Six-Gun Shootout

Text: Christian Neuhauser, Warren Sobat • Photography: Christian Neuhauser

RoadRUNNER takes to the open road in sleek super-sporting style aboard the latest 600cc class motorcycles.

The 600cc sportbike class has long been known as one of the most competitive and arguably the most popular segment of the motorcycle industry. Since its inclusion in the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) racing division, 600cc Supersport has become the gem of the racing crown with true "Race on Sunday - Sell on Monday" appeal for motorcycle dealers.

The 600 sporties are notoriously popular among young riders for their cutting-edge performance and attractive pricing compared to their 750cc and liter-class siblings. They are, however, not known for touring ability. Maybe this is just a consumer oversight or a prejudice based on the somewhat erroneous impression that riders must have the flexibility of gymnasts or carnival contortionists to appear comfortable in riding position.

With the help of a few very talented (and lovely) members of the CC Race Her Motorcycle Club, we took to the streets aboard the finest supersport hardware that Japan and the UK have to offer.

Our comparison contestants were the Honda CBR600RR, Kawasaki's Ninja ZX-6R, Suzuki's GSX-R600, Yamaha's YZF-R6 and Triumph's Daytona 600.

Being a Triumph enthusiast, I was extremely curious about the 600cc Daytona. First impression: It's comfortable and offers the most touring-oriented seating position in comparison. The brakes are typical of Triumph - very good. But for the purposes of this article, that's where any fair assessments of its characteristics end. We had to take the Daytona out of the running for rankings altogether because there was definitely something wrong with the setup of this test bike - it was like riding the most refractory bull at the rodeo. Weeks later I had the opportunity to ride the bike again. It was a lot better, but there wasn't time to complete a serious test and deliver our findings. We plan to present those in a later issue. - Christian

But before we smash any long held myths concerning the long-distance ability of any of these bikes, let us first cast an objective eye at their base performance attributes and numbers.

Engine & Transmission
All the manufacturers have their own definition of how many cubic centimeters actually fit in a 600cc engine. Yamaha is the only one sticking to its guns with a 600cc plant, while Honda and Suzuki use some Far Eastern mathematics to come up with 599cc mills. Meanwhile Kawasaki would like us to believe that more is better with their 636cc behemoth. That said, Kawasaki also manufactures an AMA Supersport-eligible 600cc motorcycle dubbed the ZX-6RR with a 599cc engine.

Having progressed through years of racetrack and "skunk works" R&D, each of these engines are excellent performers. The R6 offers smooth linear power with a bit of extra oomph at the top of the rpm dial, delivering 105 horsepower. Yamaha claims a newly constructed exhaust canister gives the R6 better mid- and low-range power characteristics, and judging by the performance, it works.

The Yammy gearbox is notchy, requiring a bit more effort and focus to ensure positive gear changes. The six-speed transmission delivers great power to the rear wheel with no discernable flat spots.

Kawasaki's ZX-6R, with its 36cc (or 37cc depending on the fuzzy math) advantage, claims the prize in this category for mid-range grunt and torque. The 111 rear-wheel ponies top the mark among these bikes, and you can really feel it through the seat of your leathers. Twisting the Kawi's throttle is like opening a can of thunder between your legs.

The Ninja tranny performed well but could be clunky in heavy-load situations. Six gears were hardly needed for the super-broad powerband.

The Gixer is a relative latecomer to the 600 fray, but Suzuki did it with style. A revamped engine for 2004 puts 105 horsepower to the pavement. Suzuki has reworked the 600 with a focus on winning races. This is great for powering through knee-dragging corners and overtaking competition in the straights, but manufacturing usable power is a bit more of a struggle. The GSX-R's power is peaky and somewhat unforgiving.

As usual, the Suzuki gearbox was flawless. Gear changes were positive and effortless throughout the entire six-speed range.

Another "All new for 2004" motorcycle is Honda's CBR 600RR. With its new power plant based on its RC211V five-cylinder MotoGP bike, Honda is also taking dead aim at winning races. Honda set the standard for street-able 600 sport bikes when it first introduced the Hurricane back in 1987, but has since split the category by producing the race-bred RR model. Producing 106 horses, the 599cc engine is deceptively smooth and although it produces racetrack-type power up top, very little is left for real-world traffic situations.

Big Red's six-speed transmission gave good performance with no problems, but it seemed isolated, offering minimal feedback.

Chassis & Brakes
Make no mistake about it - these are all hard-edged motorcycles. The twin spar frame on each one is tuned for handling performance with more suspension settings than you can shake a stick at. Brakes on these mid-muscle machines are again designed for speeds and abuse that many of us will never deliver - and with all the bikes weighing in around the 360-pound mark without fuel and oil, they can almost be considered overkill.

The Suzuki came across with the most hyper setup. The littlest Gixser positively wanted to dive into corners and snap out of exits looking for the next one. An upside-down fork up front and braced swingarm in the rear gave excellent feedback through the handlebars and seat, even if it was a little bone jarring. Although all of these bikes were rock solid in the straights and under hard acceleration, the Suzuki felt twitchy when it wasn't looking at the horizon from an angle.

Brakes on the mid-size sportbikes have evolved into feathery touch responsive stoppers and the GSX-R is no exception. A too-aggressive grab on the adjustable handle and you can find yourself pitching forward like a human cannonball. Feedback was good but not the best overall in this group.

Kawasaki's street-bred 600 was a bit more tame and less sensitive to inputs at the handlebars. While this fact gave greater confidence when riding, it made turn-ins a bit slower and tight corners required more forethought. The upside-down fork with umpteen adjustments handled rough pavement very well with no headshake under open throttle situations.

The Kawi brakes required the most effort, although here we're talking about having to use maybe three fingers instead of two in the most extreme situations. Feedback through the brakes was a bit mushy compared to the rest and they seemed to fade with greater use.

Honda put a lot of R&D into its latest frame and suspension setup. Big Red felt planted through the turns and gave us no arguments when powering out of extreme lean angles. As another example of technology plucked from their MotoGP bike, the swingarm on the CBR is gorgeous; but in the riding experience offered no real feedback. Whether this is intentional, allowing the rider greater focus with fewer distractions, is yet to be seen; however, it is unusual on such a hard-edged bike.
Brakes had great feel and performance on the Honda, even deep into corners, giving me greater confidence when charging into one with a little too much gas.

Team Blue over at Yamaha certainly has their 600 all dialed in. The R6 exhibited great performance and feedback in hard cornering and throttle-snapping speeds. A standard cartridge fork up front gave great insight to what was happening beneath the front wheel. While none of these bikes would squirm or flex under abuse, the Yamaha felt positively hard-wired.

Brakes have always seemed to be what Yamaha does best and no exceptions were evident here. Feedback through the handlebar was excellent and light feathery touches could modulate speeds in the blink of an eye.

This is where the true comparisons begin for our purposes. The ever-present conflict in the making of a great sport-touring machine is achieving a balance between comfort and performance. We have established that these bikes are at the leading edge of performance in the motorcycling industry, but can they be ridden for 300-plus-mile days?

Each of these machines is made to be ridden much the way a jockey sits a thoroughbred, utilitarian yes, but not the sort of position for a lengthy Sunday outing. The saddle is a saddle only by definition; it has a degree of padding with a faux-leather covering.

The GSX-R 600 came in dead last on this issue. The Suzuki's broad tank splays knees very wide and the high-mount pegs require the rider to fold into a pretzel arrangement. You are definitely perched atop this bike rather than sitting on it, and with most of the weight over the bars, your forearms are aching after only a few miles of straight-line sightseeing. The fairing on the GSX worked well, keeping clean air over the helmet and protecting the chest.

Coming in next to last is the new-for-2004 CBR 600RR. Again, this is an extreme seating position with knee-aching foot peg placement and the pitched-forward, racing tuck pose it compels. The Honda did not have us as weighted onto the hands and the suspension settings were a bit plusher allowing for a tad more comfort than the Gixser. The front cowling on the Honda provided little protection with wind hitting just below the neck.

The Ninja ZX-6R gets high points for roominess. There is actually a bit of space in which to maneuver into alternate positions. This was great towards the end of the day when alleviating "butt-burn." The Kawasaki feels like a larger machine when you're seated astride it. The fairing provided good wind deflection off the body but some buffeting of the helmet occurred at higher speeds. With a tank and tail pack, a long day or overnight trip could easily be done on the "Team Green" machine.

The true surprise among this group is the YZF-R6. The beauty and performance of the Yamaha is unquestionable. And though its spidery appearance leaves the impression that this bike doesn't offer even a modicum of comfort, that's not so, young grasshopper! The seating position, while providing little room for moving about, was fairly neutral - hence, no aching wrists to alarm the rider. The sleek fairing provided good coverage keeping wind off the chest while maintaining a clean stream of air on the helmet with no noticeable buffeting.

As far as having a passenger along for your supersport jaunt, you can fuhgeddaboudit. Passenger accommodations among this group are there for a spin around the block and that's about it. The pillions make rider saddles seem luxurious by comparison (they aren't) and peg placements seem an afterthought, leaving most passengers looking like mom and dad sitting in the first-grade desks during a parent-teacher conference.

Manufacturer accessories largely consist of performance and style modifications. A few makers offer some textile tank bags, but the aftermarket is the place to pick up whatever luggage you might need.

Certainly very few of these machines will be seen on a coast-to-coast run or making a stab at the Iron Butt competition, but with a decent set of soft luggage and a map of curvy tarmac you can turn a three-day weekend into loads of fun.

Christian Neuhauser

Testing four bikes in one day and doing over 400 miles on interstates, highways, and back roads is quite an experience.

From the touring aspect, my hot favorites are the Honda CBR and the Yamaha R6. For a rider my size, both present a comfortable sitting position and a smooth running engine. Brakes, suspension, and finishing quality are the finest on the market. I would buy the Yamaha, because it has a bit more character than the CBR. The Honda is as sterile as an autoclave.

The Suzi and the Kawi are great bikes, but a bit too sporty. Yes, they're fine for a nice afternoon chase through your own back yard, but for an entire week - hard to imagine. Still, one of them ought to be in the garage.

Monique Navai
Oceanside, CA
IT manager
Riding in Southern California for 4 years

Pity me, in sunny Southern California with brand-new bikes. I loved the way the Yamaha R6 handles. Totally feel the difference in comparison with my 2002 R1. You might think that the 2004 R6 isn't as fast, but this bike handles smooth and, yes, fast. Light and lean. I fell in love. The Yamaha has more power than any 600 I've ever ridden. And when cornering her, it seems all you have to do is lean and take it. Definitely my choice of all for the track and canyons.

As soon as you start the R6, you know it was built for anyone who likes to lay on the tank, ride over 400 miles, and still feel comfortable. I tried the Honda RR and Suzuki GSXR, and the Kawasaki Ninja, but when all was said and done, I asked to ride the Yamaha R6 again.

Of all the great bikes tested that day, I've decided I absolutely have to have the Yamaha R6. Every rider looks for something different in a bike - some like to cruise the streets, some like to take the corners fast, and some are just looking for another way to take a Sunday drive. I am all of them: I want to have bike that I can ride in the streets and then take to the track and canyons. This bike was built for all of that, and of course I'd love to take this beauty on a leisurely Sunday ride as well.

Sharon Griffiths
San Diego, CA
US Marine Corps, Civil Engineer
Riding for about 2.5 years

What a great experience it was to ride these bikes! The 2004 Yamaha R6, Kawasaki ZX-6R, Suzuki GSXR 600, and Honda CBR600RR were all great performing bikes in the canyons and on the highway. To choose only one is difficult, but if I had to, I'd go with the Yamaha R6. It was so smooth to ride. It made me feel when I had the slightest thought about taking a curve that it would do it for me. I could ride the R6 all day long and never get tired.

The Suzuki GSXR 600 was a close second; and I could feel the torque a little more. The Kawasaki has lots of torque, but it was the least comfortable of the bikes to ride. The Honda was comfortable, but its brakes didn't seem as responsive.

Again, thanks for the opportunity to ride all of these great bikes!

Britt Bohannan Arechiga
San Diego, CA
Web-Based Training Developer/
Instructional Designer
Riding 3 years, Racing 2 years

Fun day. Having heard great things about the new Suzuki, I was excited about riding a Kawasaki again.

Although suspension changes could have drastically changed any of the bike's handling, I found the Kawasaki handled handling the best. Right where you wanted her, she felt planted. Snappy engine, incredibly smooth transmission, great brakes, and it felt narrower than any Kawasaki I've ridden. Turned in and held a line like nobody's business. But the most uncomfortable bike for long distances.

Also loaded with personality, the Suzuki impressed with its rumbly engine and wide-ish gas tank (typical GSXR style), but balanced and comfortable to grab with your outside knee in corners. Superb brakes and just enough engine vibration to make you feel you're on a mean bike.

Honda: responsive handling similar to the Kawasaki's, it almost became my second favorite, but it lacked something in the personality department. A little more comfortable than the Kawi - but not great.

The R6 rated well everywhere: brakes, handling, power, it was even very comfortable as far as sport bikes go. A great ride, but again, not enough personality.

Vaughn Bishop
Long Beach, CA
Software Developer/Photographer
14 years of riding

Kawasaki: I like the look and feel of the ZX-6. Big Green. I am reminded of a praying mantis. Within the first minute of getting on this bike I knew it would be one of my favorites...this bike screams "Ride me! Ride me hard, ride me fast, and throw me down when you get to a curve!" I'm a shade under 6'2" and running light at about 185, but this bike had a good power range and did what I asked in the corners. It brakes the hardest.

The R-6: Light, twitchy, a touch small - but I soon realize that's just the end result of exceptionally good engineering...a serious machine...impressive through the twisties. Where the Kawi inspires confidence, the R-6 (though less inspiring) is up to the challenge and will deliver. It grows on you - quickly.

CBR-600: This is the best looking bike of the group. Ours was black and grey and looked bad. As in good. The first thing I noticed that I did not like was the clutch. It engaged at the end of the radius, leaving me gunning the engine with nothing happening. I'm sure it is a quick fix with a cable adjustment. Anyway, once you get it going it's fine. The instrument panel layout on this bike is almost as good as the ZX-6. I like the look and the feel.

Suzuki GSXR 600: Nothing outstanding, but there was nothing wrong with it either. It was a bit small for me, but very user friendly. Would have to say it's my least favorite.

If you're going to the track, get the Kawi - it's the best performer hands down. For long touring trips on one of these bikes, the CBR would be my preference. It's slightly more comfortable and gets all-around high marks.