Some bike producers like to claim they one-upped the competition, while others say they "raised the bar" or "set a new standard". The Suzuki GSX-R750 took a different approach; it basically caused the extinction of its competitors.
The GSX-R already had an impressive history leading up to the release of the '96 model, which was the bike's 4th generation. At that time, the 750 class was still well-subscribed by the Big Four Japanese manufacturers, with Kawasaki introducing its third-generation ZX-7R that same year, and Yamaha soldiering along with its YZF750R that debuted two years earlier. Honda's only serious sportbike during this time was the ultra-exclusive $27,000 RC45, of which only 200 were imported into the U.S. in 1995 just to satisfy superbike racing homologation rules.
The Suzuki changed all that. Its performance was so stunning that the competition essentially gave up on the class. In 1998 Yamaha produced its last YZF750, and then followed Honda's lead in producing the homologation model YZF-R7 from 1998-2002, at which point it left the 750 class. The Kawasaki ZX-7R stuck it out until 2003, but it was only mildly updated until that point, and may as well have quit seven years earlier. Even the ZX-7RR homologation model with different frame, flat-slide carbs, close-ratio transmission and other modifications was no match for the GSX-R.
Inspired by Kevin Schwantz's RG500 Grand Prix bike, the 1996 GSX-R750 is also known among Suzuki fans as the SRAD, which stood for "Suzuki Ram Air Direct," the company's acronym for its ram-air system. The new GSX-R's biggest performance gains were its 50-pound weight reduction (422 pounds with an empty tank and 453 pounds full of fuel and ready to ride) from the previous GSX-R, and its approximately 116 horsepower at the rear tire. This put it in the same weight category as most 600s at the time, while having near-900cc horsepower. In fact, it actually bested the Honda CBR900RR in peak horsepower and top speed by a slim margin.
Sporting a 13,500 rpm redline, the engine sported a more oversquare 72mm bore/46mm stroke configuration than the previous 70 x 48.7mm setup, fed by a bank of Mikuni downdraft carbs for the first two years of its design. These Mikunis, however, featured electronically-controlled slides for smoother throttle response. The SRAD featured two large through-the-frame air ducts leading to the oversized airbox; this was the first true ram-air system for the 750. Instead of the typical oil cooler as used on previous GSX-Rs, the 1996 model used a water/heat exchanger on the base of the oil filter.
By positioning the cam chain on the end of the crank and mounting the alternator behind the crankshaft instead of on the end, the engine lost a full 30mm of width. The crankshaft also lost one set of main bearings-going from six to five-as part of the space saving efforts. Another benefit of the narrow design was that the cylinder bores would be 5mm closer together; this was made possible by the use of nickel silicon carbide-plated aluminum cylinders, whereas the old model used iron press-in liners. Overall, the engine redesign shed a phenomenal 20 pounds.
The all-new twin spar aluminum frame saved more than five pounds over the old model, while doubling the overall torsional stiffness. Wheelbase was 55.1 inches with a rake of 24 degrees and 3.8 inches (97mm) of trail, making for seriously quick handling. New six-piston calipers were used up front, and a 6-inch-wide rear rim with a 190-size tire debuted for the first time in 1996 also. The rear shock was a fully adjustable Showa piggyback unit, with a similarly-adjustable 43mm inverted fork. The swingarm was heavily braced to allow the bike to be competitive right out of the box. In preparation for competitive superbike racing series around the world, Suzuki offered a very trick race kit for the 750.
On the road and on the track the new bike was a hit, with enough performance that earned it SR's "Bike of the Year" honors in both '96 and '97.
Although competitors were leaving the market in '98, Suzuki stuck to a rigorous two-year development cycle. The biggest news was the inclusion of electronic fuel injection, with 46mm throttle bodies using a single injector per cylinder. Also new on the 1998 were different cams sporting revised duration and more lift on the intake side, plus engine internals were lightened. The airbox gained some volume, as well as an electronic flapper valve to maintain air velocity at lower rpm. The drive chain shrunk from 530 to 525, the gearbox ratios were tightened up, a steering damper was fitted standard, and CDI ignition coils were adopted. Wheelbase was shortened by 5mm, but overall weight stayed the same-which was still 74 pounds less than the Kawasaki ZX-7R.
The net result was another five horsepower and a 14,000 rpm redline. The revisions also cured the 5500 rpm flat spot and surging, but the off-idle throttle transition would start to show up as an issue for the first time. Since there was no real competition left in the 750cc class, Suzuki instead looked at the Honda CBR900RR as its nearest competitor. The Suzuki ran a 10.54-second quarter mile at 131.0 mph, with a top speed of 162.2 mph; the Honda ran a nearly identical 10.54 seconds at 131.95 mph, with a top speed of 161.4 mph.
In 2000, Suzuki continued to develop the GSX-R750 and dropped a bomb on the industry with yet another landmark bike. On a bike that was already a market featherweight to begin with, Suzuki dropped an astounding 27 pounds from the previous generation; weight was shaved everywhere by small margins that added up. A few examples of the extreme diet were a frame that was 4.4 pounds lighter, while the swingarm lost another 1.8 pounds despite a 20mm gain in length. A switch from six-piston to four-piston brake calipers, a shorter front fork and shock (the shock body was also made from aluminum), thinner bodywork, and many other minor changes were all part of the fanatical attention to weight loss. Even the rear wheel was trimmed back down to 5.5 inches for quicker handling and additional weight reduction. Because the bike was lighter, the spring rates had to be revised to maintain the correct handling balance. The wheelbase stayed at 55.1 inches but the overall height shrunk by 30mm.
The engine was reworked with many internals receiving the lightening treatment. The compression was increased from 11.8:1 to 12.0:1. The EFI system was also new including a new 16-bit ECU and servo-controlled secondary throttle plates to smooth the off-idle throttle response (throttle bodies also shrank from 46mm to 42mm, but with a new tapered bore). The result was just what Suzuki wanted, another dominate sportbike. On the Sport Rider dyno, it made 123 horsepower at 12,500 rpm, and ripped through the quarter mile at 10.26 seconds at 135.6 mph. Top speed was an impressive 172 mph.
Not only was the bike fast with great handling, it was also very reliable. We had a few owners that reported stator problems that required a replacement, while a few others had a bent shift shaft under hard use. Otherwise the entire '96-'01 Gixxers and beyond seemed to be very reliable bikes. Many owners reported the bike's coolant temp running high in traffic or very hot weather, so a popular modification was to outfit the bike with a manual radiator fan switch that allowed them to simply turn on the radiator fan if the coolant temps got out of control.
Common modifications are pretty typical, with a full exhaust topping the list. The next most popular was a jet kit on the early models or a Dynojet Power Commander to clean up the fuel mapping on the later models. Aftermarket air filters are also high on the list for many riders.
Because there wasn't a lot to be gained by throwing money at the engine (unless you began spending big coin for serious internal modifications), more popular mods were aimed at suspension and handling. An aftermarket steering damper is the first thing that many serious street or track day riders install. Aftermarket fork valving kits were next, followed by replacement of the rear shock, as most suspension specialists feel that modifying the stock unit is more trouble than it's worth in the end. Most riders, however, said they found the stock components quite satisfactory after spending enough time to set them up properly for their weight and riding style. Though the factory brakes were quite good, many owners opted for aftermarket brake pads and lines. Because of the bike's tremendous popularity, virtually all the aftermarket suppliers made parts for the bike. Therefore brand loyal tuners had their choice of numerous suppliers when it came time to modify the GSX-R Suzuki.
To get some input from an AMA race team, we talked to Kevin Hunt, the owner of KWS Motorsports in Charleston, SC. KWS has been building and racing Suzukis for many years (although they have since switched to factory support from Aprilia to campaign the AMA Daytona Sportbike class for 2009) and had a best season finish of 6th for the 2003 AMA Superbike season, with rider Shawn Higbee earning Rookie of the Year honors. Hunt says the '96-'99 models as well as the 2000-and-up GSX-Rs were "great bikes and easy to work on". KWS has built countless GSX-R engines for drag racers, street racers, and roadracers, and Hunt feels "the most common mechanical issue we see on this era of bikes is owner inflicted, when someone burns up a clutch and continues to ride with contaminated oil; [in cases like this] the engine is destined to suffer main bearing failures." According to Hunt the next most common rider-induced failure is "second or third gear breaking due to hard up-shifting under load."
Another strong point of this GSX-R generation was the pricing. In 1996 the bike retailed for a reasonable $8999 (A Honda CBR900RR was $9799). In '97 it jumped to $9199, and then in '98 it hit $9299 and remained at that price until the new model in 2000, when it only crept up another $100, with the following year tacking on another $100. If you are looking to score one of these amazing bikes on the used market, according to NADA estimates, you can expect to see prices from $1835-$2410 for 1996 models. The revised 1998 models are going for $2355-$3095, while the new-generation 2000 model runs between $2790-$3670. These prices may seem low but remember, even a 2000 model is already nine years old.
When looking back through some of the great sportbikes of the past, we often see bikes that were good for a few years, but fell off their competitive track while another bike took its place. The Suzuki GSX-R750, however, still packs a serious performance punch, long after its competition has become extinct. The market also has to give credit to the 750 as the bike that paved the way for the GSX-R1000 as well. The 750 class is nowhere near as strong as before, but we hope Suzuki keeps making them. The GSX-R750 is one of the best bikes to ever hit the road or to take a spot on the AMA grid.