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Kawasaki GPZ 600R vs Yamaha XJ600

1984 Yamaha XJ600 1985 Kawasaki GPZ 600R

Jan 1985

Monday evening. I handed back the Tenere to Yamaha and squelched around their yard, my oversuit dragging in the puddles and a trickle of water running down my neck. I pondered on the reality of being a bike tester and dreamed about being one in California, where all you seem to need are leathers and a black visor. Humph.

I was sad to see the big single go as it was such a useful tool in these conditions, its torque making it a real cinch to ride in the wet, and I wondered if the four's claimed 72bhp was going to come in as easily as the single's claimed 42 steady old nags. Eventually they wheeled out the red and white XJ and I hopped on board, perversely wondering how they could afford to produce two machines for the 600cc four stroke market. Perhaps they can't, which would account for their recent financial state.

It seemed ludicrously small and compact after the single's eyeball poppin' seat height and cartilage poppin' tank. The XJ's bars were nicely set forward and narrow, the footrests reasonably rearset and high and the saddle slim but comfortable. Sitting in the perfect position for getting on with it, tucked neatly in behind the fairing, I cast off into the murk with visor down, oversuit reefed in and mainbrace spliced.

With all hands to the bars and feet to the pegs I was in second gear before clearing the yard. Whereditgo? First gear is definitely low.

I was pretty unimpressed with it all as I bopped home since it felt rewy and twitchy in the wet and liable to spit me off if I got it wrong. Instead of being able to use engine torque I was back to the old game of fanning the gear pedal about four times until something registered and then treading gingerly. When I reached the A3 slip road, however, feeling thoroughly heaved off, I drew a straight bead on the dual carriageway and let it go from about four grand. I didn't even know what gear I was in as the six speed box had temporarily lost me.

By the time we hit the carriageway it was up to about 5000rpm and climbing, with the speedo swinging past the 80 mark. I found another gear, a thousand rpm lower, and got stuck in, the rain completely forgotten. If the laws of the universe had permitted it the sun would have come out.

A complete transformation from tedium to fun had been wrought simply by twisting the throttle remorselessly and keeping the revs up, and to an extent this is how our relationship stayed. It was much more fun being nasty to it than being nice, as is often the way in this naughty world of ours.

You can't write it off as an all or nothing machine, however, a Jekyll and Hyde. If you are just tooling around, with the optional wicker shopping basket on the front, it will happily pull from 2000rpm and simply gets more frantic the more revs you pile on. There is no big leap at any revs, but keeping it below seven or eight thousand is advisable if you want to keep the cauliflowers in the basket.

Personally I don't like constantly thrashing a machine just to keep a good pace up so I tried changing up at 6000rpm, which would drop the revs by 1000, and winding it on. Bad move. Unless you have experienced it you just would not believe the racket it makes at SOOOrpm. The source of the din seems to be the frame mounted half fairing, but the cause of it is the vibration that sets in and only slowly clears as the revs rise. It was irritating enough for me to use the machine as an all or nothing, Jekyll and Hyde bike, either staying under four or winding up through to seven or eight. After about ten seconds of that chainsaw buzz I would become so crazed that I would just hit the throttle regardless, sending cauliflowers in all directions.

This is all very strange since the XJ600 is based on its predecessor, the 550, which was a pretty smooth machine. The engine has naturally received a fair amount of attention, and it can only be assumed that not all of it was welcome. The four pots have been pushed out to 598cc via a 1.55mm bore increase to 58.5mm and a stroke job from 51.8 to 55.7mm. Bigger valves have been lobbed in, now 31.5mm inlet and 27mm exhaust, operated by new higher lift camshafts and the crank, conrods and pistons have all been lightened. Despite the loss of the YICS swirl system, but with 10:1 compression and larger, 32mm carbs, the all black engine churns out a claimed 72 geegums at a giddy 10 500rpm. Our dyno test pulled out 61bhp at the rear wheel which is still pretty good for a 600 four with 'only' two valves per cylinder. The alternator runs behind the crank which keeps engine width down to a svelte 16in. It is a small, compact and powerful unit.

It feeds through a six speed gearbox that seems positively jam packed with cogs. Okay, so this is a revvy bike but it's not as if the powerband is only needle wide so I don't really see the point of six gears from a practical point of view, especially as first gear is so low you can easily pull away in second. However they are all easy to find and upward changes don't need the clutch, so you just have to resign yourself to looking like Thumper every time you pull away from a junction, your left foot a blur of motion.

It is just as well that you don't need the clutch all the time, since it is a pretty stiff item. It is stronger than on the 550 and certainly feels it. I think part of the problem was confined solely to our battered test bike, but it still didn't feel as if that nice silky feeling was in there at all. The same could be said for the throttle, and the choke which needed two hands to turn, and twisted the whole left hand bar assembly.

The dials are lifted from the XJ900, which should keep production costs down, with the redline relocated at 10 500rpm. The speedo is on the left with the tacho in the middle and a fuel gauge on the right. The gauge seemed surprisingly accurate and managed to resist telling me too many flagrant fibs. The switchgear is pretty good, with the shining star being Yamaha's exemplary self-cancelling indicators, which I reckon are the best in the known universe. The bar assembly is rounded off, so to speak, by end weights: by now we all know why they are there.

If the other departments have some grey areas then the suspension is shining white. It is a neat combination of well proven kit without the added burden and expense of dubious techno whizzwozz.

Considering that this is Yamaha's mid-range charger I am ever so slightly amazed that it is all so, well, normal. I mean, look at those frame tubes: they are actually black and round all over (as opposed to round only where you can't see them, eh Suzuki?). They wrap round the frame and each other until you have a good solid frame on which to hang the suspendies. A good start. Lester Harris of frame fame fails to see the engineering advantages of square section frames and I reckon that is good enough for me.

I wandered round the front end, my eyebrows raising until they hit the back of my neck. Where were all those hoses and castings for the anti-dive that make the brakes spongey? Where were all those stick-on letters — AIDS and so forth? Where were the unlinked air caps that ensure the fork legs have different pressures in even before they start to leak? All I could see was a sturdy pair of forks with a brace which actually looked like it might. And what is this — an 18in wheel no less. How untrendy. Wandering round to the rear I took in the excellent Monocross rising rate rear suspension that seems to go on everything these days — good thing too.

Despite its archaic spec sheet compared to this week's bikes the XJ handles like the proverbial roller skate. It has the big advantage to those of us with lazy dispositions in that you can't spend hours setting it up but you just have to get on and go. The only adjustment available is in the rear shock, which has adjustment for preload and nothing else. You can tinker with the shock setting via a neat little toothed belt and offset nut arrangement that means you can choose any of the five settings without actually hurting yourself or losing the skin on your knuckles — that can be left for when you are walking along. Only joking haha. Gulp.

Once under way what took me aback at first was the speed of the steering. I'll admit to being more used to large lumps that need constant wrestling to keep under control (some of the bikes have been tough too), so I started off by trying to steer with the bars. Having nearly rammed the petunias on the first six roundabouts I stumbled across I figured that maybe, just maybe I was doing something a little wrong.

You can make it steer and twitch really easily so just slight movements seem to be the answer with delicate input from the botty English. When ridden properly it has a lovely taut feel to it that convinces you it is not going to get out of shape. You can slam it around with relative impunity although large bumps or series of them come right through and jar you off line. The front forks seem to be the main offender here, and the front jumped sideways every now and then, but only if you were pushing hard and banked well over.

Even at high speed it tracked steadily along without having the suspension higher than position three, and without that vague feel you often get with bikes at speeds over the ton. This of course is one advantage of having a bike weighing 460lb that is bowling along at a rate that would keep most 750 owners happy.

You have to work a little harder than them of course, especially if the road dictates plenty of drastic speed changes (like if it's full of policemen). I was finding I was often having to come down three gears for corners and still being dumped at the wrong end of the tach. Top gear is definitely no overdrive, and would pull towards the red in a suitably determined manner so long as you had over SOOOrpm dialled in.

The bodywork backs up this performance and looks really vigorous in a slinky kind of way. The 4.18 gallon tank doesn't look that big but stays slim and tucked in, leading into the shaped and comfy saddle. The fairing blends into this line well, even though it vibes a bit (despite rubber mountings) and dumps wind and rain straight onto your patellas. Eek.

The tail section is the only real oddity, with grab handles joined by what looks like old melted down fork braces — ie tin. It is different, which is what we are always demanding but to my bloodshot eyes it is also a bit de trap, know what I mean John? The tail hump holds the toolkit and a little velcroed envelope for papers which was rather neat I thought. At least you can keep your speeding tickets dry. You get to this lot by undoing two catches and lifting the seat off, a la CX, as it is not hinged.

The styling is obviously in the new Yamaha look, seen on everything from the 350LC to the FJ1100, and gives a good family continuity while also looking dead smart. The fairing and belly pan are pretty much the eye catching base of it all and, I am afraid, the wallet catching. The fairing and belly pan total £464. Keep this fact away from your insurance agent and avoid getting too close to absolutely anything.

To do this is not difficult since the brakes are pretty brill, being nicely progressive all the way without needing excessive death grips on the levers. The front pair of opposed piston discs are relatively better than the rear and, considering there is no anti-dive, there is little of the nose in the tarmac act when you throw out all drag anchors.

This little package led me to start riding it really hard. Maybe it is just my perverted sensibilities, but it seems to beg to be thrashed and have its neck wrung for hour after hour until you arrive at point B having gone via the rest of the alphabet. I ended up holeshooting bigger bikes, scraping me boots off and generally having a shark of a time.

This behaviour knocked the fuel consumption down to high forties from the mid fifties, but that is still not a bad figure for such fun-filled abuse.

The only bad times were at night and, worse, in the rain. I suppose you can't expect to have your best thrills under these conditions, but the first time I exceeded one hundred miles per measured hour on her majesty's highway it started to go a bit strange. The headlight was OK, if a little scattered, but suddenly the fuel gauge started to blink rapidly. This was really off-putting since it is a relatively big gauge right in your line of vision. I was put off. When I went to indicate at said speed the indicators refused outright to stay on and I had to hold them on with my thumb to ensure that everyone would know that I was about to cut across their bows and ferret up a slip road.

Both problems disappeared when I returned to legal speed, but at high velocities you don't want any distractions. Perhaps it is a built-in moral patrol device to warn you of possible licence failure.

More serious was a ride away from the Bike Show at Olympia in Friday night rain. Without an oversuit I just wanted to get home schnell, but soon found myself surrounded by coaches and cars bent on Friday night destruction. Cutting through this dangerous mass of jelly, my bulging eyes suddenly spotted the red oil light flashing on. I instinctively went for the clutch but had to just keep going to avoid being run into the tarmac. I managed to pull into a fuel station but could find nothing wrong in the oil department, although there was plenty wrong with me by this time. Assuming it was a short, I squelched off into the rain with the light flashing all the way home, my hands hovering on the clutch and my stomach hovering all over the place.

Since it didn't reappear in the dry I can only assume that it was a short, but that was the third instrument to go on the blink, so to speak, not good at all for a Jap bike and very bad for my English nerves.

Perhaps it was due to the vibes or perhaps it was just our tired test bike, but surely that is how your own machine is going to end up after a year or two anyway — we just accelerate the ageing process. For example, that neat four into two exhaust that made such a nice noise was rusting where the black pipes met the ally end cans, although the rest of the system looked fine.

It was great fun to ride such a hard charger, although it is also a practical pootler and tourer. It is a rejativety-stralgmforward machine in both engine and chassis departments so it might prove durable without lazy bods like me having to do much more than get on and go.

It is a serious shame about the vibes but that is its only structural fault. A pretty good deal for £2300 and at present top of the tree. Hold on, who is this clambering up through the branches waving a set of keys? Tis our Editor, fresh from the jaunt at Jarama, with news of the GPz 600. Hum, suddenly it seems a long way to the ground and I don't feel at all secure.

Pillion Opinion

I do not really think that the XJ600 makes a very good continental touring bike even though the saddle is comfortable — if a little short and nar­row for us both. The problem was the footrests, which gave me cramp in the legs after about 50 miles since they seemed quite high and set to the rear. I also noticed the smell of burning leather as my feet ended up virtually on the exhaust pipes, which seemed too close to the rests. Apart from burning them, the rests also left my feet tingling from the vibration that came through, particular­ly if it was revved hard.

The metal grab handles looked very smart but when the rider accelerated hard for a small gap and I tried to grab them I found that I couldn't get my hands through them if I was wearing gloves as I usually do.

I liked the speedo being on the left, where I could easily see it for once, but I am not sure about seeing the petrol gauge, since on a long run I could watch it go down!

The bike felt very solid on the road and not many bumps got through to me, so the ride itself is comfortable and smooth. Generally I thought it was a fun bike for up to medium distances although I don't think we could carry too much luggage and I would demand plenty of stops to rest my legs.