Fast Bikes - - KAWASAKI ZXR400 -

You can spot a ZXR400 a mile off with those dis­tinc­tive up-and-over air scoop hoses. And I think they are a pretty cool look­ing bike. Dated, yes, but still cool. I al­ways wanted one of these too be­cause I re­mem­ber them be­ing dead pop­u­lar on the race track, when I was grow­ing up. I never did get one; in fact this was to be my first real go on one. And I couldn’t wait.

Our test bike was from 1994 and looked great thanks to a crack­ing paint job by its owner, All­wyn. One of the first things I no­ticed on this par­tic­u­lar bike was just how far over it leant on the side stand – it looked as though it was go­ing to fall over, but it never did. Keen to fig­ure out what all the fuss was about I swung a leg over the Kwacker and fired her up. Af­ter many a spin the mo­tor barked loudly into life, re­veal­ing a lumpy tick­over, only to be made lumpier with ev­ery twist of the throt­tle. But I’d seen this par­tic­u­lar bike in ac­tion be­fore so I knew it was just a case of blow­ing the cob­webs off, and all would be well.

And all was well, af­ter the ini­tial blast up the road. Well, as long as the mo­tor was kept about 4,000rpm any­way. Even when fully up to tem­per­a­ture, it felt awk­ward and didn’t re­ally want to pull at the bot­tom of the rev rage; you re­ally had to utilise the lower gears to get the thing up and over 4k. If you were ‘try­ing’ you’d never be down there any­way, but it did make the bike a bit of a nui­sance through town and when rid­ing it slowly.

I in­stantly took a dis­like to the air-scoops, which I’d once found so dis­tinc­tive. When perched on the Kawasaki, the big hoses com­pletely ob­struct your view of the left and right switch gear. I know that most of us don’t have to look down at the switches to op­er­ate the in­di­ca­tors and head­lights etc. but when jump­ing on a new bike for the

first time it’s nice to be able to glance down and see ex­actly where ev­ery­thing is. There were a few oc­ca­sions where my thumb found the horn, rather than the in­di­ca­tor – much to my, and my fel­low road users’, sur­prise.

But de­spite scar­ing all and sundry with my sur­prise horn (not for the first time) the Kwacker seemed like a sen­si­bly shaped bike to ride. It was com­fort­able and all the con­trols fell eas­ily to hand. It didn’t feel as tight a pack­age as any of the other bikes and cer­tainly didn’t feel cramped. It wasn’t spa­cious but of all the bikes on test it would have been the one that I would have opted for had I been plan­ning some long stints in the sad­dle.

Once I started to let the Kwacker sing things started to get a lot bet­ter. The power was all at the top of the rev range so I re­ally found my­self hang­ing onto each and ev­ery gear for as long as I pos­si­bly could, chang­ing at about 14,000rpm, and try­ing not to let it drop be­low 10,000rpm for the best re­sults. The mid-range, although con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than that of the RGV, wasn’t as strong as the FZR’s. But the Kawasaki made up for it with power at the very top end (which was al­ways avail­able, un­like on the sticky EXUP-Valved Yamaha), and noise. In all fair­ness, at full tilt, the ZXR was get­ting on for too loud, but it sounded ev­ery bit like a modern day su­pers­port bike – in fact so much so that its pace, although more than rea­son­able for a 25-year-old 400, was lack­lus­tre

– it sounded as though it should have been faster than it was.

Bal­lis­tic the ZXR wasn’t, but it was very smooth. From 4,000rpm to 14,000rpm the power built in a smooth and lin­ear fash­ion, such that one or two modern bikes ought to take note of it. Less slick was the gear­box, which felt its age (de­spite a ba­sic quick­shifter which All­wyn had fit­ted).

It was slightly notchy and a few gears were missed dur­ing our test ride, but for me the big­gest hang-up was that it was geared a lit­tle too short – I seemed to be for­ever throw­ing gears at the thing.

For some rea­son, once or twice, when revved right up to­wards the rev-lim­iter end of the range, the clocks did some­thing a lit­tle bit crazy. It was as though the rev counter couldn’t cope with 14,000rpm+ and so would

send the nee­dle flip­ping and flap­ping about.

When we chucked some cor­ners the ZXR’s way things were pretty good. It was mostly at home bar­relling round fast sweep­ers and its chas­sis and set up seemed to cope with bumpy roads with aplomb. The faster the cor­ners were, the bet­ter the lit­tle Kawasaki felt – each fast sweeper that I ne­go­ti­ated could have been ne­go­ti­ated faster un­til I was tak­ing bends with the throt­tle to the stop­per, with no thoughts of shut­ting off or brak­ing. Luck­ily it wasn’t long be­fore some twistier roads ap­peared as the green ma­chine was goad­ing me into do­ing things that the law may have taken ex­cep­tion to.

When things fi­nally did get slower and the roads tighter though, the brakes were left want­ing some­what. I can’t com­plain about the back brake which would lock the rear up eas­ily, but the front an­chors just weren’t very strong at all. I found my­self re­ally yank­ing the lever to get the thing hauled up – it was soft, spongy and weak and there were cer­tainly no one-fin­ger stop­pies be­ing ex­e­cuted. The ZXR turned in nicely but once in the slower bends, at full(ish) lean an­gle I some­times found the Kwacker wanted to run wide, as

though it had a heavy feel­ing front end. It wasn’t aw­ful but it made me rein it in a bit on the slower, twistier roads, which I felt rather spoilt my fun. A cry­ing shame re­ally when you take note of the Kwacker’s ul­tra-modern, way-be­fore-its-time up­side-down forks.

I loved rid­ing the ZXR be­cause I re­ally felt like I could be the boss of the en­gine, and it was easy to ride and fairly com­fort­able, but it wasn’t as ex­cit­ing as I had hoped it might be. When ev­ery man and their dog was rac­ing ZXR400s in the late Nineties and early Noughties, I was con­vinced it was the bike to have, and back then it may well have been, but for me it didn’t quite tick enough boxes. They say you should never meet your he­roes, don’t they? I’m not re­ally dis­ap­pointed, though… I’m just a lit­tle bit un­der­whelmed.

Bruce had a blast on the ZXR.

Not much to hide be­hind.

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