When it comes to motorcycling royalty, the Katana’s right up there. For MY 2020, Suzuki returns the model, but does it live up to the legendary 1980s original? We go to Japan for answers.
This one is personal.
During more than two decades reviewing motorcycles, I’ve never written a word about my personal rides. This time, though, has to be an exception. The reason is simple: as a kid, the Katana was the bike I dreamed of. Not the original ‘81, which was before my time and still looks like an old bike to me today, but rather the ‘84, the one with the retractable headlight.
I was just a boy with a bicycle in the mid-eighties and, to be honest, without much of an interest for motorcycles. But something about that shape just hypnotized me. It was pure admiration, however, as even the concept of riding motorcycles seemed far-fetched to my little brain. The idea of owning one never crossed my mind: considering my non-existent budget and the couple of years still separating me from a driver’s licence, the Katana was just as much out of reach as the Lambo Countach or the Porsche 959 (or Samantha Fox) on the posters pinned to the walls of my room.
But time went by, I got my licence and eventually ended up with a cheap but mint GS750ES as a first bike. Which made me lust even more for the Katana as it was the same motorcycle with a different fairing. I didn’t keep the GS very long: after I got a taste of the fastest bikes of the time, I just couldn’t go back on anything slower and by age 18 I was riding a GSX-R1100. I know.
I never owned that Suzuki Katana and to this day, I get weak in the knees every time I see one. I can understand how to someone reading this little bit of personal motorcycle history I might seem biased toward the new Katana, but I believe that it instead makes me particularly qualified to judge.
See, my guess is the majority of those ogling this new Katana also have some sort of history with the original models. My guess is that they too aren’t sure how to feel about the elephant in the room concerning that bike, i.e. the fact that it’s a re-skinned GSX-S1000 rather than the “all-new” Katana Suzuki’s promotional material talks about.
My guess is they would’ve preferred to see Suzuki put in the work and produce a true modern replica of the ‘81 or the ‘84, something with the authenticity of a Kawasaki Z900RS. I’m wondering that myself … although I’m almost thankful that it’s not the case and that the headlight doesn’t pop up, or I would have been in serious trouble. But enough about me, and more about the new bike.
I was told the design team would be present and available for questions at the global press launch I attended in Kyoto, so I strategized a plan to actually get answers. I have quite a bit of experience questioning Japanese manufacturer staff and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that getting answers from them is an art. Not if you’re asking something technical, like a dimension, that’ll be answered right away. But ask about something more complex and suddenly their English becomes bad. I really wanted to know more about the styling decisions. Why did they choose to revive the Katana as a re-skinned GSX-S1000? Considering the legendary status of the model within Suzuki’s history—I’d say it’s only second to the GSX-R’s—wouldn’t it deserve the full-replica treatment? Mostly, I wanted to know about the infighting between the two camps within Suzuki, I wanted to know which argument was offered by each side and why this direction was ultimately chosen. I’ll admit these are tough questions. Manufacturers want to talk about the bike they’re presenting, not about the one they could have done instead, and they’re not always inclined to reveal internal talks.
Still, I felt these are relevant questions in this particular case and as soon as the technical presentation ended, I asked. What followed was what I feared: a long silence, heads turning, then a long discussion in Japanese between the entire panel of Suzuki’s staff, and finally the answer: “We made the decision to produce this new Katana.”
To which I replied: “Respectfully, I know you did, the bike is right there. What I’m after is the story behind that decision. It’s such an important model for Suzuki, for sure there were strong opinions on what form a new Katana could take.” But it was a dead end. Suzuki did offer, however, that the idea of a new Katana, while ever present within the company, really gained momentum after the “Katana 3.0 Concept” by Italian designer Rodolfo Frascoli was presented at EICMA in the fall of 2017. Suzuki basically liked it so much the decision was made to put it in production almost as is and as soon as possible. Less than a year later, at Intermot in October of 2018, the new Katana was announced.
Mechanically, just like the Katana 3.0 Concept, the new bike is based on the GSX-S1000 naked. The entire rolling chassis, the engine and the electronic package are identical to the GSX-S’s. Still, the Katana is different in some areas.
First, obviously, the entire body and tank are specific to the new model, as are the one-piece seat (versus two-piece on the GSX-S) and the GSX-R1000 inspired instrumentation.
The seat is 15mm higher on the Katana at 825mm, but the riding position remains similarly upright.
According to Suzuki, the suspension is adjusted slightly softer on the Katana than on the GSX-S.
Although the frame itself is the same massive aluminum unit as on the GSX-S, the rear subframe is specific to each bike.
Finally, on the Katana, there’s a small rear fender supported by the swingarm that hugs the rear tire. Moving it to this position, along with the rear turn signals and licence plate holder, eliminates parts extending from under the seat to give the tail section cleaner lines.
Japanese manufacturers almost never let foreign press ride on the street in Japan. I asked why, but—shocker—I didn’t get a straight answer. What I was told, though, can be interpreted as a preference not to see moto hacks from around the globe wreak havoc on Japanese roads.
Knowing how naughty new model press launches usually get, say, in Spain, and having witnessed how incredibly civilized and polite Japanese people are All-The-Time, including when they drive, I’d say not letting us loose on public roads over there was a smart choice.
Still, we needed to ride the Katana, so Suzuki closed the Arashiyama-Takao Parkway for the test day, an awesomely cool and scenic road that winds up and down a mountain range just outside of Kyoto. We got split in groups that left shortly one after the other, then rode from one end of the parkway to the other. We would then turn around and do it again.
It was a great idea: all day, we rode pretty hard on the street without paying any attention whatsoever to speed limits and without encountering a single car. How often can you do that?
What I also appreciated was that after a while, the road became familiar. I knew when I’d hit a bumpy section, where I could safely open it up, when a tight series of turns was about to come up, etcetera.
Because of the repetitive nature of the ride, I could ask for suspension changes, turn around and immediately feel the effect on the bumps and turns I was now familiar with.
I can sum up what the Suzuki Katana is like on the road in these few simple words: it’s almost exactly a GSX-S1000. It’s actually somewhat of a surprise to get on a motorcycle with such a unique look and a legendary past and end up feeling totally familiar stuff at every level, but then, what else would it feel like other than a GSX-S1000, since that’s what it is?
Sometimes, slight modifications here and there on suspension settings and ergonomics are enough to change the riding experience, but not in this case. The riding triangle isn’t precisely the same as on the GSX-S, but it’s very close. The position is the well balanced and upright one any good naked offers. It’s not at all elongated as it was on the ‘81 original, but rather modern compact with your feet tucked under you sportbike-style, your back almost upright and the handlebar close enough that no weight at all is placed on your hands.
It’s also a position that feels instantly comfortable and natural which, combined with the solid, precise and light handling feel of the chassis, makes the Katana one of those bikes you feel you’ve known forever even though you just threw a leg over it for the first time. One of the only flaws regarding handling is a steering lock that could be a tad less restrictive, which would make slow and tight maneuvers easier.
Brakes are really great, meaning very powerful yet not grabby and easy to dose. ABS is standard and cannot be switched off.
If you appreciate inline fours, there really isn’t much not to like about the Katana’s. A couple of horsepower shy of 150 hp and producing a solid 80 foot/pounds torque, the 2005-2008 GSX-R1000-derived motor accelerates with enough force that nearly all riders will find themselves completely satisfied with it on the street, especially as its power is generously available from early revs.
It becomes a powerhouse from the mid-range and gets downright thrilling when the very attractive digital tach rushes towards the relatively low 11,500-rpm redline. It gets big bonus points for a high-pitched exhaust note and exciting intake shriek that’ll make ex-GSX-R owners feel right at home.
For all its qualities, the motor had a few annoying characteristics when it was first introduced on the GSX-S1000 a few years ago. The bad news is that most are still there, but the good news is that they’re relatively minor, at least in normal riding conditions.
The first is a somewhat buzzy nature on the second half of the rev range. All inline-fours buzz, but this one is pretty smooth down low where it’s mostly used every day, so it gets a pass on that count.
The second was a significantly abrupt throttle response that’s been tamed on both the current GSX-S1000 and the new Katana by a redesigned throttle geometry. The fix works, but doesn’t eliminate the issue completely, which means the steadier the rider’s right hand, the smoother the ride and vice versa. Could be improved still, but not a deal breaker at all.
Lastly, and worst of all as far as I’m concerned is the traction control system which I’d call primitive. In everyday conditions and even at a moderately fast pace, it works normally and without problems. The issues only appear during full acceleration when the front wheel leaves the ground in first and second gear. The most aggressive TC setting (3) won’t allow the front tire to leave the ground, but also limits acceleration. To get the full experience, only 1 or 2 will do and in those cases, max throttle will lift the front tire, the TC will intervene and slam it down, at which point full power will be back on, making the front lift again, and so on.
This “dribble” phenomenon was common on the first TC systems, which were actually called stability systems at the time, hence the reason I call the Katana’s TC primitive. Sorry Suzuki, but there’s work to be done here.
All that being said, the issue can be bypassed by switching the TC entirely off, at which point the Katana becomes an enormously fun wheelie monster, just one without the safety net of traction control.
I’ll be totally honest, I was a bit disappointed when I saw the first images of the new Katana. I really liked the throwback yet modern lines of the half-fairing, but I thought the modern lower part of the image didn’t match the neo-retro upper half.
I still feel that way after seeing the bike in the flesh, although I can imagine easy fixes. For example, it would have been easy for Suzuki to ditch the standard GSX-S wheels in favour of a 1980s-inspired design.
It would also have been easy to fit tires with a retro groove design like the new Pirelli Phantoms. I think it would have given the lower half just enough of a retro touch to balance out the big picture all the while adding barely anything to development costs, which Suzuki wanted to keep as low as possible by reusing the (excellent) GSX-S1000 base.
Speaking of the latter, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the Katana coming back to life on a modern sportbike platform. I thought a more authentic design could have been cooler if done properly. After riding it, though, I’m okay with the Katana the way it is. It’s easy to perceive it as “just” a reskinned GSX-S, but it would be a mistake because “just” simply isn’t an appropriate way to qualify this platform. The fact that the Katana is built on the GSX-S1000 base means it’s a great handling powerhouse and a comfortable one at that. It just happens to sport one of the coolest styles ever.
What Suzuki did, really, is to offer the GSX-S1000 with a neo-retro body option. Think about that for a second. What if you could buy a brand new Mustang with an AC Cobra body option direct from Ford? How about a C7 Corvette with a 1967 Stingray body option direct from Chevrolet? High performance and modern with a legendary look for a reasonable price. That’s the kind of deal Suzuki is offering with the new Katana and after much reflection, I’ve no problem with it.
The new Katana’s price hasn’t been announced yet, but hopefully the premium for that option will be reasonable. It’s a Suzuki, so it should be. As for availability in Canada, the manufacturer points to late fall or winter 2019.
by Bertrand Gahel Canadian Biker #342