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MD 2008 Supersport Comparison

Although we finished our testing quite some time ago, sorting through the results of our 600 comparison test has been difficult, to say the least. A total of five riders participated in our test of the four, current Japanese 600cc sport machines. All of our riders were decidedly at the skilled/experienced end of the scale, and certainly “mature” as only one of our riders was still in his 30s.

The problem has been this. Opinions varied greatly, and there was far from a consensus on the rankings. As editor, of course, I am left to sort it all out.

Two of the bikes are virtually unchanged for 2008, including the Honda CBR600RR (which won our comparison last year) and the Kawasaki ZX-6R (which ended up in a tie for second place). New designs arrived this year in the form of the Suzuki GSX-R600 and the Yamaha YZF-R6.

We posted our first ride impression, and all of the technical details regarding the 2008 R6 here. Our first riding impression of the Suzuki GSX-R600 is here, accompanied by technical details for this new model as well.

Here at MD, we focus comparison tests on street riding experiences, rather than track riding experiences. Why? A couple of reasons. Although a significant percentage of sport bike owners attend track days, the vast majority of riding time is on the street (almost certainly more than 90%). Many owners who go to track days also use their bikes frequently for street use. Of course, another significant percentage of sport bike owners never attend track days and ride exclusively on the street.

The other reason is that there are a myriad of publications providing in-depth analyses of these bikes’ performances on race tracks, usually at the hands of experienced professional/expert road racers. This is certainly useful information, but you will have to get that somewhere else. If you live with your sport bike exclusively on the street, or primarily on the street, read on.

Whether it sounds like a cop-out or not, every one of these bikes is excellent. The refresh/redesign cycle in this category is two years, and this reflects the intense effort made by the manufacturers to remain state-of-the-art when it comes to their 600cc supersports. One reason is that these bikes are raced around the world in near stock condition (AMA supersport for instance, and world supersport championships). If the bikes aren’t competitive stock, they will not be competitive on the race track in supersport trim. It is a matter of corporate pride that these bikes be competitive.

You will note some changes from the results of last year. Even among the bikes that did not change, a slightly different group of test riders, and the passage of time has led to, in some instances, different conclusions about each bike. Here is how the editor sorted it out this year, and, believe me, this was not easy.

1st Place – Honda CBR600RR

The Honda supersport machine repeats as our champion, but not without controversy. Indeed, there was far from a consensus on this bike brand (or the others, for that matter). In the end, the Honda wins for the same reasons that it won last year. Namely, motor, ergonomics, and overall balance.

Last year, we said that the Honda had “the best street motor ever found in a 600 cc supersport machine”. Pretty high praise, and a benchmark that the other bikes really could not reach this year. The fuel injection is almost perfect (is anything ever perfect?) and the spread of power begins low and revs out pretty well.

The ergonomics won us over, again. Good comfort on the street, without being too upright. Its instrumentation is top notch, and its suspension is still biased towards the street (meaning soft).

We had some of the same issues with the Honda this year, however. Although it is easy to ride, the electronic steering damper sometimes made the front end feel a bit strange. We understand Honda has improved this unit on the new 1000cc CBR, however.

This bike needs a real slipper clutch, rather than the high-tech approach taken by Honda to reduce engine braking. Again, we feel like some of the technology was employed for the sake of technology, rather than a simpler, more direct (and effective) approach.

The Honda does a lot of things right, and at least one thing very right (the engine), but it left some of our testers cold. Not always inspiring, but much more than competent. Enough to take the win again this year.

2nd Place – Yamaha YZF-R6

This is the bike that belongs in a pure track shoot out. The new R6 is one of the best handling bikes we have ever ridden, and just about all of our testers felt fast on it. Comments included “You think it and the R6 does it”; “The best handling 600 I have ever ridden — it almost does what you want it to do before you know what you want to do.” It changes direction easily, but holds the line you want. What more could you ask?

As you might expect, the R6 has very well sorted suspension to go along with the fine handling. It is firm, but supple enough to absorb sharp edge bumps. You sit very much over the front end of this bike, but the suspension and chassis make it a joy to ride aggressively.

The trade-off is less street comfort than some of the competition, including very low bars. This feels like a race bike, and is not the best companion for a long groan on the freeway. Instrumentation is thorough and legible, although one of our testers complained about the orange back lighting at night.

The brakes were good, but not class leading. From a performance perspective, this is one area that could do with some slight improvement. The engine is another. Although the R6 clearly has better midrange than last year (due to the changes we discussed in our first test), it still lacks some low-end and midrange power compared to the Honda and the new Suzuki. Nevertheless, the R6 rips on top like no other 600, and the motor is much more usable on the street than it was last year.

3rd Place – Suzuki GSX-R600

The Suzuki is all new this year, and it has an excellent motor. In fact, the motor is almost as good as the Honda, and seems to have more beef than the other two bikes just about everywhere (although the R6 beats it up top). The fuel injection and throttle response is generally good, although there was a bit of a flat spot around 5,000 RPM.

The stock suspension is pretty soft, and can get a bit overwhelmed when we pushed hard. Adding preload and damping adjustments helped things, but it never reached the handling level of the Yamaha. Feedback from the tires was not at the level offered by the R6 or the Kawasaki, either. Simply put, this was probably the least confidence inspiring bike in the twisties for our group of testers. Some aftermarket suspension tweaks might solve that, however.

Ergonomics is where the Suzuki shines for the street rider. In fact, this was considered the most comfortable bike for most of our testers (even more comfortable than the Honda). The reach to the bars is easy, and the windscreen high enough to provide meaningful protection. The foot peg position is adjustable, as well. The only negative here is the seat, which has some edges that can create hot spots on longer rides.

The brakes are very good, and probably only beaten by the binders found on the Kawasaki. Good feel and power.

In the end, the Suzuki might have been our favorite freeway bike, but that is not what this class is about. The strong motor and the comfortable ergonomics make for a good commuter, but the suspension and handling need some sorting before it will shine in the corners.

4th Place – Kawasaki ZX-6R

The Kawasaki will be replaced next year, but the ZX-6R is still a very competent machine. In fact, this bike has the best brakes in the class, and was easy to ride at a quick pace. The handling in the canyons was hard to fault … only a tick behind the spectacular R6.

In the supersport category, however, engine power is a very big deal. The Kawasaki feels soft compared to the competition this year. The Honda and the Suzuki have more power just about everywhere, and the R6 destroys it at high rpm. Throttle response was smooth and the fuel injection near perfect above 4,000 RPM, but engine response was fluffy below that.

The ergonomics are fairly aggressive, and the bars are fairly low, but most of our riders found the bike more comfortable than the R6 in stock trim. The foot pegs angle up, and really should be flat for more comfort and control.

Instrumentation is hard to fault, and we like the gear position indicator. A progressive fuel gauge would be nice, as well.

The Kawasaki is a good bike (it was the favorite of one of our test riders). It is easy to ride, reasonably comfortable, and has great brakes. Where it has fallen behind is in the engine department, and that makes all the difference this year.