While they won’t edge out more specialized machines at the racetrack, they could be said to do better job in a broader variety of road riding tasks – you know, the kind of riding most people do when they don’t need to rip to 160 mph, or drag a knee on a 70-mph kink, or brake deep into corners. Everyday street riding, remember? That’s what these bikes are about.
For starters, their unintimidating ergonomics and tractable powerbands make them more suitable for entry level riders – but then again, they’re anything but mere beginner bikes, and for more on this topic, check out our sidebar below.
For those who want to push their sporting potential, these bikes can still be plenty entertaining. Sure, they aren’t as intense – or pricy – as 600cc supersport machines, but their real-world performance is not that far off the mark. Given that “you can only go so fast on the street,” in the right hands these machines will hang surprisingly well on a tight windy road against almost any bike.
And in the meantime, if riders also want to take longer rides – even multi-day tours – or commute daily, many may find a GSX650F, Ninja 650R, or FZ6R more livable at the end of the day, or day-after-day, as the case may be.
A silver lining in gray economic clouds?
Now having heard the positive side, here’s some mixed news …
Unless we wanted to sneak a GSX650F down from Canada, our bike for this 2010 review had to be a 2009 model. In light of a U.S. sales downturn, Suzuki decided that except for the penny-pinching GV250, it is not importing present-year street models. That may sound like a handicap for Brand S, but really, all three might as well be 2009 models. Last year the FZ6R was just launched, the Ninja 650R received an extensive update, and negligible changes were made this year to either.
For that matter, U.S. consumers are also not offered anti-lock-brakes, although in other markets, Suzuki and Kawasaki do offer ABS for the GSX650F and Ninja 650R (also known as the ER-6f). The upside to these less than inspiring events is it’s really old news that the U.S. should be deprived some of the latest technology or bike models the Euros or Canadians get from time to time, and either way these are still great bikes.
It would also appear conditions have made it something of a buyer’s market. All three manufacturers are offering low percentage rate financing, and in some cases, reduced priced leftovers may still be available.
Similarities and differences
For more thorough reviews on versions of each bike, click on the following names of the Ninja 650R,GSX650F, or FZ6R to read write-ups for each. Or if a summary will do, here goes:
All three are liquid cooled and electronically fuel-injected. The Kawasaki’s parallel-Twin displaces 649cc and redlines at 11,000 rpm. The Suzuki’s inline-Four displaces 656cc and redlines at 12,500 rpm. The Yamaha’s inline-Four is 600cc and redlines at 11,500 rpm. The Kawasaki’s engine was launched in the all-new European 2005 ER-6n (un-faired) and then released worldwide in 2006 for the ER-6f (faired, aka Ninja 650). The twin-cylinder was a ground-up build based on a proven design from the EX500 (Ninja 500R), but the 650 is more evolved, more compact and more potent.
The Suzuki’s engine comes from the 2007 Bandit 650, a European model. In 2008, the Suzuki filled the hole left by the discontinued Katana 600. However, unlike the Katana series which used air-oil cooled engines adapted from first generation GSX-Rs of the late ’80s, the newer bike employed an all-new liquid cooled engine and was not an over-bored or stroked GSX-R engine.
The Yamaha’s engine is a retuned version from a 2003 R6. The FZ6R is essentially like a faired FZ6, albeit making due with a tubular high-tensile steel frame instead of the naked bike’s more sophisticated alloy perimeter frame, and lacking the un-faired bike’s 180-series rear tire. But the FZ6 is no longer in Yamaha’s lineup.
All three make power in about the order one might expect. On the Hypercycle dyno, the GSX650F peaks at 73.2 hp and 41.2 ft-lbs torque. The Yammi makes 64.1 hp, and 38.1 ft-lbs torque. The little big Twin in the Kawi turns out 60.3 hp, and 40.1 ft-lbs of torque.
Not tuned for the 14,000-16,000-plus redlines of 600cc supersports bikes, these bikes make a good 30 or so less peak horsepower, while holding onto a fair amount of the original bikes’ lower-rpm torque.
This is a big part of why these bikes could be considered more sensible. Not having to scream them to three times the rpm of your family car could contribute to their durability, makes for more sedate riding, and grunt is still there when needed without all the drama. Power is a defining factor for any bike. But then again, so is weight. And here it’s the Ninja – down in horsepower but holding its own with torque – that also happens to be the lightest of the three. Its curb weight (full of fluids, ready to ride) is 450 lbs. The FZ6R is an also respectable 467 lbs for the 49-state version, with California models coming in at 469 lbs.
The big Suzook, while having the strongest muscles, otherwise looks like the adolescent who needs counseling after struggling through the childhood obesity epidemic. At 531 lbs, the GSX650F is 81 pounds more portly than the Ninja, and 62 pounds heavier than the FZ6R. Or just to throw a curve-ball in for some additional perspective: the GSX650F weighs 82 pounds more than a GSXR1000, but makes about half the power. But then again, the GSX650F retails for $5,000 less, so there you go.
As for managing their weight, the three bikes do so on the same spec tires – Bridgestone sport-touring compound 120/70-17 fronts with 160/60-17 rears. Additionally, they all ride on standard telescopic 41mm forks and basic monoshocks with spring-preload capability – nothing too sophisticated here, but it all basically works. And fact is, a lot of riders with tricker factory suspension don’t use – or make good use of – all the extra adjustments possible even when they have them. Finally, and staying true to the no-muss, no fuss mantra, all three reliably put power to the ground through smooth shifting six-speed transmissions.
Marketing writers and moto mag writers alike often throw around the term “entry level” when describing middleweight motorcycles with low seat heights and comfortable riding positions. But if so, it’s at least partly because they represent a mid-way point in a world of motorcycles in which the upper limits are absolutely astonishing by standards of not so long ago.
While manufacturers have spent engineering overtime honing extremely light, powerful, yet tractable and inviting machines for the past few decades, last time we checked, human DNA is still the same as it ever was.
In 1980 a bike that could turn a mid-to-low 12-second quarter-mile would have deserved acceptance in a league of high-performance machines of 900cc to 1100cc displacement. Today, anyone with a credit score can buy 600-650 cc bikes that are considered not-too-expensive, yet able to develop speed deceptively fast.
Anyone who has never ridden a street motorcycle, and wants a 600cc sportbike for his or her first ought to be sure this is the right level bike to start on, because there are less powerful machines that work great as well. Although our liberty includes the right to take unnecessary risk, and even though the bikes of today have better chassis, suspension and brakes to manage the power, a word to the wise might still be in order.
We consider the GSX650F, Ninja 650R and FZ6R – any of which can beat a Corvette to 100 mph – to be entry levelsportbikes, and not necessarily ideal for first-time riders. Mistakes in judgment on a motorcycle are expensive and painful, so why add exceptional speed to the mix? On the other hand, I was interviewing a Pentagon official last year, and he said they put young people in the cockpit of aircraft, and the good ones soon see time in a fighter. His point was well taken, but it’s also true they train the heck out of these pilots, and only the ones who don’t wash out make the cut.
You and I have nothing stopping us from getting in over our heads but our own good judgment. We highly recommend first-timers honestly self-evaluate their readiness for the challenges of handling a powerful motorcycle. It is widely believed that prior proficiency on a dirtbike (or, at least a bicycle) can be of some value. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that if you are athletic, or have good balance, great eyesight or spatial awareness, high level of manual dexterity, eye-hand-coordination, and such, these too are believed to help you in learning to ride.
Seeking qualified training is also a good idea.
And overall, if you think you will be okay, who would we be to say these bikes – or faster ones – aren’t suitable? They may be, and you may be fine. We’ll leave you with advice we share with our family or friends interested in riding: Don’t walk before you can crawl, and don’t try to sprint until you are a good walker. Use your head, wear the gear, and have fun.
As you might expect, the Suzuki is dimensionally the largest, longest, and may be the best for taller riders. Suzuki claims a seat height of just 30.3 inches, which would make it the lowest of this trio, but we measured an actual height of 31.5 inches. The Yamaha feels mid-sized but has a couple tricks that make it workable for larger riders too. One innovation is a plastic plate under the rider’s saddle portion that can raise its standard 30.9-inch seat by just over three-quarters of an inch (20mm). The Kawasaki has a 31.1-inch high molded stepped saddle that worked well for our shorter riders. However, with my 34-inch inseam, the saddle’s sloped step to the passenger section limits aft movement more than I’d want – though not unbearably and fixable with aftermarket saddle options.
Handlebar configurations for all bikes are upright, with the Kawi having the most vertical position. Another adjustment trick Yamaha adds is for its handlebar. Its mount can be rotated to push the handlebar forward to just over three-quarters of an inch (20mm).
All three bikes use tubular handlebars that can be swapped for different bends or rise, if you start feeling ambitious. Footpegs for all three are reasonably neutral, not forward or excessively rear-set. Again ironically, the narrow Kawasaki’s pegs feel slightly higher. Considering its tall stock handlebar, the case seems all the more apparent for a lower handlebar to complete the sportbike package – that is, if it’s performance you’re after, otherwise it’s fine. All these bikes may fold up legs and crunch knees a bit for riders with long legs because of their low saddles.
As the ostensible sportbikes they are, all three have full fairings. As the all-arounders they really are, these are complemented by widely spaced mirrors and multi-functional instrumentation including fuel gauges. All use traditional steel gas tanks – enabling the use of magnetic tank bags, if desired. The Suzuki’s tank holds 5.0 U.S. gallons, the Yamaha’s holds 4.6, and the Kawasaki’s holds 4.1.
All have bungee hooks, but the Yamaha has a nice wrapped-around, rubber-coated grab rail, which is not only useful for strapping on groceries or duffel bags, it gives passengers more to hold onto. Likewise the Suzuki has a handrail which is better than nothing, which is all the Kawasaki has – no grab rail or the like. These bikes can turn mid-to-low 12-second quarter miles and are still fuel sippers. Both the Suzuki’s and Yamaha’s EPA average rating is 43 mpg, and the Kawasaki’s is 48 mpg. Our testing for these not-yet-broken-in machines was in line with these mileage numbers.
Thanks to EFI, they all start instantly, idle smoothly, and rev quickly. Exhaust is routed via sophisticated catalytic converters to single-output mufflers. The Suzuki’s is the most traditional – a single stainless steel large canister design. The Yamaha has a rather industrial looking but functional mid-section mounted muffler. The Kawasaki’s under-engine muffler is stylized and svelte, fashioned in brushed metal.
Stylistically – while this is a personal preference issue, and you can make up your own mind looking at the pictures – we’ll offer a few comments, adding that each bike has its pros and cons. The Suzuki we think looks like a mid-sized ‘Busa from the front, and the GSX-R family heritage is obvious. Kevin Duke thinks this rendition however is ungainly. Likewise the Yamaha has elements reminiscent of the R6 and everyone seems to like it. The Ninja 650R also has design elements from the ZX-6 and ZX-10, but it is unique too. We find its offset rear shock and “D-shaped” swingarm with trellis frame plus artistically designed exhaust and “petal” style rotors give it a look all its own, and a few of us commented it is pleasing in a modernistic sort of way.
"The Suzuki we think looks like a mid-sized ‘Busa from the front.."
Frankly, you could see where the marketers and engineers chose to spend the attention to detail – and R&D money – to bring originality to these respective bikes, and where they merely grabbed something out of the company parts bin. These bikes each have enough uniqueness merged with the same-old-same-old to fill the bill at this price point. Having pretty functional ergonomics, tractable power, and light pulling clutches, these bikes are fine for plodding around town or basking in the joys of sitting in traffic.
The big Suzuki, however, with a higher perceived center of gravity and definitely more bulkiness, would be comparatively more intimating for novices – but it’s not especially noticeable unless you experience the somewhat better balanced and lighter Yamaha and Kawasaki. The Suzuki’s weight does smooth out rougher roads and highway expansion joints, however, and we pick it as the most likely long-distance mount, although it does have some buzziness, felt mostly through the handlebar.
The Yamaha is also pretty ergonomically accommodating, and even with the seat and handlebar set for smaller riders, it was do-able for my six-foot frame on a 280-mile day trip of mixed highway and canyon riding. MO guest tester Tom Roderick noted he felt the seat was hard, presumably because padding was spared to reduce it’s advertised height. As for the Kawasaki, in the view of five-foot-eleven-inch tall Tom, “The seating position for the 650R feels like the same old Ninja 500,” he says. “It feels like a small bike for a small person.”
This lines up with what I experienced, but I otherwise like the bike so much, I’d consider living with it or adjusting fit with a new saddle. I say this because the Ninja does a good job on tight, twisty roads. Its light weight, and wide handlebars, if not too high, evertheless let you yank this bike into an angle and plow through.
Its low-end torque is an asset, but it does not rip to quite the rushing high as the Yamaha, which also delivers smooth power from low to high while building steam like the inline-Four it is.
Of the Yamaha, Kevin observes, “Its power feels better than expected. Knowing how much had been lopped off the top, I was afraid it was going to be wheezy. It was also surprisingly responsive when two-upping Roderick on a brief jaunt.” Tom also observed, the retuned R6 motor is “a great engine, strong mid-range, pulls cleanly all the way to rev limiter, with excellent throttle response.”
The Suzuki’s engine seems down on midrange compared to the others, but is revvy, and gets the bike rolling okay when the tach needle starts racing to redline. Even so, Kevin noted, “The Suzuki has a bland powerband. You wait for a hit that never arrives. I expected more from a 650cc four-cylinder.” As you know, the Suzuki is penalized by more weight to push. It also has the heaviest steering and its soft suspension can be overwhelmed when challenged. Further, it feels widest between the knees. This is especially noticeable after hopping off the Ninja, which as the narrowest, and feels like a dual-purpose bike on street tires by comparison.
In between its two competitors, the Yamaha strikes a great balance between flickability and bulk. Tom says plainly that ”the Yamaha is sportier than the Ninja.” His feeling also lines up with something Kevin’s said about the FZ6R’s sound affects. “The under-engine exhaust emits a surprisingly invigorating sound that’s racier than expected,” Kevin observed, “It’s a nice accompaniment to every ride.” I can see everyone’s point, and don’t disagree, but I’m also like the teacher who sees the potential in a kid, and what it could be with a little work.
The Ninja’s potential comes from its being narrowest and lightest in its class, having footpegs positioned to offer the most cornering clearance and an engine with excellent torque and workable horsepower. Those are fundamentals that could come into play with some tweaking to maximize its sporting potential. On the footpeg clearance issue, the Suzuki is adequate, and Yamaha’s pegs are the first to scrape. Actually, I was looking for the phone number to the Yamaha parts department to order replacement peg feelers. In less than 75 sport riding miles, on sport-touring-compound tires, I’d already half ground them off.
But I’ll also admit, the Ninja would need work with its rear shock. It was the most undersprung for my 185 pounds, and MO tester Kaming Ko and Tom also noted the bike floundered around in bumpy corners. The Ninja handled noticeably better after turning the stepped preload collar to full firmness. All these bikes have similar spec brakes offering a firm lever pull. The Yamaha’s brakes haul it down from any speed without much of an issue, and may be the best of the bunch, although Tom noted the rear brake was too touchy and prone to lock-up. The Suzuki’s brakes, although utilizing 10mm larger rotors, work okay, but with all that extra kinetic energy to scrub off, can’t match the grace of Yamaha’s stoppers. The Ninja’s brakes do have enough power but lack some of the sensitivity.
All these bikes are marketed for entry-level riders. Ironically, the one with the lowest seat height might also be the most daunting for shorter riders or novices. The Suzuki’s width means shorter legs still have a longer stretch to terra firma. Both the narrower Yamaha and Kawasaki, however offer shorter effective reaches to the ground. The Kawasaki further makes a concession for smaller people that maybe Suzuki and Yamaha should take note of. In addition to industry-standard adjustable brake levers, the Ninja 650R includes an adjustable reach clutch lever – Kawasaki seems to understand that if riders have short legs, they’ll probably have small hands too. Instrumentation is readable for all bikes in daytime or night. Kevin noted that the Suzuki’s white GSX-R-inspired gauges are especially easy to read. And here’s an area where the Ninja comes up short: It’s digital bar graph tachometer, while visible, is not as readable as a big analog gauge would be.
Although this is a “shootout,” we are especially mindful that the GSX650F, Ninja 650R and FZ6R are trying to be as close as possible to everything for everybody. It’s tough to name a ”best” bike for first-time riders, commuters, potential day-trippers, enthusiasts looking for a knock-around bike, and more. More than most, these machines aim at a moving target. As such, this review is what four experienced riders think after sampling these bikes, while trying to second guess what a wide variety of potential riders would want.
None of us preferred the Suzuki. Tom bluntly put it that it “lacks direction because it doesn't seem to be built for either a novice or an experienced rider.” While experienced riders appreciated the Kawasaki, more gave the Yamaha the thumbs up as the best all-arounder with sporting capabilities.
So, the short answer is the Yamaha is the official winner! Since I don’t listen to the beat of other drummers, however, I’ll add some further impressions for what they are worth. I like the Yamaha, but representing potential experienced buyers, I would like to have seen higher footpegs.
Having raced and street ridden Four-Cylinder Suzukis back to the early 80s, despite my jabs at the GSX650F, I’m less put out with it than one might think. It felt familiar to me. I found it easier to like than other MO testers here, and think others could adapt and grow fond of the bike in time.
And even if more MO testers voted for the Yamaha, I’d give the underdog award to the EX650R as the little Ninja that could. I like it because it is its own bike, not a watered-down anything, and is therefore most unique. As already noted, it is the lightest and might represent the most twisty road potential for experienced riders. And, at a $7,099 MSRP, it’s $800 cheaper than the Suzuki. The $7,899 GSX650F, $7,390 ($7,490 in non-black color options) FZ6R and Ninja 650R offer real-world sporting capability. They have enough grin-inducing power to wind them through a couple-few gears – but not so much that you’ll look down at the speedo and see you’re accidentally doing 135 mph. Given that all street motorcycles are also limited while cornering and braking, these bikes serve up a freshly brewed blend of corner carving prowess, plus a better chance of comfortably getting you to work, school, the store, or out of town.