2020 Suzuki Katana first ride review: Dystopian cyberpunk chariot of the gods

Suzuki's Katana goes back to the '80s for its styling and the early 2000s for its tech, yet it still manages to feel exciting and relevant now.

It's weird to think that the Katana's most visually notable feature is its rectangular headlight.
Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

The Suzuki Katana -- one of the most iconic motorcycles of the past 40 years -- is back, and it hews closely to its 1980s techno-brutalist past while providing a unique riding experience that also doesn't quite fit in 2020. It looks like something pulled from the 1988 anime Akira, but without all the weird body horror, orbital strikes or singularities. It's throwback done right.

The Katana is a bit of a parts-bin bike, but when you have a bin like Suzuki's, that's a good thing. The Katana is based on the GSX-1000F naked bike, which itself is based on the popular GSX-R1000 sport bike. For the Katana, this means that it gets the GSX-F's twin-spar aluminum frame, fully adjustable suspension and upright ergonomics -- more on that later.

The heart of the Katana is its engine, and holy hell, it's a good one. The engine, like the styling, is a bit of a throwback. Rather than using the techy new 999-cc inline-four from Suzuki's current superbikes, it uses a long-stroke engine of the same displacement from the 2005-2008 GSX-R1000. 

Why would Suzuki's engineers go so far into the past for an engine? Because it's a really, really good one that more than holds its own with today's liter-class naked bike engines. This K5 engine makes 150 horsepower, but it's the torque characteristics that won it a home in the Katana. A shorter stroke and bigger bore generally produce a motorcycle with less torque, but more willingness to rev higher -- a feature prized in liter-bikes. The old K5 has a slightly smaller bore but a 4-ish-millimeter longer stroke, which makes it a torquey old thing with 80 pound-feet on tap.

The 999-cc K5 inline-four originally debuted way back in 2005 and lasted until 2008. Now it's back.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

One of the best parts of the Katana is also one of its most archaic: the cable-actuated throttle. Many bikes have gone to full ride-by-wire systems that offer features like cruise control or multiple riding modes with different throttle characteristics. The Katana doesn't have any of that. What it does have is a buttery-smooth throttle that is linear and really pleasant to use.

The Katana's engine feeds its power to a six-speed transmission that is also reasonably basic -- no electronic quickshifter, for example -- but again, really lovely to operate. Shifts are comfortable and can be accomplished with a relatively delicate touch of your left foot. There's no need to kick it to get it to do what you want, and as a bonus, neutral is nice and easy to find. 

The bike's multiplate wet clutch requires minimal effort at the lever and is a slipper-style clutch, which helps minimize rear-wheel lockup on downshifts. Suzuki also includes its low-rpm assist system, which boosts revs slightly as you let out the clutch to help prevent stalling. It works well enough, but it takes a little getting used to, and I'd prefer it to be defeatable.

Speaking of defeatable, while it doesn't have ride modes, the Katana does have three-stage ABS, as well as traction control you can turn all the way off. While I'm glad that the Katana has both ABS and TC, neither of the systems are what I'd call brilliant. The underlying tech is basic and doesn't feature any kind of inertial measurement unit. Thus, it doesn't correct for lean angle or anything like that. Coupled with the engine's prodigious output, I'd probably steer beginner riders (or those lacking right wrist restraint) away from this bike.

The Katana's electronics are pretty old school for 2020, but they work well enough and fit the bike's personality.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

The Katana's suspension isn't showy, but the KYB fork and linkage-actuated rear shock are fully adjustable and more than up to the task of smoothing out crappy roads. Like most of the Katana's bits, they work well but play second fiddle aesthetically to the retro-futuristic design of the bodywork. The front brakes come courtesy of Brembo and they are predictable and pleasant to use with excellent modulation from the lever and lots of initial bite.

Other highlights of the Katana include full LED lighting, a deliciously old school LCD dash display (seriously, it looks like it's right out of a William Gibson novel) and a comfortable seat that sits at a reasonable 32.5-inch height. The Katana is way more comfortable than it looks, even after a couple of hours in the saddle.

The sensation that the Katana's old-but-still-awesome engine gives is one of near-limitless power, particularly at typical around-town speeds. You can virtually ride the bike like it's electric, using first gear (which will crest 70 mph) all by its lonesome, but the bike is also happy to putter along in second or third. The Katana lacks any of the Aprilia Tuono's champing-at-the-bit feeling in traffic. There's no surging or bucking or histrionics of any kind. It's positively pedestrian, and in a bike that looks like the Katana, utility like that can't be underrated.

While the Katana is shockingly easy to ride at normal speeds, pushing it harder requires some skill, owing to the lack of electronic nannies to sort you out if your chutzpah outpaces your talent. The front end feels heavy at speed, and the bike requires a bit of effort to get around corners in anger, but the flip side is that it does feel relatively stable while doing so. Its ride quality is also excellent, but some tweaking of the suspension would likely benefit the handling, especially for larger riders. The braking performance is predictable and pleasant, not too grabby but plenty responsive and fade-resistant. ABS isn't overly intrusive, but as I stated previously, the system isn't exactly cutting-edge.

Brembo brakes? On a midtier Japanese naked bike?? Yep.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

As with any motorcycle, the riding experience is essential, but with the Katana, looks play a major part. The rectangular headlight and the sharply creased body draw attention like little else. People stare as you ride by, seemingly unsure what to make of this loud, brash-looking machine, or where in time to place it. That feeling extends to the rider at times, too.

I find myself riding the Katana late at night, covered in black leather and dark denim, feeling way cooler than I actually am as I work the engine up and down the rev range, screaming it through tunnels and blissfully rev-matching downshifts when coming to stoplights. I feel totally alone on the Katana, even in the second-most populous city in America, and that's exactly what I need.

Is the Katana with its old-school engine and cyberpunk styling worth the $14,000-ish asking price? Before spending time with it, I'd have said no. The world is full of brilliant and competent bikes that offer much more in terms of technology and sophistication, but that's not what Suzuki was targeting with this one. The Katana is more than a pretty face and much more than the sum of its parts. It's not cheap, but when it comes to looking prepared for post-Armageddon life, I'm betting it's a lot less expensive than one of those war rigs from Mad Max: Fury Road.