DIY road test: Sports 600s

Published: 28 October 2001

Here at MCN we regularly get readers and site visitors volunteering to write up their experiences on two wheels for the general enlightenment of the rest of the world.

It’s hard to find space for this sort of stuff in the paper, but here on the web, we’ve got as much space as our gargantuan IBM servers allow. So when Talk Bikes regular Dodgy Haircut offered to share his experience of test riding the three 600 sports bikes he was considering as possible replacements for his SV650, we couldn’t think of a good reason to say no.

This site is all about interaction and sharing info and experiences as widely as possible, whether it’s owners reports in the bikes section, product and service reviews, or postings to the discussion boards. So have a read of Dodgy’s story – and maybe you’ll learn something new.

Whatever your view, tell us what you think: Is it refreshing to read something a bit more " real world " ? Did it leave you with more questions than answers? Should we all be sacked? Would you like to read more of this type of thing? If we get enough positive feedback we might even make it a regular feature…

Post your thoughts on the News discussion board under the thread titled " Amateur Hour " by following the link in the related stories panel right, or if you think you can do better, e-mail your efforts to david.cushman@emap.com, including better quality pics then self-confessed " sh*te photographer " Dodgy has managed.

Here’s his (fairly-unedited) effort…

It started on Friday. I recently decided I’d like to change my bike (an unfaired 1999 SV650) for something sporty – in fact one of the three main sports 600s – CBR600, ZX6R or a GSX-R600.

I’d already ruled out the R6 as insurance was just a little too high, and had done my homework on the other main three – one group test said the CBR was the out-and-out winner, one group test said the GSX was just perfect out of the crate, and the biggest bike survey in the world had owners putting the ZX6R ahead of the other two. So this means they’re all good, right? So how do I pick one of them? I test ride them. I test ride them all. I test ride them all on the same day.

Tomorrow was Saturday, so it’d be interesting to see if all three bikes are available at such short notice. I book the ZX6-R with Arriva Kawasaki, and Fowlers say there’s no problem with taking out a CBR600FS (both in Bristol). I ring a few places to try to sort out a GSX-R 600, but none can oblige.

I ring Wheeltorque in Bristol as I happen to know they’ve got a couple secondhand and I’m sorted. It suddenly strikes Saturday’s going to be a little different as I’ve only ever had one bike, so the thought of writing the experience up seems tempting.

I e-mail MCN and get back a reply along the lines of " if you don’t make a complete balls-up of the whole thing… maybe " .

Cool. I’d booked three demo bikes and promised a write-up of the experience: I’ll pretend to be an experienced rider, then I’ll pretend to be an experienced writer. I’m such a fake. But I had a rough idea of what the bikes are about. The test would be more of a confirmation than a discovery.

If a bike grabs me, I’ll buy it. Or at least I’ll know which one to look forward to buying next year. Saturday comes, it’s been pouring with rain overnight, the roads are all shiny, and more rain to come later that day.

Of course I was late – by about half an hour. Nice place Arriva – more Kwaks than a Daffy vs Donald mud wrestling competition, a nice choice of leathers and friendly sales staff.

I was given the keys and shown the controls (which are exactly the same as my SV with the exception of the reserve tap), petrol was checked, and I was let loose in the community.

On leaving Arriva, the first thing that struck me was the engine noise – it sounded almost too clean - the Kwak sounded like a washing machine on fast spin, compared to my SV’s low, growling hum.

Nice bike though: the position felt very racy to my road biker’s body, but at the same time was amazingly easy to control, the height was perfect for a six footer, and the position somehow made slow manoeuvres and blind checks easier than the SV as my neck was already at the right angle.

I took off (not literally – Saturday Bristol traffic moves like syrup) thinking " this is the business " , but was quickly disappointed by the power – heavy handed throttling on the SV makes the front wheel briefly leave Tarmac, changing clumsily into second will have you checking your pillion hasn’t landed on the bonnet of the car behind; not with the ZX6R – the power’s obviously there, but you’ve got to rev it like you’re teaching it a lesson.

At first I thought this was due to the 50cc difference between the bikes, but then I remember the SV’s got a V twin compared to the inline four of… er… all of the others I’ll be sat on today. Other shocks were the lack of engine breaking, and the brakes themselves weren’t as grabby as the SV.

Not bad – just more gentle. For pottering around town, the 6R goes exactly where you point it, and within minutes I felt more confident on this new machine than I did on my old SV. Little things like silently clicking into first gear, smooth up changes and good mirrors made this feel like a " proper " bike. Only the fact that the bike I was on was in a shite red colour scheme stopped me riding off and never coming back. That and the whole driving licence / police thing.

Between Bristol and Clevedon there’s a couple of windy ‘B’ road routes, and as this is the way I travel most of the time on the bike I decided to take all three bikes along them. Opening the throttle uphill felt pretty good (again, without the " kick " of the twin), and as soon as it was clear enough to overtake, the nasty beastie was let loose, quickly hitting impressive speeds.

U-turning back on the entrance to a side road caught me out when time was getting tight – the steering circle was a bit wider than I was used to, resulting in some embarrassing back paddling: " it’s a new bike " I want to shout at the patient couple waiting in some big Ford. Coming back into the centre I noticed how mad the engine sounded – at times it sounded like it was screaming at 5000 rpm – can’t anyone just cruise around town on these things? Back at the dealers I met up with the missus for her to take a picture (so that I could check the reach and seating position), and to talk moolah with the man inside.

Arriva’s Paul Haggett is a friendly guy – he’ll give you advice on kit, bikes, times to buy, racing, and he’ll tell you if the tyres on the bike you’re trying to part exchange are shagged. We went outside (it wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, but… actually it was) and he was right. Bollocks. My missus wasn’t impressed that I’d been riding on illegal tyres, and he didn’t believe I didn’t already know. Well the handling had been off.

Money wise he was prepared to offer £2200 for the SV (as he estimated new tyres would cost him £250), and he could fix up an unregistered blue in a couple of days for £5999. They’d also fit a Lazerline 860 alarm for an extra £350. Of course he gave the usual sales patter about this offer not being around for ever: par for the course innit? So I’ve got my first price – my SV plus £4149 gets me a spanking blue ZX-6R including alarm. Tempting.

Next was Wheel Torque: the bike shop where I bought my SV and half the gear I ride in. I’d recommend it to anyone. Dave is the owner and he’s a stereotypical Scouser – all cheeky grin and matey patter. No one I rang in Bristol could loan me a GSX-R600 except Wheel Torque who had a ‘T’ reg model they were happy to let me out on, and I was happy to let them.

I don’t want to buy a second hand bike, but the handling’s probably near as damn it to a new model. Actually no – the 2001 model’s supposed to be a different bike with a new FI engine – but at least this bike would give me a rough idea of what it was all about.

The bike wheeled out was a beauty. Black and silver doesn’t sound like an exciting colour scheme, but this looked fantastic. This bike had some tinkering – standard can (Suzuki, but new as the right fairing had nasty scratches along it), braided hoses, amazing looking tyres (Pirelli) with smooth edges, a rear hugger and heated grips (on a gixer!?). The heated grips implied all year use, but there wasn’t any obvious corrosion other than surface rust on a couple of bolt heads.

The bike started up, I sat on it, and thought " oh sh*t " – very racy, very big tank – a very " fat " bike. My arms were okay, but I immediately got cramp in my thighs due to the high pegs – it soon went.

Feet from the shop I stopped at a red light and noticed two guys in the car on my left staring at this thing – the older fella of the two noticed I’d noticed him and shouted " Just admiring your bike! " . I shouted back " it’s not mine! " while pointing at the green light he’d missed while I was in the right filter lane.

While riding along I notice other bikers " nodding " to me more than I they do when I’m on my SV, I’m getting more looks at the lights than I do on my SV, and I feel like a menacing hooligan on this black, loud, scary looking monster. Superb! Funny thing is I know what they mean – who wouldn’t look at this bike as it passed them?

Anyone riding this would feel like riding this through suburbia, revving at teenage girls, pulling wheelies, disgusted looking mothers covering their awe-struck kids’ ears because of the deafening blast. Way cool. Except I’d need a leather jacket instead of Gore-Tex. And I can’t pull wheelies.

Again, the same clean sound around town but this time with bigger speakers (it’s slowly sinking in that this is how all of these bikes will sound), and is absolutely fantastic in corners. My brief fling with ZX-6R was forgotten and there was a new love in my life, and all this before leaving heavy traffic.

The same ‘B’ road was approached, this time at the end of a long queue of cars themselves behind a lorry and on top of this, another biker was behind me, and a large winding hill was ahead. I suddenly felt under pressure on a sports bike, but had no worries as the bike felt like it could handle anything.

I took a few cars and pulled in for a bend. Chummie is right behind me. It’s obvious he’s got a lot more experience than I have as he made the same pass look effortless. I took another few and pulled in behind the lorry. Check the mirrors – yup he’s right there. He must feel smug keeping up with some lunatic who’s trying too hard on a plastic bullet on a windy road.

It’s a left bend on the hill, so I check past the left of the lorry, all clear, move right, blind check, and nail it. Holy…Shit…. Everything’s moving very fast. A mirror check shows the other bike in the distance, just in front of the lorry. A check of the speedo – aw shit – it’s in kilometers an hour. Whatever the translation it’s way too fast.

A sweeping right-hander approaches, so I touch the front brakes, then think " sod it " , and nail it again. I feel so elated I honestly think I’m going to start getting a boner. On the slightly more sedate route back I think " you’re a naughty boy " while grinning to myself. I want this bike like I wanted the Kawasaki earlier. It looks good, sounds the same as the Kwak but louder and with an unholy rasp, and the position feels completely committed like you’re strapped on tight to a rocket.

I’m sure I’m leaning more on this bike than I’ve ever leant before but that could just be because the pegs are high. Although the gearbox feels a lot more like the SV (both suzukis, that’s why), clutchless change ups don’t cause any " jolts " on this bike. The gear lever could be a little lower – because of the angle of your legs it’s just slightly awkward to change down gears.

Funnily enough as I’m revving loudly through town at 32mph it hits me that the position isn’t really uncomfortable at all (one of the main criticisms of this bike), but I do find my crotch rammed up against the tank around town as I subconsciously try to correct my posture (and it’s only our first date).

My wrists are aching slightly (like they do on the SV after a couple of hours) but it’s easy to bring the weight off them with your stomach muscles and the seat is comfier than the SV – I don’t know what the fuss is about. Again, it feels like there’s little engine breaking, and the brakes don’t bite like the SV, but that’s just my lack of experience of these bikes – no problem. The fact that it feels so solid in corners makes up for changes in braking style.

There’s not a massive difference between it and the Kawasaki – the Suzuki feels faster due to the riding position (just the legs really – the arms are in roughly the same place), feels like it tips into corners more safely, and sounds louder, but they’re a fairly similar experience at the end of the day.

Back at Wheel Torque and I’m offered £2300 for mine (after I cleverly mentioned the bald tyre, and he cleverly dropped the offer price), and I can get me a new import for £5299, or £5699 for a new UK bike plus £300 to fit a veto evo alarm. Not looking for an import, so that’s the SV plus £3699 for this piece of heaven. He also mentions that if I hand him £1800 plus my SV, he’ll fix up the bike I rode including that mark on the exhaust, and put a proper km/h to mph tacho on it. Oh lordy.

I’m off to Fowlers to sort out the final bike of the test – the CBR600FS.

Fowlers have a strange policy about test rides. When I rang them on Friday I was told that I couldn’t book a time for a test ride in advance – I’d have to ring on the day. Here I was, ringing on the day, and the salesman on the other end of the line is confused about whether or not this will be possible as some film crew are due to take some shots of their bikes later that day. Bizarre.

He checks again and puts someone sane on the line who tells me to get straight over there. A quick nip across town to Fowlers finds that the bike’s just gone out and should be a while. I pass most of the ¾ of an hour waiting for a cheeseburger from the mobile food van. The bike finally arrives and the woman who gets off looks pleased.

Salesman Chris Ford leaves me to fill out a form and I take the bike on the same route. And although I get a faster speed on this than I have done on the other two, it’s not the same experience at all. The noise from the exhaust is good (sounds like the GSX would if your ears needed syringing) but the brakes were an oddity – the front one is fantastic, but I could barely tell if they’ve put a brillo instead of a brake pad in the back one. Maybe they just need a lot more warming up.

Head and shoulders were getting just as much of a battering at speed as the unfaired SV, and cornering wasn’t great – it didn’t feel a million miles from the old Suzuki. Perhaps the thing that put me off the most was the power delivery. Honda’s injection mapping probably makes a lot of sense for some speeds, but for me (on this example of a CBR600), I didn’t feel comfortable with it.

A case in point: I overtook a car, rammed open the throttle, and it felt like it barely accelerated. Machine and I sat on the wrong side of the road for what seemed like five seconds before another surge of power kicked in and the bike took off. It really didn’t feel like it should be kicked down a cog so that can’t be good, can it? Strangely for a demo bike in constant demand, the seat felt hard – harder than the GSX, and to me the weight on the wrists didn’t feel that different to the GSX – sure the position is more upright, but there still seems to be a lot of weight forward. One final quirk was that there was a bit of vibration through the handles. No worse than the SV, but noticeable compared to the other two bikes.

The digital tacho is cool and I love the precision of the readout: " I’m now doing 47 miles an hour " . Cool. Sorta. The bike’s very solid as well – everything feels very new about it, plus the timings for gear changes feel more like what I’m used to than the other two.

Back to Fowlers for the part exchange quote on a new CBR, although in honestly I can’t imagine why I’d ever buy one. They propose £2699 for my bald tyred, fly-covered twin, plus another £3300 for a CBR plus £350 for an evo alarm.

My attention turns to the GSXR600s lining the showroom. " How about one of those? " . " Same, but it’ll cost you £300 less " .

So the day’s chores are done, and I’d learned a lot.

The CBR wouldn’t be worth the change for me. The ZX6R is a really good bike - it really felt the business and was silky smooth at all times - sod all the " old technology " criticisms. Main problem is next year’s 636cc version; I’d wait for the new model if I was going to buy one of these (although I’d been told that due to limited shipping numbers the wait could be late into 2002).

Given the fact that the bike’s position is sporty, it’s so controllable at slow speeds plus the pillion is catered for, this would probably make the most sense to buy. Unfortunately sense doesn’t come into it - the GSX is probably the bike I’d like to own the most. It felt very wide (kinda big bikey) and corners fast, although I’d possibly find the riding position difficult for longer periods, and my missus would find the pillion experience " life changing " .

At the end of the day I’m after something that’s very different from my current bike, and fun – the GSX had the most fun for me, even though it’s not a hugely different bike to the ZX-6R. I’d be more than happy with any of these bikes. I’m not buying anything until I’ve tried a 2001 model though as the chassis, weight and power have all changed dramatically, allegedly. I can’t test a 2001 model GSX or the 636cc ZX6R, so the only bike of the three I can actually test ride is the only one I don’t want to buy. Another winter on the SV it is, and next year I’ll be test riding the new 636 and the new GSX before I buy.

Thanks to: Arriva Kawasaki – 0117-9772272, Fowlers – 0117-9770466 and Wheel Torque – 0117-9396658

Like this review? If so, what is it that you like about it? Got some criticism of it? If so what’s wrong with it? Have your say by following the link, right, and adding comments to the thread " Amateur Hour " .