2012 Japanese Superbike Shootout - Video
New upgrades shuffle the rankings and bring up the question: To TC or not TC?
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?