If you can’t tell by looking at them, things move pretty fast in the world of sportbikes. From the technology that propels these bullet bikes through the air, to the ever-evolving engine size and class structure, bigger, lighter, faster rules. And for 2014 this segment is further scrambled by two new entries: Ducat’s 899 Panigale and MV Agusta’s F3 800. Together with the venerable Suzuki GSX-R750 and revamped Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R we’ve got the ingredients for this year’s inaugural Light-Heavyweight Supersport Shootout.
Although it doesn’t necessarily fit this segment, we consider Kawasaki’s Ninja ZX-6R ($11,699) the benchmark, having outgunned the larger 750-powered Suzuki along with the other middleweights during last season’s Supersport Shootout IX. This time, however, the Ninja has its work cut out for it as it employs the smallest capacity engine (636cc Inline Four). But don’t count the green bike out yet—since it boasts a highly refined engine and chassis package, along with class-leading traction control that helps the rider flirt more closely with the edge of grip at an all-out race pace. It recorded the fastest outright lap time last season, and after a year of subtle suspension set-up refinement, it’s prepared to do it again.
Suzuki’s GSX-R750 ($12,299) coined the modern sportbike 28 years ago. Today, the Japanese outfit continues to meticulously craft it for riders who want something between a 600cc Supersport and a 1000cc Superbike. Last updated three years ago, the Inline Four-powered GSX-R is the oldest bike in this contest, and the only machine not equipped with traction control from the factory. So to level the playing field we fitted an aftermarket Z-FI TC unit ($849.95) from Bazzaz Performance. Though we didn’t ask for it, Bazzaz enabled its electronic quickshifter functionality—giving the GSX-R an advantage during full throttle acceleration compared to the non-speed shifter equipped Ninja. But will the black box be magical enough to put the Gixxer back on top?
MV Agusta shook up the middleweight scene with the introduction of its original F3 675. Now it builds on the platform with the release of its larger and more powerful F3 800 ($15,798). Equipped with a long-stroke 800cc version of its hard-hitting Inline Triple, along with upgraded chassis hard parts and reprogrammed ride-by-wire coding, it is clear where MV intends on going with the 800—straight to the top step of the podium. During our First Ride, it surprised us with its improved level of ride-ability but have enough gremlins been sorted for it to run with the more experienced brands?
Perhaps the most anticipated motorcycle in this shootout is Ducati’s 899 Panigale ($14,995). Although based off the larger and more premium 1199 Panigale, this junior version features a radically new forward-thinking design that cleverly integrates the engine as part of the main chassis. Yet it was the electronics suite that made an impression on us during a rainy test from Imola, Italy. But we wondered if the same chassis problems that hindered the 1199’s performance on a dry circuit would show up on the 899, too. Now it’s time to find out.
Over the years we’ve cataloged performance data on many Supersports and Superbikes from the past and present at Southern California’s Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. So for consistency, we stuck with the program, returning to the 2.68-mile desert track for a day of testing. We utilized the standard 17-turn clockwise orientation so readers could compare this year’s data to past tests including Supersport Shootout IX and X, as well as Superbike Smackdown VIII.
Riding duties were handled by the author, along with the ultra-smooth and speedy two-time AMA road racing and World Endurance racing champion Jason Pridmore. Also returning is our longstanding throttle hand, racer and former motorcycle magazine editor, Corey Neuer. Lastly we had a special European guest, Road Test Editor Chris Northover from English sportbike magazine Superbike. Together we compiled over 60 laps on each machine with some very surprising results. So let’s get on with it and learn which is the finest Light-Heavyweight for ’14.