2020 Suzuki Katana | First Ride Review

2020 Suzuki Katana
The 2020 Suzuki Katana is a modern interpretation of the original 1981 GSX1100S Katana, with edgier lines and built on the GSX-S1000 platform. (Photography courtesy Suzuki)

Among the many memorable motorcycles created by German industrial stylist Hans Muth, two became icons of the late 20th century. They’re iconic not only for their timeless style but also for changing the direction of motorcycle design as well as the direction of the companies that produced them. The first, in 1974, was the café racer-styled BMW R90S–with its bikini fairing, silver-into-black “smoke” paint job and hot-rodded engine, it single-handedly transformed BMW’s conservative image and went on to win the first AMA superbike championship in 1976. The second, in 1981, was the Suzuki GSX1100S Katana–a superbike with integrated, ergonomic- and aerodynamic-driven bodywork that revolutionized motorcycle aesthetics.

Check out our video review of the new Katana here!

1981 Suzuki GSX1100S Katana
The original Muth-designed 1981 Suzuki GSX1100S Katana, on display at Suzuki’s museum in Hamamatsu, Japan.

The R90S was an internal BMW project pushed through by then-executive VP Bob Lutz, who credits the bike for saving the company’s motorcycle division from insolvency. A commission from Suzuki to develop a new, provocative design language for its motorcycles motivated Muth and two other designers–Hans-Georg Kasten and Jan Fellstrom–to leave BMW and start their own firm, Target Design. Based on earlier design studies, they developed a concept that wrapped the existing GS1100 in bold, futuristic bodywork and unveiled it at the Cologne show in 1980. Although the Katana drew mixed reactions, Suzuki was duly impressed and rushed the new model into production with few changes. Thanks to its futuristic styling, as well as its claim as the fastest production motorcycle of the time, the Katana was a sales success and helped catapult Suzuki into the modern era, much as the R90S did for BMW. It also paved the way for the GSX-R750, the first fully faired “race bike with lights” put into production, which was launched for 1985 and helped create an entirely new segment of the market.

Suzuki Katana logo
Target Design came up with the Katana logo, which is a stylized combination of the Japanese characters for “katana” and “edge.” It’s still used on the 2020 Katana.

Essential to the legend of the Katana is its name, which refers to the type of sword used by samurai warriors. When developing the original concept, Muth’s team studied Japanese culture and saw similarities between a sword and a motorcycle–both are tools as well as symbols, and both must be treated with respect. They also felt that motorcycle design should flow with the grace and fluidity of swordsmanship, which is why the bike looks cohesive rather than an assembly of separate parts, as nearly all motorcycles had been up to that point. The lower part of the original Katana’s tank looks as though it has been cut by a sword, and the concept’s logo–still in use today–is a stylized combination of the Japanese characters for “katana” and “edge.”

2020 Suzuki Katana
Frascoli’s modern interpretation of the Katana is more compact and has more aggressive bodywork, but it retains the pointy fairing with rectangular headlight, the “sword cut” across the tank and the silver color.

Like the original, the latest incarnation of the Katana comes from the imagination of an independent designer, an Italian named Rodolfo Frascoli whose portfolio includes Moto Guzzi’s Griso, Norge and Stelvio and Triumph’s Speed Triple and Tiger 1050. Commissioned by Italy’s “Motociclismo” magazine, Frascoli collaborated with engineer Alberto Strazzari to graft modern, Katana-inspired styling onto the existing Suzuki GSX-S1000 naked sportbike. Frascoli was not attempting to create a retro motorcycle, but rather a contemporary interpretation of the original, with more aggressive bodywork, a smaller tail section and other changes to reduce visual mass. Elements carried over from the original Katana include the rectangular headlight, the “sword cut” across the tank and silver bodywork. Frascoli’s Katana 3.0 Concept was presented at the Milan show in 2017, and, as it did nearly four decades prior, Suzuki indicated its approval by green-lighting a new Katana for production.

2020 Suzuki Katana
Built on the solid, street-tuned GSX-S1000 sportbike platform, the Katana delivers a high degree of usable performance.

Unveiled at the 2018 Intermot show in Cologne, the new Katana will be available later this year as a 2020 model. (Pricing has not yet been announced.) According to Chief Engineer Satoru Terada, it took 14 months to develop the concept into a production-ready motorcycle, and visually there are few differences between the two. The gas tank was modified to change the steering angle and allow more space for the rider, overall weight distribution was shifted rearward and the handlebar was moved up and closer to the rider. Changes to the underlying GSX-S1000 platform were limited to a minor revision to suspension damping rates, new instrumentation and new LED lighting.

Arashiyama-Takao Parkway Kyoto Japan
Arashiyama-Takao Parkway is a private toll road in the mountains northwest of Kyoto, Japan. Closed for the day, it provided a real-world yet traffic-free testing environment.

Suzuki hosted a global launch for the Katana in Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan renown for its thousands of temples and shrines. Northwest of Kyoto is the Arashiyama-Takao Parkway, a private toll road that snakes its way through the mountains, which Suzuki reserved to provide a traffic-free opportunity to test the Katana. Despite the cold, damp conditions and riding on the left side of the road, the Katana was easy to warm up to, with upright seating that didn’t put too much weight on my wrists nor too much bend in my knees. Spinning beneath me was a liquid-cooled, DOHC, 999cc in-line four that’s a modified, street-tuned version of the GSX-R1000 K5 (2005-2008) engine, making 148 horsepower at 10,000 rpm and 80 lb-ft of torque at 9,500 rpm (claimed) and delivering civilized throttle response and smooth, linear thrust.

2020 Suzuki Katana
The underlying GSX-S1000 platform has a 999cc in-line four held in a twin-spar aluminum frame, with sportbike-caliber brakes, suspension, tires and electronics.

Frascoli chose the GSX-S1000 as the basis for the new Katana because it’s a compact, well-packaged machine with a high level of maneuverability and performance. We’ve tested the 2016 GSX-S1000 and found it to be an excellent real-world sportbike, with a stout twin-spar aluminum frame and cast aluminum swingarm, adjustable KYB suspension, Brembo monoblock 4-piston radial front calipers, three-level traction control and ABS. The Katana’s spec sheet is nearly identical, except seat height is higher (32.5 inches), claimed wet weight is heavier (474 pounds) and fuel capacity is lower (3.2 gallons). From the saddle, it felt responsive to light steering inputs, stable through corners and at speed, and new Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart 2 tires developed specifically for the Katana provided reassuring grip and easy side-to-side transitions.

2020 Suzuki Katana
With a mostly upright riding position, a tall and easy-to-reach handlebar and a comfortable seat, the Katana should be easy to live with. If only the gas tank held more than 3.2 gallons.

Whereas the original Katana was a revolution in design, the new version is more of an evolution, standing apart from other partially faired upright sportbikes without breaking new ground. Its edgy, silver skin is stretched over a motorcycle that represents nearly 40 years of development and refinement in terms of engine and chassis technology, suspension and brakes, tires and electronics. Even though today’s Katana is no longer the fastest bike in production, it makes a respectable 148 crankshaft horsepower in a 474-pound package and is no doubt much faster than the original, which made 107 horsepower and weighed 540 pounds. By channeling the spirit of its ancestor, the new Katana honors the past while clearly showing how far we’ve come and how good we have it.

2020 Suzuki Katana
To keep the tail section tidy, the Katana’s license plate secures to a small fender attached to the swingarm.

Check out Rider’s Guide to New/Updated Street Motorcycles for 2019

2020 Suzuki Katana Specs
Base Price: NA
Website: suzukicycles.com
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse in-line four, DOHC w/ 4 valves per cyl.
Displacement: 999cc
Bore x Stroke: 73.4 x 59.0mm
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated assist-and-slipper clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Wheelbase: 57.5 in.
Rake/Trail: 25 degrees/3.9 in.
Seat Height: 32.5 in.
Claimed Wet Weight: 474 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.2 gals.
MPG: NA

2020 Suzuki Katana
The new Katana has the distinctive “sword cut” across its gas tank like the original.
2020 Suzuki Katana
The Katana’s all-digital instrument panel includes an electronic rendering of the Katana logo.
2020 Suzuki Katana seat
Silver fabric on the sides of the pillion seat match the bodywork on the front of the bike. Its also an homage to the two-tone seat on the original Katana.
2020 Suzuki Katana
Powering the Katana is a modified, street-tuned version of the 999cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC in-line four from the GSX-R1000 K5 (2005-2008).
2020 Suzuki Katana
Playing follow-the-leader with one of Suzuki’s test riders on the Arashiyama-Takao Parkway near Kyoto, Japan.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Had a buddy in Culver city that had 1 of these. Sounds like the buddy that had a VMax and I was the buddy with the VMax. Anyway, in 1981 my mind shall we say was following The Dead in a ’64 VW Bus, Lime green bottom and gloss white top, named Levity. Moved back to Louisiana in 1986 when they started shooting at each other on the LA Freeway. That’s when the VMax started. But as far as the new Zuke Katana, I like it. Wonder how the insurance runs?

  2. Another “origami” special that just hurts my eyes to look it it-not all that different from most of the superbike styling out there now. And just what makes me an expert on bike design? Nothing, except that I am 68 years young, and almost have my 1981 Honda CB900F SuperSport (bought new) ready to roll.
    Everybody has their fav bike….wish I could put a pix of it here….now THERE was a motorcycle. No, not perfect, but the bodywork on the 900F was perfect….not crazy edgy like the Katana, not UJM like all the rest of that time. Take a min & google it & see what I mean….mine is showroom stock and I wouldn’t change a thing.

  3. Love the 148 HP inline four power. Love the look. Weight at 474 lbs is good. And I’m in the market for a new inline four. Would I buy it? Nope… reason being lack of touring capacity. How am I supposed to get even soft bags and a top box on that itty bitty rear end? And 3.2 gallon fuel capacity would be a refueling annoyance.

    The revamped Katana is another in a succession of powerful naked inline fours from Japanese manufacturers that aren’t good for much more than a day’s ride. Consider the Suzuki GSX-S1000, the Yamaha MT-10, the Honda CB1100 EX — none is practical for touring. Only Kawasaki with the Ninja 1000 touring model gets it. And the Kawi H2 SX SE.

    I have a 2003 Yamaha FZ1 with an ample rear that can be readily outfitted for touring, with pillion even. And of course it’s great for a day ride. Why is that versatility missing in the Suzuki lineup?

    The magic formula: Light weight. High end power. Touring capacity. In the V-twin market, those characteristics are reflected in the KTM 1290 Super Duke GT. I own a 1290 GT and it’s awesome. But, I’d also complement my KTM with a powerful touring-friendly inline four. The BMW XR1000 is out there, I checked it out. Same with Kawi Ninja 1000 and H2 SX SE. Good bikes, not quite pressing my buttons.

    Suzuki had the chance to break the mold with the Katana and missed. How hard could it be to offer a touring model along with the day-ride version?

  4. Late to the (small) party. I like the looks. It’s much more cohesive that the original. Like Mark, I can’t see getting it for sport-touring because of the tail and small fuel tank. Hopefully others will see it as an ideal short-haul bike.

  5. Good looking bike. The early versions did a good job of incorporating the engine into the design. This one seems to be doing its best to hide the engine. Pity. These things are motor cycles.

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