Katana Unbound—A Future Built On Two Pasts

The revealing news about the new 2020 Suzuki Katana is not that it is a modern interpretation of an immensely popular 38-year-old motorcycle, but that it is also the tamed revival of a 14-year-old powerplant masterpiece. The new Katana’s heart is the modern-classic, long-stroke, K5 GSX-R1000 engine from 2005–’06, well known as the best and last of the literbike purebred beasts. Revived and domesticated with traction control and ABS, the vigorously gnarly K5 now has manners and a classic style to match its soul. Ride it hard to laugh the anger away.

Classic Katana

The original Suzuki Katana arrived in the USA in 1982, powered by a de-bored version of Suzuki’s proven, powerful, and popular GS1100 engine. It was released in other markets with all of the GS1100’s cubic centimeters intact but was cut to 1,000cc for the States so that it could be homologated for the AMA Pro Superbike Series, where it was raced by champion Wes Cooley for Yoshimura Suzuki. The slightly smaller displacement was made up for with tuning for higher revs, but that somewhat diminished that Katana’s streetability. But no one cared.

All that enthusiasts cared about in 1982 was that the Katana GS1000SZ was a radical-looking motorcycle, and it was still as fast as the fastest. It caught people’s imagination. It caught all people’s imagination. It had a modern look that leapt a decade ahead of the competition. It intimidated. It was the two-wheeled version of the ’80s techno-pop of Adam Ant, Thomas Dolby, and Wall of Voodoo. Suzuki blinded us with style, so no one cared that beneath that Katana bodywork it was just essentially a GS1100 with the same steel backbone chassis of a GS1100, and every other detail of the GS1100… except, maybe, those 100 missing cc.

Style had totally trumped technology. Riders knew it and riders had no problem with it. The Katana was a hit. It was an easy bike to love knowing that one of the fastest production bikes in its day was its platform, plus it had better aerodynamics, for the very few who would actually go fast enough for that to matter. Usually the look of speed is more important than the speed itself.

The original Katana was designed in 1980 by Target Design’s Hans Muth, Hans-Georg Kasten, and Hans Olof Fellström, at Suzuki’s request. The first in this pile of Hanses, Muth, is also credited with penning the now-classic BMW R90S. The Katana shapes were unusual from end to end starting with its fairing that reaches far forward of the headlight, the egg shape of its tank coming to a point at the seat, side covers that blend into the bottom of the tank with mysterious switches, the world’s largest choke lever, a seat that put the rider down low into the motorcycle, and a wildly high passenger pad colored to mimic the silver of the bodywork. In the States, the 1,000cc Katanas were all silver. The original Katana also featured anti-dive hydraulics on each fork leg, which was a popular technological feature for a few days in the early 1980s, until it surprisingly revealed itself as a handling hindrance, long live diving forks.

The Katana’s resulting shock of the new was so show-stopping that even those who didn’t like its styling couldn’t quite figure out how to properly not like it. So, no matter who you were in 1982, you had to keep looking at the bike with either an admiring eye or just to question why.

Future Katana

While the first Katana was styled by Target Design at Suzuki’s request, this newest Katana began life as a project initiated by an independent design studio. Rodolfo Frascoli proposed the project to Suzuki and was granted a GSX-S1000 as a platform. Like the original Katana, this latest version is primarily a styling project on an existing big-bore platform, totally respecting the historic concept of Katana’s birth. Frascoli’s retro Katana project was introduced to the world at the 2017 EICMA motorcycle show, where it garnered such a high level of interest that Suzuki quickly committed to developing the concept for production.

Suzuki’s Kazutaka Ogawa managed the project once it was brought in-house to be realized for production. With more than 20 years of experience at Suzuki, Ogawa quickly massaged the bike into a buildable product that meets international regulations, while maintaining the details of Frascoli’s design. The biggest chassis change required in realizing the production version from the GSX-S1000 is that the Katana has a completely different subframe to support a lowered passenger seat that is old-school one-piece with the rider’s saddle, even though the rider sits at a high 32.5-inch seat height. The one-piece seat, with silver-ish accents on the passenger portion, is of course an important and necessary retro design feature of the Katana.

Unlike the original Katana, the rider sits up on the bike, not down in it, and the new version has low handlebars instead of clip-ons. Additionally, the Katana stands out from the GSX-S1000 with its truncated tailsection and a satellite-style rear fender that hangs from the swingarm. A look under the seat convinces that fender eliminator kits will be a cinch to install. That reminds me, Suzuki gave us a tour of its new factory in Hamamatsu, during which one of the production managers referred to the GSX-R as “Gixxer.” It was so unexpected to hear that said within the formal walls of Suzuki tradition that I asked him if he had actually said it. Yup. Score one for American urban slang.

By basing the new Katana on the current GSX-S1000, the Katana was gifted the K5 powerplant that had originally powered the 2005–2006 GSX-R1000 to multiple AMA Superbike Pro racing championships. For literbike enthusiasts, the K5 engine is a highly respected classic “long-stroke” powerplant with gobs of torque and a wider than wide powerband, making it a more enjoyable streetbike engine. When it first appeared in the GSX-R, it was in the days just before rider aids were available, resulting in the K5 to be known as the last and best of the beasts. It demanded rider skill, with its only traction control provided by the rider’s right wrist, modulated by an ECU located in the rider’s helmet. For some testers, it was one of the very few bikes ever that caused involuntary laughter for its unforgiving performance. Legend has it that a high-end company building its first inline-four superbike spent many hours testing the K5, and above all others considered it as the benchmark with which to compete. So, today tamed with traction control and ABS, the K5 can be appreciated by a wider audience. Really, that is a gift to take advantage of. Long live the K5.

Being a restyled GSX-S1000, the Katana has technical specs that are mostly the same as that bike. But for comparison to today’s GSX-R1000, which is built for the racetrack, the Katana’ K5 long-stroke engine has a 73.4mm bore and 59.0mm stroke, while the current GSX-R1000 has a 76.0mm bore and 55.1mm stroke. The K5 tops out at 12,500 rpm while the current GSX-R redlines at 14,500. Reportedly, the Katana’s Euro 4 ECU not only brings traction control to the package, but allowed Suzuki to moderately reshape power delivery to further improve rider confidence in its streetable performance. Adding to that is a progressive throttle cable volute within the twistgrip that provides a more moderate feel at initial throttle positions than that of the original K5 GSX-Rs.

Like the GSX-S1000, the Katana has Brembo four-piston calipers clamping 310mm rotors with ABS, 43mm KYB fork legs, and a rear shock that is preload and rebound adjustable but with a slightly lighter spring. The ECU is by Denso, throttle bodies by Mikuni, and the Katana rolls on exclusive special-spec Dunlop Sportmax Roadsport 2 tires with added silica for increased cold and wet traction. The initial accessories include: larger windscreen; red calipers; colored seat; graphics kits; wheel pinstriping; carbon-fiber front fender; carbon-fiber clutch cover; frame sliders; Arai helmet, casual-wear jacket; T-shirt; watch; crystal-glass block with image of the Katana; rubber keychain; stickers, 1/12-scale model.

What’s That Blinking Amber Light?

Suzuki’s international introduction of the 2020 Katana took place in Japan, with the riding contained to controlled laps back and forth on the 9.8 kilometer-long Arashiyama Takao Parkway, in Kyoto. This parkway is a gated route with a look and feel like a short slice of the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but with a Buddhist temple. For the introduction the parkway was closed to the public, though the journalists were required to stay on one side of the solid yellow line; the left side. Somehow that quickly felt normal, even though the day started out with snow in the air, which is not my riding normal.

The Arashiyama Takao Parkway has many tight carousels, including a corkscrew in which the road circles around and crosses itself. The first impression was that the road was too limiting for such a powerful motorcycle. But as the day progressed the pavement dried, and the road became predictable, with each corner remaining where it was for each pass, and the Katana began to shine even in the tightest of turns. Although the Katana is no DR400SM, it is balanced, predictable, and surprisingly comfortable, requiring only moderate effort to rail through the tightest stuff despite carrying a liter-full of spinning parts between the rider’s legs.

Oh, that engine… The throaty sound, the power delivery, the low-end grunt; there are great reasons for it being a classic beast of joy. With so many turns within our 9.8-kilometer laps, there was only one place where it was worth bothering to knock the Katana up a gear above second, but because we were inhibited from passing I only saw 142 kph (88 mph) on the speedo on the only short, straight section of the parkway. A happy 100 mph was clearly, easily possible. Wait, am I supposed to pretend that we obeyed traffic laws? I appreciated the six-position brake lever, this being the first time that I wasn’t using the closest setting. We had plenty of opportunity to test the brakes, noting that the parkway had a wonderful selection of things to impact if one strayed off the pavement. But the views were wonderful, which I only noticed when stopped.

The traction control is quiet, smooth, and unobtrusive, as we expect of modern systems, with the rider only knowing when it is engaged due to an accompanying flashing amber light on the dash. The rear shock felt a tad too soft, but not enough to bother slowing down the rebound. The spring did not bottom out at any time; it just double-stroked over the deepest stuff, which is no big deal. The front-end feel is spot-on and predictable. Basically, the only thing really lacking with the suspension was something to complain about.

Seating is comfortable and for someone 5-foot-10 you’ll be half up on your toes at a stop, which is normal for a bike built for balanced cornering performance. The bars are located perfectly for comfort and ease, and the controls worked as advertised and anticipated. The footpegs are aluminum without any rubber padding, and despite my wearing a pair new Dainese roadracing boots with metal sliders and hinged carbon-fiber linings, there was never a missed shift or confusion of feel at foot. Pretty much everything is quite right about the Katana’s performance, with the only real complaint that we didn’t get to ride more than we did. Admittedly, there was no practical need to ride more because the bike is easy to know, but there was a great deal of emotional desire to ride more.

There’s every chance that some might diss on this bike because it basically only differs from the GSX-S1000 in looks and rider position, but that would be missing the point of its purpose and like complaining about the original Katana for being the exact same concept. Those differences are precisely its character. Plus (a big plus), any excuse to ride or own a K5-powered motorcycle is a great excuse, particularly one with modern electronics and rider aids. The double retro reference to Suzuki’s performance history is a meaningful bit of sporting romance. With the classic K5 engine it’s a complete package of highly capable and competent and fun-ass performance. Although there are bikes with more advanced electronics, few provide the easy fun this Katana achieves. Hopefully when the MSRP is announced it will complete the deal. Being a 2020 model, dealer delivery is not expected until November.

ENGINE: 999cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC inline-four, 4 valves/cyl.
BORE X STROKE: 73.4mm x 59.0mm
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER: 150 hp @ 10,000 rpm
CLAIMED TORQUE: 79.7 lb.-ft. @ 9,500 rpm
FUEL SYSTEM: Suzuki Fuel Injection w/ SDTV
CLUTCH: Multi-plate wet, back-torque limiting
FRAME: Aluminum perimeter
FRONT SUSPENSION: 43mm inverted KYB fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
REAR SUSPENSION: KYB shock adjustable for spring preload, rebound damping
FRONT BRAKE: Dual opposed four-piston radial-mount Brembo calipers, 310mm discs w/ ABS
REAR BRAKE: 1-piston caliper, 250mm disc w/ ABS
WHEELS, FRONT/REAR: Cast aluminum
TIRES, FRONT/REAR: 100/70-17 / 190/50-17
RAKE/TRAIL: 25.0°/3.9 in.
WHEELBASE: 57.5 in.
SEAT HEIGHT: 32.5 in.
CONTACT: suzukicycles.com

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