Used Bike

Grey Matters - 400cc test

In the early 1990s, 400cc race reps were all the rage. But that was nearly two decades ago. Are these pocket rockets still a viable buy in the secondhand market or simply relics from the past?

If you were young and looking at buying a sportsbike in the early 1990s your choice was limited. This was long before the times of the 0% finance deal or free insurance currently being offered to try and entice younger buyers.

In the 1990s you could either go for a fairly dull 600, bite the bullet and fork out a gigantic insurance premium for a large capacity four-stroke superbike, or look at smaller machines. These consisted of the largely forgettable GPz500 or fast, but fragile, two-strokes like the Suzuki RGV250 or Kawasaki’s KR-1S.

Then something wonderful happened, dealers started importing containers crammed with four-stroke 400cc bikes from Japan. And not just any old 400cc bikes: exotic replicas of bigger 750cc brothers, visually identical in every way and only lacking engine capacity. The ‘grey import’ market exploded and soon dealers specialising in these baby sportsbikes appeared all over the UK as younger riders hungrily snapped up these insurance friendly, and mechanically reliable, machines. But that was then, this is now…

When the idea of gathering four 400cc race reps together was suggested I dismissed it, arguing that with the current crop of secondhand 600cc bikes there was no point in buying a 400 anymore. They were a defunct class – outdated and pointless. But then I started calling some secondhand dealers, asking about 400s and how they were selling. It soon became apparent that the 400cc class is very much alive and kicking, but focus has shifted.

Rather than new imports arriving from Japan, the current 400s are the recycled bikes that first appeared on our shores nearly 20 years ago. They’ve been owned, outgrown, and passed onto other riders eager to purchase sportsbikes that aren’t quite as intimidating as 600s but still look the nuts. Decent quality, secondhand 400s are rapidly becoming the choice for new and female riders. They’ve low seat heights, manageable weight and affordable price tags. The class is currently booming.

VisorDown took four secondhand 400s with price tags of less than £2,000 for a quick zip to see if they lived up to their billing. Oddly enough, they more than did…

1993 Honda CBR400RR NC29 Review

1993 Honda CBR400RR NC29

Not content with just the one 400, Honda also had the inline four CBR400RR in its range. The ‘baby Blade’ was always the choice of the more sensible buyer

Click to read: 1993 Honda CBR400RR NC29 owners reviews

It’s funny, when I owned my NC30 I looked down my nose a bit at the CBR400RR. I’m not sure why, but with its single-sided swingarm and V4 engine I just kind of assumed that my Honda was the superior model of the two. Thankfully at the time I never got the chance to ride a CBR, because I’d probably have been a bit upset...

The CBR400RR is a beautiful little bike that doesn’t feel like a baby sportsbike. It feels every bit a sportsbike in its own right. This actual bike was a particularly well looked after example and from what I’ve seen of other CBRs it’s not an uncommon condition and this Honda wears its years well.

Apart from the build quality the CBR’s engine feels remarkably strong considering it’s only a 400. Where the ZXR and GSX-R lack torque the CBR delivers and drives from extremely low in the rev range. It might lack top end zap, but what it has is a far wider spread of power that makes it considerably less frantic to ride. Overtakes don’t require a tap dance on the gear lever and pulling away isn’t a clutch-frying experience either. It feels like someone has taken the power characteristics of a 600cc bike, and just shrunk them a little.

Because of this friendly delivery, the CBR is a pleasure to ride. The clutch is nice and light for town riding, the seat height low and the power on tap instead of needing a search party. On the open road the CBR delivers the kind of handling and performance you’d expect from a 400, in a refined fashion.

Unlike the ZXR the Honda doesn’t turn that rapidly and it’s not overly light like the GSX-R, but it is reassuringly stable and remains unflustered over mid-turn bumps. Apart from some fairly intrusive vibrations from the engine the whole riding experience is one of control and fun, rather than seat of the pants thrills like the Kawasaki or Suzuki. Is this a bad thing? I think not, if I was looking at buying a 400 as my first ‘proper’ sportsbike I’d certainly be looking at a bike that worked with me rather than fought me every step of the way.

And there are other plus points. As I’ve already mentioned the build quality is high on the CBR, but also the engine is strong and considerably easier to work on than the V4 NC30. Spark plugs don’t cost more than £15 each (seriously) and the carbs are accessible with minimal effort for home maintenance, or at least a reduced workshop bill. And they’re plentiful. The CBR400RR was by far and away the easiest 400 to locate for this test, something that bodes well for reliability and access to spare parts. Are there any downsides? As with most of the bikes on this test the brakes on the CBR were fairly horrible, lacking both feel and power, something I put down to old pads and a dead feel from braided lines, but apart from that the Honda was basically a solid bike. With a price tag of roughly the same as the other three, but three years less wear under its belt, the NC29 Honda is certainly the best value bike, as well as the best all-rounder.

Honda CBR400RR NC29 Essential Info

Prices

From £1,295 (1993, 32,500 miles) to £2,995 (1999, 14,000 miles)

Just like its V-four brother, the NC29 is a popular bike with ace handling and relatively cheap running costs for the performance. Dubbed the ‘Baby Blade’ due to its scaled down FireBlade looks and engine, the NC29 was never officially imported into the UK but there are still a smattering available for sale, many of which will have already been sorted for the British market.

The Japan-only bike is restricted to 180kph (112mph) to comply with Japanese law, but the sensor can be bypassed by converting the speedo to read in miles per hour, giving the bike a more urgent top end. Unfortunately, the few machines for sale can’t be had for peanuts, even if a lot of work needs doing to make them factory fresh, which the majority won’t be as they’re bikes that beg to be thrashed.

Instant upgrades

  • Speedo conversion:a mechanical conversion to change the needle reading on the kph to read in mph will also bypass the speedo sensor and allow the bike to reach its unrestricted top speed (£29.99, www.elliotmc.co.uk).
  • Trackday bodywork: to preserve the expensive and rare original plastics, a full aftermarket fairing helps. Kits can be bought in plain white and then painted any colour the owner wants. Even a MotoGP inspired RC211V replica kit is available if owners want their CBR to stand out from the crowd (Full set £365, www.jap4performance.com).
  • Screen: the CBR400 is a tight fit for taller riders (anyone more than 5’ 10”) by its tiny dimensions. Covering any kind of distance on these bikes can be made easier by fitting a double bubble screen to deflect the wind over the rider, meaning less of a racing crouch is required for comfortable progress (£49.95, www.skidmarx.co.uk).

Parts costs

Left hand fairing panel: £52.95 (not genuine Honda)
Clutch lever: £9.00
Screen: £45.00 (not genuine Honda)

Servicing

Minor service: £130
Major service: £330

Common faults

As with all sports 400s, the engine needs revs to make speedy progress, but Honda hasn’t sacrificed reliability for extra power. Any accident damaged parts can be difficult to get hold of, especially fairing panels in the correct colours, but a few companies make unpainted race/trackday bodywork. Electrics can be a concern and the charging system in particular can give grief. But many parts are interchangeable between Honda 400s, so if a particular NC29 item isn’t available, a similar part is worth a try.

1991 Honda VFR400R NC30 Review

1991 Honda VFR400R NC30

A baby RC30 with a V4 engine and assortment of lurid paint schemes. Always pricey, but the best looking of the bunch

Click to read: 1991 Honda VFR400R NC30 owners reviews

Back in 1995 I owned an NC30. In my teenage eyes it was a thing of great beauty, despite a hideous paint scheme  – a mess of black, grey and fuchsia (!). I loved that bike. It was the first bike I got my knee down on, it took me to watch Joey Dunlop race in the 1996 TT and it also got me two free screws (in my right hand) from the NHS after a Nissan Primera pulled out in front of me. Happy days.

So, it was with a great deal of recovered longing that I sat on this secondhand NC30. Despite being fairly rough around the edges this bike felt exactly the same as the one I owned for nearly six years. The clocks had the traditional mph sticker over the top (the cheapest way of converting the speedo from kph but rendering them completely illegible due to the jumble of numbers). The square tank and ‘sat in’ riding position were strangely comforting, if a little compact. The high-pitched whine of the starter motor reminded me of teenage getaways before the frankly pathetic exhaust note coughed into life. That was always the problem with the NC30, it looked so good but sounded like an irate sewing machine. Happily this could be sorted with an aftermarket can, but it required cutting the original pipe and grafting the can on, something few owners braved. Then there was pulling away.

For some reason best known to itself, Honda gave the NC30 a ridiculously tall first gear, mimicking the RC30’s racing gearbox. Launching the Honda (especially with a fatty like myself onboard) requires a hefty dose of clutch slip and sometimes even a little paddle of the feet to give it a hand. But on the go the V4 engine is a charmer.

As well as its super-trick looks the NC30 always commanded a premium due to its V4 engine. This intricate powerplant is a masterpiece of design, completely bulletproof, yet hideously complex to work on should the need arise. Something most owners simply prayed wouldn’t. Compared to the almost two-stroke power characteristics of the ZXR and GSX-R, the NC30’s welly is delivered in a relaxed and constant flow. Yet it isn’t very inspiring and it’s a little, well, dull.

Unfortunately towards the end of the day our little NC30 had issues and refused to start, despite repeated coaxing and a great deal of pushing. If my memory serves me right the forward two cylinders of the V4 are prone to flooding if too much choke is used or the bike’s engine doesn’t catch quickly and the excess fuel on the tiny sparkplugs renders them useless. Not a gigantic issue and I’m sure that after a little rest it would have kicked into life again.

In its day the NC30 was the king, and a decent one would still deliver a great deal today. It’s a great handling bike, looks fantastic with superb build quality. For a new rider the CBR offers far more useable performance, but there is something about the NC that makes you forgive its few faults. It’s a very special bike with everything that made 400s so cool.

Honda VFR400R NC30 Essential Info

Prices

From £1,195 (1990, 19,500 miles) to £3,000 (1989, 25,000 miles)

For a bike only manufactured between 1989 and 1992, and sold in limited numbers as official UK spec machines, the NC30 has gained something of a cult following among British riders, probably due to its exceptional handling and soulful V4 exhaust note.

As a new machine however it wasn’t as well received as its list price of nearly £6000 was higher than that of its big brother, the VFR750, but as a used bike they’re popular with newer and shorter riders due to the sweet-natured 60bhp engine and modest dimensions.

Prices even for tatty examples are on the up due to their rarity and usefulness when it comes to embarrassing big sports bikes, while a well looked after 20-year-old machine can go for the same as a five-year-old sports 600.

Instant upgrades

  • Braided brake lines: upgrading to steel braided lines is a cheap way of making a huge improvement. Venhill offers a custom service to make lines to the exact specification an owner wants if the lines in their standard range aren’t appropriate (from £64.40, www.venhill.co.uk).
  • Rear shock: in good condition the little VFR is as agile as bikes get, but with age  the shock’s damping quality can deteriorate to the point where a new one makes a wise investment. British engineering would be the way to go and Hagon offers quality without the big price tag of other brands (£275, www.hagon-shocks.co.uk).
  • Tyres: a decent set of rubber is essential for full enjoyment. Dunlop’s GPR Alpha 10s are made specifically for small capacity sportsbikes and are popular with club racers. They’re an excellent choice for fast road and trackday riders (From £155, www.dunlopmotorcycle.eu).

Parts costs

Left hand fairing panel: £146.81
Clutch lever: £12.39
Screen: £164.11

Servicing

Minor service: £130
Major service: £400

Common faults

The watch-like V-4 internals of the bike are so tightly packed inside the frame it makes it tough and expensive to work on. This can lead to owners scrimping on maintenance vital to a rev-hungry engine. If some parts on the bike are still original they’ll more than likely need replacing by now; brake lines and seals dry out and perish, and bearings will be well past their best by now. Don’t expect plastics to be pristine either, stone chips and cracks should be expected if the bike has seen any kind of use.

1990 Suzuki GSX-R400R Review

1990 Suzuki GSX-R400R

Never the most popular 400 but it quickly gained a reputation for having a peaky
engine, mediocre handling and suspect build quality

Click to read: 1990 Suzuki GSX-R400R owners reviews

When 400s ruled the earth Suzuki’s GSX-R400 was the rarest little dinosaur. Most riders were won over by the NC30 or ZXR’s looks, the CBR 400’s reliability or the Yamaha FZR400’s race pedigree. The GSX-R was never the fastest 400, it was decidedly retro, seldom raced and consequently slipped into the background.

To be fair, looking at this 1990 model, I’m not surprised it was forgotten about, because next to the other three it looks old hat. The whole charm of the 400cc class was that you could get a bike that looked like its bigger brother, at a fraction of the price. This is all very well and good when your bigger brother is the FireBlade, RC30 or ZXR750 – but an old GSX-R750?

Oddly enough the GSX-R400 is one of the most varied of the 400s when it comes to styles. There are quite a few different models and this one, with its twin pipes, is actually fairly rare. But that doesn’t really set it apart. The twin headlights, bulbous fairing and ugly screen conspire to make it look hyper-dated.

Even on the go the GSX-R doesn’t do anything to endear itself to the rider. The inline four powerplant is spectacularly lacking in any power and seems to make an awful lot of fuss about doing virtually nothing. Below 8,000rpm the little pistons are thrashing up and down the cylinder giving it all they have while the bike seems to be virtually crawling along. Ride it blindfold (not recommended) and you will assume from the screaming engine note that you are travelling at close to the speed of light, but sadly this isn’t the case, well, not until you hit the 8,000rpm mark. Somewhat surprisingly at this point the GSX-R clears its throat, hitches up its skirt, etc, and reveals quite a turn of pace. The motor’s vibrations change from being rough and ready to moderately smooth and the whole bike’s character changes from a buzzing noise box to a fairly rapid machine. It’s an almost identical experience to riding a race rep two-stroke. At first amusing, then irritating and frustrating.

It feels the lightest of the four. Flicking the Suzuki through the corners takes virtually no effort and even at a standstill the bike’s weight seems to disappear. But this doesn’t make it a pleasant bike to corner. The GSX-R lacks the balance in a bend of all of the other three – it’s a case of aim it at the exit and hope all goes well. A lot of this is due to tired suspension, but I wouldn’t rule out the simple fact the chassis is a bit crap. Forks like matchsticks tell the story.

The GSX-R400 is hard to like, or indeed recommend. The look is dated, build quality pretty poor and engine an all-or-nothing frustration. When all of these bikes are similarly priced a nice NC30, CBR or ZXR would be a far better buy, but then again there is a certain odd charm to the GSX-R. I’d advise new riders to steer clear, but if you have a thing for old GSX-Rs and are looking for an entertaining weekend plaything the GSX-R400R would certainly raise a smile. Just be prepared to splash some cash on tidying up the poor finish.

Suzuki GSX-R400 Essential Info

Prices

From £995 (1988, 30,000 miles) to £2,895 (1998, 11,000 miles)

The least popular with the buying public of the four 400s on test, the GSX-R has a surprisingly long history, going all the way back to 1984 when it was unleashed on an unsuspecting Japanese public as a huge leap forward in small capacity sportsbikes. The GSX-R brand thrives over here, but the 400 is almost always overlooked in this chain as it was another of this group never officially imported here.

A long model lifespan gives a buyer more choice, but as with the CBR400, good examples are few and far between. For almost £3000 the bike should be absolutely mint, with as many standard parts as possible. Under a grand will probably pick up a project or a bike that’s been left unused for some time and will require TLC to get running sweetly again. The big question is whether you want the worst of the bunch anyway.

Instant upgrades

  • Tyres: sticky Pirelli Dragon Supercorsa Pros come in sizes for smaller sportsbikes. Sticky tyres like these can be exploited to the full with bikes as agile as these, and the modest power to the rear wheel makes them last longer than on bigger bikes (Around £200, www.pirelli.co.uk).
  • Crash protection: spares can be difficult to come by, especially plastics. Anything that can be done to keep the originals clean and tidy is vital, so R&G’s range of crash mushrooms and sliders are cheaper than having to source new fairing panels (£48.50, www.rg-racing.com).
  • Rearsets: 400s are physically small bikes, so some riders can do with all the help they can to make them more comfortable. Some adjustable rearsets from Beet give a little extra legroom, while also cleaning up the look of the bike. Lower pegs do compromise ground clearance a bit though (£225, www.jap4performance.com).

Parts costs

Left hand fairing panel: £87.41
Clutch lever: £13.58
Screen: £45.00 (Not genuine Suzuki)

Servicing

Minor service: £200
Major service: £375

Common faults

The latest bikes are just over a decade old so should be in reasonable mechanical condition. As would be expected of the 20-year-old bikes, electrical systems can be problematic, leading to battery trouble bike not wanting to start. Carbs can be out of balance or needles/jets worn making the engine run roughly and stalling, or overheating because of dirt or split pipes in the cooling system. All of these problems are caused by the age of the bike but can be remedied with a bit of home maintenance.

1988 Kawasaki ZXR400 Review

1988 Kawasaki ZXR400

Inverted forks, hoover pipes and fully adjustable suspension. The raciest race rep and visually and aurally identical to the screaming ZXR750

Click to read: 1988 Kawasaki ZXR400 owners reviews

How can you not fall in love with the ZXR400? It’s an iconic silhouette and a perfect scaled-down replica of a bike that shaped a generation. Where some of the 400s, like the NC30, had a hint of style over function, the ZXR400 was none of that. This was a genuine race replica 400 that can still be found leading club events all over the UK. Not bad for a bike that appeared in 1988.

Yes, rather than fade away to get lost in the mists of time, the ZXR400 simply refused to lie down and die. Believe it or not, the ZXR only went out of production in 2003 and ran most of its 16-year life virtually unaltered. Unlike the majority of the 400s, whose flames burned briefly and brightly in the 1990s then flickered and died at the turn of the century, the ZXR smouldered well into the 2000s. Why? The most obvious reason is it’s an absolute blast to ride. Sitting on the ZXR is like sitting on a miniaturised ZXR750. The rear end is low, view of the clocks dominated by two huge hoover pipes (which do absolutely nothing, just like the 750) and clip-ons angled downwards. It’s a racy riding position, but not too cramped or uncomfortable. Then you fire it into life.

 The bark from the race can was ear-splitting and if it wasn’t for the relative lack of forward motion I’d have sworn someone had stuck a 750cc engine in the frame. The engine doesn’t seem as gutless as the Suzuki, it  has a feeling it might build up to something exciting.

Open the throttle below 8,000rpm and the ZXR reluctantly accelerates feeling stifled and asthmatic, but hit the magic 8,000rpm area and it all changes. From 8,000rpm up to the 14,000rpm redline the ZXR goes mental and howls with proper Ninja aggression. It’s a hoot to keep on the boil as you charge into every corner keeping up vital momentum. You can charge into corners because, unlike the Suzuki, the chassis works.

With fully adjustable inverted forks and a rear shock with all the nobs on too, the ZXR is quite a weapon in the bends. As many club racers will testify, it doesn’t take much effort to get the suspension really working well and once you do, the ZXR will match most when it comes to track handling – quite an achievement. Even the brakes have some sense of retardation, unlike the horrific stoppers on the GSX-R.

Although the ZXR is right out of the no compromise race replica box, it’s hard not to enjoy. It not only looks superb, it delivers just what you expect a Kawasaki race replica to – namely a screaming engine with bags of power, a stiff chassis with decent suspesnion and a completely bonkers riding experience. All wrapped up in a bike that looks identical to the one that first brought a world superbike replica to the masses. Parts are cheap because the mini-ZXR was an official import to the UK and unlike the NC30 it’s a straightforward bike to work on should the need arise, but it has deservedly strong reputation for reliability.

Kawasaki ZXR400 Essential Info

Prices

From £1,000 (1991, 20,000 miles) to £2,950 (2002, 20,000 miles)

The little ZXR looks the most up to date of all the 400s, in the plain colour schemes anyway, and with the ‘hoover pipes’ passing from the front cowl to the fuel tank they have the air of endurance racer about them. A popular choice among 400cc club racers, they’re more easily sourced than the others on test as the Kwak was a UK model. As they were still being made at the end of the 90s, some will even have reasonably low mileages. Just be wary of those that may have seen a few racetracks – suspiciously pristine bodywork and lockwire drillings will give this away without a great deal of investigation.

Instant upgrades

  • Exhaust: standard pipes on a ZXR can rot over time, so a replacement stainless can is a wise improvement, in terms of both aesthetics and performance. The glorious sound from a high revving ZXR can be truly unleashed, and with a bit of work on the carburettors a couple of extra horsepower can be found too (From £240, www.scorpion-exhausts.com).
  • Dynojet kit: bolting an aftermarket exhaust onto a bike without altering the fuelling can make it run horribly, with holes in the power curve all through the rev range. Fitting a dynojet kit to the carbs and having them set up on a dyno can make the bike feel better than factory fresh, and with more power (£116.41, www.dynojet.co.uk).
  • Rear shock: ZXR’s are renowned for having poor shocks out of the crate, with a lack of damping and a ride that’s far too firm for anything other than a smooth racetrack. Nitron can supply a shock to give a wide range of adjustment to suit any rider’s needs (£295, www.nitron.co.uk).

Parts costs

Left hand fairing panel: £150.00
Clutch lever: £14.00
Screen: £78.00

Servicing

Minor service: £150
Major service: £350

Common faults

Older bikes should be carefully inspected for problems. Expect the bike to have been apart a few times then put back together, with the odd wrong-sized washer. ZXR engines are generally mechanically strong, but the camchain tensioner should be checked on higher mileage bikes. Corrosion can be an issue simply owing to the age of these machines  and a new rear shock( as we keep saying) makes a huge difference to the overall quality of this sweet handling machine. Genrally strong in all areas.

Verdict

Verdict

Having planned this test thinking 400s were dead I’m fairly pleased to be proved wrong. I started riding bikes in the 1990s when 400s were huge, so they hold a special place in my heart (cue violins).

After riding these four I’m sure a whole generation of new riders in the 2010s will develop a real affection for them. They aren’t in any way outdated, time has simply changed their prospective buyers from hooligans in search of cheap speed in the 1990s to new riders or those with less confidence who want a frugal, solid, but great-looking bike to take their first ‘proper’ two wheeled steps on. If outright power is your thing I still stand by my statement that an older 600 is the way forward, but not everyone is after sheer thrills, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So which is the best 400 to go for? The first to be eliminated is the GSX-R. Never that popular back in the day and dated today, it lacks power and build quality doesn’t stand up. That leaves the two Hondas and the Kawasaki. Given the choice now I’d take the CBR over the NC30, simply because there’s less to go wrong. I love the look of the NC30, but it’s more expensive to own and more finicky than the inline four. I’d be scared about potential gremlins after 15 odd years of abuse.

Which leaves the CBR and ZXR. For the newer rider, or a less confident one, it would be the CBR every time. It has everything you could need including a low seat, light clutch, strong engine and it’s a pleasure to ride. Don’t think of it as a compromise, it’s a decent bike in its own right and looks fantastic in one of the many Japanese paint schemes, especially the ‘Urban Tiger’ mini-blade rep.

For the more experienced rider, or just someone who wants some thrills, then it’s the ZXR. Yes, you have to keep the engine on the boil, but you are rewarded with a bike that handles, stops and turns like a proper pocket rocket. It delivers exactly what you’d expect and perfectly encapsulates what made the 400s such hits in the 1990s and enduring favourites today.

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