There was a time not long ago when the middleweight sportbike class was a good place for newbies to cut their teeth. But for 2003, with quarter-miles times that would embarrass any supercar you’d care to mention, top speeds that reach upward of 160 miles per, and racetrack lap times that would scare a full-blown superbike from barely more than a decade ago, the bikes gathered here have limits that only the experienced can exploit.
Give credit to the weary-eyed engineers who have been staring at flickering CRTs and poring over reams of data. They’ve given us power and handling way beyond what we thought achievable when the Honda CBR600F1 Hurricane blew the middleweight class apart in 1987. That bike, while a well-engineered piece, is a soft pile of steaming turd next to these new rapiers.
To give you an idea of the massive progress shown by the 2003 class, last year’s performance king, the Suzuki GSX-R, seems to have been relegated to also-ran status in the past several months. It still has a scintillating 100 hp at the back wheel and weighs just 393 lbs., but its three-year-old design looks a stride behind the fresh-faced kids of the group. It also doesn’t have any of the trendy new baubles worn by its rivals.
Tied for freshest face of the bunch is the Kawasaki ZX-6R and Honda CBR600RR, though it must be said it’s the Honda that has the prettier smile. Unlike the company’s previous “F” versions, the RR eschews streetbike practicality in favor of a full track-attack mode. Honda says its new CBR was developed first as a racebike, then adapted it for street use, a heretofore unheard of process.
Full of sharp creases that rarely flow into the next, the CBR’s design is the most avant garde of the group. Its line-beam headlights look sinister and much has been made of adapting Honda’s Unit Pro Link rear suspension from Valentino Rossi’s race-winning MotoGP bike to the CBR. But the real trick up the RR’s butt is its underseat exhaust system, a first in the 600 class. It cleans up the rear of the bike beautifully, even if it’s partially to blame for the RR’s biggest load on the scales among the 600s, 413 lbs with an empty tank.