When many of us started riding, there were just two kinds of motorized two-wheelers: scooters and motorcycles. Heck, even the line between street and off-road machines was pretty blurry. Things changed a little after the Japanese began selling motorcycles in this country, but it was still quite a while before any really distinct categories emerged from the whole.
Fast forward to the new millennium, and today we have motorcycle categories within categories. For example, just when we thought we had figured out what constitutes an “adventure tourer,” along comes the Suzuki V-Strom with cast instead of spoked wheels and creates the “sport” adventure-tourer. Cruisers used to be just cruisers, but now we have performance, custom and touring models. Speaking of touring, can you precisely define a sport-touring motorcycle these days? Didn’t think so. Neither can I, since everything from a Yamaha FZ1 to a Honda ST1300 can be argued into the category. Not that I’m complaining, but wouldn’t it be nice if we had a few new bikes that were "just motorcycles?” Well, these three may qualify. The Honda 599, Suzuki SV650 and Yamaha Z6 are sporty, but they are not “sportbikes,” naked or otherwise. You could tour on any of them, of course, but they’re not touring bikes, nor are they cruisers. Most importantly, they all have price tags closer to what most of us consider the norm for “motorcycles” rather than “cars.”
Although the SV650 has been around since 1999, as soon as the 599 and FZ6 joined it this year, the Kawasaki ZR-7S and Suzuki Bandit 600 were ushered out. So we’re left with the same number of versatile, naked, middleweight, standard—excuse me—motorcycles we had last year, all priced in the $6,000 to $7,000 range. Some may wonder about the absence of alternatives such as the Suzuki SV650S and Triumph Speed Four in this test. Although priced similarly, their lower clip-on handlebars and rearset footpegs slide these two into the sportbike category, so we’ll save them for future tests.
Having tested the 599, SV650 and FZ6 separately in previous issues, their features and benefits should be somewhat familiar. All have liquid-cooling, six speeds, chain final drive and 17-inch cast wheels carrying good radial tires front and rear. Rear spring preload is the only suspension adjustment on all three save front spring preload on the Suzuki (which is really just for show), and all three have stout 41-43mm fork legs. Tubular handlebars, adjustable brake levers and triple disc brakes with two-piston calipers in front, a single piston in the rear, round out the similarities.
The Suzuki is the non-conformist in the trio, with a throbbing 90-degree DOHC V-twin sporting 645cc—two cylinders less and about 45 cubes more than the high-revving Honda and Yamaha DOHC in-line fours, which are descended from the CBR-F3 and R6 sportbikes. The SV650 is also the only 2003 model in our test. Reportedly Suzuki is busy refining the ergonomics on all of its 2004 SV650 and SV1000 models, although that is the only expected change besides colors for the bikes’ early 2004 debut. Pricing will remain unchanged from 2003.
Both the SV650 and FZ6 are fuel-injected, but as the Honda 599’s engine is derived from a pre-fuel-injection CBR600, it is carbureted as well, and has a handlebar-mounted choke. The 599 mill is mounted in a mono-backbone steel frame, while the FZ6 and SV650 have aluminum-alloy main frames, though weight-wise the 599 actually falls between the heavier FZ6 and minimalist SV650.
Back-to-back on the Dynojet dyno at My Garage in Ventura, California, the FZ6 wins the peak rear-wheel horsepower contest, with 90.5 at about 11,800 rpm, vs. 83.6 at 11,700 from the 599 and 73.4 at 8,800 in the SV650. The Suzuki wins the peak torque award, however, with 47.2 lb-ft at 7,000 vs. about 43 lb-ft at 8,500-9,000 in the other two bikes. But get this: the SV650 makes significantly more torque and horsepower than the 599 or FZ6 from idle up to about 9,000 rpm—in other words, it has more power in the most usable part of the powerband. At just 436 pounds wet it’s also the lightest by 11-22 pounds, so it’s no surprise that it stomps the other two in roll-on contests at legal speeds.
The dyno numbers translate into remarkably distinct character types and feels, too. While the FZ6 and 599 make reasonably good low- and midrange power and zip around commuting or touring quickly and quietly without hesitation, they require more shifting to stay in their powerbands, and on fast straights and in the canyons they don’t really come into their own until the in-line fours are screaming at higher engine speeds. Here the FZ6 screams loudest, with a redline of 14,000 rpm, 2,000 higher than the Honda’s. The SV650, on the other hand, makes you want to crack the throttle wide open and often at lower engine speeds, rewarding the rider with a solid thrust of power and a twin-cylinder bark from the exhaust. Get near its 10,000 rpm redline, though, and it quickly loses steam.
Surprisingly, the SV650 is the smoothest of the trio by a fair margin, with little or no vibration reaching the rider in the seat, pegs or grips. FZ6 riders will quickly get used to the bit of buzziness that creeps into the seat at times, but 599 riders will find the vibes that tickle your thighs and hands throughout most of the powerband rather irritating.
Shifting the 599 and SV650 is accomplished with a quiet “snick,” while the FZ6 needs a more determined boot and makes an annoying “thok” sound going into gear, though it has been improving as the miles accumulate. Clutch feel on the SV650 and FZ6 are fine, while the 599’s engages at the end of lever travel and feels somewhat weak.
Ergonomically speaking, the bikes seem to have similar, mostly upright seating positions and legroom, but long rides reveal some differences. The seats themselves are beguiling—while the meager-looking pad on SV650 is actually quite comfortable, both big dual seats on the 599 and FZ6 are too thin and too hard respectively. The FZ6 has the most upright position and legroom—larger and/or touring riders will prefer it, especially in colder weather thanks to its small fairing and windscreen. Next comes the SV650, with slightly lower bars and higher pegs, though you literally have to jump back and forth between it and the FZ6 to tell the difference. Finally the 599 has the sportiest seating, with the lowest bars, though its footpeg height is similar to the SV650’s.
Overall, if you don’t mind its mild vibes and harder seat, the FZ6 is most comfortable, followed closely by the smooth, relatively cushy SV650. In this three-bike comparo the 599 comes in a distant third for comfort due to its thin seat, buzzy vibration and tighter ergos. Though it’s still touring-like compared to a racier sportbike, when you get off the 599 you know you’ve been riding it, while the SV650 and FZ6 leave you feeling like you started.
Handling is similarly quick and sporty on all three machines, though the FZ6 has a slight edge. Perhaps having learned a lesson from the agile Yamaha FZ1, it offers telepathic-like steering in tight corners, yet remains planted and stable in fast sweepers. The SV650 and 599 are only a tick less responsive. Suspension is rather rudimentary on all three and invites upgrades, as mid-corner bumps tend to upset them. Stock the SV650 has the best balance of compliance and damping for all kinds of riding, while the 599 is harsher and the FZ6 too mushy. Again, this is one of those areas where the average rider would be hard-pressed to feel a difference without a back-to-back ride. The same goes for braking, which is strong and linear front and rear on all three, with just a bit more useful strength in the FZ6’s fronts.
In a feature-by-feature comparison it’s hard to take your eyes off the FZ6’s fairing and windscreen, particularly when it’s cold outside. It also has a centerstand, the largest fuel tank and longest valve adjustment interval by a fair margin, though it uses a cartridge-type oil filter instead of a more convenient spin-on like the 599 and SV650. All have dual tripmeters, tachometers and clocks, some underseat storage and passenger grabrails (though the passenger accommodations on all three are cramped and uncomfortable), so if you’re planning on some traveling we’d have to give the slice to the FZ6.
All things considered, we would hand the whole pie to the Yamaha, in fact, if it weren’t for the wonderful V-twin (and $600 lower price) of the SV650. It’s actually the most fun to ride of the three because of its raucous engine, though the FZ6 will easily stay with the SV650 in the corners and out-distance it on the highway. If we owned both, we might use the SV650 as our Sunday point-and-shoot weapon of choice, and leave the soft luggage and longer sport-touring rides to the FZ6. The 599 stands nicely on its own and some found it the best looking of the three, but its lower level of tech, harsh suspension, buzziness and tighter ergos make it hard to justify its $600-$1,200 higher price tag.
Comparison tests tend to unfairly magnify small differences, and as simply great motorcycles, all three of these bikes are winners. Narrowing it down, though, the FZ6 is fastest, best handling and most comfortable, while the SV650 is quickest, quite nimble and comfortable and has the most character. At these prices, consider both.
Specifications: 2004 Honda 599
Base Price: $7,099
Warranty: 12 mos., unltd. miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse
Bore x Stroke: 65.0 x 45.2mm
Compression Ratio: 12.0:1
Valve Train: DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Adj. Interval: 16,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: Keihin 34mm flat-slide CV carburetor x 4
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