Tester: Brecon Quaddy
Photography: Tim Bishopp
PARANOIA. Flashing blue lights
behind hedges. Vascar in every unmarked car I overtake. Tall men in blue serge fanning little-used country roads with silent hair dryers. Two hours of using Suzuki's GSX1100S Katana the
way it's meant to be used and the licence in my wallet feels more soft and vulnerable with every passing mile - and not a few of those miles slide under the wheels at the rate of two and
a bit per minute.
Team Bike's Howard Lees, who rides every motorcycle like he's had his nerves surgically removed, summed up the Katana perfectly after a thrash round Donington: 'Much too fast enough.'
Much too fast enough for all but ten-tenths speeders and more than much too fast enough for good, law abiding motorcyclists. Chances are that by the time Mr Average Motorist sees your
bondage strap, quarter of a ton of sculpted Suzuki'll be punched deep into his Metro's passenger compartment.
Above all, the Katanas are the bikes Honda warned you about. Remember the CB1100R? 115bhp of Hammamatsu overkill wrapped up in a comprehensive road-going package with half-fairing,
halogen headlight, indicators plus dropped bars, rearsets and a racing one-bum seat. A truly sporting megabike on the lines of all those Jotas and Mirages the Italians have been serving
up all these years but with all the advantages which accrue frdin the Japs' sophistication and ability to hold down prices thanks to income from sales of millions of mopeds and assorted
workaday tiddlers round the world.
But as every good civil servant knows (ha!), ordinary folk can't even be trusted to wire a household plug unless they earn enough to pay cash for a Porsche or Roller. The thought of
untrustworthy, irresponsible types like bikers getting their hands on unashamed 145mph sportsters from the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles rather than from high price,
Italian ranges sounds like a good recipe for fear and loathing in the corridors of power, eh?
Honda UK thought so and the result was an order for only 100 CB1100Rs at a recommended price tag of £3,700. Suzuki thought not and the result is Katanas in the showrooms at a
recommended tag of £2,850, though I've seen them discounted to around the £2,500 mark. And though the GSX1100S is slightly less powerful than the CB1100R, it's otherwise more naked and
more unashamed than the Honda.
Beneath the Katana's flachismo top deck lies a frame and powerplant directly descended from the GSX1100E. The original GSX Eleven won a reputation as the pick of the conventional Jap 1.1
litre fours thanks to its tractable 16 valve motor and good handling - good provided you had some respect for its weight and slightly compromised, sports/fast touring suspension when
traveling at progressive rates down Britain's poorly maintained roads. The standard GSXll00s were the only machines to keep the CB1100s in sight during the MCN / Shell Streetbike series.
No-one came near Ron Haslam and his Honda but Suzukis won five places in the end-of-season top 10 against 4 1/2 for the CB1100s. Wayne Gardner might have done something for the fuel
injected GPz1100 Kawasakis but he switched to a Honda halfway through the series.
The Katana's double cradle frame is almost identical to the 'ordinary' 1100's trellis, with the same extruded aluminium box section swingarm supported on needle rollers, and taper
rollers in the head but instead of a fashionable alloy plate to hold the footrests, the Katana has a triangulated subframe holding the rearset pegs and brake / gearchange linkages.
Steering has been altered, to improve straight line stability in exchange for a slight loss in steering quickness, by changing the triple clamps. Rake is increased to 29° (from 28°)
and trail likewise; up from 4.06in to 4.65in. Wheelbase is shorter by nearly 3/4in, however, because the Katana doesn't have the leading axle forks of its sister GSX. The original 1100
had fairly complex front suspension with air springing, adjustable preload on the coil springs and a four way damping adjuster but only the preload adjuster in the fork tops remains on
the Katana. The rear shox are the same five-way spring preload/four-way damping-adjustable items but the springs seem a lot stronger. We'll return to that later.
Wheels are Suzuki's familiar cast alloy types wearing possibly the worst feature of the Kat, Bridgestone Mag Mopus tyres. Like most Jap tyres these days, the Mags were OK in the dry
except for a lack of 'feel' which gave me an uncomfortable suspicion that if they did break away they would do so without warning. In the wet they were horrible. So horrible that
something quite unprecedented happened when I turned up on a wet afternoon to collect the test bike from Suzuki's Croydon HQ. A Suzuki person shuffled his feet a bit and mumbled: 'Look I
know you're an experienced rider but be very, very careful when you're putting the power on out of a wet corner because that back tyre steps out really easily.'
Shock confessions time, huh? You won't often catch an importer admitting anything of that sort because come the day some over-eager hack lunches their test bike, he only has to smile and
say: 'Too right about those bloody awful tyres. I was only doing l5mph on a wet roundabout and . . .' Assuming the man at Suzuki trusted me to exercise the usual prudence when piloting a
5501b-plus monster in the rain, he was therefore pleading for extra special caution. Tut, tut, Bridgestone, it rains in Japan doesn't it? To be fair, the tyres didn't give any really
nasty moments in the wet, mainly because I rode like an old woman when it rained - and a pretty miserable experience Katana riding became then, I can tell you. Teeter, teeter, slow,
slow, teeter all the way back to the office. Bridgestone are quoting, in an advert something I wrote in Bike's June issue about the good wet weather performance of a pair of their boots.
I wasn't asked first, presumably because my name wasn't used, but to put the record straight, the tyres in question were on a GSX400. They were indeed no trouble, but I've yet to ride
any bike weighing much over 400lb on Jap rubber and feel safe on wet tarmac. If major motorcycle manufacturers are determined to build big, heavy bikes which transmit great dollops of
grunt to the rear wheel at low rpm, they shouldn't be content with tyres which give their overseas agents (let alone ordinary buyers) the frights, should they? Nuff said.
Another factor requiring caution in poor road conditions is the incredibly responsive nature of the Katana's powerplant, which transforms every tiny movement of the rider's wrist into
an instant leap forward more reminiscent of a certain Italian 90° V twin than a big multi. Achieving a smooth power feed-in in bottom and second gears isn't made any easier by the
snappish low-rpm behaviour of the four 34mm Mikuni CV carbs (the production racing oriented GSXl000S Katanas have slide carbs but, interestingly, American versions breathe through CVs
like the 1100, which isn't being sold Stateside). The test Katana also suffered from pronounced transmission snatch below two grand as its gear primary drive snagged up. Controlling the
throttle in slow traffic became a martial art but when gaps opened up between other vehicles the Katana's instant acceleration could be used to punch through openings you couldn't risk
going for on a slower motorcycle.
Partly responsible for the quicker response is the Katana's smaller alternator rotor - Suzuki have shaved nearly 1/2in off the GSX1100E's 5.1in rotor to lighten it and thus reduce
flywheel effect. Electrical output figures are n/a, as the brochures say but Katana riders are unlikely to load their bikes up with spotlights, clocks and cigarette lighters so a loss of
some reserve wattage shouldn't matter. Suzuki claim to have raised the Katana's peak power output to 111bhp over the original's claimed 99.9bhp and at the same time moved the power peak
200rpm down the rev band to 8,500rpm. This was achieved they say, by doing no more than altering the exhaust timing, rejetting the carbs a teeny bit and slightly derestricting the airbox
suction holes. Well, well. Seems you only have to look at the thing and you get 3bhp.
|A Katana (correct pronunciation is with short 'a's throughout) is a Japanese ceremonial sword once carried by Samurai warriors and occasionally used for
beheading citizens who failed to show proper deference for the wearer s status. The GSX1100S is similar in colour and in its nature, I suppose. Nose fairing is a plastic and
fibreglass three-piece with a slot in the black plastic 'chin' for the headlamp's screw adjuster.
That seat may have room for at least two passengers but there's not even a seatstrap to hang on to. The mock suede vinyl covering quickly got dirty but it's not hard to clean.
General standard of finish is good but the blue paint on the tail isn't so tough.
Vibration is minimal except for a slight buzz around 4,000rpm and black chromed exhaust system emits a purposeful, gravelly note without being noisy. Sealed-lube rear chain needed
adjustment twice during test (1,000 miles) and at £77 per replacement, it's to be hoped it lasts a long time.
Inlet timing remains the same. The valves open 30° b.t.d.c. and close 70° a.b.d.c. The exhaust valves on the GSX1100 opened at 69° b.b.d.c. and closed 31° a.t.d.c. but the
Katana's operate at 63° and 25° respectively. Peak torque is up to 70ft/lb from 62 but still occurs at 6500rpm. It all adds up to a significant uprating of the original GSX1100
powerplant, which was amply good enough to make the ordinary version the quickest standard production bike ever blasted up the MIRA timing straight by Bike. MCN pulled off an 11.7 sec
standing quarter on the 1100 Kat; I managed an 11.63sec run with the help of a strong tailwind and the more experienced Dave Calderwood might have knocked off a bit more if he hadn't
been in the States but neither recorded figure comes very near the standard GSX1100's 11.38sec, though the Katana's terminal speed was higher. All the same, nothing I've tried to date
could match the sudden rush of euphoria when the bike stopped trying to go sideways at 50mph, I hooked it into second and a rush of adrenalin coincided with an immense surge of speed as
the tacho needle dropped back into the power zone.
I'd already got the top speed tests over as quickly as possible. MIRA is run by a bureaucracy which makes Whitehall look like a post office creche but when we took the Katana up
there, they'd cocked up our booking of the banked circuit, where it's possible to test most 135mph plus superbikes without spoiling your leathers from the inside. That left the timing
straight where standing quarter times are usually measured. Nice and smooth but a trifle abrupt at the blunt end after the timing lights. Nine hundred feet of braking room may sound like
a dispatch rider's dream but 140mph is also 200 feet per second, or 4 1/2 secs to the sandpit if you forget to put the brakes on. To add to the spectacle, a 40mph tailwind threatened to
push the Kat's terminal speed over the 150mph mark.
This was not to be, however, because using all the available 1,000 yard run-up and winding it on as hard as I dared resulted in a terminal velocity of 140.3mph. Hell, what more d'ya
want? That's only 3mph slower than 'Bill' Hunter's turbocharged GSX1100, tested last September, down the same strip running l2psi boost. The Katana, by the way, was still accelerating
when brakes-on time came round.
Braking was a bit of an anticlimax thanks to the massive stopping power of the Katana's three 10.8in discs. No fuss, no faeces, if you see what I mean. Not only were they more than
adequate at MIRA, they combined immense stopability with splendid and fully progressive 'feel' even in the wet. No, I tell a lie. The front brakes were excellent but the rear disc was
less sensitive and took a long time to work up friction if it got wet. In theory at least, the rear brake could be made more powerful than most because the Katana's anti-dive forks are
supposed to stop front-end dip with its attendant lightening of rear end and reduction in tyre traction during braking. In fact the droop snoot dipped and bobbed noticeably but that
didn't mean the system wasn't working.
Suzuki's anti-dive is another of those features which started out on works GP racers and ended up on street bikes. A pipe runs from the front brake calipers to the anti-dive
mechanisms on each fork slider. When the brakes are applied, brake fluid pressure closes a valve in the mechanism, restricting the flow of damping oil and slowing fork compression. The
valves are spring loaded so if the wheel hits a bump when the brakes are on, they bounce off their seats and restore the flow of oil for a moment to allow the suspension to absorb the
As far as dipping of the bars and steering head during braking is concerned, anti-dive is a bit of a misnomer because the point of the system is not to eliminate dive but to make it more
controllable. Instead of a front end which zonks to the limit of its travel under heavy breaking a la BMW or Yamaha XJ650, you have a system which slows the process down, making for
better, safer braking. Of course, braking to a standstill over a series of bumps will eventually use up all the fork travel but throughout the test the Katana refused to show any bad
behaviour during braking, nor could the anti-dive system be accused of robbing the front stoppers of sensitivity.
Suzuki may have lost out in the turbo race but they've scooped all the rest in the styling stakes. There's a certain amount of bickering going on in Germany over who actually invented
the 'Katana' look but it is clear that someone at Target Design, an Anglo / German company, did the styling. Suzuki are supposed to have asked for a 'southern European' image for their
most outrageous roadbike. I for one would love to hear the opinion of Franco Marlenotti - the guy who designed the flowing looks of Morini's turbo and Laverda's RGS1000-on the subject.
There are a few similarities between the 'Japanese Italian' look and the 'Italian Italian' look - they both feature integral fairing / tank unit designs - but the Katana has a much
harsher appearance than the rounded Manelotti styling jobs. Its fairing juts aggressively out in front of the rectangular headlamp and tiny windscreen. The tank is humped and racer-like,
with a knee cutout whose upper edge forms a line swooping round to the droop snoot's 'chin'. Its sidepanels look like they're tilted upright from their rightful position but the overall
effect is very streamlined while at the same time drawing attention to the motor.
Instrumentation has been kept to a minimum, in keeping with the sparse, street racer image. The speedo and tacho needles live side by side in a single pod; the electronic rev counter
needle getting pride of place. It rests at 10 o'clock and winds up to the 9,000 rpm redline at tea-time. The speedo needle starts in the four o'clock position and tends to disappear
rapidly out of your field of vision before reappearing at somewhat naughty speeds and ending up pointing heavenwards at 140mph, which is probably rather appropriate.
Clumsy choke levers have no place on the big Katanas so they feature a large rotating control on the left side panel. Finding the thing to turn it off while the bike was moving called
for a certain amount of intimate groping up the inside of my leg but the cable to the carbs is easily detached when it's necessary to remove the panel. Starting was never a problem; one
stab of the button usually proving sufficient even after leaving the bike out on cold, wet nights.
Handlebars are real clip-ons, with handsome alloy clamps holding them to the forks just below the silver-painted alloy top yokes. There's nothing to stop owners loosening off the
Allen bolts in the clamps and moving the bars round the fork legs but to make the most of the streamlining they need to be pulled back as far as they'll go without trapping your thumbs
against the tank. The clip-ons are quite long, thanks to anti-vibe extensions outside the handgrips. Steering lock is 10° less right and left than the standard GSX1100.
Getting your feet flat on the ground is easy because the 30in high seat is narrow but care is needed when paddling round car parks because of the restricted lock and the Katana's
top-heavy weight distribution. If it falls over it'll most likely punch a front indicator through the £150 fibreglass nose fairing, as one hapless staffer discovered.
thinly padded sums up the seat but it wasn't uncomfortable so long as I refrained from bouncing up and down on it. Trouble was, it was impossible not to bounce around, especially in
town, because the Katana's suspension is the next best thing to a hardtail at low speeds. The rear shocks have five spring preload settings worked by ratcheted handles which twist back
out of the way after you've used them, and four damping settings, set by twisting the chromed cap at the top of each shock. But those springs are firm. Bumps taken at less than 45mph
rattle your teeth and turn your rib cage into a cocktail shaker for your innards, while potholes easily produce daylight between bum and seat, and rear wheel and ground at the same time.
Town speeds are also unkind to your wrists because they have to support the weight of your body without help from the windstream.
Take the 1100 up to the 60mph limit and it begins to work for you instead of against you. Bends which used to be a sure recipe for the megabike wallows slip past without fear or
heartache, no apparent understeer or oversteer and no woozy wanderings from the steering head. Extricating the bike from the Herbal Hill mafia finally gave me a chance to try out this
unlikely combination of punch and pizazz on a chilly but dry Sunday morning out in the country. Fifteen enjoyable minutes passed just testing its generous ground clearance on a large
roundabout. There was lots of it. The black chrome four-into-two exhaust system is well tucked in and the footpegs are high and well out of the way but a bout of mildly panic-stricken,
cranked-over braking while avoiding a carload of blissfully unaware churchfolk reduced the entertainment value of the exercise.
Zapping round Milton Keynes on the old A5 was lotsa fun 'cos there's plenty of roundabouts calling for hard braking, slight left lean followed by a hard stuff down to the right to
clip the island then up, wait, and hard left to exit. Hard work but lazy riding because it hardly matters which gear you're in on the way out - just open the throttle and the Katana's
bottomless pit of torque rolls it rapidly off down the street. Out on to some very fast sweepers north of Aylesbury and a deficiency in the 1100's handling showed up in the form of high
speed wobble, more persistent than alarming. Suzuki GB replaced the rear tyre when we returned the bike with about 5,500 miles on the clock and it was fairly worn on the centreline when
I took it out.
The little windscreen is hardly noticeable when you're arrowing down the straights at a ton-ten but it does a superb job of keeping the wind off your chest. A tester from one of the
weeklies complained that windblast over 120mph caught his chest and shoulders and upset the bike's careful aerodynamics but he's at least six feet three inches tall (and growing).
In fact, not only does this make fast riding easy on the rider but the Katana's outrageous top speed capabilities can only be helped by the streamlining. Too many supposedly high speed
motorcycles are handicapped by large frontal area and agonised riders hang off wide bars like drogue chutes. Just think of all the fuel you paid for just to push the atmosphere out of
your way. The Katana recorded a best consumption of 50mpg after some rapid cross country tooling topped off by a 20 mile blast down a motorway at 95-100mph. Worst guzzling occurred,
predictably, during track testing followed by a 100 mile motorway journey which increased its thirst to 39mpg. Averagely not-sensible riding resulted in an overall figure of 45mpg and
195-odd miles between fill up and reserve.
Only bad aspect of the 1100's streamlining was its susceptibility to sidewinds. Coming down the motorway in strong crosswinds was fine when the road was dry and the bike could be
leaned against the wind and given a burst of throttle to deal with sudden gusts but when it started raining the whole plot simply slipped helplessly across three lanes at 80mph. Very
nasty. Even gentle puffs from the side would make it wriggle, so the 5Omph gale blowing on the way back from the Midlands one day turned the journey into a fraught 35mph wrestling match
made more miserable by turbulence from passing artics.
This is a man's bike. You can't ride it half heartedly any more than you could half-tackle a charging Hull Kingston Rovers scrum half and expect to emerge unhurt. 550Olbs and 7 1/2
feet of metal and rubber don't make for fingertip control but the way the Japs have gone about designing the GSX1100S shows that they're at last making an effort to turn out seriously
useable sporting megacycles. The Katana is an exceptional Japanese motorcycle which represents the narrowest point in the divide between traditional Italian virtues (flair and handling)
and traditional Jap vices (sameness and sogginess). If the kind of brain and body bruising bikin' it offers is your bag, then go for it.
© Bike Magazine