While the other Japanese makers are busy tripping all over one another in the rush to produce lighter, more powerful, LED-encrusted literbikes, Kawasaki sees fit to go on swinging away with the ZX-9R it birthed a month or two ahead of the original Yamaha YZF-R1-way back in 1998. Although the '02 version looks not much different from the original, upon closer inspection we learn the ZX has been heavily revised for '02.
The newly braced swingarm (20 percent stiffer Kawasaki says) is the main visual clue, but the main frame's been stiffened considerably, too, with the addition of another pair of engine mounts up near the steering head, and the replacement of previously rubber engine mounts with solid ones. The rear shock is different, and operated now through a linkage with less rising rate. And we thought the clip-ons felt a little closer to the seat; that's because fork offset's been reduced from 30mm to 28mm, which, as we all know, results in a similar increase in trail: 98.5mm, the green men now say, at the same 24-degree rake. (And never mind they said 97.0mm last year, and wheelbase is still quoted as being 1415mm.)
Two millimeters isn't much, but the new bike feels a mite sharper on the road, believe it or not. The ZX-9R was always as stable as a building filled with horses, and didn't need more trail for stability. But another benefit of decreasing offset-the fore/aft distance between the center of the steering stem and the fork-tube centers as you look down at the top triple clamp-is that it pulls the front tire's contact patch closer up under the engine and rider, and gives a little more of that feeling of being atop (and in control of) the front wheel.
Or maybe it's the stiffer new frame and suspension "revised to work with the stiffer new frame"? Whatever the reason, this ZX-9R does seem not only more planted but also quicker-reacting than last year's, and that's a good thing when strafing back roads in classic cardiac-arrest literbike fashion, i.e., balancing the joy of employing tremendous thrust out of every second-gear corner against the wish not to be badly mangled for the holidays should the rear tire spin out from under you-then breathing a face-shield-fogging sigh of relief, which clears just in time for the next corner to come rushing up way sooner than normal. It all makes you appreciate the bike's new Nissin four-piston calipers and bigger 320mm discs up front. These have not only more stopping power than the Tokico calipers of yore, but a much nicer feel, too. And yes, the new suspenders do keep it all in line better. Kudos.
Thrustwise, Kawasaki performed a little intake and exhaust tuning to give the bike increased midrange. CVKD Keihin carburetors with 40mm maws replace the CVRD 40s used previously, and a longer divider in the exhaust collector is also supposed to boost low-end and midrange power. Why not throw in a new crankshaft?-10 percent more mass, we assume, means 10 percent heavier (partially offset by a lighter flywheel). That heavier crank softens the hit, a little, when you whack the throttle open-and it gives the ZX even more of that juggernaut feel when cruising the open road at 85 mph and 5000-or-so rpm (but if you hadn't read about it you probably wouldn't notice). Speaking of cruising, though the engine's solidly mounted now, we didn't note any increased vibration.
As usual, the ZX's carburetion remains a little unsure right off the bottom, so you slip the clutch a smidge and by 3000 rpm you're Ricky Gadson. (That low-rpm stumble is easy to fix.) From there on up, hang on to your socks. We did note occasional hesitation when opening the throttle from a steady top-gear 5500-rpm cruising speed. It happened a few times, but delayed the tach needle from its appointed rounds for merely a second. Most of the time, the ZX-9R does indeed feel more potent between 4000 and 6000 rpm, and beyond 6000 you'll find the sort of grip-tightening acceleration 900cc Kawasakis have been known for since inception. Wherever the engine's running, it's accompanied by Kawasaki's (should-be) patented rasty exhaust/intake racket-it's the most stimulating of all the Japanese fours. Kudos again. (The 49-state bikes get the titanium exhaust can; California ones get a stainless can containing a second catalyzer-same power).
One last subtle change involves the bolt-on subframe, which is now carried at a jauntier angle, probably to keep your passenger from falling off now that the nice grab handles have been replaced by a useless strap. A tailpiece you can pop on in place of the back seat is standard equipment. The overall effect is that of a butt lift. My, the ZX looks years younger.. Underneath the cosmetic surgery, though, the ZX is an old bag, right? Slap yourself. If you're going Formula Xtreme racing this season, right, you probably want a Honda, Yamaha or Suzuki (because they're all 30 to 40 pounds lighter). For just about anything else, there's not much wrong with the old ZX except that the numbers on the speedo are harder to read than those new digital jobs the other bikes have, it's got no cool Flying Sub LED taillight treatment, and don't forget to switch the petcock back to "on" after you fill up. Do you care? Are those things worth the $1000 more you'll be laying out for one of the other literbikes?
At $9499, the ZX-9R's cheap. With its stiffer new chassis and better suspension and brakes, it's hard to envision a sporting environment in which the ZX won't be able to hang with the other liter-luges. More critically, as the other manufacturers' open-class bikes grow ever tinier and racier, the battle for who gets to ride home at the end of the day on the smooth-cruising-comfy-seat-big-fairing-five- gallon-tank ZX grows ever fiercer. By staying in the same spot, the ZX-9R now inhabits a class of its own.