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Suzuki GSX1100 Katana 1981 Road Test

It goes faster than most other bikes; it leans over further; its brakes have the power to lock the front wheel at over 100mph. It combines the surging power of a big Oriental multi with the racer ride of a Ducati. Its looks are either sleek or outrageous depending on where you stand but either way it's a head-turner.

It's called Katana. What more can you ask?

The styling is, according to Suzuki, reminiscent of the elegant sweep of the traditional Japanese sword. I'm still unable to see the resemblance; the chunky, slightly crumpled lines remind me more of a kukri or a billhook.

At first I didn't like the look of the 1100 at all. But having gradually discovered that the bike works very well, I found that it became a lot more attractive. Appearances apart, my only reservations about the bike are still connected with the cosmetic superstructure. It seems to me that in their attempts to get the right styling, the designers have forgotten to build a bike which is intended to be used.

For instance it will not be easy to keep the two-tone seat clean. And the humped tank, while giving a comfortable riding position, is prone to get scratched by zips and buckles. The plastic panels and "fairing" are expensive and the many gaps and spaces will easily fill up with road dirt. I suspect that the nicely finished Katana could easily start to look very secondhand.

Having said that, there are also some very worthwhile design details, like the choke control dial and the (unconnected) extra accessory switches mounted on the side panels. The speedo and electronic tacho are squeezed into one of the smallest and lightest instrument clusters so far to appear. The ratchet-handle for adjusting the rear spring pre-load is another nice touch.

The riding position is good for fast open road riding and even better at the track; but the narrow, dural clip-ons and the tipped-forward riding position conspire to put too much weight on the rider's wrists for town traffic. It makes the steering heavy and emphasises the Suzuki's biggest drawback — its stiff suspension. The riding position lets the rider take road shocks through his legs and reduces the amount of jolts to the minimum. But even so, the Katana gave its rider a very rough time on anything except smooth motorway or circuit scratching where there isn't time to notice the discomfort.

It also tended to disguise the effect of the anti-dive front forks. These have a spring-backed valve which is lifted by pressure in the brake circuit and re-routes damping oil inside the forks. When the brakes are off, damping is normal; when they're on hard enough to lift the valve the suspension can still work normally but the damping is increased to cope with the extra load of the transferred weight.

The system doesn't prevent dive but it does slow it down, preventing violent pitching when the brakes are put on hard. It also reduces the tendency for the suspension to pump down and bottom out when the bike is braked over bumpy surfaces.

If the brakes are used in a corner, it slows down the usual reaction of the brake grabbing and making the bike sit upright. In these respects the anti-dive gives the rider more control; the degree to which it works is impossible to tell without being able to isolate the anti-dive mechanism and get a straight comparison. The nearest we could get was with a 650 Katana.

At the same speeds the 1100 could be braked noticeably later and deeper into corners and was easier to handle when braking over bumps. If the suspension had been right to begin with, it might have been more noticeable.

There is a disadvantage, too, caused by the extra lever movement necessary to lve and plunger mechanism. This gives a false lightness and a slightly spongey feel to the brakes. Two or three times — mainly during experimental runs at the track — I locked the front wheel up without realising how much braking force I was using.

The wide Bridgestone tyres were stable right through to top speed and, more reassuringly, held on tight through the corners. During the track test we could heel the Katana over until its stand, footrests and exhausts were on the floor, which felt, at times like a fairly crazy cornering angle because the 1100 is blessed with a lot of ground clearance.

The tyres coped with this well and for the same level of effort (read fright) the Katana could lap Snetterton 3 or 4 seconds faster than bikes like the 900 Honda.

It was only when the tyres were welt worn down that they began to go into sudden slides when pushed and generally lost their safe, secure feeling. The bad news is that it took only 1000 miles of fairly fast riding to get to this stage.

Performance is obviously where the Katana is at. It's a street racer constructed for pleasure more than for serious touring. Based closely on the GSX1100 it finds more performance through less weight, less frontal area and better aerodynamics.

It is some 24 Ib lighter than the conventional model and it's lower and sleeker, with a much better riding position for getting out of the breeze. Suzuki say they made a lot of use of a wind tunnel in getting the best blend of drag and styling.

Our figures show a slightly better standing quarter; it tripped an 11.66 on the second run, dumping the clutch from a lowly 4000. The MIRA timing lights then refused to function and we know that generally we can knock several tenths of a second off the initial times, simply by practice. That could put the 1100 into the 11.2 second region, making it a lot faster than the E version.

Top speed would tend to confirm this, at 143.4 mph it, and the 1100 Kawasaki, are the fastest stock roadsters we have run.

The engine has a new exhaust cam and the intake to the air box has been modified. But as it has been decided that horse-power figures do not have sufficient vai ue to Justify being included in our tests, we are no longer running bikes on the dyno. So it is im possible to tell whether the uprated performance comes from more power or is a direct result of the lower riding position and reduced weight.

The only other engine changes appear to be aimed at greater strength. The needle roller rods run on a more durable crankshaft, different valve seats are used and the top piston rings are in stainless. The generator rotor is more compact, presumably to put less stress on the built-up crank at high engine speeds.

Like the (currently unavailable) 750, the 1100 has BS34 carburettors; the 1000 cc version which is just arriving in the UK has VM32s.

Considering the performance, the fuel consumption isn't too bad; averaging around 40 mpg, the 4.8 gallon tank gives a good range. This is a very broad average, though — depending on the conditions the consumption could vary from 26 to 60 mpg.

On the whole, with slick controls — and one of the best gearshifts fitted to big bikes — the 1100 Katana is both a challenging and a satisfying bike to ride. Softer springs would make it better still but this isn't a serious fault in its rote of short, high-speed blasts across the countryside.

And the Katana is not for the serious or the practical long-distance rider: that would be like using your triple-forged, deep chilled, finely ground ceremonial sword for chopping wood.