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Common Tread

2018 Kawasaki H2 SX SE first ride review

Mar 27, 2018

Around 12:30 a.m. on March 22, I suffered a laughing fit.

I had arrived in San Diego to test the new Kawasaki Ninja H2 SX SE, which can be best described in two words: supercharged sport-tourer. During the evening’s media presentation on the bike, Kawi was cagey about the blower. I point-blank asked them what max boost pressure was, and they danced around the answer.

Later, I cornered Minoru Kanamori, from Kaw’s R&D department. He told me that boost, like horsepower, was a figure Kaw does not like to publish in the United States. Though he wouldn't give me a number, in terms of psi, he did say the supercharger would peg at 220 percent of atmospheric pressure. I did some mental calculations but kept quiet in case my rusty high school physics failed me. Back in my hotel room, where my giggle-fit began, some online investigation uncovered some numbers elsewhere and told me I was on the money.

Editor's note: In response to readers' questions, we contacted Kawasaki to verify peak boost on the Ninja H2 SX SE and to clarify the information displayed on the "BST" gauge. Previously, this article calculated boost pressure as 220 percent of atmospheric pressure as stated. The gauge appears to measure both boost and vacuum, so the blower appears to make peak boost of only 120 percent in excess of atmospheric pressure. Kawasaki does have a method of relieving that boost, but they would not divulge the peak boost actually delivered to the combustion chambers. "KHI does not provide pounds of pressure delivered," said the rep we contacted. The values published in the earlier version have been retracted from this article.

The fun box bolts to... the other fun box. RevZilla photo.

My laughter was fueled by the two thoughts. First, I found it hilarious that Kawasaki bootstrapped their own blower and then stuffed it into a factory bike, but then decided they were too cautious to publish its specs. The bigger laugh, though, came from reality setting in: The following morning they planned to let me have the keys to one.

Basic stats on the Ninja H2 SX and SE

You can check out the Ninja H2 SX and Ninja H2 SX SE spec sheets for detailed info, but here are the vitals you’re going to want to know. These bikes both weigh in right around 570 pounds, have 120/70ZR17 and 190/55ZR17 tires anchoring either end of their 58.3-inch wheelbases, and both are motivated by a 998 cc inline-four engine with the aforementioned hardware bolted on top. The forced induction breathes onto pistons with a compression ratio of 11.2:1, which is certainly not the highest CR around right now, but is still mind-boggling to me; metallurgy advancements and combustion chamber design has really allowed those numbers to climb sky-high, considering this bike is boosted.

Suspension is fully adjustable at both ends of the bike (rear preload is adjusted via hydraulic adjuster, which is convenient beyond description), and both bikes feature a six-speed dog-ring transmission, a 5.0-gallon fuel tank, and a relatively high 32.9-inch seat height. Front brakes are dual disk, grabbed by four-piston radial-mount monoblock calipers, with ABS and braided lines. Rears are two-piston calipers on single disks, also with a braided line.

A centerstand is also part of the SE package. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The H2 SX is the entry-level bike, if such a thing exists, at a cool $19,000 MSRP. (Kudos for cutting the crap and just using a normal price ending in zeros.) The SE ups the price by three grand, and the extra money nets a buyer a bigger windscreen, heated grips, nicer seats, machining and pinstriping on the wheels, launch control, a quickshifter, TFT dash, and LED cornering lights.

Now, let’s get to the good part: riding this animal.

Riding the Ninja H2 SX SE

Kawasaki designed a route for us around San Diego, up into mountains to Palomar. It really was an ideal route for the bike, which I’d call a sport-tourer that definitely emphasizes the first half of that category. I climbed onto the machine and immediately took stock of the ergos. The H2 SX SE, though a bit on the tall side, feels manageable due to the bike’s wasp waist. (It also makes controlling the bike very easy.)

Foot clearance
I borrowed Matt Neundorf from Gear Patrol to be a foot model. Thankfully, this bike has good foot clearance, in part due to the muffler design, which cops space from the single-sided swingarm. Spurgie would be happy. Croft Long, Kaw's Two-Wheel Product Manager, said "I walked into Wal-Mart, bought a pair of size 13 construction boots, and dropped them on the table in front of the engineers." RevZilla photo.

The bike’s positioning is more aggressive than the Ninja 1000's, but it’s certainly not uncomfortable. I’d probably call it the most aggressive non-sport position one could assume.

The clamshells are busy, but use is pretty intuitive. Even technophobes should be pretty comfortable. RevZilla photo.

I snicked into gear, and as we began the ride, I noticed that while there were quite a few buttons on the handlebars, everything was laid out neatly, and as I would find out later, the navigation is very straightforward. Motorcycles have been improving by leaps and bounds in this area lately, and the SE is no laggard. (For instance, motorcycle cruise control seems to be pretty well standardized at this point. This is a Very Good Thing.)

It's even better in person. This is how dashes should look. I wouldn't have minded if it was a touch bigger, but I could live with this setup very happily. RevZilla photo.

As we tootled around surface streets making our way to the highway, I turned my eye to the dash. It’s a TFT unit, with several display options, offering differing information layouts and different looks. (I find regardless of brightness, white numbers on a black screen are far easier on my eyes at night than the inverse. The Kaw lets you choose either.) Speed is given on the screen, but engine speed is still presented with the sweep of a needle. If you like high-tech layouts, this is heavy on the tech, but light on the frippery, which makes it both beautiful and simple. The size, however, does make obtaining information at high speed damn near impossible.

Mercifully, we made it to the highway, and I watched our ride leader crank up. I twisted the bike’s ear and I was off like a shot. I romped through the gears, and after my two-three shift, that gorgeous speedometer politely told me my speed was 122 mph and increasing. Yes, I was on a public road, and no, I don’t make a habit of doing that. Our ride leader had the common sense to take his fist out of the throttle, and I followed suit.

Before I start yammering about what that supercharger does and how it’s made, let me copy and paste a line directly from Kaw’s presentation. “A sound hole in the intake duct makes it easier for the rider to enjoy the supercharger’s characteristic chirping.” Translation: They cut a hole in the intake tube to deliver dopamine shots to your brain. It’s the intake equivalent of a straight pipe. There are some noises that tell you something is not to be fucked with, and though you may think the friendly chatter the huffer produces would be non-threatening, it sounds decidedly ominous juxtaposed with the angry buzzing the big slugs hammer out in their cylinder bores.

The ‘charger is breathtaking. It delivers smooth, clean power that just propels the bike forward at mind-bending speeds. I had some real trouble charging corners, because at sane speeds, the bike is simply not working hard — but you’re still flying. Other riders (and Kawi employees) mentioned casually going through a similar adjustment period, where your ears are really not to be trusted when sizing up a directional change in the pavement’s path beneath you.

On the left is the impeller from the H2R, and on the right the unit found in an H2 SX. Note the difference in vane pitch and shape, as well as even the grooves in the vanes on the SX unit: all of that is planned and the engineers needed a few cracks to tune each impeller for the respective applications. The impeller spins at a maximum of 110,390 RPM, so it's also machined from a single piece of forged aluminum on a five-axis CNC. Machining porn. RevZilla photo.

The supahcharger has sort of an interesting story. Kawasaki shopped outside vendors for a blower, and couldn’t find a vendor willing or able to make one, so they did what anyone who has a notion to blow a bike does: They made something, and then made it work. They developed their own, and the superchargers are even tuned differently between the 300ish-horsepower H2R and the 200-ish H2 SX.

I’d be curious to take a ride on something they built with another supplier’s supercharger, even if it was just a rough prototype. The integration of the s/c in terms of performance and packaging was done so well, I’d say it probably warranted the (probably) astronomical costs of creating the part.

"Dang, still no gas station." Photo by Kevin Wing.

It should probably be mentioned that while I imagine this bike could get really good fuel mileage, mine did not. I was riding like the bike was stolen, and I wasted fuel in fine style. After a hundred miles, I was well into my last tick on the fuel gauge, so I would roughly estimate a tank of fuel lasting 125 miles or so until the fuel light kicked on if the bike is ridden in anger. Kawi claims 36 mpg, which would yield a 180-mile range if every drop in the tank is usable — still a little short for touring, but I would think most people opting for forced induction on their motorcycle would be understanding.

Heat was not objectionable at all, but the weather was very, very temperate. I didn’t notice any heat at all. Kawi claims one of the benefits of the trellis frame is the ability to allow air to pass through it to help dissipate engine heat. Is that the case here? I think there’s a bit more to things than that, but it certainly ain’t hurting, and the lack of huge aluminum spars right by the rider acting as a heat sink ain’t bad. Speaking of airflow, I was happy with the windscreen. The SE gets a bigger screen than the standard model, and it is perfect for me. I experienced no helmet buffeting, but had a very nice breeze rolling up my arms and down my chest.

Back to the riding. After getting comfortable and familiar with the bike, I wanted to see what I could do — and what it would not let me do, because I knew this bike was equipped with Bosch’s excellent IMU that Kawi puts to good use with a number of very sophisticated electronic assistants. KTRC, Kaw’s traction control, allowed a modest wheelie, and then intervened in the least intrusive mode. Levels two and three allowed less fun. In the most aggressive mode, the H2 SX SE will pick up the front in a power wheelie in first gear at 55 mph with ease. If I had to pick something to whine about, this is probably it. KTRC is very conservative. Whereas most of the recent Yamahas I have ridden will allow a hell of a good wheelstand, even the most permissive setting on most Kawis I’ve been on lately only allows a little bit of loft or wheelspin. On a bike with this kind of power, I want something between “Gentle GP loft” and “I turned it off and looped this crazy rocketship.” Incidentally, TC settings are sticky, staying where you leave them, with the exception of disabling it. If disabled and the bike is turned off, it will revert back to the least aggressive TC setting.

A little rain never bothered me, and it afforded good conditions to test out some of the Ninja's electronic prowess. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Another “across-the-board” for the brand I have noticed lately is that Team Green bikes seem to accommodate my girth pretty well. The factory preload setting was causing the bike to chatter over pavement ripples, so I dialed some out of the rear (Whoo! Remote preload adjuster!) and the bike settled down quite a bit. I wish I had had more time to go softer yet.

At one point, I realized I had to do a part of my job which is both fun and scary: test the TC when sliding. It was actually raining a bit, spitting in some parts of our mountain ride. Halfway through the day I found a very wet corner. I murmured a little prayer, shook my head, took the turn, and smacked the throttle wide open. Oddly, that great big Ninja felt just like my flat track bike: The rear slid out about 10 inches and power was cut very incrementally. I felt the slide come under control, and I braced instinctively to fight the high-side I knew would not come. The slide tapered off, and power flowed smoothly back to the rear wheel as fast as it left, leaving me very stable as I came out of it. You can’t just read about it to understand how seamless everything is. This technology is nothing short of amazing. If you want to embolden a rider, give him this kind of assistance.

These skins, ones I already like, underwent the assault valiantly. RevZilla photo.

I tested this using the factory tire pressures. I strongly suspect they’re a bit overinflated, especially considering the tires, Bridgestone Battlax S21s. They’re a sport-touring tire that I normally love (and I like them on this machine as well), but let’s be honest here, the power this bike makes is going to overwhelm lesser tires. It’s not an inappropriate tire, but for a man who’s specifically going out to exploit potential flaws in things like traction control, they don’t offer all the grip of a pure sport tire. And that’s OK. Most people buying this bike are not going to ride it like an H2 or H2R; those are different bikes with different missions.

The Kaw’s power is also electronically adjustable, with three levels. This isn’t your standard “rain mode gives you a completely numb throttle” setup. Instead, there are very fine gradients between the power settings and sensitivity levels, which was appreciated. Similarly, engine braking can be controlled, with either a normal or “light” setup. I found the most aggressive throttle to be just a leetle bit twitchy when adding maintenance throttle. I found that switching to light engine braking allowed me to stay on the gas for longer, which smoothed things out. Interestingly, at least one of my colleagues dialed the power setting back, left the standard engine braking, and was then happy with the throttle’s reduced snatchiness. Different ways to skin a cat, but the fact there were multiple ways to fine-tune power delivery was welcome.

The quickshifter was generally awesome. It allows clutchless ups and downs. It’s really great to see this feature coming to ST bikes, because it’s just as useful in a touring scenario as it is in a go-fast situation. To me, that makes it twice as valuable on a bike like this one that will spend time in both those realms. I did have two blown shifts with the engine revving before it angrily crashed a gear. They may have been short shifts, but I don’t think so. All in all, it works great. It’s not quiiiiite as good as BMW’s, but it’s close enough for government work.

Handling was more nimble than, say, a Concours 14 or a Yamaha FJR1300, but the H2 SX can’t totally hide its weight or its length. However, it’s more than capable of carving a corner, and the added shot of power means that this bike’s rider will probably be able to reclaim corners on the exit, driving out of them with torque and fury matched by few other motorcycles.

Braided lines, monobloc calipers, radial mounting - this is what I want to see on a motorcycle. RevZilla photo.

Brakes were a mixed bag. Fronts are awesome, with great feel and power. The rear is kind of anemic, though. It was numb and weak and had a ton of pedal throw. I use the rear a lot to settle the chassis for turns. (Flat track bikes and old shitty choppers may both have some influence on that.) However, if you’re using all the brakes at the same time, it’s got plenty of stopping power, though it takes a bit to slow this machine down, because you are usually going entirely too fast.

Final thoughts

At the end of 200 miles, the motorcycle began to feel less ridiculous than it appears on paper. At first, it seems even more over the top than some of the historical absurdly powerful bikes, like the Suzuki Hayabusa, the Honda CBR1100XX Blackbird, or (I imagine) a ZX-14. But really, this is a big, fairly heavy bike that’s very well suited to its job — it just happens to be ridiculously fast.

The hard bags just work. Popping them off takes but a second. The mounting ease and cleanliness is every bit as good as the BMW system, which is the best I've used, and edges out Harley-Davidson bags by just a smidgen. Yeah, each bag costs $607, but you'd be a fool not to pay it. RevZilla photo.

Kawasaki stings you for $1,214.76 for the hard bags for this bike, which are beautifully integrated and pop on and off with the greatest of ease. It’s functionally the same as the “Harley tax,” because the bike is way better with them, and everyone who buys one of these will also buy the bags, in part because they’re going to be light years better than aftermarket options. (Said as a guy who sells aftermarket bags for nearly everything. Note that.)

So a buyer is looking at $23,215 plus freight, setup, taxes and the like to acquire one of these. Now you all want to know if I’m going to run out and tell everyone to buy one. I’ll get to that in a few different ways. First, this bike is expensive and exclusive enough that it may well hold its value, appreciating quickly in a short time, so a buyer may actually not lose money on this bike. (Unlike, say, picking up a Z900. You’re gonna lose your ass trying to sell that bike in 10 or 15 years if you bought it new.) Twenty-some thousand bucks ain’t chump change, but if you get to ride the bike and get your money back in two presidential terms, it ain’t a bad deal.

There’s also the value a buyer may or may not assign to the bragging rights of having the only blown bike at a given bike night. How much would you take out of your wallet to hear that friendly chirp that announced to you and all bystanders that your incoming air charge was being slammed into your cylinders under duress? That’s a highly personal question that I couldn’t answer, but probably will get more thought then most purchasers (and intenders) will admit.

This mess was visible from the saddle. Normally I can look past this type of thing easily, but then I remembered that Kawasaki is asking for twenty-two grand for this machine. At least make ugliness less visible from the cockpit, eh? RevZilla photo.

I loved the bike. It’s phenomenal, with only minor flaws, and it damn well better be at the price they are asking. This bike fits right in my arsenal. But the reality is I just don’t have the money to pop for this bike, and I have things pretty good compared to many others. I’d probably opt for a more conservative choice like the Versys 1000, or the Ninja 1000, which I think is 90 percent of the bike the Ninja H2 SX SE is and would save me just shy of ten grand.

I’ll encourage those who are interested to go ride one, though, because this is one of the most satisfying bikes I can remember riding. Second, if Kaw sells a few of these and recoups the cost of development, I am betting we’ll see less aggressive huffers based on this design on middleweight and flyweight bikes some time soon, so if you’ve got a wad of cash and a need to feel altruistic, you’ll help the rest of us get a taste of the magic that these bikes offer.

It pains me that this will likely be the first and only time I’ll ever ride one of these bikes. The H2 SX SE is real fun, but it sure ain’t realistic fun. Not for me, anyway.