In journalism “burying the lede” (surprisingly not “lead”) refers to not getting to the primary point or the meat of the story until well into the text. It is kind of what happened here. The names of the new bikes don’t tell the story – although they do hint at it. Kawasaki has just unveiled the new ZX-4R and the ZX-4RR models to be sold in Canada as 2023 models. We already have the Ninja 400 in Canada so the easy assumption would be that the Kawasaki ZX-4R and 4RR are gussied up versions of that bike.
But when Kawasaki threw out the “all-new” description, they actually meant it. But the name looks like that of the Ninja 400, the displacement is the same, looking at the new bikes the appearance is much like the Ninja 400. Just where is the all-new? For that you need to look inside the green wrapping paper.
The Kawasaki ZX-4R and RR open a big can of you-know-what on the small displacement sport bike segment. We haven’t really seen anything like this since small displacement sport bikes and their larger siblings were market juggernauts to be reckoned with. Think back to the likes of the Honda NSR400 (387cc and 72hp) and a host of grey-market bikes that use to make their way into the Canadian market bypassing the traditional dealers to feed a hunger in Canada for bikes often available only in Japan and other select markets. Think about the Suzuki GSX-R400, the bike that actually launched the GSX-R nomenclature and the great bikes to follow. It was a Japanese market bike with an 398cc inline four, 16 valve engine. That little rocket produced 59hp back in 1985.
The big news that should be in a heavy font is that the Kawasaki ZX-4R and RR are powered by an all-new inline four engine displacing 399cc. Just when you thought that the inline four sport bike was gasping its last naturally aspirated breath comes this. Not only is the new bike an inline four but it is also fed by a ram air system. Kawasaki does not like to make pronouncements about horsepower even when asked point blank but that is what the internet is for and depending on where you look the output ranges from 70 and 80hp. Those numbers have to be somewhat accurate as we have to believe that Kawasaki has improved on Suzuki’s 40 year old horsepower numbers. It has to be more than 10hp and the ram air should be good for a few additional ponies at speed.
We have said in the past that a 400 class bike should keep you quite satisfied as a rider regardless of your skill level. Take Kawasaki’s own Z400, sister of the Ninja 400, with its parallel twin 399cc engine, it should serve just about every on-road purpose be it around town riding or a few days on the road. The ZX-4R and RR and, if Kawasaki is wise about these things, a future Z400R would take this universality and purpose even further.
On the other hand, the ZX-4R and RR can not be considered entry level machines with the kind of performance these numbers represent. It isn’t the bike a new rider should start a long riding career upon.
And then there is the price, a Kawasaki ZX-4R is $9,999 while the slightly higher spec’d ZX-4RR is $10,999. It wasn’t all that long ago that a 600 class sport bike would set you back a similar amount.
If excitement is the goal of these new bike, Kawasaki has achieved that and in doing so left bikes like the RC390, R3 and CBR300 far behind. But the end game is a little less clear as bikes above this displacement are struggling. Which brings us back to the price. If you take exchange rates into account, we are getting a far more aggressively price bike in Canada than the $9699 (US$) price for the ZX-4RR south of the border. The reason is simple. If not for the aggressive Canadian pricing, the ZX-4RR would be bumping up against (close enough to be exchanging paint) the price of the ZX-6R. No matter how exciting the new bike, it would be a challenge going up against the long proven and excellent ZX-6R and its additional 50 or so horsepower. It would leave the ZX-4RR in an awkward netherworld between an entry level (which it is not) and a full on, over-the-top 600 class super sport. It is already tough enough now as the Ninja 400, Ninja 650, ZX-6R and ZX-4RR are all pretty indistinguishable from a distance to all but the most acute observer and all are competent bikes.
The displacement at 399cc is probably explained by a regulatory classification in some jurisdiction somewhere that starts penalizing at 400cc and larger. On the other hand back in the mid 1980’s bikes, albeit with slightly higher displacement, breathed new life into the the market and launched that sport bike trend that held strong for 30 years. Some revitalizing of the segment could do wonders. Kawasaki hopes for as much when they say the bike will “will surely awaken the dormant supersport within you”. If it does that, you can be sure at least one of the other Japanese brands will have a response.
Here’s looking at you Suzuki. That 1980s GSX-R400 really was a sweet looking bike…