The three editors crowd around the conference table, the detritus of a long day and evening strewn about the sparsely furnished room. Reams of spreadsheets and evaluation forms cover every spare surface, but the results point to a disastrous conclusion. "We can't have a tie," stresses the grizzled veteran of hundreds of comparison tests. "One bike has to win!" The nerdy one looks up from his laptop, confusion evident in his eyes even behind bottle-bottom glasses: "But all the data . . . it's a tie, I tell you."
"I have a magic-8 ball," offers the new recruit hopefully. "It always gets me out of a pickle." The veteran looks scornfully at the innocent youngster. "We'll do this scientifically, as always!" He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a coin and tosses it in the air . . .
Okay, so that's not the way we really decide Bike of the Year, but with the final tallies close enough to throw a postage-stamp-sized blanket over, we may as well have saved a lot of work and trouble by picking the winner with a coin toss. Our three contenders-the Honda CBR600RR, Kawasaki ZX-10R and Suzuki GSX-R750-all put in solid performances that left our testing crew speechless at times. Each of the three machines has been covered in these pages previously, and each has shown its merit by already winning a comparison test. The Honda-the only carryover model here-emerged victorious in our July issue's middleweight smackdown ("Balancing Act"), the Kawasaki won our literbike shootout ("Turn it up to 11," June '08) and the Suzuki bested the Ducati 848 in their matchup ("Expect the Unexpected," August '08).
We've spent plenty of time aboard all three bikes individually this summer, and to choose bike of the year we spent a day with all three together in the canyons surrounding Los Angeles and a day at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in the San Joaquin valley. Our three full-time staffers were joined by part-timer Jim "Lucky" O'Connor, with all four riders rating each bike at both venues. Given the disparate nature of the three bikes-the ZX-10R has almost 60 horsepower more than the Honda-the scores and lap times are unexpectedly close, giving us plenty of grief when it came time to pick the winner.
On The Street
Honda CBR600RR: 89.3
While the little Honda brings up the rear on our testers' scorecards for canyon riding, subjectively the street results are much closer. Even after riding all three bikes for months and riding them back-to-back on some of Southern California's best roads, none of our riders was willing to point to a favorite at the end of the day without some serious thought. Not surprisingly, the CBR loses out to the Kawasaki and Suzuki in engine power but the feisty mill acquits itself well on the street with impressive midrange power that feels stronger than even the GSX-R's in tighter corners. And that power is delivered impeccably well, with an effortless off/on throttle transition and smooth response at practically any rpm.
Likewise as expected, the Honda fared well in the chassis department against the bigger bikes. 35 pounds lighter than the Suzuki and 50 pounds lighter than the ZX-10R, hop off either of those bikes and the CBR feels like a toy in comparison. "Handling is quick without the razor-sharpness that can easily cut the less-skilled rider," wrote Kento in his notes. "And that bolsters confidence as the pace picks up." The Honda carded top scores in the suspension and chassis & handling categories, and also drew favorable comments for city riding with the best mirrors, a comfortable seat and upright riding position. Our testers were divided on the 600's brakes, some citing crisp response and feel superior to the Suzuki's and Kawasaki's binders, others pointing out that the CBR's lever is soft and the brakes fade over time, even on the street.
"Whenever we stopped on the street ride," noted Trevitt when we could tear him away from his laptop, "the bike I was just on was the best. But then we'd switch, and that bike would be the best. My favorite is always the last bike I rode." When pressed for a street ranking of the bikes, however, the majority of our group reluctantly put the Honda at the bottom of their lists-not based on any shortcomings in the CBR's package but rather citing the Suzuki's and Kawasaki's advantages.
Suzuki GSX-R750: 90.3
Less than a half-point behind the street-conquering Kawasaki, the GSX-R750 combines its newfound midrange power and scalpel-sharp chassis to good effect in the canyons. "The changes to the GSX-R750 have made it a better streetbike," commented Kento between catnaps. "It's got better midrange grunt so that you aren't forced to ride it like a 600 so much, and the same sure-footed handling lets you charge into the corners and carry tons of momentum that plays right into the motor's hands." The updated-for-2008 engine retains the old bike's beautifully smooth throttle response that allows you to make full use of the additional power, and although top-end is down from years past that aspect goes practically unnoticed on the street. One quirk: The 750 (and GSX-R600) stand alone among current sportbikes in being decidedly cold-blooded, requiring several minutes in the morning to warm up before being ridden away smoothly.
In the chassis department, the Suzuki scored well with the highest marks in the suspension and brakes categories, and tied the Honda for top ergonomics scores. High point of the bike's chassis is unmatched feedback that practically begs you to arc into each successive corner with more speed. "Great steering and brakes," wrote the Geek on his evaluation sheet. "The chassis is very user friendly and gives me lots of confidence, and it's easy to change line in mid-turn if needed." Part of that feedback and confidence is due to the incredibly grippy Bridgestone BT-016 OEM tires, which are almost an unfair advantage compared with the CBR's Dunlop Qualifiers. The ZX-10R also sports the new Bridgestones, although in a different variant.
So, with "perfect power," according to Troy, and "a great chassis that is light-steering as well as stable," according to Jim, where is the missing half point in the score sheets? Superior to the ZX-10R in half the categories, the Suzuki loses out partly because of a balky transmission and partly because some of our testers felt midrange power is still not on par with the Kawasaki-and even, in some situations, the Honda-requiring more shifting of said rough tranny.
Kawasaki ZX-10R: 90.7
With top scores in five categories, the ZX-10R eked out a slim victory over the GSX-R when the street evaluations were tallied, and was the subjective pick of every one of our four testers. Obviously the big Kawi carded top marks for engine power, but that doesn't tell the whole story: The ZX-10R offers seamless delivery of that power, with a perfectly shaped torque curve, snickety-snick transmission (another top score) and smooth off/on throttle transition. "There's no fumbling between gears on the ZX-10R," wrote Troy via text message. "If you need to go somewhere, you twist the throttle and you're there." While all three bikes have bands of vibration at various RPM, the Kawasaki especially will shake your hands numb cruising around town, and that is the only nit to pick with the engine.
That extraordinary mill is coupled to a chassis that is likewise user-friendly: "It may not be as flickable as the latest 600s," raved Kento after a canyon blitz, "but its agility allows it to carve tight corners without losing much ground which it more than makes up for once any type of straight comes up." Like the GSX-R750, the 10's Bridgestone rubber provides confidence-boosting front-end feedback and stunning levels of grip, and helps the somewhat portly Kawasaki to steer remarkably quick-although more muscle is required than for the Suzuki or Honda. Still, our testers scored the ZX-10R behind the others in the chassis & handling category. With racetrack-stiff suspension that is borderline harsh the Kawasaki brings up the rear in that category also. Our riders were divided on the bike's ergos, with some praising its slim midsection and others likening it to a rack on the freeway.
What brings the ZX-10R to the top of the chart for street use is a balance and refinement not often seen in a Kawasaki-or any-literbike. "Great brakes, nice steering, amazing power and awesome tires . . . it all works together fabulously," stated Trevitt at the end of the day, cocktail in hand. Ironically, that balance used to belong only in the middleweight class, but the Kawasaki turns things upside down, offering balance and a seemingly endless supply of power. Be warned, however, that riding the ZX-10R takes a significant commitment: "A good amount of riding skill is necessary to use and exploit the Kawasaki's strengths," cautions Kent, "similar in many ways to extracting all of a 600's performance. But if you're up to the task, the ZX-10R can and will generate serious speed."
At The Track
Honda CBR600RR: 88.2
Surprise, surprise, the CBR turned the second quickest time at our track day, just three-quarters of a second off the ZX-10R's pace. As a true underdog in this battle of titans, the Honda upheld middleweight honors in lap times but again brings up the rear on the score sheets. "I like the Honda because it's so easy and familiar to ride," commented Troy, echoing practically all our staffers' thoughts. "It feels so light and nimble, when I'm on the track I feel I can do no wrong with it." The CBR posted low scores for power but its power delivery rated higher than the GSX-R's, with crisp response and potent midrange helping it get around the track a smidgen quicker. While the CBR's transmission worked the best of our trio on the track, a slipper clutch would be greatly appreciated, especially in Buttonwillow's long, decreasing-radius sweeper turn.
As we've written in countless tests about the tiny CBR, its stellar chassis offers rock-solid stability combined with laser-quick steering. Kunitsugu: "The Honda's agility was easy to see at the track, and you could put it in spots you wouldn't think of with the ZX-10R and would have difficulty doing with the GSX-R." Several small details conspired to keep the Honda off the top of the scorecards at Buttonwillow, however. Its brakes lack the solid feel of the other bikes' on the track and faded after a few laps of hard use, and some of our testers felt suspension rates were a bit soft. The high clip-ons are not as well suited to the track as they are to canyon work, and our quicker riders complained the pegs are too low. No one detail stood out as being a major issue, but combined they keep the CBR to third place at the track.
Suzuki GSX-R750: 90.5
Although the GSX-R posted the slowest lap time (by about five flaps of a hummingbird's wings) it scored a practical tie for first with the Kawasaki and was the subjective pick of half our staffers for track work. "I always try to think about which motorcycle would make me a better rider," said O'Connor between mouthfuls of Lucky Charms. "The Suzuki has enough power to stay fun as your skills improve but not so much that cornering speed and precision aren't important, and it's my pick for the track." The GSX-R's SDTV offers the smoothest off/on throttle transition of the three bikes, and the more potent midrange definitely helps in most situations. That said, top-end steam is noticeably down from previous iterations, and combined with too-tall gearing (the GSX-R is geared for a very optimistic theoretical 186 mph) leaves the bike short of breath in faster corners. Buttonwillow certainly plays to this weakness, and the results show in the lap times.
Some of our riders were less than impressed with the Suzuki's mill even in the company of the CBR, but the chassis is a star in this show. Stability is on-par with the Honda and suspension is plush enough to soak up small bumps while stiff enough to absorb Buttonwillow's ever-increasing number of big hits. "The chassis is well-sorted and balanced everywhere on the track," wrote Siahaan. "The brakes just get better the harder you're on them and it feels like what a perfect 600 should feel like." Our guess is that some shorter gearing would add the necessary pep to bring the Suzuki's lap times more in-line with its scores, but even with that drawback the GSX-R nearly snagged top honors for the track.
Kawasaki ZX-10R: 90.6
It says volumes about the ZX-10R that all three of our timed riders-covering a range of abilities-posted their quickest lap times while aboard the Kawasaki even though all three found it difficult to get the most out of the green machine because of its endless reserves of power. "I'm not sure whether this is a good or bad thing," commented Boy Toy, "but the ZX-10R makes a ton of power. It was a complete handful getting it around the track. The brakes are really powerful with good feel and strong bite. Ergonomically the ZX-10R is the most track-focused; low bars and a high seat make its intentions clear. I like the way the gas tank is shaped compared to the other two bikes. I find it gives me natural points to dig my legs into when braking hard."
The bike's chassis copes with the power as well on the track as it does on the street, although steering is not as quick as the other bikes' and decidedly more muscle is necessary to bend the ZX-10R into a corner. Aside from the effort required, our testers raised no red flags for the chassis, and just as on the street the bike simply works well as a package, with crisp brakes, excellent suspension and good stability. "Even though it can get tiring wrestling the big Kawi around," wrote the Boss, "the chassis and suspension really make me feel at ease while hurtling around the track at warp speed. For a literbike, the Kawasaki inspires excellent confidence." Back the pace down a notch, and the Kawasaki is even more obliging: "That said, the big ZX will putter along at slower speeds with less hassle and complaint than most other literbikes."
In The Conference Room
Sum the scores and our testers' subjective picks at each venue, and it's a veritable tie between the GSX-R750 and ZX-10R. Just a quarter-point separates the two in the final standings, and our crew was equally split for an overall winner. As well, consider that the feisty CBR600RR is just another tick behind in scores and quicker than the GSX-R at the track. Any one of these three bikes would make a worthy champion. The ZX-10R, however, is the cream that kept rising to the top during our testing. It continues to amaze us how Kawasaki engineers have harnessed that Herculean engine in so amiable a chassis that riders across a range of skill levels, on both street and track, can mesh with the finished product in a way that increases confidence while lowering lap times. Some call that synergy. We call it bike of the year.
Buttonwillow Raceway Park
During our track day at Buttonwillow, we monitored each bike's performance by strapping our Racepak G2X data acquisition setup to the passenger seat for each of Kento's sessions-yes, that lets us monitor the Boss's performance as well to keep him honest. The GPS-based system records true ground speed and position, allowing the software to produce any combination of segment times and corner speeds. The numbers listed here can be compared with the same details in any of our comparison tests from earlier this year, as the segments are identical.
The CBR and GSX-R are a couple of tenths quicker in this test than during their respective comparison tests earlier this year, while the Kawasaki is 0.4 seconds slower. Conditions and tire selection were very different in the earlier tests and may be responsible for the discrepancies, but the ranking of the three bikes is similar when comparing these times to those previously recorded. It's easy to see with a glance at the chart that the ZX-10R opens up a commanding advantage in speed every time the track straightens out, but what's equally impressive is that the big Kawasaki-the heaviest bike here-more than holds its own when it comes to cornering speed. The Honda in general shows higher entry speeds than the other two bikes and in many cases stays with the Suzuki on corner exits, while the GSX-R trace shares characteristics with both bikes.
Turn 2-3 segment time
Honda: 13.63 sec.
Kawasaki: 13.71 sec.
Suzuki: 13.84 sec.
An ultra-fast and bump-riddled right-left combination, these turns place a premium on stability and quick turning. The flyweight Honda leads the way here by virtue of its light weight and perfect gearing that has the engine spinning in the meaty part of its powerband. The Kawasaki shows a big increase in speed between the two corners but that speed-and more-must be scrubbed off for the ZX-10R to make the fast transition-overall the Kawasaki loses ground compared with the Honda. The Suzuki straddles the middle ground with some acceleration between the turns, but its tall gearing hurts it here especially, with the Honda almost as quick between the turns.
Turn 4 segment time and minimum speed
Honda: 6.30 sec., 60.0 mph
Kawasaki: 6.30 sec., 62.2 mph
Suzuki: 6.54 sec., 61.3 mph
Amazingly, the Kawasaki posts the highest apex speed for this blind right hander cresting Lost Hill, but the lithe Honda equals its time by-just as amazingly-carrying more speed out of fast turn three and up the hill. The Suzuki falls behind by almost a quarter-second here, its tall gearing hurting it up the hill as well as accelerating down the other side, and it's not until well down the hill and approaching turn 6 that the GSX-R builds more speed than the CBR.
Turn 6 entrance speed, segment time and exit speed
Honda: 83.8 mph, 10.41 sec., 76.8 mph
Kawasaki: 79.1 mph, 10.11 sec., 79.7 mph
Suzuki: 77.8 mph, 10.35 sec., 77.4 mph
Kento overshoots this long sweeping turn with way too much entry speed on the Honda, losing a tenth of a second compared with his second-quickest lap on the CBR and allowing the GSX-R to claw back some ground. The ZX-10R gains big here with a quarter-second advantage and a higher exit speed leading into the chicane compared with the Suzuki, while Kent salvages a decent exit on the CBR to limit the damage.
Chicane segment time and exit speed
Honda: 7.17 sec., 108.3 mph
Kawasaki: 7.18 sec., 107.9 mph
Suzuki: 7.19 sec., 109.9 mph
It's a wash through this section for segment times but each bike uses a completely different strategy to achieve that equality. The Kawasaki gains huge speed in the first section but Kent is hard on the brakes to make the second, quicker transition. The CBR doesn't gain enough speed to make the second part much of a turn, making this section easier and much less tiring on the Honda. Again the Suzuki splits the difference, gaining some speed but requiring some deceleration for the second part; the net result is a very similar segment time but the highest exit speed of the three bikes leading onto the final straight. In the meat of its powerband at the exit, the GSX-R keeps pace with the Kawasaki on the run to the final turn while the Honda loses significant ground.
Turn 8 segment time
Honda: 4.77 sec.
Kawasaki: 4.83 sec.
Suzuki: 4.96 sec.
The Honda charges into the final turn with more entry speed, combining that with a high apex speed for the quickest segment time in the last, 90-degree left-hand turn, while the Kawasaki makes up time on the exit. Kento brakes a bit early on the GSX-R and loses a bit of time, but recovers nicely to keep the Suzuki level with the ZX-10R for speed down the next short chute.
|TOP SPEED (MPH)|
|****HONDA CBR600RR**||156.7 MPH|
|KAWASAKI ZX-10R||181.1 MPH|
|SUZUKI GSX-R750||170.3 MPH|
$9899 $11,549 $10,599
ENGINETypeLiquid-cooled, transverse, 4-stroke fourLiquid-cooled, transverse, 4-stroke fourLiquid-cooled, transverse, 4-stroke four
Displacement599cc998cc749cc Bore x stroke67.0 x 42.5mm76.0 x 55.0mm
70.0 x 48.7mm
InductionPGM-DSFI, single-valve 40mm throttle bodies, two injectors/cyl.Keihin DFI, dual-valve 43mm throttle bodies, two injectors/cyl.
SDTV EFI, dual-valve 42mm throttle bodies, two injectors/cyl.
Front suspension41mm inverted cartridge fork, 4.7 in. travel43mm inverted cartridge fork, 4.7 in. travel41mm inverted cartridge fork, 4.7 in. travel
Rear suspensionSingle shock absorber, 5.1 in. travelSingle shock absorber, 4.9 in. travelSingle shock absorber, 5.1 in. travel
Front tire120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Qualifier PT G120/70ZR-17 Bridgestone BT-016F J120/70ZR-17 Bridgestone BT-016F E
Rear tire180/55ZR-17 Dunlop Qualifier PT G190/55ZR-17 Bridgestone BT-016R J180/55ZR-17 Bridgestone BT-015R E
Rake/trail 23.7 deg./3.8 in. (98mm)24.5 deg./4.0 in. (102mm)
23.5 deg./3.8 in. (97mm)Wheelbase53.8 in. (1367mm)54.7 in. (1390mm)55.3 in. (1404mm)Weight413 lb. (187 kg) wet; 384 lb. (174 kg) dry463 lb. (210kg) wet; 436 lb. (198kg) dry
447 lb. (203 kg) wet; 420 lb. (191 kg) dryFuel consumption38 to 44 mpg, 40 mpg avg.30 to 36 mpg, 32 mpg avg.36 to 38 mpg, 37 mpg avg.
|SR RATINGS||HONDA CBR600RR||KAWASAKI ZX-10R||SUZUKI GSX-R750|
|Fun to ride||8.9||9.1||8.9|
|Instruments and controls||8.8||9.1||9.3|
|Chassis and handling||9.2||8.9||9.1|
_Yech! Did Trevitt pee in my drink again?_
This is tough. Do I have to pick just one? All three of these bikes are so good that I'm running out of things to say about them. It seems like someone forgot to tell the Honda that it's the smallest bike here because it likes to scrap with the big boys whenever it can. I even went a hair quicker around the track on it than I did on the Suzuki. Speaking of the GSX-R, what's not to love about this bike? Sure it may be out of breath when the revs pick up, but it's nothing an exhaust, Power Commander and a few other upgrades can't take care of. With the ZX-10 just pick a gear, any gear, and twist your wrist. Chances are you won't need to shift again. For a lazy guy like me that's perfect. On the track the Green Machine was just a handful. I may have done my fastest time on it, but it didn't come easy. With that said my pick for Bike of the Year goes to the Suzuki GSX-R750. I may have ultimately gone slowest on it, but I felt fastest riding it. And unless you're racing, isn't that what really matters?
I feel bad for the Honda CBR600 in this test. As good as it is, and it is good, I think that in this company it always comes down to a 600 going against the power of the bigger bikes. That being said, it just happens that the Kawasaki ZX-10R and Suzuki GSX-R750 in this year's Bike of the Year test are amazing. In fact, I found it extremely difficult to decide which would be crowned the victor.
When it came right down to a decision, I chose the Kawasaki ZX-10R. It beat out the Suzuki GSX-R750 by just a tiny margin. I liked the Suzuki a little bit more at the track as its slipper clutch is smoother than the Kawasaki's and it turns a little quicker. However, the small advantage of the Suzuki on the track doesn't make up for the power and rideability of the Kawasaki on both street and track. The Kawasaki has amazing power and smooth delivery of that power to the pavement. On curvy roads I could keep it mostly in one gear and use the entire rev range to scoot along at a sporting pace. The brakes, suspension and chassis are also really great. The Kawasaki is my pick, but I was surprised at how close the test was.
_Do not enter the Via Malcontenti_
When the bikes are this evenly matched I find it doubly difficult to rank them because an order infers that one bike is worse than the others, and that is definitely not the case here. What makes the situation worse is that it wouldn't take much to move bikes from the bottom to the top: A set of BT-016s on the Honda would make a great combination down some of my favorite twisty roads, and a sprocket change on the Suzuki would work wonders at the track. The Kawasaki doesn't need anything but money for insurance and tires. Take all that into consideration and it would be easy to own any one of these bikes, but forced to pick one I would choose the GSX-R750 as it really is the best combination of power and agility. The chassis is just magic on the street and it has plenty of power without being overkill. It may be a bit slower at the track than the ZX-10R, but that is easily fixed and as a bonus I could ride more than a couple of sessions without wearing myself out like on the Kawasaki.
_Dear Mr. Fantasy: Play us a tune. Something to make us all happy._
It was pretty easy to have some preconceived notions prior to the actual Bike of the Year testing. The Honda CBR would be nimble and light, the Kawasaki would be the monster powerhouse of the group, and the GSX-R750 would offer the best of both worlds-and thus give it the nod for BOTY. But a funny thing happened on the way to the completion of the test...
The GSX-R750 seems like the perfect companion. Nimble, sure-footed handling, better midrange power than the CBR-it really hit the mark with me during canyon testing. And those same qualities made you think you were turning record laps on the track as well. The Honda made you work just a little harder for that speed, and it was nearly as rewarding at both venues.
But the ZX-10R surprised me with how composed and confidence-inspiring a literbike can be while harnessing 161 rear wheel horsepower. Make no mistake, that much power becomes hard work hustling around a racetrack or down a canyon road. But the Kawasaki can be forgiving as well as demanding, and the reward at the end of the ride becomes that much sweeter as a result.