'07 Literbike Shootout - Mind The Gap

Ducati 1098 VS. Honda CBR1000RR VS. Kawasaki ZX-10R VS. Suzuki GSX-R1000 VS. Yamaha YZF-R1

Ducati 1098 vs. Honda CBR1000RR vs. Kawasaki ZX-10R vs. Suzuki GSX-R1000 vs. Yamaha YZF-R1

THE SUBWAY SYSTEM IN LONDON COVERS HUNDREDS OF MILES OF TRACK AND
ferries almost 3 million people about town every day. It's by far the easiest way to get around the huge metropolis and is a major part of that city's culture. Affectionately known as the underground or the tube, some of the stations date back more than 100 years. Because the system is constantly in a state of flux, the trains don't often line up perfectly with the station platform, leading to a sometimes significant gap that must be traversed to enter or exit a car. Constant warnings, by sign and by loudspeaker, warn passengers to "mind the gap."

Suzuki engineers no doubt faced a dilemma when it came time to update the already incredible GSX-R1000. With a nice collection of literbike comparison-test wins, national Superbike championships and even a World Superbike title to its credit, the old model comfortably outpaced its rivals in many arenas. But as emissions standards tighten dramatically with every iteration, all manufacturers face the definite possibility that a new model, being progressively strangled by these requirements, may not perform as well as the old. While the GSX-R1000 has won our last two literbike showdowns, the '07 model is chal lenged by not only stiff competition from the other two new models in the group, but also the very real danger that it could fall into the clutches of the two carryover models. We can just imagine the Suzuki bosses hovering over the engineers as they toiled on the new GSX-R, urging them not only to make the new bike superior to the old, but also to mind the gap the old model had over its competitors.

Captain Kunitsugu previewed the updated GSX-R in our last issue ("Triple the Fun," June '07), and we've already put the new Yamaha YZF-R1 through its paces in a full road test ("Running Out of Compromises," Mar. '07). New to the scene is the Ducati 1098, which the Italian company insists is on par with the Japanese literbikes, thanks to its displacement advantage as well as its complete makeover for this year. Lieutenant Trevitt sampled the 1098 at Kyalami earlier this year ("1098," Mar. '07) and agreed with Ducati that the new bike could easily run with the established literbikes. Returning from last year's literbike showdown are the Honda CBR1000RR and the Kawasaki ZX-10R. Both put in strong performances last year, and it wouldn't take much of a stumble on the part of the new bikes for a surprise comeback performance from either of these two. As well, Kawasaki has been known to subtly tweak its carryover models without releasing details, and such tweakage could potentially put the ZX-10R on top.

THE WEIGH-IN
Our first glimpse of the uphill challenge that companies face to meet Uncle Sam's requirements came when we put each bike on the scales. Full of fuel, the new GSX-R scales in at a whopping 471 pounds, 27 pounds more than the old model (double the increase claimed by Suzuki) and 34 pounds heavier than the original, '01 version. Is this progress? Another surprise came from the Ducati: While V-twins are traditionally heavier than an equivalent-displacement four-cylinder, the 1098 is the lightest of this group at 443 pounds--17 pounds lighter than the last 999 we tested. Interestingly, the GSX-R carries just 50.5 percent of its weight on the front wheel, while the other four-cylinders all have a bias of more than 51.4 percent toward the front. A similar trend was noted in our last issue's middleweight comparison test, with the porky-but-sweet-handling ZX-6R having less front-end bias than the other bikes.We assembled the usual wrecking crew for this test, with Kunitsugu and Trevitt joined by guest testers Lance Holst, Steve Mikolas and Jim O'Connor. Our street loop consisted of everything from first-gear goat trails to open sweepers, with some freeway and city riding thrown in for good measure. We also spent a day at Buttonwillow Raceway, evaluating the racetrack performance of each bike with sticky DOT race tires fitted. Each rider graded each bike on 10 characteristics for both the street and track portions, with the average scores for each venue listed as a percentage in the following text. The final scores, averaging both street and track performance, are shown in the SR Ratings chart.

STREET SHENANIGANS YAMAHA YZF-R1 87.7
In keeping with the trend of making its R-series bikes more track-oriented, Yamaha has compromised the R1's roadgoing capabilities to the point that it carded the lowest scores in this group for the street portion of the test. While the bike drew favorable comments for its light steering, nimble handling and good top-end power, its flaccid low-end steam and poor throttle response makes city and canyon riding very frustrating. The new four-valve mill has the most oversquare cylinders of the fours, and power is accordingly crammed into the upper reaches of the range. Below 6000 rpm, the R1 feels even weaker than some middleweights, and inconsistent throttle response makes it difficult to ride. The ride-by-wire throttle exhibits some perplexing characteristics, including a several-second lag in power if you roll on the throttle at 5500 rpm in second gear. In any other gear, or at any other rpm, midrange response is much crisper, and power is smooth through that range, leaving us mystified as to the cause.In other respects, the new R1 is quite capable and a definite improvement over the old model. Steering is perhaps the lightest in this group, and the standard Pirelli Diablo Corsas provide ample grip and feedback. The six-pot calipers offer good initial braking bite as well as excellent outright stopping power, and the well-sorted suspension rounds out what is a very good handling package. If it weren't for the EFI glitches, the R1 would have easily been higher up the order.

DUCATI 1098 87.9
It takes but a short ride to realize that the 1098 is an apple to the 999's orange--two bikes could not be more different. Where the 99x series of Ducati Superbikes were stable, a bit slow steering and had stretched-out riding positions, the 1098 has a quick-steering, lively and almost Japanese-like character when flogged down a twisty canyon. And as Kunitsugu commented: "Pope Benedict XVI probably declared the 999's exhaust note a cardinal sin. Thankfully, the 1098's exhaust sounds much better."The thrust chart shows the Ducati to have the most oomph in first gear, due to yet another change from past models: The 1098's gearing is far shorter than the 999's as well as the other bikes' in the test, and combined with the solid torque curve, it lunges aggressively off slower turns. The Ducati also received high marks for its front-end feel, outrageously powerful brakes and the sticky Pirelli Supercorsa Pro DOT race tires fitted as standard.

Unfortunately, all those pluses couldn't keep the 1098 from near the bottom on the tally sheets. While our testers praised the bike's handling and power, an abrupt off/on throttle transition makes it difficult to tame both those traits, and the Ducati takes a lot of mental effort to ride quickly. While the riding position itself is fairly comfortable, the 1098's clip-ons are angled far forward, making it awkward for some riders to steer. That, combined with the narrow seat/tank junction and steeply sloped seat that forces you into the tank with every move, resulted in the 1098 posting the lowest ergo scores. Curiously, when you approach a turn on the 1098 and roll off the throttle, the engine will sometimes catch and give a sudden surge of power, making turn entries a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. Compounding the problem, the tranny on our test unit seemed to sprout several neutrals on downshits. Finally, aggressive riding drains the 4.1-gallon tank quickly enough that the low-fuel light comes on at just 80 miles.

KAWASAKI ZX-10R 88.6
As the big Kawasaki is one of the two returning models in the test, we're well familiar with its strengths and weaknesses. The monster motor scored the highest marks for engine power and power delivery, and offers the least vibration, nicest slipper clutch, smoothest torque curve and the most user-friendly throttle response of this bunch. Where the Yamaha forces you to use a lower gear and higher rpm in a given corner and the Ducati requires a taller gear to minimize the throttle abruptness, the ZX-10R simply doesn't care much what gear you're in; twist the throttle, it goes.

It's the chassis that keeps the Kawi from topping the chart in this crowd. While the 10R flicks side-to-side quickly, the steering is very awkward and requires you to keep constant force on the clip-ons to keep a given lean angle. We were able to minimize the input necessary by adjusting chassis geometry, and while the bike gets down a twisty road just as quickly as the others, it's more work than t needs to be. We eventually traced the habit to the front OEM-spec Dunlop Qualifier specific to the 10R. After our track outing, we slipped a standard Qualifer front on, and steering was hugely improved.

Along with the lowest scores for chassis and handling, the Kawasaki also carded low marks for its suspension and brakes. The tall chassis and what feels like a too-linear rear link cause the bike to pitch under acceleration, and big power gets the front end very light on turn exits. We're also somewhat puzzled by the 10R's brakes: Our test bike's stoppers were quite numb at the beginning of the test--and not nearly as powerful as our '06 unit's--but gradually improved over the course of the street ride, leading us to believe it may have been a problem specific to our bike.

HONDA CBR1000RR 91.2
Another carryover model from '06, the CBR1000RR carded above-average scores across the board on its way to a solid second place in the street rankings. While the Honda's engine lacks the urgency of the Kawasaki and Suzuki mills, it's no slouch in the power department and has impressive thrust numbers in the lower gears. Still, the throttle can be a bit abrupt, and there is no slipper clutch to offset the more-than-average engine braking--to keep pace with the GSX-R, the Honda needs careful attention to gear selection.

As a daily rider, the CBR is arguably the pick of this bunch. Upright ergos (although the seat is still too hard), a superb dash layout, great mirrors and adequate wind protection combine to make it the easiest to get around town on and survivable for a long day in the saddle despite the seat. Compared with the other bikes in the group--especially the Ducati--the Honda feels big and bulky to sit on, but that sensation disappears once underway, and steering is light and linear at low speeds.

At a moderate pace in the twisties the Honda is quite composed, but start hammering and it comes unraveled compared with the Suzuki. We had a hard time finding suspension settings that controlled the chassis without feeling harsh, and steering becomes heavy with diminished front-end feedback the faster you push--most likely due to the electronic steering damper tightening up at speed. Just as the engine requires good throttle control and precise shifting to make time, the chassis demands precision technique from the rider to match the GSX-R's pace.

SUZUKI GSX-R1000 93.7
While one tester's scores gave the Honda top street marks by a half-point over the Suzuki, and another noted that the Ducati would be tempting if it were $2000 cheaper, the final decision was unanimous: All our testers picked the GSX-R as their favorite street ride. The Suzuki's engine is an equal of the ZX-10R's, and the chassis is a distinct notch above any other--despite the extra heft the bike carries. Our riders praised the Suzuki's user-friendly mill, citing great power (although midrange is distinctly down from last year) with a smooth off/on throttle and a broad enough powerband that gear selection is not crucial to make good time.The chassis is likewise solid, with steering that isn't quite as light as the Yamaha's or Ducati's, but extremely linear with excellent feedback from the front end. The GSX-R--ranked the highest for ergonomics, suspension, and chassis and handling--is simply the most composed bike of this quintet. Midcorner line changes are but a small push on the bar away, the brakes are strong and predictable, and the suspension soaks up big hits and small ripples equally well. The engine and chassis combine for a package that boosts rider confidence to levels clearly beyond what the other bikes are capable of.

That said, all is not perfect in Suzukiland: The counterbalanced engine vibrates in the mid-rpm range. Some testers noted that the close riding position is accomplished by severely angled clip-ons, which can put an awkward pressure on your wrists. And you do feel the bike's weight under heavy braking. Nitpicking, for certain, but it's enough that the GSX-R lost out in five of the 10 subjective categories.

Experimentation with the GSX-R's new three-position S-DMS mapping brought mixed reviews from our riders. While outright power in A and B modes is identical, C mode robs too much steam and throttle response becomes a bit too abrupt. Between the two full-power modes, the only appreciable difference we could detect is that more throttle input is required in B mode for he same power as A mode. It came down to personal preference, with some riders appreciating the muted response on tighter roads, feeling it offered more control, while others favored the immediacy of the A mode.

TEARING UP THE TRACK
Ducati 1098 86.3
Another result contrary to past Ducatis' performances, the 1098 received the lowest track mark and posted the slowest lap time, although even that was only a second off the fastest of the day. While the oversized engine is decidedly more steamy than the 999's, the twin is still down on ponies compared with the inline-fours. In addition, the widely spaced gearbox that paid dividends on the street became a detriment on the track, requiring more shifts per lap and leaving the 1098 between gears in many of Buttonwillow's turns. The Ducati's chassis is easily more nimble than the 999's, and feels short and stubby when compared with those of the four-cylinders--the 1098 is the lightest of this bunch and feels it. Despite that nimbleness, stability is excellent--giving the sensation that you could lean the bike over forever--and the chassis is further strengthened by easily the most powerful brakes.

Just as on the street ride, however, the bike's sensitive throttle response makes it difficult to utilize that chassis to its full effect, and the engine alternately dies and catches on closing throttle. As well, some riders noted the forward placement of the clip-ons affected handling and comfort. It's impossible to adjust their location, however, as there's already minimal clearance to the tank and fairing at full lock.

Yamaha YZF-R1 90.2
While the Yamaha came within a gnat's eyelash of posting the quickest lap time, it still fared poorly in the subjective ratings, with some contradictory reports from our testers. If you can keep the Yamaha spinning, it pays off with quick-revving, ultrastrong acceleration; become lazy, however, and the poochy midrange is difficult to deal with. Luckily, the R1's close-ratio gearbox fits almost perfectly with Buttonwillow's west loop, allowing Kento to get the most from the Yamaha's engine for that quick lap. El Jefe awarded the R1 high marks and wrote that it was "the surprise of the test. The engine revved quickly and was super-strong."

The R1's steering is among the lightest in this group, front-end feedback is excellent, and the suspension carded excellent scores, leading one rider to comment that the Yamaha feels almost as light and compact as the Ducati. So, fast lap time, great engine, great chassis...why the low ranking? If we look down the experience ladder a couple of rungs, it becomes clear that it takes quite a bit of skill to keep the R1's engine happy. The weak upper-midrange and notchy throttle response were still big problems on the track for some of our testers.

We'll point out here that in very skilled hands the Yamaha is fantastic on the track. And by skilled hands, we don't mean advanced track-day riders; we mean top expert-level club racers who can keep the R1's finicky mill on the boil at all times. Back down the commitment meter, even just a smidge, and it becomes exponentially more difficult to wrangle performance from the Yamaha.

HONDA CBR1000RR 90.9
If road tests were government surveys, the CBR would rate "satisfactory." All our testers noted that the Honda was the easiest to ride quickly, with crisp brakes, light steering, good stability and a peppy motor all adding to its user-friendliness. Holst wrote that the CBR felt "immediately familiar and intuitive. It might not have the most speed, but it's easy to access everything it does have, and it's got more than most can use."

Push things beyond "riding quickly," however, and the Honda becomes a lot of work. Stable, neutral handling turns into more effort at higher speeds, and the midrange steam doesn't transition into a potent top-end capable of challenging the Kawasaki or Suzuki. More than one of our testers commented that engine braking was excessive compared with that of the other bikes, and the throttle required a careful touch to be smooth. The Honda is the only four-cylinder in this group without a slipper clutch, and while none of our riders noted it as a problem, that may have hurt its performance on turn entries.

KAWASAKI ZX-10R 92.0Showing just how much a set of tires can transform a bike, the ZX-10R made the most of the swap to DOT race tires, with a solid performance at Buttonwillow. The engine is still the Kawi's highlight--with smooth output matched by the best throttle response and best slipper clutch in the test--but the more neutral handling made it far easier to use the mammoth motor's output at the track.

While the Kawi's engine isn't quite as powerful on the top-end as the Suzuki's, it's easier to use and has a smoother torque curve with more midrange. And, with almost 20 fewer pounds to haul around, even the difference in top-end doesn't feel like all that much. Where the Kawi loses out to the GSX-R is in the chassis department: We still had pitch problems at the track, with the bike squatting too much under acceleration. Otherwise, steering is quick, the chassis is stable, and the suspension handles big hits well.

SUZUKI GSX-R1000 95.0
With a dominating performance at the track, the GSX-R1000 claimed top scores in nine of 10 subjective categories, fastest-lap honors and a unanimous vote from our testers. Big speed comes easily to the GSX-R, with the potent motor matched by a stable and solid chassis. Steering is light and neutral, despite the weight disadvantage, and the new electronically controlled steering damper keeps things under control. We did try the alternate maps on the track, but noticed the same characteristics as on the street ride: The bike was no quicker, but more throttle was required for a given drive.Just as on the street ride, there are a few details that detract from an otherwise superb overall track package. The binders require a big effort for serious stopping power, and it's under braking that you notice the bike's heft. Other than that, well... O'Connor pointed out that the left-side midpipe does look a bit cheesy.

BACK AT THE OFFICE
Yawn. Another year, another literbike crown for Suzuki. This has been going on since the GSX-R1000 was introduced in '01, aside from a brief interruption in '04 when the ZX-10R reigned. It's worth looking back to our last year's test ("Literbike Lunacy," June '06) before we close. The unchanged Honda and Kawasaki posted slightly lower scores in this test than they did last year (an indication that our expectations were higher this year) with the same gap between them. The Suzuki's advantage over that pair, however, has decreased when compared with last year's scores, and you could make an argument that the '07 GSX-R isn't leaps and bounds superior to the previous model. Suzuki had only to mind the gap it already had over its competitors, and it did just that. Perfectly.

Opinions

Lance Holst
"I can't believe how much Steve talks."

Some only want to own the fastest bike, others the flashiest. But me, I want the bike that makes me a better rider or simply makes riding the most fun. Whether we were up in the Malibu mountains or blasting around Buttonwillow Raceway, that bike was always Suzuki's stunning new GSX-R1000.

The CBR1000RR might be the most user-friendly, with its linear, easy-to-modulate powerband and predictable steering characteristics, but it lacks the final few percentage points of performance. Yamaha's freshly revised R1 certainly looks the business with its Stealth Fighter styling and high-tech ride-by-wire electronics, but in practice they'd be better off sticking with the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. I had high expectations for the new Ducati, only to be left disappointed on the street and track. The 1098 needs further development to smooth out the throttle response and sort the suspension rates and ergonomic package.

Like everyone, I love the powerful and predictable ZX-10R (at least after we ditched the odd-steering original-equipment tires at the track), but my final session at Buttonwillow only strengthened my appreciation for the Suzuki. I followed a Suzuki-mounted Mikolas for a handful of laps and, no matter how much earlier I got on the Kawasaki's throttle, the result was the same: Steve and the Suzuki stayed steadily ahead down the following straight. Damn, any bike that can make Mikolas look that good I gotta have for myself.

STEVE MIKOLAS
"Have you noticed how much Lance talks?"

I've been lucky enough to see motorcycles evolve over the years and remember, for example, when the all-new, cutting-edge Honda CBR900RR was the lightest, fastest and most desired sportbike on the scene in the 1993 premier issue of SR. The current literbikes are hands-down the definition of pure two-wheeled performance and, now available at your local dealer (mirrors included, so you can see Lance get smaller and smaller), this generation of 1000cc monsters is the prime example of supreme motorcycle technology. The big dog over the last couple of years has been the GSX-R1000, and the all-new Gixxer is still master of this class.Yamaha's redesigned four-valve R1 has made a valiant attempt to dethrone the Suzuki, and Ducati has entered this dog-fight with the most capable production V-twin to date. You'd never know that the Suzuki is the heaviest of the bunch (by 28 pounds!), and clicking through the gears you'd swear it's the lightest. But like a racing buddy of mine once said, it's not how much she weighs, it's how she puts the power to the ground. Comfort and confidence are must-haves on a 170-plus-horsepower machine, and the GSX-R rules! With the crosshairs on Suzuki's liter-class domination, its a safe bet that next year's comparo will be even closer, and a possible changing of the guard is already in the making.

JIM O'CONNOR
Working for the competition: penalty, 3 issues.

Going into this test, a small part of me hoped that Suzuki would finally get toppled from its throne, just for variety's sake--I've been feeling like a broken record the past few years. Once again, though, Suzuki has found its way to the top. A big surprise to me was the way the GSX-R, at 471 pounds, handles its weight. At 28 pounds heavier than the lightest bike in the test, it turned quickly, felt light, accelerated like a rocket and stopped quickly. In fact, before we had the numbers I would have said it was one of the lightest. How do they do that? The off-throttle transition and fuel injection was flawless, with no hiccup at partial throttle. While some of the other bikes found their stride on either street or track, I was again surprised at how effortless the Suzuki was to ride on both, no rider adjustments needed.I'm not sure that I would use the GSX-R's engine-mapping selector much. Maybe I'd use C if it started to rain, but other than that, I'd stay on A and keep my throttle hand in check. The only thing I wanted more of was overall braking power. The GSX-R had very good feel, but when bike and rider can go so fast so quickly, I want to know I can slow down just as fast. So, like a broken record, I will say that the Suzuki is clearly numero uno. I guess there's always next year.

ANDREW TREVITT
Made fun of Mikolas once too often.

For sure the GSX-R is the best-performing bike in this bunch--and a better bike than last year's model--but I'm not quite as enamored with the Suzuki this year as the rest of the crew is. As crazy as it sounds, I guess I was hoping for something, well...more. Or maybe I was too spoiled by the GSX-R project bike we built last year ("Giggle Machine," Mar. '07) that was insane fun to ride. Whatever the case, I wouldn't be rushing to the dealership to trade in an '05 or '06 GSX-R for the new model.The other detail that leaves me raving about the GSX-R less than my cohorts is that I rode the ZX-10R with a different front tire on the street. The transformation in the Kawasaki is considerable, enough that I think it may have changed the street scores and possibly the outcome of the test. With both bikes in stock trim the Suzuki is the clear winner, but for my money it'd be a ZX-10R and a set of tires.

KENT KUNITSUGU
"Can't we all just get along?"

With all due respect to Suzuki, I must admit I was really hoping for the new R1 or the Ducati 1098 to dethrone the latest GSX-R. It's been getting pretty monotonous for the past few years in literbike comparison tests--"And the winner is: the Suzuki GSX-R1000!"--and that domination has brought with it the usual cries of favoritism from brand loyalists and unbiased readers alike. Believe us, we'd like to see another brand take the top spot once in a while too, just to put a little variety into the mix. But the numbers and subjective opinions after testing are just too convincing.

Both the R1 and ZX-10R have superstrong motors that are a blast to play with, but the Yamaha's throttle response on the street is too much of a crapshoot, and the Kawasaki's rear suspension needs some work. The CBR1000RR's neutral behavior is always nice to deal with, but it still leaves me uninspired after riding it.I love the new 1098's engine, looks and sound, but the bar angle is too flat and the rear suspension too stiff, making it really hard work to get around the track.

Sigh. Oh well, I guess I'll just settle for the GSX-R1000...again. It's a bike that's so easy to go so fast on that it's almost like cheating.