Allow me to get all Kevin Cameron on you for a second and make an aircraft-engineering analogy. By 1945 or so, piston-engine aircraft had reached a high point in development, bumping up to the 500-mph mark in level flight. The fabulously expensive and complex powerplants—which could make more than 2500 horsepower—did it with all the stuff any gas-burning gearhead will recognize: fuel-injection, supercharging and advanced metallurgy. But even though piston-engine planes did make slight gains (a modified WWII-era F8F Bearcat fighter plane set the level-flight record in 1989: 528 mph), the piston-engine airplane, c. 1945, was about as good as it would ever get, despite almost every single aeronautical engineer on the planet trying to make it better.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? At some point, between 1995 and 2005, piston-engined sportbikes may very well have hit their high point, despite many millions of dollars of development since. Sure, 2013’s crop of superbikes is faster, lighter, and easier to ride, but by how much? And how useable—and cost-effective—are those gains? If you spend $15,000 on a sexy new BMW S1000RR, will you get three times the enjoyment (or speed) as you would from a 2005 GSX-R1000? A quick troll of Craigslist shows a nice variety of bargain-priced 10-year-old motorcycles that can go around a racetrack—or up and down your favorite patch of twisties—as fast as anything in new-bike showrooms today in the right hands. Traction control? Anti-lock brakes? Switchable engine mapping? Who decided we needed those features, anyway? Back in the day, to avoid high-sides, low-sides and skidding, you had to actually know how to ride.
There is a lot of 10-year-old stuff in the $4-5000 range, but what is the best value for those seeking an expert-level sportbike for trackday or street duty? I decided to make the cutoff between the first-generation Yamaha YZF-R1 — a ground-breaking machine—and the 2005 GSX-R1000, the last really hairy-chested open-class ride without electronic riding aids. Much like the final years of fighter aircraft development during the Second World War, those were the years when it seemed like the last barriers to ultimate performance crumbled one by one, as dry weight dipped below 400 pounds and rear-wheel horsepower soared past 130. Seriously, if you want lighter and faster than a 2004 ZX-10R you should consider launching yourself into space with a giant catapult. Outside a World Superbike paddock those kinds of numbers were unimaginable just 10 years earlier. And now you can get them for less than the price of a crappy used Honda Accord. Good times—but hard choices.
So I went to my local online forum, the Bay Area Rider’s Forum and put it to a vote. Surprisingly, the mega-powered bikes like the R1, GSX-R1000 and ZX-10R didn’t make the final cut—Bay Area riders actually ride, and value handling, reliability and character over sheer brawn. Here are the three bikes that garnered the most votes.
2000-2003 Honda CBR929RR: Third in our hearts, first in our minds.
Honda is a bad company to piss off. There’s a legendary story of Yamaha’s CEO literally crawling into Soichiro’s office in the mid-’80s, begging him to call off the price war between the two companies that was flooding the USA’s showrooms with cheap product. That glut preceded a slump in motorcycle sales through the early 1990s that started to lift when the Japanese got back to what they did best: building bikes with mind-blowing performance-per-dollar. Honda introduced the CBR900RR in 1993, which prompted Yamaha to respond with the YZF-R1, that sleek, sexy missile of a sportbike. Big Red poured on the R&D dollars and moved up its development cycle two years to fire back with the 929, just months before the end of the 20th Century.
Honda hoped the CBR929RR was the ultimate superbike. It was lighter and almost as powerful as the R1, weighing in at about 435 pounds and making low 120s at the back wheel. The price was reasonable, at a buck under $10,000, and of course…it’s a Honda, which is enough for a lot of buyers.
If it isn’t, there is tech galore. Fuel-injection, motor as stressed-member, catalyzed exhaust, flapper valve to eliminate tuning flat spots, 43mm inverted cartridge forks, Pro-Link rear suspension…all packed into a very compact chassis that, in hallowed Honda fashion, is still comfy enough for long rides. Adding to that convenience is a huge 6-liter locking compartment under the flip-up passenger seat—remember when you could put stuff inside your bike? That big, bulbous tailsection is starting to look pretty good, eh?
Sadly for Honda, the 929 was never a huge hit, not even with the cultists. It was overshadowed by not only the genuine 150-plus horsepower GSX-R1000, but Honda’s own RC-51 Twin. That prompted Honda to introduce the 954 in 2002, which shaved a few pounds and added a few ponies, but it was too little, too late, and by 2004 the winged folk had introduced the CBR1000RR anyway.
Still, more than 10 years on, the 929/954 is a very good motorcycle. Not only is it durable, dependable, well-built and exciting to ride, it’s also cheap. Cheap as in undervalued, with numerous clean examples (they seem to get abused less than other sportbikes of the era) under $4000. Aftermarket support is still good, and a quick call to the service department at SF Moto in San Francisco revealed that even in the tough environment of San Francisco’s salty air, bumpy streets and stop-and-go traffic conditions, the bikes are pretty reliable, with no recurring issues other than the dreaded regulator-rectifier failure, a common issue for motorcycles of that era. In fact, we can safely say that all three of the bikes in this story wear out regulator/rectifiers with the regularity of clutch plates.
Looking for a durable, comfortable, dependable ride that can still wheelie in the first four gears and do a track day when you need to? The 929 and 954 make “a great vanilla sportbike choice,” according to one owner.
YEARS BUILT: 2000-2001 (929) 2002-2003(954)
KBB RETAIL VALUE: $3495-$4655
MAD MEN SEXY-SCALE RATING: Peggy Olsen without support garments, or Roger Sterling pre-midafternoon vodka
2000-2005 Suzuki GSX-R750: Racer’s Choice
The GSX-R series is the AK-47 of club roadracing. Cheap, dependable, durable, tough, and of course, very effective in the right hands. So it’s a great choice for anybody looking for a fast, good-handling, reliable and affordable streetbike as well.
But which GSX-R? Like the AK-47, the basic design is configurable, predictable for a parts-bin engineering outfit like Suzuki. Within any generation of GSX-Rs, (the one we’re concerned with debuted in 2000 and ended in 2004), the motors, frames, suspension and bodywork could be swapped around without too much trouble, making finding used and aftermarket parts easy for racers and budget-minded street riders.
Still, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Goldilockian compromise of the brilliant 750 motor is the way to go—and a popular choice. It doesn’t require screaming downshifts to keep up on the track or to pass at freeway speeds like the 600, but it’s more manageable, cheaper to operate and easier to ride fast than the gray-hair-making 1000. Contemporary reports put it at 122 hp at the wheel—exactly the same as the CBR929RR, while still being a good 10 pounds lighter. That’s liter-class power in a 600 chassis, in a very literal sense.
In fact, riding pal Peter Mars has a GSX-R from that era himself. He bought it 10 years ago, a crazy-good deal on an ex-endurance racing bike from the Arclight race team—one of Lee Acree’s ‘B’ bikes. Mars thrashed the 600cc motor, but it held up to numerous rides, races, trackdays and crashes until it gave up the ghost, spinning a main bearing when he inadvertently let the oil level get low. You could find another 600 motor…but why? The 750 bolted right in without too much work, and now the bike is faster, but just as light and sweet-handling as before.
Where the 929 is all about street manners, the GSX-R is all about racing. BARFers agreed the Gixxer is the pick for the track, with outstanding brakes, suspension and handling, as well as a motor that likes to rev. They’re easy to work on, as reliable as the Honda (except for electrical stuff, of course) and cheap, cheap, cheap—retail value according to KBB is as low as $2700, although you should probably not buy a bargain-priced GSX-R—they tend to be used a little more roughly than other sportbikes. After all, they are the choice of trackday junkies, racers and stunters, so steer clear of modified and repainted examples. A choice example can be a little tricky to find, but there are plenty out there.
The Aprilia won, as motorcycling is about passion more than logic, but if we were all procurement officers—or Klingons—I’m not sure there would be anything but GSX-Rs on our two-lane roads and racetracks.
YEARS BUILT: 2000-2004
KBB RETAIL VALUE: $2695-$4325
MAD MEN SEXY-SCALE RATING: Megan Draper in bikini or Don Draper wearing fedora and driving convertible.
1999-2003 Aprilia Mille: Il Campione
After much discussion the answer was clear. At least it was to the owners of the first generation of the Aprila RSV1000 Mille, who managed to somehow rig the voting so this elegant but rare bird rose to the top. Aprilia’s first-generation RSV1000R Mille was the best choice for an early-2000s sportbike priced under $5000. But why is the heaviest, slowest, least reliable and most expensive bike in our little comparison on top?
Introduced to the USA in 1999, the Aprilia uses a uniqe design. The powerplant—good for about 115 hp (expect the “Factory” models to make 5-10 more) at the big back tire—is a Rotax design, a liquid-cooled 60-degree counterbalanced affair that’s both smooth and compact. The frame is super-modern extruded aluminum, and suspension is multi-adjustable. Brakes are four-piston Brembos (like you didn’t know!). But it’s heavy—Sportrider magazine measured one at 490 pounds in 2000. Later iterations were less, especially if you wanted to pony up for the R or Factory models.
It’s not just heavy, it’s also not the trouble-free experience of the Japanese bikes. Owners complain of bad electronics, a leaky oil tank and clutch slave (not surprising, as it’s the same cheap piece of crap you’ll find on similar era Ducatis) and high parts costs.
Details! The bottom line is that for under $5000 (although the supply of nice, clean examples is small, and you’ll pay much more for the Öhlins-equipped R and Factory editions), you get a soulful, fun to ride, reasonably reliable and well-made bit of Italian exotica for the price of a slightly crappy used Honda Accord. “It was my dream bike,” wrote Dennis, a former Mille owner. “It was sexy, and the V-Twin powerplant was the business in its sound, power delivery, and overall useability. Also, there’s something to be said about Italian craftsmanship compared to the Japanese; everything just seems meticulously fitted. I loved looking at that bike just as much as I did riding it.”
Here’s the icing on the cake for MD readers, who value comfort and performance. For 2003, Aprilia introduced the Tuono, which was basically the Mille with a bikini fairing and a higher handlebar. Not only was it cheaper (KBB value puts it at around $3800 today), it was also lighter while being just as fast and good-handling, a European tradition we can really get behind. That’s the bike enthusiast Curt Relick brought to the photo shoot, and while it didn’t start without a jump from Peter Mars’ RV, you can’t fault his taste—or passion.
Incredibly, the Mille/Tuono won the BARF voting by an incredible margin, and I can see why. I wouldn’t recommend it—these other bikes are just too good and offer to much value—but as I’ve experienced the joy that is the Tuono, and as I wrote the last time I rode one, “It’s like dating a porn queen, except when you take her home she puts her hair up in a bun, dons her glasses and does your tax returns for you.” And that’s as much logic as you’ll get from a free website.
YEARS BUILT: 1999-2003
KBB RETAIL VALUE: $3220 (1999 Mille)-$7985 (for the 2003 Mille R)
MAD MEN SEXY-SCALE RATING: Joan Harris wearing nothing but her pen-on-a-chain necklace, or Don Draper wearing just the severed head of Pete Campbell as a codpiece.
Gabe Ets-Hokin is the Editor of City Bike Magazine, and a frequent contributor to MotorcycleDaily.com