Kawasaki brings the only true ground-up redesign to this year’s shootout with its 2013 ZX-6R. The headlining change is, of course, the return to its cheater 636cc displacement, but the Ninja also features an upgraded chassis and all-new electronics package including traction control.
Bumping displacement is a return to heresy for Kawasaki, as it produced a Ninja 636 from 2002-2006. The other 600 OEMs weren’t pleased with that old 636 cheater, and they’re likely miffed about the new one. And they are right to complain, as cheaters really do win – evidenced by the Ninja’s victory in the track portion of our 2013 Supersport Shootout and as the top-placing Inline Four in this Street test. We’d be lying if we didn’t cop to a twinge of sympathy for the 599cc protestations to fight fair. But only a twinge… certainly the consumer will not complain!
Dyno runs display the Ninja’s advantage. While the European Twin and Triples keep its peak horsepower (114.25 hp) and torque (47.16 lb-ft) in check, the Kawasaki has an edge on all the Japanese 600 Fours. The 6500-9K mid-range proves more potent and up top the Ninja surges well past its 600 rivals. On the street power gains from the 6% displacement kick are not jaw-dropping dramatic, but enough to discern right away once behind the controls.
“What a difference those 37cc make,” states Adam. “The thing pulls now. Usually a 600cc four-cylinder bike, when you’re on the freeway cruising at 65 and want to pass a bunch of cars, you got to downshift. But on the 636 you don’t have to now – just whack open the throttle. Of course, it’s not going to have the torque of a 1000cc bike, but it’s definitely better. It’s more applicable in the real world now.”
The cheater 636 engine delivers a notable increase over the 600s – with a beefier mid-range and gains up top.
Adam flogged the Ninja to impressive results down the Chuckwalla airstrip, where the ZX-6 claims the fastest 0-60 time at 3.49 seconds. In the quarter-mile it trails only the zippy Honda with its 11.17 second result.
A seamless power delivery gets that extra power to the ground. Riders aren’t overwhelmed by the extra oomph, but if they do find the Kawi too much to deal with – they can toggle between the variable Hi and Low engine maps. The latter setting maintains the Ninja’s burly bottom end, but restricts top-end power by 20%. Our high-performance satyrs kept the Hi setting in place, but the Low makes for a more manageable ride in low-key settings like the city or freeway commutes.
“Power output is spot on with the ZX-6R. It is present and clear! The Ninja performs like a champ on the street,” says Adey, before acknowledging the one knock on the Ninja powerplant. “But it does sound like any other 600…”
Admitted Ducatisti Massimo agrees, “Being used to Ducati, the Kawasaki engine feels smooth and responsive at all ranges, and that’s a pro. But the ZX-6R sounds like a stereotypical Japanese bike.”
Also stereotypical is the six-speed transmission, for which smooth is a redundant modifier amongst the Japanese models. The Ninja drivetrain does stand out in a couple ways, however, as its clutch lever pull is amazingly light – garnering praise from some and critique from others.
“While I applaud Kawasaki at reducing clutch lever pull to make it easier to ride for newbies, it no longer has a properly weighted feel, making the bike seem kind of cheap in my opinion,” reckons Adam, who also doesn’t favor the Kawasaki’s slipper clutch either, saying: “The new slipper clutch isn’t a true piece of race kit and doesn’t work as well as the set-up they employed in the 2009-2012 machine.”
Kawasaki has been the most aggressive amongst the Japanese OEMs in introducing traction control to its production models. Debuted on the Concours 14 sport-touring mount, Kawasaki’s Traction Control System (KTRC) has since migrated in various forms on the Ninja models, including the ZX-14, ZX-10R literbike and now the ZX-6R. The 6R system offers three settings: Mode 1 tuned for sporty performance similar to the S-KTRC on the 10R with Mode 3 a more protective setting like sport-touring Connie, while Mode 2 splits the difference. Riders can also disengage the KTRC altogether. Our testers find the KTRC engagement unobtrusive, and impressive in this class – where it stands out as a value-added safety enhancement. Only the pricey Ducati can claim similar tech in the middleweight segment.
“I only used the KTRC on Mode 1 to feel the true acceleration power in the canyons, and I enjoyed riding her on any of the roads we hit. It’s impressive,” says Massimo. “The key word for this bike is smoothness – and with the soft clutch, I barely felt the transition between gears.”
Engine performance and addition of traction control are the most hyped aspects of the redesigned ZX-6R, but its chassis performance delivers some of its best marks in this street shootout. The Kawasaki tops scoring in both the handling and braking performance categories.
The Kawasaki’s larger displacement gets much attention, but the ZX-6R chassis and ergonomics are more amenable to street rides and an improvement over the preceeding model.
“The ZX-6R in stock trim is probably the most confidence inspiring bike out of the entire group,” says Adey. “It doesn’t wallow from throttle roll off or heavy braking. Whether a tight technical road or fast sweeping road, the Kawasaki feels planted and balanced in either environment.”
Again the Showa big piston fork deserves credit, and Kawasaki sources the latest separate function fork (BP-SFF). This separates spring preload and compression/rebound damping between the left and right fork legs respectively. Adjustments can be made conveniently at the top of the fork tubes, though we felt no need to mess with the clickers. Riders of all shapes and sizes deem the stock settings on the Ninja’s Showa units both comfortable and sporty.
“Kawasaki has made great strides at making the Ninja a better road bike and it has hit the mark,” says Adam. “The suspension is nice and cushy yet still offers good road holding when pushed in the corners.”
Radial-mount Nissin monobloc calipers source 32mm pistons and pinch 10mm-larger 320mm petal-style rotors. Stopping power isn’t as immediate as the grabby Ducati, a good thing by our tester’s reckoning. But the precision and modulation at the lever is top-shelf and makes for exquisite, confident performance on the street.
The Ninja makes good progress in delivering a more amenable riding position. The handlebar feels closer and only the Suzuki and Honda rate better in overall comfort. Our testers find the cockpit interface and wind protection some of the best as well. At 32.7 inches, the Kawasaki seat is actually one of the higher perches in the test, though its seat feels narrower than the wider predecessor – making for an easy reach to the ground. The Ninja revisions make for a more versatile and street-friendly package that relates to a wide array of rider body types.
“A really comfy bike,” praises Massimo, who at 5’6” and 145 pounds sports the trimmest physique in our testing cadre. “There’s not too much stress on your wrists and the seat makes it great for small riders like me, being able to easily put both feet on the ground and the light/compact feel gives her a huge plus.”
“I fit my 6’3” frame on the ZX-6R quite comfortably,” says Adey, offering the tall-guy appraisal. “I felt like I could ride all day in thru the city in comfort and get aggressive with my stance in the canyons.”
“The Kawasaki glides over bumps real nice and gives a real easy ride,” adds our Road Test Editor, Adam. “The seat is comfortable and the handlebars aren’t as crazy forward anymore. It’s just a really, really comfortable motorcycle.”
For an all-new model, the ZX-6R’s styling didn’t have our testers slavering. It keeps the Ninja family’s hawkish features, but Nathon’s terse comments sum up our blasé attitude in the appearance category: “The overall aesthetics of the bike… I didn’t really care for the pipe.”
- Cheaters really do prosper, or at least cheater engines sure do!
- Chassis improvements merit as much credit as the much-hyped engine boost
- Ergonomics and rider interface improved
- Engine powerful, but sound not distinctive
- Styling and colorway not the most fetching
Kawasaki has aggressively priced its supersport offering the past two years, notably $9999 in 2011 and $10,299 the following riding season. And for a completely new design, which includes traction control as standard kit, this new ZX-6R’s MSRP isn’t gratuitous at $11,699. The three-year-old GSX-R600 is only $100 cheaper, and the revamped Honda $200 less. Like the CBR, an ABS-equipped ZX-6 model is offered for the same $1000 premium.
The ZX-6R engine is justifiably labeled a cheater, as those extra cubes proffer better performance than its 600 rivals. But the chassis upgrades prove just as pivotal in vaulting the Ninja up the rankings. Our testers appreciate the affordable traction control aid, as well as the Kawasaki’s overall improvements as a street-friendly package. The re-imagined Ninja impresses enough to climb into second on the 2013 Supersport Street scoresheet.
The Kawasaki ZX-6R took top honors in the Track portion of this Supersport comparison – read more in the 2013 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R Supersport Track Comparison
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