Kawasaki SX-R Jet Ski First Ride
Stand-up personal watercraft are making a comeback apparently, prompting Kawasaki (who stopped making the last model, the JS800 in 2011) to release a completely new stand-up Jet Ski for 2017: the SX-R.
I understand that most readers will question why we have a watercraft test in a moto publication. But if you’ve never ridden a standup personal watercraft, you’ll have to take my word for it—they have a lot more in common with motorcycles than you might think. Actually, dirt bikes are most similar. The big difference is you only get wet when you fall off.
Stand-ups are nothing like sit-down watercrafts; stand-ups are challenging. They need movement to stay upright. They lean into corners like a motorcycle and, as with motorcycles, body position and throttle control are the keys to going fast and staying on board.
The Kawasaki SX-R is incredibly impressive. The last stand-up I rode was in the er…early-1990s, and things have changed a bit for the better since then. I discovered this quickly during the recent SX-R launch event at Long Beach Marine Stadium in California. Following are the essential Fast Facts.
1. The SX-R is a truly high performance watercraft, and it feels shockingly powerful. Perhaps that should be “strikingly”, but either way, the SX-R is very, very fast. Kawasaki staff were shy about quoting power figures, but I do know it puts out well over 150 horsepower and is capable of around a 60 mph top speed if you have the nuts to take it there—I didn’t. Actually, I simply didn’t go anywhere near full throttle all day. A couple of times on smooth water I accelerated the SX-R hard and pulled it up to some serious speed, but still nowhere near as fast as it is capable, I suspect.
2. The motor is smooth and spins up incredibly quickly. The SX-R is powered by a 1498cc inline-four, four-stroke motor loosely based on the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R motorcycle engine. It clearly has almost no flywheel, as it revs so quickly—just what you need to pull you out of the water, plane rapidly, and stay balanced.
3. Because it’s a four-stroke, both engine and noise emissions are minimal. Unlike its two-stroke predecessors, the SX-R is welcome on most lakes and reservoirs, as well as the ocean, of course. The engine is also very quiet; the water slapping the hull at speed is louder than the motor.
4. The motor is now fuel injected for quick start-up, reliability, and instant throttle response. The pull trigger is better than the old thumb units, but in general the throttle is super-sensitive and I had to focus on not grabbing too much of a handful and launching myself. It took some getting used to, but by the end of the day I appreciated the instant thrust, which is key to cornering and balance. My old SX550 two-stroke had a “quick-throttle”, and it didn’t react anywhere nearly as rapidly or cleanly as this new SX-R.
5. The hull is beautifully balanced front-to-rear with excellent mass-centralization of the engine and fuel tank. The SX-R goes instantly up on to the plane, so getting going and then standing up was easy to do in one fluid movement. The motor is positioned as close to the rider and as low as possible, so the SX-R cruised over wakes and waves with no problem. It didn’t want to nosedive nor was it too back-heavy when jumping over the waves. Leaning back and pulling hard on the bars at speed kept the SX-R perfectly flat on the water so the high speed handling was very smooth.
6. The V-shaped hull gives seriously quick side-to-side handling. Like motorcycles, staying upright (standing) without any forward momentum is impossible; even kneeling with zero speed will capsize it, so riding requires some speed to stay balanced. Pulling away in deep water requires laying behind the ski. Then, as you slowly accelerate, you pull yourself into the foot tray by the elbows and stand up. Once moving and upright, the SX-R’s hull is so quick steering it’s borderline nervous, and so again, like all stand-ups, it takes practice and positive input to make it work really well. Once you’ve accepted the challenge and decided to show it who is boss, the SX-R ride is planted and stable. Turning consists of leaning it like a motorcycle while powering with the jet drive to push you through-and-out of the corner. Turning tight like the pros is very difficult and takes real practice; it’s a combination of body position, balance, and throttle control. The SX-R handling is super-reactive so it’s easy to fall off, so when you get it right, it’s incredibly satisfying.
7. The SX-R is physically a little bigger than other stand-ups. The SX-R is 108 inches long and 30 inches wide, and carries a six-gallon fuel tank for great range. It is quite a bit bigger than my old SX550, and somewhat bigger than the 650 of the same era which was a bit larger. Although the SX-R is more stable, it is a little harder to jump, and stunts like tail-standing or submarining are more challenging than on the older two-strokes. But don’t let my lack of skills stop you from trying.
8. The rider’s tray is more square than in the past, and it is now angled forward for better rider balance and a more natural riding position. The square shape allows for quite a bit more foot room than past jet skis. The tray and deck insides are lined with non-slip Hydro-Turf, which is comfy on the feet and okay on the knees/lower legs when you are climbing on board. The additional tray room is welcome; my riding stance (weight on the back right foot with my left foot forward) never felt cramped, and I never banged my toes. The rounded deck fins at the rear are easy to brace against when riding, and the lack of sharp edges is a good thing, obviously. [Riding hint: always make sure you lead with the foot for the corner you’re about to take—so lead with left for left-turns, and right foot for right turns.]
9. Other touches help the handling and rider comfort. A deflector at the Kawasaki SX-R’s bow reduces unwanted splash to the rider, and I found that even riding through rough-ish water I had no splash come back and reach me. Heck, I had a couple of rides where I didn’t even get my hair wet—that never used to happen! Sponsons have been added to the rear sides of the hull to help with cornering and straight-line stability; this is a first for a standup.
10. The handle pole is light, well-padded, and carries an engine warning and a low-fuel light. The low-fuel stays lit for a few seconds after setting off to remind you to check if you’re running low—if it stays on, go back and get fuel. Kawasaki staff told us the low-fuel warning is super-conservative, so even once it comes on you still have plenty of fuel remaining and would have to really push your luck to end up stranded.
11. Yes, there is some storage. A storage space is under the handle pole and uses a mesh-style rubber cover to store a few useful items.
12. The SR-X arrives with anti-theft security. The ignition uses a magnetic key so if you park up you can remove the key and the machine cannot be started. There is also the obligatory lanyard that attaches to your wrist and plugs into the kill switch. When you crash, the motor immediately stops allowing you to swim over and climb back aboard. With the ignition switch set to “on”, the fuel warning light can be checked as well.
13. The SX-R comes in any color you like as long as it’s Ebony/Jet White with the Kawasaki green accents. Fortunately, the SX-R is a seriously sleek and good-looking machine, so I don’t think anyone will complain.
14. The SX-R is priced at $9999, and is American-made at the Kawasaki plant located in Lincoln, Nebraska. The company was determined to keep the SX-R under $10,000 and they managed it; it seems like exceptional value to me. The snag is you’re going to want to buy two. These things cry out for a buddy to ride with, so suck it up and buy a pair–you won’t regret it.
Sit-down watercraft deliver instant gratification. Pretty much anyone can climb aboard and immediately have a blast. You don’t have to get wet, and there’s zero discomfort. A stand-up watercraft, on the other hand, is not easy to ride. It’s physically demanding and requires a degree of fitness; your legs get bumped around climbing back on after numerous falls, and you get regularly and frequently wet because you’re constantly falling in, often at speed.
But, despite all that—or more likely because of it—the stand-up will have you coming back for more, more, and more. You will never get bored. You can practice stunts and maneuvers; you can truly race your buddy because arriving at the finish is as much about who actually gets there as who arrives first.
When you get any part right—whether it’s standing up for the first time, cornering more smoothly and tighter, or jumping wakes and waves, you will be laughing, screaming, and hollering with delight. Any dirt-bike rider will immediately get it. Give it a try, I promise you won’t be disappointed.