Rank and File
The CBR600RR has many good things going for it, but midrange grunt and light weight aren't any of them. Our test team didn't find the RR to be as impressive as some of the others.
If you've been reading the comparison tests in other magazines, you've probably noticed a lack of consensus over what constitutes the best bike in this market segment. Conspiracy theorists might claim the reason behind a Gixxer victory is the advertising dollars that are put in to support the arrival of a new model. Or perhaps the Honda won because it passes out the most lucrative bribes.
In our case, we simply put together an experienced group of testers and each ranked the supersports by rider preference, lowest score wins. What became clear is that the results aren't so clear. Riders are like snowflakes none are the same as another so perhaps it's not too surprising to learn that our group was not unanimous in choosing a class winner. It's indicative of how competitive this class is that no less than four different bikes topped the scorecards of our six regular testers!
It's the sultry Ducati 749 Dark that didn't head anyone's list. There is little doubt, however, which is the sexiest bike of the group. Although the black finish on the fairings on the 749 Dark have been derided by some as lacking a paint job, our testers were surprised how good it looks in person, as the dark matte surface makes the large slab-side fairings appear smaller. Although it's relatively affordable for an Italian sportbike, it's still $3400 more costly than the next most expensive in this test, the $8699 Honda.
There is much to appreciate here, including unrivaled high-speed stability and an engine that is in a different (if not better) league as the 600s. However, we can't rank the costliest, slowest and most uncomfortable bike anywhere but at the tail end. And though we're not yet prepared to level a charge of unreliability to the 749, the problems we had with our test bike undoubtedly reduced our affection for this highly capable piece of Italian exotica.
At the end of our test, we thought of the Duc like a niece or nephew to an uncle who's not yet ready to have his own offspring: they're great to have around for an afternoon, but at a certain point you can't wait to give 'em back.
The CBR600RR is a great race bike, but our test team didn't find it to be as impressive as some of the others.
You can tell this is an ultra-competitive class by the back-of-the-600 pack ranking of the confidence-inspiring CBR600RR. But its positive attributes are many, including the highest level of stability among the four-cylinders, excellent Honda-grade fit and finish, and one of the most rider-friendly packages. Indeed, MCUSA's software engineer Joe Wallaceâ€”our tester with the least amount of experience on contemporary sportbikesâ€”picked the CBR as his top choice.
But others weren't so sure about the CBR; it was ranked in fourth place by three testers. Complaints were few (like a hard seat and lack of on-board storage), but they were as loud as an Incubus concert when speaking of the Honda's relative dearth of low-end and midrange power. Whether riding on the street or the track, the CBR rider needs to put extra effort into being in the right gear at exactly the right time or it will get walked. The extra amount of time we spent riding these bikes in street situations this year over last magnified the problem, which is one of the key reasons why the CBR dropped in our rankings compared with our 2003 comparo.
Buick advertisements from the 1960s and '70s used to proclaim the advantages of "road-hugging weight." However, this school of thought doesn't apply to sportbikes. Honda has done well to mask the extra weight of the CBR when in motion, but it's not acceptable to weigh in 35 pounds more than the lightest in class. It even weighs more than all the four-cylinder literbikes except, you guessed it, the CBR1000RR. It became even easier to rank low when considering its $700 price tariff over the ZX and R6.
A complete redesign of the Gixxer made the competition sweat it out during our supersport shootout. But, ultimately, it ended in up third place.
How can a bike that is brand new and wonderfully competent score behind two older bikes? We'll have to give Korf and BC at least partial blame, as the Gixxer crasher ranked it in last place and the R6 destructor ranked it in fourth. Korf didn't like the long reach to the bars that hurt his wrists, and he wasn't alone in noting the disconcerting rattling of various parts as the revs climbed into five digits. BC and others mentioned they didn't like how the Gixxer feels bigger and fatter than most of the others, and some said its front-end feedback wasn't as clear as the best.
But the GSX-R600 has plenty to offer a sporting rider. It has a very healthy motor with a strong, linear powerband, giving it the cojones to nearly run with the ZX-636 down Pahrump's back straight. It proves to be very stable when cornering, yet it's nearly as flickable as the ZX and R6 and it easily changes lines mid-corner. The Gixxer's best endorsement comes from Big Cheese Becklin, our tester with the most amount of race experience, who ranked it as the best bike overall. But at the end of the day, the cooperative and willing Gixxer just didn't set itself apart from this tough crowd for most of our testers and its styling is perhaps the most uninspired among this group.
Kevin and the ZX were a perfect match on the street.
The bargain hunters among you should like the $7999 ZX-6R. While a few of its competitors have inverted forks and radial-mount brakes, only the ZX and GSX-R have both. Plus, the Zixxer offers something no one else does: a 37cc displacement advantage. This is something that Hutchison and I appreciated perhaps more than the others, as we both picked the Kawi as our favorite.
Opinions varied over the 6R's handling. Some stated that it's as good as any in terms of a balance between stability and flickability, while others believed it wasn't as confidence inspiring as the other bikes in this test. But no one could argue about its class-leading power that provides the stomp to pull second-gear wheelies all day long. Due to aforementioned problems during our track test, it would only be a guess at how the bikes stacked up (ooh, bad choice of words). But we had no shortage of track time on the ZX and CBR, and I was able to easily run more than one second quicker on the ZX because the Honda would fall flat in a couple of corner exits. Complaints centered on the Kawi's universally despised instruments and about ergonomics that were an imperfect fit for some of our testers. Highlights beyond the bodacious engine were few, as it's hard to get attention when the spotlight keeps coming back to the punch of its pugnacious powerplant. Riders on "normal" 600s need to be acutely aware of the gulping ZX coming up from behind.
Chamberlain was reunited with the R6 during the street ride portion of our tests. Despite that BC used and abused the R6 before chucking her down the road, she still loves him.
Everyone except Valentino Rossi knows how hard it is to repeat as champion in any annual contest, but that's what the R6 has done. By taking MCUSA's supersport crown for the second year in a row, Yamaha has again shown us how much all-around goodness is baked into the 2003 AMA Supersport champion.
It has the most comfortable ergos yet still feels as racy around a track as anything. It feels the smoothest and most refined of the bunch but it somehow still has a raw and visceral quality. It doesn't have an inverted fork or trendy radial brakes, but a rider doesn't feel that when riding it. It is remarkably easy to initiate a turn and yet it has a measure of stability first-gen R6s can only envy.
Basically, Yamaha has built us what we usually expect from Honda. All six testers reported the R6 feels exceptionally easy to ride, and its level of fit and finish is as good as the CBR, maybe better. But most important of all is that we universally agreed that the diminutive and lovingly crafted R6 was at or near the top of all our lists in terms of being fun to ride.
And that's what this whole thing is all about.
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Check out the "Specs
." for the 2004 Supersports.