We road test the Suzuki GSX1400, Kawasaki ZRX1200R and YamahaXJR1300
22 July 2001 00:00
ARNIE might well stand out in people’s minds as the most famous andsuccessful bodybuilder ever, but things were almost very different.Over the core of his competitive years, throughout the 1970s and inthe early 1980s, Schwarzenegger had two main rivals – his trainingpartner Franco Columbo and telly’s Incredible Hulk, the giant LouFerrigno.
Both were good enough physically to wrest the Mr Olympia crown fromArnie, but neither could match him for charisma or stage presence,and that’s what made him No1. The same scene is playing out againtoday. This time, it’s the muscle-laden Suzuki GSX1400, YamahaXJR1300 and Kawasaki ZRX1200 oiling up behind the scenes to dobattle.
Study each in turn and you’ll probably conclude they’re all winnersin their own way. They’re beefy, sculpted and symmetrical, withtheir own strong points to endear them to the buying crowds. Butthey all have weaknesses and, just as Arnie hid the poor shape ofhis triceps onstage, the three Japanese contenders do their best tocover up their shortcomings in such formidable company, too.
This was almost a two-bike test – Suzuki GB only recently decidedto field its competitor. Before a couple of months ago, the firmwasn’t even planning to sell the bike in Britain – until MCN readerpower (hundreds of you told us you wanted it) stepped in. Buyershave been raving about it ever since. But would they have beenbetter off choosing the ZRX or XJR instead?
Let’s get two obvious rules of engineering out of the way first.One, there is no substitute for cubes, as the GSX1400 proves. Allthree are torquey and tractable, but the Suzuki, with itssignificant capacity advantage, is the easiest and most flexibleengine to get to grips with.
The ZRX is happy to pull top gear from 25mph and roll on to topspeed with a minimum of fuss. The XJR manages the same from 20mphwith added gusto, but the GSX slays them both with a gobsmackingperformance which sees it cleanly hook top from below 15mph andaccelerate away at a significantly faster, glitch-free pace. Inthese days of peaky, high-revving sportsters, that’s a welcomechange.
The other rule is the one about weight governing braking prowess,all other things like caliper set-up, weight distribution,suspension capabilities and tyre grip being equal.
The GSX leaves dents in the scales by lumbering in at 256kg(563lb). The XJR is 230kg (506lb) and the ZRX weighs 223kg (491lb),proof that it’s hard to build a bigger-engined bike without addinga few pounds to its waistline.
All the brakes are decent, but the ZRX stops the quickest asthere’s simply much less bike to haul up. It’s a close-run thing,though, as the XJR’s two 320mm front discs with four-pistonSumitomo calipers offer superb feel. The bike talks to the riderthrough the handlebars in a better manner than either of the othertwo, letting you get nearer to the braking limit in safety.
Hauling the Suzuki up from 80mph shows it needs about 10 per centmore stopping distance than the ZRX. As it’s about 15 per centheavier and stressing its suspension and tyres more, that’s no meanfeat. These facts and figures are largely academic, though. Noteveryone hooks top in town, or will ever need the full brakingpotential of their bike.
So what are these three like to ride? The GSX1400 was the bike ourtesters, myself included, wanted to ride first. It has a certainmystique about it.
Where the Kawasaki looks like it’s had a few tasty bits bolted onhere and there in much the same way you might build a special froman existing production machine, and the Yamaha looks the most retroof the lot, the GSX1400 just sits there looking brutal andtough.
It’s a looker, in a fairly plain way, from every angle and thewide, simple wheels set those looks off a treat.
The seat is the widest of the three, but the bike is quitemanageable for anyone 5ft 6in and up. The correlation betweenfootpegs and handlebars is superb, angling your head almost ideallyto cope with wind blast at speed. Forget the days of needing a neckbrace after a ride on, say, a Yamaha V-Max with its silly sit-up,beg and scream in pain position. Winding the Suzuki up to near topspeed is really no big deal.
Low-speed stability and ease of movement is surprisingly good giventhe 70 cheeseburgers it stuffed down its neck before weigh-in. Someheavy musclebikes shimmy at low speed, like the tyres don’t quitesuit them or the handlebars aren’t tight, but both traits areabsent on the GSX. It’s happy to trickle through heavy traffic asproficiently asany other machine.
It comes into its own on A-roads. The massive torque lets youselect top and pop in and out, behind and in front of cars on thejourney to work, or on a Sunday spin. But it’s much more fun if youride it hard, changing up and down the box like a racer.
It’s a low-revver – the red line is at 9000rpm. The reality is thatthe bulk of the grunt is gone earlier than that – at 8300rpm on ourtest bike. That means massive stomp in a narrow band every time youcog down and open up.
It didn’t take long for the tractable GSX to pull ahead of theother two, though they were never far behind. Flat spots don’texist and the fuel system is perfectly matched to the engine’sneeds. There was little vibration, either. Nothing gets to youthrough the seat or bars and there are only intermittent patches atultra-low revs in high gears through the footpegs. It’s awell-balanced, low-stressed engine which results in a ride like amagic carpet with a rocket up its arse.
Shifting through the gearbox is sweet, except for the obligatoryfirst change on a lukewarm engine.
The exhaust note at full chat was fruity enough, but sounded likeit could be louder and still pass the stringent Euro laws.
Everyone was surprised at the way the bike’s weight melted awayonce you got going. It took next to no effort to ride hard and wasup for a crack at anything. The only shortcoming was in changingdirection quickly. You could feel the chassis having a game go, butthe gyroscopic forces of a quarter-of-a-tonne belting down a B-roadoverruled it some of the time.
Obviously, the bike isn’t a racer, but it would have been just afraction more fun if it could turn just five per cent quicker.Ground clearance isn’t good. The bike is barely leaning and thefootpegs scrape. But the other two aren’t much better, though noneof them get out of hand or nervous when grinding out.
In fact, I took the GSX at 60mph through a small, dipped, camberedroundabout which requires a deft right-left flick. The maximumspeed before anything touched down was about 45mph, so I bribed apassenger to climb on board and further compress the suspension –and let rip to see what would happen. The pegs bedded on both sidesand the centrestand ground out heavily. The back end twitched andslewed, taking a while to settle down.
But the bike never threatened to get out of control and nevercomplained. That was left to the pillion.
The brakes lack feel and feedback when they’re half warm. It isn’tuntil you’ve braked repeatedly that they come to life. Even then,they lack outright stopping power and it doesn’t take much effortto get the pads to smoke. They’re well above adequate for the roadand beat many set-ups I can think of, but they should be on thelist of improvements if the bike is updated next year.
Pillion comfort is superb, even for six-footers, and riders wantingto use the bike on motorways won’t have much trouble, either. Oneof our testers managed 400 miles in a day without complaint.
My preferred riding position on the ZRX1200 is a bit lesscomfortable – along with its predecessor, the ZRX1100, it’s theonly bike I can do bum-on-the-handlebars wheelies on.
Its ability to clown about isn’t reason enough for me to buy, butit does highlight one significant fact – it is endowed with aseriously predictable engine. It lets me wheelie sitting over thefront because the power delivery from the 1164cc motor is so linearand glitch-free, with no power hikes or spikes to catch me out whenthe wheel is 4ft off the ground. In more normal circumstances, thismakes the ZRX effortless to ride, too.
As a retro bike to choose if you’ve recently passed your test, theZRX is absolutely ideal. That’s not to say experienced riders won’thave a good laugh on it. It’s quick enough to scare if you want tofully explore the limits and the handling is so dialled in, it’sthe easiest to scratch on, too.
It’s neither firmly sprung, nor soggy, but is stiffer than eitherthe GSX or the XJR. In fairness, at speed it could be described as” saggy ” – a touch more tautness and it would be an even bettermachine.
It feels the slowest of the three thanks, in part, to its lack ofcubes and the flat power delivery. But it keeps its nose to thebackside of either of its rivals along twisty roads.
Get a succession of corners or tight curves and it’ll pass botheasily, too, though it wallows when you put decent effort in untilyou tinker with the suspension. The 43mm forks and dual shocks havethe best range of adjustment of all the bikes on test, with 12-wayrebound damping, 10-way compression damping and a decent scale ofpre-load adjustability on the front.
Transforming the handling is best done with one more click of bothrebound and compression damping on the rear. Unless you’reparticularly heavy, the rear spring pre-load can be left alone.Again, ground clearance isn’t brilliant, but you’ll live withit.
Surprisingly, given its more forward-canted riding position, it’sthe least comfortable of the three for motorway work. I felt thewind blast begin to take its toll on my neck after just 200 miles.If you plan high mileages, you’re better off going for the Sversion with its fuller half-fairing rather than this Eddie Lawsonreplica with its more minimal bodywork.
The six-piston brakes are good in terms of sheer power, but theydon’t convey what’s going on as well as the XJR1300. And the brakesaren’t the Yamaha’s only asset. Though it looks the oldest and,dare I say it, the least capable, it’s a wolf in semi-shorn sheep’sclothing. Yes, the suspension is squidgy, but that’s different tobeing soggy or below par.
The suspension isn’t as adjustable as the ZRX’s but it does a goodjob. The working range is sensible and tweaks are easy to perform.It won’t match the ZRX at 100 per cent through twisties, but it ison a par with the GSX. And that means you’ll fly through atreasonable speeds as long as the entry point is carefully thoughtout and you nail it spot-on.
The ground clearance, as on all, could be better, but the XJR feelsthe most compliant when everything decks out. It never worries you,but it isn’t shy to scream: ” That’s it, you’re on the limit, nomore. ” Basically, I knew where I was on this bike.
The engine feels softer than the ZRX’s in the low to mid rev range,but picks up once the needle is spinning around the dial. Eventhen, the power delivery feels unrushed despite impressiveacceleration.
More and more bikes with these kind of manners are turning up. Youwind them on, think they’re not going all that fast, then glance atthe speedo, or the rapidly approaching bend and think: ” Yikes, Ihope the brakes are good. “
The looks fall neatly between the brutal but plain style of the GSXand the kit-part special appearance of the ZRX. The XJR is still ano-frills looker, but it has a certain quality that attracts you,like that girl in the club with gleaming white teeth or big browneyes. For me, it’s the paint and the upper frontal area.
I also found the XJR the most comfortable for long distances –easing into a big trip caused no worries at all. My usual fidgetingin the fast lane never appeared and I felt relaxed, composed and,most importantly, comfortable all the way. Neckache never set in,even though I had covered several hundred miles. The GSX comesclose, though.
I loved the brakes. The feedback is astounding. Overall stoppingpower could be improved (I’d change the tyres and uprate the hosesif it were mine), but you do get amazing feel. At the end of theday, you can have the strongest brakes in the world, but you’llnever get the best from them if you don’t know how far you can pushthem.
So, what’s the verdict? There’s no unanimous judge’s decision onthis one. Only one bike gets Schwarzenegger status, but it’s notclear-cut.
Suzuki’s GSX has the best engine, it handles well, it’s compliantand confidence-inspiring and it’s comfortable on motorway trips.But it doesn’t turn as quickly as the others and has the worstbrakes. It’s a brilliant A-road blaster, but it could do better ontwisty B-roads. It’s heavily muscled, but not as flexible as itcould be.
Kawasaki’s ZRX handles best and stops quickest, but has the weakestengine. It’s also the least comfortable on long journeys and thefeel and feedback from the brakes needs addressing. It’s a lightercompetitor and moves well, but could do with a touch moregrunt.
Yamaha’s XJR falls somewhere between the two. It hasn’t quite gotthe power of the GSX, but it beats the ZRX. Then again, the ZRX isbetter in bends and either of its rivals is more distinctivelooking. It’s best for long journeys and the brakes feel brilliant.This athlete is a light-heavyweight competitor sandwiched betweentwo classes.
Appearance is what bodybuilding is all about. It’s a case of makingcertain body parts stand out better in relation to others. Andappearance, aside from all the other points including engine,handling, brakes and comfort, is a huge factor in buying amusclebike, too.
If it’s brutal you want, go for the Suzuki. If it’s distinctiveretro, opt for the Yamaha. And if it’s different you need, go forthe ZRX. Personally, I still believe a massive competitor shouldbeat a smaller one. I choose the GSX.