Suzuki GSX-R1000 first ride review

Apr 28, 2017

I’m not gonna’ lie to you; I had some sleepless nights before the launch of Suzuki’s 2017 GSX-R1000 model at Circuit of the Americas in Austin.

I mean, when Lance asked me if I wanted to attend for Common Tread, “Yes!” was a knee-jerk response. After all, this is the model that Yoshimura Suzuki started out with, when they built the bikes that Toni Elias and Roger Hayden used to dominate the first MotoAmerica race weekend.

But after exchanging a few emails with Suzuki confirming flights, it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on a race track. Nothing like a 200-horsepower literbike to knock the rust off, eh? On a track I’d never ridden. What could possibly go wrong? (It didn’t help that the last time I attended a Gixxer thou’ launch, I literally launched it and landed in an Australian hospital, but that’s another story.)

Suzuki GSX-R1000R
The "Glass Sparkle Black and Metallic Triton Blue" color option is unique to the GSX-R1000R. Suzuki photo.

To calm my nerves, I reminded myself that the bike I’d be riding had almost all the same high-tech rider aids as the pricey GSX-R1000R model — it was missing only the quick-shift function and, um, launch-control. I convinced myself that this was a great opportunity to experience really modern traction control and anti-lock braking managed with the help of an inertial measurement unit.

That helped. Until the evening before the launch, when Suzuki’s Avery Innis told the assembled motorcycle journalists that the real purpose of this launch was to introduce the non-ABS base model; thus most of the fleet available had standard brakes only.

“Great,” I thought. “I’ll have all the modern help that a computer can give me to increase speed, but I’ll be on my own when it comes to slowing down.”

There are three GSX-R1000 models: For $16,999 you can get the top of the line model, which comes with launch control, an up-and-down quick-shifter, near race-quality suspension, and a fancy top triple-clamp. For $14,999 you can get the GSX-R1000ABS. There’s also a U.S.-only base model without ABS, the GSX-R1000. Innis told us that the rationale for offering a non-ABS version was that some riders want to feel they’re controlling braking themselves, and that by leaving it off, Suzuki could cut $400 off the MSRP.

Shinichi Sahara
Shinichi Sahara, chief engineer on the GSX-R1000 project, at Circuit of the Americas. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.
The last decade’s seen a big decline in the sales numbers for pure sport bikes. But while fashions come and go, Gixxers still account for over a quarter of Suzuki’s total sales. If you want proof the GSX-R line remains close to Suzuki’s heart, Suzuki Motor America’s President, Tak Hayasaki, attended the launch. And that the model’s lead engineer, Shinichi Sahara, flew in from Japan.

Hayasaki-san told a very charming story about Kevin Schwantz, who was there to hear it. Back in 1985, Kevin and a handful of invited journalists were testing the original GSX-R750 at the company’s hair-raising Ryūyō test track. “Kevin was such a cute boy,” he recalled. Then he went on to add that, the first time journalists rode that model, it was unstable on account of the compromises made to hit the then-outrageous design targets of 100 horsepower and 169 kilos.

Kevin Schwantz on the GSX-R1000
It’s been 24 years since Kevin Schwantz won the 500 cc Grand Prix championship for Suzuki. He remains an incredibly gracious — and fast! — brand ambassador. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Sure, the new 1000 is 30 kilos heavier than that first Gixxer, but it nearly doubles the original’s power output. The all-new short-stroke motor is a compact package, which allowed Mr. Sahara’s engineering team to fit a longer swingarm in the same overall wheelbase. That, in theory, reduced the risk of journalist tankslappers on the increasingly bumpy CoTA circuit.

IMU
It's not particularly photogenic, but this three-axis Inertial Measurement Unit represents a whole new area in which motorcycle manufacturers must compete. It plays an important role in making 200 horsepower at least somewhat user-friendly. Suzuki photo.
The GSX-R1000 is equipped with a Continental IMU that feeds gyro and GPS data into the computer, influencing both the way the engine feeds power to the wheels, and (when so equipped) the ABS system modulates braking. The bike’s got a ride-by-wire throttle; when the rider dials in power, power is rationed two ways: There’s a drive mode selector that basically determines how aggressively the fuel injection system responds to input from the twistgrip. The next item in the software stack is traction control, and riders can set the degree they want from 1 — maximum wheelspin for riders who want to slide the bike through corners, through 10 — a rain setting. The TC can be turned off, too, so there’s basically 11 levels available. Last but not least, since it’s a Suzuki, that whole system has a trademarked abbreviation, S-DMS.

Our two-day "first ride" experience began at CoTA. When the short bus pulled into the paddock, Yoshimura and the M4 satellite team were taking advantage of Suzuki’s $50,000 rental fee to get in a little extra testing. As usual, there was a kids’-shopping-spree-in-a-candy-store moment when Suzuki’s reps basically said, “Pick a bike, we’re just gonna’ have an open track ‘til 4 p.m.” I must’ve looked away for a moment, because when I turned back every bike but one had somebody’s gloves, or helmet, or business card on it.

After I put dibs on the last available bike, Innis walked over and testily told me, “This one’s got ABS; we wanted you guys to ride standard ones.”

At that point what I said was, “Gee, Avery, I didn’t pick it, it was just the last one available.”

But what I thought was, “Phew! ABS.”

Suzuki GSX-R1000 at Circuit of the Americas
During the presentation, the President of Suzuki Motors America teased Sahara-san by asking, “But why does the exhaust have to be so big?” Schwantz immediately quipped, “Because we’re in Texas.” Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Learning CoTA and the GSX-R1000

Since several of us had never seen the track, Kevin Schwantz and Blake Young led a couple of guided laps. CoTA’s got pretty wide open sightlines, so it was easy to get a general sense of where I was going; it wasn’t like I ever came over a crest or around a corner and briefly saw God. That said, it’s fairly technical and as far as putting in a really clean lap… Nope.

I’ll also admit that even with all the traction control in the world, 200 horsepower’s still 200 horsepower. Knowing all holy hell’d break loose whenever I twisted the throttle didn’t exactly help me to come to grips with the track.

Mark Gardiner
That's Shinichi Sahara, the chief engineer in charge of the GSX-R1000 project. And me. In case you have any doubt, no, I definitely am not worthy of this kind of treatment. Or motorcycle. Photo by Hansen House Communications.

The CoTA layout is basically four sections of sweet, old-school, race track — broken by four first-gear hairpins (presumably, there to provide passing opportunities for Formula 1 cars.) One of the first things I noticed about the GSX-R1000 was that coming off a closed throttle out of those first-gear corners was a pretty violent exercise.

Within a lap or two, I decided to take those slow corners in second gear, and let the engine’s Variable Valve Timing system work it out.

VVT has been the most talked about aspect of the all-new motor. So, you probably already know that it’s an an ingenious system of ramps and ball-bearings, originally developed for Suzuki’s MotoGP bike, that retards cam timing at low rpm. As a result, the new motor’s a best-of-both worlds proposition; it makes good power from a few grand but as the cam spins faster and centrifugal forces grow, valve overlap increases. Finger-follower valve actuation results in a short-stroke motor that really comes into its own at crazy revs — further aided by a pair of exhaust valves that helps it exhale at high rpm.

I pretty quickly realized that, pending future track knowledge, I could downshift from fifth to second at the end of the front straight, let the motor lug through turn one and immediately short-shift into third for the whole long, flowing sequence leading up to turn 11, which was another hairpin. From there, I accelerated all the way to sixth gear. There’s a tiny crest somewhere way down that long back straight that I seemed to catch right on the final upshift. That was the only spot on the track where I ever experienced an echo of that original GSX-R750’s head shake.

Brembo brakes
The four-piston Brembo brake calipers are modulated by the ABS unit, which is located under the seat and adds just two pounds of weight. Suzuki photo.

At the end of the back straight, the four-pot Brembo calipers and 10 mm-larger front rotors did a good job of hauling the bike down from 160-something for the next hairpin. Late in each session, I felt a slight softening at the brake lever — possibly the result of heat building up and softening rubber hoses. The extra lever travel was slight, but would likely have been non-existent if the bike was equipped with braided-steel or Kevlar lines.

Turn 12 was also the one place where, just once, I felt the ABS kick in. While I wouldn’t say it saved a crash, I sure didn’t mind the assist. From that point, I found that I could leave the bike in second and let it rev out through the whole stadium complex and carousel, since it will easily hit 100 mph before the limiter cuts in, somewhere north of 14,000 rpm.

Shinichi Sahara had told us one goal was to make the bike user-friendly. I think what he had in mind at that point was street riding, but many of the things Suzuki engineered into the new bike make it easier to ride on the track, even if they don’t make it faster.

Suzuki GSX-R1000
The “HP” on the Pol Espargaro replica helmet is a sponsor, but it could stand for “horsepower,” in this instance. According to Suzuki, the small LED headlight enabled them to design bigger and more effective ram-air intakes. Barely visible in the background is the very slight crest that caused the front end to get light on the fast CoTA back straight. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

After a session or two, I switched the drive mode to the less-aggressive B setting, which helped me to pick up the throttle off those slow corners without upsetting the bike — at the price of having to twist the throttle more for a given response from the motor.

I’d be interested to know whether in any given mode, the relationship between throttle position and butterflies/fuel delivery is the same in all gears. Personally, I would have loved to have B-style response in first and second, and A-style response third through sixth. (The whole throttle-response thing is probably a bigger issue for me than most people, because my right wrist has limited mobility and a bunch of extra Ti parts, but that’s another story.)

GSX-R1000 at Circuit of the Americas
The new GSX-R1000 carries its 440-something pounds incredibly well. The Yoshimura Suzuki riders said it was the first thing they noticed about the new bike, and I also appreciated its flickability. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The 2017 GSX-R is not particularly light, but it’s remarkably compact and densely packaged. Yoshimura’s mechanics already know the price you pay for that mass centralization: It’s a bugger to work on. But the payoff is that it steers more like a 600. For all the talk about the new VVT motor, Roger Hayden told me that the first thing he noticed when he rode the production model was how well it changed direction. By far the most fun I had on the bike was flicking from side to side through CoTA’s famous esses.

For the track sessions, Suzuki set up the bikes with Bridgestone R10R tires, which is the official recommendation for track-day use. When we arrived, there were warmers on them (and Suzuki techs put warmers on over lunch, too.) But when we stopped to make notes or hydrate, the bikes were just parked. Even after the tires had cooled a bit, I never felt the limits of grip — but I left the traction control in the middle of the range, per Sahara-san’s instruction in the briefing. Seldom was heard a discouraging word about the ’stones from anyone else, either, even from guys much faster than me riding on Level 1 or 2.

Bridgestone RS10 tires
At CoTA, Suzuki set up the bikes with low-mass Bridgestone R10R tires, which are the recommended choice for track use. We rode the street portion on the stock bike’s RS10 tires. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Every tester’s greedy for track time, even at a physically demanding track like CoTA. We gave up the better part of an hour to Yoshimura’s lads — not that I want to be on a track with Toni and Roger, or that they’d want to share a track with a rolling chicane like me. And we lost another hour to the now seemingly obligatory tracking shots behind a van.

At the end of the day, I really wished I’d been able to put in a few more sessions, just because I felt I was on the verge of getting comfortable with the new-to-me track and a new bike with more power than I’ve ever, ever had at my disposal. It’s a tribute to the new GSX-R1000 that, after what amounts to a multi-year layoff, it was that easy to adapt to.

2017 Suzuki GSX-R1000 on the road in Texas
On rolling and twisting B-roads, the GSX-R1000 is capable of acting like a much smaller machine. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Riding the GSX-R1000 on the street

The following day, Suzuki staffers led us on a 114-mile loop from our downtown hotel out into the Texas hill country. That involved a real-world mix of stop-and-go city traffic, potholes and manhole covers, and droning along on boring divided highways out and back — interspersed with a few dozen miles of motophilic two-lane blacktop.

Mark Twain once said “Too much is just the right amount.” He was talking about bourbon, but if that’s your attitude when it comes to street bikes, the new GSX-R1000 will probably satisfy you. It is, of course, too much. But it’s got a host of features that help make it a more practical vehicle than it has any right to be.

For starters there’s, well, a slick “easy start” function. You just punch the kill-switch toggle and let the computer trigger the starter and calculate the right fuel and air mix for engine and air temperatures. A low-rpm assist function automatically (and thankfully gently) boosts revs to reduce the risk of stalling at parking lot speeds. It’s interesting to consider that this feature was developed to help novices on the SV650, and quickly found its way to this, of all bikes. Last, but not least, a clutch-assist system reduces lever effort in the mechanical (not hydraulic) clutch actuation mechanism. I found it easy to just hold the lever in, in first gear, while waiting for a traffic light. That’s a feature I appreciate because it can be awkward for me to find neutral. (It’s not my fault; my left foot sticks out at a funny angle, but that’s another story.)

Suzuki Exhaust Tuning
The Suzuki Exhaust Tuning valves open connecting pipes between headers one and four and between two and three at high rpm. This system was dubbed "SET" by S-MAD (Suzuki's Marketing Abbreviation Department). Suzuki photo.

The base model’s suspension is comprised of a Showa shock adjustable for everything but ride height, and their “big piston” fork. It’s a pretty good combo; the stock settings were harsh over rough urban asphalt, but that was an adjustment issue.

Suzuki GSX-R1000 instrument cluster
The excellent, readable dash includes a programmable shift light. The S-DMS traction control system can be adjusted on the fly, as long as the throttle is closed — although I don’t recommend that kind of distraction while you’re on the move. The menu of options was intuitive, which is increasingly an important part of motorcycle ergos. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Getting out of town involved a good bit of freeway riding that mimicked using the Gixxer as a commuter. In fourth gear at 70 mph, the motor’s lugging along at 6,000 rpm, less than half way to redline. Even there, if you gas it, the roll-on’s impressive. Try that in third gear with the TC disabled and you’ll wheelie it. Obviously, for legal purposes, the top two gears are superfluous, but I experimented with them to look for gear and rev range that didn’t vibrate my butt. That was just out of curiosity; it was just a vibe I could feel, not a vibe that was bothersome. I never felt it in the footpegs or handlebars, and barely detected a blur in the otherwise useful mirrors. 

Since I’m about the size and weight of the average test rider, I fit most bikes. That said — and this is obviously subjective — I usually feel that I’m sitting up on Yamahas, whereas I’m ensconced in Kawasakis. Hondas and Suzukis are somewhere in the middle. In the case of the new GSX-R, I found the footpegs to be low enough for a comfortable leg bend; presumably the only reason I never dragged ’em was that the bike’s so narrow down there. The seat height (and width) was such that I could easily flat foot it, and my inseam’s only 30 inches. The only ergonomic issue for me was that it put quite a bit of weight on my wrists. I found myself experimenting with ways to reduce that, such as squeezing the tank between my thighs to hold myself up.

Suzuki GSX-R1000
Riding the new Gixxer, deep in the heart of Texas. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

As per usual, the street ride included about 40 U-turns for photo passes, and like all crotch rockets, the Gixxer’s got the turning radius of the USS Carl Vinson; I guess tight-turn assist is an ease-of-use feature waiting to be invented.

We got nearly 40 miles per gallon in mixed/sporty street use. I think the consensus of all the testers was that it’s a fun and fairly practical road bike — in spite of the fact that our road ride was mostly a mix of sweeping bends you’d need to take at 140+ to carry much lean angle (which is not something I enjoy on open roads) and interesting technical sections that were inevitably ruined by traffic and blind driveways.

My fave part of the street ride was the few rolling and twisting miles between the last photo stop and the famous Salt Lick barbecue joint. That was a two-lane stretch posted with 25mph warning signs. Here again, the heavy bike’s surprising flickability came into its own. That said and although I love Mark Twain, I would not make any open-class bike my first choice for a ride of that kind of pace.

riding the GSX-R1000 in Texas
Though it's capable of arrest-me-now speeds in all six gears, the GSX-R1000 is more practical on the street than a 200-horsepower motorcycle has any right to be. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Conclusion

Some say that a journalist’s job is to get someone to say something they’ll regret. On my way to Austin, I thought I’d have to trick Suzuki’s press guys into admitting that the stripped-down GSX-R1000 is the raw material that Yoshimura Suzuki starts with when the team builds a factory superbike. The fact that Suzuki willingly volunteered that information puts the lie to the notion that the pricey GSX-R1000R model is some kind of “homologation special.” What it is, really, is an exercise in market segmentation.

I can’t see a rationale for any normal customer eschewing anti-lock brakes in order to save $400 and two pounds (no, that’s not a typo, it’s only two pounds heavier.) That’s especially true if you ever ride in the real world where it rains and, nowadays, almost every car or truck can stop surprisingly well. Maybe Suzuki should produce one without ABS, lights, or emissions controls — but with the “R” model’s high-spec suspension — for track use only.

Whatever. Suzuki’s done a great job with the new GSX-R1000 chassis. That’s obvious, comparing it to the way their previous literbikes changed direction. And it’s confirmed by the early success of the Yoshimura superbike team. Of course the race bike’s outfitted with lighter wheels and better suspension, but I heard few if any complaints about the cycle parts of the base model, as ridden at CoTA.

MotoAmerica race at CoTA
Toni Elias (24) took advantage of the new GSX-R1000 to win both MotoAmerica races at CoTA last weekend. The Yoshimura Suzuki Superbike begins as the base-model GSX-R1000, not one of the fancy "R" models. That only makes sense, since Yosh basically throws out all the R’s expensive extras and replaces the entire ECU with a Magnetti-Marelli unit. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

There’s a reason we call them “motorcycles.” We’re obsessed with the “motor” part of ’em. The new arms race in the open class is all about software, not hardware. Basically, state-of-the-art motors now produce what amounts to limitless power — more than almost any rider can handle, or any rear tire, for that matter. The modern performance envelope’s defined by how controllably it’s delivered by the ECU and traction control system.

I’m not sure that the GSX-R1000’s suite of rider aids is the very best stock package for track use. I won’t lie to you; I’m not sure I’m man enough to answer that question, even after a full comparison test. But my “first ride” was enough to unequivocally state that the new bike goes a long way towards making 200 horsepower useful and fun on both track and street, as well as thrilling.

Now more than ever, Suzuki, I wish you’d prove your enduring love for the GSX-R750 by updating it the same way you updated the GSX-R1000. Give it the mass centralization treatment, the finger-follower valve train with VVT, the modern IMU-based TC and ABS… Just do it all in the original GSX-R displacement. Because for me, a little too much is better than way too much.