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The Lil Ninja that Could Change the Game

Don't worry, I found the apex eventually. Pic taken by James Carson.

For whatever reason, motorcycle manufacturers have been tossing out random displacement bikes for the last decade or so. Most of it can be traced to emissions standards in flux, particularly in Europe, where the motorcycle market absolutely dwarfs what we have in America.

One of the biggest offenders, and I use that term with affection, has been Kawasaki, specifically with the littlest Ninja that they offer. From 1986 to 2013, the twin cylinder Ninja 250 was the entry level weapon of choice for not only new riders on the street, but also racers looking for an affordable passage into the club scene.

For a few short years the twin cylinder 300cc platform seemed to be where things were going to level off, then in 2018 Kawi busted out the twin cylinder Ninja 400. The displacement bump was nice, but it was the chassis and brake upgrades that made even stock trim Ninja 400’s substantially better than the outgoing 300, even those equipped with a few mods. Now, in 2023… Enter the Ninja ZX-4RR, the bike that is going to break the hearts of people racing larger displacement motorcycles.

If you are laughing, you haven't ridden one yet.

This tiny beast ditches the parallel twin in favor of a 399cc in-line 4 that revs out to 14,500rpm, and even choked down to meet emission standards worldwide, it is an absolute laugh riot.

Entry level? Not so much.

It’s not just the motor that makes the bike almost perfect out of the box. The ZX4-RR comes with a slipper clutch, electronic throttle valves, traction control, multiple power modes, and one of the best quick shifters I have experienced. You know, the stuff usually reserved for the bigger bikes.

The suspension starts just over what most consider budget, but things get better as you go from front to rear. The 37mm stock forks are inverted and offer a minimalist approach to adjustment giving you only the preload option. Out back, however, is a horizontally mounted boinger straight out of a ZX-10 with preload, compression, and rebound adjustments.

I had the pleasure of spinning some laps at the track on one of these recently towards the end of a trackday that I was photographing, so I had to go out with a bunch of people that were familiar with their machines, the track conditions, and, they had not walked three miles carrying 20 pounds of gear. Saying I was at a disadvantage is an understatement, so I decided to go out and take it easy for 10 minutes.

On my out lap, I was in full tuck down the dragstrip at Sonoma's Sears Point Raceway and was blitzed by a rider on a ZX-6. So I did what every rider in the history of riders that said they were going to take it easy does when they get passed. I tucked into the draft, popped out as we got close to the corner, and as he got on the brakes, so did I…

To quote Johnny Tran from the classic American love story The Fast and The Furious, “Too soon, Junior”.

Ignore those rubber lines, the brakes are great.

The 290mm brake rotors are only 20mm smaller than those on the bike to my left that I brutally outbroke to the point of almost needing to get back on the gas to make the corner. This much stopping power is, pardon my French, fucking overkill, but in the good way.

After a couple of laps I got things figured out and proceeded to settle into a rhythm of putting 600’s and 1000’s behind me thanks to the exceptional brakes and unbelievable flickability of the bike…and the fact that it was now a C group session.

What? They were all clean passes, and to keep with the theme - “Ask any racer. Any real racer. It don't matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning's winning.”

Not sure if it matters that nobody else was trying to race me. Anyway…

The point is, if you currently race a midsized twin such as an SV650 or an R7, or even one of those fancy-pants Kramer’s…It was a good run, but I predict that within a few months you will be getting swarmed by a flock of ZX-4RR’s.

No, it isn't perfect out of the box. As I mentioned the forks could be more adjustable, the rubber brake lines need to go, and the ECU could use a reflash to go along with a more free-flowing exhaust, but beyond that? Race bodywork and safety wire that thing and go disrupt the status quo.

The RSV4 is in front, but it never pulled away.

Laugh all you want at my prediction, but Graves as well as other well known companies have already developed some bits for the wee beast. In fact, a Graves exhaust equipped ZX-4RR was out on track in A group running down much bigger bikes all day long. On tight or more technical tracks (or those that have needed a repave for a decade like the one we were on) The Kawasaki Ninja Zx-4RR will be tough to beat, and I am hearing rumors of top speeds of 150mph being recorded. Yeah, I know you need more tarmac than the average track has to get there, but it seems plausible that these will be hitting 120-130 MPH at tracks like Thunderhill, and with the corner-speed capabilities and exceptional brakes I promise you this machine will make the competition work for every spot on the podium.


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