Ahh, the plight of the new sportbike rider. Faced with a growing number of models spanning more and more subcategories, the first-bike dilemma can be a bit overwhelming. Dive right in with a brand-spanking-new literbike? Not recommended. Jump in feet first with a full-on middleweight sportbike? A better choice, but not the greatest to take your initial rides on. How about wading in with one of these, um...er...we're actually not sure what to call them, but--as we found out over the course of this test--both beginning riders and experienced sages can have a pile of fun on a budget.
By now, you're probably somewhat familiar with the three bikes we rounded up for this test, and we've covered each individually over the past year. Honda's 599, based on the incredibly popular Hornet sold overseas, has a CBR600F3 motor wrapped in a steel frame and left naked as a newborn. We exposed the naked truth in editor Kunitsugu's first-ride piece in the February 2004 issue (Late Braking). Somewhat more covered is Suzuki's stellar SV650S. This second-generation SV is the lone V-twin here, and the S model differs from the standard version with the addition of a fairing and other details. Senior editor Trevitt extolled the virtues of the '03 version in his August '03 first-ride piece ("Cult of Personality") and then went on to flog our test model in Suzuki's popular SV Cup race at Road Atlanta ("Cup Fever," April '04). The '04 version has been subtly updated with a lower subframe and seating accommodations. Finally, Yamaha's entry in the class, the FZ6, is another new bike for the United States based on a popular overseas model--in this case, the Fazer. Built around the company's R6 motor wrapped in a bolt-together aluminum frame, our man Marc Cook discussed the little Yamaha in detail in his first-ride piece (February '04). All three first-ride articles are online at www.sportrider.com/0412.
We decided to conduct two tests in one with this trio. First, our experienced staff flogged the bikes in the usual SR manner, but we also recruited three newcomers to the sport (two of them with just-obtained licenses) to give us their impressions. While the end result for each group is similar, the reasons are quite varied among the different riders; an interesting outcome awaits.
The Honda's headlight is actually...
The Honda's headlight is actually a split shell with two bulbs, and it works surprisingly well
The Suzuki has dual beams,...
The Suzuki has dual beams, both with two-filament bulbs, that light up the night
the Yamaha makes do with single-filament...
the Yamaha makes do with single-filament bulbs for the left (high) and right (low) lamps
Generally, multibike tests are a matter of nitpicking details, as all the entrants are quite similar, but in this case each bike falls into a subtly different category, with--for the most part--the expected resulting strengths and weaknesses. Around town, the Honda's upright riding position, wide, usable spread of power and agile chassis make it a staff favorite. While the engine is sometimes reluctant to start on cool mornings (carbs! and a choke lever!) and at very, very low revs there is some hesitation, everything else about the 599 makes a great package for the daily commute. The clutch and transmission are typical Honda, the controls are well-placed and the bar-mounted rectangular mirrors provide a good rearward view. The Yamaha, a bit more bulky to thread through traffic but just as agile at low speeds as the Honda, has a significantly lower fun factor in the city. The R6-based engine has a lethargic bottom end and midrange, and the clutch engagement is quite abrupt. And while the seat height is the lowest of this group, the FZ6 feels like the biggest bike thanks to its frame-mounted fairing and bulbous tank. The clip-on-equipped SV650S, with arguably the best engine for in-town use, has a too-far reach to the bars even for short trips. This is one side effect of the 650S sharing parts with the SV1000--even for average-height riders, the new-generation SV is a big, bulky bike. And while all three bikes have less than perfect brakes, the SV's require more effort than the others, especially on the first few stops of the trip as they warm up. The standard SV, with a real handlebar and a more upright position, would most likely give the Honda a run for its money in the city.
It's interesting to note where each manufacturer spent their budget for these price-point bikes, as the amenities vary greatly between the three. The Honda and Yamaha, with underseat exhausts, have little storage space but surprisingly comfortable passenger accommodations. The SV, with its new subframe and lower seats, will make your significant other significantly happier this year than last. The FZ6 has the most niceties, including a centerstand, an elaborate gauge package and a fairing. The Suzuki's fairing and gauges are just as nice, but there's no centerstand. And the 599, lean and mean but the most expensive bike here, has no fairing, analog gauges and an optional centerstand.
Move out on the highway and the deck gets shuffled for preference. The Yamaha is the pick of the lot here, with good wind protection, a comfortable seat, soft suspension that doesn't pound you over small bumps and a big tank that will get you 200 miles between stops. The Suzuki's fairing makes up for a lot of grief from the riding position on the freeway, and its V-twin engine is smoother than the inline-fours at higher speeds, making it our number-two pick for a longish trip. Still, you'll be getting antsy after less than an hour in the saddle as your arms complain. As you'd expect, the Honda brings up the rear on the freeway. The F3 engine buzzes at higher rpms, with the pegs, bar and mirrors vibrating at variously increasing speeds until 80 mph, where the windblast is just too much. Good thing Honda offers an accessory fly screen.
The Honda's gauges are quaint...
The Honda's gauges are quaint analog dials a bit on the small side. The LCD display toggles to a clock.
The Suzuki has an excellent...
The Suzuki has an excellent setup now accepted as the norm, with dual tripmeters and digital temperature readout.
The Yamaha goes one step further,...
The Yamaha goes one step further, adding ambient temperature and a fuel tripmeter.
The fun stuff
Based on past experience and the trend developing here, you'd think the SV would be our favorite canyon-thrasher. But it seems that while Yamaha and Suzuki spent their budget on add-ons and frills, Honda concentrated on the 599's very capable chassis. Some incredible bikes have come through the pipeline this year, but none we tested deliver the grins, giggles and just plain fun the Honda does. The 599 feels ultra-short, turning with just a thought and a nudge on the bar. The brakes and suspension, while obviously not up to current sportbike par, are predictable and give good feedback. Michelin's Pilot Road buns provide ample traction and showed little wear over the course of our test. And while there's not a whole lot of power to play with, what's there is delivered smoothly and, to coin a phrase, is "adequate" for the tight roads on which the 599 excels. Get too aggressive on the little Honda and it's the rear shock that lets you know, turning into bubble gum when pressed hard and threatening to bounce you right off the bike over a series of rolling bumps.
As much as we love the SV, it can't compete with the 599 in a canyon environment. Yes, the engine stomps all over the Honda's four-cylinder at lower revs, and the chassis is almost as capable. But the Suzuki steers just that little bit slower thanks to its narrower, far-away clip-ons, and the twin runs out of steam sooner on any length of straightaway. We've had a short ride on the naked SV, and it steers just as quick as the 599, but what really holds the 650S back is the front fork. It feels like it locks up solid over hard hits, practically folding the front end over sharp bumps when you're going for it. Just like the 599, you get lots of warning from the rest of the bike when you're trespassing in sportbike territory, but while you can ride the Honda almost with abandon, the fork is always in the back of your mind while aboard the Suzuki.While the Honda's and Suzuki's pilots are riding off into the distance a giggle a minute, the Yamaha's rider struggles with that bike's defining characteristic in the twisties: the abrupt throttle response. No matter how careful you are, rolling on the throttle always results in a sudden burst of power, and it's impossible to make time on the FZ6. Otherwise, the Yamaha has the better suspension, a solid chassis with the wide handlebar translating into nice, light steering, and the most power when flogged in the upper third of the tachometer's range (not that you can see the LED tach when you're riding...). Clean up the fuel injection and the FZ6 would be the comfortable, do-it-all budget bike it should be.
Nothing fancy here. Two-piston...
Nothing fancy here. Two-piston brakes on smallish discs, sport-touring tires and damping-rod forks all save on the bottom line, but only our experienced testers noted any drawbacks in braking or suspension performance.
It was certainly an eye-opener to follow along as the three newer riders traced our usual testing route and priorities were shuffled. This group immediately gravitated toward the Honda and Yamaha, with their comfortable riding positions and low seat heights contributing toward their user-friendliness. While the Honda was praised for its zippy engine and sporty feel, these riders felt the Yamaha's handling was on par with the Honda thanks to light and neutral steering, and they gave top marks to the FZ6 for its fairing and nicer gauge package. While we've complained about the Yamaha's abrupt clutch and noticed this group struggling more leaving a stop on the FZ6 than on the other bikes, no one commented as such.
None of our three newbies got on well with the SV650S and its racier riding position, though all noted they could sense the more sporting potential the little Suzuki offers. All agreed the upright, plain SV would be a better pick based on their experiences with the Honda and Yamaha. Interestingly, all three riders felt the brakes and suspension were top-notch on all three bikes--we're obviously spoiled riding full-on sportbikes.
The bottom line
Factor in your budget (and we'll point out here that the 599 is the priciest bike by a fair margin) along with your experience and where you ride, and any of these three (four if you include the naked SV650) can make sense. It's a stretch to say one bike is most suitable for all experience levels, but Honda's 599 comes closest to doing just that, and it is undoubtedly the funnest bike no matter how many years under its rider's belt. And that, after all, is what getting into sportbikes is all about.-SR