Accessory-laden adventure bikes capable of battling through the urban jungle to coffee shops in the ‘burbs, appear to be the current trend. Despite appearances, don’t think for one moment that manufacturers have turned their backs on the sport bike.
Sport bikes represent not only the best bang for buck but also the last of the legal highs that you can enjoy in any state. Showroom floors may no longer be wall-to-wall clip-ons and fairings, but motorcycle manufacturers are a long way from abandoning the bikes that made them famous.
So with this in mind, let’s take a look at the best and worst of sport bikes. We’ll take a brief walk down memory lane and throw in a few curveballs for good measure.
The Best Sport Motorcycle Brands
Insane yet civilized, the Supercharged Kawasaki H2
In the late 1960s, the world of motorcycling was pretty sedate until Kawasaki introduced the H1 Mach III and everything went up in smoke, quite literally.
The 500cc two-stroke triple with a staggering 13.2 quarter mile, had a power to weight ratio that gave it the drop on everything else on the road. Even though the Mach III handled like a pig on a skateboard and could be out-braked by a box cart, Kawasaki had made their mark as the fastest two-wheeler on the street.
Even though the Mach III handled like a pig on a skateboard and could be out-braked by a box cart, Kawasaki had made their mark as the fastest two-wheeler on the street
Pushing their reputation for speed, the ’70s and ’80s brought them plenty of track success, which resulted in sport bike sales on the street. Groundbreaking motorcycles such as the Ninja GPZ900R, ZZR-1100, ZX-6RR, and ZX-7RR all benefitted directly from race-proven technology.
Over 30 years later, the ZX-10RR is still taking World Superbike Championships, while the ZZR1400 became the fastest accelerating sports bike on the street (0-60 in 2.5 seconds). That was until the “Big K” outdid itself with the H2.
Kawasaki had to use all the incredible resources of its aeronautical, electrical, and chemical divisions to build the 1000cc, trellis-framed, supercharged H2. Making it the fastest sport bike in the world that you can still ride on the street.
Groundbreaking Honda CBR900RR Fireblade
It may seem crazy, but up until 1984, the fastest, street-legal sport bike in the world was the Vincent Black Lightning. It held this incredible record for 35 years before the Honda VF1000R nudged it off the top slot by 1mph.
Shortly afterward, the rest of the Japanese manufacturers picked up the gauntlet. The tug of war for bragging rights to the fastest sport bike title finally ended when Honda weighed in with the 176mph CBR1100XX Blackbird.
If the CBR600 range broke new ground in the middleweight sport category, then the CBR900RR Fireblade turned the world of sport bikes on its head. The 893cc Blade was just 4-lb heavier than the 600 and a whopping 76-lb lighter than its nearest super sports competitor, the FZR 1000.
The Fireblade tore up the sport bike rulebook and was the first Honda to bear the RR prefix
The Fireblade tore up the sport bike rulebook and was the first Honda to bear the RR prefix. Today, its legacy is still going strong with the CBR1000RR-R-SP. This red and blue rocket ship packs cutting edge technology straight out of the company’s RC213V-S race bike. Talking of which, if you’ve got a spare 150K hiding down the back of the couch, you can buy an RC213V-S for the road.
Suzuki Hayabusa, the Blackbird eater
Gixer fans the world over will have 1985 indelibly etched in their minds. It was the year that the GSX-R750 ‘Slabbie’ burst on to the scene. Its alloy box-section perimeter frame and oil-cooled engine, made it look as if it had rolled straight off the track.
One year later, the GSX-R1100 stole its thunder, although, at almost 50-lb heavier, it was nowhere near as nimble as its smaller brother.
Fast-forward a decade, after losing ground to the opposition, Suzuki came back with the most radical upgrade to date; the SRAD 600 and 750.
By 2001, the 1000cc class became the one to fight over, and Suzuki responded accordingly. Using a bored and stroked engine inside a strengthened frame, borrowed from the Gixer 750, the formula of 1hp/kg was enough to make the new GSX-R1000 a class leader.
No mention of Suzuki sport bikes would be complete without including the controversial Hayabusa. Launched in 1999, the legendary Busa was the first 200mph bike straight out the crate.
With a 9.87 quarter-mile, excellent handling, and jaw-dropping looks, even the Busa’s name raised a few eyebrows. In Japanese, a Hayabusa is a bird of prey that feeds on blackbirds.
In Japanese, a Hayabusa is a bird of prey that feeds on blackbirds
Yamaha broke their teeth on 2-stroke sport bikes, and their success on the track is legendary. Phil Read gave the factory their first world championship. The tradition was carried on by Giacomo Agostini, Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, and Valentino Rossi.
The factory has always had a reputation for innovative engineering solutions and class-defining bikes. In 1984, Yamaha started the whole middleweight sport bike class with the XJ600.
The XJ was the first to feature monoshock suspension and three-disc brakes. One year later, Yamaha pushed the sport bike envelope with the FZ750.
This bike defined Yamaha as a valid sport bike manufacturer with the FZ heralding the start of the legendary, rev-hungry, 5-valve Genesis engines.
Two years later and the mighty FZR1000 hit the streets. Interestingly, the launch was held up by Yamaha’s test riders. They insisted the bike’s handling should be more street and less track-focused.
The gamble paid off and the FZR1000 became Cycle World’s Bike of the Decade.
Occasionally, a motorcycle comes along that turns the bike world upside down. For Yamaha, enter the 1998 R1.
Thanks to Yamaha’s innovative engineering skills, designing a stacked gearbox for the R1 was a game-changer. The result was a compact engine that allowed for a shortened wheelbase while still retaining a long swing-arm.
The R1 caught the opposition off guard and it ruled the liter-class sport bike world. For the next three years, the supply of the R1’s only just met demand. The all-new 165mph R6 achieved much the same success in the middleweight sector, with both R6 and R1 models also being the first to offer fuel injection.
The opposition finally caught up and passed Yamaha’s superbike flagship. However, in 2009 when the engine received the cross-plane crank, lifted straight from their MotoGP winning R1’s, Yamaha once more nosed ahead.
Thanks to the Desmo-engined SS 750 and 900 models, Ducati has always been the epitome of pure sport motorcycling at its best. Big, heavy, and challenging, the rumbling V-twins offered a riding experience at the opposite end of the spectrum to the well-mannered Japanese alternatives.
Ducati sport bikes were an acquired taste until 1994 saw the launch of the 916. Often called the most beautiful motorcycle ever built, Ducati could have sold its entire first-year production run to American buyers before they even left the factory.
Often called the most beautiful motorcycle ever built, Ducati could have sold its entire first-year production run to American buyers before they even left the factory
The bright red 916 wasn’t just a runaway success on the street, either. Thanks to Carl Fogarty and Troy Corser, Ducati notched up 34 race wins and four World Superbike Championships in rapid succession.
Today, Ducati’s range of V-twins and V4s offers some of the most advanced electronic rider aids on the market. Their original belief in powerful engines in lightweight chassis still gives them that unique Italian flair.
BMW may have made its reputation on big ponderous twins. However, when they eventually threw their hat into the multi-cylinder sport bike ring, the motorcycle world was in for a shock.
Launched in 2009 to compete in the World Superbike Championships, the S1000RR enjoyed such good feedback, BMW decided to let it loose on the road a year later.
It arrived in the showroom at a price point right between the more expensive R1 and slightly cheaper GSX-R1000. Unfortunately for Yam and Suzuki, it blew them and everyone else, right out of the water.
The S1000RR was faster, more refined, packed a class-leading 190bhp, and featured ABS, dynamic traction control, and four riding modes as standard. It was enough to blow the other 1-liter sport bikes into the weeds, and with its superior braking and electronics package, could go from mild to wild at the push of a of a button.
This Italian manufacturer may have slipped under your radar, but when it comes to sport bikes, they are a real dark horse. Having a reputation for small-bore scooters, Aprilia shocked the motorcycling world with the launch of the RSV Mille in 1998.
The 1000cc, V-twin superbike had Ducati in their sights, and the 170mph Mille was good enough to give their fellow Italian’s some sleepless nights. Aprilia pushed the envelope further with the launch of the Tuono.
A naked Mille with motocross bars, the Tuono was labeled the ultimate streetfighter. The most recent line-up of the range features a V4 engine in two sport bike variations, the RSV4 RR and tricked out RSV4 1100 Factory.
Cashing in on their 294 Grand Prix race wins and 54 world titles (the most of any European manufacturer), Aprilia also produces 50cc and 125cc full-on race replicas to catch sport bike fans early.
John Bloor’s Hinkley Triumph resurrected the British motorcycle industry to take on the might of the Japanese manufacturers. Although considered too big and top heavy, their original sport bikes, the 1200-4 Daytona and 900-3 Super III, have become collector’s items.
The same can’t be said for the 4-cylinder TT600; the factory’s attempt at breaking into the middleweight sport bike market. Blessed with great handling and brakes, but mauled by the press for its horrible throttle response and poor fuel mapping.
Blessed with great handling and brakes, but mauled by the press for its horrible throttle response and poor fuel mapping
The wholly redesigned Daytona 675 triple was a different story; both the press and public loved it, with one magazine stating it was ‘possibly one of the greatest sport bikes of all time.’
Now seen as a niche manufacturer of exotic sport bikes, MV with their red, white, and blue race bikes, once dominated the track.
More recently, the 1000cc 183hp MV Agusta F4 R312 briefly held the world’s fastest bike title. The factory’s current line-up consists of the F3 675cc and 800cc sport bikes and top of the range 1-liter 212hp F4.
It may seem like no-one has ever built a dodgy sport bike. If you look hard enough though they’re out there hiding away, in the back of workshops or under tarps.
Who could forget Suzuki’s sporty, half-faired Ducati wannabee, the TL1000S? On paper, it had everything, everything that is, apart from handling. The over-fancy spring and rotary damper rear suspension lost the plot when hot, causing scary tank-slappers.
The over-fancy spring and rotary damper rear suspension lost the plot when hot, causing scary tank-slappers
Talking of Ducati, they don’t get off the hook so easy either. The 750 Ducati Paso had a jelly-mold full fairing that morphed into the side panels and seat, totally enclosing the engine.
The air-cooled, V-twin race-rep would run hot and coupled with a fuel pump that flooded the carb, made it a pain to ride on the street. Not great for a bike costing $2.5K more than a GSX-R750.
As for Lamborghini’s only step into the sport bike market, the 1000cc Design 90 looked strangely like a Ferrari Testarossa. With orders for 50, they only built six before shelving the model.
A lot of negative press appears to surround motorcycles made in India and China, but are they that bad? The answer is, yes and no.
You may be surprised to know that KTM (RC390), Yamaha, Honda (CBR 250R), and BMW all have bikes built in Indian factories. Taking it one step further, the BMW G 310 GS and R, were even co-developed with Indian bike giant, TVS Motor Company.
The collaboration led to TVS launching the Apache RR310. This incredibly stylish, well-built sport bike uses the same engine and chassis as the BMW but looks a lot classier.
As for China, the jury is still out. Small-bore sport bikes like the Loncin GP300, Taro GP2, and Zontes 310, all enjoy good looks and high spec.
Some, like the Zontes, even have Bosch fuel injection and ABS systems, so are aiming at western markets. Unfortunately, the country is still struggling to get away from a reputation of outrageous clones, non-existent quality control, and horrendous reliability issues.
Models like the Yayama 150 and Jida JD250 are unapologetic Yamaha R1 rip-offs, while the Wonjan WJ300GS takes it to a whole other level. With its bright red Ducati Panigale bodywork, seat and tank, and a 916 under-seat exhaust, it clearly shows the extent of their counterfeiting culture.
Other styles of motorcycle may be more popular but when you venture into the world of best and worst sport bikes, knowledge is power. Even if environmentalists succeed in choking out the internal combustion engine, the sport bike will continue to rule the roost. Lightning LS-218 anyone?
Other styles of motorcycle may be more popular but when you venture into the world of best and worst sport bikes, knowledge is power