2006 Superbike Smackdown III
By Kevin Duke
The literbike class of sportbikes is one of the most hotly contested genres in motorcycling, even somewhat overshadowing the raging fury of the 600cc supersport category that has traditionally been the most competitive.
All the attention on the literbikes is driven by sales numbers, so the class is obviously appealing to a larger audience. This is partly due to four-cylinder Superbikes having had their displacement increased to 1000cc instead of the former 750cc, as evidenced by the market falling out for 750s except for the venerable GSX-R750 that soldiers on without any competition.
But do any of us really need a bike with more than 150 horsepower at the rear wheel? Probably not, but that's not gonna stop us from gathering together the four Japanese brands for a no-holds-barred cage match. We rode these bikes on most every type of pavement you can imagine, from local errands to laps at Buttonwillow Raceway, from slogging SoCal's notorious freeways to tight and twisty mountain roads.
The bulk of our street testing was done on stock tires, switching to identical Michelin Pilot Race rubber for the demands of the racetrack and to keep our competitors on equal footing. Due to a logistics snafu, we ran 180/55-17 rear tires instead of the 190s fitted as standard equipment, adjusting the bikes to accommodate the differing ride heights. For example, the 120/70-17 Michelin Pilot Race is 7mm shorter than the ZX's Dunlop Qualifiers.
We were very happy with the grip and endurance of the Michelins at Buttonwillow during our track time courtesy of Zoom Zoom Track Days, and we all agreed the narrower rear tires aided the agility of the bikes, with no apparent attenuation of grip. Three-time AMA Superbike champ, Doug Chandler, ran a 180 rear tire for most of the 2005 season before switching to a newly introduced 190. He says the 190 isn't any quicker, but its larger contact patch makes it last longer.
In addition, we also were busy gathering empirical data, making dragracing runs down the quarter-mile, dyno pulls with our friends at White Brothers Racing , and trips across our electronic scales so you can ignore those highly optimistic dry weight claims by the manufacturers.
Throughout this phalanx of testing, we've been able to distill out the best and worst from each bike via the opinions of no less than nine experienced riders of different sizes and abilities. We've also rated each bike on two separate score sheets that divide the criteria between the racetrack and street characteristics, so you can make the best decision depending on how you intend to use the literbike of your choice.
The GSX-R1000 needs no introduction. Not only did it take top honors during Superbike Smackdown 2 (in both the Superbike Smackdown II - Street and our wildy popular Superbike Smackdown II - Track tests), it also rolls into 2006 unchanged. It's nimble, has few flaws, and has a truly wonderful mega-motor.
In the meantime, engineers from the other OEMs were scrambling to find a way to beat the mighty Gixxer, with three varying degrees of execution.
Garnering the most amount of R&D effort was Kawasaki's ZX-10R, virtually all-new from top to bottom for '06. A revised motor is intended to make its intimidating hit of power more tractable, and new frame and swingarm increase rigidity while slightly relaxing the steering rake for greater stability. And, yes, the ZX finally joins the in-crowd by getting a standard steering damper, Ohlins no less. Check out the 2006 ZX-10R - First Ride article if you want to learn more.
The new CBR1000RR appears as if it might only have been slightly tweaked for '06, but you're looking at a significantly evolved animal. Honda wanted its sportbike flagship to turn quicker and accelerate harder, and they've dramatically accomplished those goals. The old CBR was given a backhanded compliment last year by being awarded the sarcastic title of "Best Open-classer for Newbies" for its moderately exciting power delivery and unflappable stability. Now, with sharper chassis geometry and 15 pounds less to carry around, it's lost that dubious distinction and become a real weapon. A higher compression ratio, straighter intake ports, revised camshafts and a higher redline make for a more powerful and enjoyable engine. You can get more info about the new Honda in our 2006 CBR1000RR - First Ride article.
Distracted by development of the radical new YZF-R6, Yamaha made only a few tweaks to the sultry R1 for '06. The biggest change is in its chassis, and mostly due to a 20mm longer swingarm that stretches wheelbase by nearly an inch to 55.7 inches, apparently a revision intended to provide more traction for racers such as Noriyuki Haga who always struggled with grip late in World Superbike events.
Also new to the R1 is a retuned Deltabox frame and a beefed-up lower triple-clamp for the newly gold-anodized fork tubes. Shorter valve guides and other unspecific details that are said to increase flow and reduce internal friction have freed up an extra 3 ponies from the horsepower corral. A revised clutch boss promises more oil flow for better durability, while a new onboard lap timer tracks your ETs to your local hangout.
Tale of the Tape
Like any pugilistic battle, it's important to know the capabilities of the combatants before the show begins. A bike's handling is the product of five key aspects. First, there's a bike's weight and weight distribution. Then there's the triumvirate of rake, trail and wheelbase. Lesser amounts of each make a bike steer quicker, but taking the combination too far results in a nervous and unpredictable beast that wants to shake its head and spit you off.
As you can see in the table below, there's only a slight variation in both the rake and trail numbers. Rake figures deviate by just 0.75 degree, while trail sways less than a quarter-inch. In terms of wheelbase, the 55.3-inches of the CBR and GSX-R are book-ended by the ZX's short distance between the axles and the Yamaha's new longer stretch.
Astute readers understand the weights listed by OEMs on their spec charts have no bearing on reality. To bring some authenticity into the equation, we rolled each bike across our electronic scales. With tanks filled to the bottom of their filler necks, we then subtract the weight of the fuel to determine a tank-empty weight; otherwise, some bikes would be penalized for having a larger fuel capacity (which is more desirable for street riding). We're also able to provide static weight distribution figures (with tanks full), as well as with a 190-lb rider aboard.
Treading the lightest path is the Gixxer, notably the only one of the group without an underseat exhaust system, a design that always seems to add weight. It carries 51.0% of its 412 lbs on the front wheel. With Ken Hutchison (our 5'8", 190-lb rider) aboard, the front weight bias went to 47.7%. Interestingly, with my same-height-but-45-lb-lighter body topside, the weight on the front end went to up to 48.8%, nearly a full percent more desirable.
The next lightest bike is actually 12 lbs heavier than the previous model. Yep, the ZX has become porkier, now at a tank-empty weight of 417 lbs, with much of the added ballast due to the twin underseat mufflers as opposed to the traditional (and much lighter) single-can, side-exit unit of the previous model. In developing this new ZX, Kawi engineers wanted to shift more weight toward the rear for better traction. They were successful, with the unladen bike having just 50.5% of its mass on the front end, the least in this group. That weight bias fell to 47.1% with Kenny behind the bars, and 48.2% with me on it. These numbers, not far off the Gixxer's, shows the effects of the ZX's more aggressive riding position.
While the Kawi sat on the couch and packed on extra pounds, the CBR was clearly down at the gym. Its new chiseled physique rang up 421 lbs on our scales, a massive 15-lb reduction. Without the burden of Kenny, it carries 51.1% of weight up front; it translated to 47.9% with KH.
The R1 tied with the CBR for the chunkiest award, coming in at 421 lbs. It carries 51.3% of its weight up front, the most of this group. With Kenny, that shifted to 47.9%.
Spin The Drum
When it comes to maximum power, the ZX-10R puts the rest of the bikes on the trailer. It churned the dyno drum to the tune of 155.3 horsepower at 12,100 rpm, shortly before its 12,700-rpm redline (not quite the 13K Kawi claims).
But before we deem the King Kong Kaw as the best motor, consider the GSX-R's 153.2-hp pull. Despite its higher rev limit of 13,100 rpm (not the 13.5K Suzi claims), its peak power arrives earlier than the ZX's at 11,100 rpm. It also comes on sooner and more progressively, surging past the 125-hp mark at 8600 rpm while the ZX takes an additional 500 revs to eclipse that mark. So, while the ZX has a 3700-rpm spread of 125-plus horsepower, the Gixxer does the same feat over 4500 rpm. The Suzuki also has a more linear pull, without the Ninja's slight flat spots at 6000 and 8500 rpm.
Honda's CBR engine has been derided in the past for its ultra-friendly powerband, and it still retains its predictable linear pull through its new 12,400-rpm rev limit (200 revs higher than claimed, and way up from the 11,600 limit of last year's model). It logged its peak of 149.4 hp at 11,300 rpm, a 4-pony bump. Using the aforementioned 125-plus-horsepower range, the CBR manages to be above that level for 3800 rpm. The double-R was especially impressive by mostly out-muscling the steamy ZX from above 6000 revs until 11K.
Yamaha's R1 struggles in this category with the most jagged dyno trace, clearly without the torquey and linear pull of the others. Blame the Yammie's most oversquare engine configuration. In '04 Yamaha gave the R1 a 3mm bore increase to produce a higher-revving powerplant, making its bore and stroke 77.0mm and 53.6mm, respectively. Compare that with the GSX-R1K's 73.4 x 59.0mm, the least oversquare of the bunch.
The result is an engine that is simply out-motored by its competition, especially at the low end and mid-range points of the powerband. Making matters worse is a significant flat spot from 6500-7000 rpm, which is a range that is ridden through constantly on the street. It then comes on like gangbusters from 7200-8000 rpm before again softening up until 9500 rpm when it hurtles past the 125-hp threshold. This motor's saving grace - especially on the racetrack - is its 4100-rpm spread of 125-plus horsepower before it hits the highest-in-class redline of 13,750 rpm (the same limit Yamaha claims). It peaks with 148.5 ponies at 12,400 rpm, 1000 revs higher than the CBR's similar max number. Just as important a flaw is the R1's weak torque. While the others crest above 75 lb-ft between 8300 and 8700 rpm, the Yamaha's peak of just 71.4 lb-ft arrives way up at 10,000 rpm.
Although these bikes were designed to go around corners, we all know there are more straight roads than curvy ones. So which bike has the best acceleration? Our high-tech VBOX data acquisition unit provides the answers. Each bike received just four runs to get a quick time, except for the R1 whose clutch began to slip after just three. Times are corrected for altitude and temperature.
Best out of the hole is the Gixxer. Its combination of strong midrange power, a clutch with good feel, and the lowest seat height makes this the dragracing champ. Its best 60-foot time translated into the quickest to 60 mph, going through the virtual traps with a 10.09 at 143.8 mph. Testimony to the Suzuki's excellence at this task is that my last three runs on it were all within just 0.05 second of each other! The three nearly identical runs shows that I got somewhere near "the most" of it.
The same can't be said for the ZX-10R. My best run on the ZX wasn't ideal - I'd left something on the table, being unable to hold the throttle wide open in low gear because its fierce power wanted to loft ET-killing wheelies. It lags slightly behind the Gixxer during the first part of the run, and then uses its highest horsepower to claw back the gap until tripping the lights at 10.09 seconds - same as the Suzuki. The Ninja holds the trump card, though, as its trap speed of 145.7 mph was faster than the GSX-R's.
The R1 is held back by its peaky engine and a clutch that doesn't like abuse, slipping badly after just three hard launches. Clutch feel is okay, but the bike requires an 8500-rpm launch instead of the 7K of the other bikes. Too bad, because it has some decent potential. Despite its (slightly) slowest 0-60 time of 3.08 seconds, it still outsprinted the CBR, if just barely.
The Honda reaches 60 mph quicker (3.05 seconds), but its 10.28 @ 143.5 mph was beaten by the R1's 10.22 @ 142.47 mph. It's interesting how the R1 could produce the tardiest launch and the slowest trap speed and yet still get through the quarter-mile quicker than the CBR. The Honda's excellent hydraulic clutch proved to be easier to modulate than the cable clutches on the ZX and R1.
A side note: During acceleration testing in our secluded test area, I had the chance to take a couple of the bikes to high speeds. I saw 173 mph on the CBR's speedo, but the VBOX logged just a 162-mph maximum, a 6.4% error.
Then it was time to go for a big number. I kept the ZX-10's throttle pinned after running the quarter-mile, and it continued to pile on speed at a ridiculous rate. In seconds the speedometer was reading more than 180 mph, and then climbed slower until it hit 186 mph. Then back to 185, then 186, then 185.
What did I prove (aside from being stupid enough to go that fast)? Two things. First, the speedy Kaw's computer has the Euro-mandated 300 kph (186 mph) speed limiter, which, by the way, cuts in very gently, unlike a rev limiter. Second, when you see 186 mph on your Kawi's speedo, you're actually only traveling a paltry 170 mph, according to the VBOX, an 8.6% error.
Okay, the preliminaries are over. Time to cue Michael Buffer: "Let's get ready to rumble!"
OEM Rubber: Bridgestone BT015
Valve adjustment interval: 16,000 miles
Average fuel mileage: 35.6 mpg
What we have here feels like a 2005 CBR that has had a hot poker shoved up its more attractive tailpipe. Instead of feeling lazy and demure, the '06 CBR has been given a transplanted personality that is much more eager and ornery. We welcome this transmogrification with open arms, as the RR now offers up thrills that would make the old girl blush.
"What a difference a year makes!" enthuses MCUSA's Editorial Director Ken Hutchison. "The CBR feels lighter and accelerates harder than last year's machine, which were my biggest complaints about the bike."
Ergonomically, the Honda is mostly unchanged, with the notable exception of more compliant seat foam that extends the bike's comfort zone during longer rides. Its moderately low clip-ons and a tightish seat-to-peg distance will eventually get tiresome. The fattest tank of the group makes the bike feel thick through the middle, but it's not too wide and doesn't really cause any ergonomic grief.
The CBR's wind protection is nothing to write home about, though it is better than the R1. Its windscreen is close to the rider, but shoulders and head are hit with a stiff breeze. You might've read elsewhere its engine is smooth, but that's not quite the case. An 80-mph cruise is accompanied by noticeable vibration at 4900 rpm. Its instruments are rather plain looking, though easy to read, but the CBR is now the only bike without a lap-timer function.
One advantage the Honda has over the others is better manners in normal street traffic. The only hydraulic clutch of the bunch is easy to modulate with a fairly light pull, and smaller riders will appreciate the only adjustable-span clutch lever in the group. The CBR is exceptionally snappy at lower speeds, aided by an additional rear-sprocket tooth for '06 that results in the shortest overall first-gear ratio by a wide margin. While this can sometimes be a drawback on the racetrack, it makes for a much more streetable gearbox. Combine this with midrange power that matches the class leaders, and you've got the best powertrain for tooling around town.
That healthy midrange squirt is helpful not only on the street, but it also makes for responsive grunt out of the corners on a racetrack. The engine's only slight glitch is its slightly abrupt throttle response when re-applying power at high revs.
"What the motor lacks in sheer power, it makes up for in rideability," says Brian Chamberlain, MCUSA's Creative Director. "The power delivery is smooth and predictable all the way through its linear powerband."
The CBR's transmission worked well, but not all our testers gave it high marks. Though it has light, short throws, some thought it was a bit notchier than the rest with a less precise feel.
The biggest difference over the previous version is its newfound agility. The word "nimble" was frequently scribbled on notepads, and what was once the most ponderous bike to chuck around now rivals the class-leading Suzuki. No surprise, really, as the CBR's slightly steeper rake is balanced by slightly more trail than the Gixxer, and they both claim an identical wheelbase of 55.3 inches. At Buttonwillow with the 180-section rear tire, the liter-sized CBR felt almost as nimble as the CBR600RR I rode at the same track during its 2005 model introduction. It's a lot more eager to tackle corners than before, whether on the street or the track.
Sharper chassis geometry can make for a nervous ride, and this new CBR doesn't have the same level of unflappability as it once did. But after we properly dialed in the CBR's suspension, Honda's electronic steering damper took care of whatever bar-slapping began to emerge.
"Confidence-inspiring stability has always been a strong suit of the CBR, and this year's bike is no different," Chamberlain gushed. "It seems that no matter what you do to try and upset the bike, the chassis remains fully composed at all times."
The CBR's suspension received several tweaks for '06, which were generally well received. The rear end has a slightly softer spring that works through a less progressive linkage, while the front got stiffer springs and additional preload. The setup initially felt harsh at Buttonwillow, but some tweaking to Honda's recommended setup helped it suck up bumps as well as anything.
Last year, we judged the Honda's brakes to be the worst of the group. Its front discs are now 10mm larger in diameter (to 320mm), but they've been made thinner for a reduction of weight. This results in a system that is firmly in the hunt.
"They do a much better job of scrubbing off speed," says Chamberlain, a former roadracer. "In addition to slowing down quicker, the brakes also seem to experience less fade than previous years."
Still, there were a few of us who judged the brakes more critically, perhaps due to the CBR being the only one in the group without a radial-pump master cylinder. The Honda also came up a bit short in the Features category, as its lack of a slipper clutch and lap timer affected its scores in Transmission/Clutch, Instrumentation/Cockpit and Value.
"In a class as tight as this one," BC notes, "missing a component as valuable as a slipper clutch is an easy way to justify a point deduction."
Otherwise its scores were mostly near the top, and it didn't hurt that most of us believed the RR to be one of the most attractive and well-finished bikes of the lot. Overall, we think Honda has done an amazing job with this new CBR. At first glance, not much seems to have been changed, and some of us figured Big Red would be fighting to stay out of last place. The old version wonderfully stable, but it was heavy and felt, dare we say, as boring as a 145-hp sportbike could be.
The 2006 revisions have changed all that, as the CBR has won over several new converts among our testers. It now has a frisky personality that makes it a much more engaging experience.
"The CBR1000's newfound snarliness was a most welcome surprise," notes guest rider Eric Putter.
Testers' Note Pad
- Seat cowl a $179.95 option
- Poorest fuel economy of the group
- Mirrors only a bit better than GSX-R; slightly narrower than the R1
- Headlight isn't conspicuous in daylight
- Wheelies much easier
- Blew blue smoke during compression braking, just like our CBR600RR
- "It has a high and wide feel" -DB
- "I felt the most confident on the track aboard the CBR" -KH
- "As a long-time Honda fan I expected something smoother and more comfortable" -JH
OEM Rubber: Dunlop Sportmax Qualifier
Valve adjustment interval: 15,000 miles
Average fuel mileage: 37.2 mpg
The ZX-10R has built quite a reputation as one of the most powerful and gnarly literbikes ever made. Its lightest-in-class weight and 600-like feel made it a favorite among a couple of members of our staff. But the Kwacker's sharp handling and a notable lack of a standard-equipment steering damper made it a thrill ride too intimidating for some.
For 2006, Kawasaki's chefs have baked up a totally new machine, relaxing the steering geometry for more stability. Its 24.0-degree rake now ties the Yamaha for the laziest angle in the group, and its 106mm of trail is the longest. These changes slow steering quickness, partially balanced by the shortest wheelbase in the class. An adjustable steering damper also helps tame the beast.
"I'm plenty happy they finally added the steering damper," says MCUSA's President, Don Becklin, "and the fact that it's an Ohlins dual-chamber unit is all the better. Now when the ZX picks up its head in protest you have a bit more confidence that you might live to see tomorrow."
These changes have driven out most of the ZX's nervousness, though we didn't all agree the revisions resulted in a better bike.
For starters, the bike that once steered quicker than a CBR600RR has become more ponderous in the tight stuff. The new chassis geometry is partially to blame, but so are the new bike's "love handles." It feels like a larger machine from the saddle, and its 12-lb weight gain is simply inexcusable for a top-line sportbike. Last year's version was a mind-blowing 31-lbs lighter than the CBR. This year, there's just a 4-lb difference.
"The ZX-10R is much more rider friendly this year," notes Becklin, "but the sacrifice comes at the cost of razor-edge performance."
In street use, the new ZX doesn't suffer much. It has one of the best freeway rides of the group, especially the plush front end, and some of our testers judged it to be the most comfortable. Its clip-ons are slightly closer to the rider than R1 and CBR, but they seem to be a bit lower than last year's amenable setup, with a downward slope that made it more demanding on wrists. In addition, its (decent) seat and pegs feel higher than the older version. Wind protection for the torso and lower legs is respectable, and it's only a rider's thighs, shoulders and helmet that feel oncoming air. Its engine is turning about the same revs on the highway as the CBR, and it is noticeably smoother.
"The Kawi is comfortable by way of its roomy cockpit, a seat that's more than just a bubble-wrapped plank of pine, and the short distance a rider must span to grip the handlebars," says guest tester Tom Roderick, the Senior Editor of Dealernews trade magazine, adding the ergos were roomy enough for his 5'11", 190-lb body.
Aside from significant thunk when engaging first gear, the ZX's transmission received high marks - this is the nicest shifting 10R yet. In addition, the '06 mods to its slipper clutch made it even easier to bang quick downshifts. Braking performance was judged to be on par with the exceptional binders on the GSX-R.
Along with the old bike's lack of steering damper, it's only other notable wart was its confounding and hard-to-read LCD tach. Kawi really stepped up to the plate this year to produce what many of us believe are the best instruments of the group. Adjustable for three levels of brightness and now with a readable analog tach, it is a compact and attractive display that falls short only due to the tach's unnecessarily tinted face - it's not perfect in daylight, but it couldn't be any more visible at night.
"I am a big fan of the new analog tach/digital speedo instrument cluster," Becklin praises. "Now you can actually see the revs, and the mph number seems to float in space."
The ZX, like most of these keen tools, is sensitive to its setup. Ace Kawasaki wrench Scott Buckley joined us at Buttonwillow to help. He made changes to accommodate the race-compound Michelins, and that narrower rear tire helped it steer quicker, almost like the '05 version, and lessened the bike's tendency to stand up while braking into a corner. This, however, came at a slight cost of stability. The combination of the ZX's big power and Buttonwillow's bumpy front straight made us glad to have a steering damper this year.
To tame some of that nervousness, Buckley reduced the rear ride height, effectively increasing its rake and trail. This allowed the bike to rail the high-speed sweeper more confidently at the cost of some steering quickness.
"Now the ZX was steady as a rock in faster corners," states Prez Becklin, "but it lost the flickability that made last year's bike such a carver."
As has become typical for Kawi's literbike, conversation always turns to its motor. Once wound up, it screams with an intense ferocity that'll make your eyes water. But below 8000 rpm, it actually gets out-motored by last year's bike (as seen here). Its torque peak now arrives 1200 revs sooner at 8300 rpm, but that wave is preceded by a relative lull. However, up top, it can't be beat. Thankfully, there is little of the abrupt throttle response our testers noted about the CBR and R1.
The 10R received generally high marks in both our street and track scorecards, with a couple of notable exceptions. Most of our testers weren't pleased with the green machine's handling characteristics, whether with its sluggish feeling on street tires or during our racetrack experimentation when it felt a bit awkward.
Mixed scores also appeared in the Appearance and Fit-and-Finish categories. While some parts of the bike are slick, such as the flush-mount turnsignals and jet-fighter nose, most of us weren't keen on its overall shape or the contentious underseat exhaust that has raised the bike's center of gravity.
"At first I though it looked weird," says Editorial Director Ken Hutchison, echoing the thoughts of many of us. "But after touching it, washing bugs off it and checking it out for a couple of weeks, I dig it. Still, it's nowhere near as sweet as the CBR or R1."
One final note: In 2005, legendary racer Doug Chandler was part of a test conducted by Road & Track's Speed magazine at Buttonwillow. With no other traffic and perfect weather conditions, he rode a 2005 ZX-10R that was equipped with a Muzzys exhaust, Dynojet Power Commander and an Ohlins steering damper. His quickest lap time was a 1:53.0. During our crowded trackday held in cool conditions at Buttonwillow with Zoom Zoom Trackdays, Chandler logged a 1:52.7 on a stock 2006 ZX, demonstrating the potential prowess of this controversial bike.
Testers' Note Pad
- Seat cowl a $105.12 option
- Cheap looking plastic on instruments
- No objectionable heat from the undertail exhaust
- Can't use full throttle in low gear or it'll flip
- "Kawasaki has tamed this wild beast, but I fear they may have tuned out too much of its soul" -KH
- "Its middleweight feel belies the super-heavyweight look" -DB
- "The blindingly bright green color that gives the bike a unique flavor doesn't even come close to replicating in pictures" -DB
OEM Rubber: Bridgestone BT014
Valve adjustment interval: 14,500 miles
Average fuel mileage: 37.5 mpg
The Gixxer Thou is the decathlete of the group. No, make that the star decathlete. And valedictorian. It romped all over its class rivals in 2005, racking up big points in every category. But the Suzuki comes into this fight as the only contender that hasn't been updated for '06. Is the crew from Hammamatsu worried? Is Mat Mladin?
The short answer is no. The Gixxer is just as lovable as before, even in the face of updated challengers. The GSX-R was almost always ranked at the top of our scoresheet categories, and it's this baked-in, all-round goodness that makes it special.
"Although I've never spent any time aboard a this generation of Gixxer," admitted Roderick, "from the first clutch engagement I was enveloped with friendly familiarity, an unexplainable subconcious level of comfort usually reserved for bikes with which I have a more intimate understanding of."
First off, its incredible motor out-pulls everything else from just past idle until about 11,000 rpm when the Kawasaki soars past. The least oversquare bore/stroke ratio of the group appears to offer benefits throughout the powerband, or at least until the final 10%. This broad spread of power makes the Gixxer very obliging, whether trolling down Main Street or getting a good drive out of a tricky racetrack corner.
Making the Suzi feel even more cooperative is a size and feel that is akin to a 600cc bike. It's the quickest steering bike of the group and, combined with its responsive engine, always feels eager to chomp at the bit. A cooperative clutch makes it easy to get past a dead zone prior to 3000 rpm, with excellent throttle response throughout the rest of the rev range. The Gixxer also has the best gearbox of this group, blessed with short throws, positive engagement, and a compliant slipper clutch.
Ergonomically, the Gixxer is a bit of an odd one, though it was only some of our taller testers who had anything negative to say about it. Short people fit best on the GSX-R thanks to the lowest seat height and a slim perch that allows legs a straight shot at the ground. Its narrow windscreen actually offers the best upper body/helmet protection, though it leaves arms and shoulders exposed. A rider sits close to the swept-back bars, which is good for comfort, but they can pinch hands against the tank at full lock. A couple of our testers wished for clip-ons that were a bit wider for more leverage.
Its pegs are less rear-set than the others, bending knees less and providing welcome relief for wonky ankles like mine. Ground clearance, despite the pegs' forward location, is still abundant thanks to narrow positioning (although you'll need to be on your toes at the track, literally, because Fast Guy Becklin ground through his toe sliders).
When it's time to tackle some corners, the Gixxer responds with an assurance that belies the 153 horses trying to escape the corral. Turn-in is crisp and quick, yet the bike feels solidly planted when leaned over.
"Usually a bike that steers this quickly suffers with its stability," BC asserts. "Not so with the Gixxer. The Suzuki shows flawless stability no matter what you throw at it."
Aiding and abetting the Gixxer's class-leading handling is a suspension that needed the fewest adjustments. The setup that performed well on the street hardly required much fettling to make it work fluidly on the track. It has the seemingly diverse qualities of compliance and control.
Also ranking at or near the top of everyone's scorecard was the Suzuki's brakes, proving to be both intuitive and powerful. "These brakes are strong and provide good feedback," BC notes, "and I experienced no fading throughout the day even though the bike was ridden in almost every session."
When it's time to pour the coals to 'er, whether in a straight line or when leaned over, power is meted out exactly how the rider intends, without abruptness.
"The motor feels as though it is again the strongest of the bunch," says Chamberlain. "It begins pulling hard down low and continues to pull hard all the way through the rev range. Throttle delivery is smooth, allowing the rider to gradually modulate all that power when needed."
Although the Gixxer's instrumentation won't win any style awards, information is easy to assimilate. Each bike in this test has a programmable shift light, but the Suzi also has a feature the others don't: a gear-position indicator. While some might scoff at such a newbie-friendly device, it's surprising how often even experienced riders refer to it. Modern ECUs already detect gear positions, so this is something that should be standard equipment on all bikes.
The well-engineered Gixxer posted consistently strong scores except for a few areas. Its weakest headlights and shortest valve-adjustment intervals hurt its User-friendliness rating, and its Fit & Finish was judged to be beneath the others. The other area it fell short in was a subjective category: Appearance. Roderick says this is the best styled GSX-R since the original and has "the nicest ass of the bunch," but his comments were the most favorable among our discriminating testers.
With such few weaknesses and its abundance of impeccable scores, the defending champion hasn't lost any of its luster in this crowd.
Testers' Note Pad
- Seat cowl included in MSRP
- High mirrors work better than some, but not the CBR
"If any of the literbikes feel like a 600 on steroids, it's this bike." -DB
"Love it or hate it, the GSX-R1000 is the baddest literbike going" -KH
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" -BC
(Raven: $11,399; Champions Edition: $11,599)
OEM Rubber: Dunlop 208
Valve adjustment interval: 26,600 miles
Average fuel mileage: 36.7 mpg
Okay, let's get something out of the way up front - we think Yamaha's best-selling R1 is a paragon of style among sportbikes. In one gorgeous whole, the R1 is at once sexy and wicked and dazzling and handsome.
Having the R1 around is like being at a dinner party with supermodel Gisele Bundchen - she may or may not be a good conversationalist, but your eyes will find her the most interesting person in the room. (Gisele, if you're reading this, I'm sure I can also learn to love your mind.)
And so it is with the R1, a bike we all really want to love. We may play coy while we're busy jotting down objective notes in our journalist notepads, but much of the time we're salivating over the Yamaha's sensuous curves and tailor-sharp creases. Judged as moto art, the others have only second-place to fight over.
For R1 devotees, the news only gets worse from here. But it's not as if this two-wheeled jewel doesn't have other endearing qualities. It manufactures velocity quick enough to stop your heart, can stand on its nose on the brakes, and confidently rail around corners at elbow-dragging lean angles.
So what's the problem, then? Well, as my grandpappy used to say, "If you're not moving forward you're falling behind."
In 2004, the R1's second-place showing in the street category of our original Superbike Smackdown bode well, although its third spot in the track rankings was a sign of things to come. A freshened Gixxer in 2005 helped drop the R1 to third place in street ratings, and its mediocre scores for engine, transmission and agility sank it to the bottom of the pack on the track.
So, with the R1's minimal changes for 2006, it should come as no surprise that it has trouble treading water in the swirling sea of superbike soup.
The R1's most obvious deficiency lies in the engine room. As discussed on page 3, the R1's short-stroke engine is clearly behind the other mega mills in this group. Torque is in short supply, and the dyno trace has more dips than a Dairy Queen. It wakes up slowly before revving out with the longest top-end rush.
"You have to spin the engine more than what should be required of a literbike," Roderick says succinctly. Putter, meanwhile, likened its powerband to that of a 600. Some of our testers wanted to blame tall gearing for the lack of acceleration, but in fact its overall ratios are shorter than most, so blame falls solely on the engine.
"The bike is by no means slow," Chamberlain says, "it just lacks that punch coming out of the corners that some of the other bikes have."
"The motor makes an awesome intake howl," Hutch enthuses, "and every time I got off of it I thought to myself, 'Man, this bike is awesome.' Then I would hop on one of the others and realize that it just doesn't have the chutzpah that the other three now have."
Also coming up a bit short this year is the R1's handling, lacking the agility of the others. On the plus side, the added wheelbase from the longer swingarm makes the blue screamer the most stable platform in fast, bumpy corners.
"Last year, the Honda seemed to be the least intimidating and easiest to ride open-class bike," Becklin remarks. "For 2006, the Yamaha takes that title."
But, with the longest wheelbase, a rake tied for the laziest angle, and not much to choose from between trail figures, it's no surprise the gangly R1 feels the most cumbersome in tighter corners. Again, the 180-section rear tire improved its transient response, but the other bikes also benefited similarly.
"It's very stable, and the front end provides a lot of confidence," BC allows. "But it doesn't turn in or transition quickly."
The Yamaha's Kayaba/Soqi suspension generally performed well, earning points for having an easy-to-adjust ramped preload collar on the shock like the CBR, but losing some for its stiff overall feel and for having to remove a bodywork fastener to reach a damping adjuster on the shock.
"The suspension seemed right on par with the other bikes," BC states. "It did a good job soaking up the big dip heading on to the back sweeper at Buttonwillow and glided pretty smoothly through the chatter in Turn 3. Overall, both the front and rear performed well, but didn't do anything to make it stand out above the Gixxer."
In general, the Yamaha's braking system is excellent, with tons of power and good control. But in this competitive group, their slightly wooden feel didn't provide the stellar feedback of the others. Similarly, the R1's transmission works well, but it was judged to be the notchiest and it makes due without a slipper clutch.
The R1 was panned by most of our testers for having the cruelest riding position, with the lowest bars, a tall seat and a long reach to the clutch lever. However, it has the most amount of legroom, so we heard less complaining from our taller riders.
"It's ergonomically sound for my 6'0" body," submits MCUSA contributor Billy Bartels. "The seat feels like it would be uncomfortable, with a hard, steeply upswept surface, but actually I was pretty comfy."
The cockpit of the R1 is highlighted by the most attractive instruments of the group, and the bike's slim fuel tank feels narrow between the knees. Its wide-spaced mirrors offer a decent view behind (for a sportbike), but its short fairing supplies the least amount of wind protection. Also, the bike's forged aluminum footpegs are no doubt strong and light, but they aren't very grippy, causing the feet of a few of our testers to unexpectedly slip off.
So, you might wonder, does the comely R1 suck? No way, not even a bit. Near the end of our day at Buttonwillow, having already made up my mind that it was my least favorite, I ended up running a very competitive lap time on it. It holds its line really well, is very stable in the high-speed sweeper, and the engine's generous top-end pull is an asset on the racetrack.
Testers' Note Pad
Seat cowl a $189.95 option
Throttle a bit abrupt upon reapplication
Best headlights, both high and low beams
Can feel heat coming off the engine and mufflers
"A competitive platform hurt by its lack of motor" -BC
"It doesn't do any one thing outstanding (except the looks) but it does do everything pretty well and inspires confidence in the rider" -DB
"Truly a motorcycle I'd like to star in a porn with" -TR
Fourth Place - Yamaha YZF-R1
Street: 84.8% (4th)
Track: 81.8% (4th)
If any of you are thinking the R1's last-place ranking means we didn't like this ravishing bike, you're dead wrong. We've said it in other comparison tests but it's worth repeating: It's only when ridden back to back with its competitors that any flaws begin to emerge. Ridden on its own, it's wonderful.
T-Rod provides the final word: "Do the bike's looks make up for its performance shortcomings? For use on the street, absolutely and then some. The R1 and its three competitors in this shootout all possess more performance than is usable outside a racing environment. So, for the person uninterested in absolute lap times, the Yamaha looks as fast as the other bikes while also looking cooler."
Third Place - Honda CBR1000RR
Street: 86.0% (3rd)
Track: 87.8% (2nd)
It pains us to rank Honda's wonderfully invigorated CBR on the last rung of the podium. Though having received no major revisions, the hundreds of small tweaks Big Red has made to the 2006 model have transformed this once stodgy superbike into a pugnacious terrier. In fact, three of our testers chose the RR as their subjective favorite in our For My Money section.
It now steers like a scalpel instead of a butter knife, yet it remains confidence inspiring in high-speed sweepers. Its motor/gearing combo is stimulating, and its dramatic weight loss provides a benefit to acceleration, braking and handling. The only missing ingredient is a slipper clutch.
"A lot of small changes have pushed the CBR in the right direction," BC summarizes. "For the sensible and maybe slightly frightened trackday rider, there is no better choice of equipment in the literbike class."
Second Place - Kawasaki ZX-10R
Street: 87.6% (2nd)
Track: 87.5% (3rd)
While the improvements to the CBR1000RR are clearly perceptible, the benefits of the changes made to the hypersonic ZX-10R are a lot cloudier. On one hand, there's a marked improvement in stability, aerodynamic styling and more manageable power delivery. On the other, we're now dealing with a heavier, less agile platform and a motor with a lumpier powerband. In a way, this new ZX is a lateral move rather than a step forward.
"The Kawi is still a very competitive platform with a great motor," says BC. "But I don't agree with the new chassis adjustments, and I think the huge under-seat exhaust is not only the ugliest I've seen, it also seems to have added a lot of weight and raised the bike's center of gravity. I would have rather seen Kawasaki retain last year's bike and just added the Ohlins steering damper."
First Place - Suzuki GSX-R1000
Street: 91.0% (1st)
Track: 94.5% (1st)
In 2004, the target was clearly on the potent Gixxer's back, and its rivals all came out swinging with new meat to knock the champ on his back. Suzuki responded in '05 with the fabulous Gixxer that endures this year, MCUSA's choice for Best New Streetbike of 2005. Now, in 2006, it was the GSX-R's turn to be knocked to the ground, but the Suzuki's all-around excellence prevailed for the second year in a row.
In fact, it wasn't even close, a real testament to the balanced brilliance of this platform. Its consistent high marks made it a stand-out, but perhaps even more remarkable is that it has a decided edge on both the street and the track. "It not only does nothing wrong," says BC, "it also does everything right."
Perhaps Roderick summed up the magnificent Gixxer best.
"The GSX-R seems to say 'Whenever you're ready to go fast, so am I. And if you come into a corner hot, I'll provide you with enough confidence - through boundless lean angle, neutral steering, braking feedback and chassis stability - to safely exit the other side. Just put me in gear and I'll take care of you.'"