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Fit to take on the best

E-mailadres Afdrukken
IT'S amazing what a change of clothes and a bit of time in the gym can achieve. Just ask anyone experiencing a mid-life crisis and desperately trying to hold onto the last vestiges of youth.

Yamaha's FZR600 Genesis and FZR600R derivative were getting on a bit and beginning to feel the pace in the middleweight market, so a refreshing makeover breathed new vigour and style into the 600cc four, while making it a whole bunch more attractive. The YZF600R Thundercat emerged to challenge Honda's CBR for middleweight all-round supremacy.

Where the old models were racy and focused the Cat had a broader appeal, while retaining the sporting abilities of its predecessors. The basic engine remained the same but benefited from lighter internals such as forged pistons, valve springs and generator rotor, while there were larger 36mm carbs and a new ram-air intake system to boost power and response.

The result is a more torquey and user-friendly engine than the FZR rev-monster, with an impressive midrange that gets going around 6000rpm. But if it's sports-type riding you're after, keeping the YZF above 9000rpm gives the best results. One-piece brake calipers from the 1000cc Thunderace also made their appearance on the Cat, vastly improving both power and feel.

But it was the bodywork that completely transformed the middleweight Yamaha. All new, the style was sharp and aggressive with a sporty yet practical fairing that was high enough for decent weather protection. A new seat and tank shape also added to the all-round appeal and makes the Thundercat a comfortable and practical proposition for sports touring.

But turn the wick up and the Cat also delivers with safe and secure handling thanks to steering geometry identical to the old FZR and revalved forks with improved damping. In fact the model's sporting potential was underlined by its overall second place in the 1997 Supersport world championship, with Vittoriano Guareschi just missing out on the championship itself by a, er, whisker.

Changes have been minimal over the model's life, despite having its sporting side eclipsed by the R6 in 1999. Colour changes and a new end can are the most noticeable differences, while a revised wiring loom appeared in 1997 to allow easier alarm fitment.

Alternatives: Honda CBR600; Kawasaki ZZ-R600; Kawasaki ZX-6R, Suzuki RF600.

Eight out of 10 owners prefer Cats

Ask someone to name a top 600 and the chances are they would start reeling off a predictable list of names.

It might start with the legendary CBR600, the best-known and best-selling in the class. Suzuki's MCN award-winning GSX-R600 would certainly be in there. Then there are the more traditional bikes like Yamaha's Fazer and Suzuki's Bandit. But how many people would mention Yamaha's Thundercat?

It may not be as trendy as some of its rivals, but this unsung 600 – still available new more than six years after it was launched – has won a place in the hearts of riders who want a decent all-round bike at reasonable money.

Many expected it would be squeezed out by Yamaha's supersport R6 and budget Fazer 600, but dealers are still selling as many Thundercats as they can get.

Even Yamama has been surprised at the enduring popularity of the bike, which gets more postings on motorcyclenews.com than any other apart from Kawasaki's ZX-6R.

In many ways, it's easy to see why it's still going strong. Taking over the sports 600 slot vacated by the FZR600R, the Cat was blessed with a steel Deltabox frame, fully adjustable sports bike suspension and a 100bhp motor. Add to that a spacious riding position and a seat that doesn't require you to get off every 50 miles and you begin to work out what owners see in it.

Army officer Terry Walsh, 41, is typical of Thundercat devotees. He was T-boned off his first, but used the insurance pay-out to buy his second, a 2001 model which cost him £5200 last August.

He says: " The Cat was a bike to do everything that suited my needs. How much faster than 150mph do you want to go? It's comfy over distances – I did 650 miles in a day with no problem – it's pleasing to the eye, and while it's not razor sharp, you'll still cut yourself if you're not careful! "

He's one of seven owners who've ridden from all over Britain to meet up at MCN's offices in Peterborough to talk about their devotion to the Cat and go for a rideout. This isn't the first time they've met, either. All are in regular contact through motorcyclenews.com's chat rooms and as well as riding out together in the UK, they've planned a trip to Germany which may even take in the legendary Nurburgring.

But that's not an unusual distance for this bunch. Tony Curtis, a 44-year-old training manager who travelled up from Exeter, has toured France three times on his, a 2000 model that cost him £5300 new.

He said: " One time I ended up doing 10 hours in the Alps after the hotel I'd intended to stay at was full. I just kept going, but I couldn't even find a campsite. Roads like that are pretty tiring, but on the Cat I felt fine when I did eventually stop. "

The Cat is Curtis's second bike after passing his test – first was a Kawasaki ER-5. He said: " I was after a bike that I could use for fun and for touring. After reading a lot of reviews, I went for the Thundercat. "

He and Walsh agree they'd only change from the Cat under duress. But while Walsh picks the Honda VFR800 as a competitor, Curtis thinks a FireBlade could be the one.

One man who is seriously considering a change – albeit reluctantly – is Frank Webb from Bournemouth. While he loves his Cat, rating his five-year-old example highly in every category from looks to performance, he says: " It is getting on a bit now. I've had it from new, but now most of my miles are done two-up and it would be good to have something with a bit more go – perhaps a Kawasaki ZX-9R. "

Kawasaki may have to wait for that sale, though. The 54-year-old maintenance supervisor adds: " My other half doesn't like the green and I don't really like the red! If there was another colour… "

Debbie Smart illustrates another way of dealing with the Cat's ageing image. She's made a lot of changes to her 1998 S-plater, and she's pretty up front about what she'd like Yamaha to do with the bike.

She has added carbon-fibre levers, and frame protectors, cat-eye headlights with a black headlight cover, a tinted screen, flush front indicators and mini-rear indicators. She's also tweaked the suspension.

The 37-year-old distribution manager from South London says: " I've added heavier fork oil. The front is too soft as standard and takes a lot of setting up. I'd like to see a bike with a better-sorted front end.

" And it could lose some weight – it's a bit heavy. Oh, and the gearbox is a bit clunky – typical Yamaha! "

And with a garage that has previously been home to a YZF750, a Fazer 600 and an RD350YPVS, among others, that's a subject Debbie knows plenty about.

As for a replacement, she says: " Maybe a Benelli Tornado or an MV Agusta F4! " So again, Yamaha won't have to worry about losing a customer too soon.

Then there's the man who takes loving his bike to a whole new level – Keith Williams, a 38-year-old process development manager, is better known to hundreds of web users as Diesel and has built a website dedicated to the bike – find him at www.thundercatsrus.f9.co.uk He uses his 1999 model – like most of the other owners – for everything from commuting to touring, doing about 9000 miles a year. He said: " Maybe it's time for a larger engine – like the 636cc one in the new Kawasaki ZX-6R. They're the only people in the MCN chat rooms who are busier than us – in fact, we have a bit of a dig at each other in there! "

Other than that, he's happy with the bike. He adds: " It's a general all-rounder. It's fast enough, comfortable, it looks good and it's affordable. There aren't many bikes that can match all that. "

And that may be where he hits the nail on the head. There are all-rounders and there are

all-rounders. Some are just adequate at some things – and after all, you can scratch or tour on anything if you want.

A Thundercat currently costs £5799 list, but some of our group paid around £5200 new, and you can find them under £5000 new. Yet for that you get a full fairing, fully adjustable suspension and a frame that was race developed, albeit a few years ago.

In the real world, the Cat offers a sporty enough edge that isn't going to make you feel inadequate when you're not in the mood to go for it. Conversely, when you do want to get a move on, it feels happier than something more touring oriented like a Kawasaki ZZ-R600. OK, the ZZ-R has a stronger motor, but the Kawasaki feels long and soft next to the more poised Thundercat.

Mark Harris bought his after collecting his redundancy money when he lost his job as a business development manager.

And while splashing out would be the last thing many people would do if they'd just lost their job, the 32-year-old from Cirencester says: " It's the best thing I ever did! "

The only fault he can find is the suspension, which he feels is " a bit squidgy " . But he excuses it, saying: " Maybe that's because I'm 16 stone! "

Day service officer Tim Mulcahy, from Southampton, agrees a bigger motor would be welcome, but really wants Yamaha to add Bridgestone BT010 tyres as standard and " smooth out " the gearbox. However, apart from that, the 49-year-old reckons it offers just the right combination of thrills and practicality.

Also 49, Ron Walker simply says: " I'm not considering replacing it. It's so much fun to ride that I just can't stop grinning! "

And he's a psychiatrist, so the Thundercat is obviously doing something right.

Six years of the cat

Launched in January 1996, the Thundercat was given the same " YZF " label as the later R6, but it actually owes more to the FZR600R, the bike it replaced and with which it shared an engine. It also carried over the FZR's 41mm fully adjustable forks and fully adjustable shock.

Yamaha attempted to give the Cat a more torquey, less peaky delivery than the FZR, plus more generous accommodation. Though only 3kg (6.6lb) heavier, the wider seat and less radical riding position make the Thundercat seem less focussed than the FZR.

Over the years only three things have changed – the colourschemes pretty much every year, the wiring loom, which gained a loop to plug an alarm into at the end of 1996, and the end can, which gained a more robust finish in 1998.

The sales chart below shows the peak of Thundercat success was in 1998, when buyers were tempted by Yamaha sales incentives and before the R6 stole its thunder,but 700 a year are still shifted in the UK.

What they'd change

So, everyone loves their Thundercat then? Well not quite. In fact, there are a few things owners would like to see changed.

Top choice is the headlight – our group all reckoned it should have twin lights to give it a more modern look.

Then they'd like an improved dash – again something more modern like a digital LED display would keep them happy.

Just as popular it seems, is a more imaginative paint scheme.

Uprating the engine, however, only raised moderate interest. Our owners would sooner have better mirrors and a higher screen, though the idea of better suspension was appealing.

Another surprise – with such a " practical " bike you'd think owners would be crying out for a centrestand as standard. But hardly anyone asked for it.

Yamaha does have changes in store for the Cat and has confirmed it will stay in the range until at least 2004. Expect a facelift to bring the styling into line with the R1 and R6, which would at least give owners the twin headlights many crave

However, with more stringent EU emissions legislation due to come into force in 2003/4, Yamaha's Dan Harris said: " Some large capacity four-cylinder engines may not be able to achieve those standards without some work. "

That leaves us to conclude that in order to remain on sale, the Cat will either need a cat up its pipe, or fuel injection, which allows much more precise fuel metering. Let's hope Yamaha can answer some of the other requests at the same time.

 

The twin-spars haven't turned to Zimmers yet
NO-ONE would describe Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney as fashionable. You won't find them spinning discs in the trendiest superclubs. But these wrinklies were so influential that everyone still knows who they are, whatever kind of music they're into.

Yamaha's Thundercat and Kawasaki's ZZ-R600 are the Jagger and McCartney of bikes. Everyone has heard of them, but no-one will admit to liking them. They're cheap, comfy sports tourers with soft images and mediocre performance by current standards. They have been superseded by more modern, more exciting machines. But the fact they're still around and still selling proves they're just what lots of people are looking for.

Thousands were sold at the height of their demand, between 1990 and 1995 in the case of the ZZ-R and 1996 and 1998 for the Cat, but walk into any showroom today and try finding one. The bargain hunters clearly know something the rest of us don't, because any dealer will tell you neither sits in the showroom for more than a week.

A few years back, these were cutting-edge sports 600s. Not so long ago, the Thundercat was Yamaha's race 600. Nowadays many people dismiss them. And that's a major mistake.

The latest sports 600s have sharper chassis and brakes and racier looks, but engine development hasn't evolved too much. Standing-start quarter-mile times have improved by a few tenths of a second and the difference at the top end, after a two-mile straight, is just 5mph These are significant advances in racing terms, but on the road, or even on a track day? Get real.

Then consider that few of the current crop can offer the all-day, everyday comfort of the Cat and ZZ-R. Honda's CBR and Kawasaki's ZX-6R come close, but they're both physically smaller, with less protective fairings.

Though they're quite similar machines, there are immediate differences. The ZZ-R feels more like a tourer. It looks longer, has a lower seat and bears a striking similarity to its big brother, the ZZ-R1100. The faired-in indicators and prominent mirrors, along with a clock on the dash, all point towards road-going practicality.

The quality of the finish is good. Our T-plate example has been well looked after by its previous two owners, as the absence of scratches and minor damage testifies. The finish on the twin exhausts is holding up well, with no obvious signs of corrosion on the chrome end cans.

The Yamaha feels more sporty. The seat is higher, the mirrors narrower and there isn't a clock. It also has its indicators out on stalks – so you can remove them easily for the track.

The downside is a lower standard of finish. It isn't that bad and it is a bit older than the Kawasaki, but it hasn't handled the years as well as the ZZ-R. Finish has never been one of Yamaha's strong points, whereas Kawasaki has made an effort to match the high standard traditionally set by Honda. The bodywork looks fine, though it doesn't look as sturdy as its rival. But details like the brake calipers didn't look quite as well-wearing. With an S-plate and twice the mileage, you have to make allowance for the extra distance, but you feel the Kawasaki will still get there looking better.

Gloucester, the nearest city to our test roads, is not the best place to visit if you want to get in and out quickly. The frustrating lack of clear signs, a poorly sequenced traffic light system which makes it impossible to get from one set to another before they change to red, plus a proliferation of Gatso cameras, means you'll find yourself riding at a very pedestrian-friendly 29mph.

But getting lost in an unfamiliar town does give you a good chance to learn about the bike you're riding. Plenty of U-turns, slow riding in traffic and general bumbling around requires a bike you don't have to think too much about. Both of these give you that. Test rider Dave Hill, starting off on the Thundercat, said: " It's fine, just get on and ride. No surprises, everything in the right place. " Same goes for the ZZ-R600.

Another thing we agree on is the tendency for both bikes to flop into slow turns. During U-turns, the bars feel like they want to swing to full lock. It's not scary, not sudden, but there's a noticeable feeling that you have to put a fair bit of weight behind the inside bar to stop it from dropping in.

Finally finding the roads out of town, we get the chance to learn about the bikes in a more natural environment – sweeping A and B-roads with minimal traffic. You can enjoy yourself here on both bikes, but each suits slightly different requirements.

The ZZ-R has the engine you want if you're going to carry a passenger or luggage on a regular basis, or you just want to be a bit lazy with the gearshift. In fourth gear on a dual-carriageway we sit side-by-side and just roll the throttles on. Hill, still with the Cat, can't believe the ZZ-R is in fourth as it rapidly leaves him behind.

The engine is a bit of a strange beast. You can bimble along in a high gear, twist the throttle and it will pull cleanly, though disappointingly slowly. Then you look down and realise you're only turning 4000 revs – there are 10,000 to go before the red line. And though it never demands them, it goes better the more you use.

Sharing a look with its bigger brother also means the same slippery aerodynamics. Wind blast is directed over and around you pretty successfully, giving a buffet-free zone to enjoy your riding.

However, the emphasis on touring abilities has a cost. While the ZZ-R will get you where you're going in comfort, it doesn't feel quite as capable on the twistier roads at journey's end. The front end, in particular, feels a bit soft and in bumpy corners it gets a bit of patter as you start to push it harder, making it run wide.

The bars are a bit remote from the front end, too, making it harder to summon up the confidence to push as hard as the tyres. One thing that does keep it all controllable is the brakes. Its powerful set-up offers plenty of feel, though the soft forks dive quite hard when you use the brakes hard.

Chasing the ZZ-R down a twisty lane, the Thundercat needs more gear lever action. This is more of a bike to keep on the boil, and it rewards you when you do. Like the ZZ-R, but to a lesser degree, it has a flexible engine. It isn't vital you get the right gear every time, which makes chasing sports bikes more rewarding – as soon as they make a mistake you're right on them.

When the bike ahead is the ZZ-R, your big advantage is the handling. While the Kawasaki's power lets it pull away, the Yamaha reels it in again on the brakes and through the corners. The brakes on this bike feel wooden, as if the pads are glazed. That may be the case, as Fraser's, who lent us the bike, hadn't been able to give it the full going-over before we yanked it out of their hands. But we still had the bike standing on its nose.

The Cat's forks are better suited to pushing the pace than the ZZ-R's. They also don't submarine under heavy braking, making you feel safer if you have to jump on the brakes unexpectedly.

That whole package makes the Thundercat the bike you want to be on for the more interesting roads. On open bends there is really nothing to choose between them. The choice you're faced with here is which side of " all-rounder " you prefer. At first glance, both these bikes are sports tourers, but if you want more sport, go for the Yamaha, whereas for more touring you'll want the Kawasaki.

Both the ZZ-R and Thundercat are strong secondhand sellers. Trying to track down an example of each turned into something of a wild goose chase – dealers had one or the other, but sold them before we could borrow them. One dealer told us: " I wish I had a shop full of secondhand Thundercats – I'd sell them in no time. "

That's good news if you've bought either of these machines. With demand so high you're unlikely to have trouble selling it on again. On the other hand, if you're still looking, make your decision now – if you dither you'll end up with that new kitchen instead.

Both the bikes we tested are for sale at Fraser's of Gloucester, priced the same at £4290. For details, call: 01452-306485. And if you want to contact owners of these bikes to find out what they're like, click on BIKES.

 

Buying Tips

REAR SHOCK
THUNDERCAT owners often complain of a harsh ride on bumpy roads, and this is due to the standard rear shock absorber spring being too hard. It's so hard, say suspension experts Maxton Engineering (01928-740531), that the damping doesn't get the chance to work properly. A softer spring can be fitted for £53 which will give a far better ride. But the rear end will still squat when you power out of corners - and the standard shock can't be revalved to alter the damping. So Maxton developed a longer shock body and new tie rods for the suspension linkage which alters the rising rate ratio. The shock costs £464 and tie rods £28. Get this far and you'll probably want to revalve the front forks to suit your weight and riding style, which costs another £160.

SERVICING
THERE'S a lot of bodywork to remove to get access to the engine, but the job is fiddly and time-consuming rather than difficult. Once you're under the fairing, valve clearance adjustment takes some savvy. If the cam timing is out there's a chance of extensive top-end damage as the valves could hit the pistons. Luckily, the job only needs doing every 24,000 miles. If you want to service the brakes, pump the pistons out and coat them in a silicon-based grease. Do not remove the blue anodised caps from the calipers - they will be damaged. The only special tools you'll need are vacuum gauges to balance the carbs.

FINISH
THE Thundercat, and all the other new Yamahas from 1996, had a much better finish than previous models. The bikes looked much tidier and less attention was needed to keep them looking like that. Many owners fitted a front mudguard extender to stop the lower part of the fairing being chipped and stained by debris from the front wheel. All this means any Thundercat you're considering should be in excellent condition. If it's not, it's been neglected and should be ignored.

SILENCER
THE stock Thundercat silencer is notorious for its poor resilience against the elements. Just a few weeks on a salty winter road and it will start showing signs of erosion. This is why most owners opt to fit an aftermarket can. Micron, Remus, Yoshimura and Harris are all popular. As well as standing up to the weather they make the bike look and sound better. Coupled with a Dynojet kit they'll also boost power by a few bhp. If the bike you're looking at has an old can try to get a couple of hundred quid off the price to put towards a new one.

AFTERMARKET ACCESSORIES
OWNERS love giving their Thundercat that personal touch, so you're unlikely to find a bog-standard used machine. Apart from an aftermarket can (see above) the most popular accessories are colour-matched braided brake hoses, engine bolt kits, footrests and coloured huggers. Carbon yoke shields, clock surrounds and tax disc holders are often fitted, along with mini indicators. Attention to detail like this not only makes the bike look better, it's also a good indication it's been cared for. But none of them improve anything other than the look of the bike.

BRAKES
THEY'RE among the best in the business, but it's important they're looked after. Take any potential purchase for a test ride. Pull on the lever with two fingers and if you don't feel as if your head's going to go through the screen, they haven't been serviced properly.

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