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Velvet Sledge Hammer
Here's one that's sure to please. It was cheap when released, goes like shite out of a shanghai and can still be found in good nick. Get the cheque book out as ROB SMITH finds us another beauty...
Everyone loves a bargain. There's a profound sense of satisfaction to be had in the purchase of something that meets or exceeds all your requirements and comes in well under budget. If you're in the market for a big bore sports tourer with a heavy emphasis on the sports side of the equation, then the Suzuki RF900R is something of an uncut diamond. It may not have the glitter and sparkle of some of the competition but it's still a gem by anyone's standards.
In 1994 the RF jumped smugly into the marketplace wearing a very reasonable price tag of $13,999 and immediately chested up to the Kawasaki ZX9-R which happened to cost $15,590. Competition wasn't just limited to the big K however; Yamaha's excellent FZR1000 was also priced on the large side of 15 big ones as was Honda's FireBlade. Admittedly the RF never really presented a serious sporting threat to the 'Blade, but it did possess a 125PS engine that revved to 12,000 rpm. This spectacular unit was derived from the GSX-R1100W, and gave nothing away in the horsepower stakes which was important to many of those waiting to spend their money.
The RF was unique in the above company in that it used a steel beam frame borrowed and strengthened from the RF600 instead of the alloy units used in the pure sports bikes in Suzuki's line up. The four-cylinder, liquid-cooled, 16-valve engine nestling between the spars came from well-proven parents, but was a heavy old lump all by itself. Despite the best attempts at making the RF a heavyweight, at 203kg the RF is lighter than its looks suggest.
Suspension was workman-like rather than exotic, and featured preload-adjustable 43mm forks handling duties at the pointy end, while further south a multi-adjustable Showa unit did the job of keeping the back wheel on the ground.
Finished in red or black, the styling attracted a fair bit of criticism with some rather unkind comments centring on the large louvres in the side of the fairing, and the strangely wide tail-piece. Resembling something you'd paddle in the sea, the RF featured the biggest rear light ever seen on a sporting motorcycle at that time, or indeed since. Riding behind one when the rider was braking was like riding into the gates of hell!
1995 saw a $400 jump in price on the S version and the arrival of fully adjustable forks, plus a limited edition T version finished in dark green and called the 'Manta Ray'.
For '96 through to the model's discontinuation in 1999 the V received an anti theft ignition lock and came in a challenging maroon and purple or more subdued grey/black.
On the road
Like the GSX-R11, the RF is all about the engine and its obvious where the lineage is. The RF has great bottom-end power, stacks of mid-range courtesy of the 36mm slingshot carbies, and a kickin' top end. Power is always plentiful and accessible getting really serious at 7000rpm all the way to the frenetic redline at 12. However, revving the spuds off the thing is an exercise in fuel-wastage as the RF is a roll-on, roll-off torquer in any of its five typically Suzuki-slick gears.
If there's a fault to be found with the engine, it's vibration. There's a buzzing at 5-6000rpm that turns your throttle hand into a white and useless living corpse after a hundred kliks.
Comfort is pretty good, with the wide, flat seat being particularly noteworthy. Footrest position is just about right, but for me the handlebars are angled too low and put too much weight through the wrists. This may be more to do with a lack of appropriate exercise in my formative years, but while others say there's no problem, I simply can't get on with it.
The fairing works well for anyone six feet and under in the dry, but directs water straight at the rider's neck which can be an irritation. However, it's easily fixed with an after-market screen. Pillions report that while the seat and grabrail are spot on, the footrests are simply too high to be comfortable on a long run.
Just as you'd expect from a motorcycle with a wheelbase of 1440mm and a rake and trail of 24.5 degrees and 102mm, the RF is super stable everywhere, in many ways like Yamaha's excellent but longer FZR1000. In long smooth sweeping corners the RF is a corner loving truck, letting the rider enjoy the sensation of big lean angles without any hint of hysteria upsetting the action. However when the aforesaid action gets tight and gnarly, don't expect the RF to turn with the immediacy of a skateboard. Even though it shares a lot with the 600, and it's happy to have a go, there's just a touch too much lazy sports tourer in the mix to be really silly.
On broken and bumpy surfaces the ride gets a little choppy. The front-end, which dives hard under brakes, seems to be reluctant to recover from multiple bumps while the rear seems to be over-sprung. However this only really becomes attention-grabbing when the rider is bullying the motorcycle into doing things that it'd really rather not.
Ground clearance is good and it's possible to drag the pegs and stainless/alloy pipe especially on bumpy roads when two up. There's more than enough to have a good time at track days and achieve what seem like race god angles without grinding.
When the time comes to slow things down, the RF is well-sorted with dual 310mm discs gripped by four-pot Nissin calipers up front and an underslung 240mm disc and two-pot caliper at the back. There's plenty of power in the combo but the front lever needs a decent squeeze with four fingers to get the best results.
In the workshop
Now this is the part where I detail the things which go wrong, but all my ringing around has found that apart from one or two glitches the RF is as reliable as an axe. Perhaps the most common problem is sticking and bent choke slides. This manifests itself by very rough and uneven running. Dennis the workshop guru at Mick Hone's motorcycle emporium assures me that this can be "a pig of a job" which, to me, says leave it to the experts to fix.
If the motorcycle will only run when the battery has charge then there's most likely a problem with the alternator cush drive which can shear. This is an easy one to spot as, once the battery is flat the motorcycle simply won't go. Once again, this is a problem that, while it's probably possible to do it yourself, getting someone who knows what they're doing usually saves a lot of time and stress in the long run.
On the subject of DIY maintenance, if you're the sort of bloke or blokess who likes getting to grips with the oily bits, then the RF is pretty easy to work on. Once the tank and seat are off, access to the top-end and carbs is good and uncluttered. There's screw-and-locknut valve adjustment for anyone who can work feeler gauges and a spanner at the same time, and access to air and oil filters is nice and simple.
In terms of servicing costs and intervals, a minor service at every 6000km will cost around $220 including parts with a major service at around every 15-20,000 coming in at $380 including parts. This is about par for the course with any big Japanese four-cylinder, although taking the plastic off at home yourself can save dollars if you can be bothered.
You'd have to sort that suspension out first. Not one of the three RF's I've ridden have felt the same, yet all three ran factory settings. Regardless of the factory, once any motorcycle gets a few kilometres under its wheels the suspension usually needs a freshen up.
This is a good time to get things set-up properly for the rider and riding style, and can make a huge difference to the way the motorcycle feels, as well as the rider's confidence. The word is the original tyre sizes were spot-on for the motorcycle and experimenting with different sizes is an exercise in futility. However Dunlop 204 and 207s get the nod as being the tyre of choice for the discerning rider.
In terms of power, there's already close to 120PS at the back wheel which is enough to spin the tyre. But there's always room for more, and being based on the GSX-R means that there's plenty of knowledge to achieve whatever is needed. A pipe and jet kit will see close to 130PS at the back wheel, which is heck of lot for any motorcycle, even today.
Pannier and top box systems are available from accessory shops and improve the touring ability immensely. A couple of other things which come highly recommended are a Scottoiler and a throttle stop cruise control which is worth its weight in gold. Trust me on this, as you'll need to shake some life back into your throttle hand at some point.
Right at the start we said the Suzuki RF900R was an uncut diamond. To my mind it sits alongside jewels like Honda's Blackbird in many ways. If you had to pick a model from the production years, it'd have to be post-'95 just for the more sophisticated suspension. Looks aside which are subjective anyway, it's a lot of motorcycle for not a lot of dollars. You can't argue with that.