Kawasaki or Yamaha: Can You Identify These Bikes?

By: Marty Sems
Image: By Kawasaki Heavy Industries (Kawasaki Heavy Industries), via Wikimedia Commons /// By Monaneko, via Wikimedia Commons

About This Quiz

When it comes to motorcycles, it's no surprise that the Japanese build them better than most.  After all, Japanese car manufacturers made a huge dent in the American auto industry, so why should motorcycles be any different?

And when it comes to the makers of motorcycles, there are none better than Kawasaki and Yamaha.

But, as with all great brands, these two have a rivalry that sees them go head-to-head, not just on the road, but in their manufacturing plants as well.

In this quiz, we want to test your knowledge of each of these famous brands by showing you photos of their iconic motorcycles and asking you to identify whether it was built by Kawasaki or Yamaha.

Many of these motorcycles are so advanced that they could be called cars on two wheels!

From classic to current Kawasaki Ninjas, to Yamaha's road and offroad bikes, this quiz will put you to the test much like the riders of these motorcycles are often put to the test negotiating everything from rush hour traffic to traffic in road and track races.

Kawasaki’s Ninja 1000R (GPZ1000RX) debuted in 1986. It was a 1-liter evolution of the 900R sportbike, which launched the legendary Ninja series a couple of years earlier. The 1000R upped the ante in street-legal speed at 158 mph, thanks to its 126 bhp inline four-cylinder powerplant.

The Yamaha YZF-R3 gives newcomers to the sportbike realm a zippy, controllable experience. Using offset cylinders in its inline, 321 cc, 8-valve engine, the R3 can reach 60 mph in a little more than five seconds, making the available ABS braking option attractive for safety reasons.

It’s hard to talk about the Yamaha YZR500 OW48 without mentioning racing legend Kenny Roberts, who raced it to victory in three consecutive 500cc World Championships (1978 to 1980). The OW48 was innovative for the time, with an aluminum frame that reduced weight but nevertheless wasn’t quite up to snuff for the power of the 4-cylinder two-stroke engine with YPVS (Yamaha Power Valve System) variable exhaust timing.

Kawasaki’s 1-liter “superbike” for 2004 was the Ninja ZX-10R. In keeping with the first two decades of Ninja design, the ZX-10R had a tremendous power-to-weight ratio, partly due to its new, lightweight spoke wheels. Today’s models include advanced anti-lock braking and traction control.

Purpose-built for motocross, the Kawasaki KX450F loves to get down in the dirt. A 449 cc, 4-stroke 4-cylinder provides the go, while an inverted Showa fork assists in offroad handling. The company’s electronic Launch Control, meanwhile, cuts down on wheel spin under hard acceleration.

There’s no way we were going to leave out a bike named “Thundercat.” The European version of Yamaha’s YZF600R, this pretty kitty gathered a cult following over its lifespan. Although initially intended to compete against sportier models, Yamaha’s conservative design choices appealed more to road bikers. Its inline 4-cylinder had four valves per cylinder, a 599 cc displacement, and a 100 bhp power rating.

Retro styling cues meld with modern technology in Yamaha’s XSR900. Standard ABS and selectable driving modes help the driver to tame the beast, while a rear monoshock and inverted forks, in turn, help the beast to tame the road. Its liquid-cooled 3-cylinder displaces less than 850 ccs​, despite the 900 in its name, but you won’t feel at a loss for power--even while you’re getting 44 mpg.

The parallel-twin, 649 cc engine in the upright Kawasaki Versys 650 is built for torque down low, in contrast to the wilder mill in the Ninja 650 that shares the same frame. There’s ABS to set your mind at ease, and an adjustable windscreen to keep the wind from buffeting you out of your enjoyment zone. Add in 17-inch wheels and a 6-speed gearbox, along with remote adjustability of the spring preload on the rear laydown shock, and you’re talking about a fun ride on any stretch of road.

Introduced in 2017, the Yamaha TMAX DX maxi-scooter is a welcome upgrade to the bestselling 2001-era TMAX. Lighter and better balanced, this deluxe version of the ‘round-town commuter still comes with its predecessor’s big storage space underneath the seat. Dual riding modes, heated seat and grips, and plentiful grip-mounted controls lend themselves to driver control and comfort. And, of course, there’s the gutsy (for a scooter) 45 bhp from the parallel twin-cylinder, four-stroke, 530cc motor.

Kawasaki only produced its GPZ750 Turbo for a couple of years in the early-to-mid 1980s, but it made its point. Kicking out 112hp -- pretty impressive for 1983 -- the forced-induction phenomenon could run the quarter-mile in less than 11 seconds with the right rider. After it showed up the slower turbo bikes from Yamaha and other manufacturers, it headed off into the sunset a legend.

How about a superbike so powerful you can’t even legally ride it on a public road? Kawasaki’s Ninja H2 was already potent, but the company upped the horsepower by half and doubled the price to come up with the monstrous Ninja H2R. A supercharged, 326 hp, 998 cc engine catapults the track-only beast like a jet plane off a carrier deck. How fast? Up to 250 mph in a 2016 test using special Pirelli tires.

Yamaha blazed a new trail in 1988 with its lightweight, dual-purpose TDR250. It could accelerate like a scalded cat thanks to its two-stroke, parallel twin, 50 hp engine with YPVS variable exhaust timing and CD (capacitive discharge) ignition with digital advance. And yet, it had the agility and gutsiness to head offroad without a qualm. It’s a pity it was never imported to the United States, but there are a few rare examples to be found here and there.

Yamaha made the sport touring TDM850 from 1991 to 2001. The substantial, dual-role cycle came with an​ 849 cc, 77 hp engine of parallel-twin design. However, a crankshaft angle change in 1996 makes the later model's engine more attractive to used bike shoppers today. The TDM was destined to be overshadowed by its successor, the 900 cc TDM900, but it has achieved a sort of sleeper status among discerning gearheads.

Another bike with a cult following today, the Kawasaki KR-1S offered blistering quickness right off the showroom floor. The 1990-92 road racing bike sported a 249 cc, two-stroke motor with the Kawasaki Integrated Powervalve System (KIPS) for variable exhaust timing. And with 59 hp and just 289 pounds in weight, it was fast, too: 139 mph in third-party testing.

Yamaha dug into its parts bins and put together this retro, yet modern, “Sport Heritage” scrambler. The SCR950 is based on the Yamaha Bolt, but the resemblance ends there with a more upright, throwback aesthetic. The air-cooled, 942cc twin-powered cycle is more at home on the road, but it’s not afraid to tackle light offroad trails.

With a 0 to 60 mph time of just 2.5 seconds, the Ninja ZX-14 (ZZR1400) put Kawasaki in the catbird seat in 2006. A 1.35 L inline four-cylinder with a six-speed transmission vaulted the bike to an electronically-limited top speed of 186 mph. Today, the Sports Tourer comes with antilock braking, traction control, and a Slipper Clutch to clean up downshifting behavior at high revs.

Kawasaki debuted its quarter-liter Ninja 250 SL in 2014, wowing fans with a superlight marvel of handling and acceleration. Its DOHC, 249 cc single-cylinder is built to rev, while available ABS keeps things manageable from “whoa!” to “slow.” And it’s nimble enough to turn traffic situations into slalom practice.

Don’t confuse the 2011-on Kawasaki Ninja 1000 (Z1000SX) with the late 1980s-era Ninja 1000R. They’re assassins of a different stripe and different eras. This stylish street bike packs a liter of performance and plenty of style. Current models come with a little more wind protection for the rider, along with a six-axis Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) to assist the cornering anti-lock brake system and traction control.

Yamaha’s efforts at a cruiser gelled with the 1981 Virago. The Japanese manufacturer outfitted the bike with an eye-catching V-twin engine -- heretofore the province of American bike makers -- with a 750 cc displacement. At first, the Virago had a single shock absorber for the rear wheel, but in 1984, Yamaha added a second rear shock, a new gas tank, and an aesthetic makeover to push the Virago into popularity.

Yamaha’s MT-03 tipped up in 2006 with a 660 cc SOHC single-cylinder motor, but 10 years later, the company repurposed the name for a bike with half the displacement but double the pistons. The new MT-03 is basically a stripped-down YZF-R3 with a raised handlebar and other massaging. It comes with a 321 cc DOHC inline twin and a light overall weight.

With the J125, Kawasaki handed the European market a 125 cc scooter that’s a bit more solid-feeling than the norm. The fully automatic, twist-and-go bike uses a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) to match the “gearing” to any driving condition. With great fuel economy and stable handling, it provides urban transport with a bit of fun.

At the tail end of the 1980s, Yamaha unveiled a superbike that still turns heads today. Bred for racing, the rare FZR750R OW-01 incorporated light but strong metals such as magnesium and titanium in order to keep its weight down. The race motor used three intake valves to fill each of its four cylinders, and two exhaust valves to empty them again. A close-ratio six-speed transmission channeled the resulting 119 bhp to the (occasionally smoking) rear tire.

Yamaha's XSR700, a “back to the future” stylistic upgrade of the FZ-07/MT-07 platform, made its way to U.S. shores in 2018 after some tantalizing time overseas. Standard antilock braking is a sign of the times, despite the throwback styling cues. You get a 698 cc parallel-twin (inline two-cylinder) engine with Yamaha’s “Crossplane Concept” 270-degree crankshaft.

Yamaha’s YZ450FX is an off-road, cross-country bike with no apologies. Its rearward-slanted cylinder 449 cc DOHC 4-stroke motor pulls hard through the low and midrange, and yet the wide-ratio 5-speed transmission is geared high enough for remarkable top-end speed. Handling the terrain are KYB spring forks and a KYB rear shock, both tunable for track conditions.

Figuratively speaking, Kawasaki’s triple-cylinder H2 Mach IV exploded onto the scene in 1972. The air-cooled two-stroke 750 cc powerplant buzzed out a gobsmacking 74 hp, which its lightweight (423 pound) chassis did nothing to hold back. Handling, however, was demanding even of experienced racers. But in 1974, it brought a bit of detuning, better oil management, and a longer swingarm to improve handling.

Classic muscle car nuts had their 4-barrel carburetors, in which vacuum or mechanical linkage opened a second set of throttle plates to feed a high-revving V-8. Yamaha’s V-Boost did something similar to feed the mammoth V-4 mill in 1985’s awesome V-Max 1200cc cruiser. Above 5700 rpm, butterfly valves opened up the intake manifolds to draw on two carburetors instead of one. The result, in this engine with a seat and wheels, was a tire-smoking 143 hp.

Comfortable cruising is the goal of Kawasaki’s Vulcan S. It offers adjustability from stem to stern, so you can customize your ride to your ergonomic preferences. The handlebars, the seat, the footpegs, even the hand levers are user-configurable for comfort. And it’s low in the saddle, so even vertically challenged riders can mount up with élan.

The Rally Paris-Dakar and other Enduro events inspired Yamaha to craft its XT600Z Tenere for 1983. A touring bike designed to go anywhere, the Tenere packed a huge, 30-liter​ fuel tank and a long, aluminum swingarm. A 595 cc motor cooked up 43 hp. And under the gaitered air forks was something special: a front disc brake.

Before there was a Kawasaki H2 Mach IV, there was the H1 Mach III. This was in the early days of a Japanese 3-cylinder invasion, and the 60 hp from the 550 cc two-stroke triple made it easy to get into trouble very quickly. Handling was a challenge with all that rearward mass, but the Mach III was relatively cheap and reliable compared to its competition. Improved editions were still being sold in 1975.

Although Yamaha called this bike the YDS3C Big Bear Scrambler after California’s Big Bear Run offroad race, and styled it to look the part, it was much more of a road bike than a dirt-trail scrambler. The giant exhaust baffles on either side give the Big Bear its distinctive look, although they didn’t do a lot to calm its noise output. Situated rearward, as was the custom at the time, was a 250 cc, 2-stroke 2-cylinder that came into its own up in the mid-to-high rpm range.

Here’s a quintessential American cruiser that was invented in Japan. Yamaha went with an air-cooled motor for 1999’s Road Star (XV1600A) cruiser, in contrast to other big V-Twins’ liquid-cooled engines. Its chrome and classic styling caught the eye as its 4-stroke, 1,602 cc mill ate up the miles. A 2004 refresh ushered in a bigger 1670 cc powerplant and beefier brakes, and optional trim packages catered to market segment tastes.

For 2016, Yamaha introduced a limited edition “cafe racer” XSR900 that not only looks retro, it gets the rider into the act by demanding a decidedly 1960s, low-grip stance. The company teamed up with Italian company Abarth on the bike, but carried over the stock (but still exhilarating) 847 cc, 115bhp, inline 3-cylinder of the base MT-09. Only 695 were intended to be built.

As you would expect from a 1200 cc-class Kawasaki Ninja, the ZX-12R is not for the faint of heart nor the weak of body. Produced from 2000 to 2006, the big killer handled very well for a big-bore G-force generator. Its 1198cc inline 4-cylinder thundered out 157 bhp for an (artificially limited) 187 mph and a 0 to 60 mph time of just 2.7 seconds. Of engineering interest was its monocoque aluminum frame that actually doubled as part of the bike’s airbox.

Never mind the pipes… look at those disc brakes! In 1973! Kawasaki wisely imbued its Z1 900 with this important safety feature, as its big 903 cc motor could easily get out of hand. It took four Mikuni carburetors to feed the air-cooled, inline 4, and remember that in those days, there were only two valves for each cylinder. Kawasaki gives a nod to the vintage Z1 900’s power and styling in its recent Z900RS.

With saddlebags, er, panniers for storage and ergonomic adjustables, the Versys 1000 LT from Kawasaki offers a sport-touring package for those who think big. It’s motivated by a primarily torquey version of the Ninja 1000’s 1,043 cc inline four-cylinder. It’s more suitable for the average-sized to tall rider, but the price is relatively small.

A moped may seem out of place in this muscled company, but Yamaha’s FS1-E “Fizzy” holds a special place in many enthusiasts’ hearts. To comply with European regulations, the single-cylinder, two-stroke bike actually had supplementary bike pedals and a chain drive so the user could, with difficulty, pedal it like a bicycle.

In your next viewing of Top Gun (1986 Paramount Pictures), keep your eyes peeled for the Kawasaki Ninja GPZ900R. When he wasn’t flying F-14 Tomcats, or Kelly McGinnis for that matter, Tom Cruise was terrorizing Miramar on the sport bike that started it all. The GPZ900R (1984 to 2003) was the first bike built around a 4-valve-per-cylinder, water-cooled engine. More importantly from its fans’ perspective, it was the first Kawasaki to bear the hallowed Ninja name.

As emissions authorities started to take a sterner view of two-stroke engines in the mid-1980s, Yamaha nevertheless released a road-appropriate version of its YZR500 racing bike to capitalize on racer Kenny Roberts’ popularity. The RD500LC’s 499 cc V-4 was unusual for a 2-stroke in that it used a counterbalance shaft to tamp down on pesky vibrations. Disc brakes came standard with two up front and one in the back. Bowing before the prevailing winds, Yamaha only produced the RD500LC from 1984 to 1986.

There are motorbikes, and then there are superbikes. Better don your leathers for the latter. Yamaha’s YZF-R1 has been going strong since 1998, but today’s iteration makes use of 6-axis IMU (gyro)-assisted control over traction, launches, and slides, among other things. Innovative fracture-split titanium rods and a crossplane crankshaft help make for a compact inline four-cylinder that’s admirably free-revving. Heck, even the exhaust system is made from titanium, for the most part. The resulting beast weighs only 441 pounds, which not only aids acceleration and handling, but also fuel economy. The YZF-R1 gets 34 miles to the gallon, for the one or two potential buyers who might care about such a thing.

One of the “naked” upright bikes, stripped of fairing and windscreen, the Kawasaki Z900 also seemed to be a product of intense dieting for a 948 cc cycle. It arrived in 2017 with a beach bod of just 459 pounds, which, in combination with its 66.3 pound-feet of torque, makes for a 0 to 60 mph time of just 3 seconds. The Z900’s handling has also garnered kudos from the learned motorbike press. There’s available ABS, of course, for a bit more weight and cash.

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