In complete contrast to the usual supersport shootouts where absolute at-the-limit performance is the name of the game, this time around we're focusing on the bikes that newbies looking to graduate to the big leagues should start on. We picked three bikes that are new for 2009—the Kawasaki ER-6n, Suzuki Gladius, and Yamaha FZ6R—and a fourth, the Ducati Monster 696 that was introduced last year but still deserves a spot on this list to break up the Japanese monotony. What makes these bikes ideal for beginners? For starters, they're (relatively) cheap, make manageable power that isn't intimidating, and have low seat heights. Of course style is an important factor for a new rider, but seeing as that's a personal preference we won't touch on that much. Some will say that we're forgetting perhaps the most influential bike of all for new riders-the Kawasaki Ninja 250. We didn't forget about it (we actually think quite highly of it) but these four motorcycles are scoots that will suit the new rider as they learn the ropes and have enough performance potential to grow with them as their skills improve. Now in a bit of an unconventional twist we're going to spoil the story up front: there are no "winners" or "losers" in this test. All four bikes will suit the new and/or inexperienced rider great, only each goes about doing so in slightly different ways. In the next few pages we'll profile each bike (in alphabetical order), highlight their strengths and weaknesses, and reveal who we think each bike is best suited for. Sound good? Then scroll down the page and let's begin.
Ducati Monster 696
As the most expensive bike in this quartet at $8995, the Ducati Monster 696 charges a high admission to the two-wheeled party. What you get in return is a motorcycle with unmistakable Ducati character with enough performance potential to please the rookie or veteran alike. As the name suggests, the little Monster is powered by a 696cc air-cooled V-Twin with two valves per cylinder, actuated by Ducati's trademark Desmodromic design. If none of that makes any sense to you then here's what you need to know: this engine makes some serious steam. Nothing crazy, but enough to keep you satisfied for a while. Torque is what V-twins are known for and the 696 produces plenty of it-launching out of corners (or squirming between cars and city traffic) is as simple as twisting the right wrist ever so slightly. We found that the engine is a little sluggish at really low rpm, but get it spinning past 3000 and the powerband lasts almost until redline.
Bringing all that action to a halt are the best brakes in the bunch (and for this price they better be). Dual 320mm rotors are mated to two radially-mounted calipers, each with four pistons. Each caliper is also fed fluid via steel-braided brake lines-standard. You won't even find that on the literbikes in this issue (except, well, the Ducati 1198). As such, the Monster has the most braking power, but lacks modulation. We also found it odd that neither the brake nor clutch levers are adjustable; a feature the other three bikes share.
Seat height is a mere 30.3 inches off the ground, so unless you were cursed with abnormally short legs flat-footing shouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, once on the bike many testers felt like the seating position shoved the rider forward into the gas tank at an uncomfortable angle—something male readers in particular might want to be aware of. Thankfully the handlebars are at a higher angle than previous Monsters, relieving some strain from the wrists and lower back, though the crew was still split about the comfort and leverage provided by the wide, flat handlebars. Some felt it cumbersome while others didn't mind.
There's another reason the 696 costs more than the rest: suspension. The 43mm inverted Showa fork in front and Sachs rear shock out back are mated well to each other and damp road imperfections without the dreaded "pogo" effect usually associated with bikes in this price range. Negotiating the twisty stuff is where this Monster comes alive, but again, you'd expect as much from the one that costs almost $2000 more than the next closest machine. With that said, we were simply floored when a reflector on the fork leg, held on by what seemed to be double-sided tape, just fell off the bike. Ultimately it's up to you to decide whether the price of admission is worth it. In his notes, Mikolas said it best, "The 696 is like a high-end knife—style coupled with a very capable and focused destination...I just wish I had the cash."
Turning to the least expensive motorcycle here, the $6399 Kawasaki ER-6n is basically a stripped down Ninja 650R, though Kawasaki prefers to call it a "middleweight streetfighter." The 6n shares the same 649cc parallel twin engine and transmission as the 650R and pulled 62.6 horsepower and 43.4 ft-lb of torque on the dyno. This translates into a fun and capable little powerplant with smooth power delivery, even if it doesn't have the bark to back its bite. "Engine is nice and peppy with decent acceleration, but the exhaust note sounds like an air compressor, which is definitely not very inspiring," says Kento.
In fact, 99 percent of the 6n is the same as its fully faired brother, the only differences being slightly softer springs in the front, half a degree less rake, and an overall shorter wheelbase. Looming 29.7 inches above ground, the seat is a definite advantage for the inexperienced. Handlebars are rubber mounted (to reduce vibration from the engine, which also uses rubber mounts) and placed high, giving a largely upright seating position which also makes maneuvering the bike easier. In direct contrast to the Ducati, the Kawasaki bars felt too narrow, "like I was riding a bicycle," notes Siahaan
To cut costs Kawasaki skimped in the suspension and brake department, equipping this bike with dual 300mm petal-type rotors mated to twin-piston pin-slide calipers. During everyday commuting the binders are adequate at best; initial bite is numb but the moderate braking power eventually brings the action to a halt. Pick up the pace a little and things start to get scary. The numb initial bite is then met with a sense that there's no way the bike will stop in time. Squeeze the lever harder and it feels like the rubber lines are expanding instead of delivering fluid to the calipers. The trick is maintaining pressure on the lever and keeping the faith-the bike will stop. If anything will put off the new rider, this is it (though steel-braided lines and a change in pads could be the remedy).
When negotiating corners the Kawi is light on its feet; direction changes are quick but are hampered by the OE Bridgestone sport-touring tires. Most felt the non-adjustable front fork worked well with the preload-adjustable rear shock, giving a compliant ride in all but the most extreme conditions. Something a potential owner of this bike probably wouldn't be facing. Speaking of faces, we had some issues with the ones on the gauge cluster. The analog speedometer is difficult to read at a glance as is the digital tachometer. We do like the fuel gauge and are sure that most riders out there would appreciate that as well.
For a tick over six large the Kawasaki ER-6n is an incredible value that delivers amazing bang for your buck. With just the right amount of power and a capable chassis, this is a great bike to learn the ropes on. Sure the bike is buzzy on long rides and the brakes should be the first item on the lists of upgrades, but for that price how can you go wrong?
Perhaps the bike that jump-started the middleweight category, the Suzuki SV650 has a near cult-like following for three simple reasons: it's cheap ($6899), has a proven engine, and is just plain fun to ride. The only problem is that sales of naked versions were starting to decline. In response Suzuki decided to give it a facelift in the form of the Gladius. What does that mean to you? It means that if you can't afford the Ducati, this is your chance to experience a V-twin naked bike without the strain on your wallet.
Powered by the same 645cc, liquid-cooled, four-valve, DOHC V-twin as the SV650, there's no doubt as to its pedigree. Power delivery is seamless, though some testers felt the bottom-end punch didn't quite match previous SV650s we've ridden. Likewise, the Gladius also had some issues putting the power to the ground as the shift linkage felt anything but positive. Regardless, when it comes to forward motivation the Gladius received high marks from all testers.
At 31 inches, seat height is about on par with the rest of the group, though its single banana seat is reminiscent of old-school bicycles, even down to the dimensions. "The Suzuki had a really narrow seat that was uncomfortable after just a short period of time," notes O'Connor after the swelling from his tight helmet calmed down. Otherwise the reach to the bars feels natural, unlike the wide feeling from the Ducati and narrowness of the Kawasaki. A traditional analog tachometer dominates as the digital speedometer is just within eye range. Unlike the Kawasaki and Yamaha, a simple fuel light warns the rider when it's time to find a gas station. Once again, binders on the Suzuki are sourced from the local lumber yard in the form of twin 290mm discs. Two-piston pin-slide calipers hug each rotor. Though they aren't as scary as the Kawasaki, braking still feels soft. Adding more pressure to the lever will eventually bring the action to a halt before a change of shorts is required.
Surprisingly the Gladius' suspension leans toward the firmer side, which isn't something that could be said about SV650s of yore. This makes canyon runs at a novice pace enjoyable as the bike doesn't wallow to and fro. In the real world however, this translates into a slightly harsh ride when crossing road imperfections.
Within the past decade very few motorcycles have built a following quite like the SV650, both with novices and advanced riders alike. Fortunately the Gladius is picking up where its predecessor left off. Just like the Kawasaki, brake and suspension upgrades would be the first order of business when skills (and budget) progress, but when it comes to ideal motorcycles to build your craft the Gladius will put a smile on your face every time
Now for the wildcard in the group. As the sole four-cylinder machine, Yamaha's FZ6R takes a slightly different approach to welcoming the new(er) rider. Not only is it the only four-cylinder, it's the only one here with full fairings and a windscreen-nice for those jaunts on the highway. We covered the technical aspects of the bike in our First Ride piece (Climbing the Ladder, Jun. '09), but to re-hash-the 599cc inline four that powers the FZ6R first started life as the mill that won a few AMA Supersport titles with the previous generation YZF-R6. Nowadays the engine has been reconfigured to be more civil. We could tell you how but that's really not important. What is important is understanding how and where this engine makes power. Whereas the three twins on the previous pages utilize their torque and prefer to be lower in the rev range, the FZ6R doesn't truly come alive until after 5000 revolutions-which is still slow when compared to all-out supersports-where peak horsepower then takes over. Despite its two extra cylinders, our bike scored the second best fuel mileage rating with an average just under 46 miles per gallon
Another benefit of the FZ6R is the range of adjustability. At its lowest setting seat height is just under 31 inches. Moving the mounting bracket under the seat to the "high" position then adds 20mm (or 3/4-inch), accommodating taller riders. Not only that, but handlebar position is also adjustable fore and aft to suit a wide variety of body types. These adjustments are done with only a few bolts and all required hardware is included in the tool set. Coupled with arguably the most comfy saddle of the bunch, the Yamaha won over all of our testers in the comfort department.
That theme continues with the rest of the bike. Suspension tuned towards the softer set, combined with the heaviest weight of the four (477 pounds), results in a ride that's Cadillac-esque during mellow cruising (that's a good thing), but is sluggish and soft when being hauled around (that's not so good). Then again, one must remember that the FZ6R isn't meant for setting lap times. Brakes again are bottom shelf items (notice a trend here?), consisting of 298mm discs and twin-piston calipers. Braking power is actually adequate considering the weight of the bike and the components.
Another factor leading to the lowered price is the quality of hardware on the bike. Various aluminum and steel bits on our test unit showed signs of corrosion-possibly from exposure to the elements during transport-that was readily apparent with just a simple once-over. It's an anomaly we don't see very often that might be something of concern for those living in harsh climates. Quality of hardware aside, the FZ6R provides a comfortable ride for the novice rider less interested in carving canyons, and more interested in easing their way into the motorcycle community.
|DUCATI MONSTER 696 MSRP: $8,995||KAWASAKI ER-6N MSRP: $6,399||SUZUKI GLADIUS MSRP: $6,899||YAMAHA FZ6R MSRP: $6990 - $7090|
|Type||Air-cooled, 4-stroke, SOHC L-twin||Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, DOHC, parallel twin||Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, DOHC 90-degree V-twin||Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, DOHC inline four-cylinder|
|Bore x stroke||88.0mm x 57.2mm||83.0mm x 60.0mm||81.0mm x 62.6mm||65.5mm x 44.5mm|
|Induction||Electronic fuel injection, 45mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.||Electronic fuel injection, 38mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.||Electronic fuel injection, 39mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.||Electronic fuel injection, 32mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.|
|Front tire||120-70R-17 Bridgestone BT-016||120/70R-17 Dunlop Roadsmart||120/70R-17 Dunlop Qualifier||120/70R-17 Bridgestone BT-021/ Dunlop Roadsmart|
|Rear tire||160/60R-17 Bridgestone BT-016||160/60R-17 Dunlop Roadsmart||160/60R-17 Dunlop Qualifier||160/70R-17 Bridgestone BT-021/ Dunlop Roadsmart|
|Rake/trail||24 deg./3.8 in. (96mm)||24.5 deg./4.0 in. (101.6mm)||25 deg./4.2 in. (106.7mm)||26 deg./4.1 in. (103.5mm)|
|Wheelbase||57.1 in. (1450mm)||55.3 in. (1404mm)||56.9 in. (1445mm)||56.7 in. (1440mm)|
|Seat height||30.3 in. (770mm)||29.7 in. (754mm)||30.9 in. (785mm)||30.9 in. (785mm)|
|Fuel capacity||3.8 gal. (15L)||4.1 gal. (15.52L)||3.8 gal. (14.50L)||4.6 gal. (17.30L)|
|Fuel mileage||43-47 mpg, 45.2 avg.||40.2-42 mpg, 41 mpg avg.||45-52 mpg, 48 mpg avg.||44-48 mpg, 46 mpg avg.|
|Wet weight||409 lbs (186kg)||448 lbs (203kg)||447 lbs (203kg)||477 lbs (216kg)|
None of these motorcycles would be a bad first motorcycle. In fact, all of these motorcycles would be great first rides. However, as a Motorcycle Safety Instructor since 1999 most students I've talked to got interested in motorcycles for the looks, sounds and mystique of the sport. Therefore there is really only one motorcycle here that will keep a new riders interest for more than one riding season, the Ducati 696 Monster. I've never liked any of the other Monsters I've ridden over the years, mostly because I never liked the lack of front-end feedback. This Ducati handled great. What also surprised me was the fit and finish of the 696. Such things as stainless steel brake lines were a really nice touch. So, while all the other bikes seem to say, beginner bike (not a bad thing, mind you), if you can afford the extra $2k or so, the Ducati 696 Monster says beginner-intermediate fun.
Siding these bikes reminds me of my humble beginnings, only any of these four could run circles around my SV. I've never quite gotten along with Ducati Monsters for one reason or another, but other than the wide bars the 696 is starting to win me over. The Kawasaki was great in the twisty stuff, but buzzed a bit too much for my liking everywhere else. The Yamaha was the exact opposite; soft and plush, for better or for worse. I can't stress enough how all of these bikes will suit the new rider well, but for the type of riding I do I'd have to go back to my roots and pick the Gladius. To me it's the best compromise between performance and comfort, and as an SV650 owner I'm all too familiar with the engine and that's really what won me over. Sure my opinion might be biased this time around, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't be happy with any of these machines.
Fresh off the liter-class shootout, it was comforting to know that none of these bikes would launch you to the moon if you grabbed a handful. The Ducati soaks up the tight stuff like a shop-vac on steroids. It also sacrifices creature comforts while offering the most aggressive design and function. In this entry level class Yamaha's FZ6R is at the other end of the spectrum, offering its pilot comfortable ergos, adjustable seat, and a full fairing that gives it a hardcore look. Kawi's inline offers capable handling and a strong power delivery, yet the funky styling and lack of stopping power prevents the ER6N from dominating. Suzuki's SV...oops I meant Gladius...offers the best overall package with its wonderful v-twin power delivery, compliant handling, and easy on the eye design. I just wish Suzuki would offer more color options.
One of the biggest fears (and myths) that we hear from prospective newbie riders is that they don't want to buy a motorcycle that they'll "grow out of after a year or so." The mistaken belief that sportbikes like these four are too tame and won't pack enough performance for their growing skills is an all-too common excuse, and it's an error that can have serious repercussions for their future. The only thing you'll learn by starting off on a motorcycle way beyond your skillset is how to be intimidated by its demanding performance; trust me, your skills will blossom much quicker by learning to access (and then later on exploit) the more user-friendly performance of machines like these
If your beginning pocketbook can handle the Ducati, by all means, it's a solid performer. But for what I'd be looking for in a first bike, the Yamaha provides the best and most cheap thrills of the bunch.