Lean, Green, and Mean Carving Machine
It has been 20 years since the GPz900, the first in a long line of bikes to carry the Ninja moniker, was introduced at Laguna Seca in 1984. A lot has changed since that venerable machine became a part of motorcycling history, and with a resurgence of the liter-bike class it was time for Kawasaki to up the ante.
Using the 20th anniversary of the 900 Ninja to set the tone for the unveiling of its all-new ZX-10R, Kawasaki gave the assembled press a chance to ride the big ZX at Homestead International Speedway in Miami, Fl to get acquainted with the newest member of the Ninja clan.
When you see the 10R in person, its small size is one of the first things to grab your attention. After coming to grips with the diminutive stature, the aggressive lines of the aerodynamic bodywork draw focus to some of the most wicked features found on any of the latest liter-bikes.
The massive ram-air intake scoop situated between the angry-looking reflector-beam halogen headlamps hovers over a trick front end, featuring radial-mount Tokico brake calipers and an industry-first, petal-shaped disc brakes. A lightweight “H” cross-section 6-spoke 17-inch wheel is wrapped in a sticky 120/70-ZR17 Dunlop 218 front tire designed specifically for the ZX-10R. As your eyes scan towards the aft-section past the angular side fairing you will notice the magnesium engine covers, mammoth flat-black frame rails and handsome footpeg/master cylinder combo. The sharp tailsection swoops up and back, ending at the flush LED taillight. Out back, a high-tech braced swingarm holds a 6-spoke wheel wrapped in a 190/50ZR-17 Dunlop 218 rear tire. The titanium exhaust system with brushed aluminum canister is in a traditional location rather than an under-seat set-up, keeping the ZX from looking fully up to date.
The key element in creating one of the most compact packages in the class is the innovative aluminum twin-beam frame. Instead of wrapping around the engine, the frame spars are routed over the top of the engine. When you swing a leg over the 10R, it becomes immediately apparent how the uniquely shaped frame spars help to create the incredibly thin feel. Make no mistake about it, this bike feels as small as a ZX-6R. Combine that lack of mass and a neutral riding position facilitated by the near-perfect placement of the footpegs, seat and swept back clip-ons, and what you get is an ultra-comfortable open-class weapon.
Nestled neatly between the matte-black frame rails is a sculpted 4.5 gallon gas tank which caries the fuel load low and above the motor. The top of the tank is flat with a concave strip running along the length that gives an extra inch or so of room for the rider to get tucked in “under the paint” for optimum aerodynamics. And it looks really cool. The aggressive bodywork and low windscreen provide minimal shielding from the elements in the perpendicular street-riding position. However, when in the racing position the rider remains ensconced in a pocket of still air even as speeds surpass 150 mph, as they did on either of Homestead’s two short straights.
Storm clouds are brewing in preparation of the battle for open-class supremacy, and the new ZX-10R is poised to go toe-to-toe with all comers.
That’s right, the 10R easily rockets past the 150 mph mark before the end of fourth gear. Kawasaki claims 175 horsepower at 11,500 rpm, with another 9 hp arriving courtesy of the ram-air intake feeding the pressurized airbox.
The 10R’s dry weight is said to be a svelte 375 lbs. This looks mighty good on paper, but we will have to wait until we get the bike on our own dyno and scales before getting too wrapped up in the factory-provided figures. However, the bike felt every bit of 160-170 horsepower, and the agility it exhibits while navigating the Homestead road course reveals that the weight figures are either in the ball park or the new 10R is balanced beyond our wildest dreams. Or, maybe it’s both.
It didn’t take all 150 laps or so in the ZX’s saddle to figure out that Kawasaki has created a pure carving machine. Navigating the ZX through the tightest of Homestead’s left-right corner combinations reveals it takes near-effortless input to make it go where you want. The slippery track was a decent representation of both the street and track surfaces the 10R is destined to pull most of its duty on, so judicious application of throttle was a necessity at all times. Add grooved concrete patches into the mix along with some braking and acceleration bumps along with a pair of transitions from the banking to the flat infield, and it was a perfect opportunity to tax both the chassis and suspension at speed.
The super-smooth yet firm suspension needed little or no adjustments from the settings the on-site Kawasaki technicians initially provided. The 43mm inverted fork is 16-way adjustable for damping in both directions, and a full range of spring preload adjustability is available for those who might need it. The rear ride height is also adjustable by shims. The inner fork tubes are coated with the scratch-resistant DLC (Diamond Like Coating) first seen on the Suzuki GSX-R1000 that is said to reduce stiction through the range of motion in the fork, making for smooth suspension response. As a unit, the front suspension works so well on the track that there is nothing to say beyond that it was fantastic.
The rear shock utilizes Bottom-Link Uni-Trak linkage with a single shock attached to an extra long swingarm, something that has become standard equipment on modern sportbikes. Kawasaki designed the massively braced unit to better lever the rear tire to the tarmac while keeping its weight close to that of its ZX-6R little brother. Plush, compliant, excellent: whatever the word you need to hear in order to understand that this suspension is top-notch, please fill in the blank. Carving up your favorite local track or canyon may never be more fun than it does aboard a Ninja ZX-10R.
A superb fork, stellar radial-mount brakes and lightweight thin-spoke wheels contribute to the ZX jumping up in the open-class pecking order.
If there was ever a time to test the new radial-mount brakes and petal discs, it’s when the 10R is hurtling past Homestead’s first brake marker at 120 mph. Although it is unlikely this will be a regular part of your street riding routine, it is good to know that these opposed 4-piston, 4-pad calipers and dual semi-floating 300mm discs are going to get the job done, right now. A single-bore, pin-slide Tokico caliper adds to the already impressive braking power when it grips down on the 220mm petal-shaped rear disc. The front brakes, aside from being incredibly powerful, offer excellent feel at track speeds. Initial bite is not at all abruptâ€”unless you grab a big handful right of the bat. In order to keep the rear wheel on the tarmac it was best to utilize a light touch first and then apply more pressure as needed.
Engine braking can be a major concern when down-shifting a high-compression motor such as the 12.7:1 ratio of the ZX-10R. Kawasaki addressed this issue by including a complimentary slipper clutch with every ZX-10R. Go back to that 120-mph corner and picture yourself clicking off a couple downshifts while hammering the brakes as the apex approaches. Imagine having the confidence to just bang away your downshifts without having to concentrate on matching engine rpm and wheel-speed so the rear tire doesn’t hop around. What it really provides, besides manageability, is peace of mind. This makes it much easier to concentrate on other critical factors like corner speed, front tire traction and that damn guy trying to pass you on the inside while you’re riding your brains out. It makes the riding experience less hectic and smoother.
An oft-mentioned quirk of fuel-injected bikes has been that accursed off-throttle abruptness that the ’98 GSX-R750 was infamous for and the 2002 Yamaha R1 and Suzuki GSX-R1000 were praised for eliminating. As for the 10R, its quartet of 43mm throttle bodies fitted with dual throttle valves smooth out the power delivery while still being nicely responsive. The injectors in the 10R’s FI system give forth a droplet spray of just 70 microns, while many other systems squirts a much larger 120-micron droplet. This finer spray works in concert with the high-velocity intake ports for optimum combustion.
But as manageable as the power flows from the 10R, don’t be fooled into thinking you can be ham-fisted with the big Ninja. When the tach is anywhere past six-grand, any proper twist of the wrist will unleash some serious acceleration that can catch unsuspecting riders off guard. The mighty ZXs were leaving huge blackies at the exit of every corner during our day at Homestead. Give it some stick and you’ll leave a black stripe from here to there, lofting the front wheel off the ground while accelerating from one turn to the next. It’s one of the most fun aspects of the ZX-10R riding experience.
Creating a motor that makes this much power with the size restrictions that were established by the chassis design was no simple task. But Kawasaki has always been renowned for big-power bikes so there really was no option for the engine team.
The compact 16-valve in-line four-cylinder powerplant utilizes a 76mm x 55mm bore and stroke, culminating in a total displacement of 998cc. Forged, short-skirt pistons, titanium exhaust valves, and sintered-aluminum valve-spring retainers keep reciprocating weight down. The high-revving nature of the short-stroke motor keeps the power hit softer at lower rpm while producing enough power up top to keep the bike on one wheel most of the time, if you wish. The menacing growl and gear whine of the ZXs as they circulated the track was truly pleasing to the ears, second only to the continuous roar of the F-16 and F-15 fighter jets that were practicing their approaches to the nearby Homestead Air Force base.
How good is the new ZX-10R? According to its chassis engineer, Yasuhaisa Okabe, the stock 10R would dust off the full-blown ZX-7R Superbike piloted by Aaron Slight and Scott Russell to win the 1993 Suzuka 8-hour race! And, as the builder of that particular racebike, he should know. So when he says the new Ninja has a 20-30 horsepower advantage and a clear step up in chassis technology, it makes us giddy to be riding sportbikes in this golden era of performance.
If the 2004 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R is any indication of what the other manufacturers are bringing to the table, then the battle for liter-bike supremacy is going to be one to remember. For now, you’ll have to be content in knowing that the 10R easily has what it takes to be a contender, and there’s sure to be some excitement at Kawasaki dealers when it hits the showrooms in February. All that’s left to do now is round up the competition to see how the exhilarating new Ninja stacks up against the rest of this rippingly muscle-bound class.