First Ride: Year 2000 Kawasaki ZX-9R

The Final Open Class Contender Checks In


Los Angeles, February 21, 2000 -- In the last few months we've had the opportunity to sample two-thirds of the contestants in the Year 2000 Open Class Sportbike War.

Yamaha's revised YZF-R1 offers a host of improvements they hope will keep it at the top of the open-class heap.

Honda's CBR900RR has shed its old skin and morphed into a 929, looking all the more poised to dethrone Yamaha. That left only the boys in green: Kawasaki.

Kawasaki's entry into the Year 2000 Open Class War comes in the form of a completely redesigned ZX-9R.

At first glance we wondered aloud: "why only 899cc?" Open bikes are all about brute power, so why not go big? It turns out that the reason for the comparatively small displacement (giving away at least 30cc to its closest competitor) is that it allows Kawasaki to make the motor lighter.

In addition, Kawasaki's engineers are confident that they can extract more power per cubic centimeter than any other manufacturer which is why this is the fourth generation motor with this comparatively small displacement. Overall, Kawasaki feels that the newly stiffened frame, coupled with various suspension tweaks, will be enough to place them in the Winner's Circle. We wonder if they're right ...

The Hard Parts

One of the most noticeable changes to the Year 2000 ZX-9R is the addition of huge intake snouts. This system has been shown to increase power at racetrack speeds -- high wind velocity and revs. The new bike also wears more aerodynamic bodywork.

The motor received serious attention to ensure the ZX-9R's position at the top of the dyno charts. The 9R's bank of cylinders is 1kg lighter than last year's model and the bores have been electroplated to improve heat dissipation and piston-to-cylinder clearance. The compression ratio has also been increased from 11.8:1 to 12.2:1, necessitating the use of at least 90-octane gasoline. The camshafts are lighter and the intake lobe's profile and timing have been changed to increase mid-range torque.

A new 16-bit CPU replaces the 8-bit processor to better respond to the new ignition rotor that now has 24 projectors (six times as many as last year) for improved throttle response. New Keihin 40mm semi-flat slide carburetors (flat on the airbox side, round on the motor side) have been fitted and, on 49-state models, a titanium muffler caps things off.

"The ZX-9R has a new shift drum, reshimmed gears, and third and fourth gears now have back-cut engagement dogs."

The transmission received a few updates as well. The ZX-9R has a new shift drum, reshimmed gears, and third and fourth gears now have back-cut engagement dogs. A longer output shaft is also used so the countershaft sprocket is farther from the case, allowing the chain to clear the rear tire mounted to a new six-inch rear rim.

Since a kick-ass motor does not make a bike good all by itself, the hexagonal frame received a host of changes to complement the motor's newfound oomph. To improve handling, the main frame spars are 10mm taller and the steering head pipe is 12mm longer. Fork offset has been reduced from 35 to 30mm, and trail has been increased from 93 to 97mm.

Rake remains the same, while the steering head was moved forward to retain the same wheelbase. Also new is a removable subframe made of aluminum that eases maintenance and, should an accident occur, is much easier (cheaper) to replace than an entire frame.

The suspension settings on the Kayaba rear shock and front forks have been changed to compliment the stiffer chassis. The rear shock now has a screw-type ride height adjuster to go along with its new damping characteristics throughout its 135mm of travel. The linkage is also revised and is now stiffer during the first few millimeters of travel, softening up towards full compression.

The front end received complimentary damping changes as well as a ball bearing fitted to the steering head for quicker, smoother response throughout the fork's 120mm of travel. Both front and rear suspensions are fully adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping.

A new swingarm adorns the chassis and is ribbed internally to reduce weight while still providing ample rigidity. The swingarm's pivot shaft and the rear axle are now 25mm (up from 20mm) to decrease weight while maintaining the same strength as the previous units.

The brakes received changes as well, with the new front rotors growing to 310mm (from last year's 296mm units), while the rear brake caliper carrier is now thinner to reduce unsprung weight.

The Fun Part

What does all this technical mumbo-jumbo add up to on the road? Fun, plain and simple. We didn't have a chance yet to take the ZX-9R to the track (we're saving that for the Liter Bike Shootout), but we were able to put quite a few miles on the new 9R on local twisty backroads and we came away quite impressed.

We recently sampled the 929 and R1 and, while none of the bikes were ridden back-to-back, our mental three-bike, back-to-back comparo has the ZX-9R looking pretty good. Why? The bike makes a phenomenally entertaining day-to-day bike.

The 9R has wind protection that at least equals that of the 929 (which has better wind protection than an R1) and, as our graphics-guru Calvin Kim commented, "the motor is full of power and rambunctious energy." Indeed it is: It makes copious amounts of power from low revs up through redline and does so with a growl and a laugh, simultaneously.

The titanium muffler has a deep, throaty sound and the powerband has a nice linear surge to it that makes twisting the throttle a great deal of fun without threatening to "fun" you into an impromptu high-side. This motor has personality to the tune of 128.6 hp and 69.9 foot-pounds of torque at the rear wheel, and you feel every bit of it.

"The motor pulls cleanly from low revs and doesn't require clutch slipping in slow-going traffic."

Around town the motor is extremely smooth, not nearly as buzzy as some of Kawasaki's past efforts. The motor pulls cleanly from low revs and doesn't require clutch slipping in slow-going traffic. In these conditions the steering is a little heavy, but, in general, the bike's low-speed manners are perfectly acceptable considering that this bike was not designed as a commuter but rather as a high-speed flyer.

The recent suspension tweaks resulted in a pleasant surprise: Where past Kawasakis have been stiffly sprung, at times making anything but ice-rink smooth tarmac feel like riding through a lumber yard, this new ZX-9R feels couch-like in comparison. Kawasaki did a wonderful job with the new suspension settings.

The bike felt well-balanced and extremely plush (for a sportbike) over freeway expansion joints and road irregularities. A number of staffers commented on how amazing it is that a bike that is so fast in the canyons can be so comfortable on the freeway.

Despite this high comfort level, the suspension still allows the bike to be ridden in the twisties at an extremely aggressive pace.

Even when the chassis became unsettled, it was not caused by the suspension but by a glitch in the carburetion. As we leaned the bike into a corner after trailing off the brakes and gently rolling the throttle on we were greeted by a hesitation and then a brief surge in acceleration, no matter how smooth we tried to be.

This is something that plagued earlier versions of this bike as well. However, this trait is noticed only when excessively speeding on twisty roads at near-racetrack speeds and is not noticed during responsible, everyday riding.

Still, for a carbureted bike, hiccups -- however they occur -- should not be an issue. On the track where the 929 and R1 have flawless throttle response, this could be the ZX's downfall.

The revised brakes are some of the best we've sampled. Where one of our main gripes about the new 929 is that they lack initial bite, the front binders on the ZX-9R may have too much initial bite for some people. While most staffers couldn't stop raving about the fantastic brakes, one staffer commented that he could not quite get a good feel for them.

He felt that the brakes offered too much power initially and preferred something more progressive, yet more linear than the soft brakes on the 929 -- something more like the units on the YZF-R1, which everyone loves. Still, the ZX-9R's brakes work best when the bike is being ridden fast enough that abundant amounts of initial bite are appreciated. After all, it is the high speeds of a racetrack where this bike is designed to operate, and the ZX-9R seems well-equipped to do so with minimal concessions made for street use.

Conclusion

So how can a bike that is so competent at or near terminal velocity be such a joy at far lower speeds? We're not sure. Somebody had better go ask Kawasaki's engineers. This new ZX-9R drew comments from our staff such as "if this bike looked sexier, (he thinks it has a somewhat plain, UJM look) there'd be no need to consider any other sportbike." Those are strong words, but the new ZX-9R impressed us much more than we expected.

The ZX-9R has excellent wind protection, a thrilling (fun, but not scary) motor and it is able to competently play racer-boy on local backroads one day and pull double-duty as a sport-tourer the next. Very few other bikes offer that sort of flexibility. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is Honda's VFR800 Interceptor, but that motorcycle offers nowhere near the racetrack capability nor the visceral thrill of the Kawasaki ZX-9R.

On the street the new ZX-9R will be extremely tough to beat. The racetrack may be a different story, however. As an all-around package, the 9R is definitely in the hunt for overall honors. It's currently our favorite bike. As to whether or not it will maintain this shine, only a Liter-Bike Shootout will tell. Stay tuned. Things should get interesting soon.

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