Once upon a time, on an island not far away, there were a lot of sportsbikes because people on the island liked them, a lot. More than adventure bikes, naked bikes, scooters and cruisers put together. They bought them in the hundreds of thousands, rode them from dawn till dusk but mostly on Sundays, toured on them, took them to exotic places like the Cat & Fiddle, Squires Coffee Bar and Devil’s Bridge. Some even took them on track – not to race (although a few did), but a new form of going round in circles called ‘track days’.
But although sportsbikes were fast and went round corners, that wasn’t enough for some. Obsessed by speed, a few riders wanted more acceleration, faster top ends and bigger engines – and so an off-shoot of sportsbikes was born. They still looked sporty-ish, with clip-ons, full fairings, big brakes and butch suspension – but they were bigger, longer, heavier and had radically aerodynamic styling. And, importantly, they were faster. Much faster. So we needed a new name for them.
What’s more sports than sports? Well, how about hypersports?
The evolution of the hypersportsbike (and motorcycling semantics) isn’t quite so simple; there was no specific moment of evolutionary divergence from true sportsbikes; it was a gradual process. Was Kawasaki’s 1984 GPZ900R a hypersportsbike, or just a sportsbike? Or what about Honda’s 1981 CB900F2 Bol d’Or? Or 1978 CBX1000? Or the first modern production bike with a full fairing, BMW’s 1976 R100RS? Or even the first production bikes with full fairings, 1954’s Vincent Black Prince and Black Knight?
Back in simpler times, a fast bike was just a fast bike – so the GPZ900R was definitely a sportsbike because it took first and second places at the 1984 Proddy TT. But, in a feature run by French bike mag loons Moto Revue in 1985, it also beat the TGV high-speed train covering 480 miles between Paris and Marseilles, averaging over 120mph (on the road!). If that isn’t a definition of a hypersportsbike – a sportsbike with hyper performance and touring credentials – then what is?
But for the sake of brevity if not argument, we need to agree ground rules. A true hypersportsbike has to be one, or a combination, of the following: its engine capacity should be above the same manufacturer’s premium sportsbike. And it’s generally not a bike you’d take production racing because although it can go round corners, they’re not its primary goal: going very, very fast, is. For that reason, saving weight also isn’t a top priority. Hypersportsbikes are also usually sports touring capable, with a readiness to accept luggage and a slightly less radical riding position and steering geometry than a pure sportsbike.
In truth, the modern hypersportsbike was created when Honda’s 1992 FireBlade re-shaped the sports motorcycling landscape in more ways than one. Quite apart from upending the race replica market, it also instantly created a generation of big, fast, ex-sportsbikes that weren’t really sportsbikes any longer. From Yamaha’s EXUP to Honda’s own CBR1000F, no-one called them hypersportsbikes yet. But that’s what they were. And top of the tree was Kawasaki’s ZZ-R1100.
• 1052cc liquid-cooled inline four • 145bhp (claimed) • 172mph • 21/24 litre tank • 1990 – 2001
Until the launch of the 1990 Kawasaki ZZ-R1100 C1, bikes were fast but they weren’t unknowably fast. If you pinned an EXUP, or GSX-R1100, or CBR1000F, you’d certainly get where you were going rapidly – but it wasn’t inconceivably rapid; you could get your head round it. A trip to the local chip shop and back on an FZR1000 could be quick, but you’d definitely have a memory of it. Try the trip on a ZZ-R1100 and you’d be back home in time to see yourself leave. It wasn’t just fast, it was instantaneous. You didn’t travel on a ZZ-R, you just sort of materialised.
This was partly down to the ZZ-R’s elongated, elasticated, linear and high-revving power delivery, stretched across 11,500pm, as much as its peak power output. It was as if the motor was powered by Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination. In fact, even in 1990 and pre-FireBlade, the ZZ-R11 was already too heavy, long and comfortable to be a proper sportsbike – and anyway, Kawasaki always billed it as a long-distance sports tourer. In France, adverts boasted about it being the fastest way to get between Paris and Marseilles (riffing on Moto Revue’s 1985 feature).
The 1052cc inline four was a direct evolution from the GPZ900R’s motor, and the ZZ-R’s aluminium twin spar frame-based chassis was also the result of a linear, if startlingly rapid, progression from the GPZ’s steel backbone (Kawasaki’s five-bike period between the 1983 GPz1100 and the 1990 ZZ-R11 is one of motorcycling’s great untold engine, chassis and materials development stories).
Making around 120bhp on a good day at the back wheel, the original C-model ZZ-R was restricted for the UK (thanks to an agreement between the Japanese factories) from a claimed 145bhp to 125bhp (via an easily ground-out plastic boss in the inside of the carb tops that stopped the throttle slides opening fully). But even that was a decent amount of shove for the day, and the ZZ-R’s motor benefitted from the world’s first production ram-air system, with a sealed air-box pressurised by incoming air ducted from the ZZ-R’s nose. It meant the dyno didn’t tell the full story, with a few extra bhp squeezed from the motor at high speed.
And they were impressive speeds: 173mph and a 10.84s standing quarter mile with a 127mph terminal were, in 1990, something to write home about. If only you could stop your hands from shaking. Importantly, the ZZ-R sounded completely beguiling too, as the motor came on cam and started guzzling fuel and air while the world went backwards.
Which it did, a lot. The ZZ-R look proper fast stood still – its long, low, sleek, aerodynamic styling with integrated bodywork and enclosed front mudguard (which made the front wheel’s stability a bit questionable in high winds) raised the pulse just looking at it. Getting on board was a fabulously exciting experience in itself – slotting onto the wide seat, sat low, feet tucked, reaching forward to reasonably moderate bars, dipping your head only slightly to get into the bubble, staring at the clocks set into a plastic dash (which was also notable – most bikes’ clocks were just perched on a bracket) – it was like settling into your personal Starship Enterprise, safe in the knowledge there was nothing on the roads that could get anywhere near the kind of performance you could access from your right hand. Riding a ZZ-R11, you could outrun anything. That kind of power does things to people. Good things.
In 1993 Kawasaki released the one and only significant update to the ZZ-R, launching the definitive D-model version (that ran pretty much unchanged for nearly a decade) with steering geometry tweaks, new clocks (swapping twin fuel warning lights for a gauge), sleeker styling, upping the fuel tank from 21 to 24 litres, wider rims and twin air-ducts providing even more pressure for the air-box. Power was still restricted to 125bhp, and still derestrictable to 145bhp (around 135 at the wheel), meaning it was still the top speed boss on the road.
Above: Simon H and Kenny P – the greatest 90s musical duo that never existed
My first experience with a ZZ-R1100 was, as a young fool in 1992, stopping at the side of the A1 having just collected the bike from Kawasaki UK, barely able to hold a fag in trembling fingers while giggling uncontrollably – simply because the ZZ-R accelerated at such a surreal rate I had to stop and have a word with myself to calm down. It was one of those seminal, golden, euphoric motorcycling moments. A few months later I rode the same bike 2000 miles across France to the Bol d’Or and back in three hectic days, two-up with a photographer called Kenny P – we were strung out, exhausted, tripping on a soupy cocktail of brain chemistry driven by a combination of lack of sleep and absurd speeds. Even now, all these years later, the intensity of that ride is powerful enough to set my pulse racing.
I repeated the trip 16 years later on a well-used ZZ-R1100D model. Throughout the 1990s I rode one to Scotland three times, to Cornwall twice, and took one up a runway at 174.1mph. In the imaginary garage of my heart, there’s always room for a burgundy ZZ-R1100.
• 1137cc liquid-cooled inline four • 164bhp (claimed) • 174mph • 22 litre tank • 1996 – 2007
Alongside the launch of the Blade in 1992, the old CBR1000F was given an upgrade makeover in the same year – but while it was one of the nicest, smoothest inline fours ever built, the package wasn’t fooling anyone. By the mid-90s, Honda needed something big, fast, modern and sports touring to replace it.
That bike was the CBR1100XX Super Blackbird, launched in the last half of 1996, and named after the slightly faster Lockheed jet. Honda chose Paul Ricard circuit in France, with a famously long back straight, to debut the bike. Confident of it topping 180mph, the speed gun they’d brought along was quietly packed away when the bikes would only just crack 160mph into a headwind, which left the circuit’s tighter corners to test the Blackbird’s ground clearance. Sadly, they’d also fitted the CBR with the world’s longest hero blobs.
Honda claimed the Blackbird was developed with superior top speed as a target – and geared the motor accordingly for a stock bike to just sneak ahead of the best ZZ-R speed by a few mph when it was finally tested back to back on a less windy runway in late 1996. The bare figures tell it like it is (see dyno graph below); the Honda beat the Kawasaki thus: 139bhp to 131bhp, 174mph to 173mph, and 10.53s to 10.7s over the quarter. So the Honda was indeed faster, but not by much. And a stock Blackbird never got anywhere near 190mph – to get a normally aspirated Blackbird to top 200mph – just; 200.9mph – it took Jack Valentine at V&M to bore the motor out to 1200cc and 182bhp running Carrillo rods, 1200 Bandit pistons, high-lift cams, Vance & Hines ignition and an Akrapovic system, then gear the wheels off it and get the legendary Ronnie Smith to ride it at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground’s two-mile test strip. And it still needed a big run-up.
On the road, the Blackbird had a more sophisticated ride quality and steering dynamic than the Kawasaki, with a lovely, well-oiled smoothness its suspension. But the engine, although measurably more muscular than the ZZ-R’s, didn’t feel as impressive; compared the long-legged, whooshing rev range of the Kawasaki, the CBR felt more conventionally inline-four-ish; harder revving and with bit of a dip at 5000rpm, just where you didn’t need it in top.
But it was much more (or less) than just about the engine: like the ZZR, the CBR11 was also an incredibly well-rounded, practical sports tourer – so much so that when Honda launched its replacement, the VFR1200, they invited the president of the Blackbird Owners Group along to the Spanish test ride to try it – only for him to report back the Blackbird was in almost all respects a superior bike. That long-distance comfort and capability is why so many CBR11s sprouted Givi top box and pannier sets, and were looked after so thoroughly by careful owners. Fantastic headlight, too.
My first go on a Blackbird was to record performance figures at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground one October day in 1996, then ride the bike down to Devon in the company of the ZZ-R. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying the fine motor down the A34 south of Oxford – but a jam jar in a layby was less impressed, coming after me with the blue lights on. I pulled into a layby, got off the bike and took my lid off. The plod was a young chap on his own. His opening gambit was positive: “Is that the new Blackbird?” he asked. “What’s it like?” Phew, I thought, a biker. “Well, wow, it’s good,” I said, and told him what we’d just done at Bruntingthorpe. “You’re Simon Hargreaves, aren’t you? I read Performance Bikes.” Ah, even better.
Then my colleague, ex-PB editor Rupert Paul, turned up on the ZZ-R. The policeman wasn’t done yet – “Ah, hello Rupert. Do you remember, you interviewed me for a job a few years ago? I said if I didn’t get it I’d become a traffic cop; well, here I am.”
At this point the photographer, Kenny P, also pulled in. “Hello Kenny,” said the policeman, rapidly becoming everyone’s best mate. “Remember me? I gave you a beer through the fence at the Bol d’Or a couple of years ago...”
Small world. And I didn’t get a ticket.
• 1299/1340cc liquid-cooled inline four • 173/197bhp • 194/186mph • 21 litre tank • 1999 – 2017
As is Suzuki’s wont, they spent long periods of the early 1990s asleep, waking only in the last five years of the decade to deliver icons as diverse as the TL1000 and SV650 V-twins, the 600 and 1200 Bandits, and the new watercooled GSX-R750 and 600. And, just sneaking in before the new millennium, the Hayabusa.
The Busa arrived looking like an absurdist anime bullet-train, bronzed like a bodybuilder, styled with a smooth, flowing profile and tapering smoothly at the back, with seat hump fitted, in a teardrop shape – nature’s most aerodynamic design (note – aero doesn’t work the way we intuitively think: a point at the back is more valuable than a point at the front, because disturbed air – drag – at the back of an object is more important than a small surface area at the front. That’s why a road cone is more aerodynamic blunt end first).
The Busa was an odd mix in other ways – it was completely new, from the 1299cc inline four to the twin spar aluminium frame, but was also nothing new in terms of tech. The engine, under a water jacket, was fundamentally an old-school air and oil-cooled GSX-R design relying on sheer cubic capacity and a relatively long stroke to muscle out quite shattering thrust at mid-rpms (although it was also ram air assisted; something Suzuki were relatively coy about). Peak power was a claimed 175bhp, which turned out to be just over 150bhp at the wheel. This was still enough to comfortably out-gun the Blackbird and ZZ-R1100, and with its crazy aerodynamics, propelled the 1999 Busa to around 185 to 190mph depending on tailwind, run-up, rider size and cojones. Although the self-imposed 125bhp agreement had fallen by the wayside some years earlier, it was swapped for a 186mph top speed limit instead from 2000 – which meant the 1999 Busa was about as fast as it still gets.
And boy was it fast. To unleash an original, unrestricted Busa was to experience a power delivery that flooded in from the bottom up like draining a reservoir in reverse. Its growling, gargling low down response was so limitless it was entirely disorientating, and made the ZZ-R11 and Blackbird feel revvy and peaky. And the Suzuki’s top end was scarcely credible, even if you sat down and tried to explain it to yourself afterwards. Which was infinitely better than trying to explain it to a magistrate.
But the Suzuki was also the first true, pure hypersportsbike in that it made relatively few concessions to sports touring, compared to the Blackbird and ZZ-R1100. You didn’t often see one decked out with hard luggage, and the 140-mile tank range (less if you were tramping on a bit) wasn’t conducive to crossing continents in a single bound. And, to be fair, neither was the Busa’s riding position – with a low seat height compounded by high pegs and a fair old reach across the tank to the low bars, the Suzuki was clearly a little more single-minded about hypersport-ism. Which is why the Busa helped popularise a hitherto little-known branch of motorsports – top speed days. Run in a straight line, instead of emphasising acceleration and terminals alone (as per drag racing), top speed events were all about, er, top speed. It suited the Busa well – the engine was built like a nuclear bunker and not hard to extract significant power gains (a race system alone produced almost another 10bhp). And, of course, even when you’re riding the fastest production bike in history, the one thing you really need is more power.
Which is exactly what the Busa got with a 2008 overhaul – even longer stroke (not bore) for more torque, and with revisions to cam timing and internal friction reductions, more power too. Suzuki claimed 197bhp; the rear wheel number was 180bhp – an astonishing 30bhp up on the Gen 1 Busa. The update included a styling refresh (with more curves) and suspension, brake and cosmetics changes – but the basic frame, steering geometry and stretched-out riding position remained. And it was just as sensational to ride, with titanic grunt in the midrange no other engine could match, and with a pretty reasonable go at decent cornering performance too.
I had a Gen1 Busa for 18 months from late 1999 to sometime in 2001. I did 16,000 miles on it, got through seven sets of tyres, a set of front wheel bearings, a fuel pump filter and an injector coil, dropped the gearing with a 43-tooth rear sprocket (much fun) and added an Akrapovic titanium system that barked blue flames on the overrun and, at night, made me think I was being chased by the police all the time. Which was very possible – it was the bike I set an all-time, will-never-be-beaten time on my 30-mile commute at 3am one morning. It was so fast, the centrifugal force unseated a pair of glowing LED valve caps someone fitted for a joke, leading to a slightly concerning loss of tyre pressure.
I rode the Busa to St Tropez in the company of a bloody idiot. At four in the afternoon in December 1999, up in the rainy hills around the Dignes in Provence, I suddenly realised the very nice person I was with was actually such a liability it would be safer for me to ride home in one go then and there. So I did, powering up the Busa and pointing it, initially, south to pick up the Autoroute du Soleil and head for home. It was cold, wet, dark and miserable. I held the Busa at 130mph all the way – this was before the French motorway was infested with speed cameras – and refilled every hour or so, counting down the stops to Calais. Hour on, stop, add 18 litres, ride for an hour again, repeat. By the time I reached the Eurotunnel around midnight I’d become part of the bike, or it became a part of me. That’s the thing about hypersportsbikes: they don’t just re-engineer physics; they re-engineer the rider, too.
• 1199cc liquid-cooled inline four • 178bhp • 186mph • 20 litre tank • 2000 – 2006
Kawasaki’s ZX-12R was the odd hypersportsbike out in the history of the breed, because it was the nearest thing to an actual, genuine hypersportsbike – literally a ZX-9R someone at Kawasaki took into Photoshop, then clicked on the edge of the picture box and dragged it out to make the bike 10% larger all round. Voila, just make it like that. So they did.
As a result the ZX-12R had none of the ZZR family’s low slung feel, was way sportier than a Blackbird, and looked like a conventional sportsbike next to a Hayabusa. And, in way, that’s why it didn’t quite work.
On paper the ZX-12R had a lot going for it. It looked pretty and was the right shape for sportsbike-mad UK – the traditional race rep looks, with a high centre of gravity, promised sports steering (instead of the slightly long, placid, sports tourer rolling of the ZZRs etc). Geometry and wheelbase were almost 750cc sportsbike dimensions. The ZX also had a big, booming engine, loosely based on an enlarged ZX-9R C model and with nary a hint of ZZR, displacing 1199cc and making a claimed 178bhp (190bhp with ram-air) – a match for the Hayabusa. And that meant it would also match the Busa’s 180mph top speed – especially with an enormous ram-air intake snout sticking into fresh air beyond the fairing nose. You could squeeze a lot of atmospheric oxygen into that.
There was plenty of innovation and spec under the skin (as well as on it; the ZX featured tiny winglets on the fairing long before MotoGP bikes got there, although their effect was more cosmetic than generating significant down force or stability). The Kawasaki featured the first mass production monocoque frame; a vast expanse of hollow aluminium arcing from the headstock to the swingarm, housing both air-box and battery compartment. The fuel migrated fully to a tank in front of the rider’s crotch, which extended under the seat. And the ZX’s usd forks and rear shock were sportsbike-stiff – better on a track than bowling along the motorway. It was all a bit... sporty.
And it didn’t quite gel; getting on the ZX-12R felt as if you’d suddenly been shrunk in the wash – every component, from the size of the bar ends to the height of the seat, looked and felt a bit bigger than usual. It was a bit disconcerting – but not as much as the hard suspension, slightly over-keen steering at odds with the bike’s weight, and snappy, intense throttle control, possibly thanks to Kawasaki’s first fuel injection system since the 1980s. And the 12r had a 120-mile tank range, if you used the engine with vigour.
And it was a hard motor to love, too – power delivery was short, sharp and revvy, without the beguiling, silky surge of a ZZR. The ZX-12R really did feel like an overgrown ZX-9R. Guess the clue was in the name. The ZX-12R wasn’t a hit, and was discontinued after only six years, despite a revamp in 2002 that altered suspension and fuelling settings.
Still, all the R&D in the monocoque frame wouldn’t go to waste – the next Kawasaki hypersportsbike also had one. Enter the ZZR1400.
2005 – 2016 • 1157/1293cc liquid-cooled inline four • 167/173bhp • 175mph • 19 litre tank
It’s easy to forget now, surrounded by S1000RRs and R1250GSs, just what poor shape BMW Motorrad were in the first few years of the new millennium. They were a niche manufacturer, building fat, clunky, puffy flat twin tourers and oversized off-road bikes, a couple of lardy tourers with flat four engines, and some smaller off-road machines powered by someone else’s engine. Most of them had a weird front end instead of forks, shaft drive and indicators you had to learn how to use. BMW, in the bike world, wasn’t associated with performance, technology, dynamics or convention, and the nearest thing they had to a hypersportsbike was the K1200RS, a big, long, sleek sports tourer using a transverse inline four. It was actually quite a nice thing to ride, but it was styled like a whale.
Sometime around 2000, all that changed and BMW got busy modernising their bike division. By 2005 they had broadened out with the parallel twin F800 series (still with Rotax engines) and developed, updated and enlarged their flat twins to build a range of more conventional (well, conventional to ride) R1200s. They also had a new inline four engine, powering the naked K1200R and faired K1200S. The figures were impressive; a BMW making a claimed 167bhp and hitting 170mph? Eyebrows were raised.
The K1200S’s start was a bit of a misfire – literally. The first launch, in 2004, saw unfavourable press reports as the bikes sputtered into life. A fuelling issue, among other glitches, halted production for a good six months while the bike was refined before a second, more successful debut part deux.
This was more like it. Still quirkily BMW with another funny front end, electronically adjusted suspension and shaft drive, the K1200S was on the cusp of hypersportsbikedom – the Duolever front end delivered uncanny road-holding and made the K1200 particularly hard to crash while panicking mid-corner and rolling off the throttle, and shaft drive was certainly convenient. But when the K was plonked on a dyno, the shaft sapped power down to 149bhp. That was a lot for a BMW at the time, but it wasn’t quite enough, even in 2005.
Which is why BMW enlarged the motor by 136cc in 2009, opening out bore and stroke for more power and torque, lifting performance to 162bhp at the wheel and a top speed of, well, still around 170mph. But that’s a goodly sum and it was a heck of a motor, with a bottom end pick-up that blossomed like a mushroom cloud, propelling the K forward on its shockwave. The way the inline four, laid almost flat in the chassis, groaned and took off was almost, a bit, like a tuned car engine.
The 1300S was also refined in lots of other ways – suspension, gearbox, electronics (first quickshifter, first CAN bus wiring loom, basic traction control etc) and, of course, it was the only hypersportsbike to come with heated grips.
To celebrate BMW’s renaissance, in 2005 I tried to beat the fastest unofficial time for a bike between John o’ Groats and Land’s End. It was set by Neal Champion in 1984 on a Kawasaki Z750 Turbo, at 11 hours and 14 minutes. With today’s average speed cameras, it’ll never be beaten now – but in 2005 I had a go. Apart from a 130-mile fuel range and worn rear tyre, the K was the perfect companion – blissfully rapid, smooth, heated grips – and the ride was a surreal, hypnotic cascade from coast to coast, mostly on motorways, but delivered with a cool authority, no fuss, no drama, just lots of speed and distance. And the final time was close enough for me: 11 hours and 44 minutes, and average speed of 78.7mph.
A few years later I ran a K1300S for a year, and adored it; the highlight was riding the NC500 (in the wet) and then riding the B500 – the most famous road in Germany after the Nürburgring (which I also rode on a K1300S, as it happens). I was in the company of a local ex-racer called Rolf who was a) handy and b) knew his way around the area, and didn’t hold back. It was one of those rides that sticks in the mind for being so outlandishly fast, and dangerous, but also life affirming and exultant. And I’m convinced I couldn’t have done it without the K1300S’s Duolever front end. Or heated grips, come to that.
Above: gen 1 in blue, gen 2 in green
• 1352/1441cc liquid-cooled inline four • 197bhp • 186mph • 22 litre tank • 2006 – 2018
With the relative failure of the ZX-12R to make a mark, Kawasaki went back to some ZZ-R fundamentals in 2006 with the ZZR1400. It was more than a missing hyphen in the name – the frame shared the same monocoque layout as the 12R and the engine was a bored and stroked 12R unit – but the riding position, geometry and dynamic feel of the bike was pure ZZR. Long, low, sleek, muscular and with distinctive set of six headlights and running lights at the front, the ZZR operated with a renewed, elongated and immense – as in, mind-warping – performance. And its styling, like the ZZ-R11’s, was a distinctive statement of intent; big, bold, brash and unequivocally designed to terrify passers-by.
At the launch – in Germany and conveniently close to an Autobahn – Kawasaki bosses used words like ‘stupendous’, ‘monstrous’, ‘extreme’ and ‘staggering’. ‘The goal of the ZZR1400 is to be undisputed king of performance,’ they said. The ZZR’s brochure contained phrases like, ‘primed fury’, ‘refined ferocity’ and ‘savage forces of nature’. Fighting talk.
But was hard to argue when the air was being sucked from your lungs. Because of course the ZZR could boogie – with 172bhp at the wheel (more, at speed, with ram air), the thing would hit its limited top end of 186mph – in fifth gear. Acceleration was an epiphany of bent physics; the bike could warp the space/time continuum even with its engine off, and shared the same sense of stretched momentum of the original ZZ-R1100.
And yet the 14, like the 11, could also do smooth and sophisticated; it wasn’t all blood, thunder and quantum mechanics. The engine was blissfully serene too, and dipping behind the low screen at speed was eerily silent and – weirdly – peaceful.
Yet despite the 14’s outrageous top end, there was also a nagging feeling the Kawasaki wasn’t quite all it could’ve been in its midrange – not exactly slow; but – compared to a Hayabusa – it wasn’t quite as rich and rewarding in the middle. So, in 2012, the ZZR engine was enlarged even more, to 1441cc, purely by extending its stroke – perfect for filling out its midrange and increasing peak power to a genuine (and genuinely gob-smacking) 190bhp at the back wheel. The new 14 also got further suspension and brake improvements, a styling tweak, and a suite of engine management options with traction control.
As a result, the last generation ZZR added a new depth of sophistication to the hypersportsbike game – here was a bike that, of course, could mangle human senses like a big, green brain blender, but it was just at home wafting across Europe with panniers, a top box and pillion enjoying a surprisingly well-appointed seat. A remarkable feat.
I turned up on the launch of the first ZZR1400 in Germany not sure what to expect. Kawasaki’s last two big hypersportsbikes, the ZZ-R1200 and ZX-12R, had been decent machines, but were flawed enough to be slightly disappointing – especially to nostalgic old gits who remembered the ZZ-R1100 with such fondness. Could the ZZR1400 recapture that old ZZ-R magic?
It did exactly that. And so much more. At the launch of the original ZZ-R1100 D model in the US in Arizona in 1993, a Spanish journo was caught speed testing the Kawasaki on a highway and spent a night in jail. So a gaggle of 12 or so ZZR1400s romping at full tilt around the German countryside piloted by a motley crew of British journalists, egged on by giggling Japanese Kawasaki engineers, surely enough attracted the attention of the Polizei. More tolerant than their American counterparts, the first time it happened we were let off with wagged fingers and a sharp warning not to do it again. The second time we were pulled over, things got properly heated and it took some hefty begging, pleading and even, perhaps, allegedly, a contribution to the police beer fund by Kawasaki staff.
Then we went out on the Autobahn and did 186mph.
• 998cc liquid-cooled & supercharged inline four • 197bhp • 186mph • 22 litre tank • 2018 – 2021
In 2015 Kawasaki revealed the bonkers supercharged 200bhp plus H2 and (alleged, ahem) 300bhp track-only H2R. The road machine was a hard-assed monster of a sportsbike with jackhammer ride quality and forced induction performance that stripped the paint off car doors in the fast lane. But surely it wasn’t the beginning and end of Kawasaki’s flirtation with blowing their own trumpet?
It wasn’t; in 2018 we got the sports touring version, called the H2 SX – or, with various levels of extra goodies such as semi-active suspension, panniers and/or heated grips, the SX SE and SX SE+.
With an engine based very loosely on the ZX-10R (same bore and stroke, at least), much of it was adapted to suit the extra stress of forced induction specific to the SX: new pistons, head, cylinders, crank, valve train, clutch, transmission etc. Not to mention the supercharger itself. The frame was steel tube, as per the H2 in terms of styling and principle. Thick alloy spars would’ve been needed for an equivalent strength as steel; they might be lighter, but would also be physically larger – shrouding too much of the engine to effectively shed the extra heat generated by the supercharger.
The SX SE’s steering dynamic and riding position was very sports tourer, but without any of the ZZR14’s long, low feel; it was much closer to the conventional but immensely popular Z1000SX. So despite both ZZR and H2 SX making nigh-on 200bhp, they were very different animals to ride. Even the engines made their power in different ways; the ZZR, with a significant capacity advantage and more midrange, trawled its acceleration up from a subterranean depth but still felt conventional and linear. The SX didn’t so much accelerate as simply instantaneously jump from one point in space to another. It seemed to travel faster than the ZZR, but with less mechanical effort. Nonetheless, despite their differences it was still a curious state of affairs for a factory to have not one 200bhp hypersportsbike in their line-up, but two.
I rode an SX SE for a year in 2018, and in a life blessed with riding some extraordinary machines, it was easily the most extraordinary – because it delivered its performance like no other internal combustion engine I’ve experienced. It’s very hard to explain unless you’ve felt it – it wasn’t the same as, say, a ZZR1400 or a Hayabusa, which have a very definite feeling of opening the throttle to overtake at, says 40mph, bike’s ECU works out the fuel and air, engine responds, acceleration happens, and wow that feels fast, here’s 80mph in an instant. So that’s your normal hypersportsbike thing.
The SX SE does it differently – you open the throttle at 40mph and... hang on, how did that happen, I’m already doing 80mph. You don’t appear to pass through any intervening speed. I mean, you clearly must do – but it doesn’t feel like it; it happens too quickly. And it’s this roll-on midrange – not launch acceleration, not full throttle top end – that makes the SX SE so unique and so intoxicating and addictive.
Can I have one again please?