The 1000cc Supersports class is where the ’big four’ Japanese manufacturers like to play hard and fast, with flagship four cylinder machines battling it out for supremacy.
Back in the Jurassic era, Kawasaki ruled the roost with the GPZ900R, until bikes like the GSXR1100 Suzuki and Yamaha FZR1000 EXUP moved the stakes higher. In the 90s, Honda had it all their own way for half a decade with the 899/918cc Fireblade series, then along came the Yamaha R1 – bye bye Blade…
And now a new challenger, the GSXR1000 looks set to put Suzuki at the top of the hill for a few years – faster, lighter, smoother than all the rest. But is it really that good? Insidebikes took the Gixer 1000, `Blade, R1 and the Kawasaki ZX9R for a windswept and interesting day out at Darley Moor race circuit to find out.
Kawasaki ZX9R; Once were warriors
What the hell happened to Kawasaki during the 1990s? Once, they were the undisputed masters of making ballsy, speed-crazed machines, with sharp styling (let´s skip over the GT550/750 range here) with reasonably decent handling. The GPz750 was once Britain´s best selling big bike for god´s sake, with the GPZ900 being undoubtedly the King of the heap in the mid 1980s for a couple of years.
The ZZR1100 was perhaps the only bike of the 90s which put the big K ( briefly ) back at the top of the high speed charts. Since then, it´s been an obvious struggle for the company to keep up with their Japanese rivals and the lack of genuinely new-from-the-ground-up models hasn´t been exactly inspiring. As an ex KH400 triple owner, it´s been a sad process watching Kawasaki’s increasingly dated range of bikes getting picked off one by one by the competition.
But the ZX9R has been one of my favourite machines of the decade and the reason is blindingly simple; it looks, sounds and feels like a proper motorbike should. Rough, ready, madly fast and a wee bit scary when you try and corner at some unfeasible speed on the open road. You see, I reckon we all need limits built into our road bikes, and the trouble with perfection is that it doesn´t allow much of a warning when human error meets sophisticated, ultra high speed engineering.
The 899cc four cylinder ZX9 engine is a gem. A great powerhouse of a thing, that screams with delight when you rag the nuts off it beyond 9,000rpm. Sure, the whole bike shakes, but in a way, that´s a good thing – this is a 160mph machine and it´s right that big bikes should look, and sound, the part.
The blue lines of the ZX9R are, to my eyes, one of the best collection of curves in modern motorcycling, so climbing aboard and finding that the Kawa has loads of room for the rider to shift around during the next 100 miles, is welcome news. There are so many sportbikes which are seemingly designed for circus contortionists that it is refreshing to find a manufacturer catering for middle aged blokes, with a bit of a belly to spread across the gas tank.
It’s all gone pear-shaped
On the open road, the Kawasaki is a great bike to ride, so long as you exercise a bit of common sense. It remains not only a bit of a heavyweight, despite a pruning of some 20 kilos over the last couple of years, down to a claimed 183kgs dry. Not only does it still feel like a 200 kilo bike as soon as you climb on board, but it seems to carry too much weight at the front of the machine when you decide to tip the ZX9R into a corner.
At Darley, this resulted in two things happening. Firstly, the bike´s painfully slow steering required a great deal of bodyweight shifting to haul it into the turn, then secondly, you´re always waiting for the front tyre to lose grip on the wet track, as the whole front end feels so `loaded up.´
In fact, the Kawasaki is more stable and forgiving than you think, but you need to really work the bike hard and concentrate on not making any sudden changes in direction during the cornering process. If you do, the Kawasaki shakes its steering head first, then begins to shimmy and bounce at the back. I don´t see why this should be, unless the fundamental weight distribution of the ZX9R is slightly too front biased.
I have to stress that even on a wet track, you can crack on a bit on the ZX9R – all it takes is some guts and practice, to make the mothership move surprisingly quickly. It´s just that the Kawasaki’s little handling defects can so easily dent your confidence that you end up riding slowly, then hating the bike.
With rather wooden brakes, a harsh engine for some tastes, plus a chassis package that requires some work, some input, by the rider to get the best from it, the ZX9R feels like what it is – a clever development of a 1980s ZXR750. It also has a tendency to drink fuel when ridden hard, although it does have that handy anachronism; a reserve fuel tap. The Suzuki on the other hand was superbly frugal with its expensive go-juice, covering 132 miles on exactly £11.00 of unleaded. That was motorway cruising at a steady, erm, 75-ish miles an hour however.
People still buy the ZX9R however – if the price was right, I might well be one of them. The reasons? Things like a comfy saddle, pillion grab handles, the overall `solid´ feel of the bike and a fantastically throaty engine at high rpm. These are all plus points when it comes to ownership, rather than just joyriding about on other people´s motorcycles. But once you´ve been on the GSXR1000, or the R1, it´s hard to turn back the clock, even if your bank balance is being dented by a thousand pounds less, because you chose the ZX9R.
Life isn´t all about money and neither are motorcycles. Sometimes, a short term saving is a long term loss, because you settle for second best and miss out on a modern day classic, which the GSXR1000 undoubtedly is. The Kawasaki looks good and sounds mean, but it is embarrassingly out of contention on the racetrack, even in the wet. In the dry, I can see the average ZX9R rider being lapped on a trackday, by someone of equal ability, riding the GSXR1000 – that´s bad.
On the road, it can still offer a great ride, albeit a little hairy at times as it shimmies and shakes. But if image and looks matter more than sheer cornering speed, and I think many bikers don´t really go that fast in truth, then the ZX9R could be perfect for you. It has style, aggression, noise and power. Sure, it is outdated, but you might love its quaint charm, its brutal imperfections.
If you love a good old fashioned motorbike, something that annoys the neighbours and you like scaring small children as you overtake family type cars, then the ZX9R is the one most likely from this quartet to suit you. Sometimes, being bad is really quite good.
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|Engine||liquid cooled, four cylinder, four stroke, DOHC, 16 valves|
|Chassis||Twin spar aluminium type frame|
|Front suspension||46mm diameter forks, multi adjustable|
|Rear suspension||Monoshock, multi adjustable|
|Brakes||Twin 310mm front discs, six piston calipers, single 220mm rear disc, twin piston caliper|
|Wheels/Tyres||120/70 ZR 17 inch front, 190/50 ZR 17 inch rear|
|Fuel capacity||19 litres|