At the end of the last century, the 400c sports bike scene was big in Japan, as license restrictions ensured many Japanese riders rarely progressed beyond the 400cc limit. When you remind yourself of some of those 1990s models, it’s easy to see that they weren’t overly hard done by. Back here in the UK, grey importers were busy filling up shipping containers and moving these pocket rockets half way around the world so we could sample them here in Blighty. A few of the manufacturers got onboard and put the sporty 400s into their official UK ranges. The most popular 400 was this, the Kawasaki ZXR400, which was officially imported by Kawasaki UK for many years. It was more than a scaled down ZXR750 and in some ways, it offered more fun and frolics than its bigger sibling.
The beauty of this bike is much more than just skin deep. The engine was a conventional four cylinder four stroke that would provide 62bhp in stock trim. The spec of the chassis was equally impressive, upside down forks, for example, weren’t even seen on ‘90s 600cc models. The ZXR400 was built to handle. The frame is an all alloy item and both wheels are 17 inch, allowing for the best tyres to be applied to their rims. Introduced in 1994, the model stayed in the range for almost a decade. Even more impressive, other than graphic and colour changes the bike remained totally unchanged.
Part of the reason that these bikes were officially imported was that they were hugely popular race bikes. Supersport 400 was a British championship class, while these bikes were also eligible for Lightweight TT and Superteen racing too. They were expensive to buy new, but bikes like the ZXR400, Honda VFR400R (NC30) and Yamaha FZR400RR principally came in to satisfy this demand for racers. Even today 400s are popular in club racing, making unmolested road examples extremely rare indeed.
What’s it like to ride?
The dimensions are dinky, so if you like big bikes the ZXR400 isn’t going to be for you. The riding position isn’t overly cramped but longer journeys will see you looking for any excuse to stop and stretch your legs. Stretching the legs of that 400cc engine also takes some getting in tune with. The red line is at a dizzy 14,500 revs which gives you an idea of where the power lives. The analogue rev counter also reveals that below 10,000 revs, there’s not a great deal to see. Pin it beyond this area though and the ZXR400 will get you grinning. It’s a very rev hungry motorcycle, perfect for those blast outs at a weekend. It is less useful if you need a bike to ride through the urban jungle on a daily basis and, as for pillion perks, well, er, good luck with that!
Find those empty lanes and you will forgive the ZXR400 its shortcomings, the power is well matched to that well thought out chassis. Given the right conditions (for example, a race track), 140mph top whack isn’t out of the question.
What to look for when buying one?
We spoke to Vinny Styles, Sales Manager at Kawasaki dealership Wheels Motorcycles, Peterborough for some advice. “It’s a good time to talk about the ZXR400, with Kawasaki putting a 400 Ninja in their 2018 range. The ZXR400 is a rare sight these days, which is strange when you remember what a popular bike it was throughout the 90s. Crash damage is the obvious thing you want to check for, pattern fairings are common and rarely fit like a Kawasaki item. Like any older bike, corrosion is the next area to focus on. Original exhaust systems are rare, decent aftermarket systems are a welcome sight. If there are any frame covers fitted chances are they’ll be masking misery, always insist a seller removes them and check the frame spars thoroughly. The paint Kawasaki used on the frame is pretty hard to match up, so bodged repairs are easy to spot. Mechanically, the engine is mostly solid, it’s always worth checking the oil level and how new the oil filter looks.”
What goes wrong with them?
We spoke to Chris Tombleson at Grumpy 1260, they service bikes and break a few for parts. He added:
“The ZXR400 hasn’t ever gone out of fashion. They are still popular with road riders and track users alike. Poorly maintained bikes will bite you, anything from a thrown conrod to worn out gearboxes are the usual issues we see. Corrosion creates its own issues. The radiator is prone to deterioration which reduces its ability to do its job of cooling the motor. Exhausts are a problem area, decent aftermarket systems are hard to find. When we break a ZXR400 for parts, the exhaust will be the first item that sells. The upside down forks are so strong that in accidents they often remain straight and instead, the force of the impact transfers to the headstock and frame. The alloy frame will bust the welds between the spars and the cast areas. Many bikes have been on the track, so watch out for them when they’re put back on the road.”
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