2003 Six Hundred Shootout Part II: On the Dirty Boulevard

Beauty is in the Crotch of the Beholder

We last left the Kawasaki ZX-6R firmly atop the heap after our track day at Fontana, where it spanked the other contestants handily under nearly every rider--also on the dyno and at the drag strip. The other thing it spanks handily is your butt if there are any bumps in the road. The suspension is really firm, which can be okay, except that there's just too much of that ol' high-speed compression damping in Mr. Rear Shock. Even that wouldn't be so bad, but the seat seems to want to slide you forward into the tank, and the rear of the tank is nearly pointy in a blunt sort of way. You'll be having to place your package on one side or the other; leaving it in the middle is not an option. In short, it's not an easy thing to ever really achieve comfort on the Kawasaki in everyday use for more than about half an hour at a stretch.

Most riders are having to shift their butts around to keep their gonads from being flattened, that puts more weight on the wrists, there's a little engine vibration at freeway speed, that makes wrists numb and sore after an hour...

And when you get to your favorite road, if there are bumps in it--the Kawasaki is a little on the punishing side.

When Kawasaki decided to build an all-out track/racey ZX 6R, they weren't kidding. I don't think the Kawasaki finishes last as a street bike, but it's close and thank goodness the Ducati's here to save it.

(Then there's the fact that Cycle World, who hardly ever says anything nasty about any motorcycle, reports getting into a nasty tankslapper on the street on the ZX-6R, Cycle News reports the same thing happening to them on the freeway on their 6R, and our swellheaded friend Sean had it happen to him on our bike too, and was very nearly spat off. If you get one of these bikes, get a steering damper at the same time.)

Actually the Ducati's not such a bad streetbike at all if you have the correct muscle group halfway developed, if you grew up in the era when sportbikes forced you to assume the position.

It's not that far to the bars, the suspension's supremely supple yet well-controlled in exactly the way the Kawasaki's is not, it's skinny between the knees which is a good thing for comfort, the engine is one of the finest, rumbly-smooth joys in all of motorcycling--and in fact if you could see anything in its mirrors, I'd rather be riding the 749S than just about anything.

I'm paranoid, though. If I can't see what's behind me I'm going to assume the worst. On fast, flowing routes, the Ducati is your best friend and will run with anything, Anything I tell you! In tight, kinky California canyons, it's a little slower/lazier/heavier steering. Who cares? All in all, if you want one of these for anything other than commuting in traffic, which is a thing I assume nobody probably does except motojournalists, you should have one. Now that ours has had its break-in service, it revs on out to 11,000--a thing that might've moved it much closer to the front of the pack at our track day. It's delicious sounding, and beautiful to come home to in the garage like an imported wife. Yes, in a perfect world the Ducati and some stuck-on J.C. Whitney mirrors and I could live happily ever after. In this world, I have no garage and my wife was imported from Wisconsin.

The old GSX-R's a surprisingly friendly thing on the street too. Like the Ducati, it wants you to stretch out a bit to reach its clip-ons, but it's not quite as comfy as the Ducati because it's thicker-waisted, splaying out your knees like a fat little pony.

It makes up for most of that by having the nicest, thickest, squishiest seat of the bunch, but this is a bike you wind up riding with your left elbow/forearm atop the gas tank more often than not, and hoping to get there soon. Its old-fashioned fairing bubble drills the biggest hole in the air if that matters. Suspension action is actually fairly supple and nice...

If you want one, there's nothing wrong with this bike, but you should drive a Hard Bargain `cause everybody knows Suzuki will update it with a GSX-R600 next season that's likely to stop the presses in the manner of the GSX-R1000. GSX-R637? Who knows?

"The little Triumph Speed Four is a ridiculously friendly streetbike compared to any of the others..."

...EXCEPT the Yamaha R6, which also has no business being anywhere as nice on the street as it is. The Triumph's got a big cushy seat, uprightish ergoes, plenty of power for street use--but in truth compared to these new 600s, she's a little on the lethargic side. We've grown accustomed to things of that particular shade of green rearing easily up on the back wheel, and on the Speed Four that requires work. It's also a little short on curb appeal. Compared to the big-bug looking Speed Triple, it looks like a TT600 with missing bodywork, which is more or less what it is--and the TT wasn't winning any beauty pageants. For a mere $6799 though, after rebate, you could do much worse.

At the end of the day, though, the nicest bike to ride around upon in comfort and style is the Yamaha YZF-R6. When you look at the numbers and even when you see it parked next to the Kawasaki, you expect the two to be somewhat interchangeable--a feeling quickly dispelled when you ride them back-to-back.

The Yamaha's gas tank-to-groin interchange, for one thing, is much more anatomically correct, which means the seat feels cushier; it also doesn't seem to be wanting to push you forward. The Yamaha runs smoother--in fact it's maybe the smoothest 600 ever--and therefore keeps your hands happier.

Ah, the R6's nice alloy preload collar allows easy, quick adjustments--in contrast to the Kawasaki's and Suzuki's threaded items.

There's nothing wrong with the Kawasaki's fuel injection, but Yamaha's "suction-piston" injection, which uses CV-carb style vacuum thingies, is sublime, like reverting to one of those $5,000 turntables after years of cheap CD players. It's the finest motorcycle FI in the field.

But the Number One thing that makes the R6 such a nice scooter is its suspension; its sweet, controlled suppleness reminds me of Honda's original RC-30--a machine we all swooned over and still do--or maybe the Ohlins legs of the Aprilia Mille R.

The thing just soaks up bumps better than the Kawasaki--better than almost any sportbike period--and that makes it a far more pleasant vehicle to rack up miles upon--particularly bumpy freeway ones: the 749S with its upscale Showa stuff has got nothing on the R6. Bumpy backroads too; when you're not being jarred and bounced around, it's obviously easier to go faster safer. (And no tankslappers either, which I, speaking as a man who was once ejected from a Zephyr 550 on straight, level pavement, highly prize.)

Sean Shays:

Kawasaki ZX-6R

The Kawasaki is second only to the Ducati, for aural satisfaction, screaming racer noises in your ear every time you open the throttle. Though fastest around the race track, the 6R doesn't fare so well on the streets. The combination of sloping seat, narrow gas tank and general racer stance conspire to slide you forward and create direct pressure where you want it least. I found myself repeatedly standing and shifting my weight back on the seat, to let my manhood breathe. Another problem with the ZX-6R on the street is its lack of a steering damper;the bike shook its head on me more than once on the streets and freeways, causing me to ride with both hands on the bars and an eye out for bumps or waves in the road at all times.

It's no suprise that the ZX-6R is super-fast, but what IS suprising, is that it doesn't feel all that torquey around town. I believe this is caused by injection which doesn't really clean up until the bike's above 8,000 rpm. The injection is perfectly functional and tractable below that point, but just feels choked. In the end, literally, the racer ergoes and edgy nature of the ZX-6R place it last in my streetbike rankings.

Suzuki GSX-R 600

"The GSX-R is true to it's racer pedigree"

The GSX-R is true to it's racer pedigree, with a long and low reach to its clip-ons and a tight seat to peg relationship. This makes straight line droning something of a pain, but allows good feel and control in the canyons. Its engine is torquey and ready for immediate thrust, but feels a little outdated, due to its buzzy nature. Perhaps next year's new GSX-R will be more refined and a little more comfortable in every day life.

Triumph Speed Four

Kermit Da Bike is easy to ride, smooth and fairly comfortable.

Unfortunately, there is no disguising its back of the pack torque and hp figures.

As a commuter and weekend play bike, it is a steal of a deal, just don't go picking on any of the modern 600s in a drag race.


Ducati 749S

"A runaway winner on the street"

Though two niggling complaints.
Mirrors--the Ducati is cursed with the worst mirrors I've ever used on a street bike, very low and mounted close-in to the narrow fairing, showing you nothing but the fabric of your jacket unless you're riding side-saddle.

Heat--the under-tail exhaust's catalytic converter is cooled by vents in the side of the tail section.

If you are of average or above average size, you mask these vents with your hips, allowing heat build-up in the region and slowly roasting your backside after about 45 minutes in the saddle (I hear this is easily fixed by installing an aftermarket exhaust system). I love this bike anyway: Its intake honk sounds fantastic! It's effortless to ride smooth and fast, both on the racetrack and in the canyons. It looks great. It has excellent brakes, suspension, chassis and outstanding fuel injection. The throttle feels like it is rotating around the finest roller bearings. The V-twin motor is flexible and torquey, allowing easy access to seamless thrust, out of the nastiest corners. Need I say more?

Yamaha YZF-R6

Sweet Spot! Though not as cool sounding as the Ducati or Kawasaki, the R6 is blessed with a superbly fast motor and the best fuel injection on the planet, bar none. The gearing and fuel injection work together to make the Yamaha feel far more torquey than it really is, allowing effortless wheelies, controlled with laser like precision by your right wrist.

On top of the killer powertrain, the R6 adds comfortable ergos, with a sane seating position and a short reach to the clip-ons. Its steering has a telepathic lightness that makes transitions and line changes easy as thinking them.

Drawbacks? Like the other 600s the R6 is geared short enough to make you go searching for a 7th gear on the freeway (though unlike the others, it is very smooth running at 75mph / 6,500rpm) I also noticed a slight tendency to shake its head ridden one- handed and hard on the gas (As in waving bye-bye to your 275-pound brother as you smoke him in a display of physics.) At $7,999, I'd say the R6 represents the best total package in the middleweight arena.

And in Collusion Let Us Just Say:

And them's the facts, now it's caveat emptor time. The ZX-6R is fastest on a smooth racetrack, makes the most power on a smooth dyno, carries the least weight, has the most advanced hardware in the form of its inverted fork and radial brakes, and has won two of two AMA Superstock races in 2003--a class meant for 750s. If you want one, who can blame you--but you might want to budget for a shock and a steering damper too.

And the Yamaha gives up very little on the track to the Kawasaki, while being a much friendlier street motorcycle. Out of the box, we can't think of a thing we'd change (though I do have some Genuine Yamaha pieces waiting to be bolted on...) The one you need, as usual, depends on how you ride.

Use your bike for transportation sometimes, and long rides now and then? Yamaha. Track days and early morning blasts of not more than a couple hours at a time on smoothish pavement? Kawasaki. Need time to decide? Wait for the new `04 GSX-R. (Honda CBR600RR? Still a no-show, so sorry...) For now, for the way we ride, the R6 is the one.

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