Photography by Rich Cox/Slide Action
Look at the middleweight motorcycle class and you’ll find a bunch of very serious sportbikes, adventure tourers, dual-sports, cruisers‚ and these four machines (five really, with the naked SV650 not shown). Call them what you will-standards, semi-naked or naked sports, budget blasters, whatever-they share affordable prices from $6,299 to $7,399, dual seating and enough power for pretty much anything you care to do. Their sporty chassis and suspension give them all enough handling for airing-out your leathers, yet none has ergonomics a la the Marquis de Sade like their serious sportbike siblings. The Honda 599, all-new Kawasaki Ninja 650R tested in the previous story and Yamaha FZ6 all share mostly upright seating, in fact, like the Suzuki SV650 we had in our 2004 comparo of these machines. We include the SV650S with its clip-ons and rearsets here instead mainly for variety, and because it has a small fairing and windscreen like the Ninja 650R and FZ6. If you’re drawn to these bikes for higher tubular handlebars and upright seating, Suzuki’s naked SV650 offers them and an identical engine and running gear to the SV650S.
What do you want to do today? Split lanes on your Interstate 405 commute? Drop a magnetic tankbag on the tank, strap a seatbag on the back and take off on a weekend sport tour of the Alps of Ohio? Blitz the nearest twisty road till you’re nauseous and cross-eyed? Are you an entry-level rider seeking something you won’t grow out of, or an experienced pavement pilot who wants a good second bike? Any of these four middleweights will do it all pretty well, without busting your buy-in, insurance or maintenance budgets and, if you like, in the comfort of what us old-timers used to call a UJM-Universal Japanese motorcycle-seating position. While the Yamaha has pretty impressive top-end, none are going to set new records at your local racetrack or dragstrip, but there’s enough power on tap to put a grin on your face once in a while, all with good fuel economy in the low- to mid-40-mpg range.
Despite sharing a rather uncrowded category, these two 650 twins and two 600 fours make power in very different ways. All are liquid-cooled, with six-speed transmissions and chain final drive. While the Ninja 650R, SV650S and FZ6 have electronic fuel injection, the 599 gets by with carburetors, albeit sophisticated 34mm flat-slide CV carbs with a throttle-position sensor. The 599 and FZ6 share transverse, in-line engine layouts, DOHC, four-valve-per-cylinder valve trains and even have similar bore and stroke measurements and compression ratios. The Ninja 650R and SV650S, on the other hand, have transverse parallel twin and transverse 90-degree twin layouts respectively, giving the former a personality more like half an in-line four, and the latter like a small Ducati.
Assuming the dyno results from our 2004 comparison of the 599, SV650 and FZ6 still apply to their unchanged powertrains, comparing them to the output of the new Ninja 650R leaves the FZ6 at the top of the rear-wheel peak horsepower heap with 90.5 at about 11,800 rpm. The 599 made 83.6 at 11,700, the SV650 (and presumably our 2006 SV650S) about 73 at 8,800 and the Ninja 650R 62.1 horsepower at 9,000 rpm. The Suzuki still gets the peak torque award, however, with 47.2 lb-ft at 7,000 vs. about 43 lb-ft at 8,500-9,000 in the 599 and FZ6 and 41.5 at 7,250 in the 650R. And the SV650 mill still makes significantly more torque and horsepower than the other three from idle up to about 9,000 rpm-in other words, it has more power in the most-used part of the powerband. At 430 pounds wet it’s still the lightest of the bunch, too, so it’s no surprise that it bests the other three in roll-on contests at legal speeds.
But let’s put the numbers aside and look somewhat subjectively at engine character. We liked all four bikes for their strengths-a hearty top-end kick in the FZ6; broad, smooth usable power from the 599; the SV650S’s ripping-velvetlike purr with the grunt of an elephant and top-end of a gazelle; and the split personality of the Ninja 650R, which gives it solid, usable midrange with a powerful screaming banshee hidden up top. If any weaknesses are to be found, one is that the 599, Ninja 650R and especially the FZ6 can be buzzy at times and fall flat at lower engine speeds, often necessitating a downshift to bump them into the meat of their powerbands. They are smooth at cruising speeds and still easily ridden around town, however. We simply can’t find fault with the SV650S powerplant, which offers broad, usable power everywhere as well as smoothness and an exciting top-end hit.
On the highway this all translates to plenty of power for passing and brisk sport-touring riding solo, albeit with an additional downshift on the 599 and FZ6 to get them spinning. Two-up and loaded, none of these machines have what you’d call a surplus of power, so if you’re going to ride that way often we must at least recommend the FZ6 for its available top-end, large dual seat and big passenger grabrails. Overall though-around town, in the canyons or on the highway-any of these bikes will provide solo riders with both utility and power prowess when it’s asked of them. All have good, linear-feeling cable-actuated wet clutches and their six-speeds shift well, with the nod, if any, going to the Suzuki for its sportbikelike shifting finesse.
When it’s time to turn, you won’t find a foursome of more willing motorcycles, yet again each has its own way of doing so. All share 17-inch wheels with excellent radial rubber in popular sizes from Bridgestone, Dunlop or Michelin, with slightly wider 180-series tires on the back of the two in-line fours to handle the extra power. They also share conventional forks and single rear shocks with adjustments for spring preload-the Suzuki also offers spring preload adjustment in front (but its effectiveness is largely in the showroom).
For 2006 the Honda 599 gets a new male-slider (inverted, upside-down, whatever) fork that transforms the bike, with a sexier new instrument nacelle as well. Honda may have tweaked the seat a little, too, as the 599 no longer locks you into the back of the tank and can be sat on for much longer without pain (note that we found a way to put the seat onto our 2006 test bike incorrectly which makes it quite uncomfortable-perhaps that’s what happened with our 2004). None of these bikes have particularly comfortable rider’s seats for long rides, however. The 599’s handlebar seems higher and closer now, and both ends of the suspension are compliant and perform well without mushiness in all situations. It doesn’t have a fairing or windscreen of course, but if you need one for the cold a number of bolt-on windscreens are out there (and they often work better than any of the other three’s fairing/windscreen combos!).
Ergonomically the all-new Kawasaki Ninja 650R reminds me of a 600 sportbike with a high tubular handlebar conversion. Footpegs are still pretty high. It has the shortest wheelbase of the four but the longest trail, so it responds a bit more slowly to steering inputs than the other bikes but that wide, high handlebar lets you quickly whip it where you want to go. Suspension compliance is on the firm side and the Kawi handles bumpy corners the best of the four, but it can be harsh on repetitive highway bumps and frost heaves and such. That unique rear shock layout works fine, but we missed the more supple feel of the 599 and SV650S progressively linked setups. The windscreen does a nice job of keeping the blast off your chest without too much buffeting, though if it were mine I’d cut it down a few inches for an unmolested flow over my helmet.
Of the four the Suzuki SV650S has been around longest and has probably had the most refinement. This shows in its handling precision and suspension compliance, which slightly best the 599 for steering quickness with stability and damping control with taut but comfortable spring rates. The SV650S suffers in tight corners from its low clip-on handlebars, which work better in fast sweepers and allow you to tuck in under that effective windscreen.
The naked SV650 has essentially the same effective suspension components and steers a little easier thanks to its higher, wider bar-again, adding a windscreen to it may be the best option of all.
Oddly enough while the FZ6 (with its sexy new flat-black frame and swingarm finish for 2006) probably has the roomiest seating and most power, it’s hard to use all of either in the corners because its basic suspension and something else-perhaps the chassis stiffness?-are overwhelmed when pushed. Sure, you may be going faster than the other bikes at that point. But all that power, effort, noise and extreme engine braking from a screaming four with a 14,000-rpm redline in the heart of its powerband at 11,000 rpm aren’t much good if the suspension and chassis are trying to unstick it. The bike works much better in the corners when you slow down a bit, drop the revs and focus on smoothness. Despite the lack of progressive linkage on the rear shock it still rides pretty nicely elsewhere. The FZ6’s stock windscreen is too low and far away to offer much protection, but Yamaha offers a 4-inch taller one as an accessory that probably works well.
Although the Kawasaki Ninja 650R has a bit too much pedal travel, otherwise all four machines share brilliant binders with a good linear feel and stop hard when asked. All have triple discs with twin-piston calipers up front and adjustable brake levers-the Ninja 650R adds an adjustable clutch lever. The bikes are fairly equal when it comes to the little things like mirrors, headlights, helmet locks, underseat storage and toolkits, though we note that the FZ6, 650R and SV650 don’t require the handlebar-mounted choke found on the 599. The FZ6 and 599 alone have usable passenger accommodations, and the FZ6 is the only one of the four with a centerstand. The FZ6 is also the only one with a respectable 5.1-gallon fuel tank, for a grown-up range of 224 miles, although all had good fuel economy in the low to mid 40s.
So, what’s the verdict? Comparison tests tend to unfairly magnify small differences, and as simply great motorcycles, all four of these bikes are winners. We’re splitting hairs here, but the overall nod has to go to the $6,499 Suzuki SV650S (and by extension to the $5,849 SV650). You simply won’t grow out of the faired or naked bike’s overall competence, they’re easy bikes for beginners and their costs are in-line. The 599 and FZ6 would be tied for second if it weren’t for the naked Honda’s $7,399 higher cost, which makes the Yamaha’s standard fairing, windscreen, centerstand and extra fuel-injected power for $6,799 seem like a bargain. The Ninja 650R comes in last mainly because it makes the least power-we’re jaded that way-but its suspension compliance is also no better than the FZ6’s and its fuel tank is tiny. It’s still a unique and enjoyable ride, with sharp handling and comfy ergos. And at $6,299, there’s just no way it can lose.
For more images from this middleweight comparison test check out the Honda 599, Yamaha FZ6, Suzuki SV650 and Ninja 650R Photo Gallery.
Also, if you’re intersted in the 2006 Honda 599, the Suzuki SV650 and the Yamaha FZ6 you might also be interested in a related Rider comparo: 2004 Honda 599 vs 2004 Suzuki SV650 vs 2004 Yamaha FZ6.