The Suzuki Katana
Front WheelEngineKatana BodylineEngine Casing
"The product must have 'Art', if it is to be successful"

Past Reviews: Used Bike Guide - June 1998

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Words by Karl Tutt

GS550MCOMPARED WITH A COUPLE OF EIGHT year old GPz's, the bright red Katana, stuck out of the way in the back of the shop, had no competition even with the handicap of its less illustrious surroundings. Five years on, the Suzuki has just celebrated its twelfth birthday.

Although the Katana is slow by today's standards, it can still hold its own and sit at a ton plus all day on the motorway. It is when the need for quick acceleration is foremost that the gulf between the twelve year-old GS and a modern day plastic miracle likens itself to that between Plymouth Argyle and Manchester United. Any overtaking maneuver attempted above about 70mph requires a decent stretch of empty road, although this is only usually a problem when trying to keep up with maniacs on the aforementioned rockets. Adding a pillion to the equation exasperates the problem. The top end on a flat motorway will still be much the same but getting there will take just that bit longer, and if there is the hint of an incline then forget it.

In an attempt to increase the performance some bright spark had replaced the original airbox for a set of K&Ns, with less than satisfactory results. In the dry it was fine but when the heavens opened the Katana would run like a forty-a-day asthmatic. Junking the K&Ns and fitting a secondhand airbox and appropriate jets rectified this.

After 55,000 miles worn swing arm bearings helped to add 1996 to the list of failed MoTs (it had previously fallen foul of a bald back tyre, a broken rear light, leaking shocks (twice), bent indicators, an out of line headlamp and a dodgy horn). Basically the man from the ministry could only find faults (apart from the swing arm) that could be attributed to poor maintenance or carelessness on my part and not blamed on any substandard Suzuki engineering.

Although the bike can handle hundreds of miles a day comfortably the same cannot be said for the rider...

At about the same time a couple of exhaust valves needed grinding down and as the engine needed to be exposed to all and sundry for the task it seemed appropriate to give it a quick once over. As the fear of the result of what I was going to find inside the 550 lump was going to lead to me to canceling the Gremlins Rally in Belgium in order to pay the nice garage mechanic to fix was foremost in my mind, I was pleasantly surprised with what was revealed. Bearing in mind that the engine had gone halfway round the clock and that my previous bike had seized on 30-odd thousand miles, 1 was pleased to discover that the only work needed was that on the exhaust valves. The camchain was halfway through its life and the piston rings were as tight as a duck's arse. I had known that 550 Katanas have bulletproof engines, as a mate of mine bought one 'sold as spares', rode it for 7 years, put it round the clock, then sold it to someone who was going to do it up. The only real mechanical problem that has materialised in 65,000 miles resulted in a litre of 10-40W every couple of hundred miles relocating all over my size 11s. After finally losing an oil filler cap on the A1 near Doncaster, when I forgot to replace it after a ton up, I decided it might be a good idea to get the problem sorted. Shaving 30 thousandths of an inch off the head had the desired effect. An appetite for chains every 3000-odd miles was eased by switching to a Regina set and a Scottoiler. Now it can pass 10,000 miles before replacement.

It was on the A65 outside Skipton, while returning to Norfolk from a wedding in the Lake District, that old age and thousands of miles hacking around the country finally took its toll on another vital part. A large explosion from my front wheel combined with two small chunks of motorcycle being propelled into orbit informed me that something was amiss. The source of concern became evident when I Vied to slow down to investigate said eruption. The front caliper had snapped in two and deposited a brake pad into the middle of Yorkshire. The rest of the journey home was at the hands of the RAC whose driver had only been as far as Peterborough before and needed directing from Newark to Norwich.

GS550MLuckily some parts for the Katana are not too hard to come by due to the popularity of the GS550 in all its guises, many of which are currently gracing the scrap yards around the country. Among the various everyday objects that have contributed to keeping the Kat on the highways and byways of Europe, a bent tent peg had the dubious job holding on the rear brake from the middle of the Ardennes all the way to darkest Norfolk. It did the job, although the garage mechanic had a fit when I presented him with my Blue Peter version of motorcycle maintenance. I suppose he had a point as it was designed to hold a 101b tent in the ground and not stop a 450lb motorbike at 90mph.

After about 40-50,000 miles a common fault with the second gear on these bikes starts to rear its ugly head. The bike will jump in and out of gear at about 7000 revs. The problem gets gradually worse and feels like the chain is slipping badly, until it finally gives up the ghost a few thousand miles later. Most of the time it is possible to get round the problem by kicking straight from 1st to 3rd gear (as it does not seem to happen to any other gear) although steep hills can be a bit of a problem. I have enquired as to how much it will cost to fix but when I found out I decided that it was not doing the bike any harm and I could probably live with it.

GS550MAs with many bikes, cheap alternatives to expensive genuine Suzuki parts can be substituted (and I am not just referring to after-market products). Among those adorning my Katana are Honda rear foot pegs (a fiver instead of 15), a British Leyland Mini headlamp (a tenner instead of 80) and Honda alternator/rectifier (a lot cheaper than the 100 asked by Suzuki). As the GS alternator/rectifier units are renowned for their destructive properties the Honda equivalent is also a recognised reliable replacement.

Although the bike can handle hundreds of miles a day comfortably the same cannot be said for the rider. After about three hours solid riding, the comfort drawbacks of the rapidly disintegrating seat become steadily more apparent. Unfortunately this is a common problem with Katana seats and trying to find a replacement seat that has not had its underside corroded from years of typical British summers is like trying to find a Harley rider without a beard.

The tank can easily take five gallons on a top up if you allow it to go on reserve, and even after twelve years it can still go nearly 200 miles at 90-100mph along dual carriageways loaded up with tent, clothes and girlfriend before it hits reserve again...

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