaky engine and racer-like riding position that made it seem out of place on the street. But Yamaha has made some tweaks to bump up midrange power, remapping the ECU to tweak the electronically controlled throttle (YCC-T) for “optimal” power in each gear.
As for the Triumph Daytona 675, you’ll notice its absence here. It received a few upgrades for this model year and would surely be competitive in this quartet. But the Triple’s extra 76cc over the Japanese inline-Fours always made it an oddball in this crowd. However, its MSRP is in the same range as the real 600s, so look for the sexy Trumpet to go head to head against the winner of this shootout next month.
So, you’ve now met the players. Think you already know the outcome? You might, but there are a couple of surprises beginning with the below sidebar.
|Where’d My Ponies Go?|
By Kevin Duke
It’s a rare event when Valentino Rossi doesn’t finish on a GP podium. It’s even rarer when a sportbike doesn’t make as much power as it did the year before, but that’s what we have here in the curious case of missing ponies.
Case in point: the ’09 R6. In recent years the YZF’s powerband has been biased toward the top end at the expense of middle-rpm power. It was welcome news when Yamaha reps told us a few months ago they had made some revisions to enhance the ’09’s midrange grunt. What they didn’t know at the time was that its peak power has been reduced by about 3.5 hp.
Case #2: the new CBR. Honda told us during the bike’s press introduction about its enhanced midrange power. What they didn’t say is that its top-end steam has been restricted. Our ’08 tester cranked out a solid 105.5 hp; this new one spat out a relatively meager 97.7 hp on the same Area P dyno.
We were shocked at what we found, and it was a little bit of a surprise to our American OEM contacts, too. The question is: why?
One of the new additions to the CBR is an exhaust “power valve” which has been used on several other motorcycles in the past. The idea is to have the valve closed at lower revs to enhance low-end power, then open up for a free-breathing run to peak rpm where maximum power is found.
But an exhaust valve can also play another role. By electrically closing the valve at certain revs, the auditory volume of the exhaust sound can be reduced.
That was the case with the ZX-6R for the past few years, as the ECU of the American ZX closed the exhaust valve at about 13,000 rpm to meet U.S. noise regulations. This cost the Ninja about 5 hp and a significant drop-off at high rpm compared to the Euro tuning, as we found in our “Free Horsepower” sidebar on this page. The latest ZX is said to suffer just a 2-hp drop in peak power compared to the Euro spec bikes.
Coincidentally – or not – it’s at 13K rpm when the new R6’s power also begins to drop away from the previous version. Then, at 14K when the old R6 was climbing to its peak, the ’09 bike is rapidly tailing off. Yamaha reps say the only changes involve remapped YCC-T settings, although we wonder if a reprogrammed exhaust valve is the culprit behind this lost power.
The CBR doesn’t quite follow the above template. The newer bike begins to fall behind around 10,000 rpm yet remains close for another 2K. But at 12,500 revs the Honda’s power production falls flat while the ’08 RR was still building up steam to its former hp peak at 14K. Ironically, the RR’s peak power is now 97.7 hp, identical to last year’s Ninja. Honda has stated that the CBR’s exhaust valve opens at 8000 rpm in gears 1 and 2, and it opens at 6000 rpm in the higher gears. No response yet whether the valve closes at high revs.
There’s still some research to be done on this subject as we probe Honda and Yamaha for more details about the exact changes to their 2009 sportbikes and exactly why they were made. As of this moment, we are confident the reason is to meet noise regulations. If such considerations aren’t important to you, a swap to an aftermarket pipe should yield full power.
So the next time someone mentions an exhaust “power valve,” you might want to keep in mind that it can also be used as a noise valve.
599cc l/c DOHC
599cc l/c DOHC
|Bore & Stroke||67mm x 42.5mm||67mm x 42.5mm|
|Fuel System||40mm Dual Stage Fuel Injection||38mm Keihin FI, twin injectors|
|Frame||Twin-spar alum w/HESD||Twin-spar alum w/Ohlins damper|
|Rake||23.5 degrees||24.0 degrees|
|Wheelbase||53.9 inches||55.1 inches|
|Claimed Wet Weight||410 lbs||421 lbs|
|Seat Height||32.3 inches||32.1 inches|
|Front Suspension||41mm USD HMAS, 3-way adjust||41mm USD Showa BPF, 3-way adjust|
|Rear Suspension||Unit Pro-Link, 3-way adjust||Bottom-Link Uni-Trak, 4-way adjust|
|Front Brake||4-piston radial-monoblock, 310mm discs||Radial-monoblock 4-piston/4-pad, 300mm discs|
|Tires||Dunlop Qualifiers||Bridgestone BT016|
|Fuel Capacity||4.8 gal||4.5 gal|
|Measured R/W HP||97.7 @ 12,500 rpm||107.7 @ 14,100 rpm|
|Measured R/W TRQ||41.9 @ 11,700 rpm||42.9 @ 12,000 rpm|
599cc DOHC Four, 16 vlv; S-DMS; 6-spd
599cc Four; 16 vlv; 6spd
|Bore & Stroke||67mm x 42.5mm||67mm x 42.5mm|
|Fuel System||40mm Suzuki Dual Throttle Valve (SDTV)||41mm Mikuni YCC-I and YCC-T w/2-injectors per|
|Frame||Twin-spar w/ elec-controlled steering damper||Twin-spar (Deltabox)|
|Rake||23.8 degrees||24.0 degrees|
|Wheelbase||55.1 inches||54.3 inches|
|Claimed Wet Weight||432 lbs||414 lbs|
|Seat Height||31.9 inches||33.5 inches|
|Front Suspension||USD 41mm Showa 3-way adjust||USD 41mm; 4-way adjust|
|Rear Suspension||Showa 46mm, 3-way adjust||4-way adjustable|
|Front Brake||Tokico radial 4-piston w/ 310mm||Radial 4-piston w/310mm|
|Tires||Bridgestone BT-016||Dunlop Qualifiers|
|Fuel Capacity||4.5 gals||4.6 gals|
|Measured R/W HP||102.7 @ 13,400 rpm||100.0 @ 13,400 rpm|
|Measured R/W TRQ||43.2 @ 11,500 rpm||41.0 @ 10,900 rpm|
|MSRP||$10,399||$9,990 (Raven - black)|
Despite just one of these four bikes being significantly revised for 2009, we’ve got a considerable shuffling of powerbands this year, as we’ve seen in the above sidebar. However, there is one clear leader in this quartet.
Kawasaki made several modifications to the engine in this updated Ninja, and they’ve paid off in a big way. The ZX leads or is close to leading the pack at most every point in the rev range. At least as impressive is the lofty peak number of 107.7 hp, which is a chunky 5 ponies more than the next-best GSX-R, and it’s a full 10 hp more than the neutered CBR.
Last year the CBR finished ahead of the Gixxer this category on the merits of its class-leading midrange poke. With the snipping of the Honda’s top-end power, the GSX-R’s motor was judged to be superior this time around. The Suzuki has best-in-class power in the 5000-6800-rpm range, and it clearly beats the CBR and R6 once above 11,000 rpm.
Like the ZX, the Suzi also offers seamless throttle response, and its clutch is superbly easy to modulate. It offers a thrilling duet of intake and exhaust sounds, with a prominent intake whoop sounding especially nasty as the revs climb through the midrange. Its only street shortcoming is a slight buzz at cruising speeds that can blur the restricted view from the mirrors. The adjustable ECU mapping of Suzuki’s Drive Mode Selector was deemed as extraneous for a 600.
Despite the CBR’s ranking demotion in this category, its engine remains very appealing, especially in street conditions. It’s particularly strong around 9000 rpm, pumping out more power than its rivals at that point. Although the CBR offers exemplary manners, it has two small but noticeable bugaboos. Going into a corner, an aggressive rider will notice the bike’s lack of a slipper clutch (the only one of the group without one). And during corner exits, the CBR sometimes responds a bit abruptly upon re-application of the throttle. Surprisingly rough engine vibes can put hands to sleep during highway stints
The R6’s’s revised ECU mapping has unfortunately turned last year’s screamer into a bit of a moaner. Yamaha says the revised YCC-T settings are supposed to optimize power output in each gear “to achieve a smooth and linear power delivery.” Indeed, the R6 seems to pull quite well through the midrange, thrusting harder during the 8000-11,000-rpm zone, and it proves to be exceptionally smooth. But when the motor runs out of breath at 13K rpm, you might wish you were on the ’08 version.
Handling (Chassis, suspension, etc)
There is a considerable amount of ubiquity in the chassis of these middleweights, but there are also some significant differences.
All four hang their engines from a twin-spar aluminum main frame, common fare in this class. The R6 spices things up a bit with a subframe constructed from magnesium while the others retain aluminum subframes.
The chassis game shows some separation with the Honda taking honors for most aggressive geometry. The CBR’s 53.9-inch wheelbase is shortest in the bunch by upwards of an inch; only the R6’s 54.3 inches comes close. Honda also boasts the steepest rake - by 0.3 degree over the Gixxer - at 23.5 degrees, but its trail figure is 2mm longer than the Suzuki's shortest 96mm.
The CBR has some handling and ride quality competition this year from the ZX-6R. With shortened trail, 1-degree shallower rake angle and the new Showa Big Piston Fork, the Ninja cuts a sharper line this time ’round. On top of those changes, the Green Machine received numerous updates to its frame to increase steering response as well as stability and feedback. Finally, a claimed weight loss of 22 pounds, 2 of which are from a new, lighter exhaust that’s mounted below the bike instead of being under tail, enhances the Ninja’s newfound agility.
Keeping the Honda’s sprightly steering numbers in check is undoubtedly still the most advanced steering damper around, the HESD. The Suzuki has an electronically controlled steering damper, but it uses less parameters to it direct it. As part of its 2009 upgrade package, the Kaw comes with an adjustable Öhlins damper, although its resistance can’t really be dialed to anything other than “light.” The R6 again remains without a steering damper of any type.
The double-R and Ninja are pretty evenly matched in front suspension, both offering a supple, forgiving ride without sacrificing excellent feedback. One added advantage with the Kawi’s BPF is that both compression and rebound damping are conveniently located at the top of each fork leg. Concerning rear suspension performance, the consensus on the Ninja’s shock was that it seemed a tad over-sprung, at times causing an unsettled ride over rough pavement.
Though some might call it a bit soft, we prefer to call the Suzuki’s ride quality very forgiving. Indeed, the Gixxer Sixxer soaks up road imperfections with aplomb, yet it doesn’t feel like the chassis is incapable of handling spirited riding. Kevin said that jumping on the Gixxer was easiest, as he could ride it “quickly and confidently.” And Mark referred to the Suzuki as “an old friend” in terms of its welcoming and user-friendly handling.
The R6’s 41mm inverted fork is very similar to GSX-R’s sticks and thus offers similar ride quality. Its steering geometry is ever so slightly more relaxed than the Suzuki’s, but the Yami’s wheelbase is nearly an inch shorter. Since neither bike received chassis changes this year, the Yamaha retained its position as the least responsive of the four. Really, though, could any of these bikes be called anything other than highly-responsive? Not! Hopefully this gives you an idea of the thin slices of near-perfection that separate this pack.
In mirror-like fashion, all four motorcycles have identical tire dimensions of 120/70 x 17 and 180/55 x 17, with the Honda and Yamaha both wearing Dunlop’s Qualifiers while Kawasaki and Suzuki roll on Bridgestone’s BT-016. Sport tires have come so far in recent years we feel like we’re stating the obvious when reporting that both tires have excellent grip, stability and feedback. Duke thinks the ’Stones are a little bit better.
It seems the real battle for handling supremacy was largely between last year’s champ, the CBR, and the heavily updated Ninja. “I think Kawasaki has taken a big step this year with the ZX-6R’s peppier handling and the Showa BPF, so I’d rate it very close with the Honda,” exclaimed Mark. Notice he said “very close.”
Nevertheless, boiling down all of the above means the CBR still does the best job of providing light, response steering while at the same time instilling confidence by virtue of one helluva stable ride. Having the lightest claimed curb weight by at least 4 pounds is a sweet bonus, too! (For “real world” weights of these four see our 2009 Honda CBR600RR C-ABS Review).
Before gathering together the Japanese supersport machines, we speculated that Honda might’ve taken the lead this year in stopping performance when it upgraded its 600 with the same or very similar mono-block calipers as found on the CBR1000RR. Then we collected all four motorcycles and gave the Ninja’s brake lever a squeeze… Kawasaki hasn’t yielded an inch of ground this year!
The Ninja’s Nissin calipers grab the pair of 300mm petal-type rotors with incredibly refined power. One pad per piston (4) helps contribute to the sensation that the rider is directly linked to the brakes. Honda’s brakes offer similar stopping prowess but simply lack the Kaw’s sublime feel. Of the Ninja’s brakes, Kevin said simply that they’re “beyond reproach.”
The GSX-R’s brakes – though good enough for about 99% of the riders that purchase a 600cc supersport – don’t come up to the standard of the Kawasaki. Just about all of us thought the R6’s brakes were lacking in sensitivity, but they eventually develop enough power to get the job done.
With the Ninja as the only all-new bike this year, it’s the only machine to have updated instruments. The white-faced tach and neighboring LCD prove to be the best overall package if for no other reason than because it’s easy to view in detail at a 100-mph glance.
Big Red wins favor for being the only bike that offers a fuel gauge, albeit in-lieu of a gear-position indicator that is thoughtfully provided on the GSX-R and ZX. The Yamaha’s attractive display is narrow and long, but its tach has a black face that makes reading it at high speeds a bit difficult.
All the bikes offer some type of adjustable brake lever, and Suzuki one-ups them all with practical 3-position adjustable footpegs that have a 14mm horizontal and vertical range. One thing the Gixxer mysteriously doesn’t offer but the others do is a built-in lap timer, although it does have the unique-to-this-class S-DMS (Suzuki-Drive Mode Selector). The CBR’s switchgear has a quality feel beyond its competitors, according to Kevin.
We often lose sight of comfort while screaming down the front straight at 140-plus, but on the street – where most owners will ride – small things add up.
In this category, the Gixxer takes our top award. With its adjustable pegs in their low position and the superior protection of its windscreen, the Suzuki is the best of the bunch for highway cruising.
“The Suzuki is a bike I feel like I’m sitting in, not on,” Mark observed, adding that at the other extreme he “definitely feels perched on the R6.” Indeed, we all sensed that Yamaha infused a racer’s influence in the R6’s ergos with things like a tight relation between peg and seat. Additionally, the Yam’s clip-ons are lower and slightly forward compared to the other three. Anyone with an inseam less than 32 inches will be unable to flat-foot at a stop.
Once again the Ninja mimics last year’s class-leader, the CBR, this time with a similar rider triangle. Though both feel high in the saddle compared to the foot-planting lowest seat height of the Gixxer (31.9 inches), they also have wider-set clip-ons that feel nearly on-plane with their saddles. The Kawasaki and Honda rider triangles offer fairly neutral riding positions, yet the rider need only crouch forward a little to be in corner-attack mode.
Our photo shoots require frequent u-turns on two-lane roads, and it was during these tight turns that we noticed a tight squeeze between the bars and the upper portion of the CBR’s fairing at full steering lock. It caught us off guard more than once while trying to maneuver at low speeds. We didn’t note similar problems with the other bikes.
This collection is first and foremost concerned with ultimate performance, and though aesthetics aren’t as important as in, say, the cruiser world, appearances still mean a lot to the supersport demographic.
The little Gixxer’s appearance doesn’t morph dramatically from iteration to iteration; however, we still think this is one of the most attractive Gixxers in years. Our tester arrived in a relatively simple color scheme that appealed to most of us, but its tribal-ish detail accents are obviously thick decals whose edges are readily apparent. Referring to last year’s ZX’s looks as “a bit rounded and generally blah,” Kevin feels that the ’09 Ninja’s edgier and sharply creased new bodywork is a major improvement.
This year was soft-revision year for the Honda, but designers still managed to hone the CBR’s looks and finally update turnsignal styling. These little styling tweaks help the Honda maintain its status near the top for looks. But there’s something very appealing about the razor-sharp lines and stunning orange and black color scheme of the R6. It’s the strongest eye magnet of the bunch and has excellent finish quality.
Odds and ends; things we liked and didn’t like.
Most of the important features (identical displacement, bore/stroke, twin-spar frames, wheels, tires, etc.) of each bike are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Despite this, each maker has taken time to include – or exclude – some handy little items that often get overlooked if not completely neglected by sales brochures or spec sheets.
For instance, Suzuki provides a stylish, color-matched pillion cover for no additional cost. Covers for the other three are accessory items. The underside of the Suzuki pillion cover also provides a helmet hook, and the Kawasaki has a pair of hooks on the tailsection of the subframe, accessible when the passenger seat or pillion cover is removed.
The Honda also accommodates two helmets, but only with the passenger seat and not with the optional pillion cover. Riding an R6 means carrying your lid to the grandstands or into the store, but handy bungee-hook loops attached to the underside of the passenger seat are a hidden bonus.
Rear preload changes on the Honda are accomplished with an easy-to-alter ramped adjuster shared with the R6; the others use a more “finicky locking-ring arrangement,” said Kevin with a little tear running down his cheek.
This article concentrates mostly on street-riding conditions, and we thought it important to break the developing news story about lowered horsepower of half the bikes in this comparo. Keep your browser tuned to Motorcycle.com for a follow-up article on how these 600s stack up (hopefully not literally…) at the track.
Ranking bikes as evenly matched as this quartet is an exercise in splitting hairs. Our last-place finisher is still a stunning machine worthy of your love and devotion. It’s perfectly reasonable to choose any of these sportbikes based on appearances, dealer quality or the price you can negotiate. But it’s our job to critique motorcycles, so although the differences are slight, we’re able to provide the following rankings from last to best.
Yamaha YZF-R6 Specs
At the bottom of our street-biased rankings is the Yamaha YZF-R6, but it’s nevertheless a grin-producing machine that remains impressive. If you want the sportiest looking 600 and are willing to tolerate racy ergonomics, we can’t blame you if your fires are fanned by the sexy R6. However, be prepared for relatively lethargic midrange power, a tall seat height and the most difficult to modulate clutch that make it our least favorite for general street riding. Yamaha’s revenge may come when we take this group to the track.
Honda CBR600RR Specs
The Supersport class has always been the most hotly contested category in motorcycling, and this is again evident by how last year’s winner has slipped into third place. It retains its neutral handling that inspires confidence in all maneuvers, and its finely tuned suspension handles all situations with undeniable composure. And although the shape and design of the bodywork is familiar, the RR remains one of the most handsome bikes in the class, accentuated by its excellent fit and finish. But its engine is no longer the standout it once was, and its lack of a slipper clutch is an obvious omission. It runs a dead heat against the following bike.
Suzuki GSX-R600 Specs
Although the GSX-R suffers a bit for its apparent non-newness - it feels not a whole lot changed from its 2006-07 iteration - it impresses as one of the easiest to simply jump on and ride it quickly and confidently. The Suzuki proves to be very compliant in all categories – suspension, throttle pick-up, ergos, composure, steering, clutch and gearbox, and generally friendly rider comfort. And now that it has a superior engine to the CBR, the Gixxer Sixxer gets its due by finishing runner-up to the bold new kid on the block. An MSRP increase to $10,399 is one of the few marks against it.
Kawasaki ZX-6R Specs
We’ve now tried twice to divine the Ninja’s shortcomings (at the racetrack press intro and on the street back home), but the ZX has proved it’s as good as it gets in the 600cc category. Combining class-leading power with a highly responsive and trustworthy chassis are the major elements of the formula for middleweight class success. And although it might not be termed as pretty, it’s definitely jumped up in the cool factor category.
What’s it lack? Not much. Slightly taller bars and a higher windshield would make it more tolerable in around-town and highway use, but the 6R is as close to perfect as a four-cylinder middleweight sportbike can be.
Next we get to find out if a day of hot-lapping a racetrack on sticky Michelin Power Ones will shuffle the order. Stay tuned and pray for the SoCal rain to stop!