THE SPORTING MIDDLEWEIGHTS
PHOTOGRAPHY: PAUL R. HALSWORTH. DALE BOLLER. COOK NEILSON
Other than the predictable responses that always follow the publication of a Cycle Magazine street-bike comparison test ("You guys are full of it!"), the most persistent—and plaintive—comment is, "Do one on the Middleweights." So here one is—a Middleweight Comparison Test, including two entries from Honda (CB550F and CB500T), two from Suzuki (GT380 and GT550), two from Yamaha (RD400C and XS500C) and one from Kawasaki (KH400 Triple). The bikes we've selected for this comparison may or may not jibe with your idea of what constitutes a proper Middleweight, but we feel that the selection process was valid and responsible. To fanciers of the Honda CJ360T, Honda CB360T, Kawasaki KZ400 and Yamaha XS360C, we say, too small, too econo-oriented. To those loyal to the Hercules Wankel 2000, the Benelli 500 Quattro and the Laverda 500 Twin, we say, too exotic.
At the center of our Comparison Test was a 1300-mile toot from our Westlake Village offices out across the desert, then Northwest following the Sierra mountains to San Jose, then down along the Pacific Ocean and home. The trip lasted for five
days, during which time each of our testers rode each bike five separate times, and had a chance to sample every bike in every kind of terrain. At the end of the ride, the testers were asked to fill out score-sheets. Categories in which the bikes
were evaluated were Overall Engine Performance, Overall Comfort, Fit and Feel, Overall Noise Level, Vibration Control, Suspension Compliance, Mountain Road Handling and In-Town Ease of Operation. Possible scores ranged from zero—unacceptable—to nine—outstanding. The final results in each category were determined by averaging the scores of all the testers; the overall rank order was determined by the category scores and by the staff's subjective opinions.
Accompanying those members of the staff still able to get around after the Great Dirt Donk Expedition were three outside experts: Bob Johnston, who had been with us on the Donk trip and the "Eight for the Open Road" comparison (August, 1975); Marty Dickerson, Bonneville record holder and motorcycle mechanics instructor at the West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills, California; and Bill Ocheltree, former Motorcyclist Magazine staffer and currently a freelancer. They were invited hopefully to offset the hell-raising tendencies of the staff; as it turned out they raised more hell than we did, even though all three of them are between 40 and 50 years old.
• One-time progress is a one-time thing; if ever a mechanism bore testimony to that idea, it's the Honda CB500T. The bike came to these shores in the mid-Sixties as the second largest-displacement Japanese motorcycle (the 650cc Kawasaki was first) of all time, and was trick beyond belief. It was a vertical parallel twin four-stroke with double overhead cams, torsion-bar valve springs and the most complex cylinder head casting anybody had ever seen on a motorcycle. It was ugly; Honda fixed that in short order, and by the early Seventies the 450 was generally held to be superior in all regards: it was fast, handled well, was easy on maintenance, had a disc front brake and was a marvel of smoothness when matched against other bikes of the same general description (the Triumph 500 and 650 among others).
Had Honda clung to the 450 as we knew it then and simply dragged it forward year after year with no significant changes, chances are that, in the face of giant strides made by Honda's now-plentiful competitors, the bike would not have fared well. But it would have done better than the current 500T, because the old 450 was a better motorcycle.
The 500 is a cosmetic masterpiece; the T-bike is lovingly painted, plated, styled, trimmed and striped Its appearance is its message; once you plunk your buns on the saddle and fire up the engine, it's all downhill. The center console vibrates itself into a blur; the footpegs and stands all stick out too far; the bike leaps ahead and falls back with a will of its own; the brakes on both ends need to be improved; the rubber-mounted handlebar does little to shield your arms and hands from the engine's incessant quaking and shaking.
Well, you're thinking, it's probably cheap. Wrong-o. It costs $1610, suggested retail, or $400 more than the RD-400C or the Kawasaki KH400. Well, maybe it's fast. Guess again. Does it get good mileage? Yes—just under 40 mpg over the duration of our comparison.
Only under the most carefully chosen set of circumstances could the 500T be presented as an admirable motorcycle; it does look good, probably won't break, and will be economical to operate and not especially fussy. But in this displacement range, you can do so much better—as our comparison will clearly show.
• A stunning blonde appeared on Cycle's June 1971 cover along with the first CB500 Four, and a bold description which read "The Honda Magic Lantern Lights Again." After electrifying the industry in 1969 with a 750 Four, Honda was back at it two years later, injecting a massive dose of technical class and good motorcycling into a rather ordinary collection of midsized street bikes. The miniaturized 750 offered smaller people with smaller budgets the same prestige, technology, reliability, comfort and grand-prix exhaust note that the heavier, more expensive 750 had used to unseat the reigning kings of motorcycling. Reduced size gave the 500 an important advantage over bigger bikes—agility, nimbleness and better handling—and a strong appeal for those who could appreciate subleties.
The little Four was a brilliant motorcycle and a big seller. Within two years Honda updated it to performance levels reached by other brands reacting to the original CB500, and thus the 550 was born in late 1973. The extra 50cc brought the displacement up to Suzuki's 550, helped justify a price hike from $1500 to $1600 and ensured that several other costly improvements would not go unnoticed. For 1975's model year the CB550 four-piper was joined by the bike in this test—a sportier-styled CB550F which featured a four-into-one exhaust, a new tank, center key location, different seat and the implication that cafe styling and even higher pricing might be accompanied by more engine performance. It wasn't. The bike still has more horsepower than any other in the test, and engine performance equal to everything but the RD400C's acceleration and the GT-550's top speed.
As a five-year-old basic design, the 550 is mature by Honda standards, and that means there aren't any detail problems left. Its tiny features have come to be expected from the Japanese, and they're there in droves on the 550F. The bike's maturity also means you're stuck with its shortcomings, which are drive-train snatch and dragging chassis hardware in fast right-hand corners. The gearbox, still clunky and uncertain after five years, is another item you'll have to put up with.
Nothing else about the bike requires tolerance. Mostly the CB550F is delightful, but it comes at a price ($1825)—the highest in the group by 8 percent. Nevertheless it will still sell more units than any of the others because more dealers have it, because it's a four-stroke, and simply because it's a Honda.
• The KH400 is the best of all Kawasaki three-cylinder two-strokes. To appreciate that, you have to understand where Kawasaki was coming from in 1968, and where they're coming from now. In the late Sixties it became evident that Kawasaki, which had always seen itself as a performance company, was prepared to take no prisoners in the drag-o-derby. The H-1 500 was a menacing little monster: quick, unstable, unpredictable and terrifyingly fast. The 750cc version debuted late in 1971, and was even better—or worse—than the 500 because it was faster. But the 350cc triple, presented in early 1972, was somewhat tame. It was quick and quirky, in that fine Kawasaki tradition, but it showed the first signs of the company's willingness, having become "established," to view restraint as a not altogether unacceptable quality. Shortly thereafter Kawasaki introduced the Z-1— that factory's first, quality, non-disposable motorcycle—and their bikes have been getting more attractive ever since. The bike in question here, the KH400, is significantly different from its predecessor and continues Kawasaki's quest for more-decent and less-flashy equipment.
It has been freshened-up in many areas for 1976. Its air inlet system is new, its chassis is more liberally gusseted, its muffler has been re-engineered for better sound control, gearing has been stretched to help mileage and reduce cruising engine speed, and the KH has been fitted with a CDI ignition system to prolong plug life.
But even with its little package of developments and refinements, the KH retains the kind of character that had it highly-placed in several of the performance-intensive test categories, and ranked down near to the bottom in the categories that emphasized comfort. It's light (the lightest in the test at 378 pounds with a full tank), inexpensive ($1239 suggested retail) and has the kind of power-to-weight ratio (12 Ibs/hp) that guarantees invigorating acceleration. It is also, in keeping with the larger-displacement Kawatriples that preceded it, a bit harsh in terms of finish, styling and myriad details which other factories handle more delicately. But crude or no, the KH is a genuinely fun motorcycle to be around— as long as you're tuned into good handling and hot engines.