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MD 2006 Supersport Shootout

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: when you spotted this article on the front page, the first thing that probably went through your mind was some variation of ‘what the heck took them so long!?’.

Well, all scheduling conflicts and personal distractions aside, the toughest part this year was figuring out how to rank the bikes. I know that I’m repeating a phrase used so often in magazine shootouts that its become the ultimate cliché, but the truth is, every one of the current Japanese supersport machines is so good, it has become hard to rank them. Each bike has its strengths, along with a few small weaknesses, and each machine appeals to a different sort of rider or is ideal for a slightly different style of riding.

That said, we’ve finally put our heads together and come up with an order of ranking. Before I get into the relative merits of each bike, however, I’d like to say a few words about our testing methods.

As always with MD shootouts, we’ve concentrated strictly on real-world street riding. From our perspective, the majority of 600 buyers will use their bike for ‘fun rides’ through the local twisties, with some everyday commuting and around-town riding mixed in. Thus, we spent a large amount of time aboard each bike on Southern California’s canyons and mountains, as well as doing plenty of regular riding. The author alone has logged probably 5+ days of riding on each bike over the last two months.

Our testers varied widely in skill level (novice to expert), age (22 to 49), and weight (140 lbs to over 250 lbs). Two of our main testers are former racers who now stick mostly to road riding with a few track days thrown in; on the other end of the spectrum, we had a pure road rider who has only done a couple of track days in his whole life.

Where is Triumph’s new Daytona 675? Despite several efforts to contact Triumph to obtain a test unit, we couldn’t persuade them to participate.

Now that you know how we tested the bikes, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty – you want to know what we concluded, and I’m going to tell you.

First Place – 2006 Yamaha YZF-R6

As I said, there was a lot of deliberation about the rankings in this test – but nearly all of it was focused on ranking second through fourth place. Our testers were nearly unanimous (with one dissenter) in declaring one machine to be at the top of the heap, and that machine was Yamaha’s YZF-R6.

If you read our First Ride impression of the R6 (tested at California’s Willow Springs and Streets of Willow road courses), you know that we found this bike to be a top-flight companion on the racetrack. Somewhat surprisingly, three of our four testers loved the bike just as much on the street.

The chassis and suspension on the new R6 are flat-out incredible, particularly when ridden back-to-back with its competitors. The handling of this bike was the #1 reason why it topped our tester’s charts. 600s are bikes designed for the twisty bits, and the R6 does twisty bits like no other motorcycle we’ve ever ridden.

As one tester put it in his post-test notes, “You are not just plugged into this chassis – you ARE the chassis”. Although that statement might not be easy to explain in technical terms, one ride aboard the R6 will leave you with a perfect understanding of what he meant. Yamaha has somehow combined cat-like reflexes with extraordinary stability, and created a bike that turns in crisply and aggressively but with no hint of nervousness. Once on its side, it will effortlessly hold that line or make a mid-corner correction as needed (damn gravel!). Completing the corner is equally as crisp, with no hint of understeer or ‘push’ as the road straightens and the throttle is rolled on.

As we noted in our track test, the suspension offers a degree of adjustability unmatched in this class, with both high- and low-speed compression damping adjustment in addition to rebound damping and preload – and all those clickers actually work, with even small adjustments making a noticeable difference in suspension response. However, in our street testing we found that after a few minor adjustments, the suspension offered such a wide degree of flexibility that our testers felt little need to ‘personalize’ when we made bike changes. This is particularly amazing considering the wide variations in both ability and weight that I outlined in the introduction. Of course, each tester could have made a few small changes to more closely align the setup with his riding style – but the point is, we were able to find a ‘middle ground’ setup that worked pretty damn well for everyone.

The brakes are another strong point on the R6 – the radial-mount calipers provide strong stopping power and excellent feel, with the strongest initial bite of any bike in the test. However, there was little need to use the brakes when riding a moderate pace in the canyons, due to a combination of the R6’s ability to carry extremely high corner speed and the fairly strong engine braking provided by the Yamaha’s powerplant.

About that powerplant – most of our testers considered the engine to be the R6’s only major weak point, at least for street use. The powerband is basically dead anywhere before 10,000rpm (all rpm references are as indicated on the factory tachometer, see our previous articles regarding tachometer error on the R6 here and here), and it doesn’t start to really liven up until 13k. This can make around-town riding pretty difficult – pulling away from a stop is particularly difficult, requiring a heavy throttle hand and precise clutch application. Once moving, you’d better make sure you’re in the right gear all the time – if you don’t keep this motor in the right rev range, not much is going to happen.

Some of our testers found this more irritating than others, though all agreed that the incredible handling of the R6 more than made up for any deficit in the engine department. The level of irritation seemed to roughly correspond with the tester’s weight – being the lightweight of the group (I’m the 140lb rider mentioned earlier), I found it only mildly annoying, and it really only came to my attention when pulling away from a stop. Those riders over 200lbs, on the other hand, had more trouble keeping their momentum up, and thus found the lack of low-end and midrange power to be much more of a disadvantage. Larger riders might want to look elsewhere (perhaps to the ultra-torquey 636cc Kawasaki), particularly if they do more everyday riding that canyon-carving.

Whatever power is missing down low, you’ll definitely find it once the tachometer passes 13,000rpm – up top, this motor flat out hauls. Unfortunately, the powerband is pretty narrow; 13k-16k seems to be the ‘sweet spot’, with the last 1500rpm available mainly for overrev. And trust me, you need some headroom with this motor – once you get past 13k rpm, the tach needle swings for redline so quickly that it’s sometimes hard to catch it before you touch the limiter, particularly in the first two gears.

The fuel-injection mapping on the R6 is extremely transparent, and none of our testers were able to notice any unusual effects caused by the new ‘fly-by-wire’ throttle system – basically confirming what we found in our First Ride test. Yamaha’s programmers have managed to give the R6 extremely smooth and predictable off-on throttle transitions, and we found no hint of jerkiness anywhere in the rev range. In this category, the R6 stacks up evenly against the Kawasaki, which last year blew away all its competitors in terms of smooth fuel mapping.

One of the sweetest things about the R6 motor is the sound, which likely gains its character both from the motor’s extremely quick-revving nature, and from the new ‘shorty’ muffler. Whatever the cause, the result is sweet, sweet music – one of the best-sounding Japanese fours we’ve ever heard, and certainly in competition with the GSX-Rs (which have long been known as the best-sounding of the Japanese machines). Like the GSX-Rs, a good part of the sound that comes to the rider (probably the best part of it, actually) originates from the airbox, rather than the exhaust. This results in a machine that manages the best of both worlds – it sounds sweet enough to the rider that I often found myself blipping the throttle unnecessarily, but the volume is low enough to be entirely inoffensive to anyone not actually mounted on the bike itself.

The next thing most potential buyers are going to ask about are ergonomics, and here the R6 was also somewhat surprising to those of us (like myself) who hadn’t ridden it prior to the start of our testing. At first glance, the R6 looks small and rather cramped, and with Yamaha talking about the new design’s racetrack bias, some of us were expecting a Ducati-style torture rack. The R6 was only halfway there in this regard – yes, it is probably the most aggressive of the bunch, with a definite tail-high, head-down riding position – but it wasn’t so far beyond the other bikes as to be much less comfortable. In fact, I personally found the R6 to be just as comfortable as the GSX-R, and only marginally less so than the Kawasaki. The bike’s compact overall size helps – it keeps the reach to the bars reasonably short, which leaves your arms less stretched out than on some other bikes with a similar bar height.

The R6 does, however, have a fairly tall seat height, and we definitely wouldn’t recommend it for inseam-challenged riders.

The last thing we need to discuss is styling. Regular readers will have already memorized my usual disclaimer here: subjective, eye of the beholder, etc. That said, in the opinions of most of our testers, the R6 has the raw, edgy sex appeal that most buyers in this class are looking for – we particularly like the angular shape of the front fairing and intake duct, along with the ‘winglets’ on the sides of the fairing, and the equally angular tail section. The only spoiler is the ugly rear license plate mount, which has been accurately described as resembling a ‘spaceship docking station’. Luckily, Yamaha designed this to be easily removable, and the otherwise smooth undertail will make it easy for the aftermarket to design a much less obtrusive replacement. This would be my first purchase if I bought an R6.

The bottom line is that if you’re buying a 600 primarily to use for sporty riding, the R6 is king of the hill. At one point during the test, I was leading another rider (who is normally close to the same speed as me) up a long section of mountain road, and I absolutely left him for dead. The thing is, I wasn’t riding any harder, or pushing it any more than I did on any of the other bikes – the R6 is just that much better than the competition on a twisty road.

If you’re looking for a bike with more utility as an everyday machine, you may want to look elsewhere – but then again, if that’s what you’re looking for, you should probably be looking in a different class altogether. These are SPORT bikes, and the R6 is the best at what it does – devour corners like a cross between a Formula 1 race car and an eager, bounding puppy.

Second Place – 2006 Honda CBR600RR

If the R6 is an eager, bounding puppy, then we would describe Honda’s CBR600RR as, well, whatever kind of dog is still fast and eager, but at the same time more mature and calm than the ‘puppy’ R6. Maybe a greyhound?

Analogies aside, the CBR is an amazingly streetable sportbike, providing surprising comfort for the class, while at the same time being easy to ride and inspiring confidence in the rider.

The Honda’s chassis and suspension tuning combine to make the rider feel at home as soon as he climbs aboard – of all the bikes in this shootout, the Honda was the easiest to get used to riding. The suspension is plush but well controlled, providing a good ride over rough pavement, while still providing plenty of control for intermediate-level riders. Really fast or really large riders, however, might find the suspension to be too soft, creating excessive weight transfer under braking and acceleration. The CBR has excellent front end feel and feedback, but the aforementioned weight transfer can occasionally cause the bike to understeer when power is applied aggressively late in the corner.

In every other handling dynamic, the CBR is excellent: side to side transitions are light but stable, as is cornering, and the bike feels firmly in the rider’s control mid-corner. Our only other complaint was a trait that only bothered one of our testers: he felt that the CBR tended to ‘fall into’ corners, a trait he tentatively blamed on the original equipment Dunlop 218 tires.

The 600RR’s brakes are good, but not amazing; they provide strong initial bite, but under hard braking they simply get the job done without standing out as particularly powerful. In fact, this is a typical feature of the Honda – everything is competent, but nothing really jumps out and screams ‘this is a class-leading feature!’.

The Honda engine has a strong midrange that carries through to a reasonably strong top-end rush – this is the strongest of the ‘true 600cc’ motors, and the best street motor besides the 636cc Kawasaki. The smooth feel is again typical Honda, as is the relatively quiet exhaust note – the Honda was definitely the most conservative sounding bike in the test. This is one of those motors that disappears into the background – it provides strong enough acceleration everywhere that you are never left wanting, but at the same time, it doesn’t have the kind of forceful shove that really brings the rider’s attention to the motor.

The only thing about the CBR’s powerplant that isn’t transparent to the rider is the fuel injection. The 600RR exhibits a trait that almost all Honda sportbikes have had in common since the changeover to fuel injection – abrupt fuel mapping that creates a somewhat harsh transition from closed throttle to open throttle. In this case, however, Honda has obviously taken pains to try to eliminate this effect, and the 600RR is probably the best-injected bike Honda has so far produced. It can still be slightly irritating, however, and if Honda switches to throttle-by-wire for 2007 (as rumored), this is a trait we hope will disappear forever.

As I mentioned earlier, the Honda is the most comfortable of the bunch, with a slightly more upright riding position than the competition, as well as a more relaxed seat-to-peg relationship. Comfort is enhanced even further by the excellent seat, which has struck a happy medium as far as the firmness of the padding.

Surprisingly, the more comfortable setup doesn’t seem to hold the bike back when ridden aggressively; as usual, Honda has struck an excellent compromise. The only drawback we noticed was that the CBR was slightly more likely than the other bikes to drag the footpeg feelers while cornering, but we suspect this may have more to do with the fact that the CBR engenders more rider confidence than any other bike except the R6 – basically, we think we were leaning it farther!

The Honda’s styling, while perhaps not quite as cutting-edge as that of the new-for-06 Suzuki and Yamaha, is still quite attractive in a conservative kind of way. We found our test bike’s solid silver paint job to be quite a refreshing change from the typical loud, complicated graphics of most sport bikes – without the distraction of the graphics, one is free to more closely appreciate the Honda’s true form. However, for those riders who love to ‘look loud’, Honda offers several more aggressive paint schemes, including a wild orange and black color set sure to polarize the opinions of all viewers.

In the end, the Honda is the most sensible bike in this test. While it doesn’t match the potential of the R6 on a twisty road, it comes close enough as to be indistinguishable for most riders, and at the same time provides a much larger measure of streetability in its performance and ergonomics. If you’re buying a 600 mainly as a weekend bike to ride the mountains and canyons, the R6 is ideal; but the Honda excels in everyday usability for freeway/around-town riding, while still packing enough performance to put a smile on your face after the first real corner.

Third Place (Tie): 2006 Kawasaki ZX-6R

Ah, how the mighty have fallen. In our 2005 Supersport Shootout, we ranked the ZX-6R as number one, closely followed by the CBR600RR. Considering that both the Kawasaki and the Honda are nearly unchanged for 2006, what happened to reverse the ranking this year?

Possible variance in test units aside, this year we had a slightly different mix of testers; the author, in particular, was barely involved in the testing in 2005, while this year I was one of the main test riders. Tester skill level and preference changes this year also likely impacted our final rankings.

As we said in our 2005 shootout, the ZX-6R has an excellent chassis, quick and precise with a small hint of instability. What held it back in this year’s evaluation was the combination of that slight instability with the lack of a steering damper. Our test bike this year was also handicapped by a fork that seemed unwilling to co-operate with our attempts to dial it in for each tester. This contributed to mediocre front end performance, a serious handicap when the competition all provides excellent front end feel and feedback. The ZX-6R also left us wishing for a steering damper; with significantly more torque than the competition, the front end has a tendency to get very light when you’re hard on the throttle, and without a steering damper this can occasionally cause some minor headshake. If we bought a ZX-6R, a steering damper would be first on our list of upgrades.

Besides the flaws mentioned above, the ZX-6R’s chassis was as impressive as ever. The problem for the Kawasaki is that for this year, its chassis dynamics are being compared against a new benchmark (the Yamaha R6), and we found them slightly lacking in comparison.

The brakes are one area where the Kawasaki excels – one tester even went so far as to say the ZX-6R had ‘probably the best brakes in the class’. Not everyone went that far, but we all agreed that braking is certainly one of the Kawasaki’s strong points, with great power and feel from the front brakes. For those of you who use the rear brake on the street (as I do), you’ll also want to know that the Kawasaki has one of the easiest-to-modulate rear brakes I have ever used.

The ZX-6R’s biggest strength is its engine – the 636cc motor was the same as we remembered it, with an inexplicably huge advantage in torque and midrange power over the competition. Inexplicable? Well, we certainly felt that the advantage was much more than would be expected from a mere 36cc of displacement – honestly, the 6R feels perhaps closer to a 750 than a 600 in the midrange, although the top-end power advantage isn’t nearly as significant.

All that power comes topped with buttery-smooth delivery, and the Kawasaki still has the best fuel-injection mapping in the class – how Kawasaki’s engineers managed to make the off/on throttle transition so smooth is quite beyond me, and obviously beyond engineers from other brands as well; of this crop of bikes, only the Yamaha comes close, and it is VERY close, but we’d still give a tiny edge to the Kawasaki.

These characteristics make a big contribution to the 6R’s fun factor, making it easier to ride smoothly without putting in excessive effort. Unfortunately, the 6R’s chassis dynamics are not the equal of its motor, or it would have stood atop the podium again this year.

The Kawasaki produced split opinions on its comfort level, with some testers finding it nearly as relaxing as the Honda, while others felt it was the least comfortable of the four. The somewhat long reach to the bars might have something to do with that – riders with longer arms seemed to complain less than their shorter-arm counterparts.

The Kawasaki’s seat is also pretty damn comfortable, and the footpeg position strikes a reasonable balance between ground clearance and comfort. According to a passenger who rode pillion at various times on every bike in the shootout, the Kawasaki’s rear seat is the best of the bunch. According to her, the grippy crosshatched material of the seat cover kept her butt in place as the rider flicked the bike into the turn, as opposed to other bikes whose slick seat covers would cause her to slide downwards towards the inside of the turn. If you regularly ride with a passenger, a sportbike probably isn’t the best choice, but if you have to take a passenger on one of these bikes, think about the Kawasaki.

All testers complained that the low windscreen on the Kawasaki provided negligible wind protection, as well as partially obscuring the view of the gauge cluster from the rider. The gauge cluster itself represents another problem – even if you can see it past the windscreen, it is difficult to read on a sunny day. The new-for-2006 ZX-10R got an amazing gauge cluster as part of its redesign, and we’re hoping Kawasaki has that on the list for the 2007 ZX-6R as well.

The ZX-6R’s rounded, slightly bulbous styling is still unique, and most testers found it to be one of the more attractive bikes of the group. As with the Honda, the single-color paint job provided for greater appreciation of the lines of the bike itself, and seems much less likely to look dated in 5 years or so.

In the end, the ZX-6R is an excellent package let down mainly by the performance problems we had with the front end. Is it possible that the failure was ours, for failing to set up the forks correctly? Our 2005 test bike didn’t seem to exhibit the same problems, and another ’06 that I rode at Infineon Raceway seemed fine as well (although Infineon lacks the bumps and surface irregularities of a public road). It could be that the R6 suspension this year brought into focus issues with competitor’s suspension we hadn’t appreciated in the past.

However, if you want a torquey middleweight with a stomping midrange, the ZX-6R is still an excellent choice – just be prepared to spend some time testing to discover an ideal suspension setup.

Third Place (Tie): 2006 Suzuki GSX-R600

Although slightly overshadowed by the hype surrounding the R6, the other big news in the Supersport class for 2006 was Suzuki’s all-new GSX-R600. Completely redesigned from the ground up, many predicted that the battle for dominance in this shootout would be between the GSX-R and the R6.

When we talked about the chassis of the GSX-R, several testers remarked that if the new R6 was removed from the equation, we would all be talking about how great the Suzuki’s chassis is – a statement that met with universal agreement.

The GSX-R600’s chassis, suspension and overall handling is a step above the Kawasaki and even the Honda – just not quite as big a step as the R6. The chassis is the biggest part of the improvement – the Suzuki is light and flickable, yet stable, and in the end has many similar characteristics to the R6. This bike turns in crisply and aggressively, holds its line effortlessly, and finishes the corner cleanly every time.

The area where the Suzuki’s handling falls short of the R6 is in the suspension. While the GSX-R worked reasonably well with close-to-stock settings, it just doesn’t have that silky-smooth action and incredible feedback that the Yamaha provides. Another problem is the adjustment: the rebound and compression damping adjustments on the GSX-R’s shock and forks seem to have minimal effect, at least until you reach the very extreme ranges of adjustment (one tester noted that nothing happened until the last full turn of adjustment). For comparison, every small adjustment on the Yamaha produced an effect so pronounced as to be obvious to even the least experienced testers, making it much easier to correctly set up the suspension for each rider.

One tester summed up his feelings about the Suzuki’s handling with this statement: “Suspension works well, but it seems to mask the potential of the chassis, not communicating with the rider clearly….. Chassis is probably the equal of the Yamaha’s, but not without some fiddling first and a suspension upgrade.”

The Suzuki’s brakes are powerful, but lack initial bite, and at least one tester felt they required an excessive amount of pressure at the lever to really ‘get to work’. Also, the profile of the Suzuki’s front brake lever is unusually chunky and squared-off, which may or may not bother you (depending on how precise you are about your braking feel). Some testers hated it, some never noticed.

The engine of the GSX-R600 was the subject of much debate during our testing. Having seen dyno charts where the GSX-R produced excellent horsepower and a beefy mid-range power curve, many testers were surprised that the GSX-R’s acceleration felt lackluster at best. The midrange didn’t feel very impressive, and if you hung onto the throttle waiting for the top-end power surge, you would find the rev limiter without ever experiencing any type of real rush. Based on seat-of-the-pants impressions, we all decided that the GSX-R was ‘slow’ (at least in this company).

However, later in the testing, we conducted roll-on acceleration contests between the different bikes, and in these tests we discovered something surprising – the GSX-R was actually very competitive, perhaps slightly faster than the other two 600s (at least until the R6 got into its high RPM powerband), and even coming close to ‘hanging with’ the ZX-6R!

How to explain this confusion? That’s a hard one. Most of our testers, and particularly Dirck and I, have ridden a lot of different motorcycles, and we’ve never experienced a disparity quite this big. The only explanation we can offer is a description of the GSX-R600 motor’s unusual feel. If the rider blips the throttle in neutral, it is immediately obvious that the GSX-R has a much heavier flywheel (more properly described as having ‘greater flywheel effect’) than any of the other bikes tested – the Suzuki’s revs rise and drop slower than any of the competition, particularly the manic R6 with its super-direct throttle response.

It seems possible that this extreme flywheel effect (a misleading term – the effect is actually caused by the weight of all the engine’s rotating masses, not just the flywheel) has smoothed and softened the power delivery to such a degree that most riders will feel like they’re barely accelerating, even if the actual rate of acceleration matches that of other bikes that ‘feel’ much faster.

The GSX-R’s fuel injection mapping is excellent, not quite as good as the Kawasaki or the Yamaha, but much closer to those bikes than even the relatively decent mapping on the Honda. The Suzuki’s response to off/on throttle transitions, then, is smooth enough not to be a hindrance, but not quite as invisible as that of the Kawasaki’s.

Traditionally, the GSX-Rs have emitted beautiful music, and the new GSX-R600 is no exception. The harsh, guttural growl of the stubby exhaust seems to have been less muted by the catalytic converter than that of the Yamaha, and it combines with the wailing from the airbox to create a symphony to please any gearhead.

The Suzuki’s ergonomics are somewhere between the Honda and the Yamaha – not the most comfortable in the test, but not the raciest, either. However, the Suzuki does have one huge step up on every other bike – adjustable footpeg positions. Depending on the needs and body type of the rider, the Suzuki’s footpegs can be relocated to any one of three available positions: upper front, upper rear, and lower rear. This gives buyers an opportunity to fine-tune the seat-to-peg relationship to their liking – a big benefit in a class that appeals to as many different types of riders as these Supersport machines do.

The GSXR600 had the most controversial styling in this year’s test – some testers loved the minimalist sidepanels and ‘duckbill’ tail section, while others weren’t so sure. Luckily, we don’t usually take much note of style when ranking the bikes in a shootout – we let the readers, and their money, decide which bike they think is the most attractive.

So the GSX-R600 is an excellent all-around package, good enough that one of our most experienced testers ranked it first on his personal results list. However, the difficulties we had in fine-tuning the suspension would be a major issue for some riders, which is the same thing that held back the Kawasaki from finishing higher. The other problem we had with this bike was the acceleration. Perhaps some of our readers would love a bike that is really fast but FEELS slow – personally, we prefer a somewhat more involving experience with a bike that really tugs on your shoulders!

Conclusion

Readers seem to hate the typical shootout conclusion these days, i.e., “All of these bikes are so good that you would be happy with anyone of them.” Unfortunately (or fortunately for the buyer) this is the truth. The competition in this segment is so fierce among the Japanese manufacturers that there is no “lemon” to be found in this group. Every one of these bikes is substantially better than any bike available in this class just a few years ago. Every one of these bikes could be the winner of this shootout with a fairly small investment in aftermarket parts or services (such as suspension tuning). This is reality — like it or not. The potential to add aftermarket enhancements is highlighted by the price disparity between models – the Yamaha R6 carrying a US MSRP around $200-$500 higher than any of its competitors.

Two important factors in the buying decision are impossible to measure in any magazine shootout, these being the reader’s appreciation of each bike’s styling, and the way the reader feels about the reliability and customer service reputation of each company. The question we’re left with is this: if a buyer were to make his purchasing decision based solely on these two factors, would he be happy with the result? In this particular test, the answer is a nearly unequivocal yes. Despite the small criticisms we have provided to illustrate our ranking of each bike, all of these bikes are likely to please a potential purchaser. Life is good for those in the market for a supersport bike — and it should only get better next year.