2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R Comparison Track

Steve Atlas | May 18, 2009
2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R Smackdown Track Test
Kawasaki ZX-10R
Curb Weight: 459 lbs.
Horsepower: 155.85 @ 12,200 rpm
Torque: 72.72 lb-ft @ 9000 rpm
Quarter Mile: 10.05 @ 141.5 mph
Outright Top Speed: 186 mph (limited)
Racetrack Top Speed: 156.72 mph
Superpole Best Lap: 1:56.86
Overall Ranking: 3rd Place

The Green Machine is back for another round and a second shot at the title. Last year saw the Ninja superbike come home a close second, falling victim to a Honda which just plain did everything far too well. Kawasaki may not have made changes to the Ninja ZX-10R, with the exception of a MotoGP-inspired color scheme option, but it’s a new day, at a new track, and there’s no doubt Kawasaki came weapons drawn and ready to go. This track is much faster and longer than last year, which should have helped the monster-motored Kawasaki. Problem is, when you have a totally-new GSX-R1000 and Honda back with the same precision instrument it had in ‘08, well, taking top billing in a comparison like this is no easy task.

The previously mentioned engine of the Kawasaki ZX-10R is the key to the identity of this motorcycle. It’s still the horsepower king and was praised by all on the track. Most noticeable, though, isn’t the outright power, but how the Kawasaki puts the power to the ground. Where the Suzuki feels smooth and seamless, the Kawasaki and Ducati are more volatile, really grabbing your attention, while still delivering a never-ending supply of acceleration through the first four gears. It isn’t until well into fifth that the constant pull on your arms lets up, though only slightly still. It really does feel limitless.

“The Kawi motor is one of the most fun to ride, it has a very grunty low-end, mid-range and somewhat explosive top-end,” says Sorensen. “This is one of those bikes as you get into the upper gears your mind gets busy with the way the scenery is blurred. I would imagine after some seat time you would get used to the way the Kawi puts down the power but upon the first ride it is a little overwhelming even for skilled rider.”

“Man-oh-man the Ninja rips,” exclaims Kenny. “It hauls ass, it’s the rompin’-stompin’ motor that we all love about open-class bikes. More than a few times I found myself going ‘Holy crap!’ because I didn’t realize I was still going so hot that far into the braking zone.”

2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R Smackdown Track Test
2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R.

Glancing quickly at the dyno graphs one would think the Kawasaki should have dominated in terms of top speed and acceleration. This wasn’t the case though – Max Acceleration coming out of both 6 and 14 was toward the bottom of the pack, which is surprising. That is until you look closer at the dyno graphs. You can see that despite making the highest peak number (155.85 hp), the Kawasaki struggles in the low- and mid-range compared to some of the competition. It isn’t until the ZX gets higher up the rev range that it catches back up and makes a stride for the top. Same holds true for the torque, which reveals the Kawasaki as weakest performer of the group (72.72 lb-ft). The result: A slower drive off the corner, thus lower

2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R Smackdown Track Test
Sorensen went fastest on the ZX-10R.

acceleration numbers. Though by the end of the straight the peak power has kicked in and the Kawasaki pulls back to the front, laying down the second-highest top speed number (156.72 mph) of the day, behind only the blisteringly fast Suzuki.

Like the engine, the transmission as a whole is another plus for the Kawasaki. This is needed to be able to precisely deliver all said power to the ground and luckily they’ve left their clunky reputation in the past. This latest ZX clicks through the gears very easily, with positive engagement and plenty of feedback through the lever. Keeping back-torque to a minimum is one of the best slipper clutches in the bunch, allowing the bike to freewheel

2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R Smackdown Track Test
Kawasaki’s ZX-10 was composed at lean, though changing direction it struggled some.

with ease into the corner no matter how high in the rpm range, though still giving a slight bit of back torque to the rider, providing a solid feeling of being connected to the asphalt.

Now we know Kawasaki has always been able to produce fast motorcycles, dating back decades, but nimble handling has sometimes eluded Team Green’s literbike. This was one of the major areas it focused on when updating the latest ZX-10R for ‘08. Several major changes to the chassis, including tuning of the frame flex characteristics and updated suspension, were aimed to speed up the Kawasaki’s handling. Also, a much slimmer overall profile and abandoning those heavy under-seat exhausts were all done to get the ZX to change direction more precisely with less effort.

But it’s still not the most agile of the group, which is highlighted in the data with the second- slowest fickability scoring in the group, some likely due to its slightly heavy 459-lb wet weight. Still, compared to the previous version, no doubt the changes paid off. In our group it received somewhat mixed reviews, though much more positive than negative.

“For me the Kawasaki chassis was one of the best, it was very easy to go fast on,” comments Waheed. “It may not turn as quickly as the Honda or be as stable as the Ducati but as an overall package, for me at least, it worked the best. I was fastest on the Kawasaki and I really like everything about the ZX chassis.”

2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R Smackdown Track Test
One of the better back ends of the bunch, and we’re not talking about Chuck’s.

“The Kawi turn-in was a little slower in comparison to some of the other bikes, which I don’t think is a bad thing,” Sorensen adds. “In left-to-right transitions it took a bit more effort compared to the other bikes. With the current set-up this bike moved around a little bit more as you would flick it to change direction, but I recorded my fastest lap of the day on the Kawi.”

As for stability, once on its side, the Kawasaki found itself right in the middle of the pack. No question the Ducati and Suzuki were more planted than the ZX when cranked over with your knee on the deck, yet it was right on-par with the Yamaha and Honda, allowing the rider to push when desired.

“I am really comfortable on the ZX and for some reason it feels just good enough to make me want to push it harder,” Hutchison remarks. “The Kawasaki holds its own in the turns for sure. Is it the most stable of the group? It’s not unstable as much as it’s just not the most stable of the group.”

Where Kawasaki would really get unsettled was when picking the bike up and accelerating out of the corner. It easily gets light and flighty though the bars when hammering the throttle hard. One would think the fancy Ohlins damper would solve this, but on the Kawasaki it’s not much more than an ornament. Adjusting it does little to nothing and the stiffest setting is still far too light.

See and hear the Ninja superbike in action in the 2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R Video.

“I think the Ohlins damper on the Kawasaki is only there for decoration, at least the adjustment part,” Waheed commented. “The bike gets a bit shaky on the gas and adjusting that does literally nothing. It feels the same full-soft as it does full-hard. Kind of pointless they even made it adjustable at all.”

2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R Smackdown Track Test
Waheed rated the Kawasaki at the top of his personal score sheet as he was very comfortable on the Green Machine.

While not numb by any stretch of the word, the fork and shock didn’t give the same direct connection with the pavement as some of the others – specifically the Suzuki and Ducati. It was enough to be able to push hard, to an extent, but it didn’t translate back to the rider that same feeling of being glued to the ground that some others did. This is another area where the Kawasaki received mix opinions with the others and lost some subjective points.

“The mid-corner stability on the Kawi is decent,” Sorensen remarks. “I would have liked to get more information (feedback) from the front end, the front tire, to be more comfortable pushing harder on the entrance to the corners. I think with that I could have gone even faster on the Kawasaki than I did.”

On the other hand, when it came time to get things hauled back down from speed, the Kawasaki’s brakes were one of the best in the group. Plenty of initial bite via progressive lever action produces gobs of feel and feedback. Definitely a shining point for the Kawasaki. Where we used to always criticize all of the rubber-lined Japanese bikes for lacking in braking power, they have now figured out a way to keep the rubber lines and match the power and feedback of steel-braided equipped bikes like the Ducati. It’s very impressive.

2009 Kawasaki ZX-10R Smackdown Track Test
When it came time to put the bikes head-to-head the new Yamaha didn’t have anything for the Kawasaki.

“I really enjoyed riding the Kawasaki; it’s like taming a huge beast, but in a good way,” Sorensen said of the ZX-10R as a whole. “It definitely takes more concentration to ride this bike hard, but once you start to get a feel for the Kawi’s personality you can go fast on it with confidence.”

That’s about the perfect way to describe the Kawasaki: A bike that is capable of going very fast but requires a lot of concentration to do so. It’s lifting the front tire on the gas, the back is coming around going into the corner; there’s never a dull moment of the latest ZX-10R, which by a hair still retains its title as the Horsepower King. This is also exactly why this bike falls just short of the top two spots. The potential is there, but it just takes a bit more effort to extract that performance where as the top two do it with ease. But if it’s an invigorating track experience you are after and green is your color, look no further…

Kawasaki ZX-10R Final Suspension Settings
Preload – 4.5 Lines showing
Rebound – 7 Clicks out from closed
Comp. – 4 Clicks out from closed
Ride Height – Std.

Preload – 1 Turn added from stock
Rebound – 1.75 Turns out from closed
HS Comp. – 2.5 Turns out from closed
LS Comp. – 2 Turns open from closed
Ride Height – 16mm using optional spacer kit


Steve Atlas

Contributing Editor |Articles | Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

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