Here’s one of the most underrated motorcycles around. A supremely comfortable, yet blindingly quick 600cc sports-tourer, that makes an excellent choice as a used buy, now the R6 has replaced the ’Cat as Yamaha’s midrange sports weapon.
If trackdays leave you cold and carrying your partner on the pillion saddle is another important factor in your bike buying process, then the slightly softer, smoother Thundercat may well fit the bill. If you’re a relative novice, you might like the Thundercat’s amazing brakes too – lifesavers.
A viable alternative to the Honda CBR600F.
Potent and versatile, the Thundercat could match Honda’s mighty’s CBR600F on price and performance reported Roland Brown after his 1996 outing on South Africa’s Killarney circuit.
Before we journalists got to ride the Thundercat, Yamaha’s marketing people sat us down in front of a slide-projector screen to show us why the bike is the way it is. The approach can be summed-up in one word: versatility.
According to their blurb and pie-charts, the typical 600cc rider is fairly young, say late 20s, and uses his (and occasionally her) bike for everything from scratching to commuting. The 600cc class made up a third of the total European sports-bike market last year, up from 20 per cent in 1990, so you can see why Yamaha made a big effort with the Thundercat.
For a bike whose major components (frame and most of the motor) are unchanged, the YZF600R certainly looks and feels pretty different – and, yes, more versatile. The styling, echoing that of the Thunderace and a tiny bit RF600ish, is a lot less race-rep than the FZR600’s, giving the Cat a more rounded, roadgoing feel.
The Thundercat still worked mighty well at the track, carving round in highly entertaining fashion thanks to a combination of top-end power, taut handling, excellent braking, super-grippy Metzeler rubber and abundant ground-clearance. Inevitably the 600 felt a bit gutless after the Thunderace, but in many ways the smaller bike’s more demanding nature made it more of a hoot.
It was certainly quick provided the 599cc motor was kept spinning, preferably above eight grand (and occasionally over the 13,000rpm redline, ahem). As well as an extra five horses, the Cat is more aerodynamically efficient than its predecessor. Yamaha reckon the new fairing and ram-air give it an extra 6mph, bringing top speed to 155mph.
Killarney’s straight wasn’t long enough to hit that figure, and on the road the Yam wouldn’t quite reach an indicated 150mph (possibly because of a gusting wind). Overall I’d have to say that the Cat didn’t quite feel as outrageously potent as Kawasaki’s ZX6R, but it’s close enough that you’d have to ride ’em back-to-back to be sure.
At high speed the Thundercat’s unsupported upper fairing flapped about a bit in the breeze, and the lower screen means you get no more protection than a CBR600F pilot. But elsewhere the Cat was practical, from details such as its bar-mounted choke lever to the new and more generous one-piece dual-seat with its built-in storage area for a U lock.
Like the Thunderace, the Cat has a warning light for low fuel level, and no reserve tap. On one occasion, after drawing the short straw at the end of a day spent continually swapping bikes, I managed to run out of gas. But the reshaped fuel tank holds 19 litres, par for the class, so I couldn’t blame the YZF. And being towed to a service station by another bike emphasised the usefulness of the Thundercat’s pillion love handles.
Handling was great on road and track alike. Forks are kicked out one degree more than the YZF1000R’s, a 25 degrees, but the smaller, lighter 600’s steering was both quick and neutral. Suspension was good, too, with enough travel to give a comfortable ride on the road, and enough damping to keep control when fur started flying on the track. For some reason the 600’s front brake didn’t feel quite as powerful as the bigger bike’s identical set-up, but I still had no complaints.
Nor will any prospective Thundercat owner be moaning at the YZF’s price of £6995, which is bang-on the CBR600F’s figure. Appropriate, that. In almost every aspect of performance it’s going to take a set of feeler-gauges to split ’em.
What’s New About the Cat?
The Thundercat’s slinky bodywork is similar enough to the Thunderace’s that on one occasion I spent five minutes photographing the wrong bike, but its nose section is quite different. Beneath the 600’s single headlight there’s a big intake slot for the ram air system that leads to a bank of 36mm downdraft Keihins with a throttle position sensor.
The 16-valve engine has more internal changes than the bigger lump, notably a new lightweight cylinder block containing forged pistons, plus redesigned valve springs, a bigger liquid-cooled oil-cooler, smaller ignition rotor and lightweight external fuel pump.
The 4-2-1 exhaust system has also been redesigned, and now incorporates a joint pipe beneath the motor to boost midrange output. And the peak power figure is also improved, by five horses to a claimed 105bhp at 11,500rpm. Less helpfully the dry weight figure goes up a fraction, too, from 185 to 187kg.
Although the FZR600R’s steel Deltabox main frame has been retained, complete with steering geometry, the rear subframe has been modified to hold the revised bodywork. Front forks remain at 41mm in diameter but they’re totally reworked and, like the new shock, are now adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping.
Brakes are the same combination of 298mm discs and four-pot one-piece calipers fitted to the Thunderace. The retained 17-inch front wheel’s mudguard is restyled for improved aerodynamics, contributing to a slightly lower drag coefficient.
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Engine inline DOHC four, 16 valve, water cooled
Claimed power (bhp) 105bhp at 11,500rpm
Compression ratio 12:1
Front tyre 120/60 ZR17 Metzeler
Rear tyre 160/60 ZR17 Metzeler
Front suspension 41mm forks, adj preload, compression and rebound
Rear suspension single shock; preload, compression and rebound damping adjustment
Front brake 2 x 298mm discs, 4-pot calipers
Rear brake 245mm disc, twin-pot caliper
Top speed 155 mph
Fuel capacity 19 litres
Current price £6,995