Forget 750s or open-class sportbikes, the real battle for supremacy is waged in the 600 class -- these are the best-selling sportbikes made. Here, manufacturers pump huge amounts of money into research and development to produce the quickest, fastest, best-handling machines possible. This space-race for the 600 title has led to machines that out-perform liter bikes of just a decade ago. But which 600 is best, and more specifically, which is best for you? Read on, and join us for a thorough thrashing of the world's best 600cc sportbikes.

It was the best of times, for sure: Motorcycle Online recently rounded up the best 600cc Sportbikes produced, dusted off our leathers and fired checks out of the corporate account like a cheap six-shooter, appropriating funds to rent Los Angeles County Raceway's quarter-mile drag strip, Willow Spring Raceway's Streets of Willow, as well as taking over Graves Motorsports' shop for the better part of a week to have the bikes dyno'ed and track prepped. Lastly, we brought in AMA Superbike star Shawn Higbee and reigning Willow Springs Formula One Champion Chuck Graves to assist Editor-in-Chief Brent Plummer and Associate Editor Gord Mounce in the testing. The point? To carve as many canyons as possible, shred a bunch of tires and fry three clutches at the drag strip? That's what the four of us thought until Managing Editor "Big" Tom Fortune brought us all back to reality: "This is a street bike test. Remember, tens of thousands of people around the world are going to plunk down their hard-earned money on one of these machines, and in many cases, it'll be their only bike that they have to live with for years to come, through various conditions such as sport touring, commuting and canyon riding. And less than three percent of the machines will ever see a racetrack. You will evaluate these bikes with that in mind!" That said, we headed to Palomar Mountain, and the testing began...

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The testing Begins: Kawasaki ZX-6R

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When these four sportbikes of the apocalypse began assembling for our shootout, early predictions rated Kawasaki's ZX-6R as a likely victor. We had all enjoyed the ZX6 tested last month, so the 6R's shorter wheelbase, fully adjustable suspension and 29 fewer pounds promised to make for an even better ride. So how did the Kawasaki come to find itself relegated to fourth place?

The answer lies in the vague feedback offered by the 6R's front end, a problem that is compounded by the low-profile stock Bridgestone tire that gives poor traction at full lean. The cumulative result is a front end that "pushes" and "tucks" in corners. Having a poor connection with the front destroys confidence, which in turn slows lap times and canyon cornering speeds. How bad is the feedback from the 6R's front forks? "I knew that the front was there," quipped Graves after his first track session on the 6R, "because at the end of the straight you pop up and hit the brakes, and something slows you down." Higbee also found the ZX-6R's front lacking: "Even at a moderate street pace I had trouble keeping the front tire from sliding out under me, which isn't my idea of fun." This lack of front end feel was responsible for five of our seven testers (Graphic Artist Billy Bartels and Guest Commentator John Slezak also participated in this test) picking the 6R last in this comparison.

Handling manners improved after the Metzeler MEZ1 race-compound tires replaced the stock Bridgestones for testing at The Streets of Willow. Now we had more confidence that the tire would stick, but feedback and turn-in manners remained poor. This led Higbee to question the 6R's geometry: "The front end feedback told me that it was turning in too much, a sign that it needs more trail. I also noticed that the triple clamps are narrow, which might explain why the 6R refused to turn properly -- there's not a lot of leverage there."

The nail in Kawasaki's coffin comes from the price tag. At $8299 it's $500 more than the second most-expensive bike, Honda's CBR600F3 -- and a whopping $900 more than Yamaha's YZF600R.

In the 6R's defense it did post the quickest quarter-mile time of 10.79 at a smoking 126.78 mph -- and at 92 bhp its engine swings the biggest stick. It sounds better than its challengers too, with a deep and throaty howl that belies its displacement. Comfort was excellent with a fairing that directs wind past the rider's shoulders and creates a calm pocket of air behind the screen. Seat quality is also very good for a sportbike with a wide, flat platform that allows several hours to pass in comfort.

There is always some poor kid who is the last to get picked for baseball, and that kid is the ZX-6R. It is a great bike with bad front geometry. Unfortunately in this tough crowd that is enough to relegate a bike to last place.

3. Suzuki GSX-R600

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We've been anxiously waiting for Suzuki's new GSX-R600 ever since we all fell in love with the GSX-R750 last year. Would the 600 be the same knockout combination of awesome power and light weight, or would it be a sleeved-down, overweight dud like the last GSX-R600? Speculation and rumors abounded.

Last month, when Pascal Picotte topped the SuperSport field during tire testing at Daytona on a GSX-R600, we knew that Suzuki had done their homework. But after finally getting our greedy mitts on a GSX-R we were initially disappointed. Midrange power was terrible, and excessive driveline lash made street riding a chore, both made worse by excessively lean low- and mid-range carburetion that "lean surges" the bike at cruising speed. Further limiting the fun was a riding position that folded the Suzuki's pilot into a pretzel to fit the uncompromising riding position.

At the dragstrip the Suzuki's wimpy midrange power and vague clutch dropped it to last in the rankings with an 11.31 pass at 123.1 mph. Dyno testing shows the problem -- at 8,000 rpm the Suzuki trails the Honda by a staggering 12 bhp. Even at the top end it fails to top its competition with a peak of 88.7 bhp.

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With its full-on race approach, we thought the GSX-R would rule in the canyons. But a full day spent reducing the world's supply of knee-sliders left us questioning the Suzuki's purpose in life. An F3 is a match for the GSX-R when things turn twisty, but it won't beat you like a rented mule on the ride home. And at $7,799, the Honda is only $100 more than a GSX-R.

So why put up with all of the Suzuki's shortcomings? Because on the seventh day, MO raced (MO is what we call Motorcycle Online). And for once, we all agreed: it is the best track weapon. A faster circuit would have allowed the Suzuki to press home an advantage more than the tight and twisty Streets of Willow. Its light weight (435lbs full of gas), lets it carry the highest cornering velocity and greatest turn-in speed. Graves described the Suzuki as "feeling like the front was directly beneath your shoulders." Higbee was even more kind: "It felt like I was coming near the limits of the Honda but the Suzuki had lots left. Add some new tires, a Yoshimura pipe for more power, have Race Tech do the forks, Fox rear shock and watch out Miguel Duhamel. If you can ride the Suzuki to its limits, you'll win national races."

2. Honda CBR600F3

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What can we say about Honda's CBR600F3 that hasn't already been said? With its unbeatable combination of great speed, comfort and reliability, the F3 has ruled the 600 class for years. Honda is smart enough not to mess with the defending AMA 600 Supersport champion, and therefore their strategy for improving the F3 has always been one of refinement, rather than redesign.

Honda has continued this trend in 1997, as a host of minor changes have brought the F3 to an even higher level. Power is up slightly over last year with a peak output of 90 bhp at 11,500 rpm. But what makes the Honda's engine special isn't its impressive peak horsepower, but the way it pulls strongly from idle to redline with no dips or flat-spots. That linear powerband helped the F3 post the second-quickest drags trip time of 11.00 at 124.61 mph.

In the canyons the F3's wide spread of power made fast cornering easier than on the Suzuki because the F3 pilot doesn't need to do a gearbox tap-dance to stay in the powerband. Even more important was that the F3 could get to and from the canyons without hurting its rider. "There's no reason for the GSX-R on the street because I can go just as fast on the F3 in comfort," Higbee remarked after a day in the canyons.

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Honda's F3 posted the second-fastest lap time during our tire-shredding stint at The Streets of Willow, trailing the GSX-R by just eleven hundreths of a second. While it was almost quickest that day, Honda's F3 did scrape more than its competition: "Just when I was getting serious about going fast on the racetrack the footpegs and exhaust canister started scuffing the asphalt," said Higbee. However, both Higbee and Graves agreed that the F3 was the easiest to hop on and ride quickly. "It is the most user-friendly bike and most forgiving when pushing it to its limits," Higbee said. Graves described the Honda as "rider-friendly and easy to slide and feel comfortable on."

Honda came into this shootout as the reigning class champion. With subtle updates for 1997, the F3 looked like it might spend another year at the top. But Yamaha had other ideas...

1. Yamaha YZF600R

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Surprised? We were downright shocked. Yamaha's YZF600R came quietly into this shootout with no one predicting it would win. At $7,399, we knew the price was right -- but we doubted the bike's ability to match the competition. Billy Bartels was first to heap praise on the YZF, as he lauded its comfort after a ninety-mile ride from Yamaha's headquarters. Soon others began to take a shine to the bike. We all raved about the awesome front brakes and superior bottom end on the YZF.

In the canyons Yamaha's YZF was a capable, if not extraordinary performer. Front suspension rates were on the soft side and the stock Bridgestone tires behaved poorly at steeper lean angles (they're the exact same ones that Kawasaki uses on the 6R). Also, at 482lbs full of gas the Yamaha is the class porker. That's almost 50lbs more than the Suzuki, and was responsible for its slightly slower mid-corner speeds. To its credit the YZF's torquey motor pulled strongly on corner exits, allowing a good rush to the next corner. Originally, we felt the engine lacked a real top-end punch, but at 88.5 bhp, it was only 0.2 off our Suzuki. The bike pulls so cleanly and strong from down low, it just feels slower -- the top end hit, in relative terms, is less of a percent gain.

Dragstrip testing wasn't the YZF's forte either as its weight and grabby clutch left it struggling to keep up. Graves eventually clicked off an 11.21 pass at 123.02 mph, over four-tenths and three miles an hour slower than the Kawasaki. Not exactly the stuff that champions are made of. The Yamaha was, however, the only bike that didn't fry it's clutch at the drag strip. (Many thanks to Barnett for providing clutches for the other three on one hour's notice.)

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Racetrack testing threatened to drop the YZF to the bottom of everyone's list, but here the Yamaha surprised us. Despite its weight, soft suspension and lack of top-end, the YZF proved to be a competent track weapon. Editor-in-Chief Brent Plummer actually turned his best time of the day on the Yamaha. Although it isn't as precise as a GSX-R, all of our testers posted good times on the YZF.

So how does an overweight bike hustle around the track so fast? Three reasons: The brakes, a good rear shock, and acceleration off the corners. Despite the YZF's bulk, nothing stops quicker or with better feedback. A crowbar through the wheels is the only way to stop a bike quicker. Brake markers that were consistent for other 600s were ignored on the YZF as its rider was able to dive deeper in the corners, confidently trailing the brakes with just one finger. The rear shock has a 24-position rebound adjuster on the bottom that actually works -- differences between each click are noticeable, and the range of adjustments spans from no rebound on the softest setting to near hydraulic lock on the slowest rebound setting. Taking time to dial in the rear ride sag and damping rates really pays off, especially with the smooth and tractable motor: smooth, controlled slides are easily attainable, and lend to excellent acceleration off of corners. Ground clearance wasn't on par with the Suzuki and the front fork's spring rates were too soft for ten/tenths riding -- although the fully adjustable rebound and compression damping worked well -- but overall the YZF handled The Streets of Willow with composure.

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So how does the Yamaha come to be 600 class champion after merely keeping up in the canyons and at the racetrack and placing third at the strip? For the answer get up out of your chair and look out the window. See that? It's called the real world and here the Yamaha reigns supreme. Yamaha's YZF wins this shootout by playing Honda's game -- being good, but not best at everything often puts you on top overall. The YZF isn't the sharpest at the track, but it isn't far off.
In the canyons its torquey bottom-end lets you pull quickly through corner exits and those awesome brakes allow you to dive deeper into corners than any other 600. But where the Yamaha really beats the competition is in comfort. Whether around town or on the freeway, the YZF spoils its rider with its plush suspension, smooth motor and a wide, tall fairing that creates a whisper-quiet pocket of air. The YZF600R may be the most comfortable middleweight sportbike ever produced. Any bike that can offer that level of plushness and still hold its own on the racetrack deserves the title of 600cc Sportbike Champion. Add in that Yamaha actually lowered the price of this bike for 1997, and the bike earns the title of best 600 the hard way: At the increasingly painful bottom line.

Yamaha's YZF600R

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The YZF's instruments are simple and uncluttered.
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Not everyone liked the Yamaha's large and uniquely-styled fairing, but it provides the best wind protection by far.
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Yamaha's fully-adjustable suspension responds well to tuning. Changes as subtle as one click of rebound can be felt on the track.
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Although Yamaha's YZF acquitted itself quite well on the racetrack, spring rates were a little on the soft side for a ten/tenths race pace.
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At 482 lbs full of gas, the Yamaha is nearly 50 pounds heavier than the Suzuki. That translates to slower turn-in and cornering speeds.
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Despite being the heaviest of the bunch, Yamaha's YZF600R proved to be a competent track weapon.

Specifications: Yamaha's YZF600R
Manufacturer: Yamaha
Model: 1997 YZF600R
Price: $ 7,399
Engine: 599cc liquid-cooled inline DOHC
Bore and Stroke: 62 by 49.6mm
Displacement: 599cc
Carburetion: Four 36mm Keihin
Transmission: 6 speed
Wheelbase: 55.7"
Seat Height: 31.7"
Fuel Capacity: na
Claimed Dry Weight: 411lbs
Measured Wet Weight: 482lbs
Peak Horsepower: 88.5 bhp at 12,000 rpm
Peak Torque: 45.7 ft-lbs at 9,500 rpm
Quarter Mile: 11.21 at 123.02 mph

Honda CBR600F3

Specifications: Honda CBR600F3
Manufacturer: Honda
Model: 1997 CBR600F3
Price: $ 7,799
Engine: liquid-cooled inline DOHC Bore and Stroke: 65 by 45.2mm
Displacement: 599cc
Carburetion: Four 36mm
Transmission: 6 speed
Wheelbase: 55.3" Seat
Height: 31.9"
Fuel Capacity: 4.5 gallons Claimed Dry Weight: 405.6lbs Measured
Wet Weight: 445lbs
Peak Horsepower: 90 bhp at 11,500 rpm
Peak Torque: 43.7 ft-lbs at 10,000 rpm Quarter Mile: 11.00 at 124.61 mph

Suzuki GSX-R 600

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When you've got Chuck Graves on a Suzuki GSX-R600 at Willow, everyone else may as well pack up and go home.
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The GSX-R's riding position is so radical that testers over 5'8" can't see the instruments unless they're in a race tuck...
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...but we forgave the brutal ergonomics on the racetrack!
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The Suzuki's huge tail hump may not look good to you and me, but the wind tunnel loves it.
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Another tough day on the job for the overworked MO staff.

Specifications: Suzuki GSX-R 600
Manufacturer: Suzuki
Model: 1997 GSX-R600
Price: $ 7,699
Engine: liquid-cooled inline DOHC
Bore and Stroke: 65.5 by 44.5mm
Displacement: 600cc
Carburetion: Four 36mm Mikuni
Transmission: 6 speed
Wheelbase: 55.7"
Seat Height: 32.7"
Fuel Capacity: 4.8 gallons (18 liters)
Claimed Dry Weight: 175kg
Measured Wet Weight: 435 lbs
Peak Horsepower: 88.7 bhp at 12,000 rpm
Peak Torque: 43.4 ft-lbs at 10,000 rpm
Quarter Mile: 11.31 at 123.1 mph

Kawasaki ZX-6R

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Backed by cool brushed aluminum, the Kawasaki's instruments are easily the best looking.
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Read your owner's manual, wear a helmet, ride responsibly and SHI....!
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With the Kawasaki's front-end woes, it takes a brave man to try an outside pass.
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We expected great things from the Kawasaki at the track, but came away disappointed
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The Kawasaki drew compliments for its hot graphics and excellent finish whenever it was parked.

Specifications: Kawasaki ZX-6R
Manufacturer: Kawasaki
Model: 1997 ZX-6R
Price: $8,299
Engine: liquid-cooled inline DOHC
Bore and Stroke: 66 by 43.8mm
Displacement: 599cc
Carburetion: Four 36mm Keihin
Transmission: 6 speed
Wheelbase: 55.7"
Seat Height: 31.9"
Fuel Capacity: 4.8 gallons
Claimed Dry Weight: 401lbs
Measured Wet Weight (Tank full): 463 lbs
Peak Horsepower: 92 bhp at 12,000 rpm
Peak Torque: 46.4 ft-lbs at 9,500 rpm
Quarter Mile: 10.79 at 126.78 mph

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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.

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Sky-high revs and a ham-fisted clutch hand caused Brent's run to go up in smoke.
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This is the famed Willow Springs Raceway. We were next door at The Streets of Willow.
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Gord whines to Managing Editor "Big Tom" Fortune about having to come to the racetrack on a Saturday to 'work'.
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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.
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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

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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

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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

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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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