Kawasaki’s new supercharged hypersport tourer hits the highway
Story by Jamie Elvidge
Photos by: Don Williams
Even at a standstill, Kawasaki’s new supercharged Ninjas, the H2 SX and especially its sparkly green sibling, the SX SE (Special Edition), draw lively opinions. Some love the strapping Transformer-like styling, while others call it busy. One old man watching me fuel the SE way out in the Mojave Desert said it looked otherworldly, “like something an alien might bring down to race around on.” I told him the power the H2 makes is what’s really out of this world, some 200 ponies whipped up by a state-of-the-art supercharger. He just laughed and pedalled his bicycle away. He probably thought I was kidding.
But the new H2 SX and SE versions are no joke, although it is a bit funny that on Kawasaki’s website you’ll find these two bikes residing under the tab “street/touring” instead of the tab listing the company’s “supersport” machines.
The Softer Side of Searing
Kawasaki has softened the edges of its track-proven H2R, reconfiguring the 998 cc four-cylinder supercharged engine for everyday usability and fuel economy by raising its compression ratio, introducing shorter valve timing and engineering smaller intake ports to encourage more street-friendly power. The supercharger’s impeller was also reshaped to maximize mid-range torque, allowing the engine to deliver power that feels similar in character to the larger-displacement engines common in today’s sporty touring bikes.
Other new features that make the SX more sport tourer-like are a new “passenger-friendly” trellis frame, which lengthens the wheelbase and provides fit points for optional saddlebag pods, brand-new electronic cruise control, all-LED front and rear lights, and a super-intuitive instrumentation screen to showcase the bike’s extensive suite of rider-assist functions, which include traction control, ABS, engine braking control and adjustable power modes.
The green Special Edition version provides even more functionality with a laundry list of goodies, including Kawasaki’s Quick Shifter for clutchless gear actuation up and down; cool, new LED cornering lights activated by lean angle; an easy-to-read TFT display; larger windscreen; steel braided brake lines; heated grips; a centrestand; and lastly – and rather amusingly – Kawasaki’s Launch Control Mode, for those days you don’t (or do) feel like doing wheelies from every stoplight.
It was the SE version I had nabbed from Kawasaki’s U.S. Headquarters in Southern California late one afternoon to head straight toward the high desert for four days of real-world riding.
Threading the Needle
My tour began with a stint of lane-splitting down one of California’s vast 12-lane freeways, where just getting to the proper splitting lane (in this case, between the HOV and fast lane) is a journey. Splitting lanes in stop-and-go traffic is a great way to test a bike’s low-speed handling characteristics.
With a claimed wet weight of 260 kg, the Ninja SE is not light by anyone’s definition. At parking lot speeds, it’s a bit of a fish out of water, at least while you learn how to be an active dance partner to its sensitive, speed-loving chassis. Luckily, the bike’s wasp-like waist allows a rider to integrate easily, quickly becoming an influencing component in the balancing act.
The 45 minutes spent teasing out a line between lanes of jostling cars and trucks also showed just how well mannered this ferocious beast can be even before your throttle hand is fine-tuned to the supercharger’s rapture. That said, I did take a few minutes to flick through the adjustable rider-assist elements that fill the large TFT display. I chose a Power Mode of “Medium” (75% juice), the KTRC traction control at its Mode 2 (of 3) setting and engine braking tuned to “Light” for smoother declaration. I would eventually default to these settings as an ideal middle ground for almost all real-world situations.
Once off the crowded freeway, I was able to relax and settle into the H2 SE properly, swinging the big sport-tourer east toward the mountains and infamous Ortega Highway, one of SoCal’s illicit proving grounds, drawing conga lines of newbie squids and veteran knee-draggers alike.
Lucky for me it was late in the day during the middle of the week, so the Ortega was reasonably clear of traffic except for a paving crew that had just finished rolling out new black carpet. It was immediately apparent the H2 SE is right at home in these fast, sweeping corners. Power engagement is very linear, especially in the Medium setting, coming on via a strong, even wave that crests around 6,500 rpm as the supercharger announces its arrival with a breathtaking surge of energy that delivers you very quickly to a soft rev-limiter at 12,000 rpm. It’s the kind of power that makes you want to throw back your head and cackle.
Fast cornering, particularly as the road tightened into more of a dense tangle, was fairly intimidating during this orientation period, but I was quick to remember the bike is equipped with wildly sophisticated electronic corner management functionality harvested from the company’s experience in World Superbike. This system measures real-time chassis orientation while monitoring the rider’s movement and inputs in order to adjust traction control and braking during cornering for optimum stability.
I can’t say that I ever came close to pushing the H2 SE’s limits during my four-day stint charging around California’s high desert, but I can say that I pushed my own limits of comfort as a rider and felt very satisfied with the bike’s consistently predictable outcomes. My first thought about having such a powerful monster loose on the streets was that it will be too easy for people to get in over their heads. While the H2 is a force to be approached with great caution, it has a host of built-in checks and balances that police human folly.
Into the Great Wide Open
The Ortega is only one section of the 179 km-long Highway 74, which connects several high mountain passes between San Juan Capistrano and the desolate Palm Desert, where I would spend the bulk of my four-day tour. Unfortunately, the broad, flat valleys that separate the high mountain ranges are densely populated and simply torture when you’re riding a bike like the Ninja H2. You know how you cringe when you see that guy driving a Lamborghini around the city? Riding the H2 on surface streets feels quite a bit like that: inappropriate, like asking a racehorse to pull a wagon.
The big superbike’s brakes are plenty…