Engine: In-Line Four cylinder, 16-valve
Bore x Stroke: 76 x 55mm
Horsepower: 158.73 @ 12,300 rpm
Torque: 74.37 @ 9000 rpm
Weight: w/ Fuel: 463 lbs – w/o Fuel: 436 lbs (4.5 gal)
Power to Weight Ratio: 0.34 hp per lbs.
Rake & Trail: 25.5 x 109.2mm
Seat Height: 32.7-in.
Measured MPG: 31.13 mpg
Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R
When the 2008 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R was first unveiled at the end of ’07, the bike received mixed reviews for its organic styling and the questionable return of a side-exit exhaust. At the time, Kawasaki claimed it would bring them back into contention in the superbike class and that whet our appetite. We rode the new Ninja at the ultra-fast and flowing Losail Circuit a few months later and found there’s more to this monster than meets the eye. Over the years we’ve come to expect the ZX-10 to be a big brute battling for top honors in the horsepower department and win us over with its light weight, quick quarter-mile times and sensible ergonomics – only to suffer setbacks on the track because of a heavy front end, so-so brakes and overly aggressive power delivery. This year the Ninja is all new, and the major issues holding it back have been addressed through a complete redesign.
Climb on the compact, tall and narrow ’08 ZX-10 and it feels nothing like last year’s machine. On the track it feels even less like its predecessor. Where the old bike felt lethargic in the slower, quicker turns, the new bike feels razor sharp, borderline skittish but solid on the really fast sweepers. The motor is still there but makes power in a very different manner, with a more top-end biased delivery. And when it comes time to slow things down, the 4-piston radial mount brakes and 310mm petal rotors are up to the task. Over the course of this test, no matter which track, rider or tires were involved, the ZX always finishes in the top two.
During our two-track test day at Pahrump, the Ninja turned the fastest laps at the 2.2-mile track in the hands of our two most experienced road racers. Both Earnest and Sid did marginally better on the Kawasaki than the Honda, while Hutch did a fraction of a second better on the CBR. Here, the 10R is in its element: The course is fast and flowing, which allows the bike to showcase its high-speed stability, effortless initial turn-in and fantastic brakes.
“The ZX-10R steers the quickest and initiates a turn the easiest,” says Waheed. “It almost feels like it is in a different league. Getting the 10R to change direction is literally almost as easy as a 600.”
With a little more room to stretch its legs on the longer straightaways, the ZX takes full advantage of its taller gearing, track-focused power delivery and impressive outright acceleration by nipping the Honda with our speedsters at the control. The Kawasaki Ignition Management System (KIMS) may not be a true traction control system, but it sure helps smooth out the power delivery, making this bike one of the easiest to ride of the five machines in this test. Notepads glistened with the high praise for the ZX’s poised performance on the track and an occasional plug for its new-age styling.
“The Kawaski is a good looking bike for ’08, aside from the world’s largest inner rear fender,” muses Mike-E. “It is easy to ride, Cadillac smooth and the motor is typical Kawi, super strong yet more controllable over the previous generation.”
Excellent front end feel, mondo-motor power and a never ending supply of confidence are the basis of the Ninja’s special three-pronged attack.
On the tighter 1.5-mile layout, the Kawasaki played bridesmaid to the Honda on all the lap charts. The short track puts a premium on the bikes suited to point-and-shoot riding, which plays right to the strengths of the 1098 and CBR1000RR. The ZX is better suited for the longer tracks, yet it still puts on a hell of a show on the short course. Gearing is on the tall side for this application, but it’s not as much of a hindrance as it was for the R1.
What the ZX lacks in arm-stretching acceleration off the bottom it makes up for with a light, flickable feel, newfound agility, a slick slipper clutch and brakes that allow for much deeper trail braking heroics than they have in the past. Confidence in the front end goes a long ways to posting good lap times and Kawasaki knows it. Major revisions to the ZX steering geometry results in a more-relaxed 25.5-degree rake and 109mm of trail versus the 24-degrees and 102mm arrangement on the ’06-07 version. This is combined with an inch-longer 55.7-inch wheelbase and new fully adjustable 43mm DLC-coated fork and a Uni-Trak single shock set-up out back. If the old Ninja had a front end this good, it may have given the GSX-R a run for its money sooner.
There’s not much about this bike that reminds us of the last generation 10R, but the impressive performance at the strip is one of them. While it didn’t post the top quarter-mile time, the green machine finishes a scant 0.03 second behind the CBR at 10.34 with a third-best 134.4 mph trap speed. Digging into the data reveals that the ZX doesn’t start as strong as the others, taking 3.69 seconds to hit 60 mph, quicker only than the R1, but motors to 100 mph third-quickest at 6.27 seconds, behind the Suzuki and Honda. All these motorcycles perform at a similar level, separated by fractions of a second at every testing parameter. Just check out the graphs for the strip and on the dyno for proof. The Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha all post comparable numbers despite feeling different from the rider’s seat. The ZX feels the fastest of all but one of the other bikes when speeds blur past 60 mph, but the CBR, 1098 and GSX-R have it covered off the line.
“I really like the Kawasaki’s engine,” states Waheed. “It seems to have the best throttle response and the most intimate relationship between the rider’s wrist and the rear wheel. The powerband on the Kawasaki is super wide. Power delivery is stepless and linear yet it feels exhilarating throughout, especially up top. Accelerating hard is most exciting on the ZX-10.”
Kawasaki always seems to build a bike around a monster motor and the latest ZX-10R is no exception, with the Ninja the top horsepower mile on the dyno.
With Kawasaki’s renewed emphasis on track performance, it comes as no surprise the gearing is as tall as it is. Maybe it’s the bigger hp numbers pulling the gears, we can’t say for sure, but it feels stronger than all except the Honda when connecting corners. Plus, the ZX is smoother than the rest when the revs are above 6-grand – but below that, on the street in particular, the ZX is annoying and buzzy. On the track the revs are rarely that low, so it wasn’t until we logged some around-town miles that we started to notice this bothersome trait. Another complaint is that when we visited Willow Springs on stock tires, the Ninja is not as stable and compliant as it is when the Kawasaki technicians had it dialed-in. No surprise there, but the GSX-R, 1098 and CBR in particular still feel good despite the stock settings, and this will come into play for people who don’t have the ability or resources to twiddle their knobs effectively. Coming onto the straight at Big Willow, the ZX wags its bars regularly over the big bump while the others would eat it up without much objection.
Other than that, the complaints are few for the Ninja this year. It was purposely built to give the Suzuki a run for its money and we have to say it accomplished that mission and more. The competition will need to step things up in the next few years if it hopes to keep the refocused Kawasaki ZX-10R at bay. On the street, the ZX is improved in some aspects and has gone backwards in others – depending on your point of view. The riding position is much more comfortable than either the Yamaha or Ducati. Instruments received some improvement and the mirrors allow for one of the best views of the vehicles on your six. Aesthetically, they are ghastly, with the sort of integrated blinkers on the stalks and the funky trapezoidal shape giving us reason to whine. When loading the bikes we did find that the ZX mirror stalks are designed to fold in half, which gives a bit of extra room in cramped spaces.
“The strike against it is that for me it was the least comfortable bike of the gang,” persists the lanky Mr. Hesse: “I can’t imagine spending half a day for a ride up the coast on the green machine. I did like the mirrors the most out of any others though.”
Kawasaki has followed Yamaha’s lead in the styling and treatment department by coating the foot pegs, brackets, heel guards, levers and other various exposed alloy items with a shiny black finish. The bodywork is a blend of curvy and angular lines, featuring a number of peculiar elements, including the cell-division theme on the upper cowl that separates the twin projector beam headlights with a centrally located ram-air intake. The concept isn’t new but the look certainly is. Our team is split on the subject of styling – some think it’s cool and the others think Kawasaki is out of its mind.
Adam Waheed: “Just accelerating on the Kawasaki is an experience within itself. The sheer thrill you get when twisting the throttle and rowing trough the gearbox is priceless.”
A long with the new styling, this model is also much more tame than it has been in the past. It still has the burly power, but it’s mostly accessed in the upper half of the revs. Its 158.7 hp at 12,300 rpm is the best of the test, but the 74.4 lb-ft at 9000 rpm is only good enough to beat the R1. It does peak sooner than the other Inlines, but the curve still mimics the R1 and GSX-R until the Suzuki surpasses it and the R1 fades-away around ten-grand. Compared to the 1098 and CBR, seeing the way the ZX, GSX-R and R1 build less torque much later, it’s easy to realize how they have a big advantage on the shorter track and the street, where authoritative roll-ons are always preferred over track-specific top-end power delivery.
On one hand, the 2008 Ninja ZX-10R is better than it has ever been. It’s the most powerful bike in the test, has the best front end it’s had in years, is one of the fastest ways around the track or at the strip and its new look appeals to half of the people in our test. On the other hand, it is 26-lbs heavier than the lightest bikes in the test, has the third-lowest torque output and looks heinous to half our crew. Facts aside, this ZX-10R ushers in a new era for Kawasaki. It is a superbike for the street, and that will appeal to a lot of riders. It’s faster than most stock motorcycles and looks like a race-replica. For those who have no ambition of riding on the track, the Ninja ZX-10R will make a fine steed right off the showroom floor. For a track bike, it’s even better because there’s so much potential in the latest design. It’s imperative to spend the effort to get the bike set-up properly for the track, but if you do, there are very few motorcycles capable of staving off the heat this Ninja brings to the track.