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
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
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
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
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.