“I have to warn you, I’m really disappointed.”
Adam Waheed and I have just gotten into an Uber together to head from a MIPS event to the Suzuki Katana launch, and our driver apparently has a story to tell us. Did we do something wrong?
“I just had the Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich…” OK, that’s not what I was expecting. But our driver gives us a little history on the sandwich craze that has swept the nation – someone got stabbed after trying to cut in line for one – and then says that he just ate three and he doesn’t understand why they’re so popular. “It tells you so much about people, bro. We get so caught up with the hype. We’re more interested in the ideal than the reality.” Why am I telling you all this? Because I really wanted to love the new Suzuki Katana. Did I get caught up with the hype?
What I don’t like:
VERDICTThe new Katana takes the name and styling from the original. I just wish it took some of the aggression, too.
Whenever I screw up (which is often), Vy likes to tease me by saying “you’re lucky you’re cute.” I see a bit of myself in the Katana. There are a few little issues, yet, every time I park, I can’t help but look back at it, and I look forward to the next time I can get back on it.
Photos by Nathan May.
Typically when I do a review, I’ll spend some time discussing the chassis, drivetrain, and other core concepts that might be new. That doesn’t feel particularly necessary with the Katana, as it shares a whole lot with the GSX-S1000. So in lieu of a traditional “first ride” review, let’s just focus on the specific things that I like and don’t like so far in my first couple of months with the Katana. Pop on over to Suzuki’s site if you absolutely need to know details like how many links there are in the chain (the answer is 116).
Every time I ride the Katana, I feel obligated to listen to 80s music. Feel free to join in the spirit while you read along.
The appeal of the Katana is mostly superficial – it will only make sense if you like the way it looks. I happen to love it, though I know styling is subjective. If you don’t care for it, then the $2,400 premium over a GSX-S1000 is a waste of money. So let’s start there:
LOOKING AT ITI don’t mean to overemphasize how important styling is by starting with it – my personal garage (and most of the adventure bike segment) is plenty of proof that a bike doesn’t have to be good-looking to sell. But it sure doesn’t hurt!
The new Katana’s styling is the work of Italian designer Rodolfo Frascoli, and it’s his modern take on the legendary look of the original Katana.
The second generation was unfairly looked down upon by the American market (you may have heard it referred to as the “Can of Tuna”), so let’s just skip that one for now. That brings us to the third and current generation. Nathan sees me on motorcycles all the time, and he has mentioned on multiple occasions how good the Katana looks while moving. I strongly agree – this is a beautiful bike and a welcome respite from the robot insect-styling that’s so pervasive in modern motorcycling.
The new Katana is available in two color options: Metallic Mystic Silver and Solid Black. Suzuki reps project sales between the two colors to be roughly half, which is insane to me. Silver is clearly the way to go. Their thought process is that older riders will prefer silver, as it reminds them of the original bikes, while younger riders will prefer black. That makes me feel old, but I think the silver looks better, as the black hides the styling edges and turns the whole bike into a blob in all but the best lighting situations.
The one thing about the Katana that doesn’t work for me aesthetically is the head-on rear view. It looks too much like a crustacean, there’s an insane amount of wheel gap, and I don’t see how it’s related to the original design.
The monochromatic LCD dash is far behind competitors that are using full-color TFT screens, though in this 80s-inspired machine, it actually seems appropriate. It’s generally easy to read except for the low fuel warning light (more on that later) and the clock.
In a perfect world, the new Katana would have a TFT screen so that there would be an optional view that mimicked the iconic opposite-rotating gauges of the original. I know analog-style speedometers have just about gone extinct, but it would have been a great little easter egg. This isn’t important or a strike against the new bike. I’m just wishing out loud.
Just like with the Z900RS/Z900, Husqvarna Svartpilen 701/KTM Duke 690, Honda Monkey/Grom, and many other retro-inspired machines, the Katana is not several thousand dollars better than the bike it’s based on, though I do think it is that much cooler. Is that worth it to you?
RIDING ITThe styling means nothing if it’s not fun to ride, and thankfully the Katana doesn’t disappoint. Press the starter button and the bike fires up with a noise that actually sounds like a motorcycle. Euro 5 emissions regulations have neutered the exhausts of several bikes I’ve ridden as of late, but this Katana is still Euro 4, and that might be why it sounds so pleasant when you wind it out.
A big reason why I like riding the new Katana is how compact it feels. A friend of mine who’s been riding since before the original Katana debuted sat on this bike and looked at me with a confused face – “did they make it a 500?” I can understand why he asked. Curb weight is 474 pounds but it feels like less to me, and the miniature windscreen makes the bike look smaller than it is:
Compared to other retro specials, the Katana has one big advantage: power. The motor produces 150 horsepower at 10,000 rpm and 80 lb-ft of torque at 9,500 rpm. That’s more power than you’ll ever need, and it makes this bike a delight to point and shoot. The delivery characteristics are typical inline-four: it’s a bit dead under 4k, wakes up around 6k, and has a brief moment of sufficient vibration to mix paint around 7k. That was all expected, but I was shocked by how comfortable this Suzuki is. As seen above, the bars have quite a bit of rise to them, so you sit relaxed and upright, and the pegs have enough space for a reasonable knee bend.
On the negative side, the bars that make the Katana comfortable in everyday riding also make the posture a little awkward when I want to enjoy curves. In aggressive cornering, I felt a bit of understeer, and the bike required more input effort than I expected. Turns out that the Katana has more of a rear weight bias than the GSX-S1000, and it comes through at the limits. For the second time in this review, I mention Yoshimura: they make lower handlebars and rearsets for the Katana, and I would LOVE to try them out. With that said, the Yoshimura bars don’t clear the stylish gas tank, so they require custom steering stops that limit the turning radius. Bummer.
Despite that, there’s a lot I like about being in the seat of the Katana. It feels well put-together, the controls are nice to operate (including one of the smoothest cable clutches I’ve ridden in a while), and the engine is easy to work with because the fueling is smooth. Brembo (front) and Nissin (rear) calipers combine to form a braking system I have no complaints about. Both the ABS and traction control work well.
Suzuki also gets bonus points for making the traction control quick and easy to turn off on the fly if you feel like lofting the front wheel for a moment.
I had some preconceptions that the new Katana would be aggressive like the original model, but that’s not the case. In fact, I actually had a bit of trouble trying to figure out who this bike was for.
LIVING WITH ITThe original Katana was a quick bike that tuners like Yoshimura delighted in making faster. Suzuki even sleeved down the bike from 1,100cc to 1,000cc at one point so they could compete in AMA Superbike racing. It had a stiff suspension, proper clipons, rearsets, and top-of-the-line technology like TSCC (Twin-Swirl Combustion Chambers). The riding position might be mild now, but, at the time, it was radical. Motorcyclist summed up the original by saying, “Suzuki’s pure-sport design priorities pay off with excellent handling at racing speeds both on the street and the track. The Katana is one of the most enjoyable high-speed handlers you can buy, and would make the ideal basis for a production road racer.”
The new Katana isn’t really any of those things. Modern sportbikes have left everything else in the dust, so no one’s expecting this new motorcycle to be a racer. But the clipons have been ditched for the comfortable raised bars, the rearsets are replaced with mid controls, and there’s nothing top-of-the-line in this motor: it’s basically the GSX-R1000 motor from 2005. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad bike – it just means it doesn’t push boundaries like the first Katana did.
No one expects the Katana to be an Iron Butt contender either, but I was hoping that it’d be capable of some weekend exploration/mini-touring in addition to the weekday commute. There are three things that get in the way of that:
1) The crustacean tail doesn’t provide enough opportunities for you to secure your luggage.
2) The “windscreen” is barely taller than the fuel tank, so windblast is strong above 75 miles per hour.
3) The 3.2 gallon fuel tank means you’re looking for gas before you cover 100 miles.
Speaking of fuel range, the low fuel warning is crap. I could easily see someone running out of gas with the new Katana because a) the range is so low and b) the warning is too hard to notice. I can’t remember the last time I rode a motorcycle that didn’t have a yellow indicator (flashing or not) that lit up when I hit reserve. The Katana just gives you a tiny flashing pump symbol that’s the same color as everything else. It’s one thing when you’re stopped and looking for it, but it’s way too difficult to notice when you’re riding. The dash is so low that you don’t even see it in your peripheral. You can only view it if you specifically look down:
My last hangup is with the price. The Katana will set you back $13,499 plus a $395 destination charge, and that’s a solid chunk of change for a bike that doesn’t have an IMU, quickshifter, ride modes, cruise control, or provisions for luggage – all things that you’ll get with a (much uglier) Yamaha MT-10 for $500 cheaper. Or, going back to the start of this review, you could get the same dynamic qualities in a GSX-S1000 with a $2,400 discount if you don’t crave the Katana’s styling. I also wonder how many people will cross-shop the Katana with Kawasaki’s less-powerful Z900RS, and that can be had for $11,199.
WHO’S IT FOR?First of all, this review’s been going for a while. I think you need another 80s song to keep the theme going:
It feels like Suzuki asked themselves what people who enjoyed the original Katana 30-40 years ago would want today: styling that evokes the original bike, ample but not outrageous horsepower, and decent comfort, even if it won’t be ridden for too long at a time. I want the Katana name to represent something more aggressive (I think that this bike with the Yoshimura handlebars, rearsets, and exhaust could be amazing), but I understand why Suzuki went this way.
The new Kat was quite enjoyable as a loaner for a couple of months, but I want something that’s either more versatile or more focused if this is to go in my own garage. The fuel range is a dealbreaker for me (even just as a commuter, I’d have to fill up every two days), but maybe you’re more tolerant than I am. It appeals to me as a second bike to pair with an all-rounder, but if I was looking for a “fun” second bike, I’d seriously consider just getting a nice example of the original Katana instead.
More so than with any other bike I’ve reviewed in a while, I think the Katana requires you to take a test ride. It’s a bit contradictory – fast but a little fidgety at the limit, comfortable but not able to go very far before requiring a fill-up, and (relatively) expensive but not very-feature packed. Still, good looks can let you get away with some issues, and it does make me feel special when I’m on it.
Just like with the Katana, the hype was a bit overblown, but it was good enough and I’d have one again. So get to your local Suzuki dealer or check out the national calendar to find out when you can try one for yourself! I’m very curious to know what you think. Just make sure that you don’t get overconfident about whatever you decide, because you might be wrong…
When the original Katana was released, Cycle Guide said “if visual impact is the Katana’s primary reason for being, then it is a rousing, unqualified success.” Four decades later, that statement still rings true to me. Motorcycles are often an emotionally-driven purchase, and the new Katana is an extreme example of that. You can get the performance for cheaper, but nothing else looks like it – and for some people that will be good enough.
Check out the 2020 Suzuki Katana!
MY GEARHelmet: Icon Airflite in Rubatone livery – $250
Jacket: Alpinestars SP-1 in Black/Red – $439.95
Jeans: Pando Moto Steel Black 9 – $320
Gloves: Alpinestars Oscar Robinson in Brown – $89.95
Shoes: Dainese Metropolis in Black/Anthracite – $179.95
Backpack: Velomacchi Rolltop 40L