Centuries ago – well, back in the 1980s - a few makers had a crack at fitting their bikes with turbocharged engines. Bikes from Kawasaki, Honda and Suzuki were available with forced induction and they were fun and whizzy and, well, they sort of fizzled out; killed off largely by issues of packaging on such a small machine compared with a car and an alarming tendency for huge amounts of power arriving all in one lump to deposit bike and rider up a tree. And then in 2014, forced induction on two wheels made a comeback when Kawasaki announced the Ninja H2. With a one-litre engine, complete with supercharger, making 242 bhp, it’s nuts. The H2R, racing version, produces 310 horses, costs well North of forty grand and is therefore clinically insane. Giving me the keys to that would make as much sense as giving me a crate of Stella and the keys to a fighter jet. And probably finish in a broadly similar way.
An altogether more sensible option for the more middle of age and sane of mind rider is this, the new for 2019 H2 SX SE+. It’s a Sports Tourer which, for those not familiar with the world of two wheels, means it’s designed to be used on the road, dashing heroically across continents rather than tearing up racetracks or posing outside of pubs on a Sunday and as such, it offers a slightly less aggressive state of tune and an altogether more comfortable place to sit such that you don’t ride it with your face pressed into the front wheel and your backside offered up as a bike rack to anyone following. And it's got a supercharger.
That, in fact, pretty much sums up my first ride. ‘It’s got a supercharger’ was very much the headline news in my tiny mind as I set off home from London. A couple of hours later, after the usual string of near fatal encounters with lane-changers, daydreamers, early-brakers, late-brakers, non-brakers and mentallists of every variety, the thought had formed into a sort of mental chant: ‘I’ve got a supercharger, I’ve got a supercharger, there’s a supercharger down there, I can hear the supercharger, was that the supercharger?’ That sort of thing.
The supercharger in question was custom built by Kawasaki and not bought off the shelf. And you’d expect Kawasaki to know a thing or two about how to build one: they already make gas turbines which are also fast-moving spinny things. The reality of it is though, that the supercharger doesn’t much dominate the physical experience beyond its towering presence in my mind. I was kind of looking forward to a sonic wall of shrieking and whining, like a supercharged Holden. But there’s the odd chirrup from down there, sometimes a little whizz or a whistle as the thing goes supersonic up-shifting at the top of the rev range, but it only makes itself really felt in subtle ways. Best of all is to roll on gently, with tiny throttle increments right down at the 3500-4500 rpm range where the silken surge of power is utterly addictive and makes for some damned swift and controllable work on the outskirts of town.
This is not me. Its an heroic, model type in a posed shot. I was on the M4. In the rain. Looking like crap.
Out on the A-roads, the overriding sensations come courtesy of the electronic adaptive suspension and the chassis set up which give feel and confidence enough to see off the chicken strips – the tell-tale unused bits around the very edges of the tyre, ask James May about them – within the first mile or two. Unleash it further and the engine takes on its own personality, providing hugely predictable and usable delivery of endless power. But at all times, remaining composed and even sophisticated. A surprise, but as it turns out, a not at all unpleasant one.
Now, I’m pretty old – teetering on the verge of 50 – and most of my weekday biking is dedicated to transporting my carcass from home in Ross on Wye to work in London. Meaning hundreds of miles daily on largely boring roads in heavy traffic. My life, therefore, is spent mostly on the M4 aboard my heroically filthy and very much loved BMW R1200RT – for non-bikers, the two wheeled equivalent of….I dunno, a Volvo XC90? It’s got a great screen to keep the wind and rain off, cruise control, heated seats and bars, stereo, sat nav; basically I would, were it remotely legal, be able to flip the front of my crash helmet to enjoy the still air behind the huge fairing screen, stick the cruise control on, tune into Radio 4, perch myself on the back seat and steer with my arse whilst smoking my electronic cigarette and listening to John Humphrys shout at politicians. I never would of course, but it would be possible, if illegal. The thought, then of spending those same two hours aboard something which, whilst not in as frenetic a state of tune as the full-bore ninja H2 sportsbike but nevertheless something producing the best part of 200 horses and blessed with adaptive suspension and yes, a supercharger filled me with excitement mixed with a familiar dread of the uncomfortable. I needn’t have worried. It could never fully replace my daily workhorse: the screen puts my head right in the slipstream of fast moving air, the tank range isn’t big enough for my ugly commute and there’s nowhere I can see to fit a sat nav. But I could sure as hell see myself picking it for the occasional day when I wanted to kick things off with a massive grin.
You can get panniers for it, so it must be sensible, right. Screen puts my head in the breeze. range is too small, heated grips take too log to come on, there's nowhere to put a sat nav. It's brilliant. Utterly brilliant.
I love the Judge Dredd looks, the cornering lights fitted into the fairing and above all, that engine. The occasional chirrup and whirr is enough to remind me that the endless surges of power I’m enjoying a being served up courtesy of the wildly spinning supercharger below me. Best of all, it’s a new bike with something to say for itself, some character. Most tellingly, I got up last Sunday for my usual ride out culminating in a stop atop the Malverns for a cup of tea and a chat with other bikers and found myself drawn not to one of my many vintage and classic relics of bygone era, but for the first time ever, to a brand new bike. The Kawasaki brings something to talk about. And that made it the obvious choice. It’s a hell of a thing and I’m very glad it’s in the world.