The Kawasaki Ninja name has been synonymous with sports motorcycles for over 30 years. Launched in 1984, the GPZ900R announced the Japanese manufacturer as a serious sportsbike contender, by being the first water-cooled, fully-faired, 150+mph Japanese bike ever produced.
No bike had proved to be more exciting or cutting-edge and it was an instant sales success – inspiring a generation of head-banging, sportsbike-crazed Brits who enjoyed nothing more than a high-octane thrash of a weekend. It also claimed the 1984 Production class win at the Isle of Man TT, ridden by Geoff Johnson.
In fact, the 900R was so good that it outlived its replacement; the GPZ1000R, and the ZX10 that followed after that, remaining in production for certain markets until 1996.
Despite paving the way for a long line of Ninjas - ranging from 125 to 1400cc - the GPZ900R was never actually known by this name in the UK. In fact, the first Ninja model to reach British shores was the 1994 Kawasaki ZX-9R, which was created to combat the dominance of the Honda CBR900RR FireBlade in the newly-formed superbike class.
The Ninja title was used in the USA and Kawasaki’s own domestic market in Japan, after Kawasaki USA’s then Director of Marketing, Mike Vaughan, convinced the Japanese to use it over the name ‘Panther’.
This near-35-year-history has spawned a number of cult sporting machines, as well as a new line of sporty commuters known simply as Ninjas, aimed at inspiring a new generation of riders on either an A1 or A2 licence. It’s also seen the rise of the supercharged H2 series, which blew the doors off the hyperbike scene at its launch in 2015.
Kawasaki’s middleweight ZX-6R has featured in the Japanese firm’s line up since 1995 and in that time has undergone a series of improvements to the styling, performance and handling – with the latest revisions for 2019 aimed squarely at reclaiming the supersport crown from the Yamaha R6 - its only real remaining rival.
Available in various 599cc and 636cc model versions, this track-focused Ninja was originally created to do battle with the Honda CBR600, with the Yamaha R6 and Suzuki GSX-R600 only appearing in the late 1990s.
Despite being one of the pioneers of the modern day supersport class, by the time the first 636cc ZX-6R arrived in 2002, the bike was starting to feel slightly long in the tooth – outgunned by the R6 on track and out performed by the Honda and the Suzuki on the road.
All that would change in 2003 with the arrival of the B1H model, the most advanced road-going 600 ever mass-produced, boasting radial brakes, USD forks and fully digital clocks alongside fuel-injection and a lap timer all wrapped up in a tiny, tight chassis and plastics.
Although a weapon on track, the B1H felt harsh and uncompromising on the road and so for 2005 Kawasaki made it a little softer but a new slippery fairing design still meant a claimed top speed of around 170mph.
In 2007, Kawasaki dropped the all-rounder appeal and went in pursuit of track mastery. In MCN’s supersport group test of that year, the ZX-6R produced a measured 109.61bhp at the back wheel – making it the most powerful bike of the crop. Combined with superb brakes and suspension, the bike was a racer in road trim and stamped the firm’s authority on the class once again.
In 2009, the 599cc ZX-6R gained a small boost in power, jumping to 115bhp at the back wheel. This made it the most powerful supersport machine MCN had ever tested. As well as more poke, it also enjoyed better handling, with new MotoGP-inspired big piston forks from Showa and full adjustment front and rear. A slipper clutch also came as standard, as well as radial calipers and wavy discs.
Kawasaki upped the engine capacity of the ZX-6R in 2013 to 636cc, by which time the Kwacka had become one of the last of the supersport breed; after the demise of the Suzuki GSX-R600, Honda CBR600RR and Triumph Daytona 675.
Much like in 2005, the 2013 model was designed to be more useable on the road by offering a more usable spread of power and torque that’s easier to exploit. Traction control and optional ABS are also featured here. More suspension travel from the rear and a softer ride in road settings also make it more comfortable over the UK’s pothole-laden roads.
The latest update to the Kawasaki ZX-6R came in 2019 with changes to the styling and gearbox freshening up the model. As with earlier versions, the 2019 iteration is fantastic on a trackday but too cramped, revvy and uncompromising for the road.
Launched in 1996 at the peak of sportsbike-mania, the ZX-7R has gone on to achieve cult status since its demise in 2003. With a chunky 748cc inline-four engine and bulbous, nineties bodywork, the 7R was a great road bike and sold well – despite being no match for the likes of the Suzuki GSX-R750 on track.
Weighing in at 203kg, the Ninja ZX-7R was a bit of a weighty beast. However, this additional timber meant it was stable at high speed, meaning it worked well on the road. It sat between the Suzuki and the Honda FireBlade in the superbike range of its day; carved up by the former on the track but less comfortable than slightly stodgy late ‘90s ‘Blades for touring.
For those of a more track-orientated disposition, Kawasaki also launched the ZX-7RR in 1996 – a limited edition race homologation version with a stiffer frame, flatside carbs, close ratio gearbox and single seat.
- Engine: 748cc, inline four
- Max power: 123bhp
- Torque: 58ft-lb
- Weight: 203kg
- Seat height: 790mm
- Top speed: 165mph
- MPG: 42
The Kawasaki ZX-10R was introduced in 2004 and what an arrival it was. Producing 181bhp and 85ftlb of torque, it was a complete weapon in experienced hands but was a bit of a handful on the road. That said, with such a flexible engine, it is possible to potter around on the ZX-10R - but that’s not what this bike is about.
Kawasaki were the last of the big four Japanese manufacturers to invest in the litre sportsbike market and although it couldn’t quite match the Suzuki GSX-R1000 K3 for low-down grunt, it was an instant contender for top dog.
The ZX-10R got a complete redesign for 2006, to make it slightly more user friendly, complete with new slippery lines that divided opinion, however it was far from sluggish. Producing 173bhp (or 181bhp with ram air) and weighing 175kg, you struggle to feed the big Kawasaki gears as it winds through to a top speed of 182mph. Third gear power wheelies are a cinch, too.
In 2008, the ZX-10R gained the title of the fastest production 1000cc motorcycle currently on sale and wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Although heavier than the previous version, the ‘08 bike produced a whopping 185.4bhp - projecting it to 186mph.
Keeping you out of the scenery were radial brakes, complete with petal discs and fully adjustable suspension front and rear. An Ohlins steering damper also came as standard to combat any aggressive wobbles. The 2008 bike was also the first version to have the Kawasaki Ignition Management system, which was designed to reduce wheel spin under extreme circumstances.
After the introduction of the BMW S1000RR in 2009, manufacturers were forced to update their superbike offerings or face being left behind by the new kid on the block. Kawasaki was no exception to this and in 2011, the firm revealed an even more powerful version.
Producing 197.3bhp from its 998cc inline-four engine, the bike had a better power-to-weight-ratio than its rivals but managed to feel less intimidating than earlier models. The end result was a bike whose handling harks back to early 90s ZX and ZX-R 750cc WSB bikes where front end stability and feel was top notch and the bike was able to be hauled around effortlessly.
It also accelerated hard all the way from low revs to the redline, and that was good news for road users who would do most of their riding well below the limiter.
Following on from the 2011 bike have been two more iterations in 2016 and 2018, which help move the bike on one step further - with slightly more power, better suspension and a greater focus on the top-end rush.
In a pursuit for World Superbike greatness (they’ve won five of the last six titles) Kawasaki have also released a homologation special limited-run ZX-10RR, which for 2019 features finger-follower valve actuation (replacing tappet-style valves) and titanium con-rods which save 102g per rod. This allows the engine to rev 600rpm higher, producing 4bhp more power and 2ftlb more torque than the outgoing 2018 RR. It will be limited to just 500 units.
In more recent times, Kawasaki have opted to make the Ninja title a more prominent part of some of their bikes’ names. Arriving in 2017, the Ninja 650 is a prime example of this. Replacing the outgoing ER-6f, the 650 aims to be more of an all-rounder than the other Ninjas on the list.
Doing away with the traditional in-line four set-up of the brand’s famous ZX-Rs, the bike uses a versatile 67bhp parallel twin lump, aimed at new riders and commuters on a budget. The familiar, 649cc unit had already proved hugely successful and popular in the ER-6f and ER-6n and now came with the added bonus of improved fuel economy.
At its launch in 2017, the base bike was priced at just £6349. Only £300 more than its naked sibling - the Z650. However, it still wasn’t a match for Yamaha’s ultra-value naked MT-07 and once would be owners had added better colours and accessory packs, the price could easily bump up to nearly £7500.
- Engine: 649cc four-stroke, liquid-cooled parallel twin
- Max power: 67bhp
- Torque: 48.5ftlb
- Weight: 193kg
- Seat height: 790mm
- Top speed: 125
- MPG: 55
When the superbike world is oversaturated with naturally aspirated missiles nudging 200bhp, how do you move the game on further? Simple, wrap a 998cc inline-four motor inside a space-age half fairing, bolt on a whistling supercharger, give it 210bhp and slap a £22,000 price tag on it.
The Kawasaki Ninja H2 re-defined superbike acceleration, sounded incredible and exuded quality from every orifice. Put simply, it is one of the most exciting sports motorcycles ever produced. Sure, the ZX-10R would be the better bet for punching in hot lap times, but nothing could match the H2 for presence.
Keeping the H2 on the straight and narrow are a plethora of control systems, helping to keep the power under control. The key features are as follows:
- KTRC (Kawasaki TRaction Control) The new KTRC system’s multi-level modes give riders a greater number of settings to choose from. Mode 1 is for the track, Mode 2 for the street, and Mode 3 for wet conditions. A Rain Mode is also available separately, which limits power by more than 50%.
- KLCM (Kawasaki Launch Control Mode) There’s no need to fear the supercharger for fast getaways, as the H2’s launch control will prevent wheelspin and minimise wheelies off the line. Riders can choose from three modes, each offering a progressively greater level of intrusion. Simply hold the throttle wide open, and let the clutch out. KLCM can be used concurrently with KTRC.
- KEBC (Kawasaki Engine Brake Control) The KEBC system allows riders to select the amount of engine braking they prefer. By selecting ‘LIGHT’ in the KEBC settings, for example, the engine braking effect is reduced, providing less interference when riding on the circuit.
If a 22-grand missile isn’t exclusive and scary enough for you, Kawasaki also produce the track-only Ninja H2R, which features an unlimited-power version of the supercharged inline four motor developing a claimed 326bhp. It also boasts twin air intakes, a carbon air tube to the supercharger, carbon fairings, aerodynamic wings, a different exhaust system, and myriad of other detail changes. It cost a whopping £41,000 when new and prices have only gone up since.
The birth of the H2 has spawned an entire family of bonkers supercharged Kawasaki, which now extends into their touring line-up with the Ninja H2 SX. With superbike acceleration complementing a sports touring riding position, it will suck entire continents through its supercharger inlet, before spitting them out in a torrent of ballistic speed and luxury.
The H2 was updated in 2017 and then again in 2019 with Kawasaki claiming even more power from the engine. The update also included better brakes, grippier tyres and self-healing paint.