We road test the Suzuki GSX1400, Kawasaki ZRX1200R and Yamaha XJR1300

Published: 22 July 2001

ARNIE might well stand out in people’s minds as the most famous and successful bodybuilder ever, but things were almost very different. Over the core of his competitive years, throughout the 1970s and in the early 1980s, Schwarzenegger had two main rivals – his training partner Franco Columbo and telly’s Incredible Hulk, the giant Lou Ferrigno.

Both were good enough physically to wrest the Mr Olympia crown from Arnie, but neither could match him for charisma or stage presence, and that’s what made him No1. The same scene is playing out again today. This time, it’s the muscle-laden Suzuki GSX1400, Yamaha XJR1300 and Kawasaki ZRX1200 oiling up behind the scenes to do battle.

Study each in turn and you’ll probably conclude they’re all winners in their own way. They’re beefy, sculpted and symmetrical, with their own strong points to endear them to the buying crowds. But they all have weaknesses and, just as Arnie hid the poor shape of his triceps onstage, the three Japanese contenders do their best to cover up their shortcomings in such formidable company, too.

This was almost a two-bike test – Suzuki GB only recently decided to field its competitor. Before a couple of months ago, the firm wasn’t even planning to sell the bike in Britain – until MCN reader power (hundreds of you told us you wanted it) stepped in. Buyers have been raving about it ever since. But would they have been better 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. All three are torquey and tractable, but the Suzuki, with its significant capacity advantage, is the easiest and most flexible engine to get to grips with.

The ZRX is happy to pull top gear from 25mph and roll on to top speed with a minimum of fuss. The XJR manages the same from 20mph with added gusto, but the GSX slays them both with a gobsmacking performance which sees it cleanly hook top from below 15mph and accelerate away at a significantly faster, glitch-free pace. In these days of peaky, high-revving sportsters, that’s a welcome change.

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 adding a few pounds to its waistline.

All the brakes are decent, but the ZRX stops the quickest as there’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-piston Sumitomo calipers offer superb feel. The bike talks to the rider through the handlebars in a better manner than either of the other two, letting you get nearer to the braking limit in safety.

Hauling the Suzuki up from 80mph shows it needs about 10 per cent more stopping distance than the ZRX. As it’s about 15 per cent heavier and stressing its suspension and tyres more, that’s no mean feat. These facts and figures are largely academic, though. Not everyone hooks top in town, or will ever need the full braking potential of their bike.

So what are these three like to ride? The GSX1400 was the bike our testers, myself included, wanted to ride first. It has a certain mystique about it.

Where the Kawasaki looks like it’s had a few tasty bits bolted on here and there in much the same way you might build a special from an existing production machine, and the Yamaha looks the most retro of the lot, the GSX1400 just sits there looking brutal and tough.

It’s a looker, in a fairly plain way, from every angle and the wide, simple wheels set those looks off a treat.

The seat is the widest of the three, but the bike is quite manageable for anyone 5ft 6in and up. The correlation between footpegs and handlebars is superb, angling your head almost ideally to cope with wind blast at speed. Forget the days of needing a neck brace 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 top speed is really no big deal.

Low-speed stability and ease of movement is surprisingly good given the 70 cheeseburgers it stuffed down its neck before weigh-in. Some heavy musclebikes shimmy at low speed, like the tyres don’t quite suit them or the handlebars aren’t tight, but both traits are absent on the GSX. It’s happy to trickle through heavy traffic as proficiently asany other machine.

It comes into its own on A-roads. The massive torque lets you select top and pop in and out, behind and in front of cars on the journey to work, or on a Sunday spin. But it’s much more fun if you ride 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 that the bulk of the grunt is gone earlier than that – at 8300rpm on our test bike. That means massive stomp in a narrow band every time you cog down and open up.

It didn’t take long for the tractable GSX to pull ahead of the other two, though they were never far behind. Flat spots don’t exist and the fuel system is perfectly matched to the engine’s needs. There was little vibration, either. Nothing gets to you through the seat or bars and there are only intermittent patches at ultra-low revs in high gears through the footpegs. It’s a well-balanced, low-stressed engine which results in a ride like a magic carpet with a rocket up its arse.

Shifting through the gearbox is sweet, except for the obligatory first change on a lukewarm engine.

The exhaust note at full chat was fruity enough, but sounded like it could be louder and still pass the stringent Euro laws.

Everyone was surprised at the way the bike’s weight melted away once you got going. It took next to no effort to ride hard and was up for a crack at anything. The only shortcoming was in changing direction quickly. You could feel the chassis having a game go, but the gyroscopic forces of a quarter-of-a-tonne belting down a B-road overruled it some of the time.

Obviously, the bike isn’t a racer, but it would have been just a fraction more fun if it could turn just five per cent quicker. Ground clearance isn’t good. The bike is barely leaning and the footpegs scrape. But the other two aren’t much better, though none of them get out of hand or nervous when grinding out.

In fact, I took the GSX at 60mph through a small, dipped, cambered roundabout which requires a deft right-left flick. The maximum speed before anything touched down was about 45mph, so I bribed a passenger to climb on board and further compress the suspension – and let rip to see what would happen. The pegs bedded on both sides and the centrestand ground out heavily. The back end twitched and slewed, taking a while to settle down.

But the bike never threatened to get out of control and never complained. That was left to the pillion.

The brakes lack feel and feedback when they’re half warm. It isn’t until you’ve braked repeatedly that they come to life. Even then, they lack outright stopping power and it doesn’t take much effort to get the pads to smoke. They’re well above adequate for the road and beat many set-ups I can think of, but they should be on the list of improvements if the bike is updated next year.

Pillion comfort is superb, even for six-footers, and riders wanting to use the bike on motorways won’t have much trouble, either. One of our testers managed 400 miles in a day without complaint.

My preferred riding position on the ZRX1200 is a bit less comfortable – along with its predecessor, the ZRX1100, it’s the only bike I can do bum-on-the-handlebars wheelies on.

Its ability to clown about isn’t reason enough for me to buy, but it does highlight one significant fact – it is endowed with a seriously predictable engine. It lets me wheelie sitting over the front because the power delivery from the 1164cc motor is so linear and glitch-free, with no power hikes or spikes to catch me out when the wheel is 4ft off the ground. In more normal circumstances, this makes the ZRX effortless to ride, too.

As a retro bike to choose if you’ve recently passed your test, the ZRX is absolutely ideal. That’s not to say experienced riders won’t have a good laugh on it. It’s quick enough to scare if you want to fully explore the limits and the handling is so dialled in, it’s the easiest to scratch on, too.

It’s neither firmly sprung, nor soggy, but is stiffer than either the GSX or the XJR. In fairness, at speed it could be described as " saggy " – a touch more tautness and it would be an even better machine.

It feels the slowest of the three thanks, in part, to its lack of cubes and the flat power delivery. But it keeps its nose to the backside of either of its rivals along twisty roads.

Get a succession of corners or tight curves and it’ll pass both easily, too, though it wallows when you put decent effort in until you tinker with the suspension. The 43mm forks and dual shocks have the best range of adjustment of all the bikes on test, with 12-way rebound damping, 10-way compression damping and a decent scale of pre-load adjustability on the front.

Transforming the handling is best done with one more click of both rebound and compression damping on the rear. Unless you’re particularly heavy, the rear spring pre-load can be left alone. Again, ground clearance isn’t brilliant, but you’ll live with it.

Surprisingly, given its more forward-canted riding position, it’s the least comfortable of the three for motorway work. I felt the wind 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 S version with its fuller half-fairing rather than this Eddie Lawson replica with its more minimal bodywork.

The six-piston brakes are good in terms of sheer power, but they don’t convey what’s going on as well as the XJR1300. And the brakes aren’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’s clothing. Yes, the suspension is squidgy, but that’s different to being soggy or below par.

The suspension isn’t as adjustable as the ZRX’s but it does a good job. 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 is on a par with the GSX. And that means you’ll fly through at reasonable speeds as long as the entry point is carefully thought out and you nail it spot-on.

The ground clearance, as on all, could be better, but the XJR feels the 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, no more. " 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. Even then, the power delivery feels unrushed despite impressive acceleration.

More and more bikes with these kind of manners are turning up. You wind them on, think they’re not going all that fast, then glance at the speedo, or the rapidly approaching bend and think: " Yikes, I hope the brakes are good. "

The looks fall neatly between the brutal but plain style of the GSX and the kit-part special appearance of the ZRX. The XJR is still a no-frills looker, but it has a certain quality that attracts you, like that girl in the club with gleaming white teeth or big brown eyes. 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 fidgeting in 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 comes close, though.

I loved the brakes. The feedback is astounding. Overall stopping power could be improved (I’d change the tyres and uprate the hoses if it were mine), but you do get amazing feel. At the end of the day, you can have the strongest brakes in the world, but you’ll never get the best from them if you don’t know how far you can push them.

So, what’s the verdict? There’s no unanimous judge’s decision on this one. Only one bike gets Schwarzenegger status, but it’s not clear-cut.

Suzuki’s GSX has the best engine, it handles well, it’s compliant and confidence-inspiring and it’s comfortable on motorway trips. But it doesn’t turn as quickly as the others and has the worst brakes. It’s a brilliant A-road blaster, but it could do better on twisty B-roads. It’s heavily muscled, but not as flexible as it could be.

Kawasaki’s ZRX handles best and stops quickest, but has the weakest engine. It’s also the least comfortable on long journeys and the feel and feedback from the brakes needs addressing. It’s a lighter competitor and moves well, but could do with a touch more grunt.

Yamaha’s XJR falls somewhere between the two. It hasn’t quite got the power of the GSX, but it beats the ZRX. Then again, the ZRX is better in bends and either of its rivals is more distinctive looking. It’s best for long journeys and the brakes feel brilliant. This athlete is a light-heavyweight competitor sandwiched between two classes.

Appearance is what bodybuilding is all about. It’s a case of making certain body parts stand out better in relation to others. And appearance, aside from all the other points including engine, handling, brakes and comfort, is a huge factor in buying a musclebike, too.

If it’s brutal you want, go for the Suzuki. If it’s distinctive retro, opt for the Yamaha. And if it’s different you need, go for the ZRX. Personally, I still believe a massive competitor should beat a smaller one. I choose the GSX.