The Kawasaki Ninja name has been synonymous with sports motorcycles for over 30 years. Launched in 1984, the GPZ900R kicked things off for the Japanese manufacturer, by being the first water-cooled, fully-faired, 150+mph Japanese sportsbike 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 that 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 actually outlived its replacement; the GPZ1000R, and the ZX10 that followed after that, before remaining in production for certain markets to as late as 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, with no model reaching British shores officially referred to as a Ninja until 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 instead used in such nations as 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,’ which was proposed by the firm’s newly-appointed marketing agency, who were keen to make a name for themselves.
This near-35-year-history has spawned a number of cult sporting machines, as well as a new line of sporty commuters, known purely 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 been a model 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 throughout history in various 599cc and 636cc models, this track-focussed Ninja was originally born 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-6Rs 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, despite its additional grunt.
That was until the 2003 model arrived. Known as the B1H, this was the most advanced road-going 600 ever mass-produced, boasting radial brakes, USD forks and fully digital clocks alongside fuel-injection, a lap timer and all wrapped up in a tiny, tight chassis and plastics.
Although a weapon on track, the B1H struggled as a road bike and so for 2005 Kawasaki made it a little softer and compromising to create a more well-rounded package. A new slippery fairing design also meant a claimed top speed of around 170mph.
In 2007, Kawasaki dropped the all-rounder appeal and again 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 by jumping to 115bhp at the back wheel; becoming 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.
After this came the latest generation ZX-6R Ninja. Introduced in 2013, this 636cc Kwacka will be replaced in 2019 with a new machine and remains one of the last of the supersport breed; after the demise of the Suzuki GSX-R600, Honda CBR600RR and Triumph Daytona 675 in recent years.
Much like in 2005, the current model is 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.
Launched in 1996 to a sportsbike-crazed generation, the ZX-7R has gone on to achieve cult status since its demise in 2003. With a chunky 748cc inline-four engine in the middle, shrouded by 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 almost as the middling bike of the superbike class, with the Suzuki carving it up on the track and the slightly stodgy late ‘90s Honda FireBlades offering a better touring package. The Ninja seemed like the perfect middle ground.
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 85ft-lb of torque, it was a complete weapon in experienced hands but had a tendency to be a bit of a handful on the road. That said, with such a flexible engine, it is possible to potter about 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 synch, 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 the bike in a straight line 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 their most powerful ZX-10 yet.
Producing 197.3bhp from its 998cc inline-four engine, the bike had a better power-to-weight-ratio than its rivals and managed to remain less intimidating to ride than many. 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 bikes mentioned thus far.
Doing away with the traditional in-line four set-up of the aforementioned ZX-Rs above, 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 This also gives 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 and bolt on a whistling supercharger, give it 210bhp and slap a £22,000 price tag on it.
The result was a bike that re-defined superbike acceleration, which sounded incredible and exuded quality from every orifice. Put simply, 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 a track-only Ninja H2R, which gets 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 have only appreciated.
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.
For 2019, the H2 is set to become even more exciting, with details released earlier this year claiming performance figures of 227bhp and 104.5ft-lb of torque. With more power comes more expense and buyers can expect a new price tag of £26,499.
Despite the hike in power, Kawasaki claim that there will be no damage to the bike’s fuel economy and that the engine will run smoother, thanks to sharing the same air filter, intake chamber, spark plugs and ECU as the silky-smooth H2 SX.