Church of MO: 2003 Best of the Best

John Burns
by John Burns
By John Burns

Now we need a good reason and a Master Plan: 20 years ago we just needed three cool motorcycles and an open invitation to California Speedway (which I hear just hosted its last trackday. RIP.) Earlier we’d already deduced the Kawasaki ZX-6R was the best 600, the Suzuki GSX-R1000 was the best 1000, and the Aprilia Mille R was the best Twin (and the one you most wish you’d embezzled). So why not compare them all to each other? In the hands of non-professional riders, the results are sometimes surprising. Miss you, Dirty Sean. Hope you’re well in the Las Vegas bunker, Willie T!

Aprilia Mille R :: Kawasaki ZX-6R :: Suzuki GSX-R1000

What does racing teach us boys and girls? How about this: The squeaky wheel gets the grease. All the complaining Mat Mladin did for all those years about the unfairness of 750 fours having to compete against liter-size twin-cylinders paid off for the lad, big-time, when the AMA decided dang, maybe poor Mat’s right (of course I’m sure they’d deny Mladin’s comments had anything to do with it), and decided to let full-on thousand-cc fours into the hen house.

World Superbike changed its rules over the off season, too, but that august body handicaps 1000cc fours with 32.5mm intake restrictor plates.

“The Yanks are so stupid and wasteful,” our hero, Mat Mladin, thinks to himself, “leaving all this free toilet paper here for the taking…”

In AMA Superbike, Mr. GSX-R gets to keep all four 42mm cake holes wide open. You’re not allowed to fool with the stock crankshaft, though. Valves have to be the same material as stock, ie. steel, and cams can have no more lift than stock.

Unfortunately for the competition, steel valves aren’t what limits the mighty GSX-R’s rpm. The poor long-stroke dear’s bores are only 73mm wide. Heck, that’s only one mm bigger than the GSX-R750, and only 5mm bigger than the new 636 Kawasaki.

What does limit the GSX-R is piston speed, since its 59mm stroke isn’t all that much shorter than an RC51 Honda’s 63.6mm.

“With valves not that much bigger (or heavier) than those bikes’ either, there’s nothing in the big GSX-R’s valvetrain to keep it from spinning past 15,000 in stock form, just like the 636.”

Connecting rods, according to our sources at Attack Suzuki, are the weak link in the GSX-R, and since the rulebook doesn’t address those items, you can be sure those fast factory GSX-Rs have the nicest, lightest ones money can buy, pumping lovely 73mm pistons. At that point, it’s Hello, 15,000 rpm (plus), and Goodbye, bikes trying to process the same volume of air with a pair of 100mm pistons.

Hey, if Mladin’s old 750 was so dang slow, how’d he win the three championships on it? Well, I hate to say I told you so, because I actually managed to hold my tongue for once–and when the GSX-Rs didn’t dominate Daytona, I thought there was a slight chance I might have been, gasp, wrong. Ensuing events, including watching Mladin’s GSX-R1000 leap off the corners at Sears Point, have led me to have renewed faith in my own infallibility.

DOWN Simba!

Nevertheless, we took it upon ourselves to conduct further experimentation. Aprilia’s Mille R, winner of last year’s MO Twins shootout, is new and improved for `03 with radial brakes, a revised tail section, and, and, that’s all.

And while we were at it, why not take along the very Kawasaki ZX-6R that won the track portion of our recent 600 Shootout, the bike that’s carried little Tommy Hayden to victory in every AMA Superstock race run this year? (Bearing in mind that last time we ran a 600 against an Open-class bike [R1] and a twin [Aprilia Mille R], the little Yamaha R6 was right in the thick of things, and in fact ran the fastest lap of the day at the Streets of Willow Springs.)

Once again to Circuito AMA at California Speedway in beautiful Fontana, courtesy of our best friends at (People who call it “Fontucky” have obviously never been to Kentucky.)

Fresh Pirelli Diablos for everyone, courtesy of our other best friends Tom and Jerry at California Race Services (714 305 6846). Once again into the breeches, er breech…

1. John Burns, MO Editor/Cruise Director
Bias: None Whatsoever

Ooooh, ooooh, me first. The Mille R is a beautiful motorcycle, and whoever called it an Italian Kawasaki the other day must never have seen one in the flesh. (Actually, Kawasakis are looking pretty damn good these days too.) Aside from the new radial brakes, changes for the `03 version are cosmetic: blacked out frame and swingarm, and a reshaped tail section.

Other than that nothing really needed changing; Ohlins suspension and steering damper, and light and beautiful OZ wheels are standard equipment. Really what the Mille needs is more power. On tighter circuits or the road, 111 horsies are usually plenty, but on Fontana’s long straights, a few more would be most welcome.

Come to think of it, those external compression-stack deals on the Ohlins fork are new too.

On a day with a stiff easterly breeze, the Mille could only pull itself up to an indicated 139 mph running into the teeth of that gale, down Fontana’s long, banked main straight. Other than a relative lack of steam, nothing else about the Mille R merits complaint. In my normal fashion, I rode the Mille to Fontana that morning, and it’s just as pleasant hauling mail as it is dragging knee.

Wolf down an Egg McBolus, add more gas and get on with it. All three of these bikes have radial brakes, and I think the Mille’s give the most feel and controllable power–but that could be because the GSX-R was steaming into corners with quite a few more knots. I won’t bore you again with what an overall nice conveyance the Mille is, how thin and lithe between the knees…

Check the matching wardrobe…

And the ZX-6R, which makes damn near as much power as the Mille and weighs less, is a fine track tool unto itself.

Had I ridden the little stinger missile out to the track that day, however, I doubt I’d have arrived in such an expansive, congenial mood.

Alas, I’d need to get back on the Paxil to ride this one every day.

“As a streetbike, the GSX-R1000 falls somewhere in the middle, with far superior street suspension and seat foam than the Kawasaki, but still requiring a bit of a stretch to get to the clip-ons.”

The Bitter One himself, engaging in a secretive, pheromone-spewing MOian mating ritual.

Once on track, I’d still rate its ergoes behind the other bikes, but none of that stops its 150-horsepower engine from blowing them into the weeds. And here’s the crux: You know what I think all of a sudden tilted the playing field in favor of the big four-banger lately? Do you? Sad to admit, I’ve actually given this some thought. I think modern, computerized fuel injection/ignition timing has turned the tide, has taken away the twin’s advantage.

Everything I’ve read and felt with my own pair of buttocks over the years tells me the twin-cylinder advantage was always its ability to put the power down early exiting corners (a thing 600’s are good at too, with their near absence of torque compared to both the bigger bikes here).

Once upon a time, when there were only carburetors, it was actually fairly easy and common to spit a liter-bike’s rear tire out from under yourself by getting on the gas too soon or just too awkwardly–a thing made all too easy if imperfect carburetion caused a sudden spike in power delivery. Even just a small glitch on a powerful bike, if you happened to be near the edge of traction, could spell disaster. Have you noticed, or is it just me, that that really doesn’t happen so often anymore? I haven’t seen a good old-fashioned Scott Gray highside/cartwheel into the hay bales since Scott Gray retired. With the advent of programmed fuel injection, ignition curves for every gear, the throttle position sensor, etcetera etcetera, you can almost ride the GSX-R1000 as our friend Pauly Carruthers advises us to ride CBR600s at Las Vegas. “Just whack it open man. What could happen?”I’m serious. I was at the press launch of the, what year was it? `94 GSX-R1100 at Laguna Seca? Could’ve been `95… The press corps crashed two of them that I can remember, and there but for the grace of God went I on several sideways occasions. In contrast, at the recent launch of the new 1000 in Australia, we didn’t lose a single bike–and the new 1000 is so much faster than the old 1100 it’s not even humerus.

2. Will Tate: Flamenco Dancer/Proprietor California Speed Shop
Bias: handler for Aprilia’s left coast test fleetIt was an interesting day for making comparisons. Steady 35/40 mph wind with gusts to 55/60 mph provided a very unusual perspective. The new GSXR1000 feels smaller and again lighter than last year’s bike, it is noticeably narrow through the tank, less stress on the old hip joints.

The power delivery is more controllable than I remember–could be the suspension is mo better and that allows one to throttle up sooner, without as much intimidation as the 2002 bike. This said I had a hard time going fast on the thing.

The major reason for this is FEAR! Two things kept me off my pace. First, I was experiencing closing speeds into my braking points that were amazing. I didn’t get the seat time to adjust to these velocities. Second, the wind was knocking me waaay off line. It would push me four or five feet off line on the banking at an indicated 165. I don’t know why, it just caused me to let off a bit! On the AMA track at Fontana the Suzuki’s power is staggering. I concur with almost everyone else out there; the GSX-R is still the best open-class repli-racer under $17,999. I need to borrow this one for a few more track days. All that said, I went fastest of these two on the Suzi.

Whiskey Tango bravely bends the beast in at 160-something.

“My personal favorite, Aprilia’s Mille RSV R, is a much more civilized bike than any other “off the shelf” bike, period!”

The Ohlins suspension is as close to faultless as I’ve found, no unwanted chassis pitching under braking or power. Supple ride with great feel for what the tires are doing down there.

There’s no getting round the fact: Mrs. Miller is a tasty morsel

The new for `03 radial-mounted Brembo brakes are as fun as the Suzuki’s motor: one-finger power at any speed, linear in application, and boy they look cool too.

Power delivery is typical V-twin–lots of torque to pull you off the corner and nice top end to get you quickly to the end of whatever straight you happen to find yourself on. I’ve ridden these bikes with the factory “off highway” exhaust, derestricted intakes, and a power chip, that takes them up to near 122- 126 hp–mods I highly recommend.

In the wind, this stone-stock Aprilia could just get up to 140-something, with less side-wind effect than on the Suzuki. The Mille didn’t scare me so bad, but the Suzuki’s power had me running quicker laps.

WT ran his personal best-of-day 1:43.2 on the ZX-6R, equalling JB’s best on the GSX-R1000. Just goes to show you something or other

We were also fortunate to have the two new Kawasaki 600-class bikes to sample: The ZX-6RR and ZX-6R (636). Maybe size does matter, or does it?

I went faster on the 636 compared to the 600, but turned my best lap of the day aboard the 636 over the GSX-R and the Mille as well. I admit I am a 600 class fan. This new Kawasaki was my favorite last month in MO’s 600 comparo. It flat rips! The only improvements I would recommend would be 1. A steering damper, 2. brake pads with a bit less initial bite, 3. revalved suspension, (it’s a tad on the harsh side and the front lacks feel). At that point I think you’d have the best club racer possible this year.

All these bikes are equipped with the latest fuel injection systems and none showed any sign of switchiness, surging, or hesitation during throttle inputs. Carburetors have been around for ever–over 100 years– that’s a lot of development time. In about a tenth of that time, it is really amazing how quickly motorcycle FI technology has developed.

3. Sean Alexander MO Patience-Testing Editor
Bias: former factory Kawasaki rider

It was with much trepidation that I opened the GSX-R 1000’s throttle at California Speedway. You see, I’ve never ridden an open class sportbike, oh sure, the occasional Bandit 1200, ZRX, Speed Triple, FJR 1300, etc. passes between my legs, but never a mega-horsepower race replica. Turns out, I needn’t have been so concerned.

The GSX-R 1000 is a pussycat when ridden with a dose of respect for its 157 horsepower, a Big, Stable, Neutral Steering Tabby that only wants to inhale straights and small children.

“After my first session, I came in and remarked to Will Tate that I was afraid of using anything more than gentle throttle twists off of the corners.”

Will said “Yeah right, you were painting black lines all over the racetrack” Could have fooled me, the big GSX-R was so stable and calm I had no idea the tire was spinning. That stability (at least in stock form) also acted to make the GSX-R slower through Fontana’s numerous chicanes, though it did have a calming effect on my soul, and a calm soul is a good thing when you slam on the brakes (at an indicated 172mph) and flick left for the big chicane on Fontana’s front straight.

The GSX-R was the second fastest bike for me, lagging half-a-second behind the ZX-6R. With some more seat time and another set of tires, I would have been fastest on the big Suzuki.

This particular Mille felt a little “off” to me. Perhaps it is just a product of being in completely stock (read restricted) tune, or perhaps we just got a particularly slow example? Whatever it was, the Mille was the slowest bike for me by a large margin.

Nice details…

Aside from power, the Mille R was its usual stable, reassuring “unflappable” self. As with most Italian twins, the Mille feels very much at home, on the racetrack and I think it’s the one that would be easiest for a novice to ride without crashing.

Ah yes… haven’t we met before? The Kawasaki ZX-6R and I have had a loving friendship for the past few months. Aside from it’s stock suspension and a tendency to shake its head, the ZX-6R is just about the perfect track bike, for any track this side of Daytona. Of course priced at eight Grand, the Kawasaki could receive a top of the line steering damper and suspension tuning, while still being way cheaper than the other two bikes in this test.

Hmmm, Sean went two-tenths quicker on the Kawasaki too — but he put 5000 laps on it prior to his Big Race…

Though the Suzuki is undoubtedly faster, this little 600 is more accessable and was easy to go fast on, right out of the box.

At Fontana, even with stock suspension and no steering damper, the ZX-6R cut the fastest lap time, while spotting 20 mph to the GSX-R on the banking.

It also sounds the best and on tight racetracks it’s one of the fastest street legal vehicles you can get, regardless of price. For my money, the Kawasaki takes the prize as the best of the best.

The Conclusion!

Y’know, if this were a street test that Aprilia would be your winner.

Allow me to interpret the results if I may: Neither WT nor SA had ever ridden a liter-bike on a track before–SA had never been on a liter-bike period, and I think the GSX-R’s reputation just preceded it.

With more track time (there’s never enough), I tell you without a doubt both of their results would’ve resembled mine, relatively speaking that is.

We, okay I, hereby crown the Suzuki GSX-R1000 the Performance King of 2003, extend our congratulations to Mat Mladin on his fourth AMA Superbike championship, and look forward to a much more interesting season in 2004, when we hope to see new big fours from Kawasaki, Honda and Yamaha. Barring, of course, another eleventh-hour wigged-out change in the rules…

Learn something from this. All that good-soldier, suffer-in-silence stuff that used to be thought of as noble and a sign of character until the day after the Battle of the Somme, approximately, is totally for the birds in modern times. Making it to the top requires talent, but there’s really no substitute for a big mouth and the willingness to articulate one’s grievances. I mean that in the most sincere way.

John Burns
John Burns

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3 of 4 comments
  • Tweet Tweet on Jan 24, 2023

    That always was my favorite GSX-R body style! Most of the mags back then gave the nod to the 02 R1 over the GSX-R at the time due to its smoothness, finesse, handling etc., as opposed to the Suzi's rough around the edges brute power. Suzuki addressed those issues somewhat with the 03 and was back on top, then the new redesigned 04 R1 was back on top--back and forth. The K5 was a big jump and that platform was tops for quite a while. Indeed it was a great time for sport bikes even though most of us didn't "need" and couldn't exploit all the performance! One time at Road Atlanta I met Mat Mladin after a practice session near his pit area--he was a little standoffish at first but after his wife came around, and a little sucking up from me, he chilled and actually spent a while talking to a nobody like me-pretty cool! I was a big D J fan as well--still have many videos of his IOM wins and a poster of his V&M R1 on my garage wall!

  • 12er 12er on Jan 24, 2023

    Wow, its been that long since I subjected myself to sportbike ergo's? I almost crashed sitting still in the parking lot reaching for the RSV's bars, since they were about 6" lower than where I felt they should be. Bit of a butt roaster but my buddies pimped out factory was a sweet machine.

    • Mad4TheCrest Mad4TheCrest on Jan 28, 2023

      Been thinking about your ergo comments and it's just come to me that my first reaction to jumping on a race-rep sportbike after a long time away from one is almost always the same as you described. But it doesn't take me too long to adjust. Still, always a weird feeling after a gap in time 😳