Review: 2021 Kawasaki H2 SX
Start with this: The supercharged, 998cc Kawasaki H2 SX SE Plus just isn’t that fast.
What a ridiculous thing to say. After all, it can run the quarter mile in ten seconds flat, clearing the traps at about 145 miles per hour. That’s fast, right? Maybe not so much in the era of nine-second street cars. The halcyon motorcycling days of the ’80s, when a “supercar” ran thirteens and Pee Wee Gleason got a Vmax down the strip in 10.33 seconds, are long gone. There are a lot of venture capitalists and IPO babies rolling around in 5500-pound sedans that can hang with this resplendent-in-self-repairing-green-paint Kawasaki sport-tourer.
More importantly, it’s not nearly as fast as the bike it more-or-less replaces, the ZX-14R. The older model is ungainly-looking, more than vaguely disreputable, and about one-tenth as sophisticated as the H2, but if one rolls up next to you then maybe you’ll want to put on your turn signal. If, like me, you’re a ZX-14R owner looking for a legitimate successor, then you’ll either need to look elsewhere or make a few phone calls to a tuner. More about that later.
Alright. So the H2 doesn’t make the numbers. Not quite. Here’s a number it does make: 25,000. As in, twenty-grand. For a Japanese streetbike. That’s Ducati Panigale money. It’s not just BMW money, it’s BMW-plus-a-spare-BMW money. For a Kawasaki. Consider it a statement of intent, like Toyota’s decision to price the Lexus LF-A at $375,000 when pretty much every Ferrari you could buy was cheaper.
Let’s see if it’s worth the money.
We rode the H2 for nearly a week around Southern California, everything from lane-splitting at speed to canyon roads to rolling through the In-and-Out on Crenshaw. Evaluation duties were split between me (for the boring stuff) and our friend Sean Smith (for the knee-down business). Here’s what we found out.
The first victory the H2 scores over the ZX-14R, and the Hayabusa as well, is in static comfort. If you can do 200 miles on a ’Busa, you can do 400 miles on this, or more. There’s much less wrist pressure, a better tilt to the seat. The pegs are high and cramped, even for a short-legged rider, but that’s “cramped compared to a touring bike,” not “cramped compared to a Ducati 916.” The windshield could use some improving—it seemed designed to put a focused blast of air on my carotid arteries at all times—but given the aftermarket support for this bike it hardly seems worth mentioning.
Next battle, easily won: features. Not only does the H2 have a thoughtful and easy-to-use cruise control, it offers effortless transitions into Road, Sport, and Track modes that govern the electronic safety net surrounding the supercharged engine. Contrast that to the ZX-14R’s clumsy power and wheelie control modes, accessed through multiple presses of different buttons. The H2’s TFT display is legible in all conditions and easy enough for, ahem, experienced riders to pick up, even without bifocals. When the H2 SX was introduced, there was also a cheaper model with an LCD screen, but that’s gone now, and it won’t be missed.
As you’d expect, this Kawasaki has a slipper clutch and the ability to manage engine power during shifts. Combine that with an absurdly broad and not-at-all-peaky powerband, and the result is about the closest thing you can get to an automatic-transmission superbike. Use the clutch to start, then just kick the shifter as you like. Fourth gear is good and responsive for all speeds from 15 mph to 125 mph, so if you want to treat this nearly 600-pound slug like a scooter, that’s totally fine. My sense of mechanical sympathy was horrified at just booting the bike down gears without clutch or throttle intervention, but the H2 doesn’t mind one bit.
Truth be told, this really is a bit quicker in casual use than almost any other bike you can buy—even the ZX-14R, which is strong from a roll of the throttle but takes a moment to really engage hyperspace. The H2, by contrast is twist-and-go for any and all open spots in traffic, regardless of gear. Braking is strong and assured, while the long-ish wheelbase means that even lightly panicked stops don’t feel like they’re going to make it into a “stuntaz” video.
At night, there’s good visibility from the main beam and a pair of high-tech cornering lights integrated into the fairing. The engine never really puts out that much heat in the rider’s direction; if you cut your teeth riding 600cc supersports during their heyday, the H2 will feel quite cool to you, even in the California sun.
What’s to criticize? I hate to say it, but the handlebars could be a little higher and the pegs could be a little lower, pushing it more in the direction of Yamaha FJR or Honda ST ergonomics. What’s tricky here is that the audience for the H2, insofar as it exists at all, is probably made up of, ah, 55-year-old former Ninja owners who want to recall their ZX-7RR glory days while also not expending that much effort to ride the bike. If you make it too touring-ish, you risk losing the cool factor. To the public, this still looks like a sportbike, even if today’s one-liter trackday crowd will scoff at the thing. This is the automatic-transmission Corvette convertible of superbikes, with all the positive and negative baggage that entails.
Like an automatic Vette, however, the H2 can still blister a back road. Sean Smith’s riding notes from our canyon runs go something like this: “Think about the bike Lou Reed talked about in New Sensations. That was a GPZ1100. Big, fast, nice to ride, not for racing, perfect for running from something. And that’s the H2 SX, as well.
“We didn’t spend any time dialing in the suspension on these rough roads, so I’m not dragging knees here, but the bike actually handled pretty well. Certainly more neutral steering than the Ducati 1200S Monster we had along on the same trip. The H2 is plush, easy to steer, and never gets out of shape. It’s like a VFR750 with lower bars and an engine from a Group B rally car.
“The best thing about it is when you chop the throttle closed at redline to start braking for a corner. The rhythmic whistle of the supercharger is habit forming. It goads you to ride faster, charge harder. Brakes are very good, in part thanks to the stability of the long wheelbase. Places where I’d be scared of my entry speed on a traditional sportbike didn’t mean much to the H2. It can shed speed in a hurry and get into the corner.”
While there will certainly be owners who put serious mileage on their H2s, assisted in no small measure by the slick-looking integrated luggage that wasn’t fitted to our test bike but which would be mandatory for any serious rider, it’s hard to put aside the suspicion that this is really just a green Ducati. Trellis frame, big power, big money, bunch of gee-whiz features, not as comfortable as some of the other choices. This is probably the first Kawasaki sportbike that wouldn’t look out of place in the living room of an upscale coastal home.
One can argue that bikes like the H2 have been long overdue. The (uniquely American, as far as I can tell) phenomenon of everybody starting with a Japanese motorcycle, then making a transition to the Eurobikes when their W-2 compensation justifies it, is more than ripe for sabotage. There have been plenty of limited-production high-end bikes from Honda et al over the past few years, and the prices of Gold Wings keep climbing, but this H2 really is something different. It’s an explicit statement that a Kawasaki can cost as much as a Ducati, and also a defiant staking of territory in the sport-touring market. No, it’s not as fast as it could be—but ten minutes with a Kawasaki tuner will fix that, and most people wouldn’t really want it to be any faster than it is anyway.
More than that, the H2 suggests that the bike market will increasingly be split, like the automotive market, into two distinct zones of sporting vehicle: the low-end stuff for beginners (VW GTI, Ninja 400) and the warp-speed stuff for the people who have real net worth. It’s therefore easy to see why the H2 SX SE Plus now costs a round and robust twenty-five grand. First: to make a point.
Second: because it’s worth it.
2021 Kawasaki SX SE Plus
Base Price / As-Tested: $25,000 plus destination/delivery
Highs: Power, handling, comfort, looks (maybe), ease of use, street credibility among Gen X.
Lows: Could be a little more forgiving ergonomically. Costs as much as the real-world transaction price for two Hayabusas. The youngsters on their ZX-10RRs won’t consider you a sportbiker.
Summary: Finally, someone made a luxury sportbike… and pretty well, too.