Bertrand Gahel has a tightly defined notion of what a true sport touring bike must be and do. The new Ninja 1000 still doesn’t belong to the class, but it ticks a surprising number of boxes that define it. Therein lies the story.
My definition of a modern sport-touring motorcycle is a fairly simple one: top-notch touring qualities come first and sporting capabilities must be seriously built-in, in stock form. For example, a Suzuki GSX1250F, while somewhat sporty, just isn’t equipped for serious touring in stock form. Nor is a Yamaha FZ-1, or a Honda VRF1200. None of these, then, are true sport tourers. On the other hand, the Kawasaki Concours 14 is as sporty as dead serious long distance machines get. The Triumph Trophy, Yamaha FJR1300, BMW K1600GT and R1200RT and even Honda’s long-in-the-tooth ST1300 all offer the same basic proposition as the Kawi. These are the true sport-tourers: amenities just short of luxury touring, with vastly superior agility.
As far as the original Ninja 1000 is concerned, it obviously never was part of that group, but rather a GSX1250F or FZ-1 rival. It was a fun, sporty and decently comfy street-oriented machine. It was a sportbike for the street. This updated-for-2014 version, however, blurs the line. Can it stand, as is, with the Concours or FJR in terms of comfort and equipment? No, it cannot. But is it far sportier than the GSX1250F, comfier than the FZ-1 and is it available with the only fully integrated set of hard luggage in the class? Yes it is. So what is it then? FJR-lite? Long-haul-ready GSX/FZ-1?
I found the answer on a two-day, 600-km ride from Monterey to Los Angeles during the model’s official North American launch. More on that later.
LOOKING AT THE 2014, THE untrained eye will see only a Ninja 1000. Visual clues differentiating the 2011-2013 from the revised 2014 are actually so minimal only those very familiar with the model will spot them. The most obvious telltale sign is probably the new set of silencers, with their fresh concave shape and brushed metal finish. Spotting the new tail light, the practical new knob adjuster for the rear shock’s spring or the new monoblock front brake calipers would in each case also mean you’re looking at the 2014 Ninja 1000.
Mechanical changes though, go quite a bit deeper. Modifications to the intake funnels, intake cam and ECU settings, along with friction reducing tricks like connecting passages between the cylinders, all make for a slightly more torquey and powerful inline four. Displacement remains the same at 1043cc, but the exhaust system is entirely new. Interestingly, it no longer uses use a low-end torque boosting exhaust valve—this, and some intake box revisions, augment what was already a pleasant mechanical sound, at least for an inline four.
In the chassis department, revised suspension calibration front and back—where a new knob-style remote adjuster allows quick and easy preload changes—and the new monoblock Tokico calipers up front are the most noteworthy changes.
And then comes the good stuff. A better seat is always a welcome modification, and the new Ninja 1000 has one with improved shape and thickness for both the rider and passenger. The bike remains otherwise ergonomically identical, something no one in his right mind will complain about. With an upright riding position just compact enough to feel sporty and with a relatively light and slim general feel, the big Ninja offers a versatile and inviting environment to spend time in a wide variety of situations ranging from long distances to canyons to tight urban business. That versatile nature becomes even more evident when the wonderful characteristics of the motor are factored in. Torquey everywhere, it just pulls, whatever the gear, whatever the speed, and whatever the rpm. Add wheelie-friendly horsepower that is in the 140 range, along with what is definitely one of the most symphonic exhaust/intake signatures of any stock inline four (ever), and what you have is a very pleasant experience awaiting every twist of the throttle.
Which brings us to another main new feature of the updated Ninja 1000: traction control. The system is basically the same as the ZX-14R’s with full and low—70 per cent of full power at mid to upper rpm—power modes along with four traction control settings:
ONE is the least obtrusive
TWO is in between
THREE is the most aggressive
OFF is, well, off.
Some may wonder if TC might be overkill on a bike destined to the street, but the fact is KTRC does much more than prevent rear-wheel slip; it’s also a very active wheelie control.
Which basically means the Ninja 1000 can go from downright wheelie-prone with the system OFF (my personal favourite), to allowing low wheelies in setting ONE, to mostly preventing wheelies in setting TWO, and to being almost tame in setting THREE and low power mode activated. Unlike the original Ninja 1000, electronics make the 2014 version a legitimate choice for (responsible!) new riders who wish to keep their first motorcycle instead of starting smaller and upgrading. Both KTRC and ABS are standard on the 2014 Ninja 1000 which is priced at $13,999 (like the 2013).
Last but definitely not least on the list of upgrades is an all-new optional set of integrated luggage the manufacturer calls KQR (Kawasaki Quick Release). Before we go any further, it must be mentioned that to mount the system required a completely new rear subframe so, for you 2011-2013 Ninja 1000 owners who are wondering … the answer is no, you can’t.
Simply put, it is a sport touring class (as in Concours, FJR, etc.) system installed on a streetbike, and a very good one at that. Volume is 28 litres per side, enough to accept a full-face helmet, operation is by the same key as the ignition and removal really is very quick. Furthermore, no brackets whatsoever are visible when the bags are off or when they’re installed, and fitment is remarkably tight, helping keep the Ninja’s width to a minimum.
Getting back to the statement about the new Ninja 1000 somewhat blurring the line between full-on sport tourers and regular street bikes, the truth is the bike does not really reach into true sport touring territory. But it’s oh so close—and therein lays the heart of this story. As good as it is in its current form, it’s still lacking a few things for that to happen.
For example, the engine would need to run as smooth in the upper half of its rev range as it does in the first half. Relatively small stuff like cruise control, heated grips and ambient temperature display would do wonders during long distance stints, as would a real touring seat, which the nicely upgraded new seat still isn’t. All in all, it really wouldn’t take much to bring the Ninja 1000 from an improved and more practical version of the original to sort of a fast, fun and agile super lightweight sport tourer.
BREATHING IN THE MAGICAL PACIFIC coast air, absorbing the endless beauty of its sights, then pulling a long, effortless second-gear wheelie after trouncing through some twisties, I wasn’t just enjoying how wonderfully balanced and playful and versatile this motorcycle is, I could also literally taste what an absolutely unique machine the Ninja 1000 could be with some relatively minor tweaks. A touring version equipped with just the few items listed above could do the trick. All of which doesn’t mean the 2014 bike is in any way disappointing. On the contrary: all I’m saying is that it’s just shy a few upgrades to achieve greatness and game changing status.
By Bertrand Gahel