First Impression: 1997 Suzuki TL1000S
A Sportbike for the Real World
By Dean Adams,
MTV launched a television program a few years ago in which they chronicled the lives of a handful of housemates from incompatible backgrounds. They demonstrated how different things are in reality as compared to how they are portrayed in mindless network sit-coms. Suddenly the hard-bodied stud was exposed as a blatant narcissist, the easy-to-look-at Latino girl was a slob of tremendous proportions, and the sweet "normal" Midwesterner was a whiner. Moral of the story? What looks the best is sometimes so high-maintenance, problematic or narrow-focused that getting close to it, in the end, is inadvisable.
The Suzuki TL1000S is a sporting motorcycle for the real world. Lightweight 600 and 750 sport bikes can make great production race and street bikes -- ridden with the correct skill level and attitude they will blister through the twisty backroads. But as real world streetbikes they can be a pain. With most of their power on top of the powerband, riding them fast on the street means total concentration by the rider -- getting the corner entry correct, heeling it over at the precise moment and making sure you're in the correct gear on the exit so the bike doesn't fall flat on its face are your duties. Yes, it looks great in the garage and there is an added bit of self-satisfaction standing next to the Latest Great 600 at a riding spot. But in time you might find yourself staring at the engine and wondering, how can I put some mid-range in this thing?
Twins make great streetbikes, sort of. The formula has always been there for a wonderful (modern) twin-cylinder powered streetbike, however many of the prior examples have been too slow or quirky or narrow-focused to really hit the target. Forgive the digression, but people love Buell and BMW motorcycles for two main reasons: because they're different and because they're a blast to ride. Myself, although I love the shriek of a fierce in-line four, I have a soft spot in my heart for twins. My first experience on a twin was riding my old buddy AJ Voight's 1983 CX650 Honda Jay Springsteen-style on an icy Wisconsin backroad - big fun. The most recent Twin under my control was the $50,000 Harley-Davidson VR1000 streetbike that the VR factory squad uses for a test mule.
The beauty of Suzuki's new TL1000S is its 90 degree V-twin engine, the first of its kind from Suzuki. The big pistons, big valves, short stroke engine and fuel injection team up to make a powerplant that is seemingly the ultimate real-world streetbike powerplant. The TL1000S makes power, usable real-world power, with an overflow of steam from 3000 rpm to eight grand on the tach, right where you and I and everybody who isn't Todd Harrington or Mark Miller rides.
Of course Suzuki are not the originators of this style motorcycle. Looking at a row of TLs parked side by side it's quite elementary to see where Suzuki went to get the template to build the TL - the Ducati 916. Same aggressive nose-down, tail high styling lines, same ninety-degree V-twin engine (without Ducati's patented Desmo valves though) and same airy, multi-piece chassis. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that.
Suzuki claims the TL puts out 125 horsepower in stock form at the crankshaft. The TL features a complex engine management system that controls the dual stage electronic fuel injection as well as a map for the ignition. The TL is sensor happy -- with electronic sensors in the airbox, throttle, camshafts, intake manifold, crankshaft, tachometer as well as in the radiator. All of this info is processed by an ECU (Engine Control Unit) which then relays to the ignition and fuel injection systems and also feeds info to the on-board self-diagnostic system. There is also a flapper door in the intake runners of the TL's fairing that is controlled by the engine management system.
At low speeds the flap is closed which makes the TL's intake system act as a conventional closed airbox. On reaching a higher road speed the flapper is opened and the airbox is charged with positive airflow, that Suzuki claims increases throttle response and top end horsepower. A reed valve is utilized in the TL engine to control crankcase pressure, as many big twins have inherent problems with too much case pressure. Without adequate venting the big mills start blowing case gaskets. So Suzuki tossed a reed valve on the TL engine, which vents the pressure to the airbox and allows better separation and return of condensed oil from crankcase vapors. This also helped reduce crankcase size.
The TL's chassis is made up of multiple pieces of both extruded and cast aluminum. The steering head and swing arm pivot areas are comprised of thick and strong cast pieces, but the main frame tubes are extruded aluminum. Still the TL chassis seems more than beefy enough to handle the big power of the twin. To strengthen the frame on the TL, Suzuki welded in a section of aluminum across the two main frame spars, directly between the two cylinders - just like Pops Yoshimura did on the KZ1000-powered Yosh Kawasakis. Too, Suzuki didn't weld the sub-frame onto the main frame, which would have meant any time the perch is damaged, the whole bike is a write-off. Instead they made it a bolt-on item. Nice. The swingarm is also a potent piece with a strong section of cast aluminum as the main body and aluminum extrusions welded to it.
The machines provided to us by Suzuki for the press introduction in Florida were hand-built pre-production models that were supplied specifically for the test and were said to be destined for the crusher after the weekend's festivities. That, and the fact that Japanese Suzuki engineers were taking careful notes of our comments after each riding session, suggested to me that they will return to Japan and fine tune the TL package slightly before production machines reach dealer level.
Suzuki arranged for a half-day street ride from the Homestead Motorsports Complex in Homestead, Florida to the resort town of Key West -- a three hour ride on nearly uninterrupted straight highways. There were only three true corners after we got on the road, and the single sweeper Suzuki promised us either disappeared or I fell asleep as a result of the highway boredom and missed it. In a street environment where quick mid-corner steering changes, a nimble chassis, good brakes with strong initial bite and an engine that features instant acceleration and excellent throttle response are important - the TL shines through as perhaps the best streetbike I have ever ridden. About twenty minutes into our ride I realized that my cheek muscles were aching because I hadn't stopped smiling since I swung a leg over the TL.
The big twin is a blast because it is so simple to ride fast. Miss a shift with a four-cylinder machine and you'll be left behind as you row the shifter and fan the clutch trying to find the powerband. With the TL you can leave the shifter alone and just ride. There's plenty of power everywhere to steam the motorcycle forward. Very little vibration from the TL's ninety-degree Vee engine reaches the rider as Suzuki has engineered the motor to be in perfect balance -- no counterbalancer required. And the engine is solid mounted to the frame, which makes its lack of serious vibration even more commendable.
The front suspension is the same as the 1997 GSX-R750 - 43mm Kayaba inverted units but with different internals to make the suspension action smoother. Preload, compression and rebound damping are all adjustable -- something racers will appreciate. Out back Suzuki takes an entirely different road with their kooky rotary damper design "shock," a small aluminum box with a vane-style dampening system that may be the next step in rear suspension. It is almost common in F-1 car racing. Two arms mounted to the swingarm operate the vane (which is filled with fork oil and nitrogen) - one side for compression, the other for rebound. Two shim stacks inside the rotary unit do the same job as they would in common rear suspension units.
Suzuki claims the rear shock is not rebuildable and will probably never fail to the point where it needs to be rebuilt, but I disassembled one at the racetrack and found the internals fairly nondescript. Most of the items that might conceivable wear out could be sourced at a well-stocked bearing and o-ring supply shop. The TL still uses a conventional spring placed along the right side of the chassis, independent of the shock. Suzuki claims that because foreign materials can't get in the rotary shock and destroy internal seals and wipers, stiction is greatly decreased. There certainly didn't appear to be any weight savings with the rotary damper design; it's at least ten or fifteen percent heavier than a conventional shock.
"Reduced suspension component weight was not the sole consideration to the development and use of the TL's rotary damper," says a Suzuki tech man. "The damper and spring being separate allows different linkage rates, the rate at which the spring is compressed can be different than the damping unit's actuation. This can allow the spring rate to ride appropriately for the suspension travel, yet not produce too much or too little damping for the situation. Since the rotary damper is not stroked in an up and down fashion like a cylindrical shock, there is no 'null damping' point where damping does not exist while the suspension changes direction from compression to rebound.
"Also, the rotary damper's shape allows it to be mounted in an unconventional location creating space and optimizing center of gravity. The suspension spring located along the side of the rearward cylinder is also smaller and provides more space." The one huge advantage that the rotary shock has over the conventional system is a lack of heat build up as it uses the frame as a heatsink. Even after 120 miles of ripping around the Homestead circuit the shock was still cool to the touch.
Sintered metal pads in four piston calipers grasp the GSX-R600 disks. They provide decent feedback but the lines seemed a little airy for my tastes - a decent bleeding or some stainless lines might improve things. On the street the brakes didn't fade, but the route certainly didn't tax them either.
The cable-actuated clutch on the TL pulls a nineteen plate clutch that performed adequately in our street ride. But for some odd reason it felt like the big TL's torque-spewing engine could seriously overpower the clutch if somebody decided to do some serious clutch beating - like drag racing the TL. Repeated zero to sixty and zero to eighty-five mph launches did not support this opinion, as the clutch worked flawlessly.
The Metzler MEZ1s mounted on the TL1000S accentuate the flickabilty of the chassis and the stability of the front end. The six speed transmission is wonderful, being closely matched to the powerband of the v-twin engine. With all that power I found a successful riding tactic was to simply leave the TL in third gear once past a rolling speed and enjoy the ride. The bike will accelerate from fairly low speeds (below 25 mph) to above eighty mph - in third gear - without straining the engine.
This means the frantic gearbox rowing that is essential to ride fast on a 600 or 750 isn't required. Shift action was adequate and I up-shifted racer-style (no clutch) once out of first gear with no problems whatsoever.A nearly thirty-three inch seat height contributes to a sense that the TL carries its weight high, but once under way the bike is fairly comfortable to ride. The seating position and clip-on placement is aggressive, with your weight packed against the back of the fuel tank and your wrists.
This won't be so bad on short rides in the twisties where you're repositioning yourself every few minutes between corners, but the hour-long stretch of highway from Homestead to Key West had my wrists screaming. Not a bike you'd want to ride across South Dakota.
In the shop, from a long look at the bike it seemed as if the TL would be moderately easy to work on - the radiator and fairing would have to be dropped to access the front spark plug but other than that, everything is out in the open as far as maintenan ce is concerned. Valve shims are Suzuki old stock items from the 92 GSX-R600 and the 91-92 GSX-R750. Suzuki certainly went the extra mile in making the machine as light as possible - 412 lb. dry - no fairing lower surrounded the engine and a plastic clutc h cover (with internal sound-deadening material) keeps the wet clutch protected. Another trick touch or two are the oil-cooled "generator" on the left end of the crankshaft and the mini-clutch on the starter to guard against starter damage if the engine k icks back. Five identical fasteners hold the fairing sides to the main cowl and chassis. I could be wrong but it appeared to me that a wrench can remove most of the top end components without removing the engine from the frame.
Will Suzuki race it?
Unquestionably, yes, in a 1998 RR version and Bimota seems to have some interest in the TL mill too. If this bike has been in development since 1993 as some Suzuki engineers claim, then the works parts must be in development now. The engine and chassis ap pear as if they are certainly beefy enough to withstand the rigors of racing. Suzuki did the right thing in making the TL almost at the Superbike capacity limit for twins (1000cc in AMA and WSC Superbike) in the first version of the streetbike. The rear suspension, which cannot be modified to a more standard shock layout without a fall on your sword re-design, (there isn't a ride height adjustment on the rear suspension unit in stock form) will either be a step forward or backward. If it works, and in a racing application this thing has possible active suspension written all over it, Suzuki will be in good shape. An encouraging impression I got from the chassis is that it felt very much like the Mike Eatough designed VR1000 chassis that is raved about by anyone who rides the VR1000. For those readers who will race the machine in 1997 in club racing or in Formula Extreme, take comfort in the fact that you can cut twenty pounds off this thing and get it down to a impressive race weight with just a exhaust system swap and jettisoning al l the street stuff. One thing is for sure -- it is going to be quite a feat to design an aftermarket exhaust for the TL - the stock system has more curves than Laguna
Again, hand-built pre-production motorcycle, but just minutes before I handed it back to Suzuki the machine began acting like a hurt puppy - momentarily dying on acceleration as the LED temp gauge went up (195 degrees) and I could smell the distinct "deat h smoke" odor of oil on the exhaust. I informed the Suzuki tech guys about it when I handed it back to them, but they were unable to find anything wrong with the bike. It might have been some illusive break-in problem that cured itself - the bike only had 400 miles on it when I was finished with it. Another test rider rode it back from the Keys to Homestead and reported no problems.
My only real complaint with the motorcycle was the use of the archaic throttle-body fuel-injection when a leading edge port-injection system would have really set the standard. Don't get me wrong, the throttle-body system will work fine, but my heart just dropped as I walked up to the display case and saw those clunky old throttle-bodies when I expected to see neat little injectors screwed into the intake ports. Of course there may have been no way Suzuki could have retailed the TL as affordably as they h ave if they used a port-injection system.
The least acknowledged item about the bike is its relative non-existence three months ago. Suzuki's production engineers certainly have their eye on the ball and they beat Honda R&D to the initial punch. The Honda twin has been fodder for rumor for two ye ars and even now is, at the very least, six months away from dealers. Thanks to Suzuki, Honda has some high standards to reach or exceed with their 1000cc Super-Hawk.
Suzuki has created a magnificent sport bike for the street market, one that will make good riders appear better than they would look on a four cylinder middleweight. All the pieces are in place for Suzuki to have manufactured another remarkable motorcycle - including the price tag: They would have sold plenty of them for ten grand a piece but Suzuki (and if you can show me where they cut corners on the TL besides the missing fairing lower, please do) will probably sell piles of TLs for its relatively low retail price of $8999.00.
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Price: $ Engine: DOHC, liquid cooled, eight valve V-twin Bore x stroke: x mm Displacement: 996cc
Carburetion: 52mm throttle-body fuel injection system
Seat height: inches
Fuel capacity: gallons
Claimed wet weight: lbs.