MCN Fleet: Kawasaki Ninja H2 SX SE's final sunset
It might seem like a fair amount of riding for nine months of movement, but 9612 miles disappear with no effort whatsoever aboard the Ninja H2 SX SE. If I hadn’t been distracted by other two-wheeled temptations, it would have been a shade under 13,000 miles but one of the most interesting findings throughout my time with the H2 was that it craves context.
Ride nothing other than the H2, and it starts to feel rather ordinary. That’s not to say that it’s anything other than spectacular when the supercharger is spinning hard, and the next change of direction is rushing at you like a rabid dog, but the sensation is dulled by familiarity, making it easy to forget that not all bikes develop their power like this.
Smack in the face, sir?
The first few miles on the SX aren’t shocking, but they are exhilarating. It’s easy to be wowed by the figures and the knowledge it has a supercharger spinning away at supersonic speed immediately beneath your delicates. But there’s nothing intimidating about the ride. It doles out a dyno-tested 185bhp at the back wheel in such a smooth tsunami of surging force that it never feels brutal so much as unstoppable. Add a crest into the mix though, and it’ll still send the front wheel skyward with aggressive verve, once smacking me in the face with the screen before the anti-wheelie caught it a split second later.
The longest day
There’s somewhat of a dichotomy between the SX’s touring title and packing a one-litre supercharged dervish of an engine beneath its flanks… and yet the Ninja is the most complete fast-tourer I’ve ever spent an 18-hour day aboard. Yes, bikes like BMW’s R1250RT are more comfortable, and KTM’s Super Duke GT is cheekier without giving much away to the H2’s practicalities, but neither quite boast the controlled insanity and composure of the H2.
It’s nimble and compact enough to thread through the worst of London rush hour, and gentle enough in first gear to be effortless when filtering endlessly. But show it a sinuous deserted ribbon of tarmac in the Scottish Highlands and it’ll just as happily peel from apex to apex with superbike-challenging gusto.
On a 715-mile lap from Stamford to Matlock, to the Lakes, to Edinburgh and back through Newcastle, the North York Moors and Lincolnshire Wolds to home (all in 18 hours to the minute with breaks only for fuel and sustenance) the big Ninja was unreservedly superb.
Shock and awe
This year sees Kawasaki release their SE+ version of the Ninja H2 SX, boasting a few key changes over this bike. While most look like valuable upgrades, Bluetooth media connectivity and Brembo monobloc calipers being lead amongst them, there’s one upgrade that seems superfluous, and that’s the semi-active suspension. I’ve rarely found a system that works without frustrating side-effects, and the Ninja just doesn’t need it. In almost 10,000 miles I never felt the need to change the settings, and never once thought it needed more intelligent control.
I got through three sets of tyres on the H2. The original Bridgestone S21s offered the best physical support, but the least feel, grip and riding pleasure. They’re stiff and dull with litle feedback through the front especially. They were also knackered after 3000 miles.
I warily tried Pirelli’s Diablo Rosso Corsa IIs next. I’m not a fan of Diablo Rossos, so I took some persuading to try the IIs, but they were superb. Pressures were crucial to proper behaviour under the duress of H2 life, but keep on top of them, and you have sportsbike performance from touring tyre longevity. A swift final change to Metzeler Roadtec 01s was providing the same story with the addition of improved performance in the wet and cold, but we only got 1200 miles before my time with the H2 was over.
And it’s goodnight from him
And over it is. At 9612 miles this Ninja H2 SX SE Touring, registration number RV18 JRX, is off to a new home. If that home is yours, then rest assured that while it’s regularly been let off the leash, ridden in all weathers, and worked hard… it’s also been looked after and has returned the compliment. Was I ever in love with it? The lack of pining since would suggest not but that’s doesn’t diminish my sincere reverence for its huge talents.
It’s all a bit hit and miss
It’s funny how little niggles can become the bug-bears that sully a bike for you: the biking equivalent of an irritating paper cut that snags on everything you touch. Thankfully the Ninja H2 doesn’t suffer many such infuriating tribulations, but there’s no doubt that some of its few oversights seem a bit obvious.
I’ve singled out the three biggest misses (and some mitigating hits) from my near-10,000 miles on the green meanie, but they’re not the sum total of those metaphorical paper cuts. Other niggling nicks include the lack of a natural position for a sat nav, the brakes that don’t impress against the bike’s mass when you’re really using the full range of the engine, and the slow-to-warm heated grips. Then there’s the betwixt/between touring screen that seems to throw the airflow right in your face, the lack of Bluetooth connectivity, the rubbish range-to-empty gauge, and the fact that you can either buy it in green and black or not buy it at all.
But let’s not get carried away, it’s brilliance dramatically outweighs these distractions, and when you really boil it all down to what matters, what would make a difference and can’t be easily solved other than by Kawasaki making it so, and I’ve got just three misses on my list. If the big K can solve them, then it will be a one very special K indeed.
MISS – Illumi-nighty
The last thing you’d thing you’d expect to struggle with on a big sports-tourer that boasts the sort of frontal mass a cruise ship would be proud of, is a decent headlight. But the H2 has all the illuminating vigour of a candle in the wind. It’s so poor that it’s a real pleasure when a bend arrives, and you can get the extra boost from the cornering lights.
MISS – Illumi-lefty-righty
Sticking with the darkness, the SX SE is infuriating in the dark if you haven’t managed to memorise every switchgear button’s precise location and function. Now that bikes have enough control systems to get you to the moon and back, it’s become imperative that you’re provided more than moonlight to see them. Backlit switchgear is a must-have.
HIT – Rise and fall
Kawasaki’s range-topping new-for-2019 H2 SX SE ‘Plus’ boasts a full complement of electronic suspension assistance in a similarly Showa-shaped solution as seen on the ZX-10R SE. But you know what? I really don’t think the big Ninja really needs it. If you want the ‘Plus’ for the suzzies alone, convince yourself with a test ride – but I’d be buying it for the other benefits: the stockers mechanical support is superb.
HIT – Big blower
There’s no escaping the headline act – and that’s the maniacal supercharger that surges sucks, squeezes, chirps and chatters beneath you as is compresses the horizon and throws it over your shoulder. It doesn’t quite make the H2 SX a one-trick pony, but is the only true USP. And as USPs go, it’s an impressive one. It genuinely enriches every throttle opening (and closing), and defines the bike. It’s the source of all the bike’s soul.
MISS – Keying error
This might seem like a minor misery, but it actually became a six-times-per-day (minimum) bug-bear, that continued to worsen. The cause? The key is a bit flimsy. In this day and age I don’t necessarily expect keyless, but a key that doesn’t bend in your pocket would be nice – most manufacturers manage it. The knock-on effect is that it wouldn’t always slide into the ignition barrel properly, and every use in the pannier felt like taunting impending doom.
Cold tarmac delivers a sensation not unlike the grim moment you blindly step into a doggy ‘parcel’ on the pavement. That sudden squirming lack of traction spikes an instantaneous extra heartbeat and a too-slow burst of adrenaline as you regain your grip; a warning you’ve not quite got the traction expected.
While this winter has proved slightly warmer than usual (so far), there have been enough zero-degree mornings and sunless days that the roads never quite grab any heat. That cold greasiness coincided with the H2 clocking an astounding 5400 miles on its Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa II tyres which, while still legal, were starting to feel past their best. Time for a change. The OE Bridgestones had been past their best at 3200 miles, but the Diablos offered a noticeable step up in performance. They warmed faster, gave more feel and added 2000 miles of lifespan, too. The only area where they lost out to the Bridgestones was in supportive rigidity, meaning pressures were crucial but that’s also what gave them the boost in feel.
The Diablos still felt good as the temperatures dropped but once below five degrees and with increasing wear, they felt past their best. Having spent autumn 2016 on Metzeler Roadtec 01s on a Super Duke GT, I was keen to see if they could carry the H2 through winter with the same composure.
The Roadtec’s not strictly homologated for the SX but, once we’d overcome a wrongly-balanced front wheel, they felt rather good. Delivering the same sort of secure feedback the Diablos did in summer, the Roadtecs feel instantly ready to grip and over the last 1000 miles I’ve only had one moment where the traction control has intervened; on a very cold a greasy B-road cresting a rise in fourth when the rear span momentarily.
My only other observation, which requires more investigation, is that the SX feels like it’s squirming slightly under severe braking. I’ll find a quiet road and repeatedly brake harder to see if this is a consistent theme, or just unlucky coincidence.
What’s more, after 1000 miles they still look brand new and, with the H2 going back to Kawasaki imminently, I’m not going to get anywhere near their full life. But on their performance so far, I’d confidently expect at least the same performance as the Diablos.
Getting used to the H2
Familiarity murders your perceptions. Spend too much time on one bike and the abnormal becomes the ordinary, while irrelevant niggles get amplified to distraction. So, I’ve been deliberately mixing it up lately, riding everything from Yamaha’s bonkers Niken, to slapping in some joyous miles on my 1998 VFR800F. And doing so has helped me to look at the H2 SX more objectively.
In the first of a series of ‘I’m not a luddite, but…’ observations, I’ve been reminded how good the big Kwak’s non-semi-active Showa suspension is. Jumping between bikes reveals just how well it manages its own mass, and mine, on roads as diverse as the newly billiard-smooth A1 section of my commute, to the incessantly rippled, bumpy and potholed back lanes out in the sticks. The only time it ever gets caught out is in severe compressions, when it’ll fire even my bulk clean out of the saddle as it unloads. The rest of the time it allows great composure, firm support and impressively sporty corner carvery; without ever trading the comfort you’d expect from a sports-tourer.
That’s all been assisted by the Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa II tyres I’ve been running for 4000 miles. They’re only just beginning to look used and have at least 1000 more miles before squareness will impede progress. Impressive.
Room for improvement
The little niggles that have reared their head as the mileage increases, and the weather changes don’t detract from the ride, but they’re worthy of mention. Almost every day includes night rides now and that exposes the less-than-brilliant headlight. It’s not a candle in a hurricane, and the cornering lights add serious value (and, well, light), but with a frontal area that could balance Kim Kardashian’s rear area, you’d think they could have managed a more potent day-maker.
The brakes aren’t amazing, either. I’ll be asking the dealer to check them over when it goes for its service. The fronts are great until you really need power, then they’re mediocre. And the rear is pathetic. Time for different pads, perhaps?
The quickshifter can be temperamental, too. If you linger anywhere near the lever on down-changes, then try another the lever won’t play ball. The same is true on the way up. It’s also not as deft or as pleasurable to use as those on either a Ducati or a Triumph. MkII version, please.
Talking of upgrades. There are so many buttons on the left bar that operating them at night is like trying to use a scientific calculator behind your back. Backlit is the new black. Time for an update.
I’m not a luddite, but…
My last heightened observation isn’t a complaint, it’s just something that struck me on a wet morning commute. Since my first week on the H2 I’ve changed neither the dash view, nor the power mode, nor the traction control setting. Many thousands of pounds of tech, and I just use one setting all the time. I’m genuinely not one of those pub bores who rails against ABS or TC intervention, and holds their right hand up proclaiming that it’s all the control systems they need; I just don’t get why you’d want your bike to deliver less of anything. I’ve never once felt the need to dial anything down come rain or shine.
It’s definitely love, though
It might sound like I’m moaning but I love almost everything else about the H2. That engine, that chirping and whining soundtrack, the way it blitzes time and space, messes with other riders’ perceptions of what a pannier-wearing tourer can do, and leaves me grinning like the village inbred after a cross-country A-road assault sets it apart from almost everything on the road. It’s a very worthy winner of MCN’s Best All-rounder award.
Tyred and emotional
It’s easy to ignore the warning signs and to be tight with your wallet, but nothing improves your riding enjoyment more dramatically than fresh rubber.
I went well past that point with the SX’s Bridgestone S21s. The rear had been looking pretty worn for 1000 miles before I decided that it’d had enough. The tread was vanishing from the middle band, and there were small nicks and cuts all over the place. Worse was that after 3200 miles of abrasion between the road and 200bhp, they were now sapping my riding enjoyment. Every tip-in was accompanied by a tiny spike of insecurity as the lip on the transition point gave that fleeting moment of grip uncertainty.
They’d performed pretty well, though. Wet or dry, I never had any grip issues, and beyond taking a few miles to really warm up and the way that the front tyre’s profile slowed the steering more than I’d like, there was little to find fault with. They were past their best at 2500 miles though, which isn’t a lot these days. You could argue that a 256kg bike with a 111kg human smearing 200bhp into the tarmac is going to have that effect on any tyre, but the Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa IIs I’ve replaced them with (£289 per pair, plus fitting) are coping far better.
After nearly 3000 miles there’s the nascent beginning of a lip on the rear that can be felt if you run your hand over the tyre, but their overall condition is dramatically better like-for-like. They also ride better. They’re faster to feel secure from cold, and offer more dynamic steering and feedback.
I have to keep an eye on the pressures, though. Just a couple of psi off can lead to an unpleasantly soft sensation from the rear-end, and the same under heavy braking at the front. But keep the pressures up and they’re consistent and confidence-inspiring, wet or dry.
And at this rate they look likely to deliver at least 4000 miles from the rear; around 30% more than the marginally cheaper (£253) S21s.
A very full day in the saddle
We’ve been in love with the idea of sports-tourers ever since Honda wheeled out the VFR750F and the camps of ‘sporty but comfortable’ were first able to coexist in one bike. But, however you try to dress it up, you’re buying a compromise; sacrificing the best of each world for an imperfect combination of both.
The Ninja H2 SX promises to deliver the most visceral and explosive fast touring package ever. But can you really go corner carving for a whole day in the saddle – or is it just marketing clap-trap?
It’s 4:30am. The satnav is pre-programmed with a 721-mile route, and it says I’ll be home again in 19-hours’ time. Dropping down from Stamford along the A47 as dawn does its best to properly break I’m cosseted from the chill morning air well enough, while my head is fully above the screen’s reach. There’s no real hint of which part of me will hurt first as time and distance take their toll.
The run in to Matlock Bath always feels like the gateway to playtime. It’s 6:01am as I pull up to grab a quick photo, the first time I’ve had to put my foot down since pulling off my drive. Matlock’s deserted and after the tedious roads around Nottingham, the H2’s nose is sniffing the air and sensing sportier roads ahead. It’s a big boat, but the combination of supercharged grunt, Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa II tyres, and climbing temperatures, mean it’s delivers a good approximation of a sportsbike on the beautiful Dales roads.
A fuel stop at Lancaster services reveals my left knee feels quite pleased to be straightened out, but the big H has just blitzed the only bit of planned motorway on the route with superb arrogance. Rush-hour Manchester passed in an ebbing and flowing tide of heavy traffic, fast gaps compressed by the H2’s surging delivery, and filtering facilitated by its relative litheness.
The first glimpse of Windemere through the trees, and the fast sweeping roads of the south Lakes give way to the tighter undulating A592. The increasing motion of twisty roads means I’m feeling comfortable, eager for more corners as the A591 sees the pace pick up. The H2 is in its element, knitting fast flowing corners together with seamless drive.
The long route through the Lakes lands me at the Scottish border past Carlisle at 10:47am, after 263.7 miles. Dawn’s cool 9-degrees has become 28. Nothing aches. Wrists, back, bum and knees are all still happy, and with the A7 to Edinburgh ahead, there’s little chance of stiffening up. The belief holds true, with 90 more miles of H2 heartland roads delivering us into Edinburgh.
A couple of laps of the city get the H2’s fan working as it tries to shed heat, but it feels neither lardy nor unwieldy in the middle of a busy city. We’re soon out on the A1, heading for a quick fuel stop and lunch at Berwick, before diving south.
I’ve done this route so many times, but it feels shorter on the SX. I’m crossing the Tyne Bridge before I have time to take stock, then Sunderland’s mini-me version via Souter Lighthouse. 500 miles on the clock, and there’s a dull ache in my knees, but nothing more.
The trip ticks through 600 miles over the North York Moors between Whitby and Scarborough. I’ve been stretching my legs out in turn regularly, thighs burning a little now, and knees still aching. My lower back feels tight, too. But it’s minor discomfort, nothing more. The low sun lights up the Humber Bridge as we cross into Lincolnshire for the final plunge down the A15 to home. Whether it’s the allure of the final push, or reinvigorated riding movement, the aches have completely disappeared, and the last 100 miles disappear with the sun.
Home. The trip says 714.5 miles, the clock says 10:30pm. Exactly 18-hours in the saddle with nothing but fuel breaks – and I feel fine. The H2 SX might be a compromise, but it’s a bloody good one. The comfort is impressive, and on fast flowing A and B roads it’s sporting prowess never fails to deliver. Maybe compromise isn’t such a dirty word after all.
Kawasaki’s psychotic super-tourer sucks, bangs and blows harder than most
Whirr, surge, chirp, pssshhh. Whirr, surge, chirp, pssshhh. The H2’s relentless wind orchestra has all the dogged insistence of the Titanic’s string quartet as it melodically blasts out its special brand of pressurised music to accompany your every throttle input.
It’s an addictive tune, an ear worm that begs you to whistle along as you knit corners together with glorious surges of midrange that propel you to a rushing top-end. It’s addictive, and after only a few hedonistic miles the message is clear: Kawasaki’s Ninja H2 SX is all about that supercharger.
Not a one-trick pony
In most other senses this superbike-tourer is largely conventional, not to mention practical. There’s plenty of legroom for my 5ft 11in frame, the riding position is focused but comfortable, the panniers excellent, weather protection adequate, the seat cosseting, and the quality impressive. The view over the clocks is marginally old-school, but saved by the quality multi-display TFT dash and neat features like the boost and braking force gauges, and the dangerously teasing lean angle readout. I’d still rather see a nice big flatscreen dash though, and the lack of integrated navigation and media connection feels like an oversight in 2018.
The dash’s inability to give you a believable range indicator, fuel reserve countdown, and actual average fuel consumption (it’s burning juice at 42.6mpg, by the way) also annoys as a functional faux pas for a modern sports-tourer.
Suck, bang, cue the blower
But as your eyes strain across clear tarmac to the horizon and your right wrist drops, the SX’s other charms and faults are all forgotten. The roar of air being forced into a space it can’t fit into without being squeezed builds like a jet-fighter throttling up, the blue boost bar starts to colour itself in, and your vanishing point begins to change by the millisecond.
But it’s not brutal, coarse, or switch-like (as it was on the first Ninja H2). There’s just a rising tide surging you forwards at a pace that will catch you out if you don’t keep half an eye on the big numbers rapidly multiplying on the dash.
Without the blower the SX would be a quirky and effective – if otherwise unremarkable – sports-tourer. And there’s a lot to be said for its beautifully thought-out simplicity. The lack of pointlessly endless riding modes and frustrating semi-active suspension are rather pleasing, leaving your brain clear from distractions to concentrate on the ride. But with the blower it becomes a martial artist in a suit, a wanton compressor of air, a riotously entertaining autobahn-shrinking sleeper.