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04-28-2005, 09:11 PM
2004 Reality Bike Shootout
By Kevin Duke
Value-packed Middleweights
Somewhere between a Hayabusa and a Honda Rebel exists a class of motorcycles that cuts one of the largest swaths among streetbike riders, they are what we like to call "reality bikes."

A reality bike, by our definition, is an elemental yet widely capable machine that is friendly to both its owner's wallet and its insurance provider, perfectly willing to pound out commuter miles during the week followed some out-of-town fun on the weekend.

Now that may sound simple enough, but the difficult part is to be newbie-friendly while also providing a strong platform for experienced riding enthusiasts. This kind of moto-alchemy was once best exemplified by the 1988-92 Honda Hawk GT.

Boasting an aluminum frame, single-sided swingarm and a cool narrow-degree V-Twin, this 647cc roadster was born ahead of its time. Coming out just one year after the first CBR600 debuted, the poor Hawk was heavily outgunned at a price not far below that of the Hurricane. Weeds grew around Hawks in the showrooms until an Icarus-like resurgence transformed the unwanted GT into a bona fide cult bike in the mid-'90s. Its multifarious personality made it a great chick bike and a thrilling racebike—and everything in between. There was simply nothing else like it.

The year 1999 will go down in the history of Hawk GT fans in the same way stockbrokers feel about 1929. That was the year the Suzuki SV650 showed its playful head, offering up a much stiffer chassis and way more power in a package that weighed about the same, all for only about $1200 more than a nice used Hawk was selling for at the time. It wasn't long after the first road tests of the SV were published that classifieds began to fill with Hawk ads.

The SV650 was an instant smash for Suzuki, becoming everything the Hawk was and more. The SV was a perfect fit for almost anyone, from pencil-necked geeks and supercilious squids to biker babes and racer studs. It was cheap at just over $5000, and it could be lighthearted or mischievous depending on your mood. I said at the time in another publication that the SV offers up a smile-per-dollar ratio that was unmatched in the motorcycle industry, and I came within a gnat's eyelash of buying a used copy for myself. Having had the good fortune to have ridden just about everything made in the past 10 years and have frequent forays on the racetrack, the above endorsement ought to carry some weight.

Finally, four years after the SV's debut, the reality bike class is back in a way unseen in the industry since the '80s. We've already given you a riding impression of the fun-but-expensive Honda 599 and the do-anything Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, and you've been able to read our road test of the Yamaha FZ6 for a few months. But it wasn't until recently that we had the chance to throw four contenders into the ring at once.

And, as eagle-eyed MCUSA readers will have noticed, it's not quite the same quartet we originally intended. In fact, we initially wanted to do a five-bike comparo, including the aforementioned four plus Triumph's amazingly affordable Speed Four. But initially we were unable to get the linchpin of the group, the SV, because new models were late in arriving because they were stuck on a boat or something having to do with revisions stemming from its lower rear subframe for 2004. But before we were able to put together our 1000-mile group ride, Suzuki made us a deal we couldn't refuse: a 2003 SV650 in exchange for the V-Strom.

So there you have it. And we don't want to hear any whining about not having the Kawasaki ZZR-600, Yamaha YZF600, Suzuki Bandit 600, or Kawasaki Ninja 500; the first two have full fairings, the second isn't being sold anymore, and the third is relatively gutless. That's fine for some but doesn't cut it in this group in which the clothes are few and the power can inspire.

04-28-2005, 09:12 PM
We were amazed at how many of you wrote in wondering how the DL650 V-Strom was going to fare in this comparison, so we'll cover that quickly. The DL is more of a touring bike than the four in this test, offering better wind protection, a comfier saddle, plusher suspension and greater fuel range. If this sounds like your kind of bike, then log off and go to tell your Suzuki dealer MCUSA sent ya. Those who are interested in something a little more sporting and stylish will want to keep reading.

If you took the cheapest bike of the group (SV) and the most expensive (599) and your "ciphering" was good, you'd find out the midpoint is $6499, exactly what Triumph and Yamaha are charging for their versions of reality. It's these two that dominate the spec chart shootout, boasting more sporting pedigrees than the competition's humble origins.

As you'll remember from the FZ6 road test, Yamaha retuned the high-revving motor from the supersport YZF-R6 and stuck it in a new aluminum frame bespoke to the littler FZ. We fell for its host of features, relatively high horsepower and versatile demeanor, but reality bit when we were reminded of its wimpy midrange and abrupt clutch. As the only member of the group with anything more than a vestigial windscreen, it was going to be interesting to see how the Fizzer stacked up against the rest.

The Speed Four comes into this test ready to brawl, with a direct lineage to what was once Triumph's sportiest bike, the TT600. Other than hacking off the TT's fairing and slapping on the Speed Triple's trademark micro-fairing above the familiar double headlight, the TT's transformation into Speed Four consists of only a mild retune of the motor to shore up its midrange. That means you'll still find a stiff aluminum frame, an eager motor and the only bike here with fully adjustable suspension pieces at both ends. At $6500, it's $1000 less than last year—truly a screaming bargain.

Less obviously a bargain is the Honda 599, the spendiest bike here at $7099. And, as the only bike in the group not to have an aluminum frame or fuel injection, it's a mystery at first glance why it's half-a-grand more expensive than anything else in this quartet. The clue as to why is explained by a frame sticker that says it is built in Italy. The 599 is sold in huge numbers across the pond as the Honda Hornet, one of the most successful models in Europe. Building the bikes in Italy makes sense for the Continental market, but the recent high value of the Euro has forced a price premium on the 599.

At the other end of the price scale is the key player in this group, the SV650. The standard model like our test bike retails for a ridiculously low $5899, which is quite an accomplishment for a fuel-injected, aluminum-framed budget blaster. Adding an S to the SV650 and an extra $400 will get you the SV650S, but its stylishly edgy quarter fairing isn't enough to offset the much less accommodating low clip-ons and high pegs that would've made it the oddball in this bunch.

The SV had a major revision after its fourth year in production. The 2003 model boasted a more contemporary style and a new aluminum trellis frame, along with some engine tweaks and the addition of fuel injection. Now packing 72 grunting ponies in its 645cc 90-degree V-Twin stable (up about 5 from the previous carbureted version) and with a stiffer frame, the SV650 is even more formidable than it once was.

04-28-2005, 09:12 PM
2004 Reality Bike Shootout

The standards for testing a reality bike depend so much on whose version of reality you're trusting. With that in mind I gathered up a diverse group of riders for the test, which brings us to what sounds like a joke: A mercurial Asian, a female novice racer and a wise-cracking Jew walk into this California bar and meet a big-nosed Canadian who has four bikes to ride from SoCal to Monterey and back. How can you tell which person chose what bike as their personal favorite? Keep reading!

Woefully underdressed for the cold weather that would attack us during the freeway stint that began our trek, we scrapped it out in the parking lot over the quarter-faired FZ6. I'd rather not reveal who won the battle, but it will suffice to say she was lucky. The Yamaha was soon dubbed The Couch because of its upright seating position and protection from the elements, and the FZ was always the first choice of the weariest of the road-weary.

"Its nice windscreen and fairing, large, supportive seat, high bars and low pegs contribute to making this bike feel like a mini-Goldwing compared to the other bikes in the test," says Gabe, the funniest road-racing, bike-selling non-practicing lawyer we know. "You could just sit happily on this thing all day long. It would make a great commuter or light tourer."

Most un-Gold-Wing-like is the FZ's dearth of punch at normal engine operating speeds. The higher-strung Yamaha motor lags significantly behind the others through the low end and midrange, and it's only past 10,000 rpm that the fuel-injected mill is able to stretch its legs and assert its top-end dominance with 90.0 horsepower at 12,000 rpm. That's either an inconvenience or an invitation to exercise your toe-tapping talents, depending on your mood.

"The R6-based motor disappoints a little," Gabe criticizes. "Its midrange is weak compared to the 599 and the SV, but it still lacks the top end hit of an R6. Why change it from a stock R6 at all? It's hard to ride smoothly with the mid-range flat spot; opening the throttle at under 7K gives you a whole lot of nothing."

Still, even Gabe admits that if it's kept properly spinning, the Fizzer can show a wheel to anything in the class. "It still feels plenty fast," he allowed in a rare soft moment, "and it pulls ripper wheelies!" And it also clicked of a best quarter-mile pass of 11.37 seconds at 120.4 mph, the quickest of the group. With only as much wind protection as offered by a large-diameter round headlamp, it's not surprising the 599 and SV aren't the best mounts for touring. We enjoyed the 599's wide, supportive seat on the freeway drones, although the knees of taller riders will be bent more on the Honda than the others—a by-product of the lowest seat height, part of what makes the 599 perhaps the most newbie-friendly of the quartet. Gabe noted that he could feel the typical inline-Four buzz through the handlebar, especially on the right side, but it otherwise makes a fairly comfortable mount up to about 80 mph.

It seems as if Honda is as big a fan of the SV as we are: Not only is the riding position of the 599 nearly identical to the Suzuki, the power from its engine feels almost Twin-like. Providing the 599's oomph is a softer-tuned version of the CBR600F3 motor. Although it pumps out competitive peak power (83.4 hp at 11,700 rpm), Honda engineers have filed off its rough edges to the point where it feels half-neutered. The dyno trace shows an extraordinarily linear rise in power until a short-lived hit around 9500 rpm. But before things get too exciting, power tails off abruptly before plateau-ing all the way until its 14,000-rpm rev limit. Our testers noted that the 599's powerband is near perfect for newbies, but it comes off as feeling boring to them. But it's only past 10,000 rpm that the Yamaha is able to produce more power and the 599's top speed is within a gust of wind of the fastest bikes in this class, going 142.1 mph to the FZ's 142.8 and the Speed Four's 143.1.

The Suzuki, as compared to the 599, has a bit more room between its seat and slightly rear-set pegs that proves to be more accommodating for larger riders. Leaned forward just slightly, an SV rider has a pleasant minimalist motorcycle experience—"sporty yet comfortable," according to Gabe. "Just about perfect for me."

04-28-2005, 09:13 PM
On the street, the SV's motor is a gem. As is typical for a longer stroke motor like a V-Twin, especially one with a 46cc displacement advantage, it cranks out better power down low than the Multis, even if its top-end numbers (72.2 horsepower at 9200 rpm) pale in comparison. What this means, plain and simple, is that the SV makes the most ponies and most torque anytime the revs are below 9000 rpm. How much time do you spend revving your streetbike above 10 grand, anyway?

Well, for those raised riding inline-Fours, like our guest tester Heidi Mattison, riding the V-Twin Suzuki for the first time was a new version of reality.

"Having zero experience on a Twin of any kind, I redlined the bike a half a dozen times my first time out," said the CBR600F4i racer. "I became very disappointed with the power above nine grand because I expected it to be there. I decided I would never own an SV and never recommend an SV. After some probing from the other guys on the trip (her words—Ed), I decided to give it another shot. It took some time getting used to the power at such a low rpm as I began to short-shift the bike, but my comfort level eventually came around. I was amazed at how much power was there by bogging it through the tight turns and dirty pavement."

Unlike the SV, Heidi quickly made friends with the Triumph Speed Four. That's not surprising when you consider the TT600 upon which the Speed Four is based feels a lot like a CBR600F4, and she rides an F4i. Gabe, the other F4i owner in our group, also took a liking to the Speed Cubed.

"It's almost as fast as my F4i, but the motor doesn't have the same top-end rush that the Honda does," says the bike distributor/salesman/journalist/lawyer. "Otherwise the two bikes feel similar in weight, handling and engine performance."

Although sport-touring isn't in the Speed Four's list of top priorities, the Brit bike actually does quite well on the freeway. Its body-colored plastic prow over the headlights does a surprisingly respectable job at deflecting air, and it was made at least 50% more effective with the addition of a tinted Laminar Lip. This clever device helps to funnel air further upward to provide a larger cocoon of protection, and at just $75, it is a solid investment in rider comfort. Look for a product test in the coming months.

Our riders had praise for the S4's nicely padded, supportive and roomy seat, and according to Gabe, "the pegs are just where I would put them if it were left to me." But Gabriel raised a bit of Cain when the topic of handlebars came up. "The clip-ons make no sense on this hooligan-y kind of bike. Triumph doesn't offer a handlebar kit, either."

With the most oversquare engine architecture of the Fours, the Triumph has about as much of a chance of winning a tractor-pull event as the Yamaha. There is nobody in the engine room below 3000 rpm, necessitating some clutch slipping leaving stoplights, and a minor hole in its powerband makes roll-on acceleration a bit flaccid depending on the speed and gear. Still, its 85.3 horsepower is right in the hunt, and its quarter-mile run was just a click behind the quickest of the pack, an 11.47 to the top-dog FZ6's 11.37.

There's about a jillion corners to be found between LA to Monterey, and we tried to hit them all during our meandering journey. In this kind of snaking environment there's no way something nicknamed the Couch could ever hope to keep up with a Speed Four, the nastiest bike in this group by a wide margin. In the twisty bits, the S4's track-worthy chassis and premium suspension components set it apart.

"The thing just hammers through high-speed turns without wallowing or moving on bumps," says Gabe, an experienced road racer. "The shock is able to keep the wheel on the ground even at insane speeds on very bumpy, twisty roads. And the Four's ability on bumpy, slow roads surprised me."

04-28-2005, 09:14 PM
2004 Reality Bike Shootout

It should be no surprise, really, as the Triumph is the only member of the group with damping adjustment provisions (and variable preload) at both ends of the English Creamsicle (the orange models are supplanted by a hot yellow color for 2004; bad-boy black is the other option). Its 43mm fork is tied with the FZ6 for the stoutest stanchions, going the Yamaha one better by being a cartridge design instead of the damping-rod internals in the three others. While each of the low-tech-suspended trio has rear preload adjustment, only the SV has provisions for front preload.

The Triumph handles just like a three-year-old sportbike, which of course it basically is. Despite the sportiest chassis geometry—steepest rake, smallest amount of trail, shortest wheelbase—the Speed Four is far from the group's nimblest. Blame falls squarely upon the lack of leverage delivered from its relatively low and narrow clip-ons compared to the authentic handlebars on its competitors. It doesn't help that the Trumpet is the second lardiest, just 4 pounds lighter than the FZ6 that is festooned with extra niceties such as a centerstand and extra bodywork; it's even heavier than the steel-framed and underseat-exhausted Honda.

All of which isn't to say the Speed Four can't cut it up in the canyons. Going down the front side of SoCal's famous Mount Palomar in the company of a YZF-R1 and ZX-10R, Mr. Speed was deemed to be "super-flickable," and was able to leave the bigger bikes snorting on its fumes on the tight downhill route.

The Triumph also excels in the decel zone, as its larger discs and dual 4-piston-caliper front brakes are a clear notch ahead of the more pedestrian twin-piston caliper jobbies on remaining trio. The brakes on the others are more than adequate; the Honda gets the edge for runner-up honors while the Suzuki trails the pack.

Though the SV650 could never hope to compete with the snarling Triumph on the nasty scale, it is frequently the most fun to ride. The Suzuki delivers the utmost in cooperation for its rider, sending the feeling that it is the rider that is doing the dominating in the relationship and not the other way around. Even riders with moderate experience can quickly learn to slam the thing over on its side for a corner like a cage-match wrestler (thanks in part to the skinnier 160-series rear tire and the lightest weight in the group), then get back into that smooth power an inch past the apex to fire out toward the next one. As Heidi experienced, the SV needs a different kind of hand to extract its best, but once you've learned not to stroke against the fur she's a cooperative kitty. While riders on the Multis are zinging their motors to the moon, it's often an SV rider up front, riding much more relaxed and less frantic.

"I could look around and chill and throttle it around without worrying about the rpm," says Heidi, a budding journalist. "It is a strong bike at lower rpms so my concentration was not on winding the gears out but just on the ride."

Close behind, literally as well as figuratively, is the 599, seen on these pages in its controversial "Asphalt" color. Some think it looks like black primer while others dig it. Gabe sees something reminiscent of a Ducati Monster, calling its look "slick and stylish." Heidi, on the other hand, believes its appearance "leaves something to be desired," though she did have praise for the look of its fairing-less engine and the high-mount exhaust pipe that "gives it a more adult look."

As for the 599's instrument package—the only one that uses a traditional twin-faced speedo and tach in chromed bezels—some weren't pleased at the amount of time it takes to read the numbers on the analog speedometer. "The instruments are classy and old-fashioned but functional, Gabe counters. "They're a little harder to read than the larger tach faces and digital speedo readouts on the other bikes—you can still read analog, right?"

Fresh off defending the Honda, Gabe lashed back when discussing the 599's ability to soak up pavement imperfections. "The lack of a shock linkage and Bronze-age suspension deliver a rough, bumpy ride on less-than-smooth roads, especially at higher speeds," he scathed, and we noticed insufficient rebound damping when ridden aggressively. To be fair, the Suzuki is really no better than the Honda in its suspension qualities, and we'd recommend upgrades to both of them if you're a seriously fast rider.

04-28-2005, 09:15 PM
The FZ6 presents itself as a bit of an irony. Not only does its screaming motor clash with its upright and "proper" riding position, its handling qualities are also a bit mismatched. And while it steers into a corner smartly, the FZ then doesn't offer much feedback from the front end. And although wheel control is slightly better than the two other Japanese bikes (it, as does the 599, has a linkless rear suspension), the FZ rider has to deal with an abrupt transition when coming back into the throttle. "It's like pulling the cork out of a full bathtub," according to Gabe. And in a final bit of irony, although its top-end lunge surpasses the others, the Yamaha has built a somewhat reluctant gearbox that makes stirring for revs notchier than desirable.

After living with a bike through all kinds of conditions, it's the small details of a bike that often leave the largest impressions. The execution of these features can determine whether a bike shines or is scorned.

Gabe passed along kudos for the SV's instrumentation that he says is classy and well laid out, and he liked how he was able to view the clock, temp and odometer functions simultaneously. We were impressed at how fresh our test unit still felt after 4000 motorjournalist miles, which works out to be—carry the 3, multiply…—about 20,000 civilian miles.

Yamaha must also be commended for packing such a raft of features into a bike that sells for $500 less than the Honda. We're not fans of the FZ's LCD analog tach, but we love Yamaha's countdown tripmeter feature that displays how many miles since reaching the reserve part of the tank. A centerstand such as on the FZ can be a godsend during a roadside tire repair, and its nicely finished underseat exhaust is undoubtedly worth some style points down at the café. We can't forget to mention how much the 599 and others might cost if they came with a stylish and protective mini fairing like the FZ's? A grabby clutch with a narrow engagement point knocks it down a few points.

The rambunctious ones in our group enjoyed the Speed Four's growling intake and exhaust sounds, but it loses marks for a notchy tranny. We'd like to point out a feature that is on most of Triumph's cast aluminum wheels: angled valve stems. They make fiddling with awkward gas station air hoses much less fiddlesome, and we can't believe they aren't universal in the industry by now, especially on bikes with large disc brakes. The Triumph's worst-in-group fuel mileage (35.8 mpg) and shortest fuel range (170 miles) is a hooligan's middle finger to the rest of society.

The Honda has a very nice, beginner-friendly clutch, and it's the quietest bike of the lot if that sort of thing concerns you. The 599 gets docked a few marks for its carburetors that are more cold-blooded than the EFI systems on the others, and although its shift action is very light it can be a bit clunky like the F2/F3.

04-28-2005, 09:15 PM
The Cast
After thousands of cumulative miles over all variations of riding environments, including acceleration and top speed testing and hours in the dyno room of our friends at White Brothers, we're able to bring you a personality profile of the Reality Bike cast of 2004 along with how they scored in our scorecard.

#4 – 72.6%
Honda 599: Mr. Nice Guy
You can take the 599 for a 30-minute ride and come away thinking that it's significantly slower than the other Fours in the group. And you'd be wrong. There's plenty of sporting potential in the Hornet, and its rider is rewarded with an uncomplicated and fun riding experience. We'll let Heidi sum up. "The 599 would be a great learning bike, especially for riders who have shorter legs. An experienced rider could out-ride it instantly, but for a newbie it's a fun and easy bike to ride and learn on. It is forgiving and smooth and flickable."

#3 – 81.3%
Yamaha FZ6: Dr. I. Ronnie
The FZ has more sides to it than a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. It's comfy and it's racy; it's chic yet a bit awkward; it's slow but it's fast; it's both feminine and a brute. It's an irony in metal but a package full of functionality, so it's an excellent choice for someone who's enticed by a supersport like the R6 but knows the FZ is a more rational mount for the types of riding he or she will do.

#2 – 82.7%
Suzuki SV650: The Puppy
Playful is as playful does, and like a puppy nipping at your heels, begging for you to take it for a run, the SV implores its owner to take it out for a good thrashing. If it were a car it would be a Mazda Miata, a fun-loving machine with just enough power to get you into trouble. It best straddles the line between docile entry-level bike and wheelie-pulling hooligan, and its lovely V-Twin won the hearts of a few of us.

#1 – 87.3%
Triumph Speed Four: Nick Nasty
If you're looking for a polite entry-level machine, may we suggest leaving the Triumph showroom and heading to a Honda dealer? This is the bike that is akin to all those hammered CBRs and Gixxer 600s that have had all their plastic ripped or crashed off, amped with attitude and a feisty demeanor. "So I vibrate a little – you wanna make somethin' of it?" Its powerful front brakes are touchy enough to set an unwary rider on his ear, but that's just the way its hard-riding and mischievous riders like it—that's our version of reality.

The perfect reality bike has yet to be built. If it were, it would have the grunting torque of the SV, the top-end hit of the FZ, the adjustable suspension of the Speed Four, the refinement and smoothness of the 599 and the wind protection somewhere in between the FZ6 and the Triumph.

In the meantime, we declare the Triumph Speed Four the winner of our Reality Bike shootout. It may not be best suited to you in particular, but it just might be the best value in motorcycling today.

Check out the For My Money feature if you want to find out which bike our riders would buy if they were to spend their own meager cash on one.