In today's world of one-liter superbikes, it may be hard to imagine that a little more than a decade ago, 900cc used to be the engine size that dominated the streets. Kawasaki was the company that started the age of the modern liquid-cooled superbike with the original Ninja 900 (technically known as the ZX900 A1 model) that was first introduced in 1984. Its popularity was such that it even made an appearance in the iconic 1985 movie "Top Gun". But the first big-bore Ninja became the forerunner to a machine that truly cemented that moniker's performance heritage in the Kawasaki history books.
Although the ZX900A model was technically in the company's U.S. lineup until 1996, it had become geared more toward a sport-touring image by then. Kawasaki had already been hard at work designing a successor, and released a new model in 1994 that was eons ahead of the previous lineage. Basing the engine and chassis on its already successful ZX-7R, the ZX-9R boasted serious power that whupped on its competition (some sporting larger engines) with higher top speed and quicker quarter-mile times. Sharper steering geometry and compression damping adjustability in the rear shock helped it carve corners just as well as it inhaled straights.
Although the newer 9R's twin-beam...
Although the newer 9R's twin-beam aluminum frame was stronger than the old generation unit, it was far lighter, helping the '98 model's astounding 68-pound weight reduction. All-new engine also dropped about 20 pounds from its predecessor.
But one of the older 9R's faults was excessive weight; a measured dry weight of 503 pounds meant the original ZX-9R wasn't exactly light on its feet. So Kawasaki's engineers went back to the drawing board to design the next generation Ninja. Usually when a design team focuses on a category such as weight, significant reduction is the result. In the world of sportbikes, significant could be interpreted to mean 20 pounds or even 40 pounds, but Kawasaki had a different target in mind. When the 1998 Ninja ZX-9R was released, it claimed an incredible 77 pounds of weight loss over the 1997 model (although in reality it was closer to 68 pounds-still, a huge amount). Compared to its ZX-11 big brother, the 9R was about 150 pounds lighter. Its engine was a completely all-new design that was lighter, smaller, and substantially more powerful.
1998 Kawasaki ZX-9R
1998 Kawasaki ZX-9R
1998 Kawasaki ZX-9R
With such a ground-breaking design, you would assume the new ZX-9R had to be latest and greatest at the time, right? As luck would have it, though, 1998 also saw the debut of the Yamaha YZF-R1. The Yamaha pretty much stole the limelight from the Kawasaki in the public's eye, which was unfortunate, because the 9R-while lagging in the spec sheet in certain areas-certainly wasn't a slouch at the track. For instance, although the ZX-9R was 15 pounds heavier, our test units consistently cranked out about five more horsepower over the comparable R1 test bikes (and it should be remembered that the 9R was doing this with 99cc less displacement). Despite the smaller engine, the Ninja was usually just a hair faster than the Yamaha at top speed. It also was the first stock production machine to run a nine-second quarter-mile back in the day, with SR's El Jefe hustling a stock ride height/stock gearing/stock tire-equipped ZX-9R to a run of 9.99 seconds at 136.8 mph.
In order to carve the weight off the previous bike, Kawasaki engineers amazingly shaved off almost 50 pounds from the chassis and running gear, and another 19 pounds from the engine. The 55.7-inch wheelbase was almost a full inch longer than the R1, but the result was a bike that was a lot more stable. While the R1 was known to be a bit nervous when ridden hard, the Kawasaki remained rock-solid even though it didn't come with (or really need) a steering damper. Ergos were also significantly more street-biased compared to the other bikes in its class, with higher clip-ons, more legroom, and better fairing protection making the Kawasaki a sportbike that could inhale miles without punishing its rider.