1999 600cc Supersport Shootout by Motorcycle.com
The hype has been intense: At the end of '98, pervasive rumors claimed that Yamaha was developing a 600 supersport counterpart to their ground-breaking YZF-R1. Honda, it was said, was tooling up a fuel-injected replacement to the F3. Suzuki? Nothing new here, they just kicked butt on the race track, taking home the coveted AMA 600cc Supersport Championship in 1998 on their supposedly out-dated GSX-R600.
Meanwhile, Kawasaki redesigned the ZX-6R, melding both track performance with street-going comfort, offering a combination of light weight, comfort and performance that proved so popular in Great Britain that for the first time in years the ZX-6R outsold Honda's CBR600F3.
Parity in the 600 class, it seems, had been achieved. Pete Rozelle wept from his luxury box in the sky. Some of the rhetoric proved to be true: Both Honda and Yamaha developed two all-new 600cc supersports: The still-carbureted but significantly refined CBR600F4 and the R1's close cousin, Yamaha's YZF-R6, respectively.
Back to the real world, early 1999 to be exact. You've impatiently waited for the new machines to come out, and now it's time to plunk down some hard-earned money. So you want to know the skinny, right? Well, to aide in your quest, Motorcycle Online enlisted the help of reigning AMA Pro Thunder and 250 Grand Prix Champions Paul Harrell and Roland Sands to help us out in our 1999 600 shootout.
An unusually pensive Roland Sands caught in a rarely seen moment of calm reflection.
We chose to test the motorcycles using stock tires since many of our readers will use them until they are worn out and because changing tires can significantly change the characteristics of a motorcycle. Not that it mattered much, because the tires are very similar -- the Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki are shod with Dunlop D207's street tires and the Kawasaki comes with Bridgestone BT56s. The only drawback in using stock tires was that track and drag strip times would suffer -- surprisingly, we struggled more at the drag strip with the relatively slick stock tires than at the race track -- otherwise using stock tires didn't favor one bike over another. Each bike's performance stood on factors not related to tire selection. Still, for those of you who are fit to be tied that we didn't swap tires, flame us now.
The most anticipated bike heading into the shootout had to be Yamaha's YZF-R6, a motorcycle seemingly designed to elicit over-the-top superlatives from the motorcycle press. We rode the CBR600F4 at the Las Vegas Speedway and came away impressed with it's superb balance. We looked forward to putting more miles on the ZX-6R as it'd been months since we rode one. It had also been a while since we rode the GSX-R600, two years in fact, back in our 1997 test, and we were interested in seeing how it faired against the new generation 600s on the Streets of Willow Springs, at the Carlsbad Raceway Drag Strip and highways of greater Los Angeles.
Anyhow, enough of the bollocks, let's get on with the test.
4: 1999 Suzuki GSX-R600
The oldest platform in the test, the Suzuki GSX-R600 has been tweaked throughout its three-year lifespan. In 1998 it received a larger airbox, revised exhaust system, different cam timing and reshaped ports to improve power across the powerband, and in 1999 Suzuki fitted the Gixxer with revised carburetor intake funnels, different jetting and a new igniter box for improved high rpm power.
Peak power was improved: The GSX-R600 made 91.9 bhp at 10500 rpm and 45.1 ft-lbs of torque at 9500. That's a decent jump over our 1997 test model that posted 88.7 bhp at 12,000 rpm and 43.4 ft-lbs at 10,000 rpm.
The driveline lash that was so prominent on our 1997 test bike wasn't noticed in this year's model, but the riders complained of a flat spot around 10,000 rpm. We noticed carburetion difficulties on the 1997 GSX-R600 and we suspect that Suzuki still hasn't sorted out this problem.
"It doesn't really feel like a flat spot," quipped Editor Plummer after drag strip testing, "but rather, it seems that either the carburetor needles are wrong or the throttle slides are rising at the wrong rate, either too slow or too fast, but in any event the power feels flat when you're on the gas and shift gears at redline -- there's a highly noticeable lag in the power. In a sense, that's good news, and jetting is easily correctable, while some strange cam/exhaust pipe problem isn't." The Suzuki made the least amount of peak horsepower, a factor that might have helped produce the slowest times at the drag strip -- 11.149 seconds for the quarter-mile at 124.84 miles per hour.
However, we believe that imprecise carburetor settings were the most likely culprit, as Editor Plummer -- who does the drag strip testing -- felt the Suzuki "would have hauled ass" on the drag strip if the carburetion problems were solved. In addition, the GSX-R600 was our least favorite street bike in this test, with many testers complaining of inordinate amounts of vibration, especially at higher rpms. The uncompromising riding position on the GSX-R didn't win a lot of positive feedback and the bike never felt quite right unless ridden at a ten-tenths pace.
that the racers' lap times on the other three bikes began to pull away from the GSX-R600. "Roland and Paul started going much, much faster on the other bikes in the afternoon," says Plummer, "but I never could get a confident feel from any of them, especially not in the front end -- no street bike seems to feel as planted and secure as a good old GSX-R. While pros have the ability to go beyond their immediate impressions, for the rest of us, it's hard or impossible to go fast on a bike that doesn't feel planted. If I were going club racing, the Gixxer would be my choice, for sure."
Also in it's favor, the Suzuki GSX-R600 has been around for a few years and there is a host aftermarket parts available for racers, not to mention the Suzuki Cup -- at over a million dollars, Suzuki pays more to club racers than anyone else in America.
3: 1999 Kawasaki ZX-6R
Last year something rare happened over in Great Britain: For the first time in years the top selling 501 to 700cc class motorcycle was not a Honda, it was the Kawasaki ZX-6R. Aiming at the CBR600F3, the ZX-6R offered light weight, high performance and excellent handling characteristics along with improved aerodynamics, weather and wind protection, and relaxed ergonomics for a more comfortable street ride. The design worked, and Honda was forced to play catch up.
In 1997, the ZX-6R placed last in our comparison. Vague front-end feedback along with low-profile stock Bridgestone tires resulted in a front end that "pushed" and "tucked" in corners.
Even with race-compound tires the vague feedback on the 1997 ZX-6R continued and the lack of front-end feel was responsible for relegating the old 6R to last place.
The 1997 ZX-6R had very narrow triple clamps that didn't give much turning leverage. Kawasaki engineers addressed this by widening the handlebars, which also made the ZX-6R more comfortable, even though we thought the old ZX-6R was not an uncomfortable motorcycle. Kawasaki also stiffened the chassis and improved the suspension. As a result handling improved all around. At 445 pounds with a full tank of gas, the new generation ZX-6R is also about 18 pounds lighter than its predecessor, but is still the heaviest motorcycle in the test.
Throttle response on the ZX-6R was excellent, so was the positive-feeling gearbox and strong clutch (try as we might we couldn't fry the clutch at the strip). The linear power delivery and higher-profile stock Bridgestone BT56 tires helped the ZX-6R post the fastest times in the quarter mile. With peak power outputs of 94 bhp at 12,750 rpm and 44.2 ft-lbs at 10,500 rpm the 6R ripped off a 10.937 second quarter mile at 127.41 miles per hour at the slower, slicker, sea-level Carlsbad Raceway (the 1997 ZX-6R posted a 10.79 quarter-mile at the LACR, a faster track at higher elevations that also posts very generous corrected times, usually by about three or four tenths of a second).
Stoplight to stoplight Kawasaki intends to be the fastest, and with the ZX-6R they're living up to their promise: "The Kawasaki rocks!" barked an elated Plummer after ripping off a 1.7-second 60-foot time and a high 10-second quarter mile. "It's the only bike with precise throttle response and inherent traction off the line -- if you want to smoke your pals at every street light, you'll be hard-pressed to find any bike, big or small, that'll run with the 6R from zero to 60."
With peak power outputs of 94 bhp at 12,750 rpm and 44.2 ft-lbs at 10,500 rpm the 6R ripped off a 10.937 second quarter mile at 127.41 miles per hour at the slower, slicker, sea-level Carlsbad Raceway (the 1997 ZX-6R posted a 10.79 quarter-mile at the LACR, a faster track at higher elevations that also posts very generous corrected times, usually by about three or four tenths of a second).
A comfortable, easy-to-ride street bike with a great engine, smooth throttle response and wide powerband that handled well on the street, the ZX-6R lagged behind the Honda and the Yamaha at the track. It's at least 10 pounds heavier than the competition, feeling slow entering corners and not reacting well to mid-corner line changes.
The six-piston caliper brakes -- which are the same excellent Tokico calipers used on the GSX-R and the Team MO race bikes -- didn't have the same initial bite as the others, so consider changing brake pads if you own one. The ZX-6R's fastest lap at the Streets of Willow Springs was Roland Sands' 1:14.31, faster than his best GSX-R time but almost a full second slower than the fastest times recorded by the CBR600F4 and the YZF-R6.
Still, the new ZX-6R is an enormous improvement over the old '97 model. Overall we thought the Kawasaki was an excellent street bike -- two staff members gave it second place votes -- with a wonderful motor but its size kept it from overtaking the lighter, more agile Yamaha and Honda.
The YZF-R6 is a motorcycle that demands a more aggressive, physical riding style and rewards form. It can be unforgiving: The rear end is light, and tends to spin the tire if it's not warm -- Harrell almost highsided the R6 while putting around the track for the first time and at slow speeds. At higher velocities it has a slight tendency to run wide and it requires a smooth throttle hand. Although the power charts don't really show it, the R6 spins quickly up into the higher rpm range. The power and acceleration rush reminds one of a two-stroke GP 250 bike, soft at the bottom but accelerating fast and hard to redline. But don't forget the R6 is a four stroke. Engine breaking exists, in fact it is a bit more pronounced than on the others.
If not careful, a ham-handed rider used to slower-revving and more-forgiving four strokes might find himself involuntarily wheeling away from a stoplight (not necessarily a bad thing) or draped over the handlebars under braking if he's not careful. At 420 pounds measured the YZF-R6 was the lightest motorcycle in the comparison. Although Paul Harrell recorded the fastest time of the day on the F4, the R6 has a prodigious amount of ground clearance, and with race-compound tires we suspect that the R6 might have posted faster lap times because the F4 was already at the limit of its ground clearance.
With the exception of needing heat in the rear tire, handling is rock-solid: Pick your spot (any line is fine, but early is better), lean over, accelerate throughout the turn then try to wipe the smile off your face. And you'll still feel like you could have pushed it harder through the corners.
Of course, with a race pipe and footpegs, the Honda could've kept up, so suffice it to say that, in box-stock form, the Honda is slightly faster. Paul's best time aboard the R6 was 1:13.47. Roland's fasted lap of the day on any motorcycle was aboard the R6 at 1:13.96.
At 420 pounds measured the YZF-R6 was the lightest motorcycle in the comparison. Although Paul Harrell recorded the fastest time of the day on the F4, the R6 has a prodigious amount of ground clearance, and with race-compound tires we suspect that the R6 might have posted faster lap times because the F4 was already at the limit of its ground clearance.
The YZF-R6 was such an anticipated motorcycle that the hype at times overtook reality. True, the R6's redline is an over-the-top 15,500 rpm, but its power peaks where the remainder of the test bikes top out -- at 12,750 rpm -- although the R6 still produces a whopping 88.8 bhp at 15,000 rpm. Such prodigious over-rev will be a great advantage to racers while a relatively big bike that revs to 16 sure does look cool on the street.
The other piece of hype that should be discounted is that the R6 will produce well over 100 bhp at the rear wheel. While our R6 produced only 94.8 bhp, most stock R6s tested so far made between 94 and 97 bhp, excellent numbers but not quite the 103 - 107 that a few journalists (including MO) speculated.
The YZF-R6 didn't perform particularly well at the drag strip, posting a 11.107 second quarter mile at 125.96 miles per hour, third fastest in the test.
The R6 doesn't have a lot of torque -- 42.2 ft-lbs at 11,750 rpm was the lowest of the four bikes -- nor power down low but it revs so quickly that it makes up for it, particularly on the track. Still, with its tight handling, great brakes (the strongest initial bite) for track riding, its adrenaline-producing power and acceleration, and its sleek, aggressive styling, the YZF-R6 was the bike of choice among the pro racers and our in-the-midst-of-a-mid-life crisis Managing Editor. It isn't as comfortable on the street as the F4 or the 6R, -- especially annoying is the handlebar position, which smacks your hands into the gas tank at full lock in either direction -- but it is not uncomfortable and it's certainly better than the GSX-R. Besides, Yamaha already makes an excellent all-purpose 600, the YZF-600, MO's 1997's 600 Supersport victor. Positioned as an extreme supersport for more skilled riders, the Yamaha YZF-R6 promises to become the canyon scratchers and part-time racers' bike of choice.
Smooth launches were difficult, however, the quick revving engine and the enormous power hit between 9500 and 12,750 -- an over 40 percent increase in power (from 66.5 to 94.8 bhp) -- along with its light weight conspired to repeatedly lift the front wheel off the ground, even in second gear.
1 (Tie): 1999 Honda CBR600F4
Still, with its tight handling, great brakes (the strongest initial bite) for track riding, its adrenaline-producing power and acceleration, and its sleek, aggressive styling, the YZF-R6 was the bike of choice among the pro racers and our in-the-midst-of-a-mid-life crisis Managing Editor. It isn't as comfortable on the street as the F4 or the 6R, -- especially annoying is the handlebar position, which smacks your hands into the gas tank at full lock in either direction -- but it is not uncomfortable and it's certainly better than the GSX-R. Besides, Yamaha already makes an excellent all-purpose 600, the YZF-600, MO's 1997's 600 Supersport victor. Positioned as an extreme supersport for more skilled riders, the Yamaha YZF-R6 promises to become the canyon scratchers and part-time racers' bike of choice.
The battle for 600 Supersport supremacy boiled down to a choice between raw attitude versus refined balance. While attitude carries more pop currency, balance should not be ignored.
What Honda achieved with the CBR600F4 is nothing sort of remarkable, creating a high-performance 600 supersport capable of winning Championships while not sacrificing the comfort and versatility that made its predecessor the top selling sportbike in the world. It should also be noted that while Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha produce other, more-street oriented 600s, Honda chose to make only one 600.
To do what Honda did -- design a motorcycle that in many circumstances will outperform other OEM's race-replica supersports yet remain as comfortable and easy-to-ride as the competition's street-oriented 600s -- should not be underestimated. Perhaps no other manufacturer could pull this off.
If you take delivery of a stock CBR600F4 with the suspension set at stock and ride home down the freeway, you'll swear you were on a plush sport tourer. When you're home, crank on the very accessible and easily adjustable spring, preload and compression and you'll have a super-fast, super-tight, aggressive canyon scratcher.
The F4 is light: at 428 pounds wet, only the R6 is lighter. The versatility of the F4 is amazing: This is a bike that can be enjoyed equally by both the expert card holder and the intermediate rider fresh from track school.
Pick any line going into the corner, flick it over and the F4 obeys without complaints. Mistakes are forgiven while smoothness is rewarded.
The brakes are excellent, and although they don't have the same initial bite as the R6's, they are more progressive.
If it's true that the YZF-R6's uncompromising handling and performance are also its flaws the same may be said for the CBR600F4's forgiving and refined balance. Without nary a care you can throw the Honda into a corner and the F4 will do as commanded. However, the CBR600F4 is almost too easy to ride, it takes almost too little forethought.
With appropriately hot tires, Plummer begins his patented "One-Wheel Pass".
While a blessing for intermediate riders, experts might actually become bored on the F4, even if they are in reality going faster.
For example, while both racers preferred the R6 over the F4 and Paul Harrell was unequivocal in his preference for the Yamaha, his fastest lap of the day was actually on the F4 at 1:13.17 seconds, a half a second better than his fastest lap on the R6 and almost a full second faster than Roland Sands' best lap, which was on the Yamaha. Paul commented, although facetiously, that on the F4 he almost felt like he was on a cruiser, so friendly and comfortable and effortless was the ride.
Not quite a wheelie, the trick is to gently lift the front wheel only an inch or two off the ground ...
For some riders -- Paul included -- Honda's emphasis on refinement and balance is less desirable than viscerally thrilling acceleration. Thrills aside the Honda had the most powerful motor, with horsepower measured at 97.4 bhp at 12,750 rpm and torque at 45.2 ft-lbs at 10,500 rpm.
The CBR600F4 posted the second fastest drag strip times of 11.049 seconds at 127.04 miles per hour. There is ample power down low, yet the throttle response was not as smooth as the Kawasaki's, and like the Yamaha and GSX-R there was a slight hesitation when first opening up the throttle before the power suddenly hit, making the F4 susceptible to wheelies off the line.
The F4 shifted as smooth as butter -- better than any of the other bikes tested here -- but its clutch turned out the be the weakest among the bikes, frying after only 11 passes.
The CBR600F4 was clearly designed with street riding in mind. It was the most comfortable bike for long distance and freeway riding. Wind and weather protection is excellent, and the rider is a little more upright and the footpegs are a little lower than on its competition. This makes for great street ergonomics but sacrifices ground clearance. On the track, in order to keep up with the Yamaha, we had to grind the heck out of the footpegs and muffler.
Overall the CBR600F4's balance and refinement helped push it into a tie with the YZF-R6 for 600 supersport supremacy. It was the only motorcycle to either be voted in first or second place by each evaluator. For racers and extreme riders, the R6 seemed to be the bike of choice, but for those who need that rare motorcycle that can do everything from high performance track scratching to spirited sport touring to comfortable long distance freeway riding, the CBR600F4 is your motorcycle.
True, the F4 is street oriented, yet it surrenders nothing when it comes the supersport performance. Thrills and raw performance grab attention, particularly among motorcycle journalists, yet refinement and balance is not any less valuable. There might not be a more refined high-performance sportbike made, for that not-so-small feat of engineering we believe the F4 deserves a share of top honors. 1 (Tie):1999 Yamaha YZF-R6
Like Yamaha's YZF-R1 last year, the YZF-R6 is perhaps the most anticipated motorcycle of the year. Perhaps the sexiest looking Japanese sportbike made, the YZF-R6 is an uncompromising extreme supersport, which for some riders may be its biggest flaw. This is a motorcycle that is certainly not for everyone, evident from the diversity of opinions from our testers: It received three first-place votes and two third-place votes.
1 (Tie):1999 Yamaha YZF-R6