Top 10 best ever Kawasakis

With 61 years’ worth of bikes to choose from, what are the most epic Kawasakis ever built?

Top 10 best ever Kawasakis

THIS one’s sure to have some people up in arms. Choosing the top 10 best bikes from more than half a century of Kawasaki production is never going to result in a selection that pleases everyone. But what the hell, let’s do it anyway – use the comments below to tell us what you think we’ve got it wrong.

Of course, it’s hard to even define ‘best’. From a purely objective point of view, all Kawasaki’s latest bikes are no doubt better than their predecessors, but here we’re looking for the machines that stood head and shoulders above their period rivals or have since gone down in history as game-changers or glorious peaks of motorcycling excellence.

So here's our top 10 countdown, starting with...

10: ZX-6R (2003)

Kawasaki sports bikes have always had a slightly brutish reputation as the choice for hard-core riders who are prepared to compromise on comfort and refinement in favour of the last drops of performance, and the 2003 ZX-6R was the perfect example of this. While other firms made well-rounded 600cc machines, Kawasaki bet everything on an out-and-out nutter bike. Carrying a 636cc engine (unless you can find the future-classic, 599cc ZX-6RR) that was introduced in the previous generation, the 03 bike gained USD forks, radial calipers and MotoGP-derived styling. Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki would later follow suit with much more extreme 600-class sportsters, but Kawasaki set the template.

We had to include a ZX-10R in here, and while the original 2004 ZX-10R model once again followed Kawasaki tradition of being the lunatic in the room when compared to its rivals, it’s the refined 2011-on model – the bones of which still underpin the latest version, despite a hefty redesign in 2016. With multiple WSB titles to its name since 2013 – the first for Kawasaki since Scott Russell in 1993 – it’s a bike that, while still new, is sure to go down in Kawasaki lore.

The only other Kawasaki to take a WSB title win, the ZXR750 is perhaps the archetypal Kawasaki superbike. While the original H1 version from 1989 is arguably a classic as the progenitor of the breed, we’re opting for the L model from 1993. It’s the bike that has the WSB title to its name, and the single-sided air intake gives it a unique look that eventually morphed into the twin-intake, faired-headlight ZX-7R that replaced it.

While it’s hard to qualify the GPz750 Turbo as a success in its own right, it’s got a place in history among the short-lived turbo craze of the 1980s as a technological milestone. Not only did it sport a turbo to boost its 750cc four-cylinder motor – bigger than any of its rivals – but it also added fuel injection to the mix. Sure, Kawasaki had played with injection before, back in 1980 on the Z1000, but in 1983 it was still a pretty novel idea.

As the 80s turned to the 90s, two-stroke sports bikes were still ruling the roost as lightweight, high-performance machines of choice. And the KR-1S was the fastest of them all. Sure, the Kawasaki had a reputation for fragility, even among already-temperamental strokers, and riders soon learned to keep the clutch covered in case they nipped up. But these were about speed and handling, and the KR-1S had both by the bucketload.

Long before bikes like the RG500 and RD500 made GP-style 500cc two-strokes into a road bike class of their own, Kawasaki was playing the game with its H1 Mach III. Three cylinders, 499cc and two-stroke it’s one of the all-time classic bike engines. There’s not so much to commend about the rest of the bike – even in 1969 terms its handling wasn’t top notch – but these days it’s a bone fide classic in every respect.

While the H2 makes this list, the problem with having one is that it means you probably really want an H2 Mach IV. Much the same recipe was used, but the H2 had a 750cc two-stroke triple instead of the 499cc version. While 74hp doesn’t sound much now, in 1971 it was enough to earn the Mach IV an awesome reputation.

Back in 1984 there was no question about it; the GPZ900R was the ultimate superbike of its day. Just before the GSX-R750 appeared, ushering in the era of race-replica bodywork and aluminium frames, the GPZ was the pinnacle of road bike performance. Own one now and while its performance and handling might not inspire the awe that it once did, you can still play at being Tom Cruise in Top Gun.

You’ve got to hand it to Kawasaki. The decision to launch a supercharged, four-cylinder litre bike was just the sort of brave move that most companies shy away from. They show us concepts and then water them down for production, while Kawasaki just handed it to us on a plate. Even the £25k price doesn’t seem too ridiculous. The track-only H2R version is even more exotic and expensive, and no doubt will be a collectable in the future, but the brazenness of the road-legal H2 earns its spot here.

Honda might have invented the ‘superbike’ with its CB750 in 1969, but Kawasaki was the firm that really picked up the ball and ran with it when it introduced the Z1 900 in 1972. Its 130mph ability, 81hp, 903cc four-cylinder engine, disc brakes and electric start were the stuff of dreams, and if we’re defining greatness by the ability to emerge ahead of your peers, the Z1 was surely the greatest Kawasaki of all.