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.