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Redefining the ‘Cruise Missile’

Road test by Adrian Percival, photos by Steve Gregory & Simon Bradley

Kawasaki has always managed to squeeze eyebrow-raising power and speed from its 899cc engine. Top speeds of the ZX-9R since it’s launch in 1994 have either been class leading, or right in the thick of the superbike group. In recent years Kawasaki's big Ninja has been relegated to the back of the pack and sent off as a sports tourer, but what a difference a (model) year makes. We were able to have a ZX9R on test for a couple of weeks courtesy of Paul Cross, Marketing Manager of Kawasaki in Bourne End, and upon collection had a brief run-down of the features on the new bike.

Gone are last year's six-piston Tokico calipers, with newly designed, four piston Nissin calipers in their place. Larger discs now measure 320mm, and with those powerful calipers clamping on the rotors there’s a lot of initial bite, which took a little adjusting to, but it was a very linear progression making it both controllable and very reassuring. Two fingers are all that’s required to get you hauled down from the ballistic speeds this bike is capable of. It is quite possibly the best front brake we have ever experienced on a standard motorcycle, but it’s definitely one that requires considerable respect from the less experienced rider. Now we’ve covered the amazing stopping power, it’s time for the "go" part?

There’s nothing really different about the four-cylinder engine, it is still DOHC four valves per cylinder lump and continues to have the highest compression ratio of any superbike at 12.2:1, but is fed by a new set of 40mm Keihin CV carburettors for this year. It also has Kawasaki's Throttle Responsive Ignition Control (K-TRIC) system which calculates the optimum ignition timing for any throttle setting and helps get the most from the fuel/air mixture on each power stroke. The motor now spins up quicker due to the modifications to the flywheel. A smaller diameter and an addition of 10% to the weight of the flywheel reduces the gyroscopic effect. This doesn’t hurt the ridability of the big Ninja and it seems to help the handling in some ways. The ram-air system is still in the same position as last years bike and feeds the carbs from under the headlight. This gives the ZX9 a definite growl when you open the throttle wide, so much so that that’s where it tends to be most of the time! The power delivery seems to extend from just above tick-over to its 12,500rpm redline, not only that but what’s delivered comes with a hefty amount of torque making this bike a ideal candidate for long distance runs.

Apart from the brakes, the frame and suspension are the most noticeable improvements to the new ZX9R. The front forks seem to be a little on the soft side with factory settings, but have plenty of adjustment to accommodate all types of riding. Damping, rebound and compression are all well matched to the bike for the road, and it has adjusters that do actually have an effect. The swingarm on this year’s bike is all new. It has been strengthened by 20% and is now a hexagonal, rather than square cross-section, and is also braced. The shock linkage has had its ratios adjusted and is now far more linear as the rear suspension moves through its entire travel. The rear shock seems to work well and is also very adjustable in only a few minutes, so track days and passengers don’t pose any problem. Still at the rear the exhaust now has a Titanium silencer that has also been repositioned for better (more aggressive) looks and increased ground clearance.

Having an enormous power output and numerous back end modifications is all well and good, but can it change direction and turn in without any groans and awkward moments? Yes, it can - probably a lot better than you may think! The 2002 ZX-9R has had additional frame stiffening as well. A new front engine mount has been added nearer to the steering head improving the engine's function as a stressed member. All the engine mounts are now solid rather than rubber and this has only been possible because the engine is so smooth. The new stiffer frame gives quicker response, and a more precise feel due to changes in the offset and pitch of the forks (less offset and more pitch). All somewhat subtle frame changes, but all seem to be very effective over the previous models. Getting on the bike gives you the immediate feeling of its size. This bike is not a small bike, compared to its rivals it is wide, high and with the higher bars and larger fairing you think it’s not going to be a supersports bike. Its instrumentation is all analogue, with digital odometer, dual trip meters, clock and temperature gauge. Turn the ignition key and the instrument needles climb around the dials and back as everything sets itself. Crank the choke (yes it’s still a carb motor as I mentioned), press the starter button and the engine revs to around 3000 rpm. Adjust the choke lever and bring the idle down to 2000 rpm and its time to put on your helmet & gloves. By the time that’s done its ready to ride.

Strong, useable power is the name of the game with this bike, and its available whenever the engine is running. This power is delivered with minimal vibration, you just get a very slight hum coming through the bars and pegs, just enough to let you know it's running. On initial acceleration the bike just utilises that torque and literally takes off, an endless stream of useable power right through the rev range makes this bike a pleasure to ride both fast or slow. I found myself staying in much higher gears and using the bikes torque to just make those ‘overtake’ manouevres, and rolling on and off the throttle without the need to brake became the ‘norm’ with the new ZX9R.

We took the ZX9 up to Cadwell Park together with its little brother the new ZX636 to really try out the bikes handling and speed capabilities. The new bike worked very well around the twisting and hilly Cadwell circuit, there were no real ‘moments’ and the ZX9 gave felt both predictable and accurate on the steering and gave a good response from the new suspension set up. Ground clearance is also very good. I only touched the right footpeg down once, using the Michelin Pilot Sports fitted to the test bike right to their edges. Just before I took the bike out on track I made a few adjustments to the suspension settings, I adjusted suspension and rear ride height, because the settings that came on the bike were fine for the road but needed a little stiffening up for the Cadwell circuit. A little more ride height in the rear, with less preload and damping on the shock and more preload and damping up front produced a very balanced motorcycle. Turn in for a corner was definitely lighter, quicker, and more precise without being twitchy under hard throttle on the way out. It’s also fun to experiment with suspension settings and to see just what difference your new ones actually make, some you win, and some you lose, you can always put it back to the originals!

The awesome brakes on this bike also worked really well, they never hinted at fade, or required more than two fingers to slow you up from ridiculous speeds. Trail the rear brake into or through a corner, or brake when you discovered it closing in on you a bit suddenly, it only ever produced a mild tendency to stand the bike up, which was again very safe and predictable.

The ZX9 is somewhat larger and heavier than most of its rivals, but this fact alone is sometimes very welcome. The fairing gave great protection whilst riding but the screen is not quite as high as I would have liked. It does give you a bit of buffeting unlike the ZX6 so the only mod here would be to fit a double bubble windscreen to make the riding pleasure perfect. The weight of the bike actually aids in smoothing the normal road bumps out, the riding position doesn’t fold you up like some other Superbikes, and lets you move around on the unusually comfortable seat. With the slightly higher bar position and the distribution of the rider’s weight you feel perfectly balanced on all the bikes contact points. As the bike doesn’t vibrate there’s no ill effect in the comfort stakes, it can be ridded for miles without the associated wrist, neck and arm ache. I found that stops were much less frequent and became a necessity only due to the tank range. The fuel economy at normal road speeds (I’m not slow!) is also pretty good, averaging around 140 miles before reserve came in, but you'll need to remember to put the fuel tap back to normal (Yes I forgot!) as there is no fuel warning light, only the trip odometer (if you reset it when you fill up), Kawasaki please put a fuel light on any new bikes!!

If you ever carry a passenger the rear seat will be fine, it’s comfortable for shorter rides but the passenger grab rails should have been retained. On the new bike you will definitely find the passenger getting thrust up against the rider due to the sheer stopping power of the brakes! The ZX9 also has a somewhat larger than usual rear seat storage area, and can hold a set of waterproofs, a map, a lock and a whole host of other things I tend to carry!I really enjoyed riding the new ZX9R. I especially enjoyed the transformation it made when I adjusted the suspension settings. Its fast, it’s composed on corners, its comfortable for long distances and will definitely surprise some riders of the newer, fuel injected, ultralight Superbikes. Combine this with the bike's ability to adapt to commuting, as a sport tourer, a sportsbike, a tracktool, or just going down to the shops and you have a very attractive package indeed. I thoroughly rate the ZX9 as an all-round bike, it will almost certainly become many things to many riders.

Read a second opinion here!

Tech specs

  • Model: ZX900-F1P Ninja ZX-9R
  • Engine: 899 cc, Liquid cooled, 16 valves,
  • power 144ps,
  • 6 gear
  • Frame: Aluminium, perimeter style
  • Suspension: 46mm cartridge front fork. Aluminium swingarm, Uni-Trak rear suspension. Both have compression/rebound damping and preload adjustment.
  • Tyres Front: - 120/70-ZR17
  • Rear: - 190/50-ZR17
  • Brakes: Front - Dual semi floating twin 320mm discs with opposed 4-piston calipers.
  • Rear - Single 220mm disc
  • Dimensions:
  • Wheelbase 1417mm
  • Seat height 827mm
  • Dry Weight: 186 Kg


Motorbikes Today Rating

  • Engine 5 star
  • Handling 4 star
  • Braking 5 star
  • Comfort 5 star
  • Fun factor 4 star

Overall rating - 4 1/2 star
(if that’s possible!)


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