Kawasaki is looking to improve its fortunes in the super competitive Superbike class with a retooled 2008 Ninja ZX-10R featuring internal engine modifications and an all-new chassis design.
There are few things that remain constant in this world, but the fact that monster horsepower is an integral piece of Kawasaki Superbikes is one of them. After two days of hustling the 2008 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R around the 16-turn, 3.6-mile long Losail International Circuit in Doha, Qatar there is no doubt that this bike can give the rest of the open-class pack a run for the money. It’s not a matter of how fast the ZX-10 is, but how fast you are willing to ride.
The new Ninja is smaller and more powerful, handles sharper and is generally much easier to ride than any 10R before. This new ZX-10 feels like a supersport compared to its predecessor in the sense that it makes power quick but doesn’t seem scary. This trait is made even more amazing by the fact that it’s eight pounds heavier than its ’07 forbearer and is claimed to be good for over 190 ponies at the crank without the added effect of ram-air.
Credit a change in engineering philosophy for the improvement. While previous ZX-10Rs were designed as streetbikes turned racebikes for the track, the latest member of the Ninja clan is a track weapon first and foremost. It feels like a blade cutting quickly through the turns rather than a club bludgeoning the track into submission like the ZX of old. After a couple of years sorting out the best and worst features of the last ZX-10R in the AMA Superbike series, factory racers Jamie Hacking and Roger Hayden might have helped the kids from Kobe come up with a bike that will put them on a more level playing field.
At the heart of this new and improved Ninja is a chassis which addresses the tuning woes that race techs faced with the previous bike. It needed more feeling and feedback so riders have a better connection with the front end which is necessary when seeking the confidence to hang with the best in the world – a ‘feel’ that was missing from the big bore in race trim. The Twin-tube Backbone frame received a lot of attention from the AMA duo, Japanese Superbike ace Akira Yanagawa and a host of Kawasaki test riders intent on sorting it all out. While this new frame looks the same, it has received novel revisions to key components including the addition of convex stamped-aluminum frame components replacing the concave sections found on the previous design. Thicker pivot plate walls with internal ribbing and strategically placed welds within the frame itself are intended to fine tune rigidity while a relocated subframe and shock mount, which now mates to the upper cross member between the massive spars rather than the spars themselves, help the rear suspension give better feedback to the rider.
This year’s ZX-10R approaches things a little different. Where the older 10 was a streetbike first, this new incarnation is a purpose-built track tool.
Pressed aluminum beams are a key part of the all-new swingarm layout that features a top-mounted shock. This is another element that changes the way the bike translates feedback to the rider in the never-ending search for the perfect bike set-up and configuration. The rear Uni-Trak rear suspension incorporates a new fully-adjustable shock that now features both low- and high-speed compression damping. If there was ever a track to showcase a bike’s stability, it’s Losail, and riding any bike hard enough to start understanding how a chassis flexes and subsequently effects handling is difficult enough on a slower bike, let alone one as fast as this. But the fact remains that the ZX feels so good at speed and is so responsive to rider input that it’s impossible not to consider this chassis is anything other than a quantum leap forward in the development of the ZX-10R platform.
The attention to detail and dedication to its track-born heritage is ever present at the rear of the bike. A lighter, very narrow two-piece die-cast aluminum subframe is easily removable and replaceable for racing purposes. The smallish back half comes off easily, facilitating race-prep when it comes time to install racing bodywork, and allows for the use of a very diminutive tail section. Track day riders and folks who hate license plate holders and mirrors will be happy to know that every one of those pieces is easily removed for track duty.
A new ram-air intake path routes fresh air along either side of the steering head, allowing for a more direct flow to the airbox, thus strengthening the frame around the steering head and addressing the need to increase the rigidity in that area. Combined with the improved suspension components, this new bike offers much improved feedback, more agile feeling in the transitions and generally increases the rider’s confidence that the bike will do what it’s told. Since the track surface at Losail is smoother than a baby’s bottom, there aren’t a lot of imperfections to unsettle the suspension. This allows the rider to focus on how the chassis handles the high-speed corners, transitions and heavy braking zones that comprise this challenging circuit. Connecting the dots on a ZX-10R has never been easier. Combined with a more compact-feeling design, a vastly improved chassis and a motor that seems to do no wrong, you never feel the added weight.
The improved handling characteristics are apparent from the first time the bike is tipped into a turn. It is very easy to go fast on the ZX-10R, exactly the opposite of what it used to be. Lap after lap as the speeds picked up, the times went down. No more plowing through turns, no more manhandling the beast while praying to your favorite deity for traction . Point it, pull the trigger and go, it’s that easy.
Historically, the department that the ZX-10R had the other bikes covered was in outright power production. It came on hard and was not easy to manage for racers, let alone the common folk, yet this year it makes even more than before. Fortunately, it makes power in a much more user-friendly manner, which in turn makes the bike deceptively fast. The previous 10R was a rip-snorting wild beast, this ZX is not.
While Kawasaki doesn’t claim its KIMS (Kawasaki Ignition Management System) is traction control, it makes the once scary ZX-10R engine more managable.
If that scares you, it shouldn’t, because the reason for its demure demeanor rests solely in the advanced Kawasaki Ignition Management System (KIMS). Much of the hype surrounding the new ZX-10 heading into this event was that it reportedly featured the first ever application of traction control on a production motorcycle. Imagine our surprise when the Kawasaki personnel insisted that the KIMS was not traction control at all. Instead, it’s the most state-of-the-art engine management system ever found on any of its motorcycles. The KIMS employs sensors which monitor throttle position, engine speed, gear position, vehicle speed, engine temperature and O2 levels. It then uses that data to determine which of the 500 available engine maps is best suited to the conditions the bike is being ridden in. The official explanation is that it “curtails sudden spikes in engine speed and ensures smooth throttle response,” but you can make your own assumptions about what that means. Optimal performance, a half-thousand engine maps on tap and an array of sensors rivaling anything this side of a MotoGP bike, you can say that the 2008 ZX-10R gets with the program, literally.
There is an 8K spread of rpm coined the ‘Happy Zone’ where Kawasaki feels the 10R is most in its element. Whether you are between turns or mobbing down the front straight at 180 mph, there is no doubting that this high-revving 998cc In-Line Four still accelerates like, well, a Kawasaki. Its oversquare 76 x 55mm bore and stroke is the same as before, so it’s the assorted internal changes that have altered its character. Reshaped combustion chambers and high-lift cam profiles are all part of the track-focused theory of the new ZX-10R. The crankshaft is 1kg (2.2 lbs) lighter, exhaust valves are smaller (24.5mm vs. 25.5mm) and made of titanium. New oval-shaped 43mm throttle bodies, now equipped with a dual stage fuel injection system, add to the top end boost. Secondary injectors help increase peak power output and ensure the KIMS-controlled power delivery is crisp at any rpm.
Twist the throttle, open up those gaping throttle bodies, and hang on because it’s not like the ZX has been neutered. It builds power quickly but it’s different – not as hair ball and more predictable. As the needle sweeps past the ‘Happy Zone’ and into the final three red-colored digits of the slick bold-faced tach – an area we’ll call the ‘Danger Zone,’ things start getting blurry. The brake markers and barricades look like smears in your peripheral vision. See, the more things change the more they stay the same, especially in regards to open class superbikes. Keep it in the red and row through the precise-shifting 6-speed gearbox and before you know it the ZX-10R is humping along at almost 180 mph. Revised 1st, 4th and 5th gear ratios help the motor pull hard without any trouble gaps. Final drive is now 17/41, one tooth taller in the rear than last year.
A polarizing piece of the 2008 Ninja ZX-10 equation is the new compact bodywork that is more slippery in the wind tunnel, more comfortable for the rider and quite conducive to track duty. The seat is shorter front to rear, so the rider’s body has more contact points than before. The mid-section is narrow, the tail section is stubby and the tank is purposely redesigned to accommodate a rider at full tuck. A new flat-style fuel pump allows for this new tank design, which features more contact area and sculpted trademark flare for greater rider grip at full lean. This lower tank top facilitates a lower, more aerodynamic angle of the windscreen as well. The purpose is to make it easier for a racer to ride fast comfortably. At Losail, the ZX-10R feels tiny compared to the previous ZX-10R. It also feels like it belongs at the track, a virtual racebike with blinkers.
Kawasaki claims the new ZX-10R bodywork is more aerodynamic. It also provides more contact points for riders in a lean.
Speaking of turn signals, the indicators are likely the most fugly pieces of this whole design, if you can accept the unique look afforded by the centrally-mounted ram-air intake flanked by a pair of projector beam headlamps. This was a perfect opportunity to build some buzz for the first ever MotoGP night race scheduled to take place at Losail later this year, but alas, we didn’t get to sample the lights.
That didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things though. This bike is not intended to be ridden at night when it’s damn near impossible to take advantage of the motor or the new fully-adjustable 43mm fork with springs, springs that are now mounted at the bottom of the fork so they remain submerged in the oil for improved damping characteristics. Heck, there isn’t any place on the street to even tap into the potential of the improved brakes either. The braking components are very similar to last year’s with the major change being a move away from a four-pad and back to a two-pad per caliper set-up, which is supposed to reduce the chance of fade. The redesigned radial-mount Tokico four-piston calipers and larger, thinner and lighter 310mm petal-style rotors provide monstrous braking power without even a hint of fade at any point during our 48 hours in Qatar, so now, two is better than four. Hauling the ZX-10R down from speed at the entrance to any of Losail’s 16 turns was always a thrill but at the same time predictable. There’s a load of initial bite, though not so much that the bike dives excessively. The feel at the lever is so precise that it is possible to go deeper into a turn than any ZX-10 has gone before.
Stopping the ZX-10R is fun, but it’s not as enjoyable as keeping the motor in its sweet spot while arching through an apex and feeling it spool up, airbox howling and gears whining as you pick it off the deck, the front wheel getting light and the stock Ohlins damper doing its best to keep the bars from wagging. Grab a gear or two and before you know it, it’s time to brake. Rip off a downshift or two and get a feel for the adjustable slipper-type clutch. It is a safety net of sorts, one which has become another trendy piece of race-oriented original equipment that we have come to appreciate.
At the conclusion of our test, the numbers were impressive: 36 journalists were allowed 48 hours of unadulterated fun aboard a Japanese superbike on a Middle East track on Italian tires and no one crashed. Whether it has something to do with the KIMS or steady throttle hand of the skilled journalists, not a single ZX hit the ground. Would it have been any better with traction control? Who knows? The consensus was that the 2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R, with all of its improvements, an MSRP of $11,549 and a big chip on its shoulder, has all the ingredients to be a challenger in the upcoming racing season, not to mention the impending all-important Superbike Smackdown.
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