Yamaha FZR400RR, Suzuki GSX-R400R and Honda NC35, all scream their cre­den­tials

Practical Sportsbikes (UK) - - Contents - Words: Si­mon Har­g­reaves

Re­mem­ber the glory days of the 1990s 400cc Grey Im­port ex­ot­ica boom, with per­fectly formed chas­sis and scream­ing, sky-high red­lines? PS spends qual­ity time with Yamaha’s FZR400RR, Suzuki’s GSX-R400R and Honda’s RVF400 to find out how these 20-year-old mini-marvels stand up to­day

It’s as if edi­tor Jim has planned it. Half an hour ago we sat shiv­er­ing on a moor in the Peak Dis­trict, brown hill­sides still splashed with the milky rem­nants of win­ter snow­drifts like an em­bar­rass­ing ac­ci­dent over a Christ­mas pud­ding. Jim was hold­ing forth on the mad­ness of buy­ing a mod­ern sports 400 par­al­lel twin in­stead of a clas­sic 1990s Ja­panese 400.

“You’d want your head test­ing,” he said, shak­ing his. “Why look at a mod­ern 400? Not only are these bet­ter, at around the same price, but they’ll make money,” he con­tin­ues, wav­ing a frost-bit­ten hand at the cute 1996 Honda RVF400, im­mac­u­late 1996 Yamaha FZR400RR, and hon­est 1990 Suzuki GSX-R400 dec­o­rat­ing a Der­byshire back road. “It’s win-win in ev­ery re­spect. By what mea­sure is a new bike bet­ter?”

Thirty min­utes later we’ve stopped for a bite to eat in sun­nier Mat­lock Bath, emerg­ing from the chippy to find two youth­ful bik­ers ask­ing the ex­act same ques­tion.we run through the specs with them: all mak­ing around mid-50bhp, laser han­dling, zil­lions of revs.we ex­plain how 1990s 400s were when the man­u­fac­tur­ers were at the top of their game, bat­tling to build the sex­i­est ma­chines they pos­si­bly could, born of pas­sion and en­gi­neer­ing ex­cel­lence and not an ac­coun­tant’s spread­sheet. It was a dif­fer­ent time, and we can see that ethos in the build qual­ity, pre­pon­der­ance of alu­minium and thick paint, metic­u­lous high-per­for­mance en­gi­neer­ing and race-spec chas­sis com­po­nents of the RVF, FZR and GSX-R.

“So what are they like to ride?” asks one of the lads. well, well, well, funny you should say that...


Back on the moors, ear­lier in the day, and I’ve just re­turned from a scream­ing rein­tro­duc­tion to the FZR400RR. Last time I rode one was the small mat­ter of 24 years ago, in 1994 – but it was a mem­o­rable trip; 1800 miles to the Bol d’or at Paul Ri­card and back again. Rid­ing a highly strung sports 400 that far tends to leave an im­pres­sion, usu­ally in the wrists, neck, lower back and psy­che.

To­day, a quar­ter of a cen­tury down the road, the same breed of diminu­tive blood red and ice white jewel flashes across the Peak Dis­trict’s mono­chrome scenery de­liv­er­ing a multi-coloured tonic to the win­ter’s hang­over, its minia­turised 16-valve in­line four whizzing away at over 11,000rpm in a high-pitched siren call that has star­tled sheep, now scat­ter­ing in ev­ery di­rec­tion across the fields.

This is an im­mac­u­late, 1998-reg­is­tered 3TJ1 FZR400RR (prob­a­bly a 1996-im­port), on sale attwowheel Cen­tre in Mans­field for £3150. It’s in re­mark­able con­di­tion; the only con­ces­sions to time are a cou­ple of swapped-out pur­ple fair­ing bolts, EBC brake discs and the red screen – the bike is so de­li­ciously clean even edi­tor Jim, usu­ally al­ler­gic to colour-tinted screens and pur­ple bolts, doesn’t com­plain.

And it’s great to be able to fo­cus clearly on the FZR’S stun­ning, race-spec com­po­nent de­sign; its ta­pered alu­minium swingarm and chunky chain ad­juster block, the cap­tive rear caliper, bolted-on sub­frame, the orig­i­nal, car­bon-style end can with dis­tinc­tive twin-dot­ted straps – even a tra­di­tion­ally ill-fit­ting pil­lion pad seems some­how in­ten­tional.

When we picked the Yam up from Two Wheel Cen­tre, sales boss Andy con­firmed the Yam’s pre­vi­ous owner was a lady

– which may ex­plain why this FZR’S sus­pen­sion is in such un­usu­ally fine fet­tle. Nor­mally it’s the first com­po­nent to suf­fer with age and over­weight riders. But the al­ready softly set-up FZR400RR’S un­ad­justable forks and preload-only shock have, de­spite their age, re­tained a full sup­ply of damp­ing – giv­ing the bike a sure-footed, con­ven­tional ride and, more im­por­tantly, op­ti­mal bal­ance.the FZR tracks the Peak Dis­trict’s pot­holes and rip­pled tar­mac with a full stream of com­mu­ni­ca­tion; no wal­low­ing and flump­ing into sub­mis­sion, and only a big hand­ful of brakes has the front end protest­ing un­der the weight of too many cooked break­fasts.

As the last of the stan­dard RR, non-sp FZR400S, the 3TJ1 was the long­est-serv­ing mem­ber of Yamaha’s 400cc sports fam­ily. The se­ries kicked off in 1986 with the FZR400 1WG and, a year later, an SP (2TK) with close-ra­tio box and en­gine mods; both were a devel­op­ment of the liq­uid-cooled FZ400R of 1984. Un­like the equiv­a­lent FZ600 of the time, the FZ400 used a liq­uid-cooled mo­tor, demon­strat­ing the im­por­tance of the 400cc ca­pac­ity in Ja­pan – the ul­tra-com­pet­i­tive do­mes­tic rac­ing scene and li­cence re­stric­tions fu­elled a spec-war which meant the smaller class of bikes were, ef­fec­tively, the tech­nol­ogy and devel­op­ment flag­ships (all that big-bore sports­bike tackle we got ex­cited about over here in the mid-80s? Al­ready old hat to your av­er­age Ja­panese teenager of the time). So the PRE-EXUP 1WG was fol­lowed in 1988 by the twin-head­light FZR400R EXUP 3EN1, it­self su­per­seded by the 3TJ1 we have here in 1990 and which re­mained in ser­vice for another six years (with three fur­ther vari­a­tions of SP model – SPS were Uk-im­ported in 1990 and the RR came over in 1992, coded as the 4DX).

It’s still, even now, a re­mark­able in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine; a fab­u­lously smooth, bal­anced and, above all, shrinky-dink mo­tor.at peak revs you get a very clear im­pres­sion of tiny in­ter­nals spin­ning at im­prob­a­ble ve­loc­i­ties; a host of mi­crop­op­pet valves shim­mer­ing into in­co­her­ence on biro valve springs, a pair of slen­der


camshafts dot­ted with cam lobes like a row of skew­ered baked beans, and four doll’s-house teacup pis­tons all rustling and bustling to­gether in high speed har­mony like a petrol-pow­ered wrist­watch.the Yamaha en­gine is a pre­ci­sion-tooled me­chan­i­cal marvel of small-bore en­gi­neer­ing; it’s the kind of mo­tor that makes you ap­pre­ci­ate the won­der­ful Otto cy­cle ev­ery time you fire it up.

“This has got to be the flat­test pow­er­curve ever de­vised by man,” says James, who’s stand­ing with Jim shel­ter­ing from the wind be­hind a Der­byshire stone wall. “There’s no dis­cern­able power­band; wind it up and let it fly. Per­fect fuelling, too.”

He’s right; the FZR’S en­gine makes its torque across such a wide spread of revs it’s hard to know when to change gear. Swap­ping cogs in the trans­mis­sion, which is so ef­fort­less it’s like step­ping on a footswitch, doesn’t ap­pear to make much dif­fer­ence to ac­cel­er­a­tion whether the mo­tor is spin­ning at 8000rpm (which con­sti­tutes midrange on the FZR; it’s where it’s do­ing just over 60mph) or 12,000rpm. Bang open the weeny 32mm Mikuni CVS and the Yamaha just starts to pick up speed with­out ever giv­ing the im­pres­sion of be­ing des­per­ate to ac­cel­er­ate any harder than it al­ready is.

“And that’s the beauty of the sports 400s,” says edi­tor Jim. “You feel like you’re revving the arse off them, and as if you’re do­ing some in­cred­i­ble speed – but ac­tu­ally, you’re not go­ing any­way near as fast as you think.which is a good thing; you can have an ab­so­lute riot on them and never get close to fit­ting your­self up.”

Which isn’t to say the FZR400RR is slow; un­re­stricted mod­els have been known to trip the lights at over 130mph (J-spec bikes are lim­ited to 112mph; you’ll need a speedo con­verter to switch it to mph, or a plug-in box).and you have to work hard to get over the ton; rip­ping up to 12,000rpm is one thing, but the last 2000rpm to the red­line have to be earned with a her­ni­ated disc and a cricked neck as you strain to stay out of the wind blast.

Tucked in be­hind the rel­a­tively gen­er­ous screen, I’m im­pressed by the baby EXUP’S phys­i­cal size; for short blasts, it’s not as small or as crip­pling as I re­mem­ber – and I haven’t got any more sup­ple over the years. I pull up back at the layby where James and Jim are wait­ing, shel­ter­ing from the wind whip­ping across the sullen land­scape. “You know what,” I say, flip­ping up my vi­sor. “This is more com­fort­able than the FZR1000 EXUP I rode two months ago.”

No, se­ri­ously.the FZR400RR has the ad­van­tage over the big­ger bike be­cause it’s shorter; legs are just as tucked up, but there’s not a big reach across the tank to the ’bars as there is with the FZR1000. I’d hes­i­tate to ride it back to Ban­dol again, but... ac­tu­ally, that sounds like a chal­lenge.


If the FZR400RR looks rel­a­tively box-fresh and stock for an un­re­stored 1990’s sports 400, the con­di­tion of the GSX-R400R looks more re­flec­tive of its age. This is a 1993 bike with 16,000 miles on


the clocks, on sale at MM Mo­tor­cy­cles in Toot­ing for £2785. It’s not mint, it’s clearly sur­vived a few scrapes, and wears the kind of patina of use some peo­ple will pay a lot of money for on other goods. “Thank­fully, ‘relic-ing’ hasn’t made it as far as bikes yet,” says James. “That’s why the Suzuki is the cheap­est here.”

Jim notes the Scor­pion can, non-stan­dard grips and the pat­tern fair­ing up­per. “But it’s not of­ten you find a grey im­port 400 that you don’t im­me­di­ately start to make a men­tal list of the things you want to do to it,” says James.and he’s right – half the fun is the slow-burn trea­sure hunt of find­ing parts and get­ting your bike back to where you want it.

And it turns out the Suzuki is an ex­cel­lent place to start. It takes a bit of tick­ling to get the GSX-R’S 59bhp 398cc in­line four to run cleanly, but I’ve a sneaky feel­ing we’ve been warm­ing the GSX-R up with the fuel tap turned off.af­ter a quick razz up the road it revs hard on all four with a howl­ing, mis­chievous in­tent – much louder than the Yamaha, scream­ing through its af­ter­mar­ket can with a full-blooded ban­shee wail. It makes you want to rev the en­gine – and it likes to be revved.this is an un­ex­pect­edly fast, torquey 400cc mo­tor; it feels like it’s mak­ing its full quota of power and pulls harder and more fiercely than the Yamaha.

Oh yes, and then some. Un­der full gas the front wheel skates over the tar­mac and the sil­ver bike boo­gies off ahead and away from the oth­ers. “The mo­tor feels most like...” I pause, and Jim fills the gap for me: “...a bike?” Well, yes – the Suzuki’s en­gine drives like a smaller, high-pitched ver­sion of a big­ger GSX-R mo­tor, as op­posed to the fea­ture­less power de­liv­ery of the FZR400, that feels noth­ing at all like a smaller FZR600. “I won­der if the Suzuki’s been jet­ted,” muses Jim. He notes a pop­u­lar school of thought that many grey im­ports re­spond to dyno set-up time, es­pe­cially if they’ve got a free-flow­ing ex­haust on; the Ja­panese tended to be a bit mean with jet sizes in their do­mes­tic mar­ket 400 carbs.

The his­tory of the GSX-R400 is a cu­ri­ous one; the line be­gan in 1984 with the Gamma-styled GSX-R400E GK71B, pre­dat­ing the GSX-R750F by a year, but with the same-style alu­minium cra­dle frame. Un­like the 750’s fa­mous oil/air­cooled lump, the 400 – like its GSX400W GK71A pre­de­ces­sor the year be­fore – fea­tured a wa­ter-cooled 16v in­line four, mak­ing a claimed 59bhp. But for 1986 the GSXR400R GK71F switched to an alu­minium

beam frame, and a heav­ily mod­i­fied ver­sion of which was also used with the fol­low­ing GK73A in 1988. Only with the 1990 GK76A did the GSX-R400 switch back to echo­ing the frame de­sign of the 750, with an alu­minium cra­dle (al­though the mo­tor re­mained wa­ter-cooled).

“Imag­ine how dif­fer­ent sports­bike his­tory would’ve been if Suzuki had opted to make the 750 and 1100 copy the 400’s beam frame and en­gine cool­ing from 1986,” says James. “All those ‘lost’ years in the early 1990s when the GSX-R750 and 1100 were strug­gling to match the devel­op­ment of the other three Ja­panese fac­to­ries.”

But, iron­i­cally, when the GSX-R400 in­her­ited the cra­dle frame it didn’t in­herit the same prob­lems that lim­ited devel­op­ment of the big­ger bikes. For a start, the GSX-R400 GK76 never had the same pen­chant for heavy steer­ing. this one turns and holds a line with a neu­tral, steady feel­ing – less im­me­di­ately fly­weight than the FZR400, but more planted.

The feel­ing isn’t helped by the Suzuki’s sus­pen­sion; the rear shock is def­i­nitely past its best and bounces freely to top-out even af­ter I wind up the damp­ing ad­juster on the com­pres­sion bot­tle.

“But I ab­so­lutely love the way it works,” says Jim. “It be­haves the way a sports 400 should, to me. It’s rau­cous, en­ter­tain­ing, loud, silly and prob­a­bly of­fen­sive to peo­ple who are eas­ily of­fended.”

And, as if to prove his point, as we spear back up and down a short sec­tion of road while the pho­tog­ra­pher does his thing, a lady ap­pears over a fence at the bot­tom of her gar­den to point and shout at us.

The GSX-R can’t quite stretch to the cutesy cute of the FZR – the sil­ver paint is more street sleeper than eye-candy, and de­tails like the brake calipers, air­con­di­tion­ing duct dou­bling as in­take pipes, and the Hal­fords mir­rors aren’t quite mit­i­gated by the Suzuki’s 41mm up­side down Kayaba forks. The rid­ing po­si­tion is even more ex­treme than the Yamaha, with the clip-ons lower and fur­ther from the seat. But it’s not un­com­fort­able: “You don’t spend long enough sit­ting still to even no­tice,” says James. “Has it ac­tu­ally got a seat?” Yes, but too late: now it’s time to try the Honda’s in­stead.


1996 HONDA

RVF400 NC35

We sad­dle up and pre­pare to ride into Mat­lock Bath to get out of the bit­ing wind and find some­where to eat chips and drink tea. “Is there some­thing wrong with the Rvf,?” asks James. “Only, I haven’t rid­den it yet and you haven’t talked about it much.the FZR has the looks and the ride qual­ity, the GSX-R has the at­ti­tude and the en­gine; what’s the Honda got?”

Good point. this is a 1996 RVF, owned by PS reader James Sharpe. He bought it a few years ago, on im­pulse, from a chap in Kent and paid just over £3000 for the plea­sure – which means he’s pretty much dou­bled his money by now. Of all grey im­port four-strokes, aside from a mint NC30, the NC35 is the one pil­ing on the value. It’s not hard to see why; just on looks alone, the RVF is, prob­a­bly fairly soon, al­most lit­er­ally a mil­lion dol­lars. “Even given the con­di­tion of the FZR, the RVF is a stun­ner, isn’t it?” says James, ad­mir­ing the Honda’s build qual­ity bask­ing in an un­ex­pected burst of spring sun­shine.the white is so bright it’s al­most painful, but it’s the sin­gle-sided swingarm, up­side-down forks, mas­sive alu­minium frame spars. It’s a looker al­right.

“Yes,” says Jim. “But the NC30 is a bit tougher.and the RVF’S mo­tor isn’t quite as evoca­tive as av4 should be,” says the exnc30 own­ing edi­tor. “I rode AVFR400 last year and it’s just a bit more...” he pauses, search­ing for the right word that doesn’t damn the RVF... “...mem­o­rable,” he fin­ishes.

Is that an RC30 v RC45 thing, I won­der, in that the older bike is re­mem­bered as the clas­sic and the later model tech­ni­cally and dy­nam­i­cally su­pe­rior but some­how not quite as charis­matic?

“Maybe,” he says. “The NC30 has more go­ing on with it. It’s got a bit more grunt, a bit more soul.”

Hav­ing rid­den both bikes my­self, I know what Jim means – and I can also re­spect­fully dis­agree be­cause, like the RC30 and RC45 ar­gu­ment, I come down on the side of the later bikes in both cases. I’ll take the more con­ve­nient choice in tyre sizes – the NC35 has 17-inch front and rear, the NC30 an 18inch rear – and the ad­vances in sus­pen­sion tech­nol­ogy be­tween the two.

But I also get what Jim’s say­ing about the Honda’s en­gine; it’s a smooth, lin­ear de­liv­ery but, un­like the in­line fours of the Suzuki and Yamaha, the RVF rolls back on the fuss and drama of be­ing ham­mered; it’s so civilised, quiet and un­flus­tered no mat­ter how hard you pull the wires tight. with a


big­gerv4 mo­tor you can trade some of the thrasha­bil­ity for ef­fi­ciency, or a Zen­like state of calm, if that’s your thing... but a sports 400 is sup­posed to rip your mind free from its moor­ings.

Strip away the NC35’S body­work and, aside from the sus­pen­sion and wheels, it’s mostly an NC30 un­der­neath: same 399cc, gear-driven cam, 90-de­greev4 with the same off-beat, 360-de­gree fir­ing in­ter­vals as the RC30 and RC45. But there are a few changes to the NC35’S en­gine; pis­tons are flat-topped, low­er­ing com­pres­sion; cam tim­ing is wilder, with longer du­ra­tion and more over­lap, but carbs are 1mm nar­rower, at 29mm. the idea is to im­prove both midrange and top end, and which it may well do.and the end re­sult is the RVF doesn’t feel as sparky at the top end as the Suzuki, but has a bit more drive­abil­ity and punch out of mid-speed cor­ners than ei­ther of the other two. It also has bucket-loads more of that dread­ful word: charisma. when you’re bored of play­ing silly bug­gers on the GSX-R, bored of an­noy­ing dogs and shat­ter­ing wine glasses with the high-pitched FZR, you’ll wel­come the un­flap­pable Honda.

And there’s no deny­ing the RVF’S un­flap­pable ride qual­ity too. where the GSX-R needs a bit of love ap­ply­ing to its rear shock be­fore con­sid­er­ing a proper sum­mer’s scratch­ing, the RVF floats with a more sup­ple, slightly wal­lowy re­ac­tion. Through one par­tic­u­lar high speed dip, I sus­pect the Honda’s about to bot­tom-out and wreck an ex­pen­sive belly pan.

“The Honda chas­sis is very plush,” says James, when we fi­nally draw up out­side a hot chip es­tab­lish­ment in Mat­lock, it’s no­tice­ably taller than the oth­ers, and tips more weight on its front end. “It’s got neu­tral steer­ing, with good bal­ance, and tracks round cor­ners re­ally well, stay­ing on line.and I like the rid­ing po­si­tion too; it’s com­pact and tight, fix­ing you in po­si­tion.”

And we all agree on one thing: time to eat, and de­liver a ver­dict.


| Pic­tures: Gareth Har­ford

They didn’t come any bet­ter than this lit­tle lot. And they still don’t

More com­fort­able than an FZR1000, reck­ons Si­mon (and he’s a big old boy)

Smooth en­gine not quite as fit as Suzuki unit

Strong, ballsy en­gine, rest of it not bad ei­ther

Yeah, the lit­tle Yam has never lost its looks

You can al­most feel the rau­cous Suzuki’s at­ti­tude from here

Yes, it has in fact got a seat. Not that any­one cared to no­tice

Re­fined, sup­ple, plush com­pared to its rough-arse ri­vals

Geeks in the peaks. Way to go

In their nat­u­ral habi­tat, all three shine, and there’s no clear win­ner

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