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About Big Turbo Motorcycles

TurboWhat’s the story with big turbo motorcycles? Looking at some gasoline engines and many diesel engines in automobiles, one finds forced induction almost everywhere, turbochargers and superchargers in cars and trucks of all sizes. Where they used to be mainly found in performance vehicles, forced-induction engines have been adopted to improve economy in all kinds of vehicles, but not motorcycles. Well, at least not many motorcycles. In fact, only four makers have ever dabbled in production turbocharged motorcycles, the big four from Japan, including Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki.

The first semi-production turbocharged motorcycle was the Kawasaki Z1R-TC, built by Turbo Cycle Corporation, and then there was the 1982 Honda CX 500 Turbo and 1983 650 Turbo, the 1982-83 Yamaha XJ 650 Seca Turbo, the 1983 Suzuki XN 85 Turbo, and the 1983-1985 Kawasaki GPZ750 Turbo – also a late-2003 supercharged scooter, the Peugeot JetForce Compressor, but we don’t talk about that one. Outside of these production motorcycles, the only place you could, and still can, find turbochargers and superchargers was in competition, record-setting, and aftermarket upgrade kits.

For just a few years, in the early 1980s, these makers went absolutely turbo-crazy, trying to outdo each other with the latest turbocharger technology, only to realize they just weren’t worth the hassle. Since 1985, 30 years ago – not you, Peugeot – no maker has kept a turbocharged motorcycle on the market, but why not? Quite simply, it’s not necessary, too complicated, and downright dangerous.

  • Necessity – The most basic limitation a motorcycle has is traction, not power. There’s only so much power you can put through a few square inches of contact patch, between the rear tire and the pavement. The power output of naturally-aspirated motorcycle engines can already overcome the stickiest tires and the most perfect track surface, so what’s the point?
  • Complexity – For gains of just a few horsepower, or a lot in the case of race bikes, the induction system adds unnecessary weight and complexity. Bolt-on turbos take up a lot of space and not very clean presentation, which again, “who cares” if you’re on a race bike, but production bikes are a different aesthetic.
  • Safety – We’ve already mentioned losing traction, but if you lean too far back on a turbocharged motorcycle, you’ll end up in the air at the most inopportune times. The problem is turbo-lag, which isn’t so bad in cars, but can be disastrous on a two-wheel machine. Any rider knows that throttle needs to be precise to maintain control of the bike, but turbo lag results in a sudden boost in power that’ll push you off the road in a heartbeat.

Still, this isn’t to say that overcoming these three limitations isn’t possible, and maybe Kawasaki has done it with the 2016 Kawasaki Ninja H2 and the race-only H2R. Equipped with a supercharger, reducing “turbo-lag,” as well as modern ABS and traction control, the Kawasaki Ninja H2 is just as tame as you want it to be, which is saying a lot for a 200-horsepower motorcycle. The Ninja H2R shares the same engine and supercharger, but is tuned to an even more ludicrous 310 horsepower.

Practical? No, but for $25 or $50 grand, for the H2 or H2R respectively, this Kawasaki is not what you would classify as practical.

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