When Kawasaki introduced its latest Ninja ZX-10R three years ago it was clear in its intentions of creating a racetrack-bred design. “Credit a change in engineering philosophy,” wrote Editorial Director Ken Hutchison in his 2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R First Ride report. “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.”
And despite sporting the most number of changes amongst the Japanese Big Four for ’10, the Kawasaki continues to feel like it has the most racebike DNA. From the streamlined speed-driven shape of its updated ZX-6R-inspired bodywork, the top-end biased power output of the Inline-Four engine, and the feel inside the cockpit, the Ninja does little to mask its racetrack prowess.
The ZX-10R is powered by a liquid-cooled 998cc Inline-Four with a conventional engine firing order like the Honda and Suzuki. Dual-stage fuel injection and a 16-valve cylinder head operated by double overhead camshafts are employed like the other four cylinders. The 76.0 x 55.0mm bore/stroke measurement is nearly identical to the CBR’s and it squeezes fuel to the fourth-highest compression ratio (12.9:1).
Kawasaki has been long known for the exhilarating performance of its sportbike engines and the 10R continues the trait… so long as you’ve got the throttle pinned. Twist the right grip and power comes on immediately, but, like the Honda, it feels docile and mundane toward the bottom end of the tachometer spectrum. Taking a look at the torque comparison chart shows that the Ninja’s engine cranks out the lowest peak torque figure of 75.75 lb-ft measured at 10,300 rpm. While expert riders will wish for a stronger bottom end, less experienced riders will love how friendly the powerband feels down low.
“What I like about the Kawasaki is that its powerband feels really mellow down low,” comments Gauger. “I don’t have a whole lot of experience riding 1000s or any sportbike for that matter so it’s nice that I can jump on it and not be initially intimidated by the power.”
Regardless of rpm, throttle response is excellent and the engine runs perfectly thanks to optimally calibrated engine management settings. Engine vibration through the controls is nominal and at a reduced level compared to all the Inline Fours with the exception of the perfectly-balanced R1.
Keep the throttle buried and the engine piles on revs quickly and when the tach needle hits eight grand you better be hanging on. At this point the engine changes character from its ultra-refined sewing machine-like sensation to a bona fide sportbike engine.
While it retains a smooth feel, it becomes increasingly louder with the flurry of the valvetrain combining with the roar of the intake making you feel you’re at the helm of a racebike.
Conversely, the Ninja’s exhaust muffler is one of the most stealthy of the group with it recording the lowest decibel reading at idle (74) and tying the Yamaha’s quiet 94-decibel measurement at 6500 rpm (half of maximum engine speed). Thus if you’re looking for that aesthetically pleasing Inline Four shriek you’re going to need to invest in an aftermarket muffler.
In a 5000 rpm spread, the engine churns out 60 more horsepower en route to its 162.96 peak at 12,300 revs. Yet there isn’t really any type of ‘hit’ as the increase in power output is very linear while the engine zings toward the red numbers. Power stays strong through over-rev, decreasing by just three horsepower before the rev limiter shuts the engine down at 13,000 revs.
In terms of fuel mileage and range the Kawasaki delivered a respectable 32.5 mpg average with a considerable amount of time spent at triple digit speeds. This gives the Ninja approximately a 146 mile range with a full 4.5-gallon tank of premium unleaded fuel.
A 6-speed transmission and cable-actuated slipper clutch transfer engine power to the rear wheel through 17/41 sprockets. Clutch action is light and provides excellent feel during launches or when you’re trying to kick the rear end out during aggressive deceleration. This helps the rider to escape from a stop without having to slip the clutch despite its rather high first cog. Although the remaining five gears are spread close together, the combination of its tall final drive gearing with its top-end biased engine performance make roll-on acceleration feel a bit slower than the other bikes.
For ’10 engineers reworked the transmission’s shifting mechanism and you can feel the difference. As you move through the gearbox it feels much ‘tighter’ with minimal play and is on par with the rest of the Japanese and German machinery. No mis-shifts were reported and finding neutral at a stop is simple. During deceleration the slipper clutch allows the ZX to ‘free wheel’ with less engine braking effect which reduces the likelihood of the rear end kicking sideways during aggressive stops. While some may like the feel we would like a little less slip.
In our quarter mile acceleration test the Ninja managed a 9.878-second time with a trap speed of 144.2 mph. The time was just under 0.2 seconds away from the class-leading BMW, which proves just how fast the Ninja is and how easy it is to launch from a stop.
The Ninja’s Special Edition green, white and black color scheme was our least favorite of the group.
ERGONOMICS / COMFORT
Jump into the seat and right away you feel like you’re at the controls of a bike built for some serious velocity. From the triple clamps, to the frame and swingarm, it all appears beefy and built for speed. Its 32.7-inch tall seat is the second-tallest next to the RSV4R and an inch taller than the KTM’s (lowest-in-class), which contributes to its high rear end feel. The handlebars are wide but positioned low, which further attributes to its racy feel but it puts additional strain on the rider’s wrists and hands.
As opposed to the other Inline Fours the Kawasaki’s twin-spar aluminum frame wraps up and over the engine as opposed to around it. This substantially decreases the width of the motorcycle between the rider’s legs and makes it easier for the rider to touch the ground in spite of its elevated seat height. However, the foot controls are fixed and lack the adjustability of the R1 and GSX-R.
The ZX’s windscreen does an excellent job of diverting wind away from the rider. The shape of the fuel tank and the length of the seat allow the rider to get into a reasonably comfortable tuck position. However, the cockpit still doesn’t offer the same level of roominess as the class-leading GSX-R1000. Like the rest of the bikes in this competition, the seat is thin with the rider beginning to feel the effects of the ride within less than a fuel tank worth of gas. While we appreciate the shape of the mirrors they are small and get distorted with vibration at freeway speeds.
HANDLING / SUSPENSION
In terms of weight the Ninja posts a 458-lb fully fueled curb weight which puts it about mid-pack. As expected the Ninja retains its racy feel in terms of handling. The rear end feels tall and it initiates a turn well, but does require a bit more muscle than the ultra-agile Honda and KTM. Once leaned over the ZX’s chassis feels taut and delivers a fair amount of feedback. The ZX rolls on Bridgestone’s fantastic BT-016 tire which complements its handling attributes.
Picking the bike up and accelerating hard, especially on bumpy pavement, still upsets the chassis more than the other bikes. Thankfully engineers fitted the 10R with a new Ohlins steering damper that actually provides damping as opposed to last year’s non-functional eye candy. This substantially reduces the handlebars propensity to wiggle if you get too zealous with the throttle on a bumpy road surface.
Like the rest of the bikes the Ninja offers fully adjustable suspension front and rear. Without a doubt the Ninja’s chassis is a bit more sensitive to suspension adjustment, but both ends offer a large window of adjustment allowing you to tailor the way the suspension performs based on skill level and the kind of roads you plan on riding.
“The Kawasaki handles good on the street. It turns-in well, though it doesn’t flick from side-to-side as good as the KTM or Honda,” said Atlas. “But once you’ve got it laid over its really stable—plus the suspension absorbs bumps well and generally delivers a forgiving ride. I’d rank this bike right in the middle of the pack.”
The 10R employs a pair of Tokico radial-mount 4-piston calipers powered by a radial master cylinder. The calipers grab a pair of 310mm diameter petal-style discs. The rear brake is comprised of a solo 220mm disc actuated by a twin-piston caliper.
Despite using rubber brake hoses both fore and aft, the ZX’s brakes are completely fade-free. Initial bite isn’t quite as strong as the BMW or Ducati, yet as you pull back on the lever you’ll be surprised by just how much stopping force the brakes serve up. This makes them friendly to use for all riders regardless if they’re a newbie like our man Ray or a certified maniac.
Another nice touch is the wide range of lever adjustment for different sized hands. In our braking test the Kawasaki managed to stop in a distance of 126 feet from 60 mph which was just eight feet more than the class-leading and ABS-equipped S1000RR.
INSTRUMENTATION / ELECTRONICS
Instrumentation is comprised of a large swept tachometer. A rectangular LCD readout is inset in the middle and provides speed, gear position, coolant temperature, time and associated warning lights. There is also a lap timer function in case you want to track your progress while ripping around freeway clover leafs. Overall the gauges are bright and easy to read at a glance. As opposed to the rider adjustable engine/throttle maps that the Aprilia, BMW, Suzuki and Yamaha employ, the Kawasaki offers no push-button adjustment.
The 2010 Kawasaki ZX-10R offers excellent handling. It turns in sharp, it’s stable at lean and drives off the corner well.
In our final scoring the $13,199 Ninja ranked in sixth position. While it excelled in the performance scoring categories and carries the second least expensive price tag, it suffered in the rider’s subjective scoring. Test riders specifically commented on its lack of engine performance and character at low rpm as well as its racy ergonomics which made it less comfortable to ride for long distances. Next to the Suzuki it was unanimously voted as the least attractive bike, which can be attributed to its unusual green/white Special Edition color scheme. If Kawasaki could infuse a bit more bottom end power, return some of its wild demeanor and open up the rider triangle this bike could easily be at the front.
2010 Superbike Smackdown VII Street
2010 Aprilia RSV4R Comparison Street
2010 KTM RC8R Comparison Street
2010 Kawasaki ZX-10R Comparison Street
2010 Yamaha YZF-R1 Comparison Street
2010 Ducati 1198S Comparison Street
2009 Suzuki GSXR-1000 Comparison Street
2010 Honda CBR1000RR Comparison Street
2010 BMW S1000RR Comparison Street
2010 Superbike Smackdown VII Street FMM