Smart Money Tips: Buying a Used 1998–2003 Kawasaki ZX-9R

How to buy a used sportbike from the 1990s.

used bikes, buyers guide, kawasaki zx-9r, suzuki rf900, honda cbr900rr, ducati 916
©Motorcyclist

The literbike class rewards winners, not also-rans—as a racer once famously said, second place is just first loser—and Kawasaki's ZX-9R was always the nice guy of the class, maybe not finishing last but rarely landing on the top step of the podium. Partly, this was an indication that Kawasaki was a little out of sync with the marketplace.

The original ZX-9R arrived in 1994, two years after Honda’s super-lightweight CBR900RR was announced. The concept was to have a 750-sized package carrying literbike power. It worked for Honda but not as well for Kawasaki, whose Ninja was considerably porkier.

sportbikes, superbikes, used bikes
1998–2003 Kawasaki ZX-9R©Motorcyclist

Kawasaki stayed on the job, though, and by 1998 produced an entirely new version of the ZX-9R with an aluminum frame, lighter wheels and suspension, and a heavily revised engine that dropped the counterbalancer for weight savings. It was a dramatic leap forward, weighing a claimed 403 pounds dry, which, if you believe the numbers of the age, was more than 60 pounds lighter than the previous version. Unfortunately for Kawasaki, that same year Yamaha unleashed the truly light and potent YZF-R1. Can't these guys catch a break?

Perhaps not, but the fact is the ’98-and-later ZX-9R was a fantastic all-rounder, sacrificing lap times and spec-sheet bragging rights for a more open riding position, tremendously torquey and smooth engine, and the kind of stability that allows you to ride all day in comfort. Another update in 2000 brought new bodywork with a stiffer frame, revised dual headlights, and new ram-air intakes. The ’02 received further mods, including updated brakes and suspension, as well as engine changes to boost midrange power. By this time, the carbureted ZX-9R engine was well developed and dead reliable. Ultimately, 2003 was the last year of the 9R, since Kawasaki had finally decided to do something serious about the R1 and the GSX-R1000 with the truly beastly ZX-10R.

Its relative lack of popularity makes the 9R a good buy on the used market, and its long run means parts are easier to find at salvage yards. The biggest issue with used bikes is paint flaking off the wheels and the swingarm. Although the engine and trans are generally sturdy, some gearboxes jump out of third gear on hard acceleration. A complete service record is always a plus but especially with the 9R; carb balance affects throttle response and gas mileage, and the valves are supposed to be checked every 7,500 miles. Inspect the front brake rotors for warping, and make sure the pistons in the six-pot calipers (used until 2001) retract fully.

As with other pre-owned sportbikes, the steering head bearings sometimes take a beating from wannabe wheelie kings; pay attention to both the steering effort and any on-center notchiness that might cause slight weaving when riding in a straight line. Run the suspension adjusters all the way in both directions to see if they’re free of corrosion; hard-to-reach components don’t age well if the bike is ridden in the rain and not cleaned regularly.

CHEERS

Sporty, comfy, flashy. In capable hands, it can still run with the bigger dogs.

JEERS

Often regarded as the generalist in a category that rewards ultimate performance.

WATCH FOR

Jumping out of gear, flaking paint, meathead mods.

VERDICT

Under-the-radar sportbike with more versatility than its contemporaries.

VALUE

1998 / $2,720 1999 / $2,860 2000 / $3,065 2001 / $3,300 2002 / $3,585 2003 / $3,970

Also Smart…

sportbikes, superbikes
1993–1997 Suzuki RF900©Motorcyclist

1993–1997 Suzuki RF900

Leaning more toward the second word in sport-touring, the RF900 is a bull-strong, well-built, and friendly 900. With a torquey engine cradled in a steel frame, it’s both an okay sportbike and a pleasant everyday ride. Nothing fancy here, really, but quality and value seldom are. If you want a racer, buy a GSX-R.

used bikes, smart money
1992–2003 Honda CBR900RR©Motorcyclist

1992–2003 Honda CBR900RR

Introduced in ’92 as a 900, the CBR-RR’s engine eventually grew to 954cc. At 457 pounds wet, the original 900RR undercut its opposition by as much as 144 pounds. Handling is quick bordering on twitchy, and 16-inch front tires are getting scarce, but the running gear is robust. At a time when supersports were getting fat and happy, the 900RR totally reset expectations.

ducati 916, used sportbikes
1994–1998 Ducati 916©Motorcyclist

1994–1998 Ducati 916

Sex-on-wheels styling, World Superbike juggernaut, glittering moto-jewel in any sportbike rider’s crown. Fantasy: Everyone will want to be you. Reality: High-maintenance costs allied to less-than-stellar reliability. Plus, everyone, it seems, wants a 916, so straight, unmolested, properly maintained examples are getting extremely hard to find. If you find the right one, expect to pay dearly for it.