Some have come close, but so far all have failed. Ever since its introduction in 2001, Suzuki's almighty GSX-R1000 has ruled the literbike class-and the entire sportbike world-with an iron fist. The big GSX-R blindsided the competition so badly in its debut that they're still trying to recover two years later.
But the rising importance of the literbike class-especially with superbike rules opening up the racing category to 1000cc four-cylinders-has dictated an increasingly rapid development pace that is approaching that of the cutthroat 600cc class. Suzuki isn't dumb. The GSX-R's designers know that the GSX-R1000 has a big target on its back, and if they sit still too long, sooner or later someone will hit the bull's-eye. And with rumors spreading concerning new open-classers from the competition coming down the pipeline for '04, the company decided it should once again get the jump on its rivals.
This isn't a totally new GSX-R, more like a major evolutionary leap from the original concept. It's foolish to tamper too much with success, so Suzuki's engineers stuck with a proven game plan: more power, less weight and better manners, without a ton of wholesale changes that could backfire if executed improperly.
We detailed most of the changes in our coverage of the new GSX-R's introduction at the high-speed Phillip Island circuit in Australia ("Beast of Burden," June '03). There was no street riding at that event, however, and Phillip Island is like no racetrack we have here in the U.S. So what's the new GSX-R like to ride back in the real world?
ARE YOU SURE THOSE ARE ALL THE CHANGES?
There's one thing that immediately becomes apparent the moment you blip the throttle after letting the new GSX-R's automatic fast-idle system take care of warm-up: Throttle response is instantaneous, with the engine picking up revs so quickly, it feels like there's hardly any flywheel weight. We thought the old GSX-R1000 revved pretty quickly, but the new engine's response is incredibly snappy. Possibly contributing to this is the new throttle body assembly's extremely light pull; barely touching the throttle results in movement, and bumps can affect throttle position if you're not careful.
That same feeling of less flywheel weight compared to last year's model comes into play as you take off from a stop. The new GSX-R requires a few more revs to pull away smartly without bogging the motor; there's definitely less torque off the bottom than the previous version. Nothing serious, mind you, and once above 4000 rpm, the new bike wakes up. It's just that the older Suzuki's incredibly broad swath of power made us accustomed to having gobs of power everywhere.
A quick run up through the gears reinforces the perception of less crankshaft mass even more. The new GSX-R's midrange acceleration is noticeably quicker, especially past the 6000 rpm mark (umm...as if it really needed to be any quicker). It's not so much that there's a lot more power-a look at the dyno graph confirms this-but it feels as if there's either less flywheel weight, or the gear ratios from second on up were shortened. The '03 GSX-R simply eats up the middle portion of the powerband much faster than its predecessor.
Yet when we asked Suzuki representatives whether there had been any changes to crankshaft or flywheel weight, or revisions to the gearing, they told us all these engine components were unchanged. Their explanation was that the new crankcase "windows," which relieve internal pumping pressure losses, were responsible for the quicker midrange acceleration. We doubt pumping losses can be great enough in the lower rpms to make the engine so much livelier. We can only theorize that the new fuel-injection system (dual double-barrel throttle bodies replacing the four single units of last year), more powerful ECU (32 bit versus 16 bit capacity for more accurate fuel/ignition mapping) and larger capacity muffler (larger diameter and length for a two liter increase) are responsible for the increased acceleration.
SO IS IT FASTER?In a word, yes. To tell the truth, we weren't expecting that much in the way of increased power after reading the comparatively minimal changes Suzuki made to the GSX-R1000 motor for '03. And it's not like it needed any, with an almost 10-horsepower advantage over its nearest rival. But the first ride will be enough to convince you that Suzuki's powerplant engineers did their homework.
The new GSX-R may seem a little flatter right off idle compared to last year, but it more than makes up for it everywhere else in the powerband. As we mentioned previously, midrange acceleration is quicker and more responsive from 6000 rpm on up. Not that the change has made the new Suzuki hard to control, but the snappier midrange power and feather-light throttle pull of the '03 model make judicious use of the throttle during aggressive cornering situations that much more important. Ham-fisted riders need not apply, as the GSX-R has an increased ability to spin up the rear tire on corner exits. Thankfully, engine response from a closed throttle is fairly smooth, though still not on par with the Yamaha R1.
Control that power carefully, however, and you'll find yourself hurtling into the next corner with more speed than ever before. By bolstering the GSX-R1000's already stout midrange power and acceleration, Suzuki has given its rider more flexibility in corner exit scenarios, and virtually no one will see the need to exceed 9500 rpm on the street. In the vast majority of canyon roads we strafed, we rarely used more than three gears during miles of riding.
Even with the improved midrange power, what really surprised us was the new GSX-R's even more potent top-end. Again, we weren't expecting much in the way of power gains with the relatively short list of upgrades to the '03 engine. But once you go past that 9500 rpm mark, the new GSX-R's peak power advantage over the older model instantly becomes apparent. Not only does the '03 version feel as powerful as an '02 model equipped with a full racing exhaust system and engine management computer, it also carries that power advantage all the way to the 12,000 rpm rev limiter. The dyno confirmed our impressions, showing a very impressive peak of 152.1 horsepower at 11,000 rpm, nearly eight horsepower more than our '02 test bike. We can hardly wait to see what the '03 GSX-R will do with a full exhaust.
WHAT ABOUT THE NEW CHASSIS AND BRAKES?
We didn't really have that many complaints with the previous GSX-R1000's chassis and handling, with only fading brakes and a slight lack of suspension quality on the list of gripes. With new competitors looming over the horizon, however, Suzuki knew it had to make sure every base was covered and any weaknesses were addressed. On the '03 GSX-R, that gripe list is getting even shorter.
While none of our testers had any real issues with the overall handling of the previous GSX-R, some felt it wouldn't hurt to quicken the steering a bit. Suzuki's engineers apparently felt the same, as the new extruded twin-spar aluminum chassis sports steeper steering geometry, with rake tightened up to 23.5 degrees (from 24 degrees) and trail shortened to 91mm (from 96mm).
Normally we'd be concerned with the stability aspect of such steep geometry numbers, but the big GSX-R (like all of the Suzuki GSX-R models) sports a steering damper to keep any unwanted oscillations under control. The tighter steering geometry allows far lighter steering effort without sacrificing the rock-solid stability through gnarly pavement that the GSX-Rs have been known for. Although not as agile as the Honda CBR954RR, the lighter steering broadens the GSX-R's handling capabilities considerably, allowing a wider choice of lines through corners. Midcorner corrections now take far less effort to accomplish also.
This comparison shows the closer location of the ram-air intake ducts on the '03 model, permitted by the stacked headlight combination. By locating the ducts closer to the center point of the headlight (where air pressure is highest), Suzuki claims an increase in efficiency and power
Overall handling feel from the new chassis is a definite improvement over the old model, which is saying a lot. The '03 frame and swingarm feel like a much tauter, solid unit, without seeming overly harsh over bumps or losing the nice, balanced feel of the old chassis. Much of this perception can be attributed to the new suspension components, with the 43mm Kayaba inverted cartridge fork utilizing DLC (Diamond-Like Coating) on the fork tubes, which is claimed to offer far less stiction and much better durability than the more common titanium nitride coating. Although we can't say we noticed a huge difference in the front fork's performance due to the black-colored coating, we can say that the fork and rear shock's spring and damping rates (both are increased this year) are dialed in much better this time around. Bigger bumps are absorbed without upsetting the chassis, yet the suspension remains supple enough to smooth over smaller pavement imperfections. And it's no longer necessary to dial in max rebound damping in the rear shock in order to maintain chassis control at the racetrack.
The new chassis' weight distribution has been moved rearward very slightly, and when we decided to alter the ride height a bit for racetrack use, we found that in their zeal to cut weight wherever possible, Suzuki engineers ended up negating one of the options. Raising the fork tubes in the triple clamps (thereby dropping the front end to transfer some weight bias forward for better steering under power) is a common method for changing ride height; unfortunately, you can only raise the fork tube a maximum of 4mm on the new GSX-R. The problem is that most of the outer fork tube material not in contact with the triple clamps or clip-ons has been machined down to the minimum possible thickness, limiting the area that can actually be gripped by the triple clamps.
Our biggest complaint with the old GSX-R-fade-prone front brakes at the track-has been addressed with the fitment of the radial-mount, four-pad/piston caliper setup. Like similar systems on the Kawasaki ZX-6R/RR, the radial-mount brakes offer stupendous power and feel, with excellent progressiveness. A surprising amount of speed can be bled off with just one finger, though on a bike possessing the speed and power of the new GSX-R1000, two-finger effort is needed more often than on the similarly equipped Kawasakis.
There is one area where Suzuki doesn't quite meet expectations, however-even though it's relatively minor. Despite the company's assertions of incremental weight savings here and there contributing to a claimed weight loss of more than four pounds, our '03 test unit actually weighs four pounds heavier than last year's model, at 442 pounds with a full fuel tank.
SO IS IT REALLY BETTER?
It can often be a risky proposition to tamper with a product that is already a proven winner. But the highly competitive nature of the sportbike wars now means that remaining status quo for too long can mean instant obsolescence.
In fact, manufacturers will have to look even further into the future to take measures to counter possible new models from competitors, which is what Suzuki has done with the new GSX-R1000. It may already be comfortably ahead of its current rivals, but reconnaissance reports from the literbike front predict newer ones just over the horizon. By improving the already dominant GSX-R1000, Suzuki has made the pre-emptive first strike of the coming battle.
The competition in '04 is going to have to be damn good to beat this.
+ Even more power?!
+ Fantastic brakes
+ Improved suspension and chassis
- Four pounds heavier
- Limited front ride height adjustability
2003 Suzuki GSX-R1000 vs. Yamaha YZF-R1
Can the R1 hang with the new GSX-R?
Astute SR readers will remember that it was a pretty close call between the Suzuki GSX-R1000 and Yamaha R1 in our open-class comparison last year ("Target Fixation," August '02). And while the Honda CBR954RR and Kawasaki ZX-9R held their own, the GSX-R and R1 pretty much stole the show when the chips were down.
Both the Suzuki and Yamaha had major strengths and few weaknesses. The Suzuki had a slight advantage in outright performance, while the Yamaha possessed a more refined feel that made it a better streetbike. And though the GSX-R's parts obviously worked well together as the pace heated up, the R1 boasted a lot of nicely machined and formed parts that gave it a trick, handmade feel. In the end, however, the Suzuki had enough of a performance advantage to retain its perch on the open-class throne for another year.
But with the new GSX-R getting a thorough makeover as the Yamaha remains mostly status quo for '03, the open-class scales are definitely tilting in the Suzuki's favor. The R1 still has the most dialed-in fuel- injection power delivery, with a smoothness retained from the old pre-EFI R1 that practically makes you forget the carburetors are gone. And its motor/chassis/suspension combination still strikes a nice balance between street civility and racetrack sharpness.
There's no way to overlook a 15-plus horsepower deficit, however, especially in a chassis as capable as the new GSX-R's. While the off/on throttle response of the Suzuki's new double-barrel throttle bodies still isn't on par with the spot-on R1 suction-piston EFI setup, it isn't that far off. And when you combine that monster motor with a chassis that retains the GSX-R's unflappable stability while endowing it with a newfound agility, there's not much the Yamaha can do when the throttles really get twisted.
Well, I can't really add to the list of positive things mentioned here about the big GSX-R, but yes, the new 1000 is better in most respects than the old one. Suzuki has addressed all the minor faults that kept the original GSX-R1000-despite being our Bike of the Year two years running-from being a real standout. But whereas the old bike was powerful and stable, the combination that helped it win our open-class shootout last year, one thing it didn't need was less trail. Finding a happy medium between steering quickness and stability was easy with the old bike; now it's practically an impossibility-especially with the forks waisted down and the height unadjustable. Still, it's an awesome bike, and I'm sure that other manufacturers' literbike designers are having some sleepless nights over it. Now if I could just pry the key away from Kent for more than a few minutes....
I have to admit that I wasn't expecting much-well, more like much more-from the new GSX-R1000. Minor engine updates, a new chassis with a slightly reworked suspension and revised bodywork didn't exactly send the drool meter into overdrive. But then again, it's not like it really needed major performance upgrades.
Sure, everybody thinks I've got a hankerin' for the GSX-R1000, but the plain fact of the matter is that the bike is supremely fun to ride. And with the added horsepower and improved handling of the '03 model, it's even more appealing. For those riders with the skill (and self-control) to use the performance properly, there's nothing like riding a bike possessing speed and handling that probably could've won the World Superbike Championship in stock form a decade ago.
While I'm a tad bit disappointed that the new GSX-R is four pounds heavier than last year's version, I'll gladly trade that incremental weight gain for the added power and improved handling/brakes of the '03 model. The new GSX-R is the closest thing yet to a full racebike out of the crate.
Hey! Who the hell took the keys to the GSX-R?!
This article originally appeared in the August 2003 issue of Sport Rider.