Middleweight Comparison: Honda 599 Vs. Kawasaki Ninja 650R Vs. Suzuki SV650 Vs. Yamaha FZ6 - Fun Factor

In this issue of Sport Rider, as in most issues, you'll find stories about a mix of different bikes. There's a comparison test of the latest racer-replica middleweights, a first-ride impression of Yamaha's new FZ1 and this story about budget bikes primarily intended for newer riders. Oddly enough, it's these bikes-the ones most people expect us to pooh-pooh and look down on-that we had the most fun on in the last couple of months. "Sure," you're thinking, "you're just saying that because you have to." Consider this: In our shop right now are all the new literbikes and middleweights, a GSX-R750...practically every new and cool sportbike. But what are we actually riding? In Kento's garage right now is the Kawasaki Ninja 650R, and in the Geek's is the Suzuki SV650. That's no fluke. These budget bikes consistently rack up a lot of mileage and are often the daily rides of our staffers.

You are most likely familiar with the quartet assembled here. Senior Editor Trevitt sampled Honda's updated 599 a couple of issues ago (Late Braking, March '06), while Head Honcho Kunitsugu likewise reported on the all-new Kawasaki Ninja 650R (Late Braking, April '06). Suzuki's SV650 has been practically unchanged since the second-generation model was originally offered in '03, as has the Yamaha FZ6 since its introduction in '04. Our last low-buck test ("Budget Beginner Blasters," December '04) included the original 599, the faired Suzuki SV650S along with the FZ6, and at that time the Honda emerged as a favorite with both new and experienced riders.

It's interesting to note the similarities and differences between these four bikes. All have comfortable, upright ergos, thanks to real handlebars as opposed to clip-ons. The Honda and Yamaha have inline four-cylinder UJM engines borrowed from previous-generation middleweight sportbikes, while the Suzuki and Kawasaki have twin-cylinder mills specific to these models. The Kawasaki and Yamaha sport fairings, while the Honda and Suzuki make do with small flyscreens molded around their instrument panels.

Life In The City
It's those ergos that help make these bikes popular for the daily commute. The upright riding positions let you see over traffic better and wide handlebars offer more leverage for low-speed turns and threading through SUVs. Of the four, the Honda racked up the most city mileage, thanks to its sassy engine, slick transmission and the best brakes in this group. The F3-based motor doesn't have the torque of the twins, nor the top-end of the FZ6, but it is the most user-friendly with a wide spread of power and crisp carburetion (yes, carburetors!). Newer riders will appreciate the 599's ergos, which are tight to the point that larger riders may feel a bit cramped in the seat-to-peg area. The riding position makes the Honda feel tiny and toy-like beneath you, especially at lower speeds, and is complemented with well-placed levers that are easily reached.

The Kawasaki and Suzuki are just as much fun in town as the Honda is, thanks to their torquey twin-cylinder engines and great-sounding exhaust notes, but are not quite as user-friendly when it comes to fighting traffic every day. The Ninja 650R has more torque than the Honda and crisp injection that makes it easy to use around town. Its ergos are slightly more upright because of the swept-back handlebar, and the seat is lower and almost as comfortable. While the bar provides lots of leverage and steering is light and neutral, its rearward sweep makes the bike feel wheelbarrowish, especially at lower speeds. Overall, the Kawasaki's chassis is as good as the 599's, with slightly better controlled suspension offset by brakes that don't have the feel and feedback of the Honda's. The Kawasaki is the only bike with an adjustable clutch lever and a neutral finder (nice touches for smaller riders), but the shift lever is attached directly to the shift shaft and can't be adjusted for height.

The SV650 is roomier than the 599, but the seat is not quite as comfortable and slopes forward, leading some riders to feel cramped. The bar has an upward bend that makes low-speed steering truckish and positions your wrists at an awkward angle. The Suzuki, like the Kawasaki, would benefit from a handlebar swap. The SV's fuel injection is crisp, bordering on abrupt at low rpm, and newer riders may surprise themselves at times with unexpected surges of power. Aside from the funky steering, the Suzuki's chassis is excellent, and its suspension soaks up small bumps and crater-like potholes equally well. Like the Honda, the SV has bar-mounted mirrors that give a good rearward view (although they require you to look away from the road a bit much), a clean gauge package that is easily read and nicely located controls.

That leaves the Yamaha as our least-favorite commuter bike. The FZ6's ergos are similar to the other bikes', with a comfortable handlebar bend and the most legroom. Low-speed handling manners are fine, and even though the Yamaha is the heaviest of this quartet and feels like a much bigger bike, steering is light. Its suspension is definitely on the plush side, and the brakes are as strong as the Honda's, lacking only the initial bite and feedback. What lets the Yamaha down is its R6-based engine, which is lethargic at all but the very peak rpm and feels especially wheezy in the company of the torquey Kawasaki and Suzuki. Add in a very grabby clutch and abrupt throttle response, and the Yamaha ends up being a lot of work just to leave a stoplight.

Freeway to funOur highway picks quickly separated into two groups, with the faired bikes getting the nod, as you'd expect. The Ninja 650R was a clear favorite due to its excellent wind protection, comfortable seat and smooth counterbalanced engine. Only after a few hours in the saddle do you get squirmy, and the Kawasaki's pillion seat was the pick of our designated passenger. The FZ6 combines the best fuel mileage with the biggest tank; it's possible to stretch 200 miles from a tankful. But, while the Yamaha has what looks to be a bigger fairing and a plusher seat that should be great for a long day, there is a lot of noisy turbulence from the flat windscreen, and the seat is not as comfortable as the Kawasaki's over long distances.

Between the Honda and Suzuki, it's practically a draw for freeway work. The 599's seat and handlebar are more comfortable, but the Suzuki's engine is smoother and manages the higher speeds with less buzzing. The flyscreens on both bikes are surprisingly effective, and it's only at around 80 mph that the windblast becomes too much on either one.

Spunky CanyonWhat makes these bikes so much fun in the twisties is that you can ride at a pace approaching their limits-and your own limits-with a lot less danger of being carted off to jail should the local constabulary take note. It's a chore to get even the most powerful of this bunch up to the speeds a literbike is capable of in just first gear, and there is much less of a need for restraint on straight sections.

The Kawasaki drew the most favorable reviews after a day in the canyons because it has the best combination of power and handling. Yes, it's the least powerful bike here, but there is ample torque in tighter canyons to squirt between turns, and it has the cleanest off/on throttle transition by far. All the bikes have parts-bin, two-piston front brakes, and while the Ninja's binders don't have the feel of the Honda's or the power of the Yamaha's, they easily slow the little Kawasaki from the speeds it is capable of generating. Likewise, the suspension is not on par with the Suzuki's, with the link-less shock especially harsh over sharp-edged bumps. But the damping-rod fork has better control than the Yamaha's cushy unit, and the shock is less boingy than the Honda's. The swept-back handlebar puts you a bit out of touch with the front end; otherwise, steering is light and the chassis is a solid match for the engine.

In most respects, the Suzuki's handling is superior to the Ninja's, thanks to better suspension components. The beefier fork has more control, and while steering is a touch heavier, there is more front-end feedback through the handlebar. In general, the SV is a more communicative package. Out back, the SV is the only bike in this group with a shock linkage, and that pays off over big hits that get the other bikes pogo-ing too easily. Power is more than a match for the Kawasaki's, with buckets of low-end torque and a much bigger hit up top that carries closer to redline, whereas the Ninja tapers off early. However, the Suzuki's abrupt throttle response was a concern for many of our testers-only with a very careful hand is it possible to keep the off/on transition smooth. In the meantime, the Kawasaki pilot is on the gas and gone with less effort.

The 599's engine drew favorable comments from all our testers and is easily the most flexible of this quartet. Its low-end torque may not be quite on par with the Suzuki's, but the powerband is linear and what grunt it does have transitions smoothly into a strong midrange and good top-end rush. The carbureted engine's off/on throttle response is a bit abrupt, but it's more manageable than the SV's and easily smoother than the Yamaha's. Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, the Honda is let down by its suspension, especially the rear shock. While the fork-the only inverted unit in this group-is a big improvement over the previous 599's conventional fork, it's still softly sprung and underdamped when compared to the Kawasaki and especially the Suzuki. Our heavier testers complained most about the Honda's shock, which tends to bottom out frequently and start the bike wallowing. Lighter riders had less trouble and bumping up the rear preload helped the situation, but a linkage or more damping to stop the shock from bottoming and starting the bike oscillating is needed. Otherwise, the 599 has quick, accurate steering and a tiny feel that boosts confidence tremendously at all but the hottest pace.

Bringing up the rear in the canyon runs was typically the Yamaha. Packing the biggest dyno numbers, the FZ6 feels like the least powerful bike here because all that power is jammed right at the top end and practically inaccessible. Plush suspension that makes the city and freeway ride so comfortable turns wallowy when pressed hard, giving the Yamaha a long and heavy feel. Add in a very abrupt throttle response, and it can be a real handful, especially on tighter roads.

At the officeWith all the votes tallied, the Kawasaki is a clear winner. Happy in practically any environment, the Ninja 650R has features that appeal to newer riders, as well as performance that makes it enjoyable for those who are more experienced. While the Honda and Suzuki are just as much fun-and in some ways offer more performance-the 599 is $1000 more expensive and the SV lacks the fairing and comfort of the Ninja. Factor it all in and the little Kawasaki is a true bargain.

Test Notes Honda 599
+ Great engine with smooth power delivery
- Low seat height and tiny feel Way overpriced
* Suspension is soft for even light riders Sharp styling is a hit
Test Notes Kawasaki Ninja 650R
+ Comfortable ergos with good wind protection
- Budget chassis is surprisingly solid
* Different handlebar would improve front-end feel Down on power to the SV Strongest overall package for both new and experienced riders
Test Notes Suzuki SV650
+ Torquey engine has great top-end too
- Great chassis and best suspension
* Abrupt throttle response Odd handlebar bend hurts steering Still the best bike to learn performance riding on
Test Notes Yamaha FZ6
+ R6 engine has strong top-end hit
- Good suspension and brakes Horrible throttle response
* Buzzy engine has no bottom-end Engine and chassis are a mismatched package

Ducati Multistrada 620We have to admit that we weren't expecting much from the MTS620, but Ducati's unassuming budget Multistrada surprised us with its competence. Based on-and sharing many parts with-the 1000cc Multistrada, the baby version combines the two-valve, air-cooled 620cc engine from the Monster 620 with cost- and weight-saving tricks to create a budget model that performs like anything but.

We've always loved Ducati's desmodue engines, and the 620 is no exception. An almost perfectly flat torque curve is matched to a widely spaced gearbox to cleverly disguise the 620's modest 58-horsepower output. The low first gear makes pulling away from a stop easy, yet the tall sixth makes for effortless two-up 80-plus-mph freeway cruising. Throttle response is crisp but smooth, and the little Multistrada doesn't feel down on steam compared to the 650cc liquid-cooled twins.

An upright, high riding position helps with seeing over cars, and the 620 makes a great urban tool for cutting through rush-hour traffic. Clutch action is light because of Ducati's APTC slipper clutch, but it's also very abrupt. The short-throw shifter, on the other hand, is stiff but precise. Thankfully, you won't be shifting the 620 a lot due to the wide spread of power, which is even wider if you don't mind the mirrors shaking and the engine hammering at low revs. The riding position and engine are well suited to freeway cruising, and the two-piece fairing provides ample wind protection. The tiny two-valve motor uses little fuel, easily averaging more than 45 mpg in daily use.

The very upright ergos and super-wide handlebar take some getting used to, but get the MTS620 into the canyons and that's where the surprise is. During this test, the other budget bikes got a good view of the Ducati's stubby underseat exhaust, as it easily handled the twisties the best of this bunch. Part of that is due to its tires-the Multistrada wears Pirelli Diablos, a sport tire, whereas the other bikes are shod with sport-touring rubber-but the Ducati is also better suspended, feels to have a more solid chassis and requires hardlyany shifting over a given stretchof twisties.

As good as the Multistrada is, we didn't lump it in with the other bikes in this test for a couple of reasons. At $8495, calling it a budget bike is a bit of a stretch. The dark version, with flat black paint, a single front disc and four-pot caliper (our test unit has dual discs with two-piston calipers), is $500 cheaper. And some aspects of the 620 make it unsuitable for beginners. The brake lever is nonadjustable, the clutch is very abrupt and a long reach and the seat height is more than one inch taller than any of the other bikes'. In most respects, the Monster 620 ($7495 and $6995 for the Dark version) or upcoming 695 would be a better bet for beginning or budget riders.

Hyosung GT650RA relative newcomer to North America, Korean company Hyosung has been building bikes since '77, starting with a technical collaboration with Suzuki. The company built its first independent models in '86, and the model lineup has since expanded to include three versions of the GT650-a naked model, a half-faired version and the fully faired GT650R tested here.

Given the company's background with Suzuki, it's no surprise that the GT bears a close resemblance to the SV650. From the 90-degree, V-twin engine and double-spar frame, many consider the GT to be a direct copy of the original SV. Park the two side by side, however, and you will see many detail differences between them.

We brought the GT along for part of our budget bike testing to see how it stacked up. The engine is down about five horsepower compared to the SV and has a hammering vibration at higher revs that quickly grows tiresome. Carburetion is clean but not crisp, and the engine gives off more mechanical noise than a typical V-twin. Interestingly, we rode a test bike in Korea several months ago, and it ran much better than the test unit we were provided with here.

Likewise, the chassis is a step back, with underdamped suspension sprung very softly and too much preload and brakes that provide good initial feel but little in the way of stopping power-again, the bike we rode in Korea had much better brakes, and we suspect that the unit we rode may not be a typical example.

The GT650R has some nice touches- like adjustable rearset footpegs and a fuel gauge-but the brake lever is not adjustable. A lot of the chassis parts are steel rather than aluminum which brings the Hyosung's wet weight to a hefty 480 pounds (45 pounds more than an SV650S). While an admirable first attempt, the GT650R is-for now-very rough around the edges when compared to the well-sorted Japanese bikes. And the price, at $5995 for the fully faired version, is a bit steep considering that gap in performance and quality. As the company gains experience and a foothold in the United States, expect that gap to shrink in the near future.

BIKE HONDA 599 KAWASAKI NINJA 650R SUZUKI SV650 YAMAHA FZ6
MSRP $7399 $6299 $5949 $6799
ENGINE
Type Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, inline-four Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, parallel twin Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, 90-degree V-twin Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, inline-four
Displacement 599cc 649cc 645cc 600cc
Bore x stroke 65 x 45.2mm 83 x 60mm 81 x {{{62}}}.6mm 65.5 x 44.5mm
Induction 34mm slanted flat-slide CV carburetors DFI, Keihin 38mm throttle bodies Electronic fuel injection, 39mm throttle bodies Group fuel injection, 36mm throttle bodies
CHASSIS
Front suspension 41mm inverted HMAS fork, 4.7 in. travel 41mm conventional damping-rod fork, 4.7 in. travel 43mm conventional damping-rod fork, 5.1 in. travel 43mm conventional damping-rod fork, 5.1 in. travel
Rear suspension Single shock absorber, 5.0 in. travel Single shock absorber, 4.9 in. travel Single shock absorber, 5.1 in. travel Single shock absorber, 5.1 in. travel
Front tire 120/70-ZR17 Michelin {{{Pilot}}} Road S 180/55ZR-17 Michelin Pilot 120/70-ZR17 Bridgestone BT-020 GG 120/60-ZR17 Dunlop D220F ST L 120/70-ZR17 Bridgestone BT-020 GG
Rear tire Road S 25.5 deg./3.8 in. (96mm) 160/60-ZR17 Bridgestone BT-020 160/60-ZR17 Dunlop D220 ST L 180/55-ZR17 Bridgestone BT-020 GG
Rake/trail 56.1 in. (1425mm) 25 deg. /4.2 in. (107mm) 25 deg. /4.0 in. (102mm) 25.0 deg./3.8 in. (97mm)
Wheelbase 445 lb. (202 kg) wet; 418 lb. 55.3 in. (1405mm) 56.7 in. (1440mm) 56.7 in. (1440mm)
Weight (190 kg) dry 441 lb. ({{{200}}} kg) wet; 416 lb. (189 kg) dry 430 lb. (195 kg) wet; 403 lb. (183 kg) dry 463 lb. (210 kg) wet; 432 lb. (196 kg) dry
Fuel consumption 38 to 46 mpg, 43 mpg avg. 45 to 47 mpg, 46 mpg avg. 42 to 46 mpg, 44 mpg avg. 42 to 51 mpg, 47 mpg avg.
PERFORMANCE NUMBERS
Quarter-Mile Roll-ons, 60-{{{80}}} mph Roll-ons, 80-{{{100}}} mph
{{{Honda}}} 599 11.65 sec. @ 116.8 mph 4.75 sec. 6.26 sec.
Kawasaki Ninja 650R 12.03 sec. @ 109.0 mph 4.69 sec. 4.68 sec
Suzuki SV650 11.92 sec. @ 110.9 mph 4.83 sec. 5.18 sec.
Yamaha FZ6 11.35 sec. @ 119.3 mph 5.06 sec. 5.21 sec.

OpinionsJIM O'ConnorJim's day job is modeling for certain, um,"alternative" magazines.

Emotionally, I was pulling for the SV650. I've raced a '99 SV for a few years and still smile every time I get on it. Sadly though, my emotional connection with Sport Rider's SV was blocked by its fuel-injection quirkiness. Transitioning between on and off throttle was so abrupt that it upset the bike significantly.

All-around performance, comfort and smiles came from the Kawasaki Ninja 650R. Its windscreen provided good protection and caused no helmet buffeting. Very little pressure was needed on its high, wide bars to lean the 650R into corners. If anything, I wanted the bars to be a little lower for a more sporty riding position, but, as is, it's all-day comfortable. The 650R has a counterbalanced parallel twin engine that delivers smooth, linear power. It loses power at the top of the rev range, but pulls well everywhere else. The 650R's forks have no adjustment and are soft, but more importantly, front-end feel is predictable; I think a little suspension work would go a long way. The rear shock, which is mounted along the right side of the frame and swingarm, is extremely easy to access and, for once, adjusting preload doesn't involve scraping my knuckles on motorcycle parts.

These four budget bikes all have their good points, and the customer looking for an entry-level bike, a bike to commute on or just a good bike to ride around, will have lots of smiles on any of these. The bargain, however, is the Kawasaki 650R.

Steve MikolasGot stuffed so bad on the track he ended up with a new nickname.

Naked or faired, affordable or entry level, all of these machines are more than just forgiving starter bikes. While each of them excels in a different category and has a surprisingly different personality, they all still achieve the same end result: helping you master the fine art of riding.

These two-wheel deals make this class a ton of fun no matter what your riding level. As usual, the comparison boils down to personal needs. My decision is based on entry-level forgiveness, affordability and, of course, the fun factor.

Honorable mention goes to the FZ6. Its heavy feel and rev-hungry motor separate it from the rest. This Yamaha seems better suited for the long haul. Third place goes to the SV650. Once the class leader, its competition has stepped it up. The Suzuki's proven performance and willing suspension are now being challenged.

Second place goes to the Honda, whose strong motor provides the grunt of the group and looks tuff while doing it. Its low seat height is a huge factor for the vertically challenged. First place goes to the Kawi's in-line twin. It covers the field with its simple design and its eagerness to perform in every environment. In this group, the Ninja 650R is the do-it-all machine, and it shares its price tag with its good manners!

Lance HolstLikes dirt riding because he can fall off and roll around in the mud.

Two things are clear in this test: Price doesn't correlate to fun, and quality of power is more important than peak dyno numbers. In fact, I probably had more fun riding these modest-powered budget bikes in the tight Malibu mountain roads than I did the open-class sportbikes. You can get away with actually twisting their throttles hard and not feeling like you should be locked up for it. The modern literbikes are so powerful and sharp-handling that only a tiny fraction of their potential can be responsibly sampled on the street. Riding them hard is like swatting flies with a 16-pound sledgehammer.

When it comes to having fun, the 650 twins are my pick. The Yamaha FZ6 begins buzzing several thousand rpm before it begins making serious power, and I'm so tired of the thrashing that I shift before reaching the meat of the powerband. Honda's 599 puts more power in the upper midrange but the sub-standard suspension really lets it down. Kawasaki strikes the best balance with its super-smooth Ninja 650 and its all-day comfort, but it's Suzuki's magical SV650 that still makes my heart go pitter-pat. From the first time I rode one, I've recommended the SV to friends, students and even my wife-and I've yet to hear a single complaint.

Kent KunitsuguNo, really! A MotoGP bike! I rode it! And I got this really cool jacket!

For the rider who wants to get into sportbikes but doesn't have a lot of money to spend, you can't go wrong with either the Kawasaki Ninja 650R or the Suzuki SV650. Both have decent price tags, quick-revving, midrange-strong motors and very acceptable ergos (the Kawasaki more so than the Suzuki, which might be a little cramped for taller riders). Although the SV has more outright performance potential than the 650R, I'm not so sure that the majority of those looking at these bikes will be overly concerned with that aspect. The Kawasaki may not have the top-end power of the SV, but it has an even more user-friendly powerband without being overly diluted to the point of blandness. The Kawasaki's seat height feels lower and more comfortable and its clutch operation is more manageable for novices. That gives it the slight nod in my book.

The Honda 599 is a great bike, and it would be vying for my pick if its price tag wasn't so overblown. The Yamaha is easily the most comfortable of the quartet, but its windscreen design is poor and the engine has multiple warts: throttle response is overly abrupt, clutch actuation is narrow and engagement is sudden and high rpms are required for decent acceleration.

SR RATINGS HONDA599 KAWASAKININJA 650R SUZUKISV650 YAMAHAFZ6
Fun to ride: 8.7 9.1 8.8 8.1
Quality: 8.4 8.9 9.0 8.8
Instruments and controls: 9.2 8.8 8.9 7.8
Ergonomics: 8.7 9.1 8.7 8.9
Chassis and handling: 8.5 9.0 8.9 8.3
Suspension: 7.9 8.6 8.6 8.5
Brakes: 8.9 8.3 8.4 8.6
Transmission 8.6 8.7 8.5 8.6
Engine power: 9.2 8.7 8.8 8.6
Engine power delivery: 8.7 8.9 8.5 7.8
Total: 86.6 87.9 86.9 83.8