Open Warfare, 1996

Second Place: Kawasaki ZX11

Motorcycles just don't get any more fun than this one. Even in traffic, there was almost always a big smile under the chinbar of the ZX11 rider. That smile only disappeared in the twisties. The ZX is the 28 pound sledgehammer of motorcycles. Subtle it ain't. After most of a decade, this is still the fastest, baddest bike around, and you'd better remember it. Opening the throttle, at almost any speed, in any gear, results in a rush of acceleration that tugs your arms forward. No matter what speed, what gear, there's still plenty of power left. This monumental, excessive amount of power generates the smile.

The ZX's reputation as fastest motorcycle in the world derives as much from its outstanding aerodynamics as raw power. But even down low in the rpm range, the ZX responds with brute force whenever the throttle is opened. In the midrange, there's simply nothing that comes close to the ZX. The motor's good enough to make you forget the spongy forks, the bouncy ride and the generally poor handling, when compared to the other, more flickable bikes in the test. You simply can't run the ZX into a corner at the same speed as the other sportbikes: It will shimmy and wobble in protest, and would scrape its pegs earlier too, if the high-mileage tires were sticky enough to lean the bike over that far.

Throw a few curves though, and every other rider (including the doughty Buell's pilot) was bound to pass. But when that road opens out, the purple mile eater simply gobbles up the competition. Nearest rival is the GSXR, with only slightly less power on tap at peak (horsepower numbers for the ram-air equipped ZX were achieved without the benefit of a 180 mph headwind). But at any other rpm than full, the ZX is just so much torquier. The Suzuki's power curve dips in the mid range, while the ZX simply climbs, and on the road this shows up as the GSXR becomes a smaller and smaller blur in the ZX's mirrors. Having an extra gear than most other bikes in the test helped, too, although the gap between fifth and sixth was minimal, and sixth can be used as an overdrive. Do this, and the ZX is capable of astoundingly good gas mileage -- getting over 50 mpg is easy. All this, and an almost total lack of vibration through the rev range, make the ZX the smoothest bike on test.

 It didn't come that way stock however. Carburetion was less than perfect -- in fact it sucked. A lean spot at 4,000 rpm would cause the bike to slow down when the throttle opened up for the exit of a corner or a quick lane change on the freeway. A local Kawasaki mechanic informed us that the problem could be fixed under warranty as a driveability problem cure, so we felt that shimming the needles ourselves wasn't really cheating. The result was definitely worth the effort. Throttle response improved immensely and vibration disappeared.

The relaxed ergonomics, with relatively high mounted, gently angled bars, low buttock-hugging seat, narrowed frame rails between the rider's knees and comparatively low footpegs give the ZX a comfortable riding position, most comfortable of the lot for all day criusing. About the only complaint for some -- apart from the atrocious handling -- is the style of the thing. Painted toe to tip in a muddy plum color, with tacky chrome stick-on tank decals, the Kawasaki is not only the fastest bike in the world, it's the dowdiest one too. Although there were some that appreciated the lack of racer-boy graphics.

The Winner: Yamaha FZR 1000

Nine Years At the Top Number one after all these years? Surprisingly, astonishingly even, the answer is yes. Yamaha's 20 valve FZR doesn't look a lot different from when it was introduced back in 1987, but the years have been kind to it, and it still outhandles, outbrakes and outpowers many newer motorcycles. It's still the best all-round heavyweight sportbike there is, not because it excels in any one area, but because it offers the best overall performance package.

 Radical when it came out in '87, the FZR's motor is still a technical tour de force. The cylinders are inclined to give the incoming mixture a straight shot at the three thimble sized inlet valves, and 38mm carburetors control the flow. Medium and low end power is boosted by Yamaha's EXUP exhaust powervalve, which adjusts header pipe volume via a solenoid-operated butterfly valve. As aftermarket exhaust makers have found, it's difficult to beat this system. While the FZR doesn't stop quite as well as the Suzuki, it's close; the six piston calipers and semi-floating discs give strong, linear retardation without excess effort. The FZR owner can argue that his bike brakes just right: the Suzuki is over-braked, he can assert with fervor.

And while it doesn't twist the rider's arms out of their sockets quite as much as the astonishingly quick ZX11, somehow it's never that far behind on the street. The FZR's compact engine still packs a respectable punch. One advantage of an engine in the liter class is that you don't have to play tunes on the gearbox to get the best performance: There's enough power for overtaking maneuvers without banging down a couple of gears. When you do cog down, the power kicks in above 7,000 rpm, and builds all the way to the 11,500 rpm redline. Vibration rears its buzzy head at the high end of the rpm range, but it's never overly intrusive. Carburetion was the best of the lot, too. Over the last decade, the FZR engine has gained an enviable reputation for reliability. The five-valve-per-cylinder design may be complex, but it stays together over impressively high mileages. Yamaha claims valve inspection intervals of over 26,000 miles.

 Clinching factor in the decision to award the Yamaha the number one plate is the Deltabox chassis. Yamaha pioneered this frame, now the other guys have all copied it. Externally, the frame conveys a massive solidity that is responsible for its excellent stability. Complete with 41mm inverted forks, tapering-section swingarm and one of the best sorted suspension systems out there (due in no small part to Yamaha's purchase of the Swedish suspension gurus Ohlins), the ride is superb. It steers more precisely than the GSXR, which is high praise indeed. The massively solid chassis belies its weight in the twisties: It simply feels like a smaller bike. The suspension doesn't exhibit any of the vices most other bikes in the test displayed. Up front, Golden Gate-like solidity comes from the flex-free inverted fork. It lacks any damping adjustment, but then again it doesn't need any, for our riders. At the rear, the single shock does have an adjustment for rebound and compression rates, but we tended to leave it alone: The factory setting worked just fine for most riders.

When it comes to day-long rides, the comfort level isn't the best, but it's far from the worst. It all depends whether you fit. Long-of-torso riders may find themselves cramped for space, long legged riders will find their extremities sticking out below the tank. But those riders whose knees actually fit in the tank cutouts will find it comfortable indeed, if not on the interstates, at least on the backroads and blue highways. The clip-on style bars are too low for optimum touring comfort, but are just right for attacking the twisties.

There you have it. You don't need to be top everywhere to be the best. A well balanced, all 'rounder can win. If the Yamaha does have a fault, then it's a certain appliance-like lack of soul. Otherwise, the package is difficult to beat.


1. Andy Saunders, Editor
What's Nirvana? Give me a few hours of good weather. Give me a sportbike and a road that unwinds like a politician's campaign promises. And give me someone else's driving license (Hey, Len can I borrow your Florida license today? 'fraid I lost the New Mexico one yesterday, but I'll pay you the $10 filing fee for it).

Every motorcycle in this test is easily capable of putting its rider in motorcycle Nirvana. Some riders don't want Nirvana (turn that CD player off, Todd, dammit), but if you do, the choice of mechanized drug is up to you.

My favorite? Well, I'd like the ZX11 for a wake-up call on Monday, the FZR for getting into the swing of things on Tuesday, the GSXR for some heavy hitting on Wednesday, the Daytona to brighten up the Thursday blues, and the CBR to head out for the weekend on a Friday afternoon. Oh, and the Buell to take up to the Rock Store on Sunday afternoon.

2. Brent Plummer, Editor-in-Chief  
Suddenly, like a white and blue bolt of lightning from out of the darkness, I saw the light. You see, for months I'd been calling Graphic Designer Mike 'Speed' Franklin crazy for taking a Yamaha FZR1000 several thousand miles through the open American West. But after one twisty canyon mile onboard the FZR1000, I stopped doubting his sanity, and instead started wishing it could've been me winding through high mountain passes, thousands of miles from the office and miles away from any modern communication device. When the going gets twisty, no open sportbike compares to Yamaha's biggest.

But would I buy one? Probably not. What I want is this: The power and comfort of the ZX-11, FZR1000 handling (perfect out of the box for my 5'10" 170-pound size), Triumph's stunning good looks and Buell's Sportster engine go-fast parts availability and pricing. Wrap that all together, and what do you have? A Suzuki GSXR1100. It's not the fastest, it ain't the best handling and it sure looks goofy parked next to the Triumph, but it's the best overall compromise and has the most potential to keep me happy as time passes and years slip by.

3. Mike Franklin, Graphic Designer  
It came as no surprise to me. I've been a fan of Yamaha's FZR 1000 since I bought my first one in 1987. When the 1989 model came out with all the fanfare and praise, I bought one of those, too. In the ensuing years, I haven't ridden anything that would make me want to give up that '89 -- until I rode the '95. The upper fairing is wider so the mirrors actually show what's behind you and not what you're wearing, and the bars are wider apart too due to the bigger stanchions of the upside-down forks. Consequently, steering effort is reduced and cornering is mind-numbingly easy. Other than that, there isn't much between the two bikes. Riding the other bikes in the test was an eye-opening experience. I wouldn't have believed the amount of power that a motor was capable of producing until I experienced the ZX11 for myself. Unfortunately the ride doesn't match the motor. Now if I could just fit that motor in my FZR...  

4. Todd Canavan, Associate Editor  
I have always wanted to ride the ZX-11. I had to see for myself if all the raving about the motor was true. It is. Unfortunately, the rest of the bike doesn't live up to the standards set by the motor. Even though the Yamaha won the test, I didn't enjoy it as much as everyone else did. My lanky ass just didn't quite fit on it. The GSXR 1100 was the most enjoyable for me to ride on an every day basis. A tank-bag and a set of detachable saddlebags, and the GSXR 1100 could keep me happy for quite a few miles. It amazes me though that bikes that, for the most part, are nearing 10 years old are as competent, and competitive, as they are today.

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