Eighty-three miles outside the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas sits Groom Lake, part of the Nevada Test and Training Range. You also might know this place by another name—Area 51. It’s a place mired in conspiracy theories, but what is known is that top-secret testing and research is done there.
After spending time with 2020 Kawasaki Z H2, if Kawasaki staff casually announced that the Z H2 is a result of a collaboration with little green men with large eyes and tested on a non-disclosed dry lakebed somewhere near Las Vegas, a part of me would be inclined to believe it. At least, the X-Files fan in me would.
This is a machine that can only be described as otherworldly. From its immense power to the Sugomi styling, it is a unique entity. The hyper-naked sportbike scene has been boiling over year after year with a Cold War era arms race in terms of horsepower, and while there are offerings that produce more at the dyno, no other manufacturer had the gumption to slap a supercharger on a naked bike. Yet.
The new Z H2 is the crown jewel of the Z family lineup, which now offers something for everyone that wants to hit the streets in a sporty fashion. With a few notable changes, the Z H2 pilfers its 998cc supercharged powerplant from the Ninja H2 SX line, accompanied by upright ergonomics, an all-new chassis, and updated electronics.
I spent two full days with the Kawasaki Z H2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, testing the Z H2’s agility on the road course and quickly moving to the banked oval circuit to truly wring it out. I also took to the streets to see how it gets on in the real world. The only hiccup was the bone-chilling 40-degree weather, which kept lean-angles minimal on-track. Of course, I didn’t let that stop me when it came time for the oval track.
Sitting at the center of the Z H2 is the confoundingly smooth 998cc supercharged inline-four engine, producing a claimed 197 horsepower at 10,500 rpm and 101 ft-lbs of torque at 9500 rpm. Those monstrous figures are anything but intimidating, as it’s all delivered in one of the most approachable, tractable, powerplants I’ve experienced to date.
It’s no secret that the Z H2’s engine is nearly identical to what powers the H2 SX lineup. However, engineers did make some notable changes to encourage more significant low-end and mid-range power output. An all-new exhaust system with longer header pipes paves the way for more puff where street riders need it most, and as you guessed, it features a model-specific fuel map. The last meaningful change is shorter final-drive gearing.
Kawasaki has managed to make a supercharged firebreather of engine happily trot along at low rpm, something that I wouldn’t generally associate with such levels of performance. A light clutch pull, thanks to the assist-and-slip clutch, aids in that mission, making the Z H2 pleasant in the streets. Respectable low-end and dependable mid-range power will see riders darting around the city with ease, never even sampling the tremendous top-end power when on public roads.
But we didn’t plant ourselves at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for sedate road riding, no sir. The Z H2 is designed to hit ludicrous speeds with zero hesitation, and that’s precisely what it does. At the first whack of the throttle, man and machine are teleported into triple-digits instantaneously; it all becomes a blur the first time you feel the massive rush of acceleration. With power that would leave most radar technicians scratching their heads, this engine needs to be felt in person to be believed, due to massive top-end power that never lets up.
On the oval circuit of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, I managed to hold the Kawasaki Z H2 wide open as long as I dared, achieving 168 mph, according to GPS. What is most surprising is how effortlessly it propels itself forward. Even at breakneck speeds, it feels as if it’s barely breaking a sweat. Comically, at about 115 mph and with a constant throttle position, the Z H2 displays Eco on the dashboard, a notification letting riders know that they are achieving peak fuel consumption efficiency.
A smooth six-speed gearbox is supplemented with an up/down quickshifter and, although unchanged from the H2 SX SE+, the quickshifter feels slightly tighter and less abrupt, specifically at lower rpm. Whether this is due to the more upright riding position, fueling, or altered final-drive gearing, I can’t say. Kawasaki also advises riders to not use the quickshifter below 2500 rpm. On a motorcycle where every clear stretch of road becomes a quarter-mile drag race, that isn’t a hard rule to follow.
Without a fairing to hide the air-intake, we’re left with a radical appearing asymmetric ram-air duct, designed to feed the supercharger all the fresh oxygen it can handle. For this model, the routing has been optimized to be the most direct path into the engine.
Unlike the H2 and H2 R, the Z H2 and H2 SX duo uses a 69mm supercharger impeller that’s machined with a five-axis CNC mill, creating six full-length blades at the tip, with twelve blades at the base. Again, this is to promote a more comprehensive range of power on the street-oriented machines. That impeller blade is also responsible for making the cheerful chirping sound when decelerating, which is always fun.
Here is where things get interesting regarding the supercharger. Modern superchargers typically use intercoolers to reduce the compressed air’s temperature. The act of compressing air quickly naturally increases its temperature, which decreases the efficacy of the supercharger. Intercoolers also add weight and complexity.
All H2 bikes sidestep the issue, as the supercharger’s design doesn’t raise the temperature of the compressed air enough to necessitate one. Still, if you dig around on forums, plenty of H2 enthusiasts have added intercoolers to their machines, lowering boost temperatures, and increasing power. It’s a fun fact for those who aren’t content with nearly 200 horsepower.
To combat the heat that a high-performance engine like this generates, direct oil-jet cooling is used on various critical components, lubricating and maintaining proper operating temperatures simultaneously. Cast pistons are used instead of forged, as Kawasaki engineers feel that they best deal with the heat in this application.
Reeling all that power in are three selectable ride modes—Rain, Road, and Sport. Each mode alters the throttle map and all other rider aides, accordingly. Surprisingly, Sport and Road share a throttle map that offers the most robust response of the bunch—crisp and taut with good control, but there is a bit of abruptness when initially closing the throttle at high rpm.
The main difference between the modes is how aggressive the rider aids cut in; Sport lets the leash out comfortably, while Road reigns it in a hair. Rain cuts maximum power noticeably, while also cranking up all the rider aides, which will do well in inclement conditions. Of course, Kawasaki wisely provides a ‘Rider’ mode, allowing owners to customize their Z as they see fit.
The tech doesn’t stop there, with a six-axis Bosch IMU (five axes, with the sixth calculated) doing the heavy lifting, imbuing the Z H2 with cornering ABS, three-level lean-angle-detecting traction control, wheelie control, slide, control, and launch control. Also, three power modes are available—Full, Mid (75 percent of maximum output), and Low (50 percent).
When it comes to a track-focused motorcycle, having the ability to adjust every single parameter of the electronics is paramount. This isn’t a track bike; track-capable, yes, but it’s more well-rounded than that. When it comes to street bike, I want things to be as turnkey as can be, and that’s the approach Kawasaki runs with here.
ABS is paired to your selected ride mode. Sport is the least intrusive mode, while Road is a bit more, and Rain is the readiest to spring into action. In practice, the ABS works quite well, and I tested this on the oval circuit with an impromptu chicane. When slowing the 527-pound Z H2 down from 160+ mph, ABS might engage in severe braking and be felt at the lever, but it didn’t impede the motorcycle from stopping.
The three-level TC combines wheelie control into its algorithm, which means that it cannot be independently adjusted. Often, linking those two functions can create adverse behavior, but the Z H2’s traction control is quite progressive, letting you get on the gas as hard as you dare, stepping in when necessary. It’ll also allow loft the front end under acceleration for as long as you’d like, when in level 1 or 2. All three levels are quite progressive in their intervention.
A new riding position and purpose necessitated an all-new steel trellis frame. Creating the structure was one of the biggest challenges for the supercharged Z, as they needed to shave weight, but also make it more rigid, without making it untenable for the street. Keen eyes will notice that a double-sided swingarm is used in lieu of the H2’s lusty single-sided swingarm, precisely because it’s lighter and more rigid.
There is a certain suppleness to the chassis that doesn’t exist when talking about racier machines. It isn’t as taut as a ZX-10R, nor should it be, but it doesn’t shy away from the fun when the opportunity arises. The road is communicated to the rider nicely and, despite its hefty curb weight of 527 pounds, the Z H2 is quite the compliant, neutral handling machine. Give it a subtle hint of a direction, and it’ll acquiesce lickety-split. It has a more athletic 57.3-inch wheelbase—an inch shorter than the H2 SX—giving it a sportier edge, while the rake has been drawn out slightly to 24.9 degrees, increasing its stability.
Fully adjustable Showa suspension is undoubtedly up to the task of the occasional track day, not to mention real-world street duty. In track settings, the Z H2 loses some of the comfortable billowiness and becomes tauter—tauter than I’d like on bumpy roads. Back the settings off a bit and it gobbles up potholes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while keeping the bike in shape.
I do have two minor quibbles when it comes to chassis and suspension. The first, I would have liked to see a remote spring-preload adjuster on the shock, as the old-school locking collar rings are a bit primitive when we consider the $17,000 asking price. The second is the lack of a steering damper, as it’s ridiculously easy to lift the front end, so it’s always good to have a damper helping alleviate violent tank slappers—and, no, I didn’t experience any.
Brembo M4.32 calipers and dual 320mm discs do well to stop the wickedly fast Z H2. These are the same Brembo calipers that were all the rage a few years ago, and that they have more than ample stopping power, with impressive feel at the Nissin master cylinder. I enjoyed the feeling of these over pricier Brembo Stylema or M50 calipers on sporting bikes of late.
Where you can poopoo the brakes is in regards to the rubber brake lines. On a motorcycle that has a stratospheric performance ceiling, it wouldn’t take too much time to get heat into those and notice significant fade. Luckily, our bone-chilling weather kept the brakes cool, but steel-braided lines would be the first upgrade I’d make. On a positive note, you do get adjustable levers.
Pirelli Diablo Rosso III tires are the OEM kit aboard the Kawasaki Z H2, with typical sizes of 120/70 front and 190/55 rear. In practice, they’re an excellent match for this bike, as they offer a good performance to mileage ratio. If you’re looking to get a bit sportier and want to keep it in the Pirelli family, the Diablo Rosso Corsa II might be more up your alley.
With high-mileage tires, you’re bound to have long days in the saddles with your buddies, and the neutral, upright ergonomics are conducive to that. The riser handlebars are significantly taller than the H2 SX or ZX bikes, putting you nearly bolt-upright, while still allowing proper movement.
The 32.7-inch seat height paired well with my 32-inch inseam, and I had no problem getting boots on the ground, as the chassis isn’t overly bulbous. Better yet, the ample five-gallon fuel tank makes for a stable anchoring point while cornering and braking, helping keep fatigue at bay. Lastly, windblast isn’t nearly as bad as you might assume, as the Sugomi styling manages to deflect air away from the rider much better than many naked liter machines on the market.
Rounding out the touchpoints is a stellar full-color TFT display that is now shared across several models. Outside of delivering all information clearly and concisely, you can also make use of Kawasaki’s Rideology app, and connect to your machine via Bluetooth, adjusting parameters, logging rides and keeping track of service intervals, and much more.
When you try to pin down the 2020 Kawasaki Z H2, you might have a bit of a hard time. It’s supercharged with nearly 200 horsepower, yet completely friendly, smooth and approachable. It handles well, without comprising streetability in the name of track prowess, but won’t shy away from the opportunity. It has excellent ergonomics yet remains sporty and tolerable at highspeed.
Motorcycling is often a game of acceptable compromises, yet, Kawasaki has created a machine with uncompromising performance, that’s ready to negotiate at every turn. When I say that the Z H2 is unique, it’s not merely because it has a silly amount of power, it’s because it truly is one of a kind. Whether you’re going to crack your wallet open and take home is up to you, but you need to find a way to experience it.
Location photography by Ula Serra and James Wright
- Helmet: Arai Corsair-X
- Suit: Mithos RCP-18
- Airbag: Alpinestars Tech-Air
- Baselayers: VnM Sport Compression
- Gloves: Alpinestars GP Pro R3
- Boots: Alpinestars Limited Edition Victory Supertech R
2020 Kawasaki Z H2 Specs
- Type: Supercharged inline-4
- Displacement: 998cc
- Bore x stroke: 76.0 x 55.0mm
- Compression ratio: 11.2:1
- Maximum power: 197 horsepower @ 10,500 rpm
- Maximum torque: 101 ft/lbs @ 9500 rpm
- Fueling: EFI w/ four 40mm throttle bodies and dual injectors
- Transmission: 6-speed
- Final drive: Chain
- Frame: Trellis
- Front suspension; travel: Fully adjustable 43mm inverted Showa SFF-BP fork; 4.7 inches
- Rear suspension; travel: Linkage-assisted fully adjustable Showa shock; 5.3 inches
- Tires: Pirelli Diablo Rosso III
- Front tire: 120/70 x 17
- Rear tire: 190/55 x 17
- Front brakes: Semi-floating 320mm disc w/ radially-mounted 4-piston calipers
- Rear brake: 250mm disc w/ 2-piston caliper
- ABS: Standard
DIMENSIONS and CAPACITIES
- Wheelbase: 57.3 inches
- Rake: 24.9 degrees
- Trail: 4.1 inches
- Seat height: 32.9 inches
- Fuel capacity: 5.0 gallons
- Curb weight: 527 pounds
- Metallic Spark Black/Metallic Graphite Gray/Mirror Coated Spark Black
- $17,000 MSRP