The F-Plan: Kawasaki ER-6f world launch
Launch report by top freelancer, Rob Hoyles
The last few years have been what could be described as something of a 'second coming' for Kawasaki.
A firm that once seemed content to tick-over with minor annual updates while the rest of the competition accelerated off into the wide, blue yonder have given themselves a sturdy kick up the corporate backside of late, resulting in a healthy range of bikes with the scope to rival any other manufacturer.
Perhaps understandably, in this sports bike obsessed nation of ours, it's the headline bikes such as the ferocious ZX-10R; its nimble kid brother the ZX-6R and the new 'considerably-faster-than-you' ZZ-R1400 that have been hogging all the media limelight.
Well, that's as maybe, but for those of you a little thinner in wallet and shorter in riding experience, you should be glad to hear that it's a case of strength in depth for the green army in 2006, with the new ER-6f being a prime example.
Accessible performance, real world practicality and affordable insurance costs are, for the vast majority, just as important as three figure speeds and bar room boasts of unfeasible dyno figures.
Essentially a faired version of the ER-6n ('n' for naked, 'f' for faired) the f variant promises more potential for those looking to cover larger distances without having to resort to rigorous neck-building exercises. But it's not just been a case of botching on a fairing and hoping the best. A fair bit of thought has gone into the design process, resulting in a machine specifically tailored to suit its new role.
The front fork length has been increased by 10mm to compensate for the added weight and downforce generated by the new fairing and the horizontally-mounted, offset rear shock has been tweaked accordingly. The net result is a slight increase in caster, trail, wheelbase and improved ground clearance which is helped all the more by the stylish underbelly exhaust.
Having spent the day travelling since the wee small hours to our picturesque test location on the east coast of Sicily, the press briefing was refreshingly, erm, brief with much of the focus centring on the motor. The parallel twin configuration isn't anything new, but interestingly it does appear to be making something of a comeback in various guises other than the common or garden 500cc commuter bike.
Yamaha achieved moderate success with the 850cc (and latterly 900cc) TDM and TRX models in the UK, (though the TDM sold by the truck load in Europe) but up until the arrival of the ER-6n and the eagerly anticipated BMW F800S and ST, the popularity of the parallel design seemed to be on the decline, with more companies opting for the more fashionable four across the frame or vee-twin layout. So I guess they do have a fair point when they mention their 'unique configuration'. Well, almost anyway...
Jumping on the bike, the riding position takes me by surprise a little with just how low it is. It's a slim bike too, meaning that for those a little short in the leg, touching down both sides shouldn't be a problem (though taller riders will be pleased to hear that a higher seat is available as an optional extra). Traditional handlebars also mean that there's plenty of scope to adjust the riding position to suit, meaning that it should be a case of one-size-fits-all, which can only be a good thing. Confidence is a key word with the ER-6f and Kawasaki quite unashamedly highlight the fact that this is a bike aimed at newer riders, riders returning to riding after a few years out or simply those looking for a mid-priced machine for anything from a Sunday blast to the odd weekend away.
And it is an easy bike to ride. Heading out on to the unfamiliar Sicilian roads from our base camp in Taormina along the tight, cobbled streets that wind their way through the scattered villages along the coast, the bike allows its rider to focus his attentions on avoiding the unpredictable drivers and errant scooter riders that buzz around seemingly oblivious to what's going on around their Versace sunglasses, rather than worry about what the bike's doing.
At slower town speeds, the motor feels smooth and fuels precisely. Unlike many vee-twins that tend to be lumpy and difficult to regulate at small throttle openings, the ER-6f's delivery makes for a far more civilised and less stressful ride through town and traffic, with the generous turning circle making its presence felt on more than one occasion, partly due to the tight town roads, but mainly down to the countless u-turns caused by my apparent inability to follow a map. I blame the road signs, myself!
Carrying on a little further along the idyllic Mediterranean coastline, through picture postcard villages and up into the lush green foothills of the imposing Mount Etna, the road opens out, finally allowing us to get out of the first three gears and giving us the chance to fully explore the bike's performance.
To be totally honest, initially I'm rather underwhelmed. Rightly or wrongly, almost instantly I find myself comparing it to Suzuki's SV650 and by comparison the Kawasaki feels a little bit flat. Stomp off the bottom end isn't anywhere near as torquey as the SV and for a while I'm left wondering what all the fuss made of the ER-6n was about. A few corners later, I suss out how to ride it. While it may be a twin, the delivery and engine character are totally different to the more traditional vee arrangement.
Of course, the engine is essentially half a four cylinder motor, so the key is to rev it like one. The power comes in with a little more fervour at around 7,000rpm and keeping it buzzing higher up the rev-range rewards with reasonable drive off the turns, putting it on a par with the SV in terms of out-and-out straight line performance, all the way up to a guesstimated top speed just shy of 130mph.
Making the most of the available power does mean that cog swapping needs to be clean and precise for spirited riding. Fortunately the little Kwak lets you do just that. The gear lever connects directly to the gearbox shaft, meaning there is no slack to take up in the linkages as there aren't any.
But frantic hairpin-bashing isn't really what the 6f is all about. Cruising at a more sedate pace, taking in both the dramatic Sicilian scenery and spending more time thinking about the bike than what may lurk the other side of a two-hundred foot precipice, I soon start to realise what it's good at. As it turns out it's good, if not brilliant, at a little bit of everything.
On the motorways the bike doesn't vibrate like I thought it might, despite the lack of rubber damping blocks for the handlebars and footrests. The mirrors work well too without shaking and the fairing provides just enough protection, though larger riders may find it slightly too narrow and personally I'd opt for a slightly taller screen. On the winding mountain switchbacks, the neutral handling inspires confidence and, on the fast bumpy back roads it's stable and feels well planted. Sure, the suspension feels a little bit basic pressing on a bit, but ninety percent of the time it quietly gets on with the job, providing a plush ride, complimented by the comfortable riding position and seat.
The brakes work well enough to hoist the rear wheel off the floor with plenty of feel at the lever so there are no complaints there. There's also an ABS option available (for an extra ¦#163;400) which should be reassuring for less experienced riders.
The 6f scores well in the practicality stakes, too. While the spec sheet reveals a relatively small fuel tank, the bike is incredibly frugal on juice - We managed getting on for 120 miles before the light came on - despite spending much of the time thrashing around sinuous mountain roads. Expect well over 150 with a steadier throttle hand.
Well-placed bungee points should help with luggage and, with a whole plethora of genuine Kawasaki bolt-ons to enhance the touring experience such as a top box that bolts directly in place of the side-mounted grab rails, large crash mushrooms, a higher seat and even smaller indicators to replace the hideous original items there should be enough scope to personalise the bike to suit your type of riding.
Overall, while innovative in design, the ER-6f is still fairly simple. Bog-basic non-adjustable forks and brake calipers embrace trick petal discs and sporty looking six-spoke wheels. From the old-fashioned (but very easy to read) clocks to the MotoGP style exhaust and cassette gearbox there's a fair mix of old and new technology thrown together, though it has to be said that as a whole it does come together rather well both visually and on the move.