2020 Suzuki Katana: Retro Literbike Wins on Style

Text: Kevin Duke • Photography: Kevin Duke, Eric Putter

I was predisposed to like this bike, as I fondly remember the edgy original Katana, a groundbreaking design that stunned the moto world in 1982. That first model is one of the most memorable motorcycles of the last four decades. There’s a reborn Katana for 2020, and there’s much to appreciate about this new one.

The key ingredient is the Katana’s distinctive style, cribbing from the original Hans Muth design that shocked riders back when motorcycle designs were much more conservative. There was nothing like it before or since. Like the first Kat, which used the engine from the GS1100E, the new model uses an existing model as its base. This one is packaged on the GSX-S1000 platform, which remains in Suzuki’s lineup as a roadster or, in S1000F form, a faired sporty bike. 

The journey from “Gixxus” to Katana is a visual transformation, eschewing the GSX-S’s rounded forms for sharper-edged creases. It is simultaneously nostalgic and modern, led by a retro-fabulous rectangular headlight, now LED and bookended by LED position lights. 

Mounted to a braced aluminum swingarm from the 2016 GSX-R1000 is a rear fender appendage incorporating turn signals and license-plate mount, leaving a nicely tidy tail section. The rear end is further cleaned up by a stubby exhaust outlet enabled by the muffler canister under the engine, a system that appears identical to the GSX-S’s. Suzuki boasts that the Katana is the first U.S.-specification Suzook to be equipped with LED turn signals, the fronts with clear lenses neatly integrated into the front cowl. Finish detailing is beyond what we sometimes see from Suzuki, befitting its $ 13,499 MSRP. 

The Katana’s riding position is wonderfully neutral for a sporty bike, with a modest lean forward to the tapered aluminum handlebar and a fairly generous amount of leg room. The attractively styled two-tone seat (black and silver, like the original) doesn’t look especially comfortable, but it truly is, even after an hour or more aboard. In case it’s not obvious, wind protection is minimal. Suzuki’s accessory windscreen, aka Meter Visor ($ 199.95), can help. 

Instrumentation is via a sizeable LCD panel that includes most of the typical niceties, such as gear position, fuel consumption and range, and the level of traction control (three settings plus off) selected. It’s easily readable, but it’s lacking in vibrancy compared with the latest color thin film transistor displays. Switchgear on the left handlebar controls the various functions in a reasonably intuitive manner. 

The powerplant is a variation of the redoubtable K5 GSX-R1000 (2005-2008) four-cylinder and proves to be a willing accomplice whether tooling around town or chasing triple digits on a deserted road. The long-stroke motor pumps out considerable power throughout its rev range, and it does so without the snatchiness of early GSX-S1000s. Suzuki claims 147 peak horsepower (its GSX-S brother has 145 ponies), which is plenty adequate. But, for the re-creation of a Suzuki icon, we would’ve hoped the Katana enjoyed a bigger power bump and the employment of a ride-by-wire throttle that would easily enable cruise control as well as more advanced traction control. The clutch and transmission perform beyond reproach. 

As a motorcycle named after a famous sword, the Katana had better be adept at slicing up a twisty road. And it is, with its race-bred chassis providing welcome stability when pushed hard. A healthy shove on the handlebar bends the 474-pound Katana into a corner briskly if not quickly. The Kat’s rear tire is a 190/50-17, which slows steering relative to the more modern 190/55 now commonplace. I’ve twice A/B-tested these two sizes and discovered the taller 55-series tire definitively eases steering response compared with the flatter profile of the 50, so I’d expect the same improvement on the Katana. I had no complaint about the grip from the Dunlop RoadSport 2 radial tires in street-riding environments.

Electronic rider aids consist of the aforementioned traction control and anti-lock brakes. The TC is a welcome feature on such a potent machine, even if it’s a cruder system than the latest inertial-measurement-unit-driven ones. Along with being able to catch rear-wheel slides, the TC also means the bike will never wheelie over backward. I’m happy to say the TC can be switched off in case your inner hooligan loudly screams that it wants to get out. 

The brakes leave nothing to be desired; they consist of dual floating rotors and radially mounted four-piston Brembo monoblock calipers up front (again, a similar kit to the GSX-S). They are tuned well by combining good feedback and stout power without being overly touchy. The brakes lack only IMU data, which means cornering ABS is unavailable.

Suspension is also quite good, with a 43mm Kayaba inverted fork providing full adjustability and compliant yet controlled performance. The rear shock lacks compression-damping adjustability but supplies preload and rebound-damping adaptability—perfectly adequate. 

Adequate is a word that can’t be used to describe the Katana’s paltry fuel capacity, which diminishes its capability as a sport-touring mount. Suzuki says it holds 3.2 gallons. Color me skeptical. With just 6 miles range showing on the trip computer after 118.6 miles on a tank, it consumed only 2.78 gallons when I filled it to the fuel line.

Splitting the difference of stated vs. actual fuel capacities, the Katana’s tank has only about 3 gallons available. Taking the 40-mpg average I logged over five tanks means you’ll be uneasy if your next gas station is 120 miles away. That might be a deal breaker to some riders. 

Ironically, there is a kinda-Katana with a 4.5-gallon fuel tank sitting alongside at Suzuki dealers. The GSX-S1000 ($ 11,099) is most of a Katana and is also excellent. This value equation trades the Kat’s riveting styling and nicer instruments for a larger tank and $ 2,400 extra in your pocket. 

A better case for the Katana could be made if it were fully updated with contemporary features like TFT instrumentation and IMU-informed rider aids with ride-by-wire. At least a bigger upgrade in power, wouldn’t ya think, just to confirm it’s special? 

That said, each time I walked away from the Katana, I would turn and give it a last look, which isn’t something I ever did while testing a GSX-S1000. The value of that attraction is incalculable.