Yamaha FZR400RR, Suzuki GSX-R400R and Honda NC35, all scream their credentials
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...
1996 YAMAHA FZR400RR 3TJ1
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
“THE FZR TRACKS THE PEAK DISTRICT’S POTHOLES AND RIPPLED TARMAC WITH A FULL STREAM OF COMMUNICATION”
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.
1993 SUZUKI GSX-R400R
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
“IT FEELS LIKE IT’S MAKING ITS FULL QUOTA OF POWER AND PULLS HARDER AND MORE FIERCELY THAN THE YAMAHA”
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.
“IT TURNS AND HOLDS A LINE WITH A NEUTRAL STEADY FEELING – LESS IMMEDIATELY FLYWEIGHT THAN THE FZR400, BUT MORE PLANTED”
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
“BORED OF ANNOYING DOGS AND SHATTERING WINE GLASSES WITH THE HIGHPITCHED FZR, YOU’LL WELCOME THE HONDA”
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.
“THE YAMAHA IS ITS OWN THING, NOT A SMALLER VERSION OF SOMETHING BIGGER”
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