Comparo: Kawasaki ZRX1100 vs Suzuki Bandit 1200

Words: Rob Harris/Nick Smirniw   Photos: Wilfrid Gaube

When the Bandit 600 came out back in ’96 I thought at last, a real bike! Never one to compromise for speed but no comfort or vice versa, always left me restoring old 70’s ‘sports’ bikes. Back then, a bike were a bike (imagine in crackly old fogie voice). You could see the motor, you sat almost upright – leaning slightly forward so that the wind at high speed would support you but you wouldn’t break yer wrists when weaving through rush hour traffic. Plastic was reserved for side panels and chrome for the four into howling pipe. Aye, them were the days. The days when tupence ha’penny would buy said bike and you’d still have change left over for a couple of pints in the local and a quick bop at the local disco ….

Bandit 12 left, ZRX11 right

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

Errr, anyway, as I was saying, the Bandit 600 promised a renewed interest in naked retro bikes. A year later the Bandit 1200 came out. The following year the 600 was dropped from the Canadian line up. Both Yamaha and Honda bought out their own versions with the XJR1200 and CB1000, but they never imported them into Canada. Suddenly it all started to look like a flash in the pan … that was until Kawasaki decided to dust off the old Eddie Lawson Replica KZ1000 to come up with the new ZRX1100. Even better, they brought it into Canada!

Since I’ve already mentioned the Bandit 1200 and both Yamaha and Honda deemed it a non requirement to bring their retros into the country, we, the good folks at cmg, thought it would be a jolly good idea to get a hold of the Bandit 1200 as a direct comparo with the ZRX. Besides, any excuse to get our grubbies on a Bandit for a week of mayhem is always worth doing. But first, since the ZRX is the new bike, let’s kick off with that …

In the time honoured tradition of modern naked bikes, the ZRX is a bit of a bitsa bike. That is, a bike essentially made up from the bits of others. The motor is the liquid cooled four cylinder jobbie from their ZX-11. Detuned for more balls low down (why have top speed power when there’s very little wind protection anyway?), with some stylistic fins cast into the cylinder head for that added retro touch.

Since the motor now has more torque, Kawasaki deemed it unnecessary to keep the ZX’s six speed box and fitted it with a wider ratio five speed unit. Chassis is classic steel tubed cradle, rear suspension is twin shock, the pipe is a black 4 into 1, and when you put that bikini fairing up front and paint the whole thing green with blue and white stripes, you’ve got yourself a bonefide Eddie Lawson Replica for the new Millennium!

Kawasaki ZRX 1100

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

When I first sat on the ZRX I was a bit surprised at how stocky it felt. I’m 6’4″ and I felt a bit cramped. Not overly, but at first glance it looks like a big machine. A quick look at the spec sheet reveals all. Seat height is only 790mm. That’s a whole 25mm’s down from the Bandit, putting it in the same zone as Suzi’s GS500 starter bike. The Bandit? At 815mm it’s amoungst the tallest, which explains why I feel so at home on the beast. But more on the Bandit later.

The ZXR bars are slight raised, wide tubular type which allow for easy steering at low speeds. Combine this with a torquey wheelie inducing motor and you have a muscle bike that lives to carve up the urban roads. Despite it’s relatively porky weight of 489lbs it’s surprisingly maneuverable and agile. Between lights the ZRX will happily loft the front wheel and almost lift the rear on stopping. The front brake is the twin disc, dual six (yes six!) piston caliper jobbies, taken directly off the Ninja R models. Unfortunately, the mass of the bike tends to cause the front tire to loose grip just as the back starts to lift, which spoils the stoppie show somewhat.

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

Out on the highway that little bikini fairing does a pretty good job. It diverts most of the blast from the upper body up to about the shoulders. Even the blast that does get by is still bearable at 120km/h cruising speeds. And no, I didn’t go for top speed! That’s the trouble with having your licence in the balance and a very over zealous Ontario Police presence right now. Okay, bitch over, I just had to let it out. Happy place … ommhhhhh.

Highway stability is excellent. Grooved up highway doesn’t induce sphincter dilating reactions and the high quality suspension units come with many compression and rebound damping settings for the perfectionist. The mass is noticeable when throwing it around but it’s still pleasingly agile. The rear swing arm’s worthy of a mention. It’s a truss type aluminum alloy with eccentric adjusters. If that leaves you baffled, don’t worry, it basically translates to cool looking bugger in line with the retro 80’s superbike look.

ZRX1100 details: motor, fairing & front brake

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

Let’s see. What else is there? Did I mention the chrome-bezeled tach and speedo? The storage compartment? Big (and I mean big) space under the seat. Kawasaki market it as a space for a u-lock, but it looks like they forgot to put an air box in. Still, you can never have enough storage space, right? Maybe double up as a good space to hold all the speeding tickets .. oooh, let it lie.

A couple of gripes are firstly the mirrors. They look good but don’t give you much of a view past your elbows. As opposed to the Bandits, which look like shite but work well. Secondly, I found the gear box to be somewhat reluctant. Sometimes, it would take two or three jabs to change. Maybe jut a running in thing, but the Bandit was silky and it had just come out of the crate. Oh yeah, and the model we had was a Japanese home version. Not that that has anything to do with gripes, I should just let you know that the Canadian model has a shorter rear fender, different can and doesn’t cut the ignition at 185km/h. Not that I ever took it there anyway.

Bandit 1200 details: motor, fairing & front brake

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

So how’s the Bandit match up? Pretty similar really. Style wise the two bikes are very similar, the Bandit erring towards a more curvaceous profile as opposed to the angular Kawi. The motor’s lifted from the GSXR1100 with an extra 100cc’s thrown in for good measure. It’s oil/air cooled, which adds to the retro look, with artful finning and smallish oil cooler. Again, a steel cradle frame does the honours with a shiny 4 into 1 pipe and largish bikini fairing up front.

Actually, on paper, they could almost be the same bike. Dry weight is a claimed 224Kg, only 2Kg up on the ZRX. They even have very similar gruntmeister engine characteristics. Both pull hard from low down and deliver hard all the way through the revs.

Editor ‘arris stops to check for radar traps. Arrow points to guilty man.

Photo Credit: Daniela Stranscak

The Bandit does have some secondary buzz (the ZRX is totally vibe free) which can be felt through the bars and pegs, but it’s not a big deal. At speed the extra couple of inches on the fairing over the Kawi keep the wind off the upper body completely. Yer head inevitably gets some of the blast, resulting in more noise rather than expected neck bending force.

Downsides? The seat’s a tad squishy, causing earlier butt cheek numbness than the ZRX, and overall build quality is a little rough around the edges. Also, if suspension is a high priority to you then you’d probably be budgeting for upgrades, otherwise it’s still one of my fave bikes.

There’s no doubting that the Bandit is built to a price. To be precise, a $9,849 price. That’s a full $1,151 lower than the Kawi, but money that could easily be spent just upgrading the suspension parts to the ZRX level. However, that, combined with the roomier ergonomics, and more traditional air/oil cooled motor gets my vote. But only just.

We’re really talking about a personal style preference option between the two. Either way, what you see is what you get … muscle, and lots of it.

Editor ‘arris

Second view

Very few of the bikes that have previously graced CMG’s garages have turned as many heads as Kawasaki’s new ZRX1100. Whenever it was parked, slowly but inevitably, a crowd would gather. The assembled mass stared quietly – perhaps further undressing its already naked form. The look in their eyes was remarkably similar to the sick lust seen in the eyes of men in “pervert’s row” at the strip joint … I think … cause I’m just imagining … it’s not like I’ve ever been to one…

And while on the subject of secret fetishes, if yours is picking up 35-45 year old men, then this is the bike for you. The crowds that gathered and the heads that turned all belonged to that same demographic group.

In the early eighties, there were almost five times as many new bikes sold annually in Canada as there have been in recent years. That’s a lot of riders, many of whom were lusting after Kawasaki’s Eddie Lawson Replica at the time. Back then, though it was unbeatable on paper, and often victorious on the track, in reality (on the street) it was burly, surly and unforgiving, not to mention uncomfortable and rare.

This modified Bandit 12 pulled up while we were having coffee and donuts. Front end is off a GSX-R750.

Photo Credit: Rob Harris

Of course, that was then.

Those riders have grown up now, and many of them have the money and the time to finally afford what they really wanted then. Conveniently, the bikes available today have grown up as well.

The KZ1000 ELR has grown into the ZRX1100 and Suzuki’s old favourite, the GS1000 can be seen as the grandfather to the Bandit 1200. Both bikes offer great dollops of what’s always been so appealing about big-bore engines – arm-wrenching, wheelie-pulling power.

But now that these bikes are all ‘growed up’, they also offer so much more. Most importantly, usability. Both are quite comfortable to ride for long periods, with the superior comfort award going to the Kawasaki. I preferred it’s slightly sportier riding position and nicely sculpted seat to the Bandit’s.

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

This seating position is mostly a result of a lower handlebar – nice and wide for good leverage, and the comfortably rearset pegs. Of course, with that sportier intent comes the sportier (read: much firmer) suspension. Great for fast riding and handling, but perhaps a little harsh on less than perfect roads. The Bandit’s suspension, though a little squishy and mostly nonadjustable, was quite competent and compliant for normal or sport-touring use.

When you do begin to push the 550-ish pounds of ZRX a little harder, you can appreciate the additional feedback that the firmer suspension offers. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to muscle through both tight and higher speed turns. The steering was much lighter and more accurate than I expected.

Bandit 1200

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

This also translated into remarkable low-speed handling. At parking speeds, the steering still felt light and though a bit pudgy by today’s sportbike standards, the bike was actually quite nimble. Full lock U-turns were simple, as was creeping along at a snail’s pace in traffic, thanks to smooth clutch action. The only thing to disappoint in these tight maneuvers was the minimally excessive steering lock, allowing thumbs to be crushed between the bars and the tank at full lock.

And it would be a shame to dent or scuff that tank with your thumbs or anything else. It’s simple and muscular shape is coated with a luscious paint job.

Now it may seem like I’m avoiding the Bandit a little bit here, and maybe I am, but not for bad reasons. There isn’t really anything that the Bandit doesn’t do well. It’s smooth, simple and comfortable. It’s proven to be a bulletproof design. It has gobs of power. It has cheap and easy tuning potential for even more power.

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

About the worst thing I could say about it is that the wind over the windshield was a bit noisy for my liking. But heck, that’s what earplugs are for.

However, the big question is – what do you get for the extra $1000+ when you buy the ZRX?

A little bit of sport and a little bit of style. And those brakes. And that swingarm. And the suspension. And liquid cooling. And the seat. And the paint. And most of all, prettier mirrors.

Nick Smirniw

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