Street Bike Brand Comparison: Honda, Suzuki, Or Yamaha?

Buying a motorcycle is confusing, but there are differences between manufactures. This article examines the history of the big four and discusses specific motorcycles.

Motorcyclists tend to be brand loyal, but most first-time buyers choose machines that appeal to their sense of style and little else. Buying a motorcycle can be confusing, but there are real differences between manufactures, and it is important to find a bike that fits you and the kind of riding you want to do.

The Japanese manufacturers - Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha - make very similar machines, appealing to a wide market, but there are real differences as well. This article examines the history of the big four as well as their basic differences, discusses specific motorcycles, and talks about what you should consider when buying a motorcycle.

In the 1960s Japanese manufacturers tended to make small motorcycles or off-road bikes, leaving the big road bikes to the Americans (Harley Davidson and Indian), Italians (Ducati and Moto Guzzi), Germans (BMW) and English (Triumph, Norton and B.S.A.). Following the introduction of the Honda CB750, however, the Japanese captured the largest segment of the market with bikes that were smooth, sophisticated and reliable.

The CB750 offered a smooth inline four engine, electronic ignition, and powerful disk brake at a reasonable price. The bike was reliable, fast and comfortable: In short, everything the American, Italian, German and British bikes were not. Motorcycling history is often measured as before the CB750 and after.

It's difficult to remember today that there was a time when Honda only built small-displacement bikes, Yamaha and Kawasaki concentrated on two-stroke machines, and Kawasaki was primarily oriented toward off-road motorcycling. The Japanese have branched out to reach virtually every market while Harley Davidson and Ducati have concentrated their energies to manufacture niche machines appealing to sport-bike riders and cruisers respectively and the English manufacturers have all but disappeared.

(Triumph rose from the ashes in the early 1990s when a wealthy benefactor invested heavily in the company. Triumph currently offers sport bikes, cruisers, and tour machines that compete with anything on the road today, but still have a relatively small customer base.)

Honda continued to build fine road bikes through the 1970s and early 1980s while Kawasaki released its own version of the CB750, called the Z1, which upped the ante to 900ccs. Suzuki released its four-stroke bruiser, the GS1000, and Yamaha reluctantly began building four-stroke twins to compete with the other manufacturers.

The Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM) inexplicitly came under fierce attack in the mid- to late-1980s, and each of the big four turned from heavy, large displacement standards to bikes that appealed to the emerging markets.

Honda invested in V-4 sport bikes and big four- and six-cylinder tour bikes as Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki concentrated on the inline four engine design. The big four continued to divide the market throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Each company produced an open-class sport bike (usually 1000ccs or larger), a 600-class sport bike, a sport-tour bike (combining the power of an open-class bike with the comfort of a tour machine), a tour bike, and a standard in addition to their off road machines.

Today's Japanese motorcycles are highly specialized machines appealing to consumers who want cutting-edge technology for specific kinds of riding, such as sport bike riding or long distance touring. Although there has recently been a demand for standard-style bikes that can be customized to fit the multiple demands consumers place on bikes, by and large every showroom is divided between sport machines, tour bikes, cruisers and standards.

The evolution of market forces has also shaped how Japanese manufacturers construct their machines. From the start Honda had a reputation for smooth, well-constructed bikes; Kawasaki and Suzuki often created fast, hellacious machines; and Yamaha built bikes combining rawness with sophistication.

It's still possible to see the fingerprints of the Honda that created the CB750 in the new 919; only Yamaha - the company that created the finest café racer of the 1970s: the RD400 - could create a sport bike like the modern R1; the green machine (Kawasaki) continues to break ground with riotous machines like the Z1000; and Suzuki's long-running GSXR sport bikes and SV650 continue to win races both on the track and off.

Each of the big four manufacturers make reliable, well-balanced machines, but Honda has the best reputation for built quality and finish. But there are those who find Hondas unemotional and conservative. The boldest bikes coming from Japan tend to come from Kawasaki and Suzuki. From the Z1000 to the Bandit 1200, these two companies dare to be different, and aren't afraid to produce bikes that defy conventions.

Yamaha has carved a place for itself as Honda's number two, making bikes that are in some ways more daring than those released by Big Red (Honda), while never breaking the mold entirely like Kawasaki.

Yamaha makes the finest open-class sport bike available today: The R1. Weighing less than a 600cc motorcycle did only 10 years ago, the R1 combines class-leading brakes, a stiff suspension, and is lightweight. Suzuki's GSXR1000 comes in a close second, being a little faster overall, but lacking the finish of the R1, while Honda's CBR900RR trails at third. The CBR isn't a bad bike; it just takes too few chances. The ZX9 is an older design, and Kawasaki is due to upgrade the bike any time now.

Honda's CBR600RR just noses out Yamaha's R6 in the 600-class sport bike category. The Honda is a little faster and handles better, though some reviewers give the nod to Yamaha as far as brakes go. Suzuki's GSXR600 is the most raw 600 available and is a less compromised machine, while Kawasaki ZX6 is perhaps the most tour-oriented 600.

Honda has bested all the other manufactures as far as tour and sport-tour machines. The mighty Goldwing stands as the best tour machine on the market while the VFR800 (Interceptor) is by far the most capable sport-tour machine.

Kawasaki's Z1000 is commonly considered the best machine in the emerging power standard or naked bike category. Suzuki's Bandit 1200 is an old standby, with the power plant of the original GSXR1100 and upgraded brakes, while Honda's 919 is considered by some to be too soft and staid. Yamaha's excellent FZ-1 uses a detuned R1 engine in a softer suspension, and is perhaps the best all around power standard, though it hasn't got the Kawasaki or Suzuki's heart.

The 600-class naked standard is the newest category. Originally defined by Suzuki's Bandit 600, the best middleweight standard is the Suzuki SV650. Honda's 599 is slightly faster - though it is also buzzier - but it is priced out of the competition. Kawasaki's ZR700 was a fizzle at the showroom and the company has released a 750cc version of its Z1, but it is too early to know how well it will perform, which is also the case with Yamaha's FZ-6.

Every Japanese manufacturer offers a cruiser, often in a V-twin configuration that mimics the Harley Davidson engine. Honda's Shadow line has been in production for quite a while, while the mammoth VTX can now be had in either 1300cc or 1800cc displacement. Yamaha's Road Star series features nice custom touches and its V-Max is the most powerful cruiser on the market today, while Kawasaki's Vulcan 1500 Mean Streak features class-leading braking.

Suzuki's Marauder 1600, Intruder 1500 LC, Intruder 800 are all big, heavy cruisers with shaft drive, and the company's single-cylinder Savage 650 continues to be a strong entry-level machine.

Beginner bikes are their own category, since most novice riders will be limited to low- and medium-power bikes that are easy to learn on. Honda, once the manufacturer of "nice" small bikes, now only offers entry-level riders two bike: The Honda Rebel, a lightweight, low-power twin cruiser and the Nighthawk 250, a more standard version of the Rebel. Yamaha follows Honda's example, offering the Yamaha Virago 250, another inline twin, while Kawasaki's Kawasaki Eliminator 125 seems based on the same premise.

Both Suzuki and Kawasaki offer slightly more sporty entry-level motorcycles. Suzuki's GS500F has been with the company for decades and has proven itself to be a sturdy, lightweight bike. Kawasaki's Ninja 250R and Ninja 500R both are well-aged designs that find their way back to showrooms year after year based on strong performance, good looks and solid dependability.

You should understand your motorcycling needs no matter what manufacturer you choose to buy from. Take a serious assessment of your skills and riding style before deciding on any motorcycle. Carefully consider the fit of the machine you're thinking of buying. A tall bike will be awkward to maneuver for a shorter person, while a short bike may feel too cramped for a larger rider. A powerful machine might overwhelm you while a heavy motorcycle might tire you out.

Don't be browbeaten by those who think "real" motorcyclists need to ride high-power sport bikes or large displacement cruisers. Test ride the bike you're considering, paying careful attention to the quality of the controls and overall ergonomics, and don't let anyone tell you what feels right for you: Some people are only comfortable in a semi-sport lean while others might need the upright positioning of a cruiser or standard bike.

There are more motorcycle choices currently available than at any time in history. Take your time, pick the right bike, and enjoy the ride.

© High Speed Ventures 2011