Suzuki GSX-R: the models, the rivals and the verdict
The Suzuki GSX-R model family can trace its history back to 1985 (for markets outside Japan) and the GSX-R750. The bike was as close as you could get to the brand’s F1 racer for the road at the time and used a pared-down design and oil-cooled engine to be as lightweight as possible.
Suzuki seemed pretty confident, even then, announcing to the world: "The Suzuki GSX-R is the essence of motorcycling reduced to its purest form and the GSX-R will be a motorcycling legend." Brave words indeed but what we didn’t realise back then was that they were right on the money.
- Latest news: 2017 GSX-R1000 revealed at Intermot
The new machine came with a new 749cc four-cylinder engine with SACS (Suzuki Advanced Cooling System) that used oil to cool the bike's motor instead of just air or water, an idea that Suzuki borrowed from the USA’s World War II fighter plane, the P51 Mustang. The first bikes also had a claimed power output of 100bhp and a dry weight of 176kg (387lb) with a top speed of 148mph.
It wasn’t long before the bike started racking up racing success. Kevin Schwantz was teamed up with Graham Crosby and together they finished third in the gruelling and highly important Suzuka 8-hour. Another pair of bikes backed that up with a first and second at the Le Mans 24-hour in 1985.
But it wasn’t just the 750 that we remember. The biggest, baddest, some say perfect builder's bike of them all was the GSX-R1100 launched a year later. Using similar technology it was fitted with a larger capacity 1052cc motor putting out 128bhp.
The bike was built to give a bigger spread of torque and massive mid-range unlike the screaming 750 with more top-end. The GSX-R1100 was made all the way through to 1996 by which time a new generation of superbikes like the Honda CBR900RR FireBlade and Kawasaki ZX-9R were ruling the roost.
When the bike was launched, the top Grand Prix race machines were 500cc two-strokes and 750cc four-stroke superbikes were still a developing prospect. But then in 1988 the creation of the World Superbike race series cemented four-stroke 750s into the ranges of many manufacturers.
As the racers evolved into 1000cc superbike and 600cc supersport machines, so too did the road-going base bikes and many manufacturers dropped 750cc bikes from their range.
But the GSX-R750 endured, with its screaming 750cc engine that was easier to manage than a 200bhp superbike coupled with lightness and agility. In the right hands, the 750 could actually be quicker than its 1000cc big brother, the GSX-R1000 as former 500cc World Champion, Kevin Schwantz told MCN.
"I never actually had a direct hand in developing any GSX-R750 model, but I’m confident that some of the things I did through my Grand Prix career filtered through to production," he said.
"My instructors and I ride GSX-R750s at my school. I’ve had 1000s in the past and I guarantee you that I can go around a track faster on a 750 than I can on a 1000, especially at Barber Motorsports where the school is.
"I still think from 600 to 750 to 1000, as close as all those bikes are now, the extra mass, extra power, everything about the 1000 for me is that much harder work. The 750 is the perfect bike and I’ve always felt that – it’s a 600 with a little bit more grunt and a little bit more torque. It’s the perfect combination."
A big leap forward came in 1996 with the release of the SRAD (Suzuki Ram Air Direct) version. Everything you see on a fast Suzuki today dates back to this: super-stiff beam frame, high-revving, short-stroke motor, ram-air, anorexic chassis, and market-leading steering geometry that mimics GP bikes.
In a race-replica class that had already been refining itself for 10 years, this was a quantum leap as significant as that of the Honda FireBlade, four years before.
During its lifetime, the GSX-R750 had to see off competition from impressive rivals such as the Yamaha FZ750 and YZF-R7, Kawasaki ZXR750 and ZX-7R, the Ducati 749 and then a new generation of larger-capacity superbikes such as the FireBlade and Yamaha R1.
The GSX-R was much lighter (thanks to its aluminium beam frame, a first for a mass-produced bike) than the FZ750 and its better looks and more futuristic design gave it the edge in the battle of the showrooms.
The battle for middleweight supremacy waged on into the 90s and it took a serious overhaul for the Suzuki to respond to the Kawasaki ZXR750 and later ZX-7R models.
But the GSX-R kept moving with the times and remains a brilliant choice of machine whether you’re a trackday addict or a road rider.
The GSX-R1100 was killed off in 1996 and it took until 2001 before its replacement, the GSX-R1000 came along. But what a replacement it was. The Honda FireBlade had redefined the superbike class with precision and refinement, then the Yamaha R1 combined that poise with outrageous power and acceleration.
The ‘Gixxer-thou’ moved the game on again with immense power available from practically no revs and brilliant handling on both the track and the road, which saw it leading the fast group at trackdays from day one.
The GSX-R1000 is still a very competent superbike, but it has been left behind by the latest generation of 1100cc V4 machines like the Aprilia RSV4 1100 Factory and the Ducati Panigale V4 S and the 2019 ShiftCam-enabled BMW S1000RR.
The latest 2017 version makes 200bhp and was released in standard trim alongside a hot GSX-R1000R version featuring a top-spec electronics package and a quickshifter/autoblipper.
MCN spoke to Shinichi Sahara, Chief Engineer for the new Suzuki GSX-R1000 models before the bike's release about the firm's decision to stick with a traditional inline-four engine.
"Both a V4 and inline-four have their own advantages and disadvantages and my experience with a V4 told me that for a production bike an inline four is a better option," he said.
"Honestly speaking, it is also good for the MotoGP and street bike to have a similar engine. We simulated many engine configurations, including an uneven firing order inline-four, but the conventional firing order was the best solution.
"An uneven firing order needs a heavy balancer shaft and stronger engine cases where the conventional engine is lighter and makes better power characteristics throughout its entire rev range."
Suzuki’s supersport offering since 1996 has been the GSX-R600. The bike used a chassis based on the brand’s RGV500 Grand Prix bike and the handling was superb but could also catch you out when riding hard.
The original bike’s 92bhp was all unleashed right at the top of the rev range, something Suzuki have worked to soften over the years.
The 2011 bike would be the last and was made through until 2016 when it was dropped at the same time as the 750 against a backdrop of dwindling supersport sales. By then it developed over 125bhp, boasted Showa Big Piston Forks and Brembo Monobloc brakes.
Plenty of manufacturers build race-replica style bikes for new riders and Suzuki are no exception. The GSX-R125 was launched in 2017 and apes the looks of the firm’s flagship sportsbikes but with an A1-friendly 14.8bhp single-cylinder engine.
The riding position is sporty, even if the power output isn’t, with the rider canted-forward over clip-on handlebars. The suspension is basic but adequate considering the bike’s low weight and it’s possible to carry more corner speed than a new rider is likely to manage.