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16 Sep 2014 | How far have come in 30 years? Come for a ride on two of Suzuki's greatest hits


Main story: Guy Allen; Pix: Ellen Dewar; Second op: Paul Kesting

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It’s sometimes difficult to hear yourself think over the shriek of rival performance claims from assorted manufacturers, as they tout the virtues of their latest transport of delight. So, has it always been like this? Yup, pretty much.

But even amidst the carnival-like bustle for attention, some models manage to pop their proverbial heads above the crowd. Two from Suzuki have been the Katana and, three decades later, the Hayabusa. Let’s take them for a spin around the block.

GERMAN KATS

You have to step back to 1980 or thereabouts and take a virtual tour of the motorcycle showroom of the day to fully understand the significance of the Katana. Motorcycles back then with fully integrated or themed bodywork were thin on the ground. Full-dress tourers had fairings, as did some machinery at the more sporting end of the scale, such as Ducati’s SS series or Suzuki’s own GS1000S Wes Cooley replica. The vast majority of tackle was naked. And the idea of actually sending something off to a professional design house was unthinkable – that was something car companies did.

Then someone at Suzuki got the bright idea of letting German firm Target Design, run by Hans A Muth, Hans Georg Kasten and Jan Olof Fellström, loose on the GSX1100. They sketched up something that looked fairly wild even by current standards, and was subsequently refined with the aid of a wind tunnel. Even once it reached production form, the Katana (named after a Samurai blade) was a radical-looking bit of gear.

Launched in September 1981 for the 1982 model year, the GSX1000SZ caused quite a stir. Ironically, while its more traditional-looking GSX1100E naked predecessor enjoyed considerable racetrack success, the Katana had trouble matching it. In just one or two years, the competition had become a whole lot more fierce.

Underneath the bodywork, the mechanical package was near identical to the ‘plain’ GSX1100. An exception was the bike you see here, which is the GSX1100SXZ, which was the production race version. The big visual difference was the wire-spoked wheels (later retro-fitted to a lot of Katanas), while the mechanical distinction was different cams that robbed some of the performance from lower in the rev range and picked up more peak power. Exactly how much is difficult to say, as the numbers are near impossible to find. But we do know a stocker (which is actually a nicer street engine) claimed 81.6kW (111hp).

The mechanical package was a familiar one by this stage: an in-line air-cooled four with CV carbs, 16 valves, and a five-speed transmission. While the power number is hardly riveting by today’s standards, it was enough to propel the 230-odd kilo lump (more like 250kg when fuelled and on the road) to around 230km/h.

Under the bodywork, the chassis was very conventional. Front suspension was fitted with anti-dive units (removed from the bike you see here) plus preload and compression damping adjustment, while the rear had twin shocks with the same level of adjustment.

The angular and modernistic design was carried through to a host of details, including switchgear and a prominent choke mechanism integrated into the sidecovers, plus an instrument cluster unique to that model.

And the ride? The seating position is long and rangy, and really only starts to work once you get it up to highway speeds or better. Steering is ponderous and it definitely rewards a ‘plan ahead’ and committed approach. You can forget last-second flitting changes of line – this is definitely in the dinosaur school of motorcycle handling. Desperate braking maneuvers are out, too.

That said, it’s fun. The engine is responsive, the transmission surprisingly slick, and it does have that ‘on rails’ feel through a set of sweepers.

One thing you can say for these old things is they’re fast and robust. Once sorted (spares access is pretty good), they’re a very low-stress classic.

GIVE ’EM THE BIRD

When Suzuki first launched the Hayabusa, in 1999, the very name was a little corporate joke. If we step back a little, three years before, Honda had launched the Blackbird – the name was referring to the high-altitude USA spyplane, aka the Lockheed SR-71. The motorcycle version was also fast and stealthy, capable of 280km/h.

Suzuki replied with the Hayabusa, which in the bird world is a falcon (or bird of prey) that includes feathered blackbirds in its diet. While it was a cheeky move, it was anything but the first ‘theme’ bike from the Hamamatsu factory.

Like the Katana, it was developed with a lot of wind tunnel time – to the point where the designers exceeded their target 300km/h top speed. That was enough to make the Hayabusa an instant headline and send it on its way to cult bike status.

The first model ran from 1999 to 2007 with minimal changes other than paint. The significant exception was a switch to a more sophisticated 32-bit processor for the engine control unit, which gave a modest lift in power and marginally better throttle response.

We saw the second-gen introduced in 2008, with mixed responses from ’Busa fans. The styling was roundly criticised, though I think time has softened the attitude of many – it’s different but very much in the spirit of the original.

The mechanical package has always been an injected in-line four with 16 valves, mated to a six-speed transmission. Meanwhile the chassis is conventional for its time, with a twin-spar alloy frame matched to a USD front fork and a monoshock rear with full adjustment at both ends.

Underneath the bodywork, generation two is a much-improved motorcycle. Suspension was upgraded, as were the brakes. Though moving from six-piston fronts to four, they offer more power and much better feel. Also, we got a lift in engine capacity (up from 1298cc to 1340) along with a jump from a claimed 128.7kW (175hp) to 142.7kW (194hp).

As a package, the current bike really is a delight to ride. It’s undemanding, and will happily mix it in peak-hour or stretch its very long legs on the open road.

Steering is light for something of this capacity and, from the saddle, it doesn’t feel like a particularly big motorcycle. Suspension and braking are both of a high standard, though an ABS option is sorely missed.

THIRTY YEARS BETTER?

So how far have we come in three decades? If you step back and look at the two spec sheets for these motorcycles, the big surprise is how little difference there really is. The basics really haven’t changed all that much. They’re both 16-valve in-line fours designed in a wind tunnel and intended to be ‘big idea’ bikes that pull in headlines. Which both have been pretty successful at over the years, garnering their own cults along the way.

The progress has been in refinement and detail. Spec sheets give it away to some extent. The Hayabusa has dropped a few kilos and picked up 74 per cent more horsepower.

Plus, it’s a hell of a lot easier to ride. And that’s where the real change is. Faster, more comfortable and a hell of a lot sharper, there’s really no contest. Still, you wouldn’t complain if either landed in your shed…

SECOND OPINION

‘landmark’ in motorcycle design would be one of the most often-used terms I’ve heard used to describe the mighty Katana and, yes, it’s hard not to agree.

Even once you take the nostalgia and hype out of the equation I’m finding it hard to resist grabbing one of these fine machines for myself.

Unlike most modern bikes that in reality can do nearly everything better, 30 years have been extremely kind to the big Suzuki, but it’s the Kat’s character that leaves the biggest impression.

Late-model bikes are well built and reliable to ride and own, but not many of the latest and greatest ooze character.

Once in the saddle, first impressions are that it’s a narrow bike with a fair stretch to the ’bars, a bit like an old Duke. Fire up the glorious old-style air-cooled engine and immediately you’re greeted with a quiet yet powerful sound and feel. A twist of the wrist unlocks some great low-down urge while a great Suzuki clutch and gearbox combination make light work of getting away cleanly.

On the move it feels unburstable, yet it’s very smooth in the way it goes about its business. The suspension is a little firm and the brakes are a bit wooden, but they are more than up to the task today and were most likely a revelation in 1982.

I normally only reserve such adulation for old Italian bikes from Bologna, but this Japanese classic is easy to like and it wouldn’t be hard to add to the shed. Now I get what all the fuss is about – the Katana is a great old girl whose purchase is well worth considering before the model’s worth a squillion bucks.

As for the Hayabusa, this scorchingly fast motorcycle can best be summed up by the phrase, ‘bird of prey’. The thing is, I’ve never really given this model much thought. Even after all the hype about the outright speed, I just could never warm to the look of the thing.

But what did your Dad tell you? Something like ‘never judge a book by its cover’.

Over the course of a day spent riding across an interesting cross-section of roads I can honestly say there’s nothing the big Suzuki can’t do well.

The fit and finish are exceptional, as is the feeling of quality that most late-model Japanese bikes exhibit. But’s it’s the bike’s ‘real world’ performance that really impresses.

The accommodating ride position, the superb brakes and the sorted suspension all contributed to an unshakeable sense of composure over a variety of roads, where the quality of the tarmac ranged from excellent to very average.

It’s simply confidence inspiring. Sure, there’s plenty there to bite you if things go pear-shaped, but even if it did I somehow doubt it would be the Hayabusa’s fault.

Paul Kesting

IS IT A REAL SXZ?


While the ‘plain’ GSX1100SZ is arguably a better ride than its race cousin, the latter is more valuable. If you’re in the market, here are the chassis numbers to look for, to ensure it’s a real SXZ: GS110X-100388 to GS110X-101324.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

KATANA


ENGINE

Type: Air-cooled, DOHC, 16-valve, four-stroke, in-line four-cylinder
Capacity: 1074cc
Bore x Stroke: 72mm x 66mm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Fuel system: CV carburettor

TRANSMISSION
Type:
Five-speed, constant mesh
Final drive: Chain

CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR
Frame type:
Twin-loop steel
Front suspension: Conventional fork, adjustable for preload and compression
Rear suspension: Twin shock, adjustable for preload and compression
Front brakes: Twin 275mm discs with single-piston calipers
Rear brake: 275mm disc with single-piston caliper

DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES
Dry weight:
232kg
Seat height: 775mm
Fuel capacity: 22lt

PERFORMANCE
Max power:
81.6kW (111hp) at 9500rpm
Max torque: 97.1Nm (71.5ft-lb) at 6500rpm
Max speed: 230km/h

OTHER STUFF
Price when new:
$3900
Test bike supplied by: Guido
Warranty: N/A

*Manufacturer’s list price excluding dealer and statutory costs

HAYABUSA

ENGINE
Type:
Liquid-cooled, DOHC, 16-valve, four-stroke, in-line four-cylinder
Capacity: 1340cc
Bore x stroke: 81mm x 65mm
Compression ratio: 12.5:1
Fuel system: EFI

TRANSMISSION
Type:
Six-speed, constant mesh
Final drive: Chain

CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR
Frame type:
Twin-spar alloy beam
Front suspension: Inverted 49mm Kayaba fork, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brakes: Twin 310mm discs with Tokico four-piston calipers
Rear brake: 260mm disc with twin-piston Tokico caliper

DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES
Dry weight:
220kg
Seat height: 805mm
Fuel capacity: 21lt

PERFORMANCE
Max power:
142.7kW (194hp) at 10,100rpm
Max torque: 133Nm (98ft-lb) at 7600rpm
Max speed: Limited to 290km/h

OTHER STUFF
Price:
$18,990*
Test bike supplied by: Suzuki Australia
Warranty: 24 months/unlimited kilometres

*Manufacturer’s list price excluding dealer and statutory costs