Suzuki Katana: First ride review

Suzuki Katana: First ride review

It’s been almost 40 years since the original Katana saw the light of day. But now, Suzuki is bringing out a brand new Katana, combining the classic lines with modern tech. We travelled to Japan to see what it’s like

Spend any amount of time in Japan, and it quickly becomes clear that everything they do, from cooking to gardening, from flower arranging to engineering, is carried out with great care, precision and devotion. There’s no room for half measures or a ‘that’ll do’ attitude. The thinking seems to be that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. And if getting the right results takes time, so be it.

So, you can imagine the shock when Suzuki engineers – who would consider three years a reasonable development cycle for a new bike – learnt about the timeframes of the Katana project. They were expected to go from a design concept into mass production in just over a year – and this was a remake of the Katana, one of the most iconic bikes in the company’s history. You could hear the engineers’ screams of despair a mile away.

Adding to the challenge was the fact that the whole project was based on a concept bike created by Italian designer Rodolfo Frascoli, with no consultation with the factory. Suzuki bosses simply saw it at a show and decided to make this the rebirth of the Katana. So, the Suzuki team was given an artist’s impression of a bike, and next to no time to turn it into a finished article.

There was a silver lining, though. Suzuki had a choice of tried and tested components packaged into its street bikes. And in a way, the project started just like the development of the original Katana, which got its looks from a European design house, Target Design, when its legendary designer Hans Muth penned the blueprint for the 80s Katana. Muttering something about déjà vu, the Suzuki engineers realised that resistance was futile – so they wiped their tears, rolled up their sleeves, took a good look at their GSX-S1000 and started to imagine it in a new shape.

After 14 months, they emerged from the depths of the factory blinking and frazzled, but they had done it: they had turned the GSX-S into the new Katana, ready for mass production – and it looked the business: a combination of design cues from the original Katana and modern touches, the final product was very close to the design concept, and it had a look that the factory could be proud of. It was high-fives all round the engineering department.

Divisive looks

The Katana is always going to be a bit of a Marmite bike – it’s not to everyone’s taste. Given its fairly niche market and the huge cost involved in developing a new motorcycle from scratch, it made sense for Suzuki to take the GSX-S and base the new bike on that. But that didn’t stop them making the Katana a bit of a looker.

The front of the bike is more faithfully based on the old Katana. There are sword-inspired lines, a stubby screen, a die-cast mudguard strut, and of course, a rectangular headlight. What stands out there is the single-unit handlebar, which rises higher than the old Katana’s clip-ons. Apparently this approach was chosen for rider comfort and better steering.

Towards the back of the bike the looks are a lot more modern. Gone are the twin shocks and pipes, the big seat and the traditional mudguard. In their place you have a single shock, a four-to-one exhaust, a sleek duo-tone seat – and thanks to the licence plate hanger attached to the swingarm and a new subframe, a tail that looks clean, light and very modern indeed.

So what’s actually new?

Apart from the looks, there are not many differences between the new Katana and the existing GSX-S1000 on which the Katana is heavily based. The engine in both bikes is the K5 version of the GSX-R1000 four-cylinder 999cc powerplant, although with a different tune and a mellower set up. It was first bolted on Suzuki’s flagship sportsbike in 2005, and has proven to be both effective and reliable over the years. Power figures are good too, even with the current tune: 148bhp at 10,000rpm and 108Nm of torque at 9500rpm. For a bike with a wet weight of 215kg, those are healthy figures.

The frame, suspension, brakes and wheels are also shared between the bikes, although the suspension settings have been changed for the Katana. As the seat has moved forward 80mm and therefore more weight has transferred to the front, Suzuki has stiffened the forks slightly. Adversely, the rear suspension is slightly softer. The old rims get brand new rubber on them in the form of Dunlop Roadsport 2 – according to the tyre company, they’re developed specifically with the Katana in mind.

Also derived from the standard streetfighter is the three-stage traction control, which can also be switched off. ABS is non-switchable.

The differences, apart from the looks, are mainly to do with the riding position, which has been made more relaxed by keeping the pegs where they are but lifting the seat 15mm to 825mm to give your knees a bit more of a relaxed angle. The bars are also slightly higher, making the rider sit more upright – looking cool doesn’t have to come with a backache.

One victim of the styling exercise was the tank, shrunk down to 12 litres from the GSX-S1000’s 17-litre unit. With the claimed consumption being 19kmpl and the figure on the dash after our fairly rapid test ride on closed roads being 13kmpl, depending on your riding style you have a range of around 150-225km. It’s not a huge distance, but Suzuki are expecting most buyers to use this as a bike for fun rather than commuting or touring. That should do for a Sunday dash.

On the move

The world launch ride event of the Katana was arranged just outside Kyoto in Japan, and Suzuki had closed a section of a twisty mountain road for us. This meant that highway cruising and town riding were out of the picture, but in fairness it was exactly the sort of environment where you might expect the customers to want to ride their Katanas.

Jumping on something loaded with as much legend and emotion as the Katana is special. Technically, this is just another modern bike, but if you look past all the Katana history and forget its roots, you’re missing the point.

Either way, as we started our ‘hill climb’, the initial feelings were pretty much as expected. The riding position was relaxed, the engine smooth, and the whole package worked effortlessly.

One instant discovery was the improved throttle feel. If you’ve ridden the 2015 GSX-S1000 you’ll probably remember the initial throttle opening being rather abrupt. But fear not: the shape of the throttle grip cam has been changed for the Katana, making the power come on less abruptly when the throttle is first opened. Power still builds quickly as the throttle is opened further, but the snatchiness is almost entirely gone and the little that is left is easy to ride around.

The excellent throttle feel, combined with the light clutch and an effective rear brake, make slow riding easy. The only thing to note is that Suzuki’s Low RPM Assistance raises the revs a little when the bike thinks that you’re about to stall. This means that you have to pull the clutch in slightly earlier than you normally would to take the drive off the rear wheel at crawling speeds.

Reading the dash is easy, with your speed, selected gear and revs dominating the view. You can also see trips, fuel consumption, range, clock and traction control settings. Controlling the latter is easy with the buttons mounted on the left side of the bars. The dash is a simple LCD item rather than a swanky full-colour TFT jobby. A slightly more radical Katana design would have been nice, but it does the job.

As expected, the K5 engine delivered power by the bucket load, and it did it smoothly, steadily and without a fuss of any sort. Our test route was very windy with some very slow corners, and if you wanted to shoot out of those with real gusto you needed to be in the right gear. However, if you aren’t trying to break every speed limit on your route you’d get away with a gear higher or lower.

The gearbox on the test bike was a little stiff, probably just because it was so new, but changes were accurate and although the bike doesn’t come with a quickshifter you can easily get away with clutchless shifts.

Since we were on closed roads, there was a good opportunity to push the bike a bit harder. The Katana was quick to respond to demands for speed, and negotiated corners with confidence. Pushed harder, the suspension felt a little harsh, and for a bike of this type it wasn’t the most agile (perhaps because of the hard front, soft rear suspension set up). I had to ride faster than I normally would to find those traits though, so they are unlikely to be an issue at legal speeds on open roads.

Braking power is available in abundance, with the Brembo calipers doing the hard work at the front and a single Nissin caliper at the rear. The ABS system is not switchable, but even on the damp and cold roads we were riding, it didn’t prove to be overly intrusive. I only noticed it coming to my aid a couple of times under very heavy braking. To be honest, I was happy it did.

As the closed test environment was limited, we had no chance to get on to big open roads and reach steady cruising speeds, but a bike with no luggage capacity, no wind protection, and a 12-litre tank is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice as a big-miles tourer anyway. However, in its natural habitat the Katana performed well.

Worth the money?

The new Katana is a capable streetfighter, and a bike that lends itself to fun times in the saddle. Add to that the distinctive looks and all the Katana heritage, and you have a competitive package in the market.

Using the GSX-S1000 as a base for the Katana may have meant that in reality this is more of a styling exercise than the creation of a brand new bike, but when the starting point is as solid as this, it’s difficult to go far wrong – and wasn’t that pretty much how the original Katana was developed, too?

The engine is excellent and the chassis capable, while the level of comfort is more than adequate for the intended use. With the usual Japanese approach, Suzuki has built a bike that works with reassuring predictability.

The electronics package on the bike is somewhat limited, but if you’re not bothered about ride modes and suchlike, you’ll be ok – I didn’t miss them during the test ride.

This is a motorcycle designed to be a fun plaything rather than an all-out commuter or a tourer, and it fits that role well – oh, and then there’s the whole Katana thing, too. Now, if only if it came to India. The Honda CB1000R is already here. Are you listening Suzuki?

Words by Mikko Nieminen

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