A few days riding seven of the most powerful sportbikes available on public roadways without incurring a single speeding ticket is next to miraculous. Johnny Law, wildlife, tourists, and sharing hotel rooms with one another are only a few of the occupational hazards we navigated when conducting our 2017 Superbike Street Shootout. The street-centric comparison may be representative of the actual lives most of these motorcycles will lead in the real world, but for us it’s a necessary precursor to where we prefer to be and where these bikes should actually be ridden: the racetrack.
“If you own one of these and don’t take it to the track, then you’re simply not getting your money’s worth,” says our Editor-in-Cheese, Kevin Duke. “If you want a high-performance streetbike and have no plans to bring it to a racetrack, you’d be better off with a Tuono or FZ-10 or 1190SX or Super Duke.”
“We’re junkies loose in the pharmacy with all kinds of motorcycles here at MO, but every year – or at least every couple of years – when it’s time for the big Superbike Comparison!, well, all of us get even more amped-up than usual,” says John Burns in his latest Whatever – Sportbikes Forever! column. Burnsie goes on to describe the mixture of adrenaline and fear when piloting open-class sportbikes when removed from the bonds of laws and etiquette. And he couldn’t be more right. Launching a 180-horsepower Aprilia or BMW onto the banked straightaway at Auto Club Speedway, engulfed in the sound and fury of dizzying forward thrust, is an intoxicating thrill, to say the least.
Which one of these seven is the most thrillingest is what we’re here to discover. Our reigning Sportbike of the Year, Aprilia’s RSV4, won the street shootout by a minimal margin, but Honda’s new CBR1000RR put up an admirable fight by virtue of its surprising agility. And let’s not forget the excellence offered from the other manufacturers, including the World Superbike-winning Kawasaki ZX-10R, the MotoAmerica-winning Yamaha R1, the newly updated Suzuki GSX-R1000, and the class-redefining BMW S1000RR, all of which are worthy of your attention and consideration. Here we go.
Retaining its 7th-place position from the street shootout, the EBR 1190RX lost a few percentage points in this venue largely because its foibles at legalish street speeds move front and center when at track pace. Take that single, large rim-mounted front brake, for instance, a complaint among all the testers.
“The 1190’s oddball front brake didn’t deliver the level of confidence needed on a high-speed racetrack, feeling weak relative to the others and causing me to run off in Turn 1 when I asked for the same level of braking at the same lever pressure,” says Kevin Duke. “It needs a strong pull to access its full power.”
The EBR’s best attributes – quick transitioning, a solid chassis offering good edge grip, and quality suspension – remain, allowing skilled pilots to take advantage of the EBR’s strengths. In the hands of our expert-level roadracer, Fabrice Vilder, he estimates he was an average of 2 seconds slower compared to the other bikes in the test. Not too shabby for a bike lacking the braking performance, much of the electronic wizardry and overall polish the others possess. Chalk up the EBR’s nearly-as-fast lap times to its impressive 162 horsepower and shootout-topping 87 lb.-ft. of torque.
“EBR sadly is a bit out of its depth,” says Burns. “Still feels really light and quick-reacting and seems to have power to stick with just about any bike out there. It’s just the integration of systems where it loses milliseconds (seconds in my case), its responses don’t flow as seamlessly together as the other bikes, with their lean-sensitive ABS, quickshifters, etc. Having said that, it’s the only one I could afford, at $10k, and it would be fun to try and smooth everything out. The power is already there…”
Like the polarizing looks of the Yamaha YZF-R1, the EBR managed to wedge apart testers to the point of unfriending one another on Facebook. Guest tester Thai Long Ly and Evans Brasfield best represent the two opposing camps.
I know my esteemed colleagues aren’t as giddy as I am with this corn-fed muscle bike, but I’m definitely a fan,” says Ly. “The chassis is excellent, as is the suspension. But aside from that, the EBR is certainly outclassed by its peers from a refinement and electronics standpoint. Like a one-night stand, this bike is raw, wild and satisfies if you’re willing to abandon all small details and niceties and just go for broke.”
To which Brasfield rebuts, “I have few things nice to say about the EBR. Perhaps it is a failing on my part. The brakes didn’t exhibit the judder I felt on the street, but I never gained the confidence in them that I had on the other bikes. The engine produced good power with a great exhaust note, but the vibration in the upper rpm range diminished any enjoyment I had.”
“Overall, the 1190RX is simply a short step behind the contemporary state of the art,” Duke observes. “It’s one of the coolest machines in this test, but here amongst the latest and greatest sportbikes, it feels a bit crude.
We were happy to have the EBR represent the V-Twin segment of superbikes since Ducati declined to include the big Panigales in its press fleet, but it is outclassed in this field. Now, let’s move on to the bikes in this shootout from OEMs that aren’t being liquidated.
The first reshuffling of the deck comes with the Kawasaki dropping from its fifth-place finish in the street shootout to sixth place on the track. Not because the Ninja did anything worse at track speeds, on the contrary, most testers quipped that the harder you push the ZX-10R the better it performs. It’s downfall in the track rankings is mostly due to the Yamaha performing much better here than it did on the street. More on that later.
“Similar to the BMW in a way” says Vilder of the ZX. “A freight train but with added front-end feel. This is the bike of the group that requires a bit more muscle and effort to go fast on, but it’s also very rewarding. The more you push, the more it gives. I can see myself achieving great lap times on the big Kawi having spent a few more sessions on it.”
Editorial Director, Sean Alexander, echoed those thoughts, adding, “The track-friendly nature of the ZX-10R’s power delivery and the stability of its chassis make it confidence inspiring, and that confidence in turn makes ever more rewarding the quicker you go. It’s easy to see why it makes such a good Superstock and Superbike competitor at the world level. I really love it on the racetrack.”
Most of our testers agreed the Ninja has high limits and performs better the harder it is pushed. Part of that impression is the ZX’s lack of low- and midrange grunt, also a complaint in our street shootout where midrange power is more important. Even though it’s easier to keep the Kawi’s inline-4 on the boil at the racetrack, a broader powerband is always desirable in getting power to the ground more easily.
“The Kawi pulls strong up top, but its midrange power is weaker than the others,” says Duke. “Evidence of the ZX’s racetrack competence is that I was able to punch out very similar lap times over several laps back to back.”
Completely opposite of the EBR’s underwhelming front-end stopping power is the Kawasaki’s use of Brembo M50 calipers, which provide fantastic braking performance and feel whether at street or track speeds. No real surprise, as we’ve gushed about these Brembo binders numerous times.
We’ll let Thai conclude our thoughts regarding Ninja. “This easily could be my third-place bike, and if ridden in isolation, has the goods to be a long-term commitment,” he says. “The brakes are strong and the ease at which the bike navigated the track made me smile uncontrollably with every passing lap. And with the speeds at which we descended the front wall into turns 1 and 2, any sudden smiles had to sneak past looks of terror as I clung to the clip ons for dear life (did I mention this bike hauls ass?). But this green and black Ninja always stayed composed and had me turning fast and fun laps time after time.”
Like Kawasaki, Suzuki also suffered a slide in placement going from fourth place in the street test to fifth place at the track. However, had we the more expensive GSX-R1000R model ($17,199 vs $15,099) with all the additional bells and whistles that come with it, the Suzuki would have placed better than fifth, as it does nothing poorly.
“The Gixxer was the biggest surprise on the track for me,” says Brasfield. “Within the first lap I felt at home on the bike with it responding exactingly to my every whim.”
As we mentioned in the street test, the GSX-R may be a new model but it hasn’t lost the traditional, familiar, comfortable sitting in, not on top of, feeling Gixxers are famous for. And to some degree this what Evans is alluding to when speaking about feeling at home on the bike. Switching to our go-fast racer impression, Vilder had these positive remarks about the second most affordable bike in the shootout.
“The motor is a force,” the expert racer says. “Suzuki engineers manage to find midrange and tons of top end power via their patented VVT technology. Although our test bike lacked the quickshifter/auto blip feature, it’s obvious this is a lethal track weapon, and don’t be surprised to see the Elias and Hayden duo give Yamaha a hard time this year.”
Kind words indeed. But Vilder wasn’t finished. “Easy bike to go fast on, great power, nimbleness, and balance. Great bang for the buck. They’ve also stepped it up in the quality dept and the bike feels and looks as good as it performs,” he says.
Alexander put it simply: “The Suzuki has that elusive trait shared by a lot of truly great racebikes: It gives no drama and produces no surprises, seeming to disappear below its rider while it gets on with the task of hauling ass.
From each tester’s butt dyno, as well as the official dyno charts above, it must be presumed that Suzuki’s use of variable valve timing is responsible for GSX-R’s excellent midrange in both horsepower and torque production. Of all the inline-Fours in the test, only the BMW and Suzuki provided enough grunt out of Auto Club Speedway’s slower corners to remain in second gear. For good drive on the Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha first gear must be selected.
“Its VVT technology seems to have paid off, delivering more low-end grunt than any Japanese literbike, while still pulling hard near its upper end until – like all the Japanese bikes – power production is curtailed due to noise-emissions regulations,” says Duke.
Again, here’s Thai Long Ly to walk the Suzuki off stage.
“Although I had fun, I never felt like I had to own it,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic bike that goes like stink, but it’s sorta like the pretty waitress at the 3am post-gig dinner. You flirt, tease and exchange numbers, but never actually get around to calling her despite the initial connection. And that’s too bad, as this is the best Gixxer to date.”
The fly in Kawasaki’s and Suzuki’s ointment is the Yamaha YZF-R1. Our sixth-place finisher in the street test moves up two positions in the track test because it’s simply a more track-focused motorcycle, whereas the other two bikes better balance the their street/track strengths and weaknesses. But, it was close, the R1 scoring only 0.16% better than the Suzuki – a bike costing $1,600 less than the R1.
The biggest complaint about the R1 on the street, its seating position, didn’t have as large an impact on the track. The R1 still came in last place in the Scorecard’s Ergonomics/Comfort category, but its scores moved up from 76.4% to 87.9%.
“Ergos are fine on the racetrack, where you are too terrified to feel pain,” explains Burns.
As noted earlier, the Yamaha is the second-lightest motorcycle in this test, but that’s not how it feels. There’s just no getting around that the R1 steers heavier than most other bikes in this test. The trade off is absolutely rock-solid stability in fast sweepers, or, especially, at top honk on Auto Club Speedway’s high-speed banking.
“The R1 makes a good case for itself on the racetrack, where its committed riding position and geometry allow a rider to carry very high corner speeds,” says Duke. “It is among the heaviest steerers but very stable,” he continues. “The crossplane-crank motor impresses on track, with a rider able to feel the rear tire dig in under power, accompanied by exhaust music like Rossi’s M1.”
When we conducted our last superbike shootout two years ago, the new-at-the-time Yamaha R1 placed fourth in the track shootout, and it’s doing so again here against newer machinery from Kawasaki (upgraded in 2016), and the new-for-2017 Suzuki. So the R1 is aging well and maintaining its level of performance. Our racer-for-hire, Vilder, who competitively pilots a similar R1, came to this conclusion regarding the Yamaha.
“Although the R1 is entering its third year of production, it is still very much a contender. As a package, it is hard to beat,” he says. “The chassis is forgivable, very stable. I would say it matches the Aprilia chassis and performs well on tight tracks or long sweepers.”
And don’t accuse Vilder of favoritism for the Yamaha – he ranked it third on the Scorecard.
For the first time since its 2010 introduction the BMW S1000RR finds itself out of the top two positions. The bike is still on the podium, but third on the box is a first for the S1000RR. Albeit the margin was probably one of thinnest in MO Scorecard history as only 0.09% separated third from second place. What’s triggering its fall from grace? It’s mainly the little things, but here in particular, price is one of them.
While we try to keep things fair by acquiring bikes of equal performance for similar prices, it never fails that BMW sends a model upgraded with most of all of its many options. In this case, the accoutrements of forged wheels and electronic suspension upped the Beemer to the most expensive bike in the test by $1,600. Yes, the price hurt the BMW’s scores in the street shootout, but not enough to significantly affect the outcome. On the track it’s a different story because the performance scores of other bikes in the shootout narrowed the gap.
“As equipped and set up, this is easily the best S1000RR I’ve ever sampled on a racetrack.” said Alexander., adding “The BMW’s was flawless and the wheelie control actually works unobtrusively now. Couple this electronics tuning with this chassis geometry and these damping tweaks and you get a bike that finally feels perfectly sorted for track use. I loved every second on it here at Fontana, it was instantly comfortable and very, very quick.”
“The optional forged wheels on the BMW endow it with amazing agility, but it needs to be said the Premium Package with forged wheels adds $3,150 to the cost of the bike,” Duke notes. The optional package also includes Gear Shift Assist Pro, Ride Modes Pro, ABS Pro, cruise control, heated grips and the semi-active suspension.
The increased price tag of the BMW also includes semi-active suspension, and while on the street the mostly push-button affair is a welcome nicety, on the track a lot of performance junkies will most likely prefer to spend the money elsewhere and fine-tune their suspension units the old-fashioned way. The electronic suspension worked well at the track, but a decent manual suspension can usually be adjusted to adequately control wheel movement at a racetrack.
Probably still the most impressive aspect of the BMW is the output of its engine. The Aprilia drew equal to the BMW in horsepower last year following a host of internal engine improvements, but BMW’s been making astounding power since its introduction seven years ago, and the Japanese literbikes still haven’t caught up, at least not in the EPA-legal tuning we must deal with here in North America.
“I’d imagine that a motor designed nearly a decade ago would be losing its luster in a hotly competitive field like superbikes, but that’s not really the case with the S10000RR, which pulls like a mo-fo past 180 mph on the banking at Fontucky,” says Duke.
The S1000RR is the second-heaviest bike in this test (460 lbs), but you’d never know by the quickness of its steering. The only other bike in this test that steers as efficiently/effectively is the lightweight Honda.
“When it comes to bending these bikes into a corner, the BMW is my second favorite, lining up just behind the Honda,” says Brasfield. “Given Auto Club’s technical nature, I was aware of the S1000R’s flickability throughout every lap. The Gear Shift Assist improves with every iteration, but the downshifts aren’t as buttery-smooth as the Honda and Aprilia.”
Moving up one position from third in the street shootout to second on the track is Honda’s venerable CBR1000RR. True to the heritage of the original CBR900RR, the 2017 iteration is the epitome of lightweight and mass centralization. At 433 pounds full of fluids, the CBR is the lightest bike in the test by only eight pounds, but it’s how the Honda carries its weight that makes all the difference in the world.
“The CBR’s agility is astonishing, especially considering it has plain ol’ cast wheels instead of the cheater forged hoops on the BMW,” says Duke. “This latest RR continues Honda’s well-deserved reputation for creating motorbikes that are easy to ride quickly. Its agility and composure make it the most cooperative bike here, and it would be my first choice if I were to enter an endurance race.
User-friendliness is a term more often associated with a bike’s streetability, but it applies here as many testers noted how easy the Honda is to go fast on. The combination of flickability and stability is certainly part of the equation, but also are aspects such as its smooth response to rider inputs, as well as the fine tuning of its electronics and controls.
“The Honda was the pleasant surprise of the group for me,” says Vilder. “Incredibly easy to go fast on, everything is perfectly calibrated. The controls, ergonomics and geometry of the chassis lets you put the bike exactly where you want it to go. Just hop on and feel like a pro! A confidence-boosting motorcycle that puts a huge smile on your face lap after lap, effortlessly.”
One of the last superbikes to come equipped with a full electronics package, Honda nonetheless got things right.
“The CBR’s electronics were highly impressive at helping a rider extract maximum performance, throwing out a confidence-inspiring safety net while not neutering the superbike experience,” says Duke.
The CBR’s quickshifter with auto-blipping downshifter (a $579 option) was mentioned repeatedly for being one of the smoothest shifting transmissions of the seven bikes. A few testers did experience a couple of false neutrals, but it wasn’t something easily repeatable.
However, there exists a problem with the Honda that’s painfully apparent at a fast track such as Auto Club Speedway: Horsepower. Producing a lackluster 153.2 hp at 10,600 rpm, the CBR has an eight horsepower deficit to the next most powerful bike (Suzuki 161 hp), and a whopping 27 hp deficit to the mighty Aprilia. But the Honda did place second in this shootout, so we can’t be accused of being blinded by horsepower.
“As fast and furious as anything in the infield. On the banking, though, everybody blows by the Honda” says Burns. “Shifts great leaned over and the quickshifter doesn’t upset the thing at all. No issues, I’d put it with the Aprilia if it had a few more horses, which you’d never miss at most tracks.
MO loyalists saw this coming. For the uninitiated, the Aprilia RSV4 is a staff favorite and arguably one of the greatest sportbikes of our time. Since its introduction, the RSV4’s strongest attribute has been its superlative chassis. In succeeding years Aprilia has prioritized ensuring the RSV is equipped with class-leading electronics, and as of two years ago, an engine as potent as the BMW’s. And then this year the RSV4 was upgraded with TFT gauges, M50 calipers, C-ABS, up/down quickshifter; full list here. With all the puzzle pieces in place it’s no wonder the RSV4 won our 2016 Sportbike of the Year award and this year’s street and track shootouts.
“The chassis communicates every nook and cranny the track offers up to the asphalt-eating Bridgestone R10’s,” says Ly. “Pick an apex and hit it. And hit it fast with no remorse – you’ll make it out the other side. This bike takes certain skill to ride fast but rewards inherent talent with increased speed and confidence. If the BMW is a sledgehammer, this Noale native is a sniper’s rifle.”
Similar to the Honda producing only 153 ponies yet placing second in the shootout, the RSV, at 470 pounds wet, is the heaviest bike of the group but is still able to come out on top. It doesn’t exhibit the lightest steering – the Honda owns that category – but it is nonetheless able to efficiently transition through a tight infield section, then stretch its 180-horsepower legs down the front straight, shed speed like being caught in a tractor beam with its Brembo M50s, all the while exhibiting unshakable stability.
“The RSV4 is amazingly competent on a racetrack,” says Duke. “Once again, Aprilia’s efforts at centralizing mass helps mask its somewhat porcine weight, whether shedding big speed though braking zones and deftly trail-braking to the corner apex or lighting the V-4 afterburners down a straightaway.
“But, as much as I love the Ape,” he continues, “it must be said that its steering responses are slower than the ultra-lightweight CBR and the BMW with its cheater forged wheels. It makes me want to sample Aprilia’s RF version and its forged wheels to find out just how much better it steers.”
According to yours truly, who rode the RF model equipped with the forged wheels during the bike’s launch at COTA (2017 Aprilia RSV4 RR/RF Review), the difference in steering lightness is night-and-day obvious.
“It’s a beautifully packaged, affordable and reliable exotic,” says racerboy Vilder about the ‘Priller. “Flawless and exquisite-sounding motor with usable power throughout the rev range, with a great chassis and electronic package. It’s an easy motorcycle to go fast on and a beautifully finished motorcycle that awakes passions and defines form and function.”
Sean offered the only dissenting voice when it came to the Aprilia’s track performance, saying, “When it comes to which bike I’d actually buy, the Aprilia wins by a mile. But in this particular test, on this track, and with this exact chassis setup, it didn’t suit me as well as the 2016 RSV4 RF that we rode at Laguna two years ago. That one was the best stock superbike I’ve ever ridden at race speeds.”
While the Aprilia only scored 1.89% better than the second-place-finishing Honda, it might as well be a mile. With finishes as close as 0.09% between second and third, a nearly 2% win is a veritable landslide.
“It’s phenomenal that you can get a magical piece of Italian exotica like this for less than the price Honda charges for its CBR with the optional auto-blipping quickshifter,” Duke observes. “Not only is the ‘Priller far more exotic, it also boasts Cornering ABS, independent wheelie control and on-the-fly-adjustable traction control by dedicated finger/thumb toggles. Oh, and let’s not forget that mellifluous V-4 soundtrack that Honda probably wishes it could match like it did back in the glorious RC30/45 days.”
Two years ago we conducted our superbike shootout at Laguna Seca, but the track was using its sound-monitoring station and requiring us to roll-off the throttles between turns 5 and 6 for decibel monitoring, with no specific start and end zones, just instructions to roll off around that area. Unfortunately, that meant any sort of scientific comparison of times would be invalid because we couldn’t have been sure every bike rolled-off the same amount or for the same distance on its fastest lap… the bike that went through quickest or with the least roll-off would’ve had the lowest lap time, and maybe the fastest bike would have had the slowest time, etc.
We vowed not to let that happen again, so for this year’s shootout we decided to do two consecutive full days of testing at Auto Club Speedway (Fontucky) with multiple sets of fresh Bridgestone race tires, tire warmers, full trackside technical support from the manufacturers, and timing for every bike on every lap. We actually do have those times here in our grubby little paws, but we actually can’t share them without seriously misleading you and drawing inaccurate conclusions about the results of this shootout.
The fact is that the track became sullied in spilled oil after a rider’s bike leaked fluids across four corners early on our go-fast day, and then we had to sit out two whole sessions while track crews attempted to clean the mess by spreading oil-dry material over the four turns and the straights that linked them. By the time we were able to get back on the track, the oil-dry material seriously compromised our line choices and the levels of available grip. With only four sessions left in the day, there was simply no way to get all seven bikes back out on fresh tires with our fastest riders. At that point, some of the manufacturers who were supporting our test explained their concerns about using lap-time data because the track conditions were not consistent for each motorcycle. They weren’t wrong; there honestly wasn’t any way to get every bike onto a perfectly level playing field for lap times and guarantee one bike didn’t receive an unfair advantage.
We did get great riding impressions and a ton of valuable data, but the lap times themselves would have just confused the issue. That said, each bike was fast and capable of laps in the mid-1:30 range without much difficulty. The better lap times from the first day were all reasonably close across all seven bikes, with the EBR trailing slightly due to its notable lack of performance in the braking zones. We won’t compromise our integrity by saying any more on the subject of lap times, as we simply can’t guarantee fairness given the track limitations and inconsistencies.