Prototypes of Kawasaki electric and hybrid motorcycle type powertrains

The new production prototypes were previewed in a surprise appearance at the Suzuka 8 Hours race in Japan.

Kawasaki prototypes electric and hybrid powertrains

Last year, Kawasaki revealed plans to electrify all its motorcycles in developed markets by 2035 and have at least 10 electric or hybrid models in the range by 2025.  Now, late-stage prototypes for both types of powertrains have been revealed in a surprise display ahead of the Suzuka 8-hour motorcycle race in Japan.

Kawasaki gave no prior notice of the demonstration and made no subsequent announcement or released any images.  However, thanks to our friends at Japanese motorcycle magazine Auto-Buy who were present at the show, we got detailed images of both prototypes.

Hybrid

The Hybrid is clearly the more radical and higher performance bike of the two.  Although Kawasaki has hinted at its hybrid technology for a while, initially with teaser videos and then by showing a stripped-down prototype last October, the machine is apparently close to production.  Along with revisions to both the combustion engine and the electric portion of the powertrain, it has bodywork that’s much closer to production.

With no official announcement about the bike’s specs, we’ll just go with what we can gather from our Japanese sources and what we can see in these pictures of the prototype.  The combustion engine is based on the parallel-twin design used in the Ninja 250 and Ninja 400;  Although their internal dimensions are different, both are identical externally.  The latest prototype gets new castings for the engine covers on both sides, perhaps hinting at more changes inside.  All indications point to the fact that the bike will use the bigger 399cc version of the twin from the Ninja 400 and Z400.  Compared to the 249cc Ninja 250/Z250 variant, its exhaust system is identical to each version of the bike with a longer muffler and slightly different downpipes.

The presence of dual front disc brakes is another change from the 2021 prototype, which had a single petal-shaped disc, and is further evidence that the bike uses a bigger engine.  Coupled with the power boost from the electric motor, it could be on par with the larger, internal-combustion-only Ninja 650, which appears to give the hybrid its fork, front fender and brake callipers.

A right side view of the hybrid reveals clues about which IE-powerplant the bike uses and what parts it shares with existing models in Kawasaki’s lineup. 

Visually, the nose carries clear Kawasaki styling cues, although the green-tinted headlight is added purely for show, while the rear section is quite large. That’s due to the fact there is a 48-volt battery to energy the hybrid gadget lurking beneathneath the seat. A small 12-volt battery is also installed, powering the traditional components of the bike’s electrical system.

The hybrid setup consists of an electric motor mounted above the transmission, below the intake manifold of the IC engine and linked to the gearbox via its own electronically controlled clutch.  This allows the electric-drive element to engage and disengage as needed.  The transmission is a relatively conventional design internally and is believed to be a six-speed, with no shift lever or manually operated clutch.  Instead, there is a push-button shifter at the left handlebar. By essentially making the transmission semi-automatic, Kawasaki smooths the transition between electric power and internal combustion drive.

The idea, of course, is that at low speeds, such as are prevalent in urban environments, the bike can run on electric power alone, with no local emissions.  Out of town, especially on fuel-efficient constant-speed runs, the combustion engine can take the strain and top off the hybrid battery.  And when maximum performance is required, electric and internal combustion powertrains can work in unison to deliver excellent acceleration and top speed. In theory, the end result ought to be a motorbike that makes use of much less gas than a traditional 400cc bike however has the overall performance to healthy a 650cc motorcycle.

Notable technical details on the prototype include a lower intake on the right side running through a duct bearing the “Hybrid” logo.  This is likely to cool the electric motor.  In Kawasaki’s earlier prototype, the motor was liquid cooled, with a second radiator below the main water radiator at the front of the bike.  While liquid cooling is still a possibility for the electric powertrain, the radiator appears to have been moved to the rear, closer to the motor and visually behind the bodywork.

Kawasaki is no stranger to unique technology;  The only mainstream motorcycle company to offer a range of bikes with forced induction on its supercharged H2 machines.  However, the hybrid is notable because it’s clearly not meant to be expensive.  The frame is purpose-built to fit the unique powertrain, but it’s a simple steel-tube design.  The swingarm is a mass-produced box-section unit and the fork and brakes are relatively low-spec, hinting that despite its advanced technology, the hybrid is an affordable offering.

Officially, Kawasaki is silent on the release date of the hybrid, as far as the machine’s performance and specifications are concerned, but our Japanese colleagues believe that more information and perhaps even the final production version of the bike will be announced at or near.  EICMA show later this year.

Electric

Kawasaki’s electric offering, namely the prototype shown at Suzuka, is a significant move from the long-term, battery-powered-development plan the company revealed in late 2019.

That early prototype featured 125cc-level performance, but proved surprisingly heavy thanks to a large, stable battery pack and an advanced car-style charging system using the CHAdeMO DC fast-charging format.  The bike also uses a four-speed transmission intended to offer more rider engagement, unlike typical electric bikes that use clutchless direct-drive transmissions.

An EV prototype was also seen at Suzuka, equivalent to a 125cc internal combustion motorcycle

This new design, shown at Suzuka, has a different approach, more closely aligned to the offerings of rivals in the sector.  It ditches the larger battery pack and multi-speed transmission, replacing a much smaller and potentially replaceable battery with a direct-drive, single-speed powertrain.

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Like the hybrid prototype at the same event, the EV has a simple steel frame and box-section swingarm, along with off-the-shelf suspension, wheels and brakes to help keep costs down.  Its electric motor and reduction gearbox are less production-ready than the hybrid bike’s powertrain, with components machined from billet aluminium and seen as sand-cast prototype parts.  Much of the bodywork was lifted from existing bikes: the headlight, front fender, side panels and tail are all from the Z250 or Z400, for example.  Those bits may change before production, as Kawasaki wants to make its first pure-electric streetbikes instantly recognizable.

Here’s another view sans rider, where you can get a better idea of ​​the motor and battery placement.

Some notable details include the battery case, which hangs at an angle in front of the motor.  The top of the “fuel tank” appears to be open or removable, hinting that there may be replaceable battery packs underneath.  Kawasaki, along with Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha, have already released design specifications for a common 48-volt replaceable battery for electric bikes, opening the door to a network of battery-swap stations that would eliminate the need for fast chargers and expensive ones.  And the massive on-bike electronics they require.

Kawasaki expects to launch two 125cc-equivalent electric bikes in the US in 2023, one a faired sports model, the other a naked “Z” like the prototype seen here.  Whether they are derived from this prototype or the earlier design with multi-speed transmission is not known at this stage, but the bike is likely to be less expensive and lighter in weight than the previous version, making it more enticing for urban riders.  The ideal buyer is likely to be.

As always with new technology, the big question hanging over electric and hybrid Kawasaki projects is whether buyers will be persuaded by the combination of price, performance and practicality the machines can offer, and whether they can stack up against the more conventional.  There is already competition in the market.  Kawasaki seems to be taking a low-cost approach, and with higher fuel prices pushing more people to electric transportation, these may be coming at the right time.

Sources Kawasaki’s

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