Like the latest greatest X-Games trick, these bikes get crazier every year. Just make sure to check your ego at the door. When you throw a leg over one of these beasts there's no ejection button...save the one in your right hand. Ducati's impressive progression towards the inline-four target has established the new 1198 as a force to be reckoned with. It's a completely different animal-imagine a horse that's just reared its head and is ready to bolt! The Ducati is a stand out in many ways, but some are good and some are not so good. And selling in stock trim for $16,500 is simply too pricey for me. While going over my notes, it became obvious that all the literbikes share several common traits with their smaller middleweight brethren. The Honda's monster midrange torque, the Yamaha's scalpel-like precision, the Suzuki's user-friendly cockpit, and Kawasaki's afterburner engine are why they are all so close. I'll take the Kawi and save a few bucks while I'm at it.
But it's hard to fault strength and power-and that's why I truly love the whole lot.
This comparison was oh so close, but it came down to two motorcycles for me. Even though my evaluation sheet showed one bike with a couple more points, I've had a chance to reflect the past few days and I can only say that it's closer to a tie. Each model had its strengths, which is not to say that either did anything poorly.
The Kawasaki is just about the perfect package. Its engine and transmission are definitely its strong points. The power is instant and strong, yet on the street it is comfortable to ride and has smooth power delivery throughout the rev range. On the track the engine's power, brakes and chassis worked well together, making it exciting to ride. But the Honda's chassis and suspension score top marks as well, and increased my confidence on both street and track. This helped me get on the throttle earlier and on the brakes later. The CBR felt really slim, small and light.
So, sorry readers: I choose both the Honda and Kawasaki as winners, each for their own different reasons.
Judging this group was really tough. Any of these bikes can put a huge smile on your face, but when you place them on the same track and twisties, the differences become clear.
When thinking in the classic terms of a literbike, the ZX10 excels. Its "kick you in the teeth" engine and composed chassis make for one wild, but very usable Superbike.
But in this group lies the ultimate sportbike. Conventional wisdom out there says a middleweight bike is the best all around machine. The best compromise between the weight and raw power of a literbike, and the nimbleness and high revving engine of a 600 class machine. But after spending time on the track and on the road with the '09 CBR1000RR, that wisdom no longer holds true. The CBR is one incredible bike, the complete package-there is no longer a need for a compromise to find the perfect bike. This bike handles every situation so well that it's hard to call it a literbike in the classic sense. Its user friendliness and accessible performance has put the Honda above the rest, and has redefined the class.
This year's literbike test was full of unexpected surprises. For starters, the CBR1000RR blew me away a year ago, but this year I put it at the bottom of my list. Something just seemed...off. Sure it's light and agile, but top end felt down compared to last year. It just felt less polished overall. Though the Repsol paint scheme is pretty cool...
The Ducati and Yamaha both surprised me for completely different reasons: I loved the power of the 1198 at the track and on the street, and the sure-footed front-end made me feel like a hero on the racetrack. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I expected much more from the Yamaha. After the euphoria of the cross-plane crankshaft wore off, to be honest, I was left wanting more. If this test was to be decided strictly by exhaust notes, then the R1 would be the hands-down winner, but as it is the unchanged-from-'08 Kawasaki ZX-10R gets my vote. The brute force and precision delivered by the ZX-10R is what I think of when people talk about how fast literbikes are. Funny how the two unchanged bikes are at both ends of my list...surprising, really.
While totaling the numerical ratings on the literbike evaluation sheets-including my own-I thought the Honda was going to come out on top. After all, it had the quickest lap time, the lightest weight, and the sharpest and most agile chassis. But even with those attributes, not much with the CBR really resonates with me. Maybe it's the engine's thrashy feel, or its somewhat flaccid top-end; whatever it was, I just wasn't enjoying the laps as much as some of the other bikes.
The R1 was somewhat disappointing on the racetrack, and the blame there is on its lack of top-end power; but I don't think it's as bad as some are making it out to be. The Yamaha has a stellar chassis and decent suspension, and ridden to its strengths, the R1 can more than hold its own.
The GSX-R is close, but the ZX-10R just has the type of in-your-face yet accessible and controllable performance that hits all the right buttons; it creates an attraction that makes you want to try and tame it. And when you get it right, it delivers just that much more satisfaction.