First ride: 2020 Suzuki Katana

In the world of Suzuki, the Katana name is legendary, second only to the GSX-R. Now, at last, it’s back, albeit somewhat controversial because it’s based on the modern GSX-S1000. Is it enough to deserve the return of the logo with the sword?

“We just clocked a rider on a silver Katana at over the speed limit. Should be easy to find. Oh…”

KYOTO, JAPAN—Is the new Suzuki Katana just a reskinned GSX-S1000?

Even at first glance, and even to the untrained eye, it’s obvious the new Katana isn’t a modern replica of the original 1981 or 1984 bikes — something with the authenticity of, say, a Kawasaki Z900RS — but rather, it’s a kind of homage model built on a modern platform. That platform is the GSX-S1000.

The entire rolling chassis, the engine and the electronic package are identical to the GSX-S, but the Katana is different in other areas. The body and tank are specific to the new model, as are the one-piece seat (unlike the two-piece on the GSX-S) and the GSX-R1000-inspired instrumentation. The seat is 15 mm higher on the Katana at 825 mm, 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.

So, overall, the answer is yes, both bikes are technically very close.

Why stop there?

I wanted to know —as I’m sure many fans of the model want to know — why Suzuki didn’t create a more authentic replica.  I asked the question directly to the Katana’s design team: Considering the legendary status of the model within Suzuki’s history, wouldn’t it deserve the full-replica treatment?

It was tough for Bert to get a straight answer about the Katana’s styling from these guys, and we can understand why.

What followed was 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 always 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 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 the Intermot show in October of 2018, the new Katana was announced. It will come on sale in Canada in late fall or winter of 2019, though our price is not yet announced. So far, only a couple of countries have released their pricing which shows a premium of between 10 to 20 per cent above the GSX-S1000’s MSRP.

Ah – that’s better. This is what the rest of the world calls “spring.”

What’s it like to ride?

Japanese manufacturers almost never let the foreign press ride on the street in Japan. I asked why and didn’t get a straight answer, but what I was told could be interpreted as a preference not to see moto hacks from around the globe wreak havoc on Japanese roads.

Knowing how naughty new bikes press launches can get (in Spain, say), 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 here just outside Kyoto. We split into groups and rode from one end of the parkway to the other, about 10 km each way. We would then turn around and do it again, and again, and again.

A closed highway with plenty of smooth curves and no cops to care – no wonder Bert could do this all day long.

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, etc. 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 with which I was now familiar.

I can sum up what the Katana is like on the road by saying it’s almost exactly a GSX-S1000. It’s actually something of a surprise to get on a motorcycle with such a unique look and a legendary past and end up feeling totally familiar at every level, but then, how else would it feel than like a GSX-S1000, since, mechanically, 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 that any good naked bike 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 superbike-solid chassis and precise, light-handling feel of the steering, 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 with the handling is a steering lock that could be less restrictive, which would make slow and tight maneuvers easier. The brakes are great, meaning they’re very powerful yet not grabby and easy to scrub. ABS is a standard feature and cannot be switched off.

Doesn’t this look like the kind of poster Bert would have had on his bedroom wall back in the 1980s?

Is it powerful enough?

If you appreciate inline fours, there really isn’t much not to like about the Katana’s engine. It’s a couple of horsepower shy of 150 hp and produces a solid 80 lbs.-ft. of torque. Since it’s derived from the 2005-2008 GSX-R1000 motor, it accelerates with enough force that all but the most mentally challenged of riders will find themselves satisfied with it on the street, especially as its power is generously available from early revs.

In the mid-range, the engine becomes a powerhouse, and gets downright thrilling when the digital tach rushes toward the relatively low 11,500 rpm redline. It gets big bonus points for the high-pitched exhaust note – its exciting intake shriek will make former GSX-R owners feel right at home.

For all its qualities, that motor had a few annoying characteristics when it was introduced on the GSX-S1000 a few years ago. Most are still there, but they’re relatively minor, at least in normal riding conditions. There’s still a buzz, mostly in the handlebars, in 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.

There also used to be 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 – the steadier the rider’s right hand, the smoother the ride and vice versa. It could be improved still, but I wouldn’t call it a deal breaker.

Last, but worst of all as far as I’m concerned, is the primitive traction control system. In everyday conditions and even at a moderately fast pace, it works normally and without problems. On full acceleration, however, when the front wheel leaves the ground in first and second gear, it’s an issue. The most aggressive traction control setting (Number 3) won’t allow the front tire to leave the ground, but it limits acceleration. To get the full experience, only 1 or 2 will do and in those cases, when maximum throttle lifts 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.

That “dribble” phenomenon was common on the first TC systems, which were actually called stability systems at the time. This is why I call the Katana’s traction control 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 without the safety net of traction control.

It may not be obvious, but Bert is trying to avoid popping a huge wheelie here.

Does the “Katana look” work?

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 metal, although I can imagine some easy fixes.

For example, it would have been easy for Suzuki to ditch the standard GSX-S wheels in favour of an ’80s-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 while adding very little to development costs.

Nice clean lines in the rear tail section, to help differentiate it from the GSX-S.

I also wasn’t sure how I felt about the Katana coming back to life on a modern sportbike platform. 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 that would be a mistake because “just” simply isn’t an appropriate way to qualify such a fun and competent 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. 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, modern everything, legendary look, all for an accessible premium.

That’s the kind of deal Suzuki is offering with the new Katana.

Sometimes, the past is not such a bad place, especially when it comes with a thoroughly updated engine and platform.

9 thoughts on “First ride: 2020 Suzuki Katana”

  1. I’m sure it’s near perfect technically, reliable too and because it’s a Suzuki everything should work nicely (beside possible snatchy throttle .

    But boy is that thing ugly! To file in the what were they thinking category.

    Japanese design still a struggle when function does not Trump form…

    1. Yup. The original was ugly too, heheh… but purposeful.
      And I remember it grew on me, over time.
      A big feature – not found on the new one – was the unusual and distinctive seat (covered in a textured grey suede).
      But whatever. New one doesn’t work for me personally…
      Is it the answer to a question no one has asked?

  2. Unfortunately I had my hopes up for a recreation of the original. A big a/c motor with some modern touches like fuel injection and a 6 speed gear set. But it had to have that stretched out wheel base, I was all over this until the pictures became available. Kawasaki did such a good job on the 900 Cafe, It was easy to imagine Suzuki trying to capitalize on the same recipe.

  3. Inline 4’s just don’t make my heart flutter. Anyway, I just don’t understand the horsepower creep. I have a ’98 VFR and it has “only” about 100 hp. It will lift the front wheel in the first 3 gears and top out at an indicated 250 kph. It has way more power and ability than I will ever get close to. I would way rather have 75 hp and 350 lbs. In terms of car free and predator free roads I know quite a few in the BC interior. The deer are always trying to kill me, so there is that. However, just like the author I can go to my favourite spots and run laps as long as I want. Remote places still exist, some of them freshly paved!! C

  4. This might be my last comment on CMG because my updated iOS browser says this site is not secure.
    I don’t get the point of this bike and I’m sure sales will be dismal. Suzuki could have put the effort into its other bikes that need updating or even a more popular GSXR750 replica complete with double headlights and slab sides. This new Katana looks weird with a regular handlebar and the stubby tail but the black version is slightly better. The designers probably had limited resources and a mandate to move some engines and chassis that were overstocked.

  5. Seems to me it’s very much the same sort of thing as the Z900RS, which is not much more than a warmed-over Z900. OK, they made some minor changes to the frame geometry to get the look they wanted, and detuned the engine a bit. But it’s not in any way a faithful replica in the way that, say, the ZRX1100/1200 was. It would be pretty hard to make a faithful replica with also, to a great extent, replicating the riding experience of the old bike. The original Katana, like the original Z900, had dual shocks and a double-cradle frame. If you really want the look, you’d have to duplicate that, and unfortunately the shortcomings of that kind of design along with it.

  6. I just do not get why anyone would buy this bike and a 20% premium above a similar Suzuki seems outrageous. I was born in 1960 and have been into bikes since I was 8 so I was around for the original version but l do not get the excitement about the Katana. It is actually ugly and looks like a bike that has been crashed but is being ridden anyway with the windshield broken off. I hope for Suzuki everyone disagrees with me.

  7. A good read, nicely done.

    After looking at the bike I’m left wondering who it was in the industry-at-large that decided that the ugly “fender attached to the swing arm” was an attractive or even good idea?

    1. “ugly fender attached to the swing arm”
      Yup. That’s all unsprung weight too… going up and down over every little bump in the road.
      It’s gotta go! Easily replaced by spacers and an undertail license plate kit?

      Hey back in the day (has it really been forty years) my buddy Steve had one of these.
      Was faster than my new CB900F – but only beyond 200 clicks, heheh…

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