In addition to the weather phenomenon, the word lightning means fast, as in the speed of light or 186,000 miles per second. This motorcycle is not quite that fast; its speedo only goes to 140 miles per hour. But the X1 does get up there in an earthbound way, with a top speed close to that 140 mph, and a quarter-mile time in the 11s. Not bad for a bike powered by Harley’s 1,203cc Sportster engine.
Erik Buell, a longtime chassis engineer at Harley-Davidson and a serious racer, decided to go off on his own in the mid-1980s. His last accomplishment at Harley was the frame in the FXR series, which was greeted with great enthusiasm when introduced in 1982. Eric was a dyed-in-the-leather Harley enthusiast, having talked his way into a job in Milwaukee after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1987 he began producing the RR1000 Battle Twin, building a drastically new frame holding leftover XR1000 engines, which had been used in those sporty Sportsters that did not sell well. When that XR supply ran out he moved to the 1,200cc engine, and did quite well with the Battle Twin line. Harley was so excited by this turn of events that in 1993 it bought 49 percent of the Buell Motorcycle Company, which gave Eric financial comfort.
In 1996 he came up with the S1 Lightning, a return to his basic concept of a “fundamental” sportbike — a bit too fundamental for many riders. He built 5,000 of these and had to listen to praise and damnation concerning its performance and appearance. Late in 1998 he elected to make it a little more pleasant to ride and change the look slightly, hence the X1.
The chassis is the most interesting aspect of the bike. The frame, a bit stiffer than that on the S1, was made of tubular steel in the form of a trellis, with sections coming down on both sides of the cylinders. A backbone connected to one of the most notable aspects of the bike, a subframe that was perhaps the largest aluminum casting seen on a bike. And it carried a modestly improved seat that held two riders without too many complaints. Beneath the seat a large rectangular aluminum swingarm helped the belt final drive get to the rear axle.
Buells had often been criticized for their limited turning radius, and on the X1 the steering head was moved forward slightly, giving an extra four degrees in steering lock. Still tight, but better…says the photographer who had to turn this bike around. A 41mm upside-down Showa fork with a rake of 23 degrees gave 4.7 inches of travel — and trail of 3.5 inches. It was fully adjustable, with spring preload along with compression and rebound damping.
The rear end used a single Showa shock absorber, which wasn’t really at the rear but was laying flat under the engine. There wasn’t room for the shock anywhere else, as the bike had a rather short wheelbase of 55 inches, five inches less than on the stock Sportster. Most shocks rely on compression as their standard, but this one used tension, pulling apart in response to a bump rather than pushing down. It had full adjustability, including ride height, with adjustments being best left to experts.
Cast wheels were 17 inches in diameter, with Nissin calipers, 6-piston in front and 1-piston out back, squeezing single discs. Because the Showa fork was already drilled for it, this bike’s owner added a second front brake disc and caliper.
And the engine? A mildly modified Sportster, an air-cooled four-stroke 45-degree V-twin displacing 1,203cc with an 88.9 x 96.8mm bore and stroke, and, yes, hydraulically adjusted valves, two per cylinder. The trick here was Eric’s Isoplanar rubber mounting system for this shaker. A standard Sportster shook like Hades when even mildly revved, and none of this was felt on the Buell machines. The engine was actually part of the chassis, with all the vibes going into a single longitudinal plane, and apparently this increased frame rigidity. Which requires understanding beyond the limits of this scribe.
Buell had developed his Thunderstorm cylinders and pistons for the S1, with better porting and 10:1 compression. A dynamometer rated the rear-wheel output at 85 horses at 6,500 rpm, an engine speed no rider on a stock Sportster would ever want to attain. For the X1 Eric tossed the 38mm Keihin carb and bolted on a 45mm Walbro throttle body using a VDO injection-control computer, labeled Dynamic Digital Fuel Injection. There was no increase in power; the system just made the engine run more smoothly. A triple-row primary ran power back to a 5-speed transmission and belt final drive.
The look was pretty sporty, beginning with the abbreviated front fender and a very small wind deflector over the headlight. When this bike came out of the factory it had big black boxes on both sides of the 4.2-gallon gas tank, the right one feeding the airbox and fuel injection, the left intended to keep the rear cylinder cool enough to not roast the rider’s leg. Underneath the engine was a spoiler intended to protect the shock and conceal the huge muffler. However, the owner of this X1 prefers the “fundamental” look and removed the black boxes and spoiler. He is careful about jumping curbs, as there are only five inches of ground clearance.
Dry weight is 440 pounds, 50 pounds less than the stock Sportster. People still complained about the seat, the vibration and a number of other things, but they were just pansies. The bike was intended for seriously sporty riders who didn’t mind a little discomfort as they kicked butt with an old-fashioned engine in a new-fashioned chassis. In 1999 the X1 and the Ducati 900 Supersport cost about the same; take your pick.
Remember UJMs? If you were a motorcyclist in the ’70s, or have a soft spot for bikes from that era, then you remember them well. Honda kicked it off in 1969 with its groundbreaking CB750, the first mass-produced motorcycle with a transverse in-line four-cylinder engine and an overhead camshaft. It was an air-cooled four-stroke with a five-speed transmission, a front disc brake, an electric starter and an upright seating position.
Honda created the formula and other Japanese manufacturers followed it. Kawasaki launched the mighty 903cc Z1 for 1973, Suzuki introduced the GS750 for 1976 and, late to the party but the biggest reveler in the room, Yamaha brought out the XS1100 for 1978. Similarities among these and other Japanese models of varying displacements led “Cycle” magazine, in its November 1976 test of the Kawasaki KZ650, to coin what became a widely used term: “In the hard world of commerce, achievers get imitated and the imitators get imitated. There is developing, after all, a kind of Universal Japanese Motorcycle…conceived in sameness, executed with precision, and produced by the thousands.”
Those UJMs, and the standards of performance and reliability they established, revolutionized the world of motorcycling. Decades later, descendants of those progenitors carry their DNA into the modern era. To see how well the formula holds up in the 21st century, we gathered examples from Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki for a neo-retro comparo. (As much as we would have loved to include Yamaha for a proper battle of the Big Four, its contemporary XSR900 is powered by an in-line triple that colors too far outside the lines of the UJM formula.)
Honda’s CB1000R, like its granddaddy, has a transverse in-line four, but it’s a more highly evolved one featuring liquid cooling and dual overhead cams with four valves per cylinder — a configuration shared by all three bikes in this comparison. Derived from the pre-2008 CBR1000RR sportbike, the CB’s 998cc engine has been tuned for low- to midrange power and its 6-speed transmission has an assist-and-slipper clutch. Like the others, the CB1000R’s standard equipment includes ABS and traction control, but it’s the only one here with throttle-by-wire and riding modes (Sport, Street, Rain and customizable User), which adjust throttle response, engine braking and traction control.
A round headlight and an exposed engine are about the only styling traits shared by the “Neo-Sports Café” CB1000R and the CB750. Kawasaki’s Z900RS, on the other hand, is a spitting image of its forebear. Round mirrors on long stalks, bullet-shaped analog gauges, a teardrop tank, a bench seat, a sculpted tail and gorgeous Candytone Green paint with yellow stripes are all inspired by the original Z1. Even the flat spokes of its cast wheels are designed to look like spoked wheels of yore. Derived from the Z900 streetfighter, the Kawasaki’s 948cc DOHC in-line four has revised cam profiles, lower compression, a heavier flywheel, a second gear-driven balancer and narrower exhaust headers for a mellower feel, and its stainless steel 4-into-1 exhaust has been tuned to deliver an old-school four-banger growl.
Jenny’s Gear Helmet: Shoei RF-1200 Jacket: AGV Sport Helen Pants: Joe Rocket Alter Ego Boots: Sidi Gavia Gore-Tex Tail Bag: Nelson-Rigg
Suzuki’s entry in this contest is the new-for-2020 Katana, a modern interpretation of the iconic 1981 GSX1100S Katana, which revolutionized motorcycle design by treating the bike as a whole rather than a collection of parts. Originally conceived by Hans Muth and reimagined by Rodolfo Frascoli, the Katana has a small fairing and windscreen, and, like the CB1000R, a stubby tail section. Based on the GSX-S1000 naked sportbike, the Katana is powered by a 999cc DOHC in-line four derived from the 2005-2008 GSX-R1000, tuned for street duty with milder cam profiles and valve timing, steel rather than titanium valves, lighter pistons, a stainless steel exhaust and a 6-speed transmission with an assist-and-slipper clutch.
Three bikes, three editors, two days. Before hitting the road, we strapped on soft luggage. None have centerstands, and only the Kawasaki has a steel gas tank that accommodates a magnetic tank bag, which carried our tools, flat repair kit and air pump. Its long, wide bench seat also has room for a good-sized tail bag. With their short tails and small pillions, the Honda and Suzuki only have space for small tail bags. Because the Suzuki’s bodywork is more stylish than functional, the Honda and Kawasaki are completely nude and none have hand guards or heated grips, we were exposed to the elements. We bundled up in layers for our mid-January test and pointed our wheels north, taking freeways and back roads up California’s Central Coast.
With their refined, Swiss watch-like in-line fours, these modern-day UJMs are impeccably smooth. Snicking their transmissions into sixth gear and cruising at a steady speed is a sublime experience, with minimal vibration or unwanted perturbations. None have cruise control, but with fuel capacities ranging from 3.2 gallons on the Suzuki to 4.5 gallons on the Kawasaki and as-tested fuel ranges between 130 and 173 miles, the need for gas will likely precede the need for wrist relief. Upright seating positions and windblast on the chest keep weight off the wrists on all three, but there are notable differences in legroom. The Honda and Suzuki have the tallest seat heights (32.7 and 32.5 inches, respectively) as well as the highest footpegs, putting much more bend in the knees — especially on the Honda — than the comparatively spacious Kawasaki. Even though the Kawi has the lowest seat height (31.5 inches) and lowest pegs, on none of these bikes did we find ourselves dragging pegs in tight corners.
It’s in those tight corners that these bikes further distinguish themselves. With only 10 pounds separating their curb weights and modest differences in chassis geometry, their engine performance, brakes and suspension are what set these bikes apart. In terms of outright horsepower and torque, the Honda and Suzuki, both of which have sportbike-derived engines, come out on top. The Suzuki is the strongest, churning out 142.1 rear-wheel horsepower at 10,300 rpm and 75.9 lb-ft of torque at 9,200 rpm on Jett Tuning’s dyno, though its advantage over the others is mostly above 8,500 rpm. The Honda peaks at 125.5 horsepower at 9,800 rpm and 70.6 lb-ft at 8,300 rpm, but it’s much weaker than the Suzuki and Kawasaki below 7,500 rpm, a deficiency that’s obvious on corner exits and roll-on passes. Although the Kawasaki generates only 100.1 horsepower at 8,500 rpm and 67.5 lb-ft at 8,500 rpm, in the midrange it gives the Suzuki a run for its money and leaves the Honda in the dust.
With their more compact cockpits and high-revving power, the Honda and Suzuki lean more toward the sport end of the sport standard spectrum. Their smoothness makes them sneaky fast, and their stock suspension settings are firmer than the Kawasaki’s. All of these bikes have fully adjustable upside-down forks and preload- and rebound-adjustable single rear shocks (KYB on the Kawasaki and Suzuki, Showa on the Honda), but the Honda’s suspension, especially its Separate Function-Big Piston fork, is the most compliant. Sportbike-caliber front brakes, with pairs of radial-mount monoblock 4-piston opposed calipers clamping large discs, deliver serious stopping power across the board, but the Honda has a slight edge in feel. Adding to a sense of confidence on the Honda are its Bridgestone Battlax Hypersport S21 radials, which have noticeably more grip (but likely less mileage in the long run) than the Dunlop radials on the Kawasaki and Suzuki.
Despite being down on peak power and more softly sprung, the Kawasaki is by no means a boat anchor or a couch on wheels. It’s plenty fast, but its mission is clearly different than that of the Honda and Suzuki. The Z900RS stokes the flames of nostalgia while providing a more spacious, relaxed and comfortable riding experience, with every potentially rough edge sanded smooth. The Katana, on the other hand, is essentially a GSX-S1000 with plastic bodywork and a more upright riding position. In isolation there’s little to complain about when riding the Suzuki, but compared to the Honda and Kawasaki, it feels less refined, with more driveline lash and less precision during gear changes.
UJMs were the first motorcycles to be called “superbikes,” a name that came to be more appropriately applied to the racer replicas that proliferated in the late ’80s. These modern-day UJMs fall into the more mundane-sounding “sport standard” category, but there’s nothing mundane about 100-plus rear-wheel horsepower, high-spec brakes and suspension, standard ABS and TC, and a level of capability that’s truly impressive. For sheer power and sporting prowess, the Suzuki gets top marks, but its small 3.2-gallon gas tank and high price ($13,499) make it a tough sell. Priced a bit lower at $12,999, the ultra-smooth Honda has a strong top end as well as throttle-by-wire, riding modes and the best suspension and tires, but its weak midrange and high footpegs limit its overall appeal. A relative bargain at $11,199, the Kawasaki won us over with its throwback styling, spacious and comfortable seating, strong midrange, seductive sound and decent fuel range. If you do what we did — strap on some luggage and explore some of your favorite roads for a couple of days — you’re guaranteed to have a good time. Isn’t that why we ride?
This darn coronavirus is just mucking everything up. Virtual unveilings and press releases just don’t have quite the same impact as dramatically pulling a sleek black sheet off a new model, bright lights and flashbulbs popping off the paint, at an international auto or motorcycle show. Honda had originally planned to unveil its CB-F Concept, a CB1000R-based homage to “Fast” Freddie Spencer’s ’80s superbike, at the 36th Osaka Motorcycle Show and 47th Tokyo Motorcycle Show, both of which have been canceled.
Don’t fret, Honda, we still think this is a gorgeous machine, and we hope it becomes more than just a concept bike. Continuing the CB’s 60th anniversary theme, the CB-F Concept hearkens back to the classic air-cooled inline four CB900F and CB750F (famously raced by Freddie Spencer), complete with a cool white, silver and blue livery that should look familiar to anyone who remembers Freddie’s Daytona race bike.
Of course, this isn’t an old-fashioned tubular steel-framed, carbureted, air-cooled machine; it’s based around the potent CB1000R, with its 998cc DOHC, 4-valve-per-cylinder inline-four, high-tensile steel mono-backbone frame, single-sided aluminum swingarm and inverted fork.
What do you think? Should Honda turn this CB-F Concept into a production bike? Let us know in the comments below.
We needed some good news, and KTM North America has delivered, announcing the early availability of the brand new 890 Duke R, unveiled in Milan last November and originally intended to launch in late 2020 as a MY2021 machine. Instead, KTM will be bringing in a “very limited number” of 890 Duke R models this spring as 2020 models.
Basically a more powerful and aggressive version of the impressive-in-its-own-right 790 Duke, the 2020 890 Duke R features a new 890cc parallel twin with an increased bore and stroke, higher compression ratio and redline, larger valves, a new piston design with new connecting rods and a new crankshaft, new individual mapping adjustment on each cylinder, a knock sensor and new engine cases. The new mill churns out more horsepower and torque, and KTM also says it provides better rideability due to increased rotating mass.
Brakes are by Brembo, with larger discs and Bosch ABS that includes a Supermoto setting, suspension is fully-adjustable WP Apex front and rear, and electronic rider aids include new-generation traction control and ride modes with optional Track mode and Quickshifter+, all aided by a new 6D lean angle sensor.
Befitting its “super scalpel” mission, the 890 Duke R has a lower, flatter handlebar and footpegs that are higher and more rear-set for a sportier riding position and greater lean angle. It makes no pretensions at being anything other than a twisty-munching or track-attacking machine, with a solo seat and no pillion footpegs. It’s you and Mr. Duke, that’s it.
Pricing has yet to be announced, but barring any supply chain disruptions we should see the bike in dealerships sometime this spring.
Since the launch of the BMW F 800 model family with the F 800 S and F 800 ST in 2006, these middleweight, parallel twin-powered motorcycles have been offered in a wide variety of models as lower-priced alternatives to BMW’s larger bikes. As with the R 1200 boxer twins, the most popular parallel twins have been the F 800 GS and GSA adventure bikes, with the more street-oriented F 650 GS/F 700 GS close behind. No surprise, really, since adventure and ADV-styled bikes have done well for some time now.
Conversely the F 800 ST and later GT sport-touring versions were short-lived, leaving the F 800 R streetfighter introduced in 2009 as the sole non-GS model in the lineup as of 2019. No doubt the bike’s entry-level price and the showmanship of four-time world-champion freestyle rider Christian Pfeiffer — who helped develop the naked bike he spun, slid and nose wheelied to victory — extended the F 800 R’s longevity.
We applauded BMW’s move toward a simpler, less expensive entry-level twin with the F 800s, which had telescopic forks in place of pricier Telelever or Duolever front ends and belt or chain final drive versus a shaft. But their BMW-designed, Austrian Rotax-built engine, even with its innovative counterbalancer, never really earned our admiration. It was buzzy and raspy sounding and just didn’t deliver the satisfying, torquey throb we expect from a twin.
The F 800s performed well, but it wasn’t until BMW redesigned the engine for the 2019 F 850 GS and F 750 GS (and engine production moved to Loncin in China) that the 853cc engine they share finally came to life. The larger displacement helped, but it was mostly the switch from a balanced 360-degree firing interval with 0-degree crankpin offset to an imbalanced 270/450-degree interval and 90-degree offset that woke the powerplant up, giving it an almost boxer-like twin-cylinder growl and feel. Swapping the central connecting rod-style balancer for dual balancer shafts also tamed the vibes.
Fast-forward one year and the new parallel twin has been enlarged once again and slapped into a pair of dynamic new middleweights, the F 900 R and F 900 XR, roadster and sport-adventure bikes again priced as alternatives to BMW’s larger machines. Updates to the shared DOHC, 4-valve per cylinder engine for more performance and torque from F 850 status include a bump to 895cc, a new cylinder head, forged pistons instead of cast and a higher 13.1:1 compression ratio.
On the Jett Tuning dyno our F 900 R test bike churned out 88.2 horsepower at 8,400 rpm and 58.1 lb-ft of torque at 6,400 rpm, an improvement of about 3 horsepower and 3 lb-ft of torque over our 2019 F 850 GS test bike. Compared curve to curve, more torque is available across more of the F 900’s powerband, too, especially between 4,000-7,000 rpm (redline is at 9,300). All of this grunt reaches the rear wheel via chain final drive through a slick-shifting 6-speed gearbox with a cable-actuated slipper clutch that has a light pull and broad engagement band (an up/down quickshifter is available as an option).
In addition to their engines, both bikes share an aluminum bridge-type frame, aluminum double-sided cast swingarm and bolt-on steel subframe (presumably to provide enough strength for the optional soft side cases and a luggage rack/top trunk). There’s a 43mm USD fork with no adjustments up front, and a single shock with rebound damping and spring preload adjustment in back — I do wish the remote knob for the latter was easier to access.
Cast wheels are shod with high-performance sport- or sport-touring tires in the same sizes, and both shed velocity with triple disc brakes that include radial-mount opposed 4-piston calipers up front and ABS. LED headlights and taillights are standard, and front and center is a large, bright 6.5-inch TFT display with a wealth of ride and vehicle information accessible via the Multi-Controller wheel and menu button on the left bar.
In typical BMW fashion, though the whole idea of the F 900s is a ton of fun at a lower cost, you can boost their prices considerably with a slew of nifty accessories like multiple seat options, Keyless Ride, heated grips, cruise control, a centerstand and more, as well as advanced optional electronic enhancements. These include Dynamic Electronic Suspension Adjustment (D-ESA) with Dynamic and softer Road modes and electronic preload; Ride Modes Pro, which adds Dynamic and Dynamic Pro modes to the standard Rain and Road engine modes, and enables cornering ABS, MSR and Dynamic Brake Control (DBC), which detects emergency braking and reduces torque output to counter unintentional opening of the throttle. The Ride Modes Pro plug-in dongle also upgrades the standard traction control to Dynamic, and of course all of this stuff is infinitely adjustable six ways from Sunday.
Fortunately both bikes work just fine without spending a moment playing with settings or one might never leave the garage. The F 900 R is the sportier of the two, with a light wet weight of 471 pounds, shorter suspension travel and steering geometry that make it quite a ripper in the corners. It also has a lower seat, higher footpegs and flatter bar for sport riding and to help it accommodate shorter riders, yet the seating position is still quite comfortable, and while the suspension is set firm for sport riding it still soaks up the bumps quite well. Overall it should appeal to a broad range of riders looking for great handling and some techy stuff at a lower price.
To justify its higher cost, the F 900 XR adds a substantial fairing and small adjustable windscreen that together provides a fair amount of wind protection (I do recommend the optional taller windscreen) and contributes to its higher wet weight of 486 pounds. It also has a taller handlebar, significantly more suspension travel, lower pegs and slightly higher seat in keeping with its adventure-influenced design, yet I could still support it adequately at stops with my 29-inch inseam. Add a pair of side cases and it would make a very nice light tourer with a good balance of handling and power.
Although the light, plastic-welded fuel tanks on the R and XR have capacities of just 3.4 and 4.1 gallons respectively, I never saw fuel economy below 37 mpg from the required 91 octane, and that was after nearly 250 miles with a heavy throttle hand — they are capable of much better. Although the BMW R 1200 boxer engine makes more power and torque, in many ways the F 900 parallel twin’s character is equally satisfying, especially its growl and ripping-velvet feel that comes with a smooth rushing surge of torque in the midrange. Paired with either the R roadster or XR sport-adventure platforms, the combination creates a very fun and functional middleweight for whatever sort of ride you care to enjoy.
“Though she be but little, she be fierce!” — William Shakespeare
Consider for a moment that the best-selling Yamaha motorcycles for the past several years — across all categories — are the 321cc YZF-R3 sport bike and the 689cc MT-07 “hyper naked” sport standard, and you can understand why Yamaha is launching the newest (and smallest) member of the MT family with hopes for an army of future Yama-loyalists pinned to the MT-03’s pointy nose. The 2020 MT-03, essentially a YZF-R3 given the streetfighter treatment — no fairings, a flat handlebar and slightly revised front suspension — is an unapologetic gateway drug to the larger MT-07, MT-09 and beyond, a bike that will draw young, female and/or first-time buyers into dealerships, attracted to its aggressive styling, accessible size and $4,599 price tag.
Unlike some other naked sport bikes, there’s nothing dumbed-down about the MT-03. Its 321cc offset parallel-twin, DOHC engine with 180-degree crank and single counterbalance shaft, 6-speed gearbox, steel frame and swingarm, cast aluminum wheels, LCD display and single-disc front and rear brakes are all identical to the R3 (read the review here). Even its throttle mapping and gear ratios, with 5th and 6th both functioning as overdrives for comfortable freeway cruising, are unchanged. Apart from the flatter handlebar vs. the R3’s clip-ons and the lack of fairings, the biggest change to the MT-03 is its revised front suspension. Inside the 37mm inverted KYB fork is a slightly longer, softer spring with 6mm more preload and reduced compression damping (rebound is unchanged) that better suits the MT’s more upright riding position. The rear KYB shock is identical to the R3’s, with 7-step preload adjustment. Seat height remains a low 30.7 inches and wet weight is a claimed 373 pounds (our R3 tester weighed in at 379 pounds). Unlike the R3, all 2020 MT-03s have ABS as standard, making it $700 less expensive than the ABS-equipped YZF-R3.
Our first ride on the littlest MT took place at the press launch in Austin, Texas, which — despite the cancellation of the SXSW tech conference scheduled to take place concurrent to our event — was still choked with local commuter traffic as we made our way out of the city in search of curvy delights in the nearby Hill Country. The MT-03 lacks a slip and/or assist clutch, but lever pull is still fairly easy (though neither the clutch nor brake levers are adjustable) and the low first gear makes starting out a cinch. Around town the parallel twin, which generated 35 peak horsepower at 10,600 rpm and 19 lb-ft of torque at 9,200 when we last tested it in 2017, is pretty tame and drama-free, but those Jett Tuning dyno figures hint at the rest of the story: when the roads open up, spinning the little MT’s mill past 6,000 rpm rewards the rider with a noticeable boost. This equates to a need to maintain higher rpm through twisty, technical terrain, otherwise even a generous handful of throttle is only just enough to pull you out of the corner.
The upshot of course is that the MT-03 is extremely forgiving, ideal for first-time riders. It also reduces the risk of overcooking it into a turn, where I found the 289mm/2-piston front disc and 220mm/1-piston rear disc brakes to be a bit on the vague side, requiring a solid pull on the lever and offering little feedback. This may have been by design, again aimed at a newer rider’s potential tendency to panic and squeeze/stomp a bit too hard; Yamaha says the MT-03’s brakes were tuned to feel “controllable,” but as an experienced rider I wished for a more aggressive bite. A pair of aftermarket sintered pads would likely solve the problem.
Other than the brakes, I found little else to complain about as we transitioned from city to twisties and back to the city, now in the throes of the evening rush hour. Despite a low seat that folded my 34-inch-inseam legs into a sporty bend, I never felt cramped, although there were some grumbles from other, taller testers (I am 5 feet, 9 inches). The flat handlebar, which is some 1 ½ inches higher and ¾-inch farther back than the R3’s clip-ons, created a comfortable riding position, though the deeply-dished seat kept me feeling somewhat locked in place. And the slightly softer fork suited my size and riding style quite well, compliant enough to not jar my fillings loose over bumps but stiff enough to hold up to aggressive cornering.
Of course, for an entry-price-point machine like the MT-03, specs and performance are often not the primary focus for potential buyers — it’s important the bike looks the part, and the MT-03 delivers. Unlike its R3 cousin, the MT gets full LED lighting, including newly sleek turn signals and a futuristic-looking headlight with slanted position markers. When lit, the effect is something like an angry robotic Cyclops. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but I actually think it’s pretty cool. Whether in sinister Midnight Black or eye-catching Ice Fluo, the 2020 MT-03 is a shining example of how far today’s “entry level” bikes have come, proving once again that even little bikes can be big fun.
2020 Yamaha MT-03
Base Price: $4,599 Website:yamahamotorsports.com Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse parallel twin, DOHC, 4 valves per cyl. Displacement: 321cc Bore x Stroke: 68.0mm x 44.1mm Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch Final Drive: O-ring chain Wheelbase: 54.3 in. Rake/Trail: 25 degrees/3.74 in. Seat Height: 30.7 in. Claimed Wet Weight: 373 lbs. Fuel Capacity: 3.7 gals., last 0.8 gal. warning light on MPG: 86 AKI min, NA
Last fall Ducati announced updates to its Panigale V4 and Panigale V4 S superbikes, including a new aerodynamics package and revised electronics, suspension and throttle-by-wire mapping. The 214-horsepower Panigale V4 weighs 436 pounds and the V4 S weighs 430 pounds (claimed figures)—that’s roughly 0.5 horsepower per pound for both models.
Ducati has now unveiled the Superleggera V4, which is Italian for “super light.” With a full racing kit and exhaust, it makes 234 horsepower and weighs a feathery 335.5 pounds, which is 0.7 horsepower per pound—a 40% higher power-to-weight ratio.
How did Ducati shave 100 pounds off the already-svelte Panigale V4? The Bologna-based company says the “Superleggera V4 is the world’s only street-legal motorcycle with the entire load-bearing structure of the chassis (frame, subframe, swingarm and wheels) made from composite material [carbon fiber], achieving a 6.7 kg [14.8 lb] reduction in weight.” Many other components, such as the bodywork and aerodynamic wings (which produce 110 pounds of downforce at 168 mph), are also made of carbon fiber, while others are made of titanium, magnesium or aluminum.
The Superleggera is powered by a 998cc V4 – the Desmosedici Stradale R also found in the Panigale V4 R – rather than the 1,103cc V4 in the Panigale V4 and V4 S, saving another 6.2 pounds. The smaller, lighter engine makes more power – 224 horsepower vs 214 in the standard configuration. The race kit and exhaust further reduce weight while boosting claimed horsepower to 234.
Of course, the Superleggera V4 is equipped with the very
best in electronics and components, including Öhlins suspension (with a
titanium shock spring) and Brembo Stylema R front calipers.
Only 500 Superleggera V4s will be produced, each
individually numbered and including a certificate of authenticity. The bike ID number
(XXX/500), which matches the VIN, is displayed on the frame, fork yoke and
The start of deliveries is planned for June 2020, and five bikes
will be produced per day. Superleggera buyers will also have a chance to
purchase an exclusive Superleggera V4 premium Dainese leather suit with
integrated airbag and an Arai carbon fiber helmet, both emblazoned with the
bike’s colors and graphics.
Such a premium motorcycle will include a premium “SBK Experience,” allowing owners to ride the Panigale V4 R, which competes in the SBK World Championship, on a test track at Mugello. Thirty lucky Superleggera V4 owners will have an exclusive opportunity to enjoy the “MotoGP Experience,” where they will be able to ride a Desmosedici GP20 on a race track.
Ducati has not released pricing, but the 2017 Ducati 1299
Superleggera went for a cool $80,000 and was also limited to 500 units—every
one of which was sold in short order. If you have the interest and the means,
make haste to your nearest Ducati dealer.
What a difference a few years make. When we pitted the Ninja 650 against two rivals back in November 2016, we came away unimpressed — Kawasaki’s street-oriented sportbike felt overweight and uninspiring compared to its lithe sparring partners. But then Team Green put the Ninja on a diet and training regimen for 2017, shedding 43 pounds thanks to a new steel trellis frame, hollow-press aluminum swingarm, wheel assemblies and engine changes. The offset lay-down shock was replaced with a Ninja ZX-10R-derived horizontal back-link shock, and the new package was wrapped in sharper, sportier bodywork.
In addition to the significant weight loss, the Ninja’s 2017 training regimen included improvements to its engine, brakes and ergonomics. The liquid-cooled, DOHC, 4-valve-per-cylinder, 649cc parallel twin was retuned for better performance in the low- to midrange, where most street riders spend the majority of their time, and it got new injectors for more precise fueling, a mechanical gear position indicator, a revised airbox, a redesigned exhaust and smaller throttle bodies. A new 2-piston Nissin front brake caliper provided noticeably better performance and feel, and optional Bosch 9.1M ABS was said to be lighter and more responsive. (Read the complete details in our First Ride Review of the 2017 Ninja 650 here.) Suddenly this was a fighter to be reckoned with.
For 2020, the Ninja 650 seems to have reached a milestone in its development, with refined styling that brings it inline with its ZX-6R and ZX-10R siblings, a new 4.3-inch full-color TFT display with switchable background color and ambient light sensor, connectivity to Kawasaki’s Rideology app and the latest Dunlop Sportmax Roadsport 2 tires. Specs and features only tell half the story of course; like a martial artist, mastering the movements is one thing — putting them to use is another. Since it was Senior Editor Drevenstedt who rode the revamped 2017 model, I haven’t been on a Ninja 650 since the 2016 comparo, and after spending five hundred or so miles on this newest version it’s clear this is a much improved motorcycle.
Overall performance figures haven’t changed that much — peak horsepower is slightly down, mid-range power and torque are slightly up and peak torque is about the same — but with 43 fewer pounds to lug around, the 2020 Ninja 650 is now responsive, quick on its feet and quite fun to ride, emitting a rewarding intake howl as the rpms spin past 5,500. Its steering geometry has been sharpened, with the rake tightened up by a degree and the trail reduced by 0.4 inch, and ergonomics are small-frame-friendly — seat height is down more than half an inch to 31.1 inches, clip-ons are perched well above the triple clamp and the 4.0-gallon gas tank is narrow between the knees. So while my 34-inch-inseam legs got a bit cramped on longer rides and I found myself wishing for thicker seat padding (Kawasaki’s one-inch taller “extended reach” seat might solve both issues), I found the Ninja 650 to be comfortable enough for a 2½-hour-long freeway slog to Palm Springs or an afternoon ride on some favorite canyon roads.
Kawasaki says that about 60% of Ninja 650 owners primarily use it to commute and ride recreationally, but it’s on those sporty canyon roads that the Ninja’s newfound fighting spirit truly shines. It’s quick and flickable, with enough power to remain entertaining without demanding too much of its rider, nor requiring license-risking levels of speed. As is common in this category and price range, suspension is still rather basic, a bit underdamped and non-adjustable except for spring preload on the rear shock — the 41mm KYB fork has 4.9 inches of travel and the KYB shock 5.1 inches. Subsequently the bike can get pretty nervous when riding aggressively in rough corners, but on smoother roads the Ninja tracks through corners with confident stability, and the new Dunlop rubber offers predictable grip and feedback. An assist-and-slipper clutch mated to the six-speed gearbox also makes easy work of quick downshifts and commuter traffic alike.
The 2020 updates are admittedly mostly cosmetic, but they’re like an outward representation of the Ninja 650’s forward progress — a black belt, to continue our martial arts analogy. The TFT display includes a slew of useful information, all easy to read even in direct sunlight, and new twin LED headlights not only look the business but also function extremely well, throwing bright white light far down the road as well as to each side. Overall this new Ninja 650 is at peak form, representing the new heights of performance and style we can now expect from today’s middleweight motorcycles.
Three riders walk into a dealership…. (I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke but bear with me.) All three are in the market for a new middleweight motorcycle, and each has a unique style and riding experience in mind. They’re in luck — thanks to a challenging economy, increasing growth in female ridership and a need to attract younger riders, manufacturers are doubling down on the small- and midsize-displacement market, meaning there’s a middleweight machine out there for just about anyone. We gathered three of the newest for an unorthodox Comparo Review; rather than pitting them against each other in a head-to-head battle, we thought instead we’d focus on each one’s unique personality. So here we are, the door just swung closed behind us, and our first rider already seems to know exactly what he wants.
We find him standing next to the Honda CB650R, where he’s admiring the waterfall of header pipes cascading from its 649cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC in-line four. The replacement for the stale CB650F, this fresh CB650R rounds out Honda’s Neo-Sports Café lineup, slotting in between the CB300R and CB1000R released for the 2018 model year.
Honda gave the middleweight CB more than just a facelift, with new wheels, an updated steel frame and a new, smaller fuel tank that combine to drop a claimed 9.2 pounds (11.6 pounds on the ABS version), a new inverted 41mm Showa fork with adjustable preload, a slightly more aggressive riding position and a redesigned airbox. The engine got a few tweaks as well, with new pistons and valve timing and a redline that’s been bumped up 1,000 rpm to 13,000. Also new this year is optional HSTC (traction control), which is only available on the ABS-equipped model and can be switched on and off on the fly.
The result is a seriously sporty machine that will pluck at the heartstrings of any rider yearning for the howl of a rev-happy in-line four in an affordable, fun-to-go-fast package. This is a bike that’s happiest when wound up, with the real action not kicking in until about 6,000 rpm. Per the Jett Tuning dyno, the CB650R spins out a respectable 83 horsepower at 11,000 rpm, with torque topping out at 43 lb-ft at 8,200. “Go fast or go home,” says our rider as he swings a leg over the nearly 32-inch seat.
Footpegs are just a tad higher and farther back than before and the wide, flat handlebar is lower and more forward, but the riding position is still relatively comfortable, especially when compared to the drop-down sport position of our other two comparo bikes. With suspension front and rear being preload-adjustable, it’s easier to find a happy medium for sporting canyon runs and bombing around town, and powerful radial-mount, 4-piston front brakes pinching big 320mm discs provide more than enough stopping power. As someone unaccustomed to an in-line four with less engine braking than a twin, I was happy for the peace of mind those brakes offered when winding things up on a twisty road. While the CB could be a good first bike (Honda says 25% of its 650cc bikes are bought by first-timers), it’s got enough juice to keep an experienced rider happily entertained.
“And,” smiles our first rider as we wander away, “it’s the right color: red.”
It might be fair to say that rider number two is the polar opposite; he’s drawn to the Kawasaki W800 Cafe, a new model (in the U.S. and Canada) for 2019 that evokes the look and spirit of the original 1966 W1. For him, sheer performance numbers aren’t a priority, but rather classic good looks and a timeless sense of style — although a few modern conveniences like a bright LED headlight, ABS and fuel injection don’t hurt.
With the possible exception of the paint, which is a polarizing metal-flake-brown and silver combo (I happen to like it), the W800 checks all the retro-loving riders’ boxes in the appearance department. Central to that is the 773cc air-cooled, SOHC vertical twin, with its distinctive bevel gear shaft-driven cam and 360-degree firing interval. Despite its balance shaft the engine vibrates significantly at idle and throughout most of the powerband, but the wide-ratio 5-speed gearbox shifts smoothly (thanks in part to the assist-and-slipper clutch) and the chrome peashooter mufflers burble modestly. “It’s got character,” shrugs our rider.
That character extends outward from the engine, with the old school double-cradle frame that was designed using Kawasaki’s advanced dynamic analysis software for new school handling, 18-inch spoked wheels rolling on tube-type Dunlop K300 GP rubber, dual rear preload-adjustable shocks, a 41mm gaitered fork and a classic clubman drop-down handlebar. The 31-inch two-tone seat is comfortable enough for about an hour at a time, and the riding position is sporty yet civilized.
Mid-mount footpegs will drag early, the vertical twin generates a middling 46.7 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 44 lb-ft torque at 4,600, and the two brake discs, one front and one rear, both with 2-piston calipers and standard ABS, aren’t up to true sport riding levels, but that’s not what the W800 is all about. Cruising city streets and weekend jaunts into the countryside are what it was made to do, and you’re almost guaranteed to draw some admiring eyeballs when you get to your destination.
Now where did our third rider go? Ah, she discovered the Suzuki SV650X, which mixes the best of both worlds — sporty and retro — and also happens to be a time-tested, proven platform that’s been pasting smiles on faces since 1999, the year the original SV650 launched. In the intervening 20 years there have been S models with clip-ons and half fairings, but in my opinion this new-for-2019 café-racer X variation is the most true to the SV650’s spirit.
The bones haven’t changed: it’s still powered by the same 645cc liquid-cooled, DOHC, 90-degree V-twin that pulls strongly from idle to its peak of 69.3 horsepower at 8,700 rpm and 43.3 lb-ft of torque at 8,100, wrapped in a familiar steel trellis frame. Dual 290mm discs with 2-piston calipers up front and a single 240mm/1-piston combo at the rear work well, and ABS is standard. It’s shod with the best tires of the trio, grippy Dunlop Roadsmart IIIs.
The SV650X also continues to be one of the most user-friendly middleweights out there; nearly everything about it is approachable, from its one-touch Easy Start feature and Low RPM Assist that automatically raises engine speed when releasing the clutch, to its 31-inch seat, narrow waist, predictable powerband and no-frills, easy to read, comprehensive LCD gauge.
It’s responsive and stable, cool as a cucumber, never demanding too much of its rider even when the road gets twisty, and with some suspension work it could be a great track day warrior. Best of all, it doesn’t need to be wrung out in order to have fun, and is equally happy munching through traffic or carving up canyons — though not for hours on end. The fairly long reach to the clip-ons requires a strong core, lest too much weight is placed on the hands, and the low seat and tallish footpegs create an aching need to stretch out cramped-up knees. That said, if you’re young enough, fit enough and/or willing to rest often enough, the SV650X is a cool ride that looks, feels and sounds great.
So which one am I? The Kawasaki looks the part, but its annoying vibration, squishy suspension, uninspiring power and high price tag are turnoffs. The quick, flickable Honda is a hoot to ride, but my personal preference is for low-end grunt over a high-strung in-line four. I don’t have a long commute and we have plenty of more appropriate touring bikes in the Rider garage, so for cruising around town and half-day blasts up the local canyons, the cool-as-a-cucumber Suzuki best matched my personality. Wait…does that make me the “cool kid”?
Different is good. What would our world be like if the only ice cream flavors were chocolate and vanilla? A life without Denali Mint Moose Tracks or Cherry Garcia would be rather bland indeed. And that’s why bikes like Husqvarna’s Svartpilen 701 excite me: it’s a refreshing antidote to the homogeny we can often detect creeping into our lives.
Husqvarna, founded in Sweden in 1689 as a manufacturer of guns and, since 1903, motorcycles, is probably best known for its off-road models, but after its motorcycle division’s acquisition by KTM in 2013 it decided to make a return to the street bike market — with a decidedly Scandinavian flair. Its current lineup of four street models includes the café racer-styled Vitpilen 401 and 701, the Svartpilen 401 scrambler and the Svartpilen 701.
Powered by the 693cc liquid-cooled single used in KTM’s 690 Duke and 690 Enduro, the Svartpilen 701 might be best described as a Swedish street tracker, complete with vestigial number plate on the right side, and its 18-inch front, 17-inch rear cast wheels are shod with the same Pirelli MT60 RS tires as those found on other street-oriented but off-road-flavored bikes like Ducati’s Scrambler lineup.
The harder you look at it, the more oddities — or art, per the eye of the beholder — you see. The engine is clutched within a tubular steel trellis frame — nothing outlandish there, but everything from there up (and back) is rendered in a futuristic blend of straight lines and curves, a departure from the origami angles of its KTM cousins.
The hard, nearly 33-inch-high seat makes ample use of the straight lines, including on its edges: uncomfortable at stops but surprisingly livable with feet on pegs and hands on the wide, slightly swept-back handlebar, at least for an hour or so at a time. No matter, you can’t even pretend that this is a touring bike, and at its intended purpose — carving up city traffic and twisty, technical roads — it succeeds in spades.
Fully adjustable WP suspension, though it boasts 5.9 inches of travel front and rear, is stiff and sporty, even at its softest settings. The throttle-by-wire EFI, pushing high-octane fuel through one big 50mm throttle body, prefers a heavy hand and higher rpm; a couple of times I felt some herky-jerkiness rolling back on out of a corner if I let the engine speed drop too far. There’s a slipper clutch if you like to keep your left hand active, plus an up/down quickshifter if you don’t, and traction control and ABS can be disabled if you so choose, although it’s all or nothing; you can’t disable/enable them separately.
The 4-valve single spins out an entertaining 72.4 horsepower at 8,200 rpm and almost 51 lb-ft of torque at 6,800, making the lithe 368-pound Svartpilen 701 gobs of fun and very easy to toss around, even for someone my size. Speaking of which, you may be looking at these road test photos and wondering if I ate the wrong mushroom in Wonderland, gaining several inches and more than several pounds. Not to worry, that’s Senior Editor Drevenstedt riding as my body double, since I was finishing up a European tour when the photo shoot occurred.
The Svartpilen and I got to know each other on the twisty roads of the Santa Monica Mountains, where I became smitten with its ruthless efficiency and seemingly effortless handling — as long as we were keeping the speeds below about 75 mph. Not a touring bike.
And as its looks might suggest, the Black Arrow (in Swedish, svart = black, pilen = arrow) isn’t without its quirks. For starters, fit-and-finish is a bit hit-or-miss…for example, both the Brembo front brake lever and Magura hydraulic clutch lever are adjustable, but the neighboring switchgear feels cheap and plasticky. The LED headlight and taillight are svelte and modern, but the single round LCD instrument is poorly lit with small numbers that are hard to read at a glance, and the buttons to change/reset the display are difficult to use. I also found the fuel gauge to be a bit pessimistic, with the range to empty requiring about a mile of riding after the bike was shut off/restarted before displaying again.
As personality traits go, these are quirks, however, not fatal flaws, and they disappeared pretty quickly when I was barreling up the canyon with a grin plastered across my silly face. For something so lightweight, the Svartpilen conveys a reassuring stability even as it’s flung left-to-right-to-left, the 72-ish horses being enough to keep an experienced rider entertained without feeling shortchanged by things like speed limits. A big 320mm front brake disc with 4-piston radial Brembo caliper and 240mm rear with a single-piston Brembo are more than up to the task if you do feel things getting out of hand.
After the fun is done, parked at the beach with the sun slipping under the pier and into the Pacific, I could sit and admire its rear three-quarter profile until darkness sent me home. Yes, different is good, and in a vanilla world it’s nice to get a bowl of Sea Salt Caramel now and then.