Kawasaki Ninja 1000 (2011)

Kawasaki says there’s a “newness” about its street-focused 2011 Ninja 1000. Hold the phone, says Bertrand Gahel, there’s nothing really “new” here. Just a return to a time when sportbikes were actually fun on the street.

The following will probably sound like a blatant contradiction on my part, but please bear with me. It will all be crystal clear in the end, I promise. All right, here we go: the way I see it, there’ s really nothing new about Kawasaki’s “new-for-2011” Ninja 1000. I say this because, although it undeniably is all-new, I actually think what it offers we’ve seen many times over. And yet, no matter how strong the sense of “déjà vu” the bike conjures in me, I can do nothing else but admit the ride is as unique as it is thoroughly easy to become attached to.
Time to explain.
My “issue” with the Ninja 1000’s “newness” originated with Kawasaki’s corporate talk. The manufacturer claims it’s actually the answer to the biggest and most common problem with the current crop of sportbikes: their extreme nature. You may recall the Akashi brand offered the same discourse on the latest-gen Z1000 when it was launched just about this time a year ago. It was argued then that pure sportbikes—repli-racers— had become so focused on track performance they were losing (and perhaps had even lost) their fun factor on the street. According to Kawasaki, the Z1000 solved that by being all about making things fun on the street. The new Ninja 1000 has an identical mission, albeit in a fully-faired rather than naked package. In other words, Kawasaki claims it’s a dead serious sportbike, but one that’s purpose built for the street, not the track.
This is where I beg to differ with Kawasaki since there’s nothing new about the concept of a “dead serious sportbike designed first and foremost for the street.” Actually, that’s precisely where the majority of sportbikes were at some point. Remember the Ninja 900R and 1000R of the mid-1980s? How about the Honda Hurricane 600, and even the F2 and F3? Does Yamaha’s FZ750 jog your memory? All these were streetbikes first, because they were built at a time when manufacturers had not yet discovered the marketing power of pure performance. All were built before an era of heavy specialization that literally turned just about every serious sportbike into a bonafied track weapon.
What Kawasaki did with the new Ninja 1000 then was not invent a new category, but rather bring one back. Because this particular type of motorcycle has basically been extinct for decades, and because nobody offers a bike quite like it, the Ninja 1000 takes an anomalous position.
In today’s market, nothing feels like it. As important, from a marketing point of view, nothing looks like it either. Not Suzuki’s Bandit 1250, not Honda’s CBF1000 and not Yamaha’s FZ1. Actually, in the current market, as far as the “fun factor in a sporty package” is concerned, I’d say no other bike can touch it.
It’s super-fast but never forces you to use high revs while its inline-four literally howls every time the throttle is given a generous twist. Its steering isn’t pure sportbike in terms of immediacy but it’s so close that, on the street, the last thing it will draw is a complaint.
Not only does the Ninja 1000 handle like a charm, it seems as though it would be a very capable bike on the track, even though that’s not its primary purpose. It handles relaxed and laid-back, rather than nervously. It’s comfortable, with a good seat; suspension that’s firm but not harsh; and an upright position that puts no weight whatsoever on the rider’s hands. There’s even a manually adjustable windshield that works fairly well, and enough accessories to turn the bike into a surprisingly good light tourer.
In total, the Ninja 1000 reminds us of a thing we forgot: the street isn’t the race track. What makes a bike fun on the track doesn’t necessarily make it fun on the street. This seems obvious, still every serious sportbike offered today is conceived and evaluated according to its track performance. Make no mistake, the Ninja 1000 is a serious, powerful and very capable sportbike. But it’s also one you can enjoy on a daily basis, in a wide variety of environments. When’s the last time anyone said that about a real sportbike?

Why N is not Z
Kawasaki’s new Ninja 1000 is a fully-faired Z1000. The only technical differences between the two models are slightly taller gearing on the Ninja; a lightly modified angle on the new clip-ons (the Z1000 uses a tubular handlebar); 10 mm thicker seats for both rider and passenger; a 19-litre gas tank holding an additional 3.5 litres of fuel; and finally a ratchet-type adjustment on the rear shock instead of the Z1000’s threaded collars. All-in-all very minor stuff, but also very good news as the Z1000 remains one of the finest and most fun street bikes available.

– Betrand Gahel