As the saying goes, “there is no substitute for displacement,” this is an adage that has been adopted by American motorcycles in general for many years. As displacement increased, so did our common desire for more power, and manufacturers released even more powerful machines to meet our needs. We Americans want and need it. Common sense is what we’re going to embrace from the beginning of our riding careers. Cruisers, sport bikes, whatever, we devour whatever the manufacturer has to offer and screw things up to make it go faster. In fact, this is not just an American phenomenon, but our unified motorcycle licensing structure supports this concept.
The market’s need for performance, combined with the expectation that new motorcycles will always have better-performing spec sheets than their predecessors, is conveniently (or coincidentally, depending on how you look at it) the reality of stricter emissions standards.
If you want to see this in action, look at the displacements of light, medium and heavyweight engines. These have grown steadily over the last few decades. Speaking of Kawasaki’s introductory sports bike, Ninja250. now? It’s a Ninja 400. Every time mainstream players raise the bar, other manufacturers must either raise their stakes or exit the category.
The wind was blowing in that direction for a while. The numbers went up regardless of power, torque, displacement and price. If you pulled your finger out and held it up in the air, you might feel that things are different these days. With many riders forgoing very powerful open class bikes in favor of middleweight equivalents, there is a natural demand for his ADV and sport bikes in the middleweight.
And the “middleweight” segment has gotten a lot wider. For example, the Yamaha MT-07 and Yamaha MT-09 are not in the same class of motorcycles, but they are in the same “midweight” range. Everything is upgraded.
Of course, drooling over just about anything in the liter class will make the cheeseburger-fueled American heart beat a little faster. 200-horsepower superbikes and streetfighters are regulars in these segments, and sports tourers like the supercharged Kawasaki H2 SX SE+ and KTM 1290 Super Duke GT aren’t far off. Heh, there aren’t many heavyweight ADV bikes that boast paint stripping performance. The tip of each segment is sharper than ever and it hits everyone.
Has the wind changed direction again? In the 1980s and 1990s, small-displacement straight-four sports bikes were flooding out of Japanese factories, but they weren’t coming to the United States. The only problem for those of us who were there was that they wouldn’t come here unless you knew the gray market importers.
The Honda VFR400R, Kawasaki ZXR400, Suzuki GSX-R400 and Yamaha FZR400RR SP were born out of the perfect storm. The booming Grand Prix series (now known as MotoGP) and the thriving production-based national racing championships have pushed sportbike fever to an all-time high. But another factor had a great impact on the Japanese equestrian world.
Iconic Motorcycle Auction sold this 1990 Honda VFR400 last year. Not only was it prohibitive to own a motorcycle over 400cc in Japan due to taxes and registration fees, but it was also very difficult to get a license for a motorcycle over 400cc. 250cc and 400cc sports bikes ruled the Land of the Rising Sun.
Why we haven’t seen these bikes in the US depends on who you ask. Because the U.S. market has not reacted to smaller-displacement bikes. they would be too expensive. It can cannibalize other bike sales. The list goes on.
Perhaps now is the perfect time for riders to switch to technically advanced middleweight bikes in all categories. The public, at least in some segments, is starting to turn to more convenient machines. Sure, heavy bikes slamming sledgehammers are fun, but 200 ponies are loud, and I think we’re all mature enough to admit that. Still, nothing beats the feeling of holding a liter bike flat out.
This 1995 Kawasaki ZXR400 was sold by Iconic Motorcycles. These lightweight inline 4 screamers were something I craved when I was younger and still do. Thanks to my friends at Iconic Motorcycles (a Southern California-based dealership that specializes in high-performance vintage exotics), I’ve seen some of these unicorns firsthand, I have never ridden one.
These are just as cool as I’ve always imagined them to be, with the most sophisticated performance tech of the time: aluminum frames, upside-down forks (ZXR400 at least). And well, you know what I mean. These are very different from the lightweight entry-level bikes with parallel-twin engines, steel frames and affordable components we are familiar with today. These serve a practical purpose and are perfectly adequate, but they are certainly not very high quality. Add some performance parts to these and a modern Ninja 400 should be fine. I can attest to this being my track/club race bike.
Perhaps in 2023 things will change. As far as I know, the idea of running a cable to his ultra-light I4 bike was shelved in terms of manufacturing costs. The fact that it’s happening is incredible. The 2023 Kawasaki ZX-4RR is perhaps a sign of what’s to come as interest in powerful and more focused middleweight bikes grows. Or you might be relegated to an interesting historical footnote. For the time being, I will endure the bandoliers and the screams of revolution until the situation settles down.