2009 KTM 1190 RC8 vs. 2008 Suzuki GSX-R750 Comparison Test Review

7 Feb 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on 2009 KTM 1190 RC8 vs. 2008 Suzuki GSX-R750 Comparison Test Review
KTM 1190 RC8

2009 KTM 1190 RC8 vs. 2008 Suzuki GSX-R750 – Comparison Test Superbike Bookends.

Photography by Chris Cantle

If ever there were a sportbike that has weathered the test of time in a changing two-wheel climate, it’s the Suzuki GSX-R750. When it first emerged in the European and Canadian markets in 1985 (arriving stateside the following year), it defined what a race-bred superbike should be. Over the years, this 3/4-liter inline-Four has been battle-hardened and refined through numerous updates and wholesale revisions, but one constant has remained: Suzuki’s commitment to the Gixxer’s hypersport philosophy.

While adjustments to global Superbike racing rules over the past decade have left this lone “classic” 750 Four out in the cold in terms of top-level competition, it remains a superb example of well-balanced performance and was voted Best Superbike in Cycle World ‘s Ten Best Bikes as recently as 2006. Suzuki’s essential formula for success the past several years has been to simply endow its agile-handling 600cc supersport platform with an increased bore and stroke to deliver a sizable boost in horsepower and torque.

The backside bookend of the recently revised Superbike rulebook is the KTM RC8, the latest arrival on the sportbike scene. Don’t be fooled by the 1190 designation on our orange-n-black testbike’s flanks, because actual displacement of its 90-degree V-Twin engine is 1148cc, 52cc under the current 1200-cube allowance given to Twins in sanctioned World Superbike competition. Surely KTM has Ducati to thank for taking a “build it and they will come around” initiative with its 1198cc 1098R.

Race fans can look forward to 2010 when KTM plans to mount its own factory-backed assault in WSB.

As was the case with the original GSX-R all those years ago, the RC8 was first launched in Europe (last January) and is now finally reaching our shores, with 450 units slated for the States in 2009. It was well worth the wait as a few wrinkles have been ironed out of KTM’s first effort in building a pure sportbike. Our testbike was one of 50 early arrivals that KTM North America refers to as 2008-and-a-halfs.

What this amounts to is that while our bike features the fuel-mapping and gearbox refinements of a 2009 model, it wears ’08 bodywork that curiously has three slightly mismatched shades of orange. If that doesn’t sound like the level of finish quality you would expect from a bike that lists for $19,498, KTM agrees and promises a more consistent hue will be applied to its 2009 machines.

But hey, the stopwatch is colorblind and we were eager to see the outcome when our pair of unlikely foes met on the street, track and strip. Before things got rolling, both bikes were weighed with a dry fuel tank, revealing that the RC8 weighs 4 pounds more than the 419-pound GSX-R. No surprise as to which bike packs the most muscle when strapped onto the CW dyno, as the larger-capacity RC8 built a mountainous plateau of torque hovering around 70-75 foot-pounds across its rev range.

Although residing some 25 ft.-lb. lower, the Gixxer’s torque curve proved equally flat and broad. While the RC8 holds an 8-peak-horsepower advantage, comparing output through the midrange revs reveals the full value a big Twin offers as the Katoom pounds out 40 more ponies than the silky-smooth Suzook at 8000 rpm!

As impressive as the Austrian mill’s Schwarzenegger-like strength may be, how does it fare when pickin’ on someone its own size? Overlaying the power graphs of the RC8 and its natural rival—the Ducati 1098—delivers a greater appreciation for the linear nature in which the RC8 builds power. While the Italian Twin’s delivery sags a bit from 4000–6000 rpm, it takes command above 7500 rpm with a strong upper thrust of 10–15 more horses.

Another comparison of interest is pitting the RC8 against that other Austrian-built engine, the 1125cc Rotax Twin that propels the latest Buell. Here, the RC8 maintains a 5 horsepower advantage throughout the bottom half of the rev range, with the two converging at 6500 rpm and running pretty much neck-and-neck to their rev limits.

Getting back to the players at hand, we spent plenty of time commuting on freeways and city streets aboard the KTM and Suzuki. While neither has long-distance sport-touring on its résumé, they each offer a means for tailoring rider ergonomics. Both allow the ability to alter footpeg location; we opted for the more-relaxed lower mounting points on both when riding on public roads.

The clip-on bars of the KTM can be raised 15mm from their standard location, a quick and easy alteration that also proved to our liking. In the raised position, knuckles do contact the mirror stalks when making full-lock U-turns, but that’s a minor concession for overall improved comfort. While KTM’s bolt-on subframe is height-adjustable, we left it in its standard lower (and less forward-canted) position.

All levers and foot controls on the KTM are adjustable (as are the Suzuki clutch and brake levers), and the shifter linkage allows the rider to tweak the amount of leverage and the ratio of movement to suit his or her preference in resistance and amount of shifter throw when changing gears.

Oddly, Associate Editor Blake Conner and I held differing opinions about the RC8′s shift quality. Conner’s concerns stemmed from catching an occasional false neutral when upshifting from second to third on the street. I have experienced few bikes that change gears as effortlessly and smoothly as our RC8 under light-to-moderate acceleration.

The slightest tug on the clutch lever and light toe on the shifter snicked up through the gears with blissful precision, although I, too, experienced the false neutral during a full-boil pass down the dragstrip. Buuurrrrring!

The Suzuki’s shift quality was uncharacteristically notchy until we put about 1000 miles on the bike, when the cog-to-cog clicks began living up to the buttery feel we’ve come to expect of Gixxers. The 750 is equipped with a back-torque-limiting clutch that also applies additional pressure on the plates under acceleration load to allow use of lighter springs for reduced lever effort. While the system works well, my hunch is that it introduces additional driveline lash.

Combine this with the engine’s light, snappy response, and it can make upshifts under casual acceleration very herky-jerky if you don’t have polished technique. An effective workaround when trying to be extra-smooth pulling away from stops is to simply skip-shift from first to third, as there’s enough low-end power to keep the engine from bogging.

This year’s GSX-R750 has the Suzuki Drive Mode Selector, and utilizing its B mode takes some of the bite out of throttle response, which works well in smoothing the ride in town. Something I’ve noticed about this latest SDMS implementation is that unlike the GSX-R1000′s B mode, which reduces power at all throttle settings, the 750 in B only does so at less than half-throttle, with no effect at all in the top two gears.

Pretty clever, really, as it provides softer initial response, yet delivers unrestricted power when you pin it, without needing to thumb the bar-mounted toggle. Horsepower is hobbled to 600-class levels when C mode is in effect.

Maintaining steady cruise speed on the KTM is rather difficult due to it having a very light throttle spring and a ton of torque available at the slightest twist of the wrist. Slab joints and bumpy roads are a bitch! As with the GSX-R, however, fuel mapping feels spot-on.

Another hot topic worth noting is the blazing heat that radiates from the RC8 engine. It’s bearable if you’re all leathered up, but wearing ankle-high boots and blue jeans makes riding the KTM like standing too near a BBQ. Unlike with the KTM, there’s no need to suit up or wear Nomex knee-highs when hopping on the Gixxer for a quick and cool cross-town errand.

While these bikes manage daily duties well enough, backroad burning and track attacks are the root of their existence. Into the mountain roads of Angeles National Forest we rode, putting the GSX-R and its stock-fitment Bridgestone Battlax BT016 radials to the test before fitting Pirelli Dragon Supercorsa Pros, standard on the KTM, so both bikes would have equal footing when we later gathered comparative lap times around the Streets of Willow Springs road course.

Retracing the route aboard the Pirelli-shod Suzuki verified there were no tire-induced handling quirks. This back-to-back evaluation was of particular interest due to the RC8 having notably lighter steering than the GSX-R. The tire swap had no perceivable effect on the effort required to change direction aboard the Gixxer, and its steering neutrality and overall stability were maintained.

Comparing chassis geometry of the two reveals near-identical wheelbase and rake, but the KTM triple-clamps have more offset and its trail is shorter than that of the Suzuki. This, along with more leverage from the RC8′s 2-inch-wider handlebars, is certainly part of what gives the KTM its catlike agility. Both bikes feel quite competent when hustled through hairpins and medium-speed switchback transitions, carving up everything we rode like a couple of Ginsu knives through fresh cod.

But with its loads of torque anytime, anywhere in the rev range, the RC8 is just that much easier to ride on roads where you may be reluctant to open the throttle before the exit of a blind bend comes in view.

Impressions at the technical Streets of Willow were equally close, with Blake and I both logging our quickest lap times aboard the GSX-R—Conner at 1:24.95 compared with his RC8 best lap of 1:25.27. I managed a best time of 1:21.90 aboard the Suzuki while setting a 1:22.15 on the KTM.

Here, we both found the RC8 chassis a bit too lively when exiting bumpy corners, and its throttle was on the touchy side when trying to settle the bike mid-corner. There was no question that the Twin pulled harder once off corners, but the GSX-R’s steadfast stability over the rough stuff and the forgiving nature in its initial throttle application allowed corner-exit drives to begin earlier. It also instilled the confidence to carry more speed through the track’s hairiest section—a crested third-gear chicane—that had the RC8 shaking its head when pressed to make a quick time.

Both bikes come equipped with steering dampers, the KTM’s an adjustable WP unit while the Suzuki’s ECU-controlled damper adjusts automatically on the fly. I conducted an experiment with the Gixxer when the bike was on CW ‘s dyno: moving the shaft with the unit unbolted while running the bike and observing its speedometer. My findings indicate that damping remains light and constant until wheel speed surpasses 90 mph, at which point damping resistance increases in relation to speed.

While the RC8 won the backroad battle with its robust torque and light, easy steering, it needed to mount a comeback as the GSX-R got the nod in both urban use and at the racetrack. Would our final test venue—straight-line acceleration and top-speed testing—provide an upset? At first, I had doubts about how effective the KTM would launch at the strip, due to its very narrow clutch-engagement span.

But it turns out that the Suzuki is the difficult one to get out of the hole, requiring clutch feathering through much of first gear while keeping revs above 12,000 rpm to avoid bogging the motor. Ouch! On the Twin, a more-relaxed 6000-rpm launch is all it takes, with the midrange muscle allowing full clutch engagement almost immediately. The 0–60-mph times pretty well tell the story of the orange bike’s crushing victory through the quarter-mile.

And when the two were run past the radar gun, I suspect that aerodynamics account for the 169-mph Gixxer topping the RC8 by 3 mph in speed.

Add it up and it looks as though we have a stalemate until you dig into your wallet and realize that you can purchase nearly two $10,599 GSX-R750s for the cost of one RC8. The superbike climate may have changed, as the big KTM demonstrates, but the GSX-R750 is far from its sell-by date. Just as it has been practically every year of its existence, it’s one of the best performance values on the road.

KTM 1190 RC8
KTM 1190 RC8


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