The 600 cc sportbike class, aka the supersport class, has been hit hard in the past 10 years, with the manufacturers doing little to bring these bikes forward at the same pace as their 1000 cc superbike counterparts. Once highly recommended (and foolishly so) as good choices for the beginner rider, 600 cc sportbikes are now considered too fast for the beginner, but experienced riders still want litrebikes. It’s a no-win situation, and high insurance rates don’t help.
Having said that, the Japanese manufacturers all still have a 600 cc inline four in their lineup—sort of. Honda’s still building the CBR600RR, but you cannot buy a 2018 model in Canada. While Big Red sells 2018 CBR600RRs in the US (and has even introduced the 2019 model down there), you must remain content with a leftover 2017 model in Canada.
However, Suzuki and Yamaha actually brought 2018 models to Canada this year, and Kawasaki has just announced its 2019 ZX-6R. So, we’re going to compare the machines you can actually go out and purchase right now: the 2017 Honda CBR600RR, the 2018 Suzuki GSX-R600, the 2018 Yamaha R6, and the 2019 Kawasaki ZX-6R.
All four bikes use a liquid-cooled inline-four engine, with DOHC top end and four valves per cylinder, which is the standard for the class. The GSX-R600, CBR600 and R6 all have 599 cc engines, but Kawasaki is a bit cheeky and runs a 636 cc displacement.
That larger engine gives Kawasaki the horsepower edge, but not by much. The ZX-6R is supposed to have 136 hp with the benefit of ram air, while the R6 is next behind with 122 hp, supposedly (Yamaha’s official website does not list horsepower, and neither does Kawasaki’s).
The GSX-R600 supposedly has 119 hp on tap, while the CBR600 is supposed to make 113 hp.
While these machines spin up to decent horsepower numbers, they’re not exactly torque monsters. The ZX-6R makes 52 lb-ft at 11,500 rpm, the GSX-R600 makes 51 lb-ft @ 11,500 rpm, the CBR600 makes 48.7 lb-ft at 11,250 RPM, and the R6 makes 47.7 lb-ft at 11,500 rpm. Although the Gixxer hasn’t been updated since 2015 (and even that wasn’t much of a step forward), it’s still on par or ahead of the others in the torque department.
So, the Kawi is the most powerful bike here. No doubt the larger engine helps, but Kawasaki is also the manufacturer that makes the most effort to keep its supersport model up to date.
It’s worth remembering that these are crank output numbers, not rear wheel numbers, and it’s also worth remembering that while litrebikes are putting out about 80 more horsepower, the 600s still put out far more power than you’d ever need on the street. If you watch a CSBK Pro Superbike race, you’ll see a few 600s mixed in with the litrebikes, and while they’re not podium threats, the 600s do beat some of the 1000-class machines.
The CBR600 is the lightest machine here (185 kg at the curb) and the ZX-6R is the heaviest (193 kg at the curb). Curb weight is 190 kg for the R6, 187 kg for the GSX-R600.
Two observations: first, traditionally, the 600 sportbike class was considered to have an advantage over the litrebike class due to lower weight, which theoretically resulted in better handling. But now, there’s no real difference in weights between the two displacement classes; some superbikes have curb weight around the 190 kg mark now, lighter than some 600s. That doesn’t bode well for the future of the 600 class.
Second, the Kawasaki and the Yamaha are the most technologically advanced machines here, with more onboard electronics than the Honda and the Suzuki. The added gadgetry seems to add weight, as the ZX-6R and the R6 are heavier than the CBR600 and the Gixxer.
All these machines have a crouched, race-style riding position, and would not be considered touring-friendly machines. If you wear XXXL sweatshirts and have a 36-inch inseam, you might want to look elsewhere. Cramped cockpits are the standard in the sportbike world.
Seat height is 840 mm for the CBR600, 850 mm for the R6, 810 mm for the GSX-R600 and 830 mm for the ZX-6.
None of these bikes have suspension as good as their superbike counterparts, but all bikes have fully-adjustable USD forks up front, and of course, a monoshock in rear, also fully adjustable. The new ZX-6R comes with the especially trick Showa Big Piston/Separate Function Fork design, arguably the most trick components on any of these machines.
So what’s the best? They’re all fully adjustable, so you can get any of them to fit you, theoretically, if you know what you’re doing when you’re tweaking the settings. However, the Showa bits on the Kawasaki are probably the most advanced here. The KYB-sourced parts on the Yamaha seem to do just fine in pro roadracing, though, as Yamaha has been arguably the bike to beat in North American supersport series in the past few years, and suspension is always a big part of roadracing success.
On paper, there’s not much difference here. All these supersports have 220 mm discs in rear and 310 mm dual discs up front, except for the Yamaha, which has 320 mm discs. And all bikes have four-piston calipers up front, and a single-piston caliper in back.
As for actual braking feel, you’d have to ride them all back-to-back to decide what you like. It is very notable that ABS is standard on the CBR600 and the R6, but only optional on the ZX-6R and unavailable on the GSX-R600. Leaning ABS is unavailable on these bikes, but this is probably the last generation of supersports without such electronic trickery.
As for other techno-wizardry, traction control is standard on the R6 and the ZX-6R, but unavailable on the CBR and the Gixxer. Tut tut!
The most expensive bike here is the Yamaha R6, at $14,599. Then, it’s the Honda CBR600, at $13,799. The Suzuki GSX-R600 comes in at $12,299, and the Kawasaki ZX-6 is $11,999.
Not only is the Kawasaki the most recently updated supersport, at least for now, it also has the lowest price.
Of course, adding flashy green paint or ABS will make it more expensive, but even at $13,299, it would undercut both the CBR600 and the R6, and would be only marginally more expensive than the Gixxer. Kawasaki is killing it on pricing with the ZX-6R.
Are there reasons to buy the other bikes? Judging by racetrack performance in MotoAmerica and CSBK, a good rider can win on any of these machines, although the R6 seems to be the supersport of choice for pro racers.
But the CBR600 and GSX-R600 are both going to have less and less relevance if their manufacturers continue to simply introduce Bold New Graphics every season, with no technical updates. There have been rumours for months that both those machines are just about to be upgraded, but we haven’t seen it yet. Maybe the EICMA show next month will introduce future supersports for these manufacturers, but so far, all we’ve seen in 2018 is the same old, same old for 2019. That puts Yamaha and Kawasaki ahead, and given the Kawi’s pricing and constant technical update, it’s the bike to beat for the street market.