Best Sportbikes Of The 1990s

Lists, Motorcycle History -


Best Sportbikes Of The 1990s

Kawasaki ZXR 750
Kawasaki ZXR 750

Kawasaki ZXR 750

Kawasaki bikes of the 1990s never got the recognition they deserved and are still overlooked today, but there were a couple of real firecrackers. There was the ZXR 750, which was blindingly fast in the right hands. Early versions were oK but the one to look for today is the ‘L’ model which had revised suspension that made it a better road bike and had a bit more power (around 116 bhp and 54 lb.-ft. of torque). By all accounts the ZXR offers a pretty intense riding experience for those so inclined.

Kawasaki ZX-9R
Kawasaki ZX-9R

Kawasaki ZX-9R

But, the one Kawasaki that was seriously under rated back then and almost forgotten today is the ZX-9R. It was supposedly faster than the Fireblade and more comfortable and useable than the R-1. It delivered 143 bhp and 74 lb.-ft. of torque from the 899cc engine. Early B-designated models are quicker while later versions — the E and F versions – had refined suspension upgrades and better handling. Gearboxes are something to watch out for if you are looking at buying one. They have a tendency to jump out of gear – especially third. Check all the usual areas for issue – warped brake rotors and ratty swingarms, but overall this is one of the most underrated sport bikes of the 1990s and a great ride if you can find one.

Suzuki TL1000S
Suzuki TL1000S

Suzuki TL1000S

Suzuki’s TL1000S earned a reputation for being a bit of a monster to ride thanks to its torquy-laden V-twin and short wheelbase. But compared to some of today’s sportbikes it seems a little subdued. They were pretty quick and decent looking though. Early bikes suffered from handling issues due to a combination of over-damped rear shocks and the swingarm tensioning the chain. Frames have also been known to crack around the shock mount.

As a sportbike, this Suzuki was right up there. Low gearing, 125 bhp and 420 lbs wet weight made this bike a blast to ride and proved particularly attractive to the first generation of squid riders who found out how well these Suzuki’s pulled wheelies at anything up to 70 mph without any problem. It is hard to find a non-abused version today, so look for later models and check any bike you are considering, really carefully as the chances of finding one that has not been dropped is going to be very rare.

When you look back at some of the sportbikes from the 1990s they may look a bit clunky and heavy. But, many of them were technically interesting and are still terrific to ride. If you can find a good one today, hang on to it and ride the heck out of it. Who knows? One day you might even be able to sell it for a lot more than you paid for it.

We could and should have added the Suzuki GSX-R750 to this list, along with Honda’s RC45 and the Kawasaki KR-1. All great bikes from the decade, but what sportbike from the 1990s is on your radar?

  • Brian

    the TL was a turd. The Superhawk 996 was a much better execution of the same idea. Obviously this list is not including the homologation specials for racing, because the Yamaha 0W01′s and the RC30′s & RC45′s were far and away much more in the catagory of “BEST” being that those were built to be the best out of the box specifically for racing.

    • metric_G

      Long as you replaced that turd rotary damper rear suspension on the tiler, I owned a 2001, model and after replacing the factory rear with an ohlins unit the bike was great.

    • contender

      Baloney. I had a Superhawk that was stolen. Bought the TLS shortly after and I still have it. The TLS motor has far more character than the Honda did. Plus the tank on the Honda was too small – the fuel light would come on after about 95 miles.

  • jasinner

    FZR 400 and SV650

  • Transcona Mike

    The 1996 GSX-R750. The other 3 “Big 4″ decided to pull out of the 750 class rather than try and keep up.

  • Transcona Mike

    The 1996 GSX-R750. The other 3 “Big 4″ decided to pull out of the 750 class rather than try and keep up.

  • Nathan

    I’ll never forget being a young 10 year old boy around ’94 working with my dad around the house when one Saturday morning I heard the sweetest symphony I had ever heard echoing through the valleys of our southeast Ohio countryside. As the two most beautiful motorcycles I had ever seen came screaming over the hilltop I’ll never forget the exhaust note and those dual headlights. That was the exact moment I realized I wanted to ride motorcycles. My dad noticing my excitement and took me to the local gas station which he suspected the riders would loop back and patronize, well 20 mins later they pulled in and I’ll never forget that both were brand new CBR900′s. Not sure if 93 or 94 but I was just in awe as they let me admire their bikes while my dad talked old dirtbike days with them. We never saw them again as they went on their way but one thing is for sure that day changed my life forever as a young boy. After a few dirt bikes it would be ten years before i purchased my first streetbike, a 1997 Yamaha YZF600. Although I love my current F4i, I miss that Yamaha everyday. And to those guys from that life changing day wherever you are. THANK YOU.

  • Jordan

    In the case of the R1, does the author refer to EXUP valves seizing?

    I would like to own a well maintained example one day, but I do believe it requires paying an extra couple of grand over the usual asking price to get the piece of mind to enjoy the ownership.

    • Tim Watson

      You’re correct – it was a specific Yamaha design to improve torque at low to middle rev range and works via a small adjustable flap on the exhaust collector. You can control the EXUP valve by a servometer on the top of the R1′s engine. The flap is the thing that can jam or seize. However, there has always been some arguments as to whether it actually works – some swear it does other say it’s not worth it and take it off.

  • Joe Bielski

    Woah, I just saw some FireBlade’s here in Toronto for under 3K!!!!
    Anyone interested in loaning me 3K? :P

  • Robert Horn

    The ZX-9R got a big performance increase when it lost LOTS of weight and gained quite a bit of power with the C model in 1998. They didn’t share any parts with the earlier models. The later E & F models had braced swingarms, different offset triple clamps, thicker axles and other handling related changes, more angry looking headlights, 4 pot calipers that didn’t bite as hard, but had tamer engines. The main reason why the 1998 ZX-9R is less well known is that it had the misfortune of being introduced at the same time as the R1. ZX-9Rs are better street bikes than they are race bikes, which isn’t a bad thing – I did both with my 1998 – it did absolutely nothing wrong out-of-the-box stock but with Dunlop Q2s. Another reason why I liked my ’98: No cheesy graphics – just lots of Lime Green wonderfulness. The only bike newer than it that I wanted was the ’03 ZX-6RR and ’04 ZX-10R. Sure, the newer ones are better, but look worse (Not my highest priority, but…)

    The other bike I wanted if I hadn’t bought the 9R: 1992-earler ZX-7R (Still have the brochures for those). The one I really really really wanted but couldn’t get was the KR-1S.

  • Charles Quinn

    The later FI’d, aluminium framed F4 was even better, but my ’98 CBR600F3 was probably the most all-round competent bike I’ve owned, although I can’t see them ever being collectible. Same goes for my old ZZ-R/ZX600 — generally thought of a sports tourer but definitely intended as a full on sportbike at its introduction. The ZZ-R was a bit heavy but was deceptively quick, with a ferocious engine that just went mental above about 4000 rpm. The ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  • mustangGT90210

    I just sold a ’94 GSXR750 I rode for 8 months. It was great fun when being pushed and handled great at speed. But around town it was an absolute pain. No torque to speak of at all, and heavy in low speed manuvers. I’d buy another, but I can’t use one as a daily ride. The rear sets were so tight that my legs would regularly cramp. And I’m only 5’7″ lol. I bought an 02 SV650 with clip on bars, and as far as regular street riding goes, much better bike. But she just don’t turn like my gixxer did

  • John Wheeler

    the rc-51 would smoke all those bikes lol

  • Justin McClintock

    How can you make any kinda of 90′s sportbike list and not have any SRAD Suzukis on there?! Those bikes WERE the 90′s!

  • Kevin Daly

    The only one I truly loved, and sometimes regret selling, is the Honda NSR 250. The analog one with the double sided gull arm swing arm. Yes, it was not really a North American import but I was lucky to be stationed in Japan during the 90′s. That was the sport bike decade especially in Japan. The NSR came in 3 flavors…. The R with its preload only adjustable suspension and wet clutch. The SE that had the fully adjustable suspension and dry clutch. And the SP, the cream of the crop, which had the SE components and magnesium wheels. I had owned 3 in the past. A ’92 R model, an ’88 model and frankenbike ’91-’92 SE/SP.

  • Tyler Horne

    No 94 VFR750? Shame.