In the Superbike arms race Kawasaki has always been near the forefront with its ZX-10R. Over the years it’s developed a reputation for the concentrated top-end performance of its liquid-cooled 998cc Inline-Four harnessed in one of the more racy feeling chassis’. This year it’s the only brand to offer a fully redesigned motorcycle as tested in the 2011 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R First Ride.
The Kawi continues to share the same Inline-Four engine configuration as BMW, Honda and Suzuki which is marked by relatively mild bottom-end power (compared to the Euro V-Twins) that builds like a pot of boiling water into a steaming rush of thrust at high rpm. And as always, the Ninja’s engine continues to be one of the most powerful as proven by numbers we recorded on our in-house dyno.
The Kawi delivers 163.76 horsepower to the back tire @ 11,600 rpm. While this was good enough for runner-up status in the horsepower battle, it’s still a whopping 19.61 horsepower down on the S1000RR. Surprisingly in measured torque the Kawi delivered the lowest peak number of 75.22 lb-ft arriving at a lofty 11,200 rpm, which hurt it on the score card. To be fair, it is only 0.43 lb-ft off the Yamaha and 0.80 down on the GSX-R1000.
Punch the throttle and it is impossible not to notice the Ninja’s smooth powerband. Of all the bikes in this comparison the Kawi undeniably offers the tamest and most linear-feeling power curve. While it may not be the most entertaining it is certainly effective at putting the power to the ground as evident by the maximum acceleration force reading of 0.75g off the exit of Turn 10. This placed it in third position behind the class-leading BMW and Suzuki. Down the back straightaway the Ninja recorded a respectable top speed of 133.9 mph that was ahead of all but the BMW and Honda. Yet our test riders weren’t blown away with engine performance.
(Above) Of all the bikes in this test the Kawasaki steers into corners the fastest. The Ninja looks similar to the RSV4 from the front but it has a distinct appearance that polarized opinions. Some like it, others did not. Your opinion may vary. (Below) The Kawasaki had one of the more “flat” feeling powerbands which made it easy to ride fast but left a few riders wishing it had more power on tap.
“It seemed to be down on power compared to the other bikes through the mid-range,” states Rapp. “Right when I’d get into the throttle at 7000 rpm it didn’t feel like it had enough juice to break the rear tire. The mid-range felt stagnant, but once the revs go up there it pulled like a freight train.”
“The motor was very tame compared to the previous years,” agrees Neuer. “I was expecting more out it. Off the bottom the power is very dead feeling with not much torque. Up top though it comes alive and has great top-end power. But to me it’s got to have it all. I would have loved to add two teeth to the rear sprocket which would have helped it come off corners better.”
As both Rapp and Neuer alluded to, the key to riding the Kawasaki fast is to keep the engine zinging above 10,000 rpm. When done so it actually delivers a healthy burst of acceleration until the rev-limiter kicks in at 13,500 revs, though power does fall off more aggressively than the BMW and Suzuki.
All of our testers were very impressed with the Kawi’s drivetrain. While final drive gearing was too high, the transmission offered short lever throw and was the most re-affirming action and engagement. The Kawi was also the only bike that allowed easy clutch-less downshifts. We even overheard Siglin say that “he dreamt of a transmission like this on his personal race bike.” The performance of the slipper-clutch during corner entry is also great, which help it earn top honors in the drivetrain category even though it doesn’t offer the convenience of a quick-shifter.
Weighing only 439 pounds (lightest in class) with a full load of fuel, the Kawasaki dives into corners with the least amount of effort despite not being shod with the ultra sharp-steering V-spec Michelin front tire as tested in the Michelin Power One Race Tire Review. In fact, it steers in so quickly that it actually takes a few laps to get acclimated to this trait.
“I like the Kawi and I feel it’s an awesome motorcycle,” gushes Earnest. “The set up was perfect for a big rider. They had geometry set up great for me. It offers good feel and exciting drive off the exit of corners and was even better going in on the brakes. It seems the harder you rode the front the better the bike felt on entry. Mid corner for me was easy to deal with too and in the bowl turn it felt like it was on rails.”
Still some riders didn’t feel as comfortable on it as say the BWW or Honda as evident by its mid-pack turn-in score. Through the banked right hander (Turn 13) the Kawi recorded the highest lean angle of 61.6 degrees and it was the fastest bike through Turn 4 (65.2 mph). However, in Turns 13 and 16 it was mid-pack. With its quick steering manners it wasn’t much of a surprise that the Ninja recorded the highest side-to-side flick rate through turns 8/9/10. Though it’s worth mentioning that more than a few riders thought it required more muscle than some of the other bikes when maneuvering from side-to-side.
“Handling is the strong point of the ZX-10R this year,” confirms Hutch. “I wasn’t the only rider to dig the way the Ninja hustles through corners this year. I thought for sure that coming to Chuckwalla would play into the strength of this motorcycle and it turned out the bike did great in Superpole. For me, the bike feels sort of big when riding it for some reason but it’s so agile that once you get accustomed to the way it feels it is a lot of fun to ride.”
Picking up the Kawasaki and accelerating off a turn it was immediately apparent how well the rear suspension worked, transmitting copious feedback from the tire. The action was pleasing and the Kawi felt more “hooked” up than other machines. This could be attributed in part to its bowling ball-alley smooth power curve and its fantastic traction control system that is superior in function to both the Ducati and BMW’s set-up (for more information about its sophisticated electronics refer to the 2011 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R First Ride). However, we did encounter a considerable amount of headshake which made it harder to hold the throttle open down straightaways.
“The TC system does work quite well,” says Atlas, “almost seamlessly on the standard T1 setting in fact –holding near-effortless slides on corner exits and giving the rider loads of confidence to open the gas earlier and earlier, not to mention feeling like a hero upon looking in the side mirror to see a faint trail of smoke following you everywhere you go.”
Grab a firm pull of the front brake lever and the Kawi sheds speed immediately. The fork works in unison with the radial-mount Tokico calipers, delivering -0.93g of braking force in Turn 1. While the force wasn’t as high as some of the other bikes, rest assured that there is plenty of power without a hint of fade. Our only complaint is that there isn’t a whole lot of initial brake bite as compared to the set-ups employed on the S1000RR and 1198.
Ergonomics wise the Kawi felt more accommodating and less racy than before but still wasn’t ranked as highly as the other Japanese bikes (with exception to the Suzuki) or the RC8R. Rapp and Siglin commented that the seating position was too aggressive for their liking, but Neuer and Garcia stated that he was completely comfortable on it. It’s also worth noting that the position of the footpegs is adjustable just like on the rest of the bikes with exception to the BMW, Honda and Ducati.
While we weren’t that impressed with the low or mid-range performance of its engine, the Kawasaki’s agreeable chassis and strong brakes allowed us to record the second-fastest lap times in Superpole – proving just how well the Ninja works. And if Kawi could infuse 10% more power throughout the powerband it could have a winner on their hands. But for now it is relegated to third place.
2011 Superbike Smackdown VIII Track
2011 Ducati 1198 Track Comparison
2011 KTM RC8R Track Comparison
2011 Suzuki GSX-R1000 Track Comparison
2011 Yamaha YZF-R1 Track Comparison
2011 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R Track Comparison
2011 Honda CBR1000RR Track Comparison
2011 BMW S1000RR Track Comparison
2011 Superbike Smackdown VIII Conclusion