When Kawasaki re-introduced the ZX-6R with its 636cc engine this year, suddenly the oddball middleweight sportbike wars are back on, and who better to wage this war than us? The natural competitor to the Kawi is the GSX-R750, the winner of this test in 2011. But we have such a soft spot for the Triumph Daytona 675R we decided to bring it along as well.
We flogged each bike at the track and on the street to see if Kawasaki could usurp the crown from Suzuki and its category-bending middleweight. The 848 EVO didn’t make the cut this time around.
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Bang for the Buck
Each engine sports an inline arrangement, though the Triumph is notably missing a cylinder compared to its four-piston Japanese counterparts. The Kawi and Trumpet have identical wheelbases of 54.9 inches, with the Suzuki 0.2 inches shorter.
Seat heights are also similar. The Suzuki’s hovers a smidge under 32 inches, while the Kawi and Daytona sit 32.7 inches above ground. As we’ve noted over the years, ergonomically, the Suzuki places the rider low and “in” the bike, whereas the Triumph pilot is perched high and atop the machine. Conveniently, the 636 strikes a balance between the two – a rider is perched higher than the Gixxer, but lower than the Daytona.
Oddly, with engine capacities ranging greatly between the three contestants, power output is closer than we expected. Naturally, with the largest displacement the Suzuki wins the power contest at 121.2 hp and 52.8 ft.-lb. After that, Kawasaki’s 113.3 hp edges the somewhat dated Triumph’s 110.8 horses, but the Trumpet refuses to go down without a fight, winning the torque battle with 48.8 ft.-lb. compared to the Kawi’s 46.7 ft.-lb.
However, in perhaps the most important category, price, the new ZX-6R comes away the clear winner. Coming in at $11,699 for non-ABS models (add another grand for ABS), the 636 is $500 and $1000 cheaper than the Suzuki and Triumph, respectively.
The Triumph deserves an asterisk though, as the standard 2012 Daytona’s $10,999 price tag would have given it the nod in this category. Still, the base version of the 2013 Triumph Daytona 675R I raved about a few weeks ago comes in $100 less than the Kawi. So the 636 wins on a technicality.
Here, then, in alphabetical order are our takes on each bike.
2013 Kawasaki ZX-6R 636
As the new kid on the block, the 636 understandably garners a lot of attention. In our first ride review I was impressed with its power and handling, but couldn’t wait to stack it up against the other contenders in the class and get the opinions of Chief Editor Kevin Duke and fellow editor Tom Roderick.
Duke was a fan of the Kawi’s ergos, calling it “sporty but accommodating,” noting the ample room available “to move around and hang off.” Then again, as stated earlier, the 636 strikes a nice balance between the Suzuki and Triumph. The Trumpet’s bars are lower, but the Kawasaki’s pegs are higher than the Gixxer 750’s set in their low position.
None of us were uncomfortable at the track with this setting, focusing more on the new 636cc engine. Despite being the smallest engine of the bunch, Duke called the ZX “the fastest ‘600’ ever,” and was “shocked when the little Ninja walked away from the torquey Daytona in a freeway roll-on contest. Tom raved about the great power delivery from the well-metered fuel injection, despite featuring only one fuel injector.
Willow Springs is a track that favors horsepower, and it’s here where the Suzuki unsurprisingly walked away from the others. But look at the dyno chart again. It’s only at the peak of the graph where the 636 outguns the Triumph. This disadvantage is noticeable on track as it takes a long straight to reel in the Daytona.
Half a point was the difference between the Kawi and the Triumph in the engine category when objectively scoring them on our trusty MO ScoreCard, with the British bike narrowly edging Japan. But that doesn’t mean the Kawi’s street presence is lacking. “When it comes time to pass slower-moving freeway traffic the 636’s willingness to accelerate is apparent in that it doesn’t require a downshift to quickly overtake another vehicle,” Tom says.
Being the only one of the trio equipped with traction control, the 636 handily wins the technology category of this test. Perhaps the biggest compliment we can give is that we hardly noticed its intrusion.
Where the Kawi really won points was in the handling department. All three testers were impressed by the handling prowess of the new machine. So much so it took top honors in the category on our ScoreCard by a good margin. Duke felt the Kawi’s chassis was “super-cooperative,” reducing the learning curve required to ride the bike quickly, both on the street and track.
Adding Showa’s SFF-BP (Separate Function Fork - Big Piston) makes adjustment super easy, and all of us felt completely comfortable pushing the front end to the limits of our talent. “The Daytona and Gixxer are good handling machines,” Tom notes, “but neither one can match the user-friendly nature of the Kawasaki’s chassis: It simply does what you ask of it in the most pleasing way possible.”
Those are big words for the new Kawi, but the Suzuki and Triumph are formidable challengers.
2012 Suzuki GSX-R750
Our oddball sportbike winner in 2011, the Suzuki GSX-R750 mystified us this time. While unchanged from the 2011 version, which stole the show both objectively on our ScoreCards and subjectively in our hearts, our 2012 test unit didn’t produce that same level of excitement for us.
Maybe it’s because of the different venues we rode, the stock Bridgestone BT016 tires we used this time versus the B-Stone R10 race tires used before, or simply a change in our tastes, but the 750 didn’t leave us salivating as it did before.
However, that’s not to say the granddaddy of sportbikes doesn’t still have some redeeming qualities. Most obvious of which is its engine. As Duke notes, “any meaningful straightaway demonstrates the Gixxer’s clear superiority in terms of maximum power. Its smooth throttle response and wide powerband makes up for its lack of TC.”
At the track, mistakes were easier to mask with the power advantage, helping the Gixxer rider exert less effort to reach a particular lap time. The extra grunt also proved helpful on corner exits, especially when chasing literbike riders hesitant to open the throttle. Against the Triumph and Kawi, this extra edge allowed the Suzi to simply walk away.
However, on the street Tom found the Zook’s power perplexing. “Surprisingly, on the tight canyon roads we were riding, I found the Suzuki to be the most difficult to ride fast due its power delivery in second gear. Where the Triumph was in the meat of its torque curve, the Gixxer was revving low in the powerband. But downshifting to first meant having it closer to redline, making power delivery too frantic to easily control.”
Tight roads aside, the 750’s flexibility on the street trumps that of the Triumph and Kawasaki, allowing it to maintain a gear longer, which lets the rider be lazy with shifts.
We’ve always been fans of the Suzuki’s riding position, where the rider feels like they’re sitting as part of the motorcycle rather than on top of it, so it’s no surprise the Suzuki won the ergonomic/comfort category of our ScoreCards. With the simple adjustment of its three-way adjustable footpegs, the GSX-R can accommodate street riders in the low setting, or track riding in its highest setting. One in which Kevin says provides “plenty of ground clearance.”
With the most powerful engine of the bunch, a strong set of brakes is a necessity, and the 750’s Brembo monoblocs don’t disappoint. We’ve rambled over and over about Brembos and how awesome they are, but these are especially impressive when you consider it still features rubber lines.
Unfortunately we found the Suzuki lacking in the handling department, where it scored last in our rankings due to its slower steering mannerisms. Despite weighing in slightly less than the ZX-6R (419 lbs. vs. 423 lbs.), the Gixxer requires more effort when tackling a twisty road.
Where the Kawi and Triumph feel light on their feet, the 750 requires more effort to turn, especially when transitioning from full lean on one side to the other. In actuality, the GSX-R is quite the performer. Despite our gripes, it’s important to remember the differences are relatively minor – the 750 feels like a 600 compared to a Gixxer 1000.
“While the 750cc Gixxer resides in the shadows of literbikes, it offers a performance/value proposition that is unmatched in the sportbike world,” Kevin notes. “If TC isn’t a prerequisite for your needs, the GSX-R750 is an incredible bargain. It sits near the top of the list of sportbikes I’d consider permanently parking in my garage.”
2012 Triumph Daytona 675R
We just can’t quit the Triumph Daytona 675R. Despite objectively losing our previous shootouts, we bring it back time after time because it truly is one of the most enjoyable sportbikes to ride, no matter the displacement category. In fact, in our “Grin Factor” category, Kevin rated it as his pick of the three. “Its Triple – one of my favorite motorcycle engines of all time – is amazingly flexible for a sportbike engine of its size.”
Indeed, we’ve harped about the enticing character the 675cc inline-Triple provides before. In fact, looking at the dyno chart, under 5000 rpm the Triumph makes more torque than either the Suzuki or Kawi, a handy feature on the street, though it falls flat once the revs pass 13,000 rpm. All of us enjoyed wringing the 675’s neck around Willow’s Big Track, though Kevin was annoyed with the long throttle pull. “I’d find a quicker-turn ratio throttle if I owned the Triumph.”
Otherwise, we’re all enamored with the Daytona’s agility, a trait helped by its 407-pound wet weight, the lightest here. The Trumpet changes direction on a whim and “its Ohlins suspension does a superb job of absorbing Willow’s many bumps while maintaining solid control,” says Duke.
Though it lacks fancy electronics like traction control or ABS (both available on the Kawasaki), when Tom says “you gotta love the quickshifter,” we can’t help but agree. The Suzuki, by contrast, is devoid of these items. Not even as options. We noted earlier the impressive performance of the Suzuki’s Brembos. The Triumph, too, features monobloc Brembos, but is partnered with steel-braided lines for consistently strong braking.
On the street the 675R impresses as well, though it makes its track preference clear. On the ergonomic front, “Bar ends are nearly as low as a rider’s knees and are the lowest of the bunch,” notes Kevin. “Together with this group’s tallest seat, it yields the most uncomfortable street ergos of the group. Still, the bars are placed a bit closer to the rider than the ZX’s, so it’s not really uncomfortable for shorter trips.”
Ergos aside, the qualities we love on the track make it equally endearing off the track. “Its Triple-iscious engine is sweet on the street,” says Duke, though he did notice a slight buzz at freeway speeds. On the street a strong midrange is more important than peak power, and it’s here where the Triple really shines, producing significantly more torque than the ZX-6R between 7700 rpm and 11,000 rpm, rivaling the Suzuki in the process.
If the Triumph can’t be on a track, then twisty roads are the next best thing. Thankfully, the 675 carves a canyon like Emeril carves a turkey. That’s no surprise, but Duke notes lighter riders could find the R’s spring rates a little stiff for street duties. Another gripe: the gauge cluster with white letters on black background is difficult to read.
Otherwise, it’s hard to fault the Triumph. Its engine and chassis are well balanced together, it’s the only one with a quickshifter and we’re fans of the well-placed shift lights. Oh and it’s the prettiest of the bunch, too. It does lack a little top end and places the rider rather aggressively for long distances. Thankfully, with the introduction of the 2013 Triumph Daytona 675/R neither is an issue anymore.
Picking a winner for this test wasn’t easy. All three are fine and capable motorcycles that can easily attack a race course or your favorite ribbon of asphalt with ease. We liked the confidence the Kawasaki suspension and electronics provided, while the Suzuki’s instant comfort and sizable engine advantage definitely deserve mention. The Triumph, meanwhile, reconfirmed the reason we brought it along in the first place: it’s just a damn fun motorcycle.
We can't describe any of these excellent sportbikes as a loser, but the Suzuki GSX-R750 received the least overall points on the MO ScoreCard. Ultimately we downgraded the Gixxer because “it gets the job done, but doesn’t excite me after riding it like the other two,” Tom says.
Which now leaves the new Kawi and 2012 Triumph 675R in a close race for top honors. Anyone who knows us understands the affinity we have towards the Triumph. It’s one that spans six years and is earned through consistently impressive performances.
So impressive it split our judges final tallies. The Trumpet won the overall contest on Kevin’s scorecard by a scant half point. Meanwhile, Tom and I graded the ZX-6R the winner by healthier margins – three and five points, respectively.
It’s an impressive majority decision for Kawasaki, but with the arrival of the all-new 2013 Triumph 675, however, it looks like we’ll have to do this test all over again! Which is exactly what we intend to do.
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