Suzuki GSX-R600 (2008) Review

With no real increase in horsepower and nothing substantially reduced in terms of dry weight, how does the new-for-’08 Suzuki GSX-R600 qualify as a better bike than its previous incarnation, especially in a category that has traditionally lived and died with the understanding that each new model season must bring more power, less poundage?

With the track temperature at Italy’s newly revised, very fast and flowing Misano circuit hovering around the 3C mark, the international press launch of Suzuki’s 2008 GSX-R 600 promised to be no bed of roses. A thick fog bank had moved in to further complicate matters; at times visibility was diminished to nothing. Moreover, the test session GSX-Rs were shod with cold street compound tires, and I was feeling a touch rusty following a winter of scaled back riding activity. All of which were to combine in a series of “interesting moments,” but I like to think it would take more than frigid weather and reduced sight lines to keep me off a remodeled MotoGP track such as Misano, especially if that meant missing the opportunity to sample a world-class supersport such as the GSX-R600 which is, this year, imbued with a program of technical upgrades focused on control. Noticeably absent however, both from the press kit materials and the engineering team’s technical presentation preceding the track portion of the new model launch, was any discussion of power gains or weight reduction—both of which have been key ingredients in this era’s development of 600 supersport and litre-class repli-racers.

Was I actually right—don’t tell my darling wife Karla—when after returning from the 2007 GSX-R1000 launch in Australia I suggested factories might soon taper off their dogged pursuits of substantial power gains and weight losses for each successive generation in favour of simply making their bikes better and more controllable with other technologies? And can a bike, more specifically the 2008 GSX-R 600, actually be any better than its predecessor even if it isn’t necessarily lighter and more powerful?

IN MANY WAYS, THE NEW GSX-R REPRESENTS THE QUESTIONS POSED to manufacturers by a world that’s grown increasingly environmentally anxious. The reduction of noxious emissions is now one of the prime considerations influencing the designs we see being produced today.  In the GSX-R600’s case, we’re talking about exceeding EURO 3 and Tier 2 emissions standards, making the 2008 GSX-R600 the “cleanest” 600cc motorcycle Suzuki has ever built. To make power though, obviously demands the use of fuel. The easiest way to make more power is to use more fuel. To meet the new environmental standards builders such as Suzuki have to use the same amount of fuel, or use it more efficiently, while producing fewer emissions. The most effective way to reduce emissions is to direct the exhaust gasses through ever larger (read gaudier) mufflers with bigger and better (read heavier) catalyzers to further reduce HC, CO and nitrogen oxide. Insight: this is mostly why we no longer see boasts of “lighter weight” in sportbike marketing.  Suzuki has had to add significant weight to reduce emissions while increasing power to overcome these newfound restrictions in its exhaust systems. So it becomes an add weight here, take some from there, make this more efficient, game of hide and seek for engineers who aim to innovate and improve anywhere they can. Concerning the GSX-R600 , the wheels, starter motor, electronic control module and even the bloody sparkplugs are lighter. In terms of overall efficiency, where even the smallest feature is explored and improved, components such as the new eight-hole twin fuel injectors (up from four hole for more effective fuel atomization), larger ventilation holes (for a reduction in mechanical losses), and even a new piston ring are said to reduce frictional losses.

So how does Suzuki keep, or gain, horsepower, and torque, with these new restrictions? Strategies include upping the compression ratio a few ticks to 12.8:1 with new pistons and combustion chambers, refining the intake and throttle body ports, and modifying the intake cam. All of which are tied together with a now more powerful digital engine management system.
At the end of the day, there’s no horsepower increase, though we do see a slight torque boost, but it would be wrong to judge the GSX-R 600 merely by numbers because the riding experience itself has only improved.

IN MY VIEW, IT’S TRUE, NOTHING “FITS LIKE A SUZUKI,” AND THE 2008 600 is no exception. The bike feels 
similar to the entire GSX-R range where you’ll note no difference in comparison to last year’s model. It retains the exact geometry and seating position (1400mm/55.1 in. wheelbase and 810mm/31.9 in. seat height, respectively). Understandably, the engine sounds slightly more muted under the shapely 17-litre fuel tank, but with the compression increase it boasts an improved sense of urgency in its revs. Once rolling through the first few turns at Misano the Suzuki felt as light as ever, despite its claimed dry weight of 165 kg (363 lbs.) Its new 2007 GSX-R1000-inspired electronically controlled steering damper does not affect steering at lower speeds, and the ultra smooth 599cc GSX-R mill makes class leading midrange. Serious acceleration begins from as low as an indicated 6,000 rpm, and this head of steam continues with a notable increase at 9,500 rpm where it stays constant to the 15,000 rpm mark before signing off slightly when reaching the limiter at 16,500.

This flexibility in the rev range makes it exceptionally convenient to leave the bike in second gear exiting Misano’s tighter corners (turns four, five and 14 respectively) while allowing the midrange punch to accelerate the rider through the next turn without having to upshift. Even in a track environment, the bike’s street use capabilities are apparent in these situations.

Slowing things down for Misano’s turns one, eight and 14 requires excellent braking, and in this regard there’s a much better feel from the new master cylinder and front calipers. Though the system seemed somewhat “spongy” in the pits (I could easily squeeze the lever to the bar), the arrangement proved an excellent balance of power and feel.

The slipper clutch has also been improved to work even more precisely with the six speed transmission on corner entry. Initially the bike was somewhat reluctant to accept my upshifts, but some modifications to the shift lever height, and my application of said shifter, made for an improvement but not complete resolution.

Handling and cornering abilities were very precise considering the less-than-satisfactory track conditions.  With some slight modifications to the front forks (more preload) I gained the confidence I needed to push the new Bridgestone BT-016’s and the bike a little harder each time I went out. But, it was on the first day while entering turn two on a relatively quick lap that the conditions, and more importantly my apparent disregard for them, almost ended in an “oops” for Suzuki.

I pitched the GSX-R left in an effort to run a tidy line on the exit of turn two for the set-up of the faster and crucial turn three. When I did so, the front tire protested and promptly began to plow with no hint of regaining traction. Lucky for me the bike remained quite composed. The front somewhat regained needed traction and I was again on my merry way. There’s nothing quite like asking a street tire to work like a race compound in conditions that are just above freezing. But the episode demonstrated to me just how well the GSX-R—a charter member of a class once considered flighty, nervous and unforgiving—readily becomes an easy bike to ride even in the face of unexpected challenges.  Suzuki did what it could do to limit the negative effects of low temperatures and limited visibility. The company even trotted out tire warmers before some of the early sessions—not that tire warmers help much when you can’t actually see the next turn until just before the brake markers—but at some point it all comes down to bike and rider.

THE 2008 GSX-R REFLECTS NOT MUCH CHANGE AT ALL FROM LAST year’s styling exercise. That’s somewhat disappointing; perhaps I wanted to see more transformation. The major addition is a new headlight design that I personally don’t mind.  The blue and white model does come with a blue seat that I would trade for black given the opportunity. Not that I mind blue but, quite frankly, the blue doesn’t match the paint at all and almost looks like a ghastly aftermarket product.

On the plus side the dash is especially good, with an easily readable analogue tach and digital speedometer. I have to say though, the 3-D design found on last year’s GSX-R1000 was the best yet (in my opinion).  Other tidy bits include Suzuki’s drive mode selector (see sidebar) along with track day and race worthy features including a two-way high/low speed adjustable rear shock and fully adjustable rear sets that even allow for reverse shifting.  Look for the new GSX-R600 to come to Canada in three colour options: traditional blue and white; silver and yellow; and my personal favourite white and silver. I absolutely love white rims on sportbikes. At $11,999 MSRP it’s quite possibly the best real world 600cc sportbike available.

Suzuki’s new-for-’08 GSX-R600 features a drive mode selector much like that first found on the 2007 GSX-R 1000. This technology allows the pilot to select different engine power characteristics to suit riding conditions via a handlebar mounted switch, all of which can be changed on-the-fly taking immediate effect. Labelled A, B, and C, the characteristics of the system settings break down like this: 

“A“ setting gives you all the power output possible at all throttle positions.
“B” setting softens the bike’s power through the entire the rev range.
“C” setting reduces power and throttle response dramatically at all revs and throttle positions. 

As a default, the “A” setting is automatically selected every time the ignition is turned on.
To select a different engine map the rider first pushes and holds the thumb operated switch for a few seconds, initializing the system. With that, the very effective digital dash displays the current selection and the rider then toggles up or down through the options to arrive at the desired setting.
So how does it work when riding?
I would venture to say in the “B” setting, the power characteristics are that of a circa 2004 model 600 (stock): slightly flat and less powerful throughout the entire rev range.
With the “C” setting you get power characteristics similar to a stock model SV650. Basically, if you need this setting (unless you are in rainy/slippery conditions) “C” equates to “Can’t ride this bike.”

-Oliver Jervis