Japanese naked battle: Honda CB1000R vs Suzuki Katana
Which deserves your cash?
It might have passed you by, but Japanese naked motorcycles are on a quiet run of form. They’ve not grabbed the headlines like European bike brands which are engaged in a titanic battle to see how much horsepower they can cram into upright bikes, but the Japanese marquesare going about things their own way, and coming up with some properly interesting machines.
Take these two as an example.
The Honda CB1000R is a beautifully made machine designed to evoke a bit of retro cafe racer feel, but reimagined for your modern Tokyo gentleman. The Suzuki Katana, meanwhile, cuts a giant chunk out of the brand’s 1980s blueprints catalogue and pastes it into 2019.
Both turn in modest power figures by Ducati Streetfighter V4 standards, but you have to remember that both the Honda and Suzuki are still built around mid-noughties sportsbike engines – a 2006 Fireblade in the case of the Honda, and the legendary 2005 GSX-R 1000 K5 lump in the Katana’s case. This also means that they cost closer to the £10,000 mark than the Ducati’s £20,000 one.
And having spent a month with both, it’s interesting to see just how different they feel. Let’s get stuck in and see if you should be paying more attention to these unsung nakeds.
You've got the looks
There’s no denying that the 2019 Suzuki Katana is an emotional shot aimed with laser-guided precision at the heartstrings of anyone who got into riding in the early-to-mid 1980s. It apes that old design, originally penned by a trio of German ex-BMW designers hired to update Suzuki’s image. Does it work in 2019? I’m not so sure. It’s a pretty plasticky bike, with acres of the shiny silver stuff around the tank and headlight. But one person’s Van Gogh is another’s Van Gogh’s ear. So who knows.
The Honda's retro-modern, while the Katana has a purely retro-retro sort of aesthetic
But I think you’d be hard pressed to pick the Katana over the Honda on looks. Yes, the CB1000R we tested was a bit cheaty given that it’s been festooned with a bespoke paint job commissioned by the Honda UK press office, but even the standard bike looks like a stylish modern retro – with a leaning towards the modern end. The fit and finish is a world apart from the Suzuki, with deep paint, tidy nuts and bolts and a general feeling that it’ll go on forever. Both bikes have fairly chunky exhausts as standard, and again Honda’s cheated a bit by fitting a deafeningly loud full Akra system to this press bike. It’s too loud at a cruise, but all is forgiven by the savage pops that accompany every up-and-down quickshift.
The Suzuki feels a bit more budget when you poke around the rear sprocket and the headstock – the bits you tend to look at when ogling it and riding it. And it’s a small thing, but the Honda starts with a short, modern and pleasingly compact key, whereas the Katana switches into life after you’ve inserted a very cheap-feeling and long 2001-vintage key into the barrel – and given it that classic Japanese-bike wiggle to actually turn the thing.
Although the Honda wins on premium feel, it’s worth noting that after a month outside under covers, it was the Honda’s chain that succumbed to rust, while the Suzuki’s looked box-fresh.
Still, the Honda wins.
Which is fastest?
Despite offering similar levels of power on paper and having identical engine layouts, the two bikes feel a bit more different to ride than you’d think. With 143hp going from the Honda’s 998cc inline four to the back wheel it usually feels very fast.
I say usually, because there’s a fairly big gap in the power delivery from 6,000 to 8,000 rpm. Annoyingly that’s right where you’ll be sitting at 80mph on the motorway in top gear, so to get maximum shove you’ll want to shift back down to fifth. Amusingly though, coming out the other side of that torque hole in first and second gear does ping the front wheel off the ground with entertaining ease.
The CB1000R's engine might be old in superbike terms, but it's still ferocious in an upright naked bike
Despite it all, the Honda has enough torque pretty much everywhere to make reasonable progress – but the up-and-down quickshifter is so smooth and well tuned that you’ll be happily dancing through the gearbox without thought for the clutch lever.
The Katana makes just a little more power than the CB1000R at 148hp, but it feels completely different to the Honda. While the CB has a slightly rough edge to its engine butt-feel, the old GSX-R lump in the Katana is buttery smooth.
The Katana uses Suzuki's tried-and-tested litre engine from the 2005 GSX-R 1000
It’s one of those engines that delivers deceptive amounts of power – initially it feels slower than the CB1000R, but you look down and see you’re going a good 10mph faster than you expected. The Katana’s small nose fairing also makes this the bike to pick for high-speed cruising, and it’ll carry three-figure speeds far more effortlessly than the completely naked Honda.
It sounds like a cop-out, but this is a draw. The Suzuki is smooth and fast, while the Honda has a very un-Japanese and exciting edge to its engine.
One handles like a sportsbike – the other doesn't
When the Katana hit UK roads back in the summer, we only had the chance to ride it on rain-lashed roads, rather than deliciously dry Tarmac. Weirdly, spending the whole of November with the bike did actually mean I had the chance to ride it on dry roads, back-to-back with the CB1000R. And I can report with glee that the Katana’s a good back-road bike for Sunday blasts.
It shares a chassis, forks and shock with the GSX-S 1000, so it’s not stiffly suspended like a proper sports naked. But that means it soaks up bumps well and you’re rarely fired out of your seat while clinging on for dear life. The standard-fit tyres did feel pretty numb though, and the bike doesn’t drop into turns anywhere like as easily as the Honda, and you feel the Katana wanting to push wide, so you have to keep pressure on the handlebars all the way through the corner. But build trust in the tyres and front end and you can still have a ball flicking through country lanes.
The Honda, however, really does have the Suzuki licked. Slow-speed filtering on the CB1000R feels much more natural than on the Katana thanks to lighter steering. And when you pick up the pace the CB just handles like a modern sports naked – it holds a line effortlessly and you’ll probably outpace your sportsbike riding mates if you’re a half-decent rider, thanks in part to the sportsbike-spec Showa Big Piston Forks. The CB1000R’s a much stiffer bike than the Katana out of the box and you will have to stand on the pegs over sharp bumps unless you want to be jolted from the seat – but the handling trade-off seems fair.
Look ma, no hands. Well, two, but they're not taking photos
Special mention has to go to Honda for putting proper rubber on the CB1000R – it comes as standard in the UK with Bridgestone S21s, which warmed up quickly and gave loads of confidence even in the lashing rain – which we had loads of during our test.
The Honda wins here, and by a fairly big margin.
So which is best to live with?
We tested the bikes by using them daily as often as we could. The Honda we tested was in CB1000R+ spec, which adds heated grips, the quickshifter, a flyscreen and some stylish aluminium side panels. The heated grips are worth the upgrade over the base bike alone, and they meant it got used more than the Katana for our 65-mile round-trip commute.
The Katana’s tiny 12-litre fuel tank also counted against it, but if you’re only using it for Sunday blasts then its 100-mile fuel range probably isn’t a huge killer, and it returned about 49mpg on average.
Commuting isn't the Katana's strongest point – the 12-litre fuel tank and lack of heated grips on this bike (they're an option) were a pain
The CB1000R’s 16.2-litre tank tended to get us around 140 miles between fill-ups, but it guzzled a bit more fuel and returned a 38mpg average. Whether that matters to you is completely personal – but I’d rather have the CB’s bigger tank and longer range despite the Honda’s less efficient slurpage.
In terms of what you’re looking at while pumping out the miles, the Honda has the clearer dash, but not by much – and it only gives you a fuel gauge rather than the Suzuki’s more useful range readout. The Katana’s display is a bit more cluttered, and flicking between traction control settings is less straightforward than on the Honda.
In the end, it was the Honda that really won us over. It’s criminal that this bike’s beautiful colour scheme isn’t a factory option, and we’d have it without the deafening Akra system. But for what looks like a sensible, steady-as-you-go Japanese naked bike it has a surprising amount of charm, an outrageous turn of pace and brilliant handling. Add in heated grips and the up-and-down quickshifter and you have a thoroughly modern and wickedly fast naked for £12,599 – that’s £8,000 less than headline-grabbing competition, and I very much doubt it’s £8,000 less fun.
Overlook the CB1000R at your peril – it's a very fun bike, and beautifully put together
So where does that leave the Katana? Well it’s probably going to be sold on its looks – you’ll either love them or hate them. And if you love them you’ll be in for a very quick bike that has decent weather protection but few frills. It’s mad that Suzuki’s not given it a bigger fuel tank, and the engine never feels as lairy as you think a 1000cc lump should be. At £10,399 basic it’s cheaper than the Honda, but you’ll probably want to add the £1,240 Samurai pack for the funky red seat and carbon-fibre bolt-ons, and the £191 for five-level heated grips – so it’s in the same ballpark as the CB1000R. And if you want a smooth-riding bike that turns heads and won’t terrify you, then it’s worth a look.