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SUZUKI GSX1100 KATANA (1981-1985) Review

Published: 14 March 2019

The Katana is the shape of things to come

Suzuki Katana GSX1100S Katana

The Katana is the shape of things to come

  • At a glance
  • 1075cc  -  111 bhp
  • 35 mpg  -  168 miles range
  • Medium seat height (775mm)

Hold on to your hats ‘cause this machine could mean the end of motor cycling as we know it… yes, the Katana cometh! Looking more like a Star Wars interceptor than a motorbike, the GSX1100S has taken two-wheeler styling by the scruff of the neck and thrown it boldly into the 1980s.

Things will never be the same again. Compared with the Big Kat, the 550 and 650 Katanas were mere toys, meek harbingers of things to come, and only a close encounter of the third kind will grant you a true insight into the future.

The gospel according to Suzuki reads: "Motorcycle riding is indeed enchanting. All riders seek the fulfilment of that fascinating dream full of excitement…"

Suzuki Katana GSX1100S Katana

My own fascinating dream full of excitement has nothing at all to do with a motor cycle and, although I wouldn't mind a shot at fulfilling it, I don't think I've got the strength. But I know what Suzuki are getting at, at least, I think I do.

They see the Katana as the embodiment of their concept of the ultimate dream machine — tomorrow's bike, today. And just to prove their concept of the ultimate is as good as — if not better than — anybody else's, they've hired one of the known universe's most famous interceptor pilots, 'Star Trooper Crosby, to fly the Big Kat in our Streetbike series so may the best bike win. But enough of this star gazing.

Beam one up, Scotty and let's take a closer look at this strange craft. It seems as though Suzuki have had something like the Big Kat in mind, ever since they introduced the GS-series of four cylinder four strokes in 1975.

The first GSX appeared four years later in 1979, and Suzuki were well on the way to something special. They had the engine they needed, and were busy working on a unique, hydraulic anti-dive front fork which was to he fitted first to their racing machines, and ultimately to their new roadster.

Original Suzuki Katana brochure

All it needed was a brave design team willing to forget everything they'd learnt about traditional 1100 motorcycle styling, and who could design a machine immediately recognisable as a new concept.

The brief given to Target design, the Anglo-German freelance men commissioned to do the artwork, was to capture the 'Southern European' look — or in other words: 'Give it that Italian flair'.

The result isn't to every-body's tastes — but you've got to admit the Big Kat isn't an easy bike to overlook. Apart from making the bike look futuristic, the styling also had to be practical and Suzuki subjected the final design to repeated wind-tunnel tests, constantly revising and altering details, until they arrived at what appeared to be the most satisfactory combination.

The most prominent feature is the nose cone fairing, tank and frame cover which are unitized into one. The total effect is a silhouette of the Japanese sword — and that's where the Katana name is derived from.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana profile

Held only by top ranking officials, the unchallenged authority - of the Katana is clearly demonstrated in the ancient Japanese tradition.

Its atypical styling has certainly had an effect on the Katana's handling and high speed stability. With the rider flat on the tank, his helmet and back form part of a smooth, sweeping line extending from the mudguard, over the fairing, and through to the seat.

With the rider in this position, the Big Kat cuts through the air like a Katana sword through butter — Ultra-stable and without a trace of a wobble.

But when you're sitting up it's a different story. Instead of directing the airflow neatly over the bike, the fairing pushes it up on to the solid wall of a human chest, creating a disturbed airflow and lots of turbulence.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana switch gear

This turbulence completely upsets the bike's carefully balanced aerodynamics, and at over 130 mph, the Katana has to fight against the wind and begins to wobble.

This is easily cured by dropping back on to the tank and, as it only happens near the machine's maximum speed, I can't see many road riders having any problems. Another slight problem is the Katana's dislike of side winds which tend to force it off course if you're not careful.

Again, I suspect this is a side-effect of the styling, so it's something you have to put up with. On the road, the Katana is extremely comfortable to ride, with the seating position just right, and the dropped bars allowing you to lean on the same wind which causes the problems at ultra-high speed.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana accessories catalogue

Obviously, how well the bike fits you depends on your size. But with my six-foot frame, I found my knees slotted neatly into the recesses at the side of the tank and I was totally comfortable at all speeds and over any distance.

As with the smaller Katanas, there's an incredible feeling of one-ness with your machine once astride the bike. Sitting inside, rather than on the bike instantly promotes confidence.

The engine is pure racer

It also keeps your groin warm. The riding position is pure racer and, like the styling, won't be attractive to everybody. But it's well suited to the bike's capabilities. The engine is pure racer too.

Suzuki's four stroke DOHC engine has built up quite a reputation over the years for reliability and smoothness. The GSX was the first engine to feature Suzuki's unique twin swirl combustion chamber.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana handling

In the GSX-S series, the engine has been modified to give the original 99bhp lump even more warp drive 111bhp to be exact. Two or three years ago even the works 500 racers didn't produce as much power as that. Frightening, isn't it?

Inertial weight of each valve was kept low in the mill to allow larger volumes of intake and higher rpm. This, coupled with the TSCC for more effective combustion, has given the engine a remarkable spread of power and completely eradicated any trace of a power band.

This lack of power band and the amount of power available make the Katana a sensational machine to ride. You just open the tap and hang on for dear life. Very few things pass this evil pussy on full chat.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana tucked in

Flat out the Kat will pull almost 142 mph, making it the second fastest stock production bike we've tested at MCN. The CBX was just a shade faster but had a slight tail wind to help her. Katy did it all alone.

Actually, Suzuki were a little disappointed with the top speed figure, they quote 147 mph in their advertising. But, as far as I'm concerned, 141.5 mph is quite fast enough for a road bike.

Bloody hell, that's already twice the legal limit, and anybody who says they can make full use of 111 bhp on the road is either a liar or a contender for the world championship. The most impressive thing is that the Katana ran through the light three times at exactly the same speed — and even the CBX couldn't manage that.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana on track

Seeing as how Honda have never released one of the CB1100Rs for testing I couldn't say just how fast it is. But the Kat compares well with the GPZ1100, which could only manage 137 mph (although I know another magazine managed to squeeze 142 out of theirs) and the XS1100 Yamaha, which is a relative slow-coach at 132.09.

The last GSX we tested ran through the timing lights at 134.5 mph, so that extra 12bhp has certainly made its presence felt. It's also faster over the standing-quarter than the Kawasaki — but only by 0.1 seconds.

High speed runs are my speciality but for the drag racing it was over to MCN's sprint supremo Terry Lee Snelling — I just stood at the side smirking. With 111 bhp on tap, standing-quarters are always interesting, and I had a great afternoon watching 'TLS' fighting the bike Sumo-style as it tried every trick in the book to avoid going in a straight line.

The Katana did break one record that afternoon, the one for the longest tyre-smoking skid mark away from the line. It almost matched the length of the skid mark in Terry's leathers.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana turns at speed

Despite the hairy cams and uprated motor, the Katana doesn’t really have much of a thirst by present day standards. During track testing it managed to drink a gallon of two Star every 29 miles.

But on the road it would run for anywhere between 35 and 40 miles on a gallon. As with all Japanese bikes, the oil consumption was negligible. Looking at the front of the bike, you'll realise that it's not only the styling that makes the Katana unique.

It's got anti-dive forks, the first road bike to get them. Usually when braking hard for a corner (or after spotting a police car) the load is thrust forward on to the front wheel, compressing the forks, and even bottoming them out in severe cases.

This means the forks cease to function as suspension units, and if you should be unfortunate enough to hit a bump, there's a chance the front wheel will break away.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana from behind

If that's never happened to you and you don't believe me — just ask Barry Sheene how he took the tumble which led to his being a finger short on his clutch hand.

Also, this sudden weight transference makes the back end go very light, which means you have a problem with the back wheel locking up. To prevent this diving motion, Suzuki have developed the hydraulic anti-dive front fork, which has already proved its worth on the RG500 racers.

Normally, the only way to prevent the forks from taking a severe nose dive is by having the suspension set very hard. But this means the forks don't soak up the bumps all that well, so rider comfort suffers.

Suzuki's forks help solve the problem quite simply. As the inner fork leg slides down under braking, oil from the lower part of the leg enters it.

But regulating the flow of oil, the load imposed by the weight transference can be matched by a progressive increase in the oil pressure.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana turning right

Thus, the more load applied to the front end, the harder the forks become — and the less the front dips. Hit a bump, and a special valve releases the pressure just enough for the forks to absorb the shock before returning them to their firmer setting.

All of which sounds very complicated but it's not, if you can see one in operation. Actually riding the bike, the only thing you notice is that the front end drops slightly even under heavy braking, and that the back brake is more useful than usual.

Another advantage at night is that the headlight remains more or less at the same height, cutting out the need for any self-levelling device.

Suzuki claim their race track success has been more than a little due to this device, which seems odd to me — I'd have thought it was more due to the guys who were riding the bikes but I suppose they know what they're talking about.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana front brakes

The rear shocks have four— position damping adjustment and five positions of pre-load easily adjustable with a ratched lever mounted on the bottom of each unit.

Unfortunately, rear shocks have an incredible influence on a machine's handling, and here I think Suzuki have a bit of a problem. Under most circumstances, the Katana handled very well, winging its way round corners like the racer it seem destined to be.

But round long, sweeping bends it would gradually begin to wallow, and on one occasion this got so bad I was getting ready to jump into my jet pod and bail out before it came out of the corner and righted itself.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana cockpit

Jacking the rear shocks up certainly helped but the problem was never completely eliminated, and I don't think it will be until Suzuki take a fresh look at the suspension.

Apart from this disturbing trait round long bends, the craft handled as well as any big bike. You could feel the weight but it was never a real problem.

The steering is light and precise, and with firmer rear suspension the Katana would be a very impressive handling machine. The front end goes light under power but with the back end striving to lay 111bhp on the road, that's not surprising.

The twin discs up front are incredibly powerful

On the subject of putting power on the tarmac, the GSX-S has an excellent gearbox. The change is immaculate and the ratios well spaced, making the box a joy to use. Also impressive are the brakes.

The twin discs up front are incredibly powerful and, although the Katana won't exactly stop on a sixpence, they're certainly one of the best I've used on a 'mega bike'.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana engine

The front wheel will lock if you grab too big a handful but there should be no reason for this to happen very often as the action is beautifully progressive, giving you absolute control.

The rear brake is housed in an aluminium box-section swinging arm which was designed to help reduce the bike's unsprung weight.

The frame itself is a double cradle loop built from high tensile steel pipe and finished in an attractive silver-grey. In keeping with the bike's futuristic styling, the instrument panel is distinctly Battlestar Galactica, with an unconventional speedo.

This takes a little getting used to but doesn't present any great problems — and like the rest of the machine, it sure is different.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana badge

The choke control is fitted to the left-hand side panel and, again, is on an unusual dial type. The motor required quite a lot of warming up first thing in the morning but once the Kat has wiped the sleep out of its eyes, it'll usually start without any assistance.

Like its feline namesake, the Kat is happy to go out at nighty using its powerful halogen headlight to keep the road ahead well illuminated during the dark and gloomy hours.

The dip is a little severe but once back on main beam it's possible to motor along just as fast as you want to go — or as fast as the police will let you, whichever is the faster.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana turning left

To aid re-entry into the atmosphere, the pipes carry a black chrome finish to aid heat dispersion and add to the bike's inherent good looks. Well tucked up out of the way, you'd have to be going pretty hard to touch them down, Suzuki quoting a 49-degree banking angle.

If you are trying hard, the centre stand will go to the tarmac, but touching the engine down is definitely race track stuff. Fast though the Katana is, I suspect the majority of people will buy one more in an attempt to be different than anything else.

The styling is a poseur's dream, and when riding through town it's hard to resist a crafty look at yourself as you pass by plate-glass windows.

The Katana is the shape of things to come. So, even if you don’t like the styling, I’ve a feeling you’ll have to get used to it – or buy a Triumph. This is Voyager One signing off… OK, Scotty. Warp Factor Eight…

MORE FROM MCN

Original Katana poster from 1981

Facts & Figures

Model info
Year introduced 1981
Year discontinued 1985
Original price £2,850
Used price -
Warranty term (when new) -
Running costs
Insurance group -
Annual road tax £88
Annual service cost -
Performance
Max power 111 bhp
Max torque 70.9 ft-lb
Top speed 148 mph
1/4-mile acceleration 11.7 secs
Average fuel consumption 35 mpg
Tank range 168 miles
Specification
Engine size 1075cc
Engine type aircooled four cylinder DOHC four stroke
Frame type Double cradle loop steel tube
Fuel capacity 22 litres
Seat height 775mm
Bike weight 231kg
Front suspension Oil-damped, telescopic, anti-dive forks
Rear suspension Twin shocks, four-position damping, five-position preload
Front brake Twin hydraulic disc
Rear brake Single hydraulic disc
Front tyre size 100/90 R19
Rear tyre size 130/90 R17

Owners' Reviews

No owners have yet reviewed the SUZUKI GSX1100 KATANA (1981-1985).

Review your SUZUKI GSX1100 KATANA (1981-1985)

Photo Gallery

  • Suzuki Katana GSX1100S Katana
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana turning left
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana badge
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana engine
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana turning right
  • SUZUKI GSX1100 KATANA  (1981-1985)
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana on track
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana front brakes
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana handling
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana from behind
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana cockpit
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana tucked in
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana switch gear
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana turns at speed
  • Original Suzuki GSX1100 Katana brochure
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana profile
  • Suzuki GSX1100 Katana accessories catalogue
  • Original Katana poster from 1981
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