Suzuki Katana - Ride Report
By Ross Sharp - 09 Aug 19
I hadn't even mastered a balance bike in 1981. In fact back then I couldn't even evacuate my own bowels properly without assistance. Despite what my receding hairline might suggest I'm too young to remember the original Suzuki Katana. Posters of it weren't on my bedroom wall and although despite once owning an RM125, I've never been much of a Suzuki guy. But recently that's changed. Partly thanks to the brutish renaissance customs built by Derbyshire based titanium exhaust wizards, Racefit. Their in your face, steak-with-the-fat-left-on, tuned and modded GSX1100 Katanas running wide rims, USD forks and slicks give me a semi. While everyone else in the custom game was minimising, hiding and slimlining Racefit stuck to super thick saddles and taillights that could power a drive-in movie. Meanwhile I'd become friendly with Pete Boast and followed his, Michael Neaves and Guy Martin's progress aboard their Katana endurance racer that they campaigned across Europe. And slowly the stock bike began to grow on me. I'll never be a geek about them, I'm not that keen, but I understand why many people lust after the things. So it seemed obvious to pretty much everyone on planet earth that Suzuki should bring the Katana back to life and enjoy a barrel or two on the new wave of retro inspired motorcycling. Everyone except Suzuki, it would appear. They've been noticeably absent from the banquet, and all of the other manufacturers have eaten their lunch. But as with manufacturing any vehicle, bringing a new model to market takes years. So, to give Suzuki their dues this new Katana may have been tabled as an idea right at the height of the custom boom, then nudged to the top of a big cheif's agenda after the high praise a 2017 concept recieved at European shows. Admittedly, the new Katana is a tidy bodykit plonked on an existing GSX-S 1000, an approach that has been somewhat derided in the press, but for some perspective the original Kat nearly 40 years ago wasn't a lot more involved. The 2020 Katana has been labelled as a Marmite bike, but to be honest I'd save that label for the GSX-S and everything that looks remotely like it. To me those sorts of bikes typify boring styling and in the same way as road cars have gone in recent times, they all look the same. If someone lusted after and bought a GSX-S then I'd suggest that's the epitome of Marmite. The very types of bike that forced people to modify their regular rides which spawned the current custom scene. I like the looks of the Katana. The beak and near rectangular headlight are distinguishing, aggressive and nail the oh so important thing the youth are looking for these days - stance. There are Katanas (Japanese fighting swords for those that haven't visited the Wikipedia yet) across the bodywork - apparently. Once pointed out the slashes in the bodywork are obvious. The silver one is best. The black one is mean looking but the silver accentuates the styling. The rear though has fallen foul of the battle between legislation and design. On paper, CAD and in clay models the Katana's seat and tail unit is thin and neat. Not like the overly padded original at all. The neatly integrated taillight has sections of opaque plastic behind the lens to give an LED plasma glow effect. Smart. But in renders and on prototypes the giant licence plate and indicators were absent. From the right side, if you squint a bit, the rear hugger and mount for the aforementioned gubbins is just about alright, but from behind it's just not right. When you're a kid you see a fat rear tyre, preferable a semi slick, and think 'kwooooar, I bet that's fast'. On the Katana so much rubber is cloaked that it resembles a Gilera Runner scooter. But... the reason you're reading this review here and not on MCN is because you're probably the type of person who doesn't leave things standard. Not only would a small, high-level tail tidy with tiny indicators improve the looks, it might go some way to act as a splash guard. Our test day was otter's pocket wet admittedly but that hugger arrangement isn't very good. My textile suit and backpack are still filthy, the spray seemed to be magnetised to my back.
Anyway, looks are subjective aren't they. Overall I like it, you might not.
Underneath though is a donor that is less subjective, the stylistically bland but perfectly capable GSX-S 1000, powered by the acclaimed GSX-R1000 K5 motor - a very good motorcycle. This time around it features altered internals for more torque and less peaky power delivery than the angry K5 of nearly 15 years ago. The knowledgable few out there will know about the GSX-S's lumpy fuelling, this has been fixed on the Katana and combined with a bit of basic hardware rather than just software to improve throttle response. There's an elliptical profile on the end of the throttle tube. At low revs hamfisted inputs only tug so much cable but when you want full beans the last part of the cam is quick action.
Out on the road and keen to test this out I cracked the throttle to the stop, in the wet, on cold tyres half a mile from our test route start, at Caffeine & Machine in Shakespeare country. I'd not listened properly to the pre-ride presentation and had my TC turned off rather than at level 3. The Dunlop Roadsport 2 was no match for all 148 of the Katana's horses and I was suddenly snaking up the road. Which wasn't the slightest bit scary. The upright riding position, relatively wide bars give a commanding feel. There aren't loads of riding modes to toggle through on the widescreen TFT screen, just the basic traction control settings, trip and usual data which I rarely pay attention to. I think I'd have preferred a more retro-futuristic dash to be honest. Not necessarily a more expensive, high spec TFT but something a bit more Tron - the first one.
Despite the early hooliganism I wasn't going to get ahead of myself, the Katana is still a litre sportsbike, just without clipons and a fairing. Oodles of torque meant I rarely thrashed the thing all day, preferring to short shift enjoy the mass of low down shove. I'm a twin sort of guy and am never comfortable wringing a four-banger's neck, whatever the capacity. You can see from the photos that it wasn't the most clement of weather and I twice had to stand on the pegs on the way to the photo point to see if I'd been through enough puddles to wash the clods of mud off the front tyre. Besides, I don't purport to be a leathery faced road tester. If you want to know how the Katana feels on the limit and compares to other similar bikes on the market head to the YouTube and search for Global Press Launch videos from MCN and the like (I'm not suggesting Neevesy's complexion is anything other than radiant. For the record).
Despite the deluges I had plenty of confidence in the Dunlops and the radial Brembos from the current GSX-R1000 were superb. A specific compound of pad material was chosen to give more initial bite than the Gixxer and I barely used a second digit all day. I found the fuelling to be perfectly fine once on the move. In the only bit of slow traffic we encountered crawling wasn't exactly buttery but I'll try one in London for a day to really find out. But again, I don't have the experience of the apparent lurching GSX-S model that the other guys were talking about.
The KYB suspension felt pretty good to me too but in the wet all I could really do for testing purposes was aim at broken tarmac and poorly installed manhole covers to test the plushness and try to feel for feedback in some of the faster sweepers. If nothing else the Katana seemed planted and steady, flicking through puddle strewn corners in a confidence inspiring manner. At no point did it feel sketchy, and I hate the rain. The boys in long trousers said that the Katana needed a firmer rear shock and some twiddling of the fork, then it'd be a track day weapon. Let alone fast road scratcher. In the right hands of course.
Overall it was tricky to assess the Katana properly given the treacherous conditions. But what I can say is that it's a comfy bike, that to my mind looks cracking and sounds pretty good on a stock can. There's a decent airbox roar to make up for the lack of decibels coming out of the rear, despite what the engineers in Japan had spent weeks refining. But as I said, I prefer twins and V4s. Most inline 4s leave me cold. Apart from the big bang Yamaha.
There's plenty of competition out there for those with nearly 11-and-a-half grand to spare but unless there's a huge delta I always think a motorcycle purchase should be powered my the heart and not the head. If your bedroom wall featured an early Katana and you want to rekindle your youth then give one a try, stick it on a low rate PCP (a new offer) and have fun. It's only once around the block and the Katana in another four decades will be electric.
Club Moto London are about to take delivery of a new Katana so why not find out for yourself. Pit it against the Honda CB1000RS and let us know your thoughts.
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