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TWO-WHEEL RIDE

Torn Between Two Rockets: Honda's and Yamaha's 600cc Sportbikes

May 27, 1999|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine a pair of nonidentical twins.

Sibling H is a bit unassuming but is solidly built and has tremendous reserves of power. Although quiet, H is absolutely self-assured.

This sibling would be a splendid companion with which to share a variety of adventures, whether near home or far away. Within minutes of your first encounter, you and H are going to be great friends.

Sibling Y is also extremely powerful but flashier than H and a touch more eager to party. Y is sleeker and slightly temperamental and can wear you out after several hours.

But Y, though not as instantly knowable as its sibling, can be just as good a buddy.

Enough analogy. We're talking motorcycles here, sportbikes equipped with 600-cubic-centimeter, four-cylinder engines. These lightweight little rockets are enormous fun to ride around town or, best of all, on a twisty canyon road. H and Y are the newest of the breed.

H is the Honda CBR600F4 (commonly known as the F4), and Y is the Yamaha YZF-R6 (known as the R6).

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Both were introduced to great acclaim for the 1999 model year. And though they are different in personality, a clear favorite has not yet emerged among motorcycle critics either here or abroad who have staged exhaustive comparison tests.

It is universally agreed that both bikes are supremely worthy, but some test teams have given the nod to the Honda and others to the Yamaha.

To confuse matters further, while it had been generally accepted by testers that the Yamaha is the more racing-oriented of the two bikes, the Honda has been doing well on the pro circuit this season. Of the five American Motorcycle Assn. races held so far in the 600 SuperSport class, three have been won by F4 riders.

We'll get to our own, non-racing comparison test ride in a moment. But first, who is buying these bikes?

"The younger riders not so much into the comfort or brand-loyalty thing," answered Gil Niv of J.D. Power & Associates. Niv headed up the first-ever comprehensive survey of motorcycle buyers done by the Agoura Hills-based number-crunching company known for its automobile studies. The cycle survey canvassed buyers of 1998 models.

The median age of those who bought 600-class motorcycles was 26, whereas the median for the entire survey was 41.

"That's obviously significant," Niv said. "The buyers as a whole are skewed toward baby boomers. But not in this group."

When asked to name the top reasons for their choice in motorcycles, 70% of the 600cc buyers included engine performance; for the full survey, that figure was 30%. Handling was also important: 37% for the 600cc class versus 19% surveywide.

The median price paid for a new 600cc bike was about $7,500, compared to the industry median of about $10,000 (reflecting the popularity among baby boomers of the more expensive cruiser and touring motorcycles).

The list price for a 1999 Honda F4 is $7,899; the Yamaha R6 is $7,999.

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My riding buddy Marry Sorensen (a moto-journalist much closer to the median age for 600cc riders than my baby boomer self) and I compared the attributes of the F4 and R6 on a weekend ride that took us on back roads in San Diego County.

By the time we took the ride, I had already spent a few days commuting on the Honda and unabashedly adored it. After a long period of being on relatively big motorcycles, I found zipping around on the F4 akin to leaving the heavy luggage at home and carrying only a light backpack.

It was easy to lean and yet always felt stable, and the power it could summon up--even in top gear--was awesome. While I had the bike, I found myself inventing reasons to get out for even a brief ride.

I sang the praises of the F4 to Marry, who had already had the R6 test bike for a couple days.

"Yeah?" she challenged. "Wait until you try this one."

We switched bikes, and after just a few miles I was indeed ready to be unfaithful. The R6 is only about five or 10 pounds lighter than the F4--according to tests, they both weigh about 400 pounds. But the R6's barely lower weight, plus its sleeker profile, made a difference; it is easier, for example, to use the opposite knee to push the bike down in a lean.

Maybe a bit too easy. It took more concentration to control a sharp lean on the R6, making it less of a good choice for inexperienced riders.

The R6 also had great spirit and a few nice touches. Although the instruments on the F4 were stylishly arranged in a classic package, I appreciated the digital speedometer on the R6 and the fact that the instrument panel included a clock.

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A few hours down the road, we switched again, and I expected to feel a bit disappointed by the F4. No way. It felt great to be back on the Honda, and I fell in love with it all over again, especially appreciating its incredible smoothness. Its seat was more comfortable over the long haul, and its riding position allowed me to use my legs more easily to shift my body position for turns.

Marry felt the same way.

"I can't find a flaw with this motorcycle," she said of the F4. "It does everything well."

All the same, she thought the R6 won out on looks (I disagreed), and she found the R6's ride to be "gratifying."

We were in a quandary.

"So," Marry asked at a refueling stop in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, "which one is your favorite?"

"Whichever one," I answered with a happy sigh, "I happen to be on at the moment."

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Two-Wheel Ride surveys the motorcycle scene in Southern California. David Colker can be reached at david.colker@latimes.com.

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