Open Warfare, 1996
What do you choose to ride if you need to be in Denver tomorrow?
If you need a bike that will travel highway miles, but still leave a smile on your face in the twisties, and leave everyone else in the weeds? The choice may be far more difficult than you'd think. We gathered together the top open class sport bikes for a hunt through the canyons and freeways. Our quarry? That elusive best bike.
This time, the answer may surprise you. So we're going to leave it 'till the end, just to keep you on your toes.
Sixth Place: Buell S2 Thunderbolt
What on earth is that doing here? Some testers questioned the Buell's inclusion in the test. After all, every other motorcycle here has four cylinders and a whole lot more power. So, right there you have the primary reason for the Buell being at the bottom of the heap. But we felt that the made-in-America motorcycle (the only one in the test) would stand comparison with the rest of the superbikes, and in some situations, it does. On a twisty road, the torquey Buell will stay with the pack. When the road straightens out, however, the Buell is left flailing far behind as the four-cylinders head for the horizon.
Fifth Place: Triumph Daytona 1200
Biggest bike in the test, the Daytona is also one of the newest, having been around in the States only a year or so. We've been over Triumph's recent history before (and so has everyone in the print magazine business), so let's just say that history does not repeat itself. The new Triumphs boast high standards of quality control and Japanese standards of reliability. Triumph's styling is second to none. The Daytona stood out of the crowd wherever we parked, largely because of its brilliant buttercup-yellow paint scheme. Combined with the satin black of most engine parts and ancillaries, the effect was striking. If you don't like attention, don't buy a Yellow Daytona! (They are, sources say, available in basic black for the shrinking violets out there.)
Given the biggest engine in the test, the Daytona had a size advantage over the opposition that didn't make the transition to the streets. The Triumph uses a marriage of Japanese and European technology, and unsurprisingly the Japanese aren't about to share their latest, state of the art information with the Brit competitors. Triumph engine designers, we are told, were guided by British car-racing specialists Cosworth. Pistons and rods are balanced to the nearest gram. The four cylinder motor runs two balance shafts. Yet vibration levels are on par with Honda's CBR, higher than the FZR and the GSXR.
Another area where appearance promises more than the Triumph delivers is the brakes. The twin front discs run out of handlebar lever travel all too soon. Compared to the razor-sharp stoppers of the FZR and the GSXR, the Daytona's brakes feel decidely second rate, in spite of the steel-braided hoses that now come standard. We were informed by an insider that the Triumph suffers from caliper piston o-rings that are too thick and cause the pistons to return too far into their bore. This explains the need for an extra pull on the lever. The riding position suits taller riders best; it's a long reach across the tank to the bars. Compounding the problem, the Daytona's seat is simply too far off the ground for smaller riders: Those of less than five and a half feet stature need not apply. For the rider who must have style before anything, the Daytona is the one. For ultimate performance, check it off the list.
Fourth Place: Honda CBR1000R
Honda's biggest CBR is at the other end of the sport bike scale from the seminal CBR900RR, a bike only a few cc's smaller, but radically different. Where the RR screams 'racetrack', the CBR 1000 mutters 'road'. While the RR stops insurance brokers in mid sales pitch, the CBR 1000 gets sensible rates. When the RR pilot has to stop to massage his aching neck, the CBR rider passes, still comfortable on the all-day seat. The CBR rider also has the benefit of Honda's linked braking system, which takes some of the sting out of panic stops for novice riders, although what novice riders are doing on a CBR baffles us.
You don't put on miles by going fast for ten minutes, then stopping for twenty. The aim of the comfortable ergonomics of the CBR, the subtle but stylish graphics and the effective (but heavy) combined braking system is to attract the non-squid. Honda's big sporty is aimed securely at the mature sport rider. The kind of guy who knows that to get there, you have to put on the miles.
Underneath the CBR's all-encompassing bodywork lies a thoroughly sensible, conventional, double overhead camshaft four cylinder motor. One of the smallest engines in the test, it displaces 998cc, makes do with four valves per cylinder, is of course liquid cooled, and sports a relatively modest 10.8:1 compression ratio. Nothing, in other words, that will set the world on fire. Compared to the magnesium and other exotic materials used in the Suzuki, the Honda's bill of fare is pedestrian. It did however come with near-perfect jetting, a rare commodity in new motorcycles these days. Only one other bike in this test didn't have a lean surge or off-idle hesitation. The CBR's motor tied with the Triumph for intrusive engine vibration though. Conventional forks with 41mm tubes keep the front 17 incher away from the steering head at a conservative 27 degree angle. The frame, unseen under the plastic, is of steel, as is the swing arm.
Most radical part of the CBR's make up is the linked braking system, which operates through an involved hydraulic network that's about as complicated as Tokyo's subway system, but makes just as much sense and is just as efficient in conveying a vast mass of motorcycle from speed to stasis. At slow speeds, however, the over-zealous brakes make gentle stops difficult.
If all the above sounds uninspired... 100% guilty. The CBR is boringly familiar, undramatically capable of transporting rider, luggage and passenger too in relative comfort over large areas of the country, preferably the corrugated bits.
It's been around for years, it's reliable, has an effective turn of speed, but unfortunately an almost total lack of charisma. Get off at a rest stop, and sometimes it's difficult to remember how you got there. If this is the kind of relentless reliability you need, go for it. It's a middle of the road, middle class motorcycle, so we'll score it more or less in the middle of the pack.
Third Place: Suzuki GSXR 1100
All engineering is a compromise. Tell that to the GSXR rider. There's little compromise about this machine. It's an out and out big-bore sport bike, with little thought of comfort. Or so it would seem until you actually ride the Gixer over large expanses of blacktop. For the average human, the seat is broad and flat, the footpegs, though high, are reasonably well placed, and the clip-on style bars stretch the torso just enough, yet not so much as to cramp into cro-magnon position. As long as you don't attempt several hundred consecutive miles of straight interstate, the GSXR is a competent enough sport tourer, especially with a well-filled tankbag to rest your torso on. It's on those twisty bits between the interstates though, that the GSXR 1100 excels. Point this weapon at a succession of curves, and what follows is pure adrenaline.
The biggest Gisxer has been around since 1986, and through a massive number of changes since then, including the change to liquid cooling (with associated weight gain) a couple of seasons ago. The perimeter frame is still around, and starting to show its age: Likely it'll follow the GSXR 750 model and change to a twin spar design soon. But it still works quite well enough, thank you. Suzuki beefed up the chassis and lowered the weight of the 1100 last year, while adding some of the best brakes around. Magnesium parts abound, but no effort was spared in the braking department. The twin six-piston calipers give awesome braking, and superb street feedback when combined with the Dunlop D202 radial tires. One finger braking from 100 mph is easy, and feels safe and secure.
Handling is razor-sharp. The 43mm inverted forks are suitably massive, yet are lighter than the 41mm units that preceded them. A nudge on the bars to tell the bike where to go, and you're there. In the twistiest of canyon roads the 1100 won't pull away from a well-ridden 600, but once those corners open up, it'll pull away from just about anything, excepting a well ridden FZR 1000. Suspension is fully adjustable, front and rear, and we found ourselves fiddling with the adjusters quite a bit, to get the optimum settings, which varied from rider to rider. Another item on the engineers to-do list last year was to broaden the power band. Substantial changes to the cam timing and ignition yielded bigger horsepower numbers in the mid-range, between 5-10,000 rpm. The real world range, you could call it.
One retrograde step was the fitting of a squid sensor in the gearbox. This little device retards the ignition above 6,000 rpm in first gear, preventing squid-identifying powerband-induced loops. Sources tell us it can be overriden, restoring all the lost power in first. We're not allowed to tell you, however that disabling the offending device is as easy as disconnecting the red wire from a two-wire connector behind the right side panel. Though last year's changes did result in 10mm lower footpegs, the ergonomics are still definitely on the sporting side. In other words, long distance rides are only for those with strong wrist, forearm and neck muscles, or those that want to develop them.