It’s pointless to deny that the track launch of a new sportsbike is one of the great bonuses of a bike journalist’s job. There’s not much to top it. Additionally, when it’s at a track you are familiar with, on a bike you know intimately – well, that merely adds to the pleasure. Knowing that Britain was shivering in a deep freeze, while I was in a warm Almeria pit lane beside a row of gleaming 2011 Suzuki GSX-R600s, was the fat cherry on an already generous slab of journo cake.
Suzuki had invited the media to ride the 2011 model GSX-R600, the first significant remodel the bike has had in over three years – a near-eternity in sportsbike terms. And what, do you think, were the ‘problems’ with the model it was set to replace? Not a lot really, although you could say that its biggest issue was being born at the wrong time. As the 2008 model was being developed, the Euro 3 emissions regulations were being rolled out, and the K8 model ended up being burdened with a hefty, primitive catalyser and exhaust system. It was heavy. In a class in which rival manufacturers were shaving grammes all over, every component on a diet, the GSX-R was carrying a few kilos too many. And 600cc supersport is an unforgiving class in which to be the fat kid that ran out of puff.
Before we threw a leg over the bike, the man from Suzuki – Mr Katsuzatu Suzuki – said that their plan for the new GSX-R600 was to loose weight, get an improved chassis and a beefier midrange. Since I’ve been riding the ‘old’ model for a year, I was in a decent position to assess whether or not those three objectives had been met, and I had a day at Almeria to try and convince myself. Yup, tough job.
To be honest, it took me about 400 metres to note that, yes, there really is more midrange, no doubt about it. Without going crazy in first gear, snick second and – oh! – yes, there’s something more as you wind on the throttle, a distinctive drive, a defi nite shove in the small of your back. And, could that crank also be spinning up a bit more quickly; I don’t remember it feeling so frisky. Well, since there are four lighter pistons hurtling up and down inside the cylinder head, maybe I’m not completely imagining it. And, now that I think about it, there was some talk from the engine design team about “reducing mechanical and pumping losses” in the engine. So, maybe I’m not simply imagining it.
Settling into the slightly harder seat, there’s obviously a GSX-R familiarity about the ergonomics of the bike, although the riding position has been changed. Since the frame is new and shorter, and since the seat, with its new seat material, is now narrower (and lighter… no weight-saving opportunity has been spurned), the bars are nearer but pushed out wider, and overall you do feel closer to the front of the bike. Which, since we riders weigh about 80kg (ahem…), there’s more of our weight over the front of the bike.
And that’s not all; the engine has been re-located in this new chassis, with its new, shorter, lighter frame and longer, lighter swinging arm. The shift in the engine’s position means that the balance of the bike has gone from 51.5 per cent to 52.5 per cent front bias. Which has also shifted the bike’s centre of gravity, now a few millimeters higher and further forward.
So, did chassis boss Kobayashi-san’s work make the new bike feel more biddable? Was it easier to change direction as a consequence of these changes? Yes, of course it was – at times, later in the day, it felt almost toy-like, inspiring egomassaging confi dence. Slowly, as the laps tick away through the morning sessions, you start to believe that you really do have the ability to ‘chuck it about’ and ‘get away with it’, and you take the accurate fuelling and unfl appable slipper clutch for granted.
When the bike beneath you is saying, ‘Don’t worry about anything, you just concentrate on where exactly you want to go,’ that’s a decent compliment to pay to a sportsbike. It feels smaller and closer to the ground, which is weird, since the 810mm seat height is no different from that of the previous model. The re-shaped, narrower ‘pointy end’ of the sea at the tank, cut away to make it easier for the vertically challenged to get their feet on the ground, shouldn’t make much difference when you are locked into the tank, cornering on track. If there is a 600cc sportsbike on which it’s easier to get your knee down, we haven’t ridden it.
Somehow, it manages to feel compact without being cramped and, while Suzuki has chopped 55mm from the now-blunted front (snub noses are clearly the new black, dahhhhling) and 35mm from the back, that’s clearly not something you notice when you are riding. On board, it simply feels small. And small feels manageable, chuckable and easy to hustle. You want that in a sportsbike, don’t you?
To compensate for the shorter frame, the bars are now splayed out a little wider, giving the rider a bit more room in the ‘cockpit’, as well as making steering inputs and changes more responsive. A lighter bike with a shorter wheelbase is always going to feel different, better, on track. But the alterations made to the position of the engine in the new frame means the centre of gravity and weight distribution have changed – again putting more weight on the front-end.
Everyone who owned or rode a GSX-R, of any engine capacity, has complained about the brakes. They faded badly on track, they lacked initial bite, and you could pull the lever all the way back to the bar in the space of a single 20-minute trackday session. So there was joy all round when it was announced that the new 600 would come with Brembo calipers and a new master cylinder too. The fi rst impression, the first squeeze, did not reveal the expected revelation – were the pads glazed? The initial bite didn’t feel quite so aggressive, but unlike the Tokico calipers, there’s no fade in a 20-minute track session, and the feel, ultimately, is much improved. After a day of back-to-back sessions with other journalists, the new brakes on the bike had been given as hard a workout as it’s reasonable for a road-bike to put up with. Happily, the performance at the end of the test day was resolute, unchanged.
So, while the initial ‘bite’ feels more like a savage gumming from a toothless puppy, when you squeeze a little harder, you get a little more braking – it’s easy to modulate feel and power, which is reassuring when trailing some front brake into Almeria’s second gear flick-fl ack chicane. And, if you really want to stop on a dime, as our colonial cousins say, they’ll do that too and they’ll do it consistently all day long. Brembo – Suzuki’s answer to the Tokico problem. Solved. Done. Gone.
The final session of the day passes too quickly – suspension tweaks have been minimal. A turn more compressiondamping on the fork, two turns of preload on the rear and a half turn of rebound in the rear shock were all that any of the bikes ridden by anyone (including five-times ex- BSB champion John Reynolds) bothered to make. Out of the crate and on to the track on standard tyres, more fun than you’ve ever had on a stock GSX-R600, guaranteed.
The verdict on the 2011 bike
So, all dressed up in its new brakes, with its nose-job and tail-tuck, its canted engine and new balance, is this 2011 GSX-R600 going to wipe the floor with its classmates? No. No, I don’t think it will. On the road, I reckon it will outshine those erstwhile bullies. Taken to a trackday, it will compete with the best. But will it dominate in superstock racing? No, it won’t. And why not? Because, for all its slim-fast dieting, for all its glorious chassis, its plump torque curve and track manners, it’s hard to see it closing the stock-power gap on Yamaha’s mysteriously fast YZF-R6 or Kawasaki’s robust ZX-6R.
In superstock race trim – with those very limited engine modifi cations – it will probably come out of the workshop down on power compared to the R6. The Suzuki’s chassis is as good as or better than these rivals’ but, when you calculate that the new bike’s bodywork and exhaust – parts that are junked on a superstock race bike anyway – are responsible for 5.1kg or 57 per cent of that weight loss, maybe the terrifi c chassis won’t be enough to overcome the power handicap. But who cares? Seriously. Who cares?
Who really cares how it performs as a superstock race-bike? The old model was a superior road-bike to the superstock kingpin R6 anyway. The heavier Honda CBR600RR, lacking a slipper clutch, a gear indicator, and having a long-in-the-tooth chassis, isn’t going to put up much of a fi ght either. The 2011 GSX-R600 is a gloriously well-balanced and confidence-generating supersport middleweight. It’s a bike that gave more pleasure than any road-bike I’ve ridden on track in the past three years. It’s nine kilos lighter and has (claimed) 10 per cent better fuel consumption too.
But who will know or notice, if you buy one? When you park it up, who is going to spot that you’ve got a brand new GSX-R600? The biggest fault with the 2011 GSX-R600 is that it still looks too much like the 2007 GSX-R600. Keeping the family resemblance is one thing, but cloning identical twins for the best part of a decade is another. Once again, someone important in Hamamatsu has decided to play it safe and make a bike (which shares only nine parts with its predecessor) look like the previous models. This, surely, is spectacularly bad marketing of a potentially class-leading bike. But if that’s its biggest fault, at least Kobayashi-san and Suzuki-san can be satisfied that they kept to their part of the bargain.
Type: 599cc 4-stroke, 4-cylinder, liquid-cooled, DOHC
Bore x Stroke: 67.0mm x 42.5mm
Compression ratio: 12.9:1
Fuelling: Fuel Injection
Gearbox: 6-speed constant mesh
Max Power: 125bhp@14,000rpm (claimed)
Max Torque: 51.3 ft lb @ 11,000rpm (claimed)
Chassis: Twin spar aluminium alloy
Suspension: (F) Showa Big Piston fork, fully adj. (R) Link type, high, low-speed compression adj, rebound and preload
Brakes: (F) Brembo monobloc calipers, twin 310mm discs, (R) Nissin caliper, single 220mm disc
Wheels/Tyres: (F) 120/70 ZR17 Bridgestone BT-016 (R) 180/55 ZR17
Rake/Trail: 23.4° 97mm
Wheelbase: 1385mm (54.5in)
Fuel Capacity: 17.0 litres (3.7 UK gallons)
Kerb mass: 187kg (412.3lbs)