It has been a couple years since we last did a Japanese literbike shootout, because, frankly, the field has been quite stagnant for a while (save for Kawasaki’s total revamp of the ZX-10R last year). It took them another year, but Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha have all tweaked their respective contenders for 2012 – the CBR1000RR, GSX-R1000 and YZF-R1, have significant changes, while Kawasaki returns for 2012 with the same traction-control-equipped machine it introduced last year, confident of its chances.
Having ridden all of the players at their respective intros, we knew it was time to once again pit them against one another for Japanese literbike supremacy. Read the respective stories for details on the upgrades, because here we’re evaluating how they compare to one another. With the CBR’s improved suspension, the GSX-R’s re-worked engine and upgraded brakes, and the addition of traction control to the YZF-R1, the ZX-10R has some stiff competition this year.
If hype is all that’s needed to win shootout comparisons, Ducati’s new 1199 Panigale would have this in the bag. We’re out to prove that this year’s literbike field is closer than most would think. Welcome to Motorcycle.com’s 2012 literbike shootout, Part One.
Instead of a mega test with every contender, we decided to split the shootouts, first with the four Japanese literbikes, followed by a separate test with the Euro brands. The winners will face off in a head-to-head battle in part three.
All four motorcycles in this test are extremely comparable in price, varying only slightly from the $13,799 GSX-R1000, $13,800 CBR1000RR, $13,990 YZF-R1 ($14,490 for the World 50th anniversary color scheme), to the $13,999 ZX-10R. With virtually identical price tags, each machine still exhibits its own unique personality. Looking at the dyno charts, the Kawasaki has the others beat in terms of peak horsepower, but look closer and you’ll notice it suffers compared to the Suzuki and Honda under 10,000 rpm. So, too, the Yamaha.
Based on that information, the new Suzuki looks to have the healthiest engine. Compared to the last Gixxer Thou we tested, the 2012 version has a generous bump in power from 5000 to 8500 rpm and leads to impressive figures up top (156.3 hp). Dyno jockeys might lay claim to the Kawasaki owning this test with its 160.5 peak hp, but its midrange output is weaker than all but the Yamaha.
Meanwhile, the Honda and Yamaha each plateau around the 10,000-rpm mark, peaking with 145 hp, more or less. But the way they get there is completely different. The R1 delivers best-in-class power below 4500 rpm before notably sagging while the CBR comes on strong and turns the tables – at 6000 revs, the Honda has nearly a 20-horse advantage over the Yamaha and nearly matches the stout Gixxer as most robust in the middle revs. Although Honda claims no changes to the CBR’s engine, our dyno testing revealed a hole filled in from 3500 to 4500 rpm and a slight decrease in power above 10,000 rpm.
As usual, we took each bike to the roads of Southern California, equipped with the OE tires. We logged freeway miles, city miles, and canyon miles to get a feel for each machine. To really put them to the test, we fitted each with Pirelli Rosso Corsa tires and took them to the Streets of Willow Springs racetrack, joining our friends from Motoyard to see how they handled in an environment free of speed limits.
Once the riding was over, we tallied our scores and came up with a winner. Read on to see how we felt about each bike, both on the street and at the track.
Sportbikes these days are thinly veiled racebikes with lights, mirrors and turn signals. It seems ironic then that the vast majority of sportbike buyers will never take their machines to their intended homes, the track. As such, evaluating what each of these machines is like to live with on the street could arguably be more important than their track performances.
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By now you’re likely well aware of the crossplane crankshaft that gives the R1 engine its intoxicating sound and character. For 2012, the addition of traction control has made that power easier to contain. All four testers waxed poetic about the thrill one gets once you let the engine sing, and we’re big fans of the R1’s styling as well.
“It looks cool and sounds freakin’ awesome,” says thorty-year-old Tom. Big Cheese Kevin adds, “Vibration at low revs is more pronounced than the others, but it magically smoothes out when spinning higher.” However, contradicting all the interweb jockeys out there, Duke’s quick to point out one thing: “The sweet crossplane crankshaft does not improve midrange power,” a fact proven by our dyno runs on the previous page and during our roll-on testing, where the Yamaha was clearly outmatched by the three other machines in this field.
The YZF-R1 lives and dies on the back of its sweet engine, which is important because it definitely has a few drawbacks. Abrupt clutch engagement near the end of the lever’s travel annoyed all. Simply leaving stoplights can catch out the unwary due to its grabby nature. However, the transmission offers worry-free shifting, and its slipper clutch is excellent. “The engine feels as though it has the engine-braking effect of a two-stroke,” says Pete. We noticed the YCC-T chip-controlled throttle was sensitive to bumps in the road, as a jolt on the wrist was enough to send the R1 lurching.
Ergonomically, the R1 isn’t a favorable streetbike. While the adjustable footpegs are appreciated (its lowest position provides arguably the most legroom of the quartet), the angle of the bars is better suited for track duties. “The droop of its clip-ons puts a fair amount of pressure on wrists, more so than the CBR and Gixxer,” notes Duke. Pete appreciated the roomy ergos, but warns “The tallest seat height here (32.8 inches) might turn off some riders with inseams less than 30 inches.”
Another gripe we’ve had with Yamahas in the past is the wooden-feeling brake lever. There’s no doubt the six-piston calipers are brutally strong and have no issues slowing the R1, but feedback from the lever is lacking.
Other notables: It’s the only one in this group without Showa’s Big Piston Fork. This isn’t necessarily a negative, however, as the R1 soaks up bumps and its chassis feels confident. Also, Yamaha has yet to integrate the turn signals into the bodywork or mirrors of the R1 like some of its contemporaries. Lastly, the underseat exhaust roasts legs and arses on warm days.
Of course, the big addition for 2012 is traction control, and as I wrote in my first ride report, the Yamaha system works fantastically well. Kevin was in agreement, stating “it operates with such subtlety that it’s difficult to feel or hear it intrude.”
To sum, the R1 is highlighted by three things: an intoxicating engine, seamless traction control and devastatingly good looks. For some this may be all one needs for a great street literbike. “The Yamaha YZF-R1 is the best literbike in this group for all the impractical reasons,” Tom says. If you agree then look no further.
The winner of the most recent pairing of these four machines in 2009, the CBR1k earned the title with its midrange punch combined with comfortable ergos for the street set. Its strong midrange power makes it okay to be lazy on the slick shifter, and longer rides are more tolerable thanks to the relatively upright seating position and cushy seat.
For 2012, the slightly massaged CBR may look a little different, but thankfully the engine and ergo package haven’t gone anywhere. Fancy new Showa suspension bits in the form of a Big Piston Fork and Balance-Free rear shock have been added to improve what was already a solid-handling machine.
When it comes to streetbikes, the Honda has been hard to beat, and this year’s iteration puts up a tough fight. We were a little disappointed to feel a slightly softer top-end hit than in years past, but it’s still the class leader between 7000 and 10,000 rpm.
For all its strengths as a streetable literbike, there are a few drawbacks. It’s a bit buzzy at slower speeds, though vibes smooth out at freeway velocity. Also, of the four bikes, the Honda is the only one without adjustable footpegs – a definite drawback for taller riders or those who like to sport-tour.
The CBR’s new digital gauge display drew mixed feelings from our staff. It’s a much better unit than, say, the one used on the RC51 a decade ago, but Tom nails it, writing “The Honda’s instrument cluster pales in comparison to the thoughtfully designed ZX gauges.”
Perhaps the Honda’s biggest drawback is its lack of electronic rider aids. While the other three competitors feature adjustable power modes, and the Yamaha and Kawasaki incorporate traction control, the Honda has nothing. Its only option is ABS for an extra grand.
Some may argue the merits of all those rider aids, but in terms of value, the CBR suddenly is a tough sell. Granted, ABS is a very useful feature, but the extra $1000 required to get it is hardly a bargain in this company. “If the ABS was included for the standard $13,800 asking price, the Honda would rank higher,” Tom notes.
Still, the CBR boasts little details that make it stand out from the rest in terms of street duties. It’s easy to ride, with little adjustment time needed to get comfortable, has useable power that’s near the top in this class, incorporates passenger grab rails in the tail section, and even has storage space under its pillion seat.
Of course, it’s hard to overlook Honda’s build quality. “The CBR1000RR is nicely refined, and its fit and finish continue Honda’s reputation for quality,” says Tom.
The horsepower winner in this test, Kawasaki’s ZX-10R is a formidable opponent in this class, but only when you get it spinning past 8,000 rpm. Even then, power is curtailed after its 11,500-rpm peak to meet noise emissions regulations. In ranges used in normal street riding, however, power ranks near the bottom with the Yamaha.
To get around EPA noise regs, companies like ECU Unleashed can reflash the stock ECU, delivering an increase of up to 20 hp at the wheels with a formidable bump in midrange as well. For the sake of our test we stuck with a completely standard ZX-10R.
Kawasaki received praise for its build quality as well as design. Kevin even went so far as to call it his visual favorite. “To my eyes it’s the most appealing design of this group.” He went on to compliment the consistent use of black finishes for metal bits, an intricacy the other bikes don’t follow.
Its instrumentation was also appreciated, with Tom noting it “has one of the best digital dashboards of any sportbike. Its digital rev counter is easy to read thanks to bright lighting and large numerals. The color changes from orange to red once past 8000 rpm and flashes rapidly as an impossible-to-ignore shift light. Personally, I still prefer analog tachometers, but will agree the ZX-10’s is among the best digital units I’ve experienced.
Like the Yamaha and Suzuki, the ZX-10R is also equipped with power modes that are “iPhone-easy” to select, according to Tom. Another similarity with the Yamaha is its seamless K-TRC traction control system that instantly made a fan out of Duke. “It takes some bravery to roll on a handful of literbike power while leaned over in an off-camber corner, but K-TRC kept me feeling comfortably secure while in TC2,” he said. “It feels almost like cheating.”
But neither TC nor power modes fix the ZX’s fluffy throttle response below 3500 rpm, nor its relatively weak midrange power. This penalizes the Kawi during normal street duties. It’s not until 8000 rpm that the engine really comes alive.
Ergonomically, the Zed’s rider triangle is “pretty aggressive-feeling for the street,” Pete says. “Not my first choice for a street literbike.” A sentiment my wrists particularly agreed with after a long freeway stint home. Its relatively extreme position places the rider’s weight further forward than the Suzuki or Honda. “Definitely not a long-distance-friendly seat,” notes Tom.
Further, amenities like a helmet lock or storage space under the passenger seat are missing from the Kawi. Small things to be fair, but they matter when discussing street characteristics.
Ultimately, the ZX-10R is a compromise when it comes to street duties. It’s a solid handling machine with a confidence-inspiring chassis, impressive electronics, smooth clutch/transmission engagement and good looks. Considering all you get for the price it’s a solid value in this field, but having to make the engine sing to experience its power does leave a dent in an otherwise supremely delightful package.
In stark contrast to Tom’s earlier assertions about the Yamaha, he concedes “the Suzuki is the best liter streetbike in this group for practical reasons,” listing its transmission, familiarity, handling and streetable power among his reasons. The Suzuki is great at all these things. However, Tom also notes, “the Gixxer doesn’t tingle my testicles the way the R1 does.”
Subjectively, he’s right there as well. Simply put, the GSX-R1000 is a good literbike for the street. All our testers agreed the latest iteration feels instantly comfortable the moment we threw a leg over it. “The Gixxer feels familiar, like having friend sex with an ex-girlfriend,” says never-short-for-words Tom.
Further, chassis confidence and handling are also superb despite only minor changes to the front suspension. Stopping power is excellent, leading Kevin to write, “There is simply nothing to complain about with the stellar Brembo monobloc brakes.” However, the biggest reason we rank the GSX-R1000 so highly is its engine.
Despite only relatively minor improvements, the new mill delivers great power. In fact, with 76.1 ft-lbs at 9900 rpm, it makes the most torque of the bunch. Plus, its torque curve is much healthier than the others below 9000 rpm.
The same holds true in the horsepower department. The Suzuki’s curve is strong, trumping the class-leading Kawasaki until 10,400 rpm, where the ZX-10R edges away by only four horses.
This meaty powerband is felt in all riding situations, as accelerating out of turns or leaving traffic behind requires just a twist of the throttle, no downshifting required. For those times you do need the clutch, lever pull and modulation are easy.
Perhaps our least favorite aspect about the Suzuki is its styling. We like the integrated turn signals front and rear, and Kevin especially liked the blue anodizing on the frame and swingarm, but overall the GSX-R could almost be mistaken for an older model. “Its overall appearance doesn’t break any fresh ground,” says Duke, adding “and its muffler sticks out in an odd way.”
Looking at the big picture, these setbacks are relatively minor when you consider how effectively the Suzuki just works. Then again, we wondered why we can’t have TC on a new sportbike. And if you can’t get excited by staring at your GSX-R when you walk into the garage, what’s the point?
On the Track
The natural home for any sportbike is the racetrack, and though the Streets of Willow track isn’t an ideal setting for these fire-breathing literbikes, it still proves practical for evaluation purposes. What we found in many ways mirrors our street impressions.
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It feels cruel ranking the R1 in fourth place, as in many ways it is truly a cool motorcycle. But the aspects we like about it are narrowly focused and don’t do much to get us around the track any quicker than its rivals.
Mirroring our street impressions, we love the engine character the crossplane crankshaft delivers, but only when the tach needle is pointed northward. “The crossplane crank sounds sensational and smoothes out at higher revs,” Duke says. Which leads to one of its faults: the R1 engine has gutless bottom-end power, requiring deft shifting to keep it happy. If not, it shudders and vibrates with laggardly forward progress. “Where the other bikes could manage second gear through some slower corners, the Yamaha demanded it be shifted into first to get any reasonable acceleration out of the corner,” notes Tom.
Further, the sensitive throttle we observed on the street seemed even more hypersensitive on the track, even in its standard power mode. “When I was looking for just a little bit of extra throttle, what I got was way more than what I needed at the time,” Pete wrote. “This in turn led to sloppy riding in some corners.”
Pete also echoed our sentiments regarding the R1’s wooden brake feel at the lever, describing it as “a little too numb in the initial application.”
On the street, our biggest issue with the R1 is its grabby clutch actuation with a friction zone near the end of the lever’s travel, but this only makes itself apparent at the track when leaving the pits. Otherwise, shifts are smooth and the slipper clutch is great at masking sloppy downshifts.
Yamaha’s traction control earned high marks at the track for its seamless operation and the added value it brings considering how tightly priced the four machines are. “Its wonderful TC gives peace of mind,” says Kevin of the eight-level system. And despite being the only one of the four without Showa’s Big Piston Fork, the R1 keeps its composure well on the track.
In the end, the R1’s downfalls weren’t enough to overcome its exciting engine and excellent traction control. We’re convinced a simple dyno tune to get back some midrange, and a tweak to the brakes would be able to significantly alter its ranking. Because, “despite its quirks, it’s still a super-fun and capable literbike,” says Duke.
Four things stood out when discussing the Honda. Every tester admired the compact feeling of the ergos, with things like “smallest-feeling bike of the four” and “600-like” written in our notepads. With that compact feel comes a nimble chassis, a benefit on the tight Streets of Willow track.
Another benefit at Streets was the strong midrange, allowing for great squirt out of corners. “On a short, rapid-fire turn track like SoW, the CBR’s strong, snarling low and mid-range power is one of the bike’s strongest assets,” Pete writes.
The switch to a Big Piston Fork and Showa’s new Balance-Free rear shock is another step ahead for Honda. Tom found it “exhibits awesome front-end feedback,” which translates into confidence, and confidence equals speed.
Sometimes instead of speed, confidence equals wheelspin, as Duke discovered. After reeling off some quick laps on the CBR and feeling good about himself and the secure grip from the Pirelli Diablo Corsas, he got himself into a big slide while dialing on the throttle exiting Turn 2. “The darkie it left on the pavement might have looked impressive, but it made me question the lack of TC in a 2012 sportbike,” he scribbled in his notes after a change of underwear.
It’s this lack of electronic rider aid that ultimately earns the Honda demerit points. The safety net of traction control goes a long way in easing a track rider’s fears, and the Honda’s lack of a system – and approximately equal price tag – has us questioning its value equation. “On more than one occasion I found the back-end spinning up, and all I kept thinking was, ‘This wouldn’t be an issue with some good, Honda-designed TC,’” Pete adds.
When it comes to performance, however, the CBR1000RR is still solid. Its stable and confident chassis works well paired with the engine’s healthy midrange. Braking power is strong, though slightly behind that on the Kawasaki and Suzuki. And if you’re the type who doesn’t care about TC, this might be the steed for you. Kevin even went so far as to say “If money were on the line, I bet I could go quickest around the Streets course on the CBR.”
Mechanically speaking, we can’t find much to dislike about the GSX-R1000. “The Suzuki is simply an easy bike to ride fast,” Tom notes. It’s true. From the moment we hopped on, the new Gixxer impressed each of us with its abundance of power, stable and agile handling, powerful yet communicative Brembo brakes and above all, its familiar feel. “I’ve always loved these qualities about the GSX-R of recent years, and the new model doesn’t lose any of that magic,” Pete says.
If we sound like a broken record, that’s because we continue to be amazed at the difference a few tweaks have made to the GSX-R compared to last year’s model, especially when stacked against the all-conquering ZX-10R. When discussing power, “its torquey nature reminds me of the Honda,” notes Kevin. “And, despite its taller gearing, it pulls up top in a way the Honda and Yamaha just can’t match.”
But there is one chink in the otherwise flawless Gixxer armor: traction control, or rather the lack of it. With close to 160 horses to the ground and switchable power maps, it seems odd for Suzuki to purposefully carry on with an updated GSX-R without this safety feature. “A bike delivering as much power to the wheel as the Suzuki does can only benefit from a well-designed, refined traction control system,” Pete writes.
As much as we love the Suzuki, we again have to consider overall value, and not having TC in a field this tight is enough to sway the balance. “The GSX-R1000 needs traction control, but is otherwise the second best all-around package on the track next to the ZX-10R,” Tom says.
After basically confessing our love for the Suzuki, what could the ZX-10R possibly offer to rank it higher? Traction control. In a nutshell, that’s it. But let’s back up a little. A well-sorted TC system isn’t the only thing the Kawi has going for it.
Our dyno readings show the Kawasaki lacking in power compared to the GSX-R until both bikes are high in the revs. While this hurt the Kawasaki exiting slow speed turns on the street, it's not that big of an issue on the racetrack. “The Kawi lacks a little low-end and mid-range grunt compared to the Gixxer’s engine, but not enough to give the Suzuki any real advantage,” Tom says. Proper gear selection all but eliminates any apparent advantage the Suzuki may have.
Apart from the slight power deficit, the Zed matches or bests the Suzuki in every category. Its handling delighted us all, with Pete noting, “The chassis allowed the bike to track perfectly along my chosen path through a turn or corner with great communication from the front end.” Not surprisingly, the aggressive ergos we noted on the street proved to be comfortable and appropriate during track riding.
If you told us the brakes on the Kawi had “Brembo” stamped on them, we’d believe you. They are that good. “The Ninja’s Tokicos were fully up to the task, offering good feedback through short travel, all without applying too abruptly,” says Kevin.
We’re also fans of the Ninja’s gauge cluster. “The brightly colored LED bar-graph tach is awesome,” Pete says. “You only need to view it in your periphery to have an idea where the engine is spinning.” An added bonus is how easy it is to toggle for TC and power modes. Simply thumbing up or down adjusts each.
Saving the best for last, the K-TRC traction control system is what bumps the impressive ZX-10R ahead of the rest. Its seamless operation kicks in when you need it, sometimes before you realize you do. “I never felt like the TC was holding me back or slowing me down more than I wanted,” Pete says.
In the end, peace of mind TC provides does wonders for rider confidence. “After sessions on the CBR and GSX-R, I was glad to enjoy the safety net of TC again,” says Kevin in his fresh set of skivvies.
For this test we’ve re-implemented the MO scorecard, rating each motorcycle in 12 categories to come up with our winner. The scores reflect our overall feelings of each machine both on the street and at the track. The results of this test were grouped into two halves, with each duo separated by less than a percentage point. So, without further ado, here are the results.
Fourth place: Yamaha YZF-R1: 80.9%
What do you call a doctor who graduated bottom of his class? A doctor. In the R1’s case, it may have ranked last in our combined scores, but by no means should that discredit its abilities as a capable literbike. If you don’t fall in love with its engine in full song then you might be dead. Likewise, its traction control system is every bit as good as the Kawasaki’s. Coupled with a solid chassis, the R1 is a missile in the right conditions.
But to win this test, a machine has to perform under all conditions, and that’s where the R1 falls short.
“I really want the Yamaha to win because I absolutely love the awesome sound it emits,” Tom says, “but it’s lack of low-end power, tall first gear and clutch engagement at the furthest throw of the clutch lever conspire to make the Yamaha the most difficult to ride.” To add insult to injury it averaged 32 mpg, worst in the group. In the end, the other contenders were just better. Except in the emotional appeal from its exotic engine.
Third place: Honda CBR1000RR: 81.4%
Considering the engine in the CBR has been roughly the same for four years running, the fact it still beat out the Yamaha is impressive, albeit by the slimmest of margins. It’s no fluke though – usable power trumps peak power if the latter requires a concentrated effort. And if the Honda is known for anything, it’s power down low and in the midrange where you need it. Added bonus: it averaged the best mileage of the lot at 41 mpg.
All four testers appreciated the Honda’s compact feel, comfy ergos, capable chassis and willing engine. But it does make the least horsepower in this group and above all, it lacks rider aids. True, ABS is available for an extra grand, but when calculating the cost/benefit analysis, in our eyes, the Honda simply comes up short. Kevin sums it best, “Simply put, it needs TC to keep up with the times.”
Second place: Suzuki GSX-R1000: 89.0%
“If only the Suzuki had TC,” I wrote in my notes, “this would be a completely different ballgame.” There’s not much else to criticize about the Suzuki. In fact, every tester gave it a perfect score in the engine category. We all loved its chassis, brakes and the familiarity it provides from the saddle. It’s also the least expensive bike here at $13,799 and got just a smidge less fuel economy than the Honda, averaging 40 mpg.
Ultimately, in a race this close, we focus once again on value, and the Suzuki’s lack of TC is what brought it down. “The Gixxer Thou is the perfect literbike for anyone who dislikes the whole idea of traction control or who’d prefer to use an aftermarket TC system,” Duke says.
First place: Kawasaki ZX-10R 90.9%
The only one of the four to earn an A grade, the ZX-10R shines on the strength of its engine, astounding brakes and most of all, its well-sorted electronics package. Yes, the Kawasaki suffers a little in the midrange, but it hides this flaw well with a well-timed downshift. It also takes slightly more time to acclimate to its chassis, but once you do “the ZX feels trustworthy and solid,” according to Kevin.
It is an easy motorcycle to ride fast, and yet it will catch you if you make a mistake. The TC works brilliantly, it gets 39 mpg and the gauges are tops in the class. With all that going for it, what’s not to like?
*Note: take a peek in our photo gallery for the nearly 200 pictures we took during this test.
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