During our last few Superbike Smackdown street tests, the Kawasaki liter-bike has been penalized for being too race-track focused. So when the new and improved 2011 Kawasaki
Ninja ZX-10R was released, we assumed it would be more of the same when it came time to log miles on the open road. And while the $13,799 ZX-10 continues to have strong performance on the racetrack, to our surprise, it has significantly boosted its street credentials as well.
Slide into the seat and the Kawasaki doesn’t feel anywhere as tall and top-heavy as its predecessors. Looking at the spec chart reveals that it has a more-accommodating saddle height at 32 inches compared to its predecessor, which was set at 32.7-inches. The ’11 ZX is now on par with the low-slung KTM and Suzuki. Grab a hold of the clip-ons and it isn’t as much of a stretch from the seat. The rider’s knees aren’t overly-cramped plus the foot pegs are now adjustable. Though the windscreen is too small and doesn’t do a great job at shielding the rider from the effects of triple-digit air. In its most recent re-design the Kawasaki lost 20 pounds and now it weighs in at a svelte 439 pounds with a full 4.5-gallon load of fuel. This 2011 Ninja ZX-10R is the lightest superbike in our test, by far.
“The Ninja was one of the more comfortable bikes to ride,” notes Dawes. “The windscreen was a little small but the seat was comfortable and the riding position just plain worked. My knees weren’t cramped and it didn’t feel like I was hunched over that much.”
A fully digital dash display looks high-tech and performs well too. It relays every relevant bit of information a rider needs to know in a simple and straightforward fashion. The ZX-10R received the highest rating for Electronics & Instrumentation as a result. We’re especially fond of the colorful horizontal bar graph-style tachometer. Even more impressive, however, is the Kawi’s new standard electronics package highlighted by three-way adjustable engine power maps (similar in function to the GSX-R1000) as well as a sophisticated multi-mode combined traction and wheelie control system. The latter is superior to the wheel spin systems employed in both the BMW and Ducati. And the best part is that it’s a standard feature, just like the 1198. A similar and not quite as impressive system is a $1480 option on the Beemer.
“The adjustable power maps are a huge plus for someone like me,” explains Gauger. “It felt like it worked about the same as the Suzuki’s. On the freeway I used full power mode but when we hit Palomar I switched to medium power mode and that made the bike a little easier for me to ride.”
Although it’s difficult to discern at any sensible street pace, hard canyon chargers will recognize that the Kawasaki’s traction control is less-intrusive and generally reacts with greater accuracy if the rear tire spins during heavy acceleration compared to the Ducati or BMW systems. Equally pleasing is the functionality of the wheelie control, which activates in a smoother and less-invasive way than the meddling set-up employed in the S1000RR in particular. For more juicy details on the cutting-edge TC system review the 2011 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R First Ride.
Strong, powerful engines have long been fundamental trait of Ninja ZX-10R, but this latest incarnation feels like it’s lost some of its hard-hitting edge despite its second highest power output in the test. A careful look at the dyno chart reveals that the ZX-10R power band hovers around the bottom of the graph from low rpm until it spools up and hits 10,500 rpm.
Its peak torque output of 75.22 lb-ft comes at a lofty 11,200 rpm and was also the lowest of the bunch. Once you get the engine spinning above that 10K threshold you’re rewarded with a strong top-end rush that is second to only the BMW, with a very impressive 163.76 horsepower available at 11,600 rpm. The dyno chart also shows how linear the power curve is, which corresponds with our riding assessment that the Kawasaki has the most linear power delivery. On one hand it makes it feel docile at lower rpm, on the other hand we sort of miss the gnarly ZX-10R engines of the past. That hardcore burst of acceleration is something that street riders in particular enjoy and that’s why bikes like the GSX-R1000, CBR1000RR and S1000RR have been consistently popular among street riders.
“Right when I got on the Kawi I was surprised by its power,” notes the ham-fisted Steeves. “For sure the power feels the smoothest but it didn’t feel quite as strong as the other bikes. If you kept the revs up high it certainly got with the program, which I didn’t like as much. It’s still a good engine but I’d prefer power to come on stronger and earlier.”
In the acceleration test the Kawasaki registered the fourth-fastest 0-to-60 time at 2.93 seconds, though trailing all the Inline Fours save the Yamaha. In the quarter mile it ran 10.21 seconds @ 145.5 mph, again good enough for fourth-place, just a few hundredths of a second behind the venerable GSX-R1000. The ZX-10R has an excellent clutch and that helps off-set the tall first gear when trying to get a good launch off the starting line or accelerating from light to light. One technical spec that probably held the Kawi back slightly in the acceleration tests is a tall 17/39 final drive gearing. Other drivetrain components, including the six-speed transmission and slipper-clutch, performed without any noticeable complaints from our riders on the street.
When you’re hard on the throttle the Kawi’s engine still delivers that air intake howl and high-rpm shrill for which it’s known, and when it crests that 10K mark it really takes off. At all other rpms however it is one of the more stealthy machines, recording the lowest decibel reading at idle (74 dB) and belting out a tune of 98 dB at 6750 revs. The engine is also very smooth running and does not vibrate much at all, which is a big plus on long rides. In terms of fuel mileage and range, the Kawasaki delivered a respectable 34.3 mpg, good enough for third-best. This gives the Ninja approximately a 154.3 mile range with a full 4.5-gallon tank of premium unleaded fuel.
In the handling and suspension compliance and overall ride quality, the Ninja performed well, finishing runner-up behind the bench-mark CBR1000RR. It steers easily and feels just as agile as the class-leading Honda. The suspension components feel taut, providing excellent pitch control when we were hard charging up Palomar, yet it still delivers a forgiving and comfortable ride on the interstate and rough pavement. While we did experience some suspension issues at the track, on the street the Ninja’s chassis is rock-solid.
As usual the ZX-10R offers up a tremendous level of braking performance. The radial-mount Tokico calipers offer good initial bite similar to the Honda but they’re not as quite as sharp as the BMW or Ducati. Outright stopping power doesn’t feel like it’s on par with the top ranked bikes, as is revealed by its mid-pack subjective braking score. The results of our Braking test prove that the riders were way off-base as the Ninja tied for top honors – the same stopping distance from 60 mph as the ABS-equipped BMW. Like the rest of the Inline Fours, the rear brake functioned well offering plenty of power and feel when modulating a wheelie or utilizing it during the braking test.
To say the Ninja impressed us would be an understatement. The updated styling has our attention, although it polarized members of the test squad where some of the crew loved it, others hated it. There’s no denying that its open rider triangle make it a very comfortable bike to log street miles on, plus it still serves up agility and stability comparable with the front runners. And while we loved its silky smooth powerband and the functional high-end electronics, the 2011 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R engine is still too top-end biased to fight for the top spot on the street.