Whether it gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside or makes you want to barf, the loud green color of the Kawasaki is a distinctive one.
OEM Rubber: Dunlop Sportmax Qualifier
Valve adjustment interval: 15,000 miles
Average fuel mileage: 37.2 mpg
The ZX-10R has built quite a reputation as one of the most powerful and gnarly literbikes ever made. Its lightest-in-class weight and 600-like feel made it a favorite among a couple of members of our staff. But the Kwacker’s sharp handling and a notable lack of a standard-equipment steering damper made it a thrill ride too intimidating for some.
For 2006, Kawasaki’s chefs have baked up a totally new machine, relaxing the steering geometry for more stability. Its 24.0-degree rake now ties the Yamaha for the laziest angle in the group, and its 106mm of trail is the longest. These changes slow steering quickness, partially balanced by the shortest wheelbase in the class. An adjustable steering damper also helps tame the beast.
“I’m plenty happy they finally added the steering damper,” says MCUSA’s President, Don Becklin, “and the fact that it’s an Ohlins dual-chamber unit is all the better. Now when the ZX picks up its head in protest you have a bit more confidence that you might live to see tomorrow.”
These changes have driven out most of the ZX’s nervousness, though we didn’t all agree the revisions resulted in a better bike.
For starters, the bike that once steered quicker than a CBR600RR has become more ponderous in the tight stuff. The new chassis geometry is partially to blame, but so are the new bike’s “love handles.” It feels like a larger machine from the saddle, and its 12-lb weight gain is simply inexcusable for a top-line sportbike. Last year’s version was a mind-blowing 31-lbs lighter than the CBR. This year, there’s just a 4-lb difference.
“The ZX-10R is much more rider friendly this year,” notes Becklin, “but the sacrifice comes at the cost of razor-edge performance.”
In street use, the new ZX doesn’t suffer much. It has one of the best freeway rides of the group, especially the plush front end, and some of our testers judged it to be the most comfortable. Its clip-ons are slightly closer to the rider than R1 and CBR, but they seem to be a bit lower than last year’s amenable setup, with a downward slope that made it more demanding on wrists. In addition, its (decent) seat and pegs feel higher than the older version. Wind protection for the torso and lower legs is respectable, and it’s only a rider’s thighs, shoulders and helmet that feel oncoming air. Its engine is turning about the same revs on the highway as the CBR, and it is noticeably smoother.
The engine mods made to the ’06 Kawi were supposed to give it a more linear powerband. The old engine was actually more successful in that regard, only losing out up top by a bigger and longer hit.
“The Kawi is comfortable by way of its roomy cockpit, a seat that’s more than just a bubble-wrapped plank of pine, and the short distance a rider must span to grip the handlebars,” says guest tester Tom Roderick, the Senior Editor of Dealernews trade magazine, adding the ergos were roomy enough for his 5’11”, 190-lb body.
Aside from significant thunk when engaging first gear, the ZX’s transmission received high marks – this is the nicest shifting 10R yet. In addition, the ’06 mods to its slipper clutch made it even easier to bang quick downshifts. Braking performance was judged to be on par with the exceptional binders on the GSX-R.
Along with the old bike’s lack of steering damper, it’s only other notable wart was its confounding and hard-to-read LCD tach. Kawi really stepped up to the plate this year to produce what many of us believe are the best instruments of the group. Adjustable for three levels of brightness and now with a readable analog tach, it is a compact and attractive display that falls short only due to the tach’s unnecessarily tinted face – it’s not perfect in daylight, but it couldn’t be any more visible at night.
“I am a big fan of the new analog tach/digital speedo instrument cluster,” Becklin praises. “Now you can actually see the revs, and the mph number seems to float in space.”
The ZX, like most of these keen tools, is sensitive to its setup. Ace Kawasaki wrench Scott Buckley joined us at Buttonwillow to help. He made changes to accommodate the race-compound Michelins, and that narrower rear tire helped it steer quicker, almost like the ’05 version, and lessened the bike’s tendency to stand up while braking into a corner. This, however, came at a slight cost of stability. The combination of the ZX’s big power and Buttonwillow’s bumpy front straight made us glad to have a steering damper this year.
To tame some of that nervousness, Buckley reduced the rear ride height, effectively increasing its rake and trail. This allowed the bike to rail the high-speed sweeper more confidently at the cost of some steering quickness.
“Now the ZX was steady as a rock in faster corners,” states Prez Becklin, “but it lost the flickability that made last year’s bike such a carver.”
As has become typical for Kawi’s literbike, conversation always turns to its motor. Once wound up, it screams with an intense ferocity that’ll make your eyes water. But below 8000 rpm, it actually gets out-motored by last year’s bike (as seen here). Its torque peak now arrives 1200 revs sooner at 8300 rpm, but that wave is preceded by a relative lull. However, up top, it can’t be beat. Thankfully, there is little of the abrupt throttle response our testers noted about the CBR and R1.
The ZX-10 has more polite road manners this year, as steering geometry and weight distribution tweaks have calmed some of its rough edges.
The ZX-10R received generally high marks in both our street and track scorecards, with a couple of notable exceptions. Most of our testers weren’t pleased with the green machine’s handling characteristics, whether with its sluggish feeling on street tires or during our racetrack experimentation when it felt a bit awkward.
Mixed scores also appeared in the Appearance and Fit-and-Finish categories. While some parts of the bike are slick, such as the flush-mount turnsignals and jet-fighter nose, most of us weren’t keen on its overall shape or the contentious underseat exhaust that has raised the bike’s center of gravity.
“At first I though it looked weird,” says Editorial Director Ken Hutchison, echoing the thoughts of many of us. “But after touching it, washing bugs off it and checking it out for a couple of weeks, I dig it. Still, it’s nowhere near as sweet as the CBR or R1.”
One final note: In 2005, legendary racer Doug Chandler was part of a test conducted by Road & Track’s Speed magazine at Buttonwillow. With no other traffic and perfect weather conditions, he rode a 2005 ZX-10R that was equipped with a Muzzys exhaust, Dynojet Power Commander and an Ohlins steering damper. His quickest lap time was a 1:53.0. During our crowded trackday held in cool conditions at Buttonwillow with Zoom Zoom Trackdays, Chandler logged a 1:52.7 on a stock 2006 ZX, demonstrating the potential prowess of this controversial bike.
Testers’ Note Pad
– Seat cowl a $105.12 option
– Cheap looking plastic on instruments
– No objectionable heat from the undertail exhaust
– Can’t use full throttle in low gear or it’ll flip
– “Kawasaki has tamed this wild beast, but I fear they may have tuned out too much of its soul” -KH
– “Its middleweight feel belies the super-heavyweight look” -DB
– “The blindingly bright green color that gives the bike a unique flavor doesn’t even come close to replicating in pictures” -DB