Review: Kawasaki's supercharged H2 is an elegant artwork of supreme violence
From its signature silver mirror paint job and sci-fi looks, to its electric green trellis frame and Ninja star wheels, Kawasaki's H2 is all about shock and awe. And none of it shocks more than when you open the throttle and access the roaring excess of a 200-plus horsepower, supercharged, 1000cc engine. Thanks to a fortuitous bit of timing, Loz was able to spend three days in California with the biggest, baddest, buckingest bronco in the Kawasaki stable ... and to answer the question: is the H2 quicker than the Lightning LS-218?
Kawasaki has done a pretty amazing job making the US$25,000 H2 look and feel special. In a market crowded with gorgeous, attainable exotica, it takes a lot to stand out – and yet the H2 does it effortlessly.
That silver mirror finish is one thing in photos, but another entirely in the flesh. At times it looks dark and moody, at times it's brilliantly reflective. Around sunset it takes on a magical, almost luminous glow with a hint of a green tinge to it. In a perfect world, this paint job would bamboozle LiDAR guns and make the H2 a true stealth bomber for the road.
Next to catch your eye is the bright green, skeletal trellis frame, a 3-dimensional piece of art that defines the shape of the bike's sci-fi midriff, and the Ninja-star rear wheel on its single sided swingarm. The welding is pure sex, if you're into that sort of thing, and the overall feeling of quality is second to none.
The fairing has a series of subtle aero touches on it, which are extended to full-on downforce producing wings on the track-only H2R. Here, they look like details on a suit of armor. And the giant air intakes surrounding the headlight are a very visual reminder of the 200-odd liters of air this thing devours every second when its custom-designed supercharger spools up.
And that, of course, is the heart of the matter. People would go crazy over this bike even if it didn't look like Batman's rampant phallus, because it's the first thing to roll out of a major factory with forced induction since a few ill-fated turbo experiments back in the 1980s.
Blip the throttle past about 6,000 rpm, even at a standstill, and the supercharger chirps and tweets like a hungry baby bird. Keep your puny worm, it seems to be saying, feed me gasoline. Spray it into my throat as fast as you dare, and I'll still want more.
By god does it guzzle, too. One of the many benefits of supercharging is that it hugely reduces emissions – the H2 makes about as much peak power as this year's ZX-10R, but it puts out 66% less carbon monoxide. And yet in case you think it's environmentally friendly, it gulps fuel at a rate that approaches the obscene – over three days I never got better than 25 miles per gallon out of a tank average, and I frequently got a lot worse. That's 9.5 liters per 100 kilometers for the metric-minded, or worse than some of those giant pickup trucks give you these days.
If you're going to gobble that much gas, you'd better deliver a hell of an experience. And on that axis, the H2 knocks it out of the park. At 238 kilos (525 lbs) curb mass, it's a whopping 32 kilos heavier than the ZX-10R, and they both make the same 200-ish horsepower, so by all rights the H2 should feel a bit ponderous in comparison. Ha. Noooooo sir.
On a full throttle, it picks up smoothly from as low as 2500 rpm, and delivers you a predictable build of power through the lower midrange. By the time you hit 7,000 rpm, it's whipping itself into a furious lather, and up between 10,000 rpm and the 14,000 rpm redline, there's nothing to do but hang on with every muscle clenched, especially the circular ones, and listen to a full and fruity series of profanities leaving your body whether you want them to or not.
Where most bikes give you a hint that redline's approaching by tapering off the power, the H2 does nothing but build. More, more, more until you're bouncing off the rev limiter with the shift lights complaining that they told you so. Click up on the quickshifter with the throttle still at the stop, and it's rinse and repeat until your nerve runs out or a corner appears out of the warp-speed haze ahead.
With really fast bikes it's often best to start from top gear and work your way back. Full throttle in 6th gear from 60 mph pulls away cleanly with plenty of overtaking power, but it's nothing to write home about. The same thing in 5th adds a mild element of flair but is still well under control. 4th and you feel like you're starting to show off.
Going to wide open throttle in 3rd gear from 60 mph, things get a bit wild and you're really no longer in control of your own destiny. If traction control is off, the heavy front end is going to start lifting off the ground at the slightest bump. And in 2nd or 1st gear, despite the mind-bending thrust of the thing, chances are you're not experiencing the full power of the engine, because traction control will be fighting tooth and nail to keep the front end down and the tire from lighting up.
As big, heavy and long as it is, the H2 is at its best in fast third and fourth gear sweepers. Throttle response feels controllable in third, with a little bit of driveline snatch to keep you on your toes and wild wheelies on the straight bits. You're sucked into ever higher attack speeds, because the bike tracks so well on its Bridgestone RS10s, and the length and weight of the bike help make it absolutely awesome under brakes. I was seriously astounded a couple of times by just how hard this thing can stop – Kawasaki's KIBS ABS system is well matched to a top-shelf Brembo monobloc brake system, even if the KYB forks can bottom out a little on standard settings.
It's a handful on a tighter road where you're either trundling along with the revs low and smooth in third, or you're battling a crazed, bucking bronco in second. Throttle snatch is beyond distracting in the lower two gears; it's downright vicious to the point where it messes with your cornering and totally ruins your wheelies.
The tradeoff is immediate access to that godlike acceleration when the road opens up a little, and to me, that's worth it even if it probably slows me down in the long run. We're not here to shave tenths off lap times, we're here to tiptoe along the precipice of death, and marvel at just how alive we feel.
On my way down California's I-5 to drop the H2 back at Kawasaki HQ, the bike does a very good impression of a tourer. Sure, the riding position is sporty and uncomfortable, but when you're not going knackers-out in the twisties, the engine is a paragon of smooth, luxurious power delivery. It's as buttery and flexible as any six-cylinder BMW when you're cruising – if you can ignore the atrocious fuel consumption figure.
The cruise also gives me time to ponder the fact that the H2 is electronically limited to its 200-odd horsepower. Boffins have already unpacked the stock fly-by-wire throttle mapping and discovered that full-throttle fueling only delivers 100 percent of the available fuel up to 10,000rpm. After that, despite the fury of how it feels, it's actually cutting throttle all the way down to 32.2 percent when you hit 14,000rpm – and don't forget, that's when the supercharger is spinning its fastest and ready to deliver the maximum possible performance boost.
So, with a simple ECU flash, you can restore those full-throttle fuel mappings back to 100 percent, nudge the redline 1000 rpm higher and get yourself a bike with something like 258 rear-wheel horsepower … and a habit of spitting exorbitant tongues of flame out of a glowing red exhaust. Even as flat-out berserk as the stock H2 is to ride, you can unlock more than 25 percent more with a freakin' software update. That's bananas. And awesome.
So what's faster, the Kawasaki H2 or the Lightning LS-218?
Ever since I rode the electric Lightning LS-218, which still holds the land speed record for fastest production bike at Bonneville, I've been hanging out to compare the feeling of that bike, the King of Electrics, to the H2, current King of the Fossil Burners.
The only fair test of the two motors side by side would have to be a top gear roll-on test, because the Lightning bike is limited to a single gear that goes all the way up to 300-plus kilometres per hour.
I'm here to tell you that in a top gear roll-on from any speed, I believe the Lightning would leap away from the H2 and disappear into the sunset in a vulgar and decisive display of instant, electric torque. Words cannot adequately capture the grim, shrieking violence that bike unleashes when you go to full throttle from 60 miles per hour. The H2 wouldn't stand a chance.
But it's not that simple, because the Kawasaki's six-speed gearbox and clutch give the H2 rider access to more acceleration earlier. In a drag race, the H2 will jump off the line at the speed of traction control, while the Lightning bike is taking some time to get out of bed. I believe the Kawasaki would take the quarter mile from a standing start.
And I think things would maybe be competitive if you put the Kawasaki in third, at least until it ran out of revs. It's all a little academic anyway, Lightning has just released its own software patch that gives you nearly 50 extra horsepower on top of the brain-melting power of the bike I rode, and those guys are looking into whether they can be bothered putting together an LS-218R that will put the argument to rest in no uncertain terms.
In the inevitable coming fight to the death, the combustion engine is going to go down. It's just so much easier to make a faster electric motor than it is to extract more performance from a petrol engine – and electrics can get as nasty as they like without ever running into the emissions laws that are choking the life out of combustion bikes.
But although it needs a vast degree of electronic and mechanical complexity to get there, the Kawasaki H2 is a wonderful reminder that the gas bikes of today have still got a killer left hook and an uppercut; if they go down, they're going down swinging. And the real winners here are gurning fools like you and I, who can go and buy these things and experience gut-churning levels of acceleration our forefathers simply couldn't dream of.
What a time we live in!