Top 600s, 1997

1997 600cc Sportbike Shootout

The Venues:

First, we took our challengers to the switchbacks of wicked Palomar Mountain. Here we would determine which was the most capable streetbike in the twisties. Next we rented Los Angeles County Raceway and smoked rear tires and clutches wringing every last hundredth of a second and mile-per-hour from our combatants during quarter-mile testing. After this abuse we fitted fresh Metzeler MEZ1 tires and Barnett clutches to the bikes for a day at The Streets of Willow. The Streets is a tight, twisty roadcourse that places a premium on braking and turn-in speed. Finally, we topped up gas tanks and weighed our battle-weary combatants before Graves Motorsports strapped them to the dyno and twisted throttles to measure horsepower. This barrage of tests left us with a great deal of respect for the capabilities of these machines, and showed us which model we would pick if it was our money.

Sky-high revs and a ham-fisted clutch hand caused Brent's run to go up in smoke.
This is the famed Willow Springs Raceway. We were next door at The Streets of Willow.
Gord whines to Managing Editor "Big Tom" Fortune about having to come to the racetrack on a Saturday to 'work'.
CEO Plummer tries to butt in to Chuck and Shawn's conversation to tell them that he held off Gord for almost an entire track session. Pretty proud he was too.
We had so much fun on Mount Palomar's twisting blacktop it ought to be illegal. What's that? Oh, never mind.


1. Brent Plummer, Editor-In-Chief

We began formal testing at Palomar mountain, an isolated observatory high up in the mountains between Los Angeles and San Diego. Twisty roads with steep elevation changes and no constables are the motif, so the rule of thumb is basically 'go as fast as you want considering that if you flick off the next turn, there's probably a 100 foot drop.' After that ride, my vote was adamant: "The GSXR rules, you guys are ninnies if you don't vote for it." And I was prone to spouting "I will not vote for mediocrity" because everyone else was leaning towards the Honda. It is, after all, second-best in every category.

Then we headed to LACR's drag strip. The ZX-6R's awesome power and throaty growl emanating from the airbox was really cool, and it was the first 600cc machine I've ever piloted to a sub-11 second quarter mile run. Truly impressive. At the time, the Kawasaki seemed clearly superior.

Next came back-to-back street riding on all the bikes, and everyone agreed the Yamaha was best.

Then we went to the Streets of Willow, the only racetrack I've found that closely mimics conditions on the street -- one 130 mph fourth-gear sweeper with a tricky dip in the middle joins a bunch of first- and second-gear turns. Entering that day, I was really leaning towards the Honda and it's overall superior performance. But once there, I spent 20 or so laps on the YZF running ahead of Gord on the GSXR, which was really odd because Gord was generally faster than me that day. As we swooped around expert-class racers and a Honda RS125 two-stroke or two, I found that the YZF really shines exiting turns -- I felt best on the Yamaha power-sliding it out onto the front straight, trying to accelerate far enough away from the Suzuki on corner exits so Gord couldn't pull a sissy drafting move around me. In general, it worked. Then, using the excellent brakes, I could dive deep enough into turns to stay far enough ahead of the quick-turning Suzuki on corner entries to hold Gord up mid-corner and squirt away on the exit. And then the cycle began anew. Big fun, for me at least, and I did my fastest lap of the day on the YZF while playing tag with Gord.

So we all headed off to dinner and tallied up the votes. The Yamaha -- which finished a unanimous first in the street riding arena, had the best brakes and is the cheapest -- won a landslide victory: three of the six voting riders placed it first. Was I ever shocked! I was sure I'd be the only one to name it king of the hill. After all, it lost in the numbers game, and everyone buys bikes based on numbers and hype, right? I certainly hope not. Don't let dyno numbers or lap times sway you, if you're a good street rider, the YZF is the best bike for you. And it's the cheapest.

2. Chuck Graves, Racer, Team Graves Motorcycle Online

The Suzuki is clearly the best racetrack bike -- it turns the best, had the best feedback and the best close-ratio gearbox for track conditions. Also, the seating position and ample ground clearance are the best of the bunch for sporting intentions, not to mention it is the lightest. For fast canyon riding, it's clearly superior, so if going fast is what you live for, the Suzuki is the bike to choose.

The Honda came in second in my scoring sheet because it took the least effort to ride, but it had some downfalls, most notably the lack of ground clearance, and for the track, the spring rates at both ends are too soft. This does, however, give the Honda a really plush ride on the street.

The Yamaha is the most comfortable street bike, but I just didn't agree with the stock setup -- it's too soft and too heavy. That leaves the Kawasaki ZX-6R -- the way the chassis is made, the front end is really vague. When you go into a corner, you're not sure if it's going to grip or let go. That is, the motorcycle doesn't let you know what's going on with the front tire, and that is why I picked it last despite the awesome powerplant.

3. Gord Mounce, Associate Editor

First of all, there are no losers in this test. All of these machines are excellent motorcycles -- they just excel in different areas. The Kawi looks great, is comfortable and has a motor that eagerly lofts the front. But its vague front end placed it last for me at The Streets of Willow and in the canyons. For $8,299, I expected a sharper package.

I hate to sound like a wimp, but the Suzuki was too uncompromising on the street. The face-down, ass-up riding position is better suited for one's first day in prison than the operation of a motorcycle. Plus the driveline lash is annoying, and there's no midrange. But show the GSXR a racetrack and all is forgiven. I set my fastest time on the Suzuki by over two-tenths of a second -- and that was after Chuck and Shawn had turned the rear tire into soft cheese.

Honda's CBR600F3 is a bike that has always been 600 champ by being second-best at everything. It isn't the most comfortable, most powerful or quickest around a racetrack, but it's damn good in all those areas. No-one would be disappointed with an F3, no matter what they intended to use it for. Unfortunately for Honda, second best got them second place this year.

That leaves my pick, the Yamaha YZF600R. Only five-hundredths slower than the Honda at the track (for me), it is head-and-shoulders above the competition in terms of comfort. You could easily tour on this bike. Plus the brakes bite harder and give more feedback than any I've tried. It is a little heavy and could use more top-end, but overall it is my favorite.

4. Tom Fortune, Managing Editor

Competent sportbikes, all of them. But the bottom line here is really quite simple: If you want to go racing, choose the GSX-R or F3. They both rail around a track, and with a little tweaking and the right tires, both could make you a winner. But I didn't especially care for either as a streetbike, especially the peaky GSX-R. Sorry guys, you shouldn't measure a motorcycle's overall worth based on racetrack prowess.

I really liked the ZX-6R. It has something the others don't -- character. Kinda reminds me of my old GPz550. When the Ninja's hotrod motor starts to growl and howl, it simply gets the adrenaline flowing. I didn't have as much a problem with the ZX's vague steering as some of our other staffers, -- maybe because I'm bigger and stronger -- and actually thought it a pretty good handling machine. But I do have a problem with the Ninja's hefty price. Why so much, Kawasaki?

If, like me, you don't want to go racing, then the YZF makes perfect sense. It's the cheapest of the bunch, most comfortable by far, and its torquey motor delivers its punch right where I want it -- in the mid-rpm range while driving off a corner. There's plenty of suspension adjustability, and talk about killer brakes... they don't come any better than the Yamaha's. In my book, the YZF600R just might be the best all-around middleweight sportbike ever.

5. Shawn Higbee, Contributing Writer

From my perspective the Suzuki GSX-R600 is more of a race bike than a street bike. The chassis works so well, its hard to imagine how aggressive you would need to ride before reaching the chassis' limits. So, of course I'm going to pick the Suzuki as the winner.

The Honda F3 is good all-around and I picked it second, the YZF had the best brakes for third, and the ZX-6R was last. The Honda is the most practical street bike but is a slightly compromised choice on the racetrack. I would expect Honda to release some newer technology for the 1998 600. Yamaha's YZF works surprisingly well when you consider that it weighs 50 pounds more than the GSX-R. It's a nice package, it's just too plush for me. Kawasaki's ZX-6R is impressive at the drag strip, but I was disappointed with way it handled. Each of the bikes had their strong points, but in the end, the Suzuki is strong where I like it.

6. John Slezak, Guest Commentator

The CBR fits the bill of a rider like me -- a weekend racer who also commutes to work on the same bike -- with near perfection. True, it doesn't better any of the other bikes in any single category, but a string of second place finishes puts it on the top of my list.

Although the ZX-6R felt like it had the most power behind it, it was hard to put that to use due to the amount of work it took to direct the bike through the corners. Contrast that with the GSX-R -- you could practically think the bike through turns. However, the GSX-R is the most ergonomically incorrect bike of the bunch, so unless you intend to head to the track, stick with one of the others unless your best friend is a chiropractor.

That leaves the YZF, which would get my vote if I only wanted to use it for commuting or lazy back canyon loafing. A nice cushy ride and some killer brakes make it adept for either of those scenarios. I don't think anyone looking for an all-purpose sport bike would be sorely disappointed with the YZF, but in the end, it's the CBR that offers the best of all possible worlds.

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